This week the Dáil debated a motion tabled by opposition parties calling for a ‘zero-covid’ strategy. It was supported by People before Profit and repeated a number of measures published in their strategy document. Their approach has been supported by much of the Left in Ireland and in Britain. What can we make of it?
A number of questions are immediately raised that the strategy would have to answer. How long would lockdown have to last to achieve its objective; how much would this cost not only financially but also in the well-known drastic effects of lockdown, and what lives and health would be preserved by the strategy compared to the costs? Is it demonstrated that the costs will not exceed the benefits?
You will search in vain for answers to any of these questions in the PbP document.
Government strategy is based on a balance of restrictive measures and permission to do certain things that have previously been taken for granted. It is accepted that this involves costs but also benefits that justify the costs, while some costs it refuses to accept. The financial cost to the state in 2020 is estimated to have been €20 billion and Leo Varadkar has speculated that the final cost may be €50 billion.
The ‘zero-covid’ strategy means the balance is wrong but doesn’t say what the financial cost is of drastically shifting it (or the other non-financial costs e.g. deterioration in mental health, rise in domestic abuse and restriction of basic civil rights etc.). The People before Profit (PbP) document calls for the ‘closure of all non-essential workplaces’ but doesn’t say what they are: how many more would be closed compared to the current lockdown? Would the difference be significant? What work is currently not essential and what would be the impact on the economy and the workers in the closed sectors?
PbP say that profits are being put before health but since we live in a capitalist society production is both for profit and to meet needs. Socialists object that the former is an obstacle to satisfaction of the latter but they don’t claim that under capitalism needs can be met by closing down production for profit. Even their organisation’s name seems an unconscious acceptance of this (and you could write a whole post on how incoherent that name is).
PbP says that Governments only care about people working and spending, but working class people care about these things as well, for quite obvious reasons, although this seems to escape those seeking to drastically reduce both. Socialists of the Marxist variety also don’t believe that pieces of paper, or electronic data in bank computers, are a substitute for the actual production of the goods and services people use and consume. The pieces of paper that capitalism presents as the universal equivalent of real wealth is useless without the production of that which really embodies the potential satisfaction of needs.
Their demand for economic security as a fundamental requirement of public health is equated with state welfare that has always been a permanent source of insecurity, as well as a more or less inadequate safety net. Welfare systems are not meant to provide economic security for working class people and it fundamentally miseducates them to say they can.
So, the ‘zero-covid’ strategy doesn’t answer basic problems or objections. To make big claims requires big arguments and big evidence but even obvious questions are ignored.
A second problem concerns the idea of the strategy itself. It is called ‘zero-covid’ but appears to accept that you can’t get to a situation of absolutely zero. Having reduced the number of cases to a low level it still envisages periodic eruptions of cases. It does not mean ‘eradication’ but repeats that it does mean ‘elimination’, which means that control measures will still be required. The problem is that for a zero-covid strategy these measures mean punishing lockdowns.
So, the ‘zero-covid’ strategy actually involves severe lockdown of indeterminate duration to reduce cases to very low numbers whereupon lockdown is relaxed, cases will again increase, which will require further lockdowns. Its advocates think these lockdowns can be achieved by testing, tracking and isolation but widespread asymptomatic infection, incentives not to report, ineradicable errors in testing, more transmissible viral mutations, and drastic quarantine measures to impose isolation all point to something much more sweeping.
It should not be forgotten that cases reduced dramatically during the summer to something close to what I assume ‘zero-covid’ supporters would aim at, but was then replaced by an increasing number of cases giving rise to new lockdowns that the same supporters called to be more drastic. Rather than the strategy looking like an alternative to repeated lockdowns it looks like a mutant variant of it, following what currently appears to be seasonal eruptions of infection.
The analogy used to describe the strategy provides something of an understanding of what is intended but analogies have a habit of leading to misunderstanding. The example is put forward of a forest fire that requires maximum effort to put out, while recognising that embers may still remain that require to be put out when they again spark new localised fires.
The analogy fails because while forest fires destroy everything in their path the Covid-19 pandemic does not, and while new local fires can be quickly identified and ring-fenced new outbreaks of covid-19 are often without symptoms and can quickly become far from localised.
This brings us to a third failure of the strategy, which is really incredible but says a lot for its affinity to the current approach and its even worse failure to identify what the danger of the pandemic is. While noting the importance of targeting Covid hotspots and ensuring the safety of vulnerable groups, it mentions in this category workers in meat plants, those in direct provision and migrant detention centres, and travellers and homeless people. It fails to say anything at all about the vulnerable most at risk of dying. Neither does the Dáil motion, which mentions that women are disproportionately bearing the burden of the pandemic.
Nothing is said about the median age of those dying being in their eighties or about over 90 per cent of fatalities having an underlying condition. Nothing is said about the scandalous multiple deaths in residential care homes, where older people should have been made safe. Nothing about the failure of the state to secure them in its dedicated facilities or of the general failure of health services to protect them. Nothing about the infection of older people by the heath service either in hospital or through then discharging them into homes. Instead, infection rates in healthcare staff are put down to lack of money, as if infection control should not be a standing requirement. The actions of the Health Service Executive has on the contrary demonstrated that this has not been seen as an absolute priority.
To say any of this would undermine the zero-covid approach advocated by PbP, including its reliance on the state and its determined refusal to accept the very limited risks posed to all but the identified vulnerable groups. To do so might be seen to rob the situation of the sense of extreme crisis so necessary to its attempt to talk up the murderous policy of putting profit before people, and the hope that workers will wake up and smell the coffee.
What we therefore have is a strategy, not unlike the current one, that has ignored the real pandemic that has taken place, and has bought into the idea that it is a threat to everyone equally when patently it is not. The priority given by the virus in killing people is ignored by a strategy that wants zero cases for everyone, and in doing so has ignored the priority of those whose lives are threatened by it.
The health bureaucracy has moulded its response in its own image to put itself in charge. The left has moulded its response in the image of its own misguided political conceptions, including the potential benevolence of the capitalist state, despite that state’s obvious failure. Which brings us to a last major failing of the strategy.
Again and again the state, especially in the form of a national health service, is held up as the answer when a quick look across the border will show that the NHS in the North has failed, has ceased to become a health service and become instead a covid-19 service. The cost of this in future illness and death has not been a first concern. Long waiting lists have become even longer while the latter is blamed on the former and previous failure becomes the excuse for its extension.
The PbP strategy is replete with references to the recruitment of new healthcare staff ‘to dramatically increase capacity’. It wants ‘more public health specialists’ and to ‘recruit extra nurses and doctors’ but there are definite limits to how much can be done quickly. Really significant increases cannot be created in months but only over years. As an answer to the pandemic today it is a wish list that can only promise salvation sometime in the future.
It says the problem with the health services is ‘structural’ but then contradicts itself by saying it arises from lack of funding and ‘neoliberal’ management, and further contradicts itself by calling for the ‘nationalisation of private hospitals’, imposing the same structural model that has failed.
Because PbP believes that state ownership is socialist, and they think they’re socialists, then the solution is state ownership when the ‘structural’ problem is precisely this form of ownership and control. An ownership and control beset by bureaucracy and bedevilled by narrow professional hierarchies and egos.
The problem is not a style of management but that health services are bureaucracies that privilege themselves, with the most powerful within them being best able to do so, including medical consultants who prioritise private work, although this is only one feature of the state capitalist service. The policy of Governments to portray health service workers as heroes beyond all reproach is resisted by some staff but is pursued in order, not to protect the interests of these staff, but to protect the bureaucrats and politicians who govern the system. The blinkered approach to the health system leads to mistakes such as the widespread responsibility for infection by hospitals and care homes being either ignored, downplayed or excused.
The absence of answers to key questions posed by the strategy; the inadequate understanding of what it would actually mean in Ireland; the failure to even identify the main threat from the pandemic, and the call for measures that cannot be implemented quickly enough to make the difference its authors say is needed; all this points to an underlying impotent political programme summed up at the end of the strategy document:
“. . . most of all, we will need to clearly articulate a vision for an alternative to the destructive instability of capitalism – in Ireland we can play our part by popularising the call for a Transformative Left Government that would reorganise the economy under democratic control, as part of an ambitious Just Transition. . . . A left government supported by people power and workers organised in fighting trade unions can deliver real change . . .”
Capitalism will not be changed by a ‘Left Government’, by a group of politicians seeking to transform society through wielding the power of a state that exists to defend it. Neither can the economy be ‘reorganised’ top-down by such a Government that will in some way, somehow, then be subject to democratic control. If anyone in PbP still subscribes to any of the fundamental ideas of Marxism they will know all this is false, and being false it is dishonest to sell such a strategy, which is why it is so threadbare.
It is not in any sense a socialist strategy either at the level of transforming society or in dealing with Covid-19, as ritual references to emulating New Zealand, Australia and Asian countries demonstrates. In what way are any of these socialist? In what way are they safe from future infection, if it at any point they cease to separate themselves from the rest of the world in a way simply impossible for Ireland? Australia itself provides evidence that there is no such thing as one big final lockdown that breaks the back of infection. Numerous mutations in many countries belie the idea that these are necessarily foreign and can be avoided by border controls over any extended period.
The great advantage of the zero-covid strategy is that it presents an ideal outcome that compares brilliantly with any other potential approach; the more so since no cost is admitted and no account taken of any problems arising from, or consequences of, its practical implementation, even were such implementation possible in any relevant timescale.
That is why it is also ideal, unreal and hollow. Not so much transformative as transcendental.