Who can you trust?

The UK government’s explanation of why it has decided to stop comparing the UK’s Coronavirus infection and death rates with China’s is deeply ironic. They say that Chinese stats can’t be trusted.*

There is a more obvious explanation; that China has been very successful in keeping its death rates down while the UK has not, that this is deeply embarrassing, and becoming more so as time goes on.

This is what that looks like in deaths per million as of April 26 (1).

. chart (5)

This is significantly worse than the previous week. The Chinese figure is unchanged (on 3.3 per million) – because the virus is under control – while the US and UK figures deteriorate (from 101 to 168 per million for the US and from 206 to 305 per million for the UK) (1). This figure means that the Chinese can now start to safely reopen their economy. It is quite clear that the UK and US cannot do so safely at this level. Denial is essential to even contemplate doing so. ** Whitewashing out the discrepancy with China, is a further aspect of playing down or ignoring their experience and any lessons that could be learned from it – could be preparing the ground to do so at an unsafe level.

The trustworthiness of UK official figures is also questionable. While the daily death rate is confined to those who have died in hospital after being tested and serves a purpose in tracking trajectory, it does not include anyone who has died anywhere else; and no one in government is keen to point out that the headline figure is not the total of people who have actually died: which is considerably larger. This may be considered a sin of omission, but it nevertheless serves a purpose in downplaying how bad things actually are; another form of denial.

Financial Times analysis (2) incorporating the Office for National Statistics figures on all deaths concluded that the official UK figure of 17 337 deaths up to Tuesday 21 April is less than half the actual figure. That looks like this.

chart (4)

 

*This is odd, because the WHO does trust them (as does the Financial Times; whose job it is to provide accurate information for the business class). A logical next step in this trajectory will be to downgrade relations with the WHO – which also serves a purpose in that it stubbornly insists on tighter conditions for easing lockdown’s than the UK government is prepared to contemplate. See previous blog.

**It is clear that the ground is being prepared to do this. Train operating companies are preparing to open up 80% of services by May 18th. Statements by Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford on behalf of the Scottish and Welsh governments on Friday on easing the lockdown to “live with” or “live alongside” the virus indicate that a reopening is being planned that is a response to commercial, not health, pressures. When Keir Starmer says that the UK risks being “left behind” in its consideration of “exit strategy” in the context of other countries beginning to ease restrictions, this applies pressure in precisely the wrong direction. The UK has the second highest daily death rate in the world right now. As of April 25, that looks like this.

chart (6)

The points he – and the rest of the Labour and trade union movement should to be making are:

1. That the only safe exit is one in which the WHO ‘s 6 conditions are met in full and

2. That the current lockdown should be tightened to include ALL non essential work; as the quickest route to an exit is through cutting off all possible routes to infection.

3. We can no more “live with” the virus than we can live with climate breakdown.

(1) https://www.statista.com/statistics/1104709/coronavirus-deaths-worldwide-per-million-inhabitants/

(2) https://www.ft.com/content/67e6a4ee-3d05-43bc-ba03-e239799fa6ab

Do What Works.

The per capita death rates from COVID19 are expressed here in how many deaths there have been in China, the USA and UK per million people. The figures are taken from here from 15 April.

https://www.statista.com/statistics/1104709/coronavirus-deaths-worldwide-per-million-inhabitants/

The Chinese figure has been uprated from 3 to 4.5 to reflect the backdated increase in deaths in Wuhan announced yesterday. In case the figures for the USA and UK are not clear on the graph, these are; USA 101. UK 206.

While the US response is widely and rightly seen as a mess, there is a tendency in the UK to give the government far more of a benefit of the doubt than it deserves. chart (3)

It should be clear from this that China’s experience should be studied and learned from, while the UK and US are not models to be followed.

The bottom line right now is that China did not end its lockdown until deaths were in single figures. The relaxation of social distancing now being contemplated in parts of Europe and being discussed in the UK will let the genie back out of the bottle. Disaster will follow if this course is pursued. The only safe path to an exit is through a tightened lockdown.

 

US and UK death rates stand out.

chart

This graph shows the totals of reported global deaths for April 10th. With the usual caveats that many places in the developing world may be under reporting – the figures for the USA and UK stand out starkly. One in three of all reported deaths in the USA. One in six in the UK.

UK daily figures only include deaths in hospital, not those at home or in Care Homes; so the actual figures will be worse; probably significantly so. The Office for National Statistics will be updating these on Tuesday, so I will do another graph to take that into account then.

Three things to note.

  • The number of deaths in China on 10 April was zero.
  • With the UK death rate projected by the IHME (1) to hit a peak on April 17th with 1 674 deaths on that day, this is not a time to be prioritising talk of “exit strategies”.
  • Those concerened with these should be studying the Chinese experience of cranking society back into life – as the only country that has began to do so an a large scale.
  1. http://www.healthdata.org/covid/updates

Are we in a “hokey-cokey” lockdown?

I suspect that we are being subject to “herd immunity” by stealth.

A failure to get a grip.

  • An absence of open source public data in the UK is an indication of this.
  • Publishing data is secondary to knowing what the situation is in the first place. Any data the government publishes – and they should – is just what Donald Rumsfeld would have called the known knowns.
  • Chris Whitty said – rather airily – at the point they abandoned what limited community testing they were doing, that there could have been ten times as many cases out there that they didn’t know about. Almost with a shrug. They didn’t test comprehensively in any targeted way from the outset; so had no idea who had it, or where they were. Put simply, they didn’t, and don’t, have a grip. Laura Kuensberg on the BBC – with her usual direct line to government thinking – has just revealed (World at One, 2 April) that they expected the virus to develop more slowly – giving them up to the middle of May before it hit hard. How they could have such a view in the face of how quickly it actually did develop in China, Iran and elsewhere beggars belief.
  • Further, the only figures they count as coronavirus related deaths are those that happen in hospital after a definite diagnosis and test. People who may die of it at home are not being counted in the official stats. Its all about the numbers and, as the relatively lax UK approach is likely to lead to many more deaths than those in Italy and Spain, you can see why they’d want to keep them as low as possible. Accuracy is a secondary consideration.

 

Alternative facts – or do you trust Mike Pence more than the WHO?

  • Its important to have data to limit the degree to which malignant interpretations of them can be made. As the US death toll rises above the Chinese number – in absolute terms let alone per capita* – it becomes a political imperative for the US administration to cast doubt on the Chinese figures; and/or accuse China of not sharing information in a timely way; even though they had alerted the WHO on Dec 8th and given a full alert on what the virus is and the scale of the danger it presents on Dec 31st; giving the US (and UK) governments two months to get prepared; which both squandered. This is the “alternative facts” strategy; which has to rely on people being prepared to trust Mike Pence and US Intelligence – who have never been known to fib – more than the World Health Organisation; or hoping that broadcasting the accusation loudly and widely enough will be sufficient to bury the facts.
Preparing for a Hokey Cokey half Lockdown.
There’s a rather chilling article on the BBC site today which argues the following.
  1. That most of the people dying with coronavirus are probably dying of something else. The virus is just the final straw and they would most likely have been dead within three months anyway. So the problem isn’t the deaths themselves, its that they will all happen at once, leading to knock on effects that cause more deaths as the hospitals are overwhelmed. Therefore its about managing the virus not suppressing it. This is the logic of the government’s initial declared “herd immunity” strategy in a new form.
  2. The effects of a lockdown will lead to a significant number of deaths anyway. This isn’t quantified. Nor is it related to the actual experience of lockdown in Wuhan. Its speculation designed to make people shrug at the accelerating rate of deaths that are happening. 560 in one day yesterday on a terrifying exponential curve that could double in three days at the current rate, and again three days after that.
  3. The point at which the economy collapses to a point at which more deaths are likely from lockdown than letting it rip is quantified in the article as a 6.8% drop in economic activity (which is about the same as the 2008 crash). I suspect that this is the rule of thumb being used by the government. In China the drop in economic activity was about 20% overall for the quarter affected by the lockdown. That is putting lives ahead of economic returns in a way that the UK government looks very reluctant to do.

We can therefore assume that the UK government will try to play a kind of hokey-cokey part lockdown in an attempt to limit the damage to “the economy” while “managing” the number of excess deaths and the pressure on the Health Service. Given that this government is considerably more adept at coming up with excuses for why they haven’t done things than doing them, I can’t see this working for either.

*As China has four times the US population, a more appropriate comparison.

Those who argue that “the cure is worse than the disease” are arguing for mass deaths. In graphs.

The measures taken in China have eliminated domestic infections and kept the total number of deaths to just over 3 000. This is a staggering achievement. The potential number of people who could have died can be worked out using the standard figures Health Experts are using throughout the world as a rule of thumb. 80% of the population infected with a 1% fatality rate. With a population of 1, 439, 000, 000 people this means that the number of people who could have died in China in a matter of months is 11,500,000 (1% of 80% of 1.439 million). Compare this with other disasters and you  get a better sense of the scale of this. The Y axis is in millions.

coronavirus china 2

The UK picture

The projection made by Imperial College for deaths in the UK  the attempt to ride the tiger implied by the “herd immunity” approach – is half a million in a matter of months. This is more than total UK casualties (military and civilian) through the whole of World War 2.coronavirus UK

The prospect for the United States

A similar projection of 80% infections and a 1% fatality rate would produce 2, 800,000 deaths in the United States. This would be the single most catastrophic loss of life in any one event in US history, more than twice as many dead as during the four years of the Civil War. The most recent domestic trauma, 9/11 with 3,000 dead, barely registers on this graph.

coronavirus US

These figures speak for themselves.

China is to be applauded for clamping down hard on this virus. Those in the “West” arguing to “take it on the chin” like Trump, Bolsonaro and their acolytes on the Alt right are careless of mass deaths among their own people.

‘I see dead people’. How we got here and where we’re going.

Perhaps I’m one of them. My local High Street is ghost town full of aspirant ghosts. This is a look at how we got here and what we might expect.

Phase one. Phoney war in the West

While China went into lock down and South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam quickly closed borders, tested and traced, governments in “the West” reacted in a way that at first defies rational explanation; being more concerned with making political milage out of how China’s reaction was “Draconian” and not what could be contemplated “in a democracy” than making serious preparations for the impact on their own countries when the virus spread – as it was bound to do. At the same time, the conventional wisdom last month that Covid 19 is basically flu so nothing to get worked up about, we could “take it on the chin” with business as usual and power through it, lulled people into a false and fatal sense of security. In the local supermarket just two and a bit weeks ago the guy in front of me asked why the price of his item had gone up.

“We had a new delivery this morning. and the price was higher because of the situation.”

“What situation?”

“Coronavirus.”

With a dismissive sniff, “what’s Coronavirus? Just flu.”

I had to point out that it is twice as contagious and ten times more lethal than ordinary flu and appeal to everyone who was listening to please take it seriously. They all looked a bit shocked but took it in. There’s the evidence of a failure to launch a timely public information campaign right there.

Just two weeks ago only a few meetings or social events were being closed down and there was a sense that this might be being alarmist even amongst those of us starting to do it, but a sense of unease was building and there were signs all around of partial steps being taken before there was any serious steer from above. On the tube at Golders Green on March 7th, a small group of friends passing round hand sanitiser and rubbing it in before they got off. A young man sitting with two guitars and wearing a face mask, but seeming a bit bashful about it and keeping his eyes down. Not many people sitting apart from each other. There was soap and water in the public toilet but the water was running cold – and it probably still is. Something ominous coming but no one thoroughly prepared for the full measure of it. The cafes were full and the streets were busy.

There are three possible interpretations of this failure to meet a growing threat on the part of Western governments, and “the establishment”, the 1%, the ruling class, the bosses; whatever you want to call that layer of society who, as R. Taggart Murphy puts it are “the people who have first claim on economic resources and are the last to suffer when anything goes wrong, even when they are directly responsible for the damage.” (1).

  1. The ruling class are stupid. This is a very tempting interpretation, especially when watching Boris Johnson doing his Prime Minister impersonation or President Trump bullshitting his way through yet another daily briefing of lies, fantasies and insults; or contemplating the complete failure of the US, UK and EU to take account of the evidence that was being shoved under their noses by events and reinforced by the World Health Organisation. But, taken as a whole, these are highly sophisticated, well educated people capable of detailed analysis and highly intelligent manipulation of public reactions; so it would be a mistake to underestimate them.
  2. The ruling class are ruthless and have less regard for human life than the profitability of their system and the need to maintain their power. This would be indignantly rejected by most of them, and most people who tend to look kindly upwards with rose tinted glasses, but there always had to be ice in the veins of people who ran Empires built from the slave trade, in which millions died of famine while grain was exported, which waged wars for the right to sell opium; and it still runs in that of their descendants; who preside over a world still structured by the inequalities and injustices that are their legacy. The ability to “smile as you kill”, as John Lennon put it, the capacity to lie with total self belief and behave like a vandal while maintaining impeccable manners is built into the way these people are brought up through the elite public schools and institutions like the Bullingdon Club or US Frat Houses. The sort of character satirised by Shaw in St Joan, where the ghost of the Earl of Warwick explains with disarming charm to the ghost of Jean d’Arc that burning her to death was “nothing personal. Your death was a political necessity” could be written because he was so easily recognisable. This way of thinking is reflected in Dominic Cummins remark that “herd immunity” was worth pursuing because the deaths of “a few pensioners” was neither here nor there; and the article by a Daily Telegraph economics correspondent that the deaths of thousands of unproductive elderly people would be “mildly beneficial” to the economy “when looked at dispassionately.” A Malthusian approach to “the surplus population” (as Dickens’s Mr Scrooge puts it) is nothing new; and likely to be far more common in private than in public. Just consider the Grenfell fire in this context.
  3. Ruling class thinking is so dominated by the structures, relationships, laws and values that ensure their continuing wealth and power that any challenge to it – from wherever it comes – is literally unthinkable; so the first reaction to challenges that appear like a deus ex machina almost has to be denial. This comes across as a sort of hubris – that the normal functioning of business could defy an imperative that is beyond its limits. The element of “stupidity” – an inability to learn faced with incontrovertible evidence – is structured by this. This is corroborated by the experience of other challenges. On the crunch day of the 2008 financial crisis the CEO’s of the UK Banks that were about to crash and take the whole system down with them were sitting in a meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury team refusing to agree to the government bail out that saved their arses until the last possible minute; because they saw the terms on offer as an impossible and unacceptable restriction on their freedom of action; describing it afterwards as a “drive by shooting” – even though it socialised their debt at enormous cost to society with no consequent obligation on their part to restructure their operations to meet social needs. The case of climate change is even more evident. One example symbolically stands for all. In November last year the Veneto Regional Council, with its offices on Venice’s Grand Canal, voted down measures to reduce CO2 emissions barely two minutes before rising flood waters drove them out of their chamber. George Osborne’s asinine boast to the Conservative conference in 2011 that “We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business” is still the mind set for those who hold our fates in their hands in the West – and evidence of why they don’t deserve to.

A deeper problem is that this way of thinking is also dominant in the general population, whose lived reality is within these structures and “values”, that define the limits and imperatives they bump into while trying to get by in a world constructed for someone else’s benefit, so they appear so much as common sense or normality to most people that it is barely possible to imagine living or thinking in any other way. Crises shake that and reveal to those with eyes to see that the Emperor’s clothes are – at least – threadbare. People imagine alternatives and start trying to construct them when they have to.

President Trump expresses ruling class thinking as an expression of pure id. Coherence and higher level thinking have nothing to do with it. He takes the old jokes that were so effective against Gerald Ford – “his library burned down and the tragedy was both books were burned – and one of them wasn’t coloured in yet” – and turns them into a strength. Who likes reading anyway? He is an impresario of knee jerk reactions. The targets of his barbs are finely calculated to avoid thought and go straight to fears and exploitable emnities. He is mobilising fears and turning them against targets that strengthen his position while throwing out false hopes – because people need to believe that this will be easier than it is and want to hang on to whatever shred of “normality” they can.

  • Initially claiming it to be a hoax perpetrated by the Democrats. This claim was loudly repeated by Fox News, so one of their commentators has since had to be sacked. Trump himself remains in place saying he doesn’t want to look back. Amnesia is a condition compulsory for true believers.
  • Initially saying it was “totally under control”, or since that this or that medicine might be a miracle cure that was already ready, or that it would “disappear’ like a “miracle”; none of which has or is going to happen, all of which have had to be denied by the FDA, some of which have led to people getting ill from taking inappropriate meds on his say so; but none of this matters because he “has a good feeling” about it.
  • Relentlessly labelling it as a “Chinese virus” or a “foreign virus”, as if diseases have a nationality and could be made subject to border control. With an irony that would be wonderful if the consequences weren’t so serious, the higher rate of infection in the US has led to the Mexicans closing the border against American visitors. Build that wall. His attempt to offer large sums to a German company for exclusive deployment of the vaccine they are developing for use in the US alone – an offer creditably turned down by the company which quite rightly declared that any vaccine it produced would be for everyone – and the continuing and intensifying exploitation of medical sanctions against vulnerable countries like Iran and Venezuela, highlights the nationalistic recklessness that is stripping US power bare of its previous “global leadership” and “human rights” pretensions and leaving it ugly and naked for all to see.

Meanwhile his followers round on anyone campaigning for an effective approach as “politicising the crisis”. Perish the thought. Similar charges are made in the UK where we are all supposed to “pull together” behind a government that helped dump us in the leaky boat we’re in and has taken initiatives when forced to do so not because they have ever been ahead of the curve.

Meanwhile petty sorcerer’s apprentice figures over here like Nigel Farage railed against the WHO. “The World Health Organisation is just another club of ‘clever people” who want to bully us and tell us what to do. Ignore.”  Can’t have ‘clever people” who might know what they are talking about telling us what we need to do to save our lives and bullying us into health. Where will it end? Just take back control, light up that fag, have another pint and infect all your mates. Tim Martin of Wetherspoons, just before the government finally moved to close down pubs and cafes, declared that his pubs would stay open because there had “hardly been any transmission” of Covid19 in pubs; so thats alright then. We can afford a few transmissions to keep the beer flowing. Its a matter of priorities after all. Never forget where this idiocy leads.

Phase two: Waking up to several months of Sundays

Last Saturday, the day after the government told cafes, pubs and restaurants to shut, most did in my local High Street; a few rapidly repositioning themselves to offer take out only with delivery. One or two were open with no signs. All but one were empty. There were fewer people but still too many, some wearing masks, some with scarves across their mouths and nose in an attempt to avoid viral roulette. Hopefully the Prime Minister won’t say they ‘look like bank robbers.’ Traffic, normally jammed on a Saturday, flowed freely. Walking past the barbers, the bloke who usually cuts my hair was working wearing a face mask – but he had pulled it down to breathe more easily – hoping – presumably – for symbolic protection. It was possible the next day to look out over West London from our living room window which – because we are on a hill – gives a vista right across past Wembley Stadium on the foreground all the way to the distant hills of Richmond park on the southern horizon – and appreciate the hush. The roofs seemed to be dreaming. For years you could count the aircraft flying East to West across the City to get to Heathrow, an orderly queue, one every thirty seconds. On Sunday, nothing. I counted three all afternoon, and no vapour trails. The sky is an unbroken blue of oddly celebratory weather.

The sudden change in the rules was way too slow and came partly from pressure from below and partly from pressure from other countries experiences. An example is what happened with schools.

  • At the beginning of the week the government was saying that there was no need to close schools.
  • Other countries, accepted to be only a week or two ahead of us in the trajectory of infections, had closed theirs and people could see that their health systems were already struggling. The shortage of ventilators and beds meaning that anyone over 60 was being left to sink or swim. In some cases ventilators were being removed from elderly patients to go into younger ones because they were the only ones available.
  • The National Education Union publicly asked for the modelling being used by the government to argue that keeping schools open was a safe course of action to be publicly shared. At the same time they told all of their members who were in vulnerable categories to inform their Head teachers that they would be self isolating at home from Monday and that if the Heads resisted that the union would see them in court.
  • The government failed to come up with its model, which undermined what authority their stance had – and as the week went on, more and more teachers went off, either with symptoms or as a measure of self protection, 2 000 more teachers joined the union and Reps emerged in quiet schools so they had a voice, while the Heads unions also expressed concerns. At the same time, an increasing number of parents took their children out without waiting for an instruction from government.
  • Faced with a chaotic break down of the school system the government ordered partial closure on the terms set down by the union – with some places left open for the children of key workers.
  • The experience this week has been that very few of those children have actually come in – even in those few schools that tried to hold open more places than the 10% maximum laid down.

The impact of all this is that rules and expectations previously taken to be imperative and unchallengeable have suddenly become optional. Deadlines have evaporated to be replaced by the incessant buzzing of WhatsApp messages from the local mutual help group; as real life proves that there is such a thing as society. Some basic lessons.

  • When it comes to the crunch the market can’t deliver. The state has to step in. The question there is the extent to which it is doing so in order to subsidise businesses and to what extent to guarantee a social need. In Spain they have requisitioned private health care. Here they have done a deal. Italy has renationalised Al Italia. Here Richard Branson wants a bail out. The pattern of 2008 is at risk of repeating itself but that is not inevitable. If people are to “all pull together” that can’t be in the interests of keeping Richard Branson in yachts and private islands while everyone else suffers.
  • Just in time deliveries and the production pattern that goes with them requires a society living on its nerve ends all the time.
  • Once a pattern of home working and zoom conferencing gets established there’s every possibility that they will become the norm.
  • Air travel looks like becoming far rarer.

TINA (“There is no alternative”) is dead, even “going forward”. This has enormous consequences for the movement to save us from the even greater challenge posed by climate change. If the government can nationalise railways, guarantee 80% of wages, direct car companies to produce ventilators, require non essential businesses to shut down (even Sports Direct and Wetherspoons) – at least for a while – mobilise volunteers to work in the Health Service, set up local co-ordinations of councils, the health service and voluntary organisations to meet emergency responses and require huge changes in social behaviour to save us from a virus, the taboo against taking similar action to repurpose our economy and society so that we can drastically cut carbon emissions and live in a sustainable way has been broken. We can think outside the box because the walls of the box have broken. There will be strenuous efforts to rebuild them as was in an attempt to go back to “normal” but we don’t have to let them get away with that.

Phase three: Whats next?

The genie is already out of the bottle and running riot. Because of the failure to test there is no grip on who has and who has not got this virus. Kings College has launched an App for people to log into with their state of health, so some backdated information can be gathered, but this depends on a critical mass of representative people taking part so patterns can be observed. Voluntary initiatives like this have come to the fore because there has not been an attempt to do this by the government, which needs to step up.

The measures taken so far have been too little too late, which will mean that they will have to be intensified for longer while increasing numbers of people die. None of us is invulnerable. I am acutely aware that I am writing this as a 66 year old with high blood pressure and a longstanding chronic cough.

So far there has been a certain amount of social discipline and a huge level of social mobilisation from the bottom up. 405 000 people have volunteered to help the NHS deliver medicine and probably food to vulnerable people on lockdown. The Communication Workers Union has volunteered en bloc to be the fourth emergency service and do similar (2). The government and much of the media will attempt to frame this outpouring of social solidarity in nationalist terms – as a patriotic duty more than social solidarity, precisely because the latter has the potential to go beyond the limitations of the former.  Johnson always appears for his daily briefings bracketed by Union Jacks, making him look as though he is framed in rather stuffy patriotic parentheses – which, of course, he is. Meanwhile people at home with their eyes misting up look at videos of Germans on balconies singing Bella Ciao in solidarity with Italy.

This social solidarity has partially broken down around panic buying. This reflects a genuine fear of being stuck at home without enough food (or toilet rolls) that was completely predictable and could have been blunted by a far more rapid imposition of limits on purchases of particular items. The notion that “the customer is always right” inhibited the needed response for far too long. We have also had some criminal elements trying to exploit the situation, either by profiteering on scarce goods or posing as volunteer support to get info and access to the bank accounts of vulnerable people. In one case very tastefully targeting people whose children are in free School Meals.

As this drags on, unless there is a deepening of the underpinning of economic security, and as the death toll climbs, that cohesion is likely to start fraying at the edges as those not covered by the wages guarantee start hearing the siren voices of those calling for a return to work before the virus has been eliminated. Further measures of socialisation – what we used to call “social security” – will have to be taken to prevent this. Employers of key workers who have not staggered start and stop times to take account of rush hour crushes on public transport – which make social distancing impossible for anyone caught up in it – will have to be instructed to do so.

As this crisis works its way through this summer there will be a three way divergence globally.

  • If China sustains its effective suppression of the virus and starts cranking its society and economy back up – as it is starting to do – it will be seen to have recovered with a relatively low level of casualties.
  • The total in Europe and the US will be far higher and the economic disruption far greater. Goldman Sachs estimates that US GDP could collapse by 25% in the next quarter, pushing unemployment up to 13%. This will have political as well as economic consequences. (3)
  • If and when the virus runs out of control in the developing world, the death rate is likely to be higher still unless there is a massive and co-ordinated international effort to strengthen health systems. China and Cuba are already trying, but can’t do this on their own. The approach of the current US administration, to maintain medical sanctions on threatened countries while whipping up racist reactions, is the opposite of what is needed.

Recognising this, Sadiq Khan’s appeal to Boris Johnson to step up to the global co-ordinating role played by Gordon Brown in the financial crash is almost surreal – not just because its Boris Johnson but because what Boris Johnson and his government believe in makes it impossible for them to play this role.

Conclusions will be drawn about global leadership through the experience of who is providing it in practice. This is dramatised by the scarcely believable statements from Trump and Brazil’s President Bolsonaro today and some US senators starting on Monday. Bolsonaro denounced city governments ordering lockdowns calling for people to “get back to work” while boasting that he personally could survive this virus because of his “athleticism”. The only thing missing was a box of Lemsip max strength poking out of his pocket. Trump – since Monday – has started talking about the cure being worse than the disease and floating a “return to work” around Easter Sunday and that having churches full to bursting on that day would be a “beautiful thing.” This is not because he is hoping for a miracle – though a connection with deeply atavistic sentiments about rising from the dead in Spring should not be ruled out – but is quite explicitly posed as putting the needs of the economy above the needs of the people. This means that there will be a political drive from forces animated by Trump to go back to business as usual as rapidly as possible if they can get away with it. No one should be in any doubt that this will kill many, many people. The extent to which they get away with this will be the extent to which there is mass revulsion and push back.

Out with them!

A personal post script

The meeting that I went to on March 7th was for XR Educators to work out their perspective in the wake of the general election. I was there for the NEU Climate Change Network. The immediate campaigning plans discussed at the meeting are all on hold because of the virus, but what I took away from it has been invaluable in another sense. in the crisis we now face.

I am not a member of XR and have a more traditional Labour movement way of operating. Some of that involves a rather functional approach to meetings. When doing introductions we usually just say who we are and who we’re representing. At this meeting – possibly reflecting the Quaker influence in the long tradition of non violent direct action that goes back through Occupy all the way to the Committee of a 100 – and possibly reflecting a need to face an existential crisis with some appreciation of life so as not to fall into despair – we were asked to introduce ourselves and say something we were grateful for. At the time I was grateful for my Freedom Pass because it enabled me to get to the meeting for nothing. Since then, every day I have felt and noticed things I am grateful for – the cloud of bees in the frothy white cherry blossoms on the tree outside my flat – the light reflecting on the ceiling as it comes through the curtains in the morning – the uplift at the end of Beethoven’s violin concerto, my wife’s wit, my daughter’s laugh and my son’s hugs. And I am grateful for the nudge to let that gratitude in.

  1. R Taggart Murphy. Privilege Preserved. Crisis and Recovery in Japan. New Left Review 121 Jan/Feb 2020
  2. https://www.cwu.org/news/here-is-a-vital-update-on-coronavirus-and-the-dispute-for-all-royal-mail-group-members/
  3. https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/us-gdp-drop-record-2q-amid-coronavirus-recession-goldman-sachs-2020-3-1029018308

Climate Crisis – which states are our allies?

Human civilisation is on course for a breakdown in the benign and stable climactic conditions that have been the condition for its development. This is a result of the rapid increase in greenhouse gas emissions generated by human agricultural and industrial activity, particularly since the industrial revolution, and especially in the last twenty years. The scale of this is greater than in any of the natural cycles of warming and cooling that have taken place throughout the holocene period (current interglacial). The last time there was a greater concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere as there is today was before human evolution.

The trouble we have stored up for ourselves is becoming increasingly apparent in extreme weather events – hurricanes, floods, droughts, and their consequences, forest fires, unfarmable land, climate refugees, conflicts and wars resulting from the foregoing; alongside related issues like the accelerating loss of biodiversity and mass extinction.

Scenarios to avoid this written by academics are often premised on political conditions that we do not have – a presumption that the world has one political or economic system without significant variation – or a degree of universal understanding and political consensus that we don’t have either. There is no world government capable of re-wilding 50% of the planet or imposing a carbon ration: and if we had one, it would run into a lot of conflict if it tried to do it.

We nevertheless have to get from where we are now to where we need to be. And as quickly as we can.

The first point is that States Matter

In the absence of global governance, what different states do – and whose interests they represent – is of overwhelming importance. Protests are – in the last analysis – an attempt to get the state to do something, or to change a government, or transform it altogether if it does not. In the current state of international state relations, some states are part of the solution and are generally allies of the environmental movement – and some are not.

The Paris Agreement is both essential and inadequate. Countries will make targets and commit to reducing carbon emissions, then ratchet up those targets. If met, the projection is that the current targets would still leave us with 3C of heating by the end of the Century and, if not 4.3 – 4.8C; so the scale of the targets and the speed with which they are implemented need to be scaled up sharply if we are to cut off global heating at 1.5C, or even 2C.

The decisive crisis in this process is that the United States – currently the single wealthiest and most powerful country in the world – is pulling out of the Paris Agreement and pulling other countries – like Brazil – with it. Alongside it are countries like Saudi Arabia, Poland, Australia and Russia, which remain in the Agreement for now, but act to slow it down and impede its progress.

This abdication of global leadership by the US, and its move to actively sabotage what needs to be done, is a stark expression of the decline of the Pax Americana; which can no longer claim to stand as an example for humanity as a whole. Faced with the rise of China (symbolised by  Chinese technology companies edging ahead of US competition in 5G) the USA under Trump is projecting “America First” – breaking up and disrupting multilateral institutions which have hitherto bolstered its global predominance.

Trump and his supporters in the fossil fuel industries have been widely characterised as “climate change deniers”. This is not accurate. When Wells Griffith, Trump’s international energy and climate adviser argued at the Katowice COP that “we” (we, here, meaning the US government) “strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice their economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability” he is recognising that the current ways of ensuring prosperity are not sustainable, but will carry on doing it anyway – projecting a future in which the system we have accelerates faster and faster and higher and higher until it runs out of road, crashes and burns and we all burn with it.

Steve Bannon put this more graphically, “Half the world is going to burn and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.” These guys know what’s happening. The 2007 US think tank report The Age of Consequences – The Foreign Policy and National Security implications of Global Climate Change  projects the following “expected scenario” based on IPCC reports- “massive food and water shortages, devastating natural disasters, and deadly disease outbreaks”. Given that IPCC reports have tended to underplay the pace of developments – with levels of arctic ice melt already at levels not expected until mid century, its likely that the more severe scenario they sketch out is in their minds. In the event of environmental feed back loops getting out of control, instead of gradual degradation that we have time to adapt to, there is a sudden breakdown that overwhelms us, collapsing agricultural and economic systems and states. They state unblinkingly that “Governments with resources will be forced to engage in long nightmarish episodes of triage: deciding what and who can be salvaged from engulfment by a disordered environment. The choices will need to be made primarily among the poorest, not just abroad but at home.” Just think about that for a moment and imagine it. Its quite clear who the half of the world that they expect to burn is. And not all of them are on the wrong side of Trump’s wall.

Some of the uber wealthy are seeking to escape the consequences are trying to find themselves bolt holes from this – buying estates in New Zealand, building underground bunker homes, or fantasising about living “off world”. Trump wants to build a wall, making the whole US a gated community. At least Wotan, at the end of Gotterdamerung, having condemned the world to die in flood and fire, has the good grace to sit in Valhalla with his broken spear, waiting patiently to be engulfed, so a new world can be born.

A change of President and change of course away from confrontation and towards a Green New Deal from 2020 is crucial both for the chances of the world meeting its targets and for the US transforming itself into a society with some chance of becoming sustainable. The version of the Green New Deal put forward by the US Green Party – to finance it by cutting US defence spending in half – thereby freeing up just under $350 billion a year- is something of a challenge for US democracy – but has the merit of pointing out that it is a strange version of “defence” to spend as much on armaments as the rest of the world put together, while deploying soldiers, aircraft and ships in “around 600” overseas bases (according to the Pentagon). Any other country doing that would be denounced as an aggressive predator and threat to democracy.

In the Trump trade war with China, which will continue for four more years if he is re-elected next year, the US is doubling down on fossil fuels and locking itself into an outmoded technology: with subsidised petrol (and the fracking and wars for oil that go with it) relaxed emissions standards, overuse of internal flights (no high speed rail) sprawling energy hungry suburbs and crumbling interstates – the American way of life. In so far as it has a vision of the future it is a peculiarly old fashioned one (the present, only more so) that – crucially – requires climate change denial.

The world view of neo-liberalism, which is not confined to Trump and his supporters – that the current form of human relations is natural and eternal, that “there is no alternative” that “business as usual” is “going forward” forever and ever world without end – is unable to take on board the reality of climate change. In its own discourse it reduces it to being an idea among other ideas that can be argued with or denied – not a reality we can see and feel around us and that we have to respond to. It has been pointed out that, while the Chinese government is composed for the most part of scientists and engineers *- people whose whole being is geared to solving real world problems – the highest levels of US government are filled with lawyers – people whose role is trying to cheat the facts and conjure up a deceptive self serving narrative if that’s what it takes to win a case; which works fine in court, but not if you are trying to argue with the laws of physics (which are starting to sit in terrible judgement).

The Chinese – on the other hand – get it . This is symbolised in a startling statistic. Of the 425 000 electric buses in the world, 5 000 of them are not in China. Just think about what that means for a moment. Here are some further contrasts.

  • The US is doubling down on fossil fuels while China is investing massively in renewable energy generation, which has brought down the costs of solar panels so far that India and Vietnam – previously committed to  a big expansion of coal plants – are now going solar in a big way – and this is having a global effect even in wealthier countries too. China itself already has double the renewable energy capacity of the US and is still investing in it at a qualitatively greater rate (another £292 billion going in by next year).
  • Donald Trump prohibits mention of Climate Change in US government publications and sabotages scientific research into it, presumably on the principle that what you don’t know can’t hurt you, while Xi Xinping is talking about building an “ecological society”,
  • the US is planning to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, abandoning targets that were already quite lenient, and stands against international co-operation; while the Chinese favour “win win” solutions, are set to achieve their 2030 Paris targets between 5 and 9 years early and will ratchet them up.

None of this implies that China has always got everything right, nor that improvements can’t be made. Its huge tree planting programme – which has significantly increased forest cover – has been widely criticised for lacking biodiversity; creating woods more like Forestry Commission plantations than restored ancient woodland; so projects using diverse native species are now being brought in to address this.

The overall conclusion however is clear. On the most decisive question facing humanity, China is part of the solution while the US is part of the problem; and the environmental movement in the West needs to be very clear about that. The result of this clash – and the fall out from it – will be decisive in determining how much of a future the world has.

Its important to stress this because the news we receive in the UK is heavily filtered through a world view in which the US’s own assessment of itself as a globally progressive guarantor of human rights – as compared with any competing power -is taken as good coin. To argue that China is doing more for humanity than the US has to fight its way past a wall of scepticism. But, just consider this. The US prison system holds seven times as many people per head of population as China does. It even locks up more people in absolute terms (2.1 million in the US to 1.6 million in China) with a population barely a quarter the size. So far, this year, the number of people shot and killed by the police in the US is 614 (Washington Post). In China, its 2 (Wikipedia).

These figures jolt because they invert comfortable settled presumptions about the US’s relative standing that might be expected in most of the media; but they are also the dominant view throughout society and even in some sections of the left and environment movements. This is despite experience to the contrary.

There is therefore a certain vulnerability on the part of these movements to campaigns waged indirectly by the US designed to use us for its own ends. These are usually run through the National Endowment for Democracy. This body is funded by the US Congress to organise “human rights” organisations in countries that the US wishes to destabilise; which usually run very noisy  social media campaigns designed to go straight to people’s emotions. It is important to bear in mind that even where there are concerns that need to be addressed in either the policy or the practice of the states concerned, the aim of the US backed campaign will be directed at portraying everything about the country concerned through this lens, usually in a wildly exaggerated way, with an aim to bring down a regime that is unfavourable to its interests, partly by inoculating public opinion across the world against it. The extent to which “human rights” are a genuine concern can be gauged by the way the US has operated in Latin America almost from its foundation.

An exchange in Congress between Rep Ilhan Omar and Trump’s envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams is very revealing. Abrams stated that protecting human rights is “always the policy of the United States.” This is the same Elliott Abrams who was Ronald Reagan’s Assistant Secretary for Inter American Affairs in the 1980s. In this role he oversaw support for Contra Terrorists in Nicaragua, Death Squads in El Salvador and an anti insurgency campaign in Guatemala that led to the President at the time being charged with genocide by a later government. Yet, the protection of human rights is “always the policy of the United States.”

The intervention of NED activists into the crisis of the Amazon rain forest fires is a warning. Keen to divert attention from the culpability of President Bolsonaro in Brazil – who is in favour of forest clearances in the Amazon to bolster soya production, dismantled the protections brought in by the previous Workers Party governments and even now is only imposing a moratorium on slash and burn fires for 60 days – they sought to divert attention to fires in Boliva – a tiny fraction of those in Brazil – and blame President Evo Morales – a thorn in the US side who is firmly committed to the Paris Agreement – and who is facing an election in November. Morales, declared a national state of emergency and suspended his re-election campaign to fight the fires, sending in 4 000 troops, firefighters and vets and contracting a Boeing 747 supertanker to help douse the flames; with the result that 85% of them were out within eight days. Buying and selling land in the affected areas has been banned to stop profiteers moving in, and his government has been praised by the United Nations for its swift and decisive action. By contrast Bolsonaro was more concerned to claim that NGO’s had deliberately started the fire to discredit him than to find any practical solutions. This was of no concern to the NED activists who focussed entirely on Bolivia and mentioned Bolsonaro not at all. 

So, the environmental movement needs to be very clear about who its allies are at state level in the current global struggle. Recognising that Morales is part of the solution while Bolsonaro is a – big – part of the problem is part of this. Disagreement or criticism of an ally should take a different form from criticism of an enemy and we need to be clear who is who. This is not always easy. In the context of an increasingly delirious form of political discourse – in which exaggerated and unrestrained claims are made and images hyped for emotional impact – it behoves us all to keep a cool head and the overall picture in mind: so we are not stampeded off in a direction that is the opposite of the one we need to be heading.

End of part 1. Part 2 will look at strategy in the UK.

 

*https://gineersnow.com/leadership/chinese-government-dominated-scientists-engineers