Orientalism and Sinophobia in North West London.

One of the many new luxury flats developments replacing the now defunct art deco light industry on either side of the Edgware Road beyond Colindale (and isn’t everything?) – is described as ” A landmark development of 183 apartments, townhouses, restaurants and shops set in the heart of old Oriental City.” Their emphasis.

“Old Oriental City”. All real estate is tinged with fabulism – a Rumpelstiltskin like capacity to turn dross into spun gold. “Desirable neighbourhoods” are stretched imaginatively out across their scrag end hinterland, so that the cachet will rub off on increased prices. Ultimately, all of North London will be some far flung corner of Greater Hampstead. Some of Donald Trump’s capacity to lie on such a spectacular scale with such total self belief is rooted in the commercial necessities of real estate moguls to pass off dull realities as whatever they can get their marks to believe in.

As with Geography, the sense of being somewhere historic, being part of an older and – in this case – exotic – History has a similar drive. “Old Oriental City” is a phrase that conjures an imaginary world in which – for centuries – trading Junks laden with tea, silks and Ming vases sailed up the River Brent to a bustling outpost of the Middle Kingdom; inexplicably situated half way to Watford – from a more recent, humdrum, reality.

The “Oriental City” on that site was a shopping Mall, originally built as Yaohan Plaza in the early 1990s; so not exactly “old” in any historical sense. A speculative venture from a Japanese company looking for an outlet for excess capital, running on the momentum of the late eighties property boom – already crashed and miring Japan in stagnation ever since – Yaohan went bankrupt in 1997, and was bought out by the Malaysian company which renamed the Mall “Oriental City”.

It combined a very popular food court with almost empty shops that were forever closing down and being replaced. These started off very posh and expensive in the Yaohan days – Oxford fashions, marketing a Japanese notion of expensive English taste in a fairly down at heel English suburb, beautifully presented, highly priced and always empty – and moved rapidly down market to cheap and cheerful plastic tat, that sold better but couldn’t sustain the rent.

At the entrance -towering above stone lions that would not have looked out of place in an imperial palace in Beijing – was a gigantic silhouette of Sonic the hedgehog luring punters to subterranean pleasures of the Sega gaming centre; when arcades could still compete with consoles. Above the rattling and clanging darkness of this labyrinth of addictive psychic distraction was the Zen CX – Alexei Sayle’s favourite restaurant for a while – though, as it was an all you can eat, it could have been better labelled Zen XL. Finally going bust just before the 2008 crash and derelict for several years afterwards, now the site is mostly a Morrisons; though the Bang Bang Food Court and Loon Fung Supermarket have re-emerged from the wreckage as the vigorous and viable survivors demanded by commercial Darwinism.

An older connection with China is also fictional. The eighteenth century writer Oliver Goldsmith lived for a time at Hyde House – a farmhouse demolished in the 1920s to make way for a district hospital, demolished in turn to make room for a small cookie cutter housing estate. The building now called Hyde House is a Premier Inn on the other side of the Edgware Road opposite the care home built where the Red Lion pub used to be. All that is solid melts into air and all urban landscapes are palimpsests.

Goldsmith – who described himself at one point, tongue in cheek, as “the Confucius of Europe” wrote a series of essays in 1760-61 in an adopted Chinese persona. The citizen of the world; or Letters from a Chinese philosopher, residing in London, to his friends in the East. This allowed him to pose as having a perspective from a distinct “other” civilisation simultaneously “exotic” but worthy of respect for its longevity, cultivation and sophistication and, at the time, wealth and power. Different but equal.

The scores he was settling were all, of course, domestic, but the notion that a Chinese perspective might allow him – in some respects – to look down on Western society, is one that still comes as a jolt after two centuries of imperial dominance. It is a perspective that underlies a lot of the hostile treatment of China in the Western media today- since a recognition that the way China dealt with COVID19 was staggeringly more effective than that of the West – with domestic infections eliminated in two months and an economic recovery that will amount to 60% of total world growth next year – requires a barrage of venom to be thrown into people’s eyes to avoid them asking awkward questions of our increasingly clownish leaders.

Xinjiang through a Zenz darkly. The Truth Gets its Boots On?

This is not a normal blog. Given the single minded and relentless one sided coverage of the situation in Xinjiang in papers like the Guardian and on the BBC, here are some news reports putting a side of the story you won’t be able to read through established Western news media; because they black it out.

May I suggest that you read them and then decide for yourself whether they are a more plausible and realistic explanation of what is going on than the only account allowed column inches or broadcast bandwidth here? I would suggest that they are, but, make up your own mind.

https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-12-16/CGP-report-on-Xinjiang-labor-is-full-of-holes-WgHHrIdSc8/index.html

https://newsaf.cgtn.com/news/2020-11-04/Xinjiang-religious-freedom-fully-guaranteed-report-V7VcO4G1yg/index.html

https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-10-27/New-report-refutes-U-S-allegation-of-forced-labor-in-Xinjiang–UVETxYBdDy/index.html

https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-10-21/Pompeo-s-forced-labor-theory-in-Xinjiang-preposterous-China-ULiQ90XMHe/index.html

https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1208288.shtml

The Western narrative relies primarily on mutually reinforcing reports and accounts from either supporters of a central Asian Caliphate in the Turkestan Independence Party, or sometimes the US financed “World Uighur Congress”, or from Adrian Zenz.

Zenz is usually described, rather coyly, as a “German Researcher”; and his Alt Right politics and Christian “End of Times” convictions glossed over.

It is odd that the BBC and Guardian put so much faith in a man capable of writing books with titles like Worthy to Escape: Why all Believers Will not be Raptured before the Tribulation. Honestly – I am not making this up. Passages like this one… “For the Jews, therefore, the wrath of God will prove to be both a blessing and a curse: for those that belong in the one third that will be refined in God’s fiery furnace and will end up obtaining salvation, ultimately, it will be a blessing. For those who are “rebels” and transgressors (Ezekiel 20:38) and who will perish in the process, a curse. According to Scripture, God’s refining process will wipe out all unbelieving Jews who refuse to come to Christ”… do not indicate a mind in which material reality is the foremost consideration. The BBC and Guardian doubtless have their own reasons for relying on him, but ask yourself how much can you trust the judgement of a man capable of thinking like that?

End of term Report – how badly did the government do?

In a week in which the Health Secretary has wept on TV claiming that he is “proud to be British” a reality check on just how badly his Conservative government have managed the COVID crisis and why is unavoidable.

The graph below shows the deaths per million of the UK – which

-flirted with herd immunity in February/March,

-went for one of the loosest lockdowns in Europe in April/May,

-reopened its economy prematurely over the Summer,

-hesitated over re-imposing restrictions as the virus rebounded in September/October,

-tightened them too late in November (while leaving schools open and allowing infections to rip among Secondary school students especially)

-and is now trying to keep restrictions loosened over Xmas, largely for commercial reasons,

with countries in the Western Pacific region that had a policy to eliminate the virus, not try to “live with” it. Because the figures for these countries are so small, here they are. Compared to the UK’s 877 deaths per million, New Zealand has had just 5, China even fewer with 3; and Vietnam with 0.5.

“Proud to be British”?

If you want to see that on a comparative pie graph of the deaths in each country compared with each other, it looks like this.

The Health Secretary might well weep.

It might be argued that Vietnam and New Zealand’s strategy was primarily to close down their borders and test everyone that came in – quarantining anyone who tested positive – to prevent the virus getting a foothold in the first place. So they did. But that option was available to Britain too in late February. The government didn’t take it – and was very resistant to any quarantining measures for air travelers until the end of May, just as the first partial lockdown began to relax. The current relaxation on restrictions on “high value” travelers is a clue as to why. Such restrictions would affect business travelers – and that would never do.

The comparison with China is even more damning. The initial outbreak of the virus was in Wuhan. A city of 11 million people, slightly larger than London, the capital of Hubei Province, which has 58 million people, slightly smaller than the UK and about the same as England. As the first victim of the virus, it might be reasonable to assume that the Chinese would have been taken more by surprise and overwhelmed than anywhere else; and there was a period in late December to late January in which there was definite confusion and fumbling at a local level when it was unclear what they were dealing with; but at the same time intensive work was being done on what exactly the virus was, how it originated and was transmitting itself, all of which was being shared with the WHO. And, once it was clear just how dangerous it was, the measures taken were swift, definite and had the clear aim of eliminating it. And, they worked. So, even with a significant outbreak in a densely populated urban centre that is a transport and communications hub, a zero COVID strategy was capable of closing down domestic infections. It took six weeks. It is that that has enabled the Chinese economy to recover at the speed and scale that it has done. The UK government has no excuse – because, after the Wuhan experience, they knew what was coming. They chose not to act.

Even in a comparison with other European countries – which have all tried variations on the same policy as the UK – “balancing” the needs of health against economic imperatives – and which have therefore had a similar result in balancing an ongoing health crisis with an ongoing economic crisis -the UK is in the worst four for death rates (1) so, in football terms, we’d be qualifying for the Champions League. Nothing to be proud of.

More importantly, we are heading for a third wave in January, especially if the Xmas relaxation is maintained, so a Zero COVID strategy and movement is urgently needed and all the forces gathering in different groups around this should be coming together to push to get a West Pacific result.

  1. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1111779/coronavirus-death-rate-europe-by-country/

The US and UK are standing on thin ice – and have no claim to the moral high ground.

“I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just.” Thomas Jefferson.

In Monday’s Commons debate on scrapping the Hong Kong extradition treaty, Conservative MP and former Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood said the following, ” For decades now, we have turned a blind eye to China’s democratic deficit and human rights violations, in the hope that it would mature into a global responsible citizen. That clearly hasn’t happened. Is this now the turning point where we drop the pretence that China shares our values?”

The accusations made against China are grim ones which they strongly deny, but coming from the countries that brought you – just in recent years – waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Special Rendition, the Fallujah Free Fire Zone and extra judicial drone assassinations (with 601 casualties in Yemen alone between 2011 and 2017) (1) you have to wonder what human rights values “we” have been modelling; and how China has supposedly diverged from them, by allegedly doing what we have done in plain sight for so many years.

It has to be said that it is a strange sort of “genocide” in which the ethnic group supposedly being targeted is rapidly growing in numbers and proportion of the population, and an odd kind of “cultural/religious suppression” in which the number of Mosques has increased by a factor of ten in the last thirty years. Just over 2000 Mosques in Xinjiang in 1989, over 24 000 now.

Our Values?”

Does Mr Ellwood mean that a tough line with street protests to “dominate the streets or you’ll look like a bunch of jerks”, is way out of line with anything a Western power would contemplate or carry out? (2) If so, he hasn’t been paying much attention lately or, indeed, ever.

Does he mean that mass incarceration is unacceptable? This would be odd, because the USA currently locks up 2.1 million people, 25% of the total global prison population; way above any other country and far more per head than China does; while England and Wales, with 145 prisoners per hundred thousand people, have the highest per capita prison population in Western Europe and Scotland is not far below; all well above China’s 118 per hundred thousand (3).

Land of the free?

Can he mean the exploitation of free, or ludicrously cheap, prison labour to produce goods for well known companies? Again, this would be odd because that’s what US prisons do. McDonalds, Wendys, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Verizon, Sprint, Victoria’s Secret, JC Penney, KMart, American Airlines and Avis are documented beneficiaries. (4)

He can’t mean interning people without trial who are in rebellion against the state, because that’s what the UK did in Kenya, Malaya, Cyprus and the North of Ireland and the US did with its “strategic hamlets” programme in Vietnam. So, that would be completely in line with “our values”, wouldn’t it?

Nor can he mean that sterilising ethnic minorities is out of line with “our values” , because that’s what the US did throughout the twentieth century at home- 25-50% of native American women in the 1970s, a third of the female population of Puerto Rico between 1938 and 1970, countless Black women given unnecessary and involuntary hysterectomies (Mississippi appendectomies), 150 prisoners in California as recently as 2010 – and to many more abroad throughout Latin America and beyond, including up to 200 000 indigenous women in Peru in the 1990s. (5)

He can’t mean disregarding local democratic rights and imposing an unwanted regime from the outside, because that’s what the United States has done 20 times by invasion and another 56 times by interventions short of that since 1949. Some of these have been very bloody. Two million Vietnamese killed, half a million Indonesian Leftists massacred in 1965, thousands and thousands throughout Latin America for decades. Whatever you think of China, it would take them a long time to catch up with a record like that.

Nor can he mean communities feeling unsafe at the hands of the police force that is meant to “protect and serve” them. The chance of being shot dead in the streets by the police was approximately 2000 times greater in the US than in China in 2019. (6)

The raw figures for 2019. USA 1004, China 2. The US population is a quarter of China’s.

Perhaps he means having a threatening military posture to intimidate other countries? But here again the US posture is far more threatening, both in terms of military expenditure, on which the US spends $4 for every $1 spent by China…

Who is threatening who here exactly?

…and even more starkly in terms of overseas military bases, of which the USA has 800 and China has 3.

Even the UK has 16, more than five times as many as China. If you look hard, you’ll just about see them.

Who isA Global Responsible citizen”…?

A responsible global citizen faces up to the fundamental challenges facing humanity and seeks co-operation to solve them. The gravest threat to all of us is climate breakdown. China is committed to the Paris Agreement, has met its targets early and raised them. The United States under Trump is walking out of the Agreement on the grounds that “we believe that no country should have to sacrifice economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability,” Wells Griffith, Trump’s envoy to the Katowice COP 2018. (7) If every country adopted the US approach, we’d have no hope of avoiding the melt down of our civilisation. Its not mature and its not responsible. The unilateral, selfish action they are taking threatens all of us with catastrophe. Mr Ellwood does not appear to have noticed, or, if he has, does not think this to be of any significance.

In the immediate global crisis caused by COVID19, the records of China, the UK and US certainly show a divergence in values. China put public safety first and, despite an initial fumble by local officials, managed to crush the virus and keep domestic deaths down to just over 4600. In the UK and US, by contrast, commercial considerations and half baked libertarianism has led so far to almost twice as many deaths in the US as there were cases in China with the virus well out of control and infections rising exponentially again. The most conservative figure for UK deaths is ten times the Chinese total (and therefore 200 times the rate per capita). A little humility about this on the part of the people responsible for it might not go amiss.

The political effect of this in China has been to boost the standing and legitimacy and standing of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. (8) This was always far stronger than Western opinion has ever been able to comprehend, but looking out from a society that has been kept largely safe – as well as having risen from extreme poverty in living memory – the mounting casualties and sheer chaos of the “West” shocks and horrifies popular opinion. The first duty of government, after all, is to keep its people safe. Job done there. Not here.

Economically, the Chinese economy is now recovering. It was already larger in purchasing parity terms than that of the United States before COVID hit. The seeming insanity of the efforts by the Trump administration to reopen their economy while cases are rising is explained by their fear of falling further behind. The IMF projects that 51% of world growth in the next two years will be in China. The US, by contrast, will account for just 3.3%.

As the virus spreads exponentially again, pushing the US proportion of global deaths back up to 15%, from a low of 9% last month, employment and economic activity have gone through the fastest collapse in history. This stokes the US political crisis and fuels the Black Lives Matter uprising. This titanic crisis of health, survival and livelihoods – and the Trump adminstration’s callous indifference, bluster, denial and authoritarian incompetence- has revealed to a popular majority that the enemy is at home and in high places.

The controlled response to the virus in China has saved the world many infections and deaths. That of the USA continues to threaten any other country that trades or deals with it.

China has put a moratorium on debt repayments from 66 struggling developing countries. The USA has imposed sanctions on Iran and Venezuela. (9)

China has pledged that any vaccine developed in the country will be a common good for the whole world. President Trump has applied “America First” even to this, cornering the market in available treatments, gazumping other countries supplies, while, with the UK, insisting on patent rights (which puts pharma profits above cheapness and availability). Clearly a divergence in “values” there.

The increasingly delirious accusations being made against China – which in the media are presented as a labyrinth of mirrors, with each story of each allegation being reported as though they were evidence of it – reflect the desperation of a US ruling class who can feel the earth falling away under their feet. The majority of the world, as reflected in UN votes, do not believe this US narrative. Twice as many countries voted with China on both Xinjiang and Hong Kong as voted for “Western” resolutions; which were supported only by wealthy close US allies, the imperial bubble that likes to think of itself as “the global community.”

And the Left?

The dominant current in the UK Labour Movement, the Labour Right, historically gives the US complete credence. Even devotees of an “ethical foreign policy” are usually highly selective about where they look to demonstrate their ethics. I hope that what is written above is enough to convince that this position doesn’t have a leg to stand on – morally or in any other respect. For the right, this is a matter of realpolitik, so whats true doesn’t really come into it. But there are also currents that identify themselves as “far left” and take a militant line on domestic politics, but never saw a US intervention they didn’t like, nor a State Department attack line they are unwilling to shout through a social media megaphone. For all the reasons above, a pro Washington line is the most reactionary position that can be taken and, in current circumstances, will lead those that espouse it down a road towards giving the USA the social support it needs to threaten a war that could kill us all.

Others, more on the left, will have no illusions about the messenger, but will accept part or all of the message; and will consider articles like this too uncritical. The bottom line here is, that whatever critical view is held about China, or actions it is alleged to have taken, these currents do not line up with Washington and are not willing to allow themselves to be used in giving support to the war drive that is already taking place in economic sanctions and aircraft carrier deployments.

It is stopping these that is the imperative. Arguments about other matters will only be able to continue if the gathering momentum towards war and environmental collapse are stopped and the precarious structures of global co-operation are strengthened.

1.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Targeted_killing#/media/File:Graph_of_Average_Casualties_in_US_Drone_Strikes_in_Yemen_2002-present.png

2. https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/06/02/transcript-of-trumps-call-with-governors-dominate-or-youll-look-like-a-bunch-of-jerks/

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_incarceration_rate

4. http://blackeconomics.co.uk/wp/big-businesses-that-benefit-from-prison-labour/

5. https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/unwanted-sterilization-and-eugenics-programs-in-the-united-states/

6.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_killings_by_law_enforcement_officers_in_the_United_States

7. https://www.washingtonpost.com/gdpr-consent/?next_url=https%3a%2f%2fwww.washingtonpost.com%2fworld%2feurope%2fthat-was-awkward–at-worlds-biggest-climate-conference-us-promotes-fossil-fuels%2f2018%2f12%2f10%2faa8600c4-f8ae-11e8-8642-c9718a256cbd_story.html

8. https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3093825/beijing-enjoys-greater-legitimacy-any-western-state

9. Petition against these sanctions here. https://docs.google.com/forms/u/0/d/e/1FAIpQLSeX3BVo8lQy2bDBmjcbJkphiP_HI9tnrTnI_DZlKo8DTZFJcw/formResponse

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