For a global event which has already been covered in the media every day, all round the world, there’s nothing I can say here about the coronavirus which isn’t said much better elsewhere. Every day the evening news opens with the death toll; you can’t avoid hearing about it. Still, this is one of the most bizarre periods I’ve ever lived through, and here are my notes in case everyone forgets once it’s all over.
At this point, China has more or less overcome the virus. Notwithstanding the possibility of a second wave, China was able to fight the virus effectively because it has a planned economy and a good public healthcare system.
On the other hand, the USA shows the worst possible example of how a market economy without a public healthcare system is not able to fight the virus. The country which spent over one trillion dollars fighting a war in Afghanistan, probably should have spent that money on hospitals instead.
In Britain, the crisis has exposed the fact that the economy absolutely cannot function without a whole range of occupations often denigrated as ‘low skilled’. Shop workers, delivery drivers, rubbish collectors, all now recognised as essential workers.
See this excerpt of the letter from Annie Ernaux to Macron:
The state counts pennies, we count deaths - [this slogan] resonates tragically today. Meanwhile you preferred to listen to those who extol the disengagement of the state, advocating ‘optimisation of resources, regulation of flows,’ all the empty technocratic jargon which drowns out reality. But look, it is the public services which, in this moment, assure the functioning of the majority of the country.
Here’s a list of things which were considered impossible up until the period of crisis, which are now a reality:
- Virtual nationalisation of the workforce, any salaried worker made redundant for economic reasons receives 80% of their pay from the state.
- A halt on evictions, and delays on mortgage payments for people who need them.
- Vast numbers of workers sent home in order to work remotely.
- Suspension of rail franchises, with the government assuming the costs and revenue of running services. In France, healthcare workers can travel on the trains for free.
- Redeployment of production in order to meet social needs. Perfume factories and breweries have moved to make disinfectant gel. Fashion companies moved to making hospital gowns.
- School exams have been cancelled.
- Mobile browsing on NHS websites doesn’t count towards data charges.
- There’s a plan to deliver (free?) food to people in quarantine conditions.
- In London, homeless people have been given temporary accommodation in hotels.
- In France, price controls were introduced on masks and disinfectant gel. The price ceiling on a 100ml bottle of disinfectant is fixed at €3 until 31st May.
- In Ireland and Spain, all private hospitals have been temporarily nationalised.
These measures would have been unthinkable only a few months ago. See these remarks from Julian Assange in dialogue with Yannis Varoufakis:
He remarked that Jeremy Corbyn’s election manifesto, that the establishment had lambasted for being too radical, now seems unreasonably moderate. We laughed at the audacity of those who were telling the people of Britain that it was irresponsible to spend a few tens billions on providing proper funding to the NHS and social care for all, on turning broadband into a public utility, and on taking the railways into public ownership to make them work properly – the very same people who, now that big business and capitalism more generally, are in serious trouble seem to have discovered the money tree, announcing trillions to be pumped into the economy.
There’s been some reluctance to admit that Corbyn finally ‘won the argument’ - in these times, are we really all socialists now? Is the Tory Party really introducing war communism in Britain? There is after all a political difference between capitalist nationalisation and nationalisation under workers control. We know that the Conservative government is doing what it can to keep the large corporations afloat. All these measures are done in the name of protecting profits.
And yet, these were the demands of the labour movement, they still represent forms of social advance. You can always argue that it’s in the interests of capital to keep workers alive and healthy, but this is narrow functionalist logic; what we’re missing is that keeping workers alive and healthy is in the interests of workers too!
The second effect of these measures is that they might lead to an underlying shift in attitudes. The 1926 general strike was triggered by the withdrawal of emergency coal subsidies established during the First World War. After the Second World War, the social advances made during the war were secured by a landslide Labour victory.
The birth of the NHS was preceded by the emergency nationalisation of hospitals under wartime conditions. So, I am cautiously hopeful that some of the positive changes we have now will be extended after the emergency is over.
In the centre of Oxford the air is fresh. There are no students, no tourists, the rumbling growl of cars has been replaced with birdsong.
In Venice the canals are all clean.
Here is what air pollution over Los Angeles and San Diego looked like in January 2020.
And in March 2020, the skies were clear.
With almost all the traffic gone, you can walk straight across the main roads. Although it’s uncomfortable, there’s something liberating and slightly beautiful about the post-apocalyptic landscape.
How long until all these empty shops are reclaimed by nature?
In the more cynical corners of the internet we find Corona truthers and misanthropes muttering, WhAT iF tHe ReAl ViRuS Is HuMaNiTy?
One of the few businesses left open in the town centre is G&Ds ice cream cafe - they make their own ice cream and probably have an unshakeable supply chain. Like how Dasani never sold out during the panic buying because the Coca Cola company has such a solid distribution network, or how you know there’s a problem in the USA when they’re shutting down the Waffle Houses.
At least we can still get ice cream for now.