Death and Exits. A stronger challenge needed from Labour.

The emergency measures being taken to deal with the immediate acute coronavirus crisis- and the preparedness to take them – can be seen as a model for the emergency measures we need to take to save ourselves from climate breakdown. Making extraordinary efforts to return to the “normal” functioning of an economy and society that is destroying the conditions for its own existence is like treating a patient to recover from an acute illness just to put them on palliative care only for a chronic underlying condition that has no need to be fatal. 
The Coronavirus is an acute challenge that could – if let rip – kill millions globally. All other issues are redefined by it. The crisis will go on for months and there will be no return to “normal” afterwards. So many things previously considered impossible have become inevitable in the last three weeks and some “impossible demands” will look absurdly moderate quite soon.
  • The necessary measures to effectively suppress coronavirus cost China a 20% drop in its economy in one quarter. They were prepared to do that, did it, and we should learn from them. In doing so they averted a potential 11.5 million deaths in a few months (assuming an 80% infection rate and 1% death rate).

 

  • The confused half measures being taken in the “West” will take longer and lead to more deaths.  This graphic from the FT illustrates the impact of the different approaches used in China and the US in deaths per million.

HubeiThis was from March 31st, so the Chinese bubbles will still be the same size. The US bubbles will now be significantly larger, and be even larger than that next week, and the week after. On March 31st 1550 had died in New York. By April 7th it had risen to 5489; so the New York bubble here should be just under four times as big.

 

  • This raises a real scream of financial pain from fractions of capital who are willing to sacrifice lives to keep the system running as it is. Open or covert advocates of “herd immunity” in the UK, Presidents Trump and Bolsonaro, the Wall Street Journal, columnists in the Times and Telegraph have taken this line; sometimes with absolute swivel eyed consistency (Bolsonaro); sometimes seeming to concede one moment, only for the content of the argument to pop up again even as the label is disavowed. This account of the argument in the cabinet on this is very revealing. (1)

 

  • We in the Labour movement have to be completely unambiguous that lives come first.  Herd immunity was not “probably” wrong (2). It was wrong full stop. If allowed to “work through” the population we could have had half a million deaths – which is more than the total UK casualties in World War 2. – by the autumn. The first step to an economy designed to serve the people is not to sacrifice the people for the economy. That applies directly to any “exit strategy”.

 

  • The best time to have taken all necessary measures to eliminate the virus was when we first knew about how dangerous it was – instead of dicking about for two months – the second best time is now. That includes the government using powers to require industry to manufacture PPE, ventilators and whatever equipment is needed to effectively expel this virus out of the population – as demanded by UNITE, UNISON, the BMA and RCN last Friday. (3) This kind of emergency measure to meet urgent human need – and over riding the imperatives of profit – is a model for reorganising the economy more broadly as companies crumble under the impact of prolonged shutdown.

 

  • Labour should be demanding that that is what is done. The government approach here is for the state to subsidise business with no social quid pro quo; and that cannot be accepted. George Osborne – who snuffed out a mild economic recovery in 2010 with his austerity policy – was on Radio 4 yesterday arguing for the state to take “equity shares” in medium size businesses to stop them collapsing. This is a repeat of the 2008 Bank bail out – satirised at the time as “socialism for bankers”. State led investment should be just that; job creating, socially necessary and environmentally imperative measures that will allow our society to recover on a sustainable basis.

 

  • With the UK projected to have the worst casualties in Europe as a result of the Conservative government’s approach, the Labour leadership should not give them any blank cheques in the name of “national unity”. The privilege being allowed into the room where the decisions are taken – even as spectators – is only ever extended by the Conservatives if they want someone else to become complicit in their failures and share the flak with them.
The deeper existential crisis is that of climate change – or more broadly the human impact on the environment. This is linked with coronavirus because viruses have jumped the species barrier both from
  • human encroachment on wildlife habitats and the use of wild animals for food – ebola, COVID19
  • and the intensification of factory farming – H1N1 Swine Flu – which emerged from gigantic (and disgusting) industrial pig farms in the US.

The wholesale overuse of antibiotics in this sort of “farming” is also a clear and present cause of the rise in anti-biotic resistance that is also a significant and growing health risk for all of us.

 
  • The economic “Exit Strategy” Labour should argue for – once the virus has been eliminated -is for the state to regenerate the economy and employment through investment in the transition to sustainability that we need. The plan is already there in the Green Industrial Revolution which Keir Starmer pledged in his campaign would be “at the heart of everything we do” but didn’t mention at all in his victory speech.

 

  • The proof of the pudding on this will be whether he and the Shadow cabinet COVID19 Committee make this the core of the recovery strategy and a clear line of divide with a government that will want to go back to the free market “ideology” they claim to have abandoned in a fit of bipartisan generosity; but actually because it gave no tools to deal with the Coronavirus crisis adequately and it won’t provide the tools for an effective recovery either. Dumping dosh onto companies in the hope they will use it wisely won’t work. Stating this is basic.

 

  • We can’t afford another wasted decade like the last one. The politics of austerity treated the profit motive and private ownership as a sacred cow. Only by creating the conditions for profitable production could companies be induced to invest. It failed. They didn’t do it. Huge cash piles were not deployed or invested.

 

  • The Tories are in government and will try this again. They will fail again at great cost to those least able to bear it.

 

  • The climate crisis really is one that we are all in together and we can’t wait for dealing with it to become profitable in the short term.

 

  • We have ten years to make a significant enough dent in carbon emissions that we are not toast in the medium term. If we don’t borrow from the future, there won’t be one.

 

  • We need those wind farms, insulated homes, reforested uplands, sustainable vehicles as part of the recovery – and that won’t happen without state investment.

 

Labour’s job is to keep banging away at this and in no way to become complicit in the idea that dealing with climate change can wait until we have regenerated the economy as it was enough to have enough left over to make a transition with what we can “afford” over and above normal functioning. We have to recover by and through the transition if we want a future.

 
2. Keir Starmer. Andrew Marr Show April 5th 2020

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