The only way is up?
This week’s figures from the NEU Covid map for the local authority areas around my three exemplar primary schools show an acceleration of the trend that was already apparent barely a week into schools reopening. The rate of infection per 100,000 is increasing in all of them. With just under another week to go to the Easter break, we can expect this to continue; before the impact of that break would briefly take it down again if no other measures are taken to ease restrictions.
If the government sticks with dates over data and relaxes further restrictions on Monday (29 March) we can expect two weeks or so in which infection rates overall will still be primarily affected by the schools being open. After which the impact will be combined.
None of these measures wll reduce infection rates. Stay as we are and they will rise. Open up further and they will rise more quickly.
The government is gambling that the vaccine roll out will sufficiently reduce hospitalisations and deaths that the increase in infections can be ridden out; and Chris Whitty has argued this week that a zero covid policy is impossible, but that we should be aiming to keep it as low as possible.
There are a number of problems with this.
- A lot of serious scientists disagree with Prof Whitty on zero covid, as you can see here.
- The difficulty of keepng track of covid is very different problem when infections have been brought down to a very low level. While it can be assumed that there will be undetected cases out there – if there is an efficient test and trace system every newly identified case can be back tracked to prior contacts, who can then be tested and isolated as required. This has worked very effectively in South Korea, where they have had fewer infectyions than we have had deaths. Had schools been kept mostly shut until the end of the Easter holidays and all the other restrictions kept on, we’d have been at a low enough level to keep a lid on things. A few hundred a day. Having opened up – we won’t be.
- So Whitty’s fatalism gives the government carte blanche and becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.
The wider consequences of a world in which the virus is a permanent feature are incompatible with going “back to normal” – or status quo ante virus – let alone building back better. If we accept that the genie is out of the bottle and can’t be got back in for large parts of the world, including us, a number of things follow.
- Those parts of the world that have suppressed it – and don’t want to let it back in – will have continued border controls/quarantine indefinitely. They will also be able to have a more social society than those that have not and their economies will also grow relatively strongly. At present that is a large minority of the world, with China by far the largest component, but also includes Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand.
- Those countries trying to “live with” the virus will be in a constant state of evolutionary struggle with it, as it mutates; necessarily becoming more infectious and vaccine resistant as it does. The bottom-line strategy of taking restrictive measures to stop health services being overwhelmed combined with a permanent cycle of mass innoculations is therefore a permanent prospect, as is a built in and residual popular caution – which will feed in to social behaviour and limit cultural and economic possibilities. An alternative scenario – that is not mutually exclusive – is that the Bulldog Drummond tendency gets its way and we let it all hang out in a last days in Nazi Berlin hedonistic frenzy (roaring twenties) in which a load of people die all at once and we go with the survival of the fittest. Either way, there is no quick fix and the next pandemic could be on us before we’ve cleaned up this one – just as the rate of natural disasters caused by climate breakdown will accelerate and intensify and overlap from here on.
- Viruses can be eliminated. Polio. Smallpox. Therefore, should be. Like climate change, the consequences of not dealing with it are far worse than doing so. One strategy for so doing was set out very well by Devi Shridar in her recent New Statesman article.
- The economic motivation for what the government is doing is well developed here. The popular view of “the economy” is that the ruling class operates it in a Benthamite spirit, primarily concerned with use values and the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”. In practice everything is subordinated to profit; and, in this crisis, some sectors have done spectacularly badly – hospitality, culture, mass tourism, others have done very well, online retail, pensions insurance; and the balance of forces between the classes has definitely shifted the wrong way and the stock market has boomed. They are not letting a good crisis go to waste.
- Labour’s policy is a classic exercise in what Gramsci would have called corporate politics. Manoeuvring within the framework of your opponent. It helps consolidate the government’s position – because when they do become critical it comes across as churlish. Starmer seems less interested in winning than being a safe opposition on the off chance of being allowed into office as the fall-back option for the powers that be.