Archive | June 16th, 2020

UBI: the ‘right’ to be idle or the right to work?

What does the call for a universal basic income really mean?

Proletarian writers

As the crisis of capitalism deepens, poverty and unemployment are deepening with it, along with the rampant inequalities that are built into the fabric of the system itself. In the absence of a class-conscious, socialist leadership, some workers see their salvation in seductive calls for the state to pay everyone a universal basic income – essentially a more generous and (they hope) less stigmatised dole.

Given the proliferation of suggestions as to how this might work, we are happy to publish this letter, sent in by one of our members, by way of a contribution to the debate. We welcome further contributions from our readers and supporters.

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When the working class succeeds in overthrowing capitalism and establishing a system of planned economy geared solely to providing for the needs of the working people, everybody will have the right and the duty to work to contribute as much as they can to the wealth of society. And everyone will receive from society a share of what society has produced in accordance with their work, after allowing for expanded production and facilities in future years and for emergency stores.

Labour-saving machinery, including robots, will serve to make everybody’s work more productive and less arduous, enabling people’s working hours to be gradually reduced so they have more time to pursue other interests.

Such a scenario is completely impossible under capitalism, but, in order to divert the masses of people away from thinking about how to get rid of the system that is holding us back, all kinds of utopian dreams are from time to time put about that try to suggest that even under capitalism things could be a lot better than they are – if only …

In this context, calls for the implementation of a variety of universal basic income (UBI) schemes have lately begun to gain traction in the media, with the economic and social ramifications of the global response to the coronavirus pressing institutions, policy researchers, NGOs and think-tanks to show willingness in considering radical, unprecedented methods through which a ‘fairer’, more economically stable society might be organised.

Proposals for UBI have been emanating from liberal-left quarters for some time, and many schemes have been tested on various scales in Europe and the US since the 1970s, although never at a national level. These proposals are all designed to create the illusion that it is possible for capitalism to be modified in such a way as to be able and willing to provide a decent living to all, and in this way to preserve the capitalist system from being overthrown by the masses whom it exploits and oppresses.

Their proponents’ anxiety to reassure one and all that capitalism can be successfully reformed becomes more and more frantic the more the noxious failures of the system multiply – the overproduction and the millions of unemployed it produces; austerity in the face of exponentially rising productivity of labour; the mindless destruction by war of the infrastructure of whole countries along with the pauperisation of their populations; the endless queues of refugees risking their own lives and those of their children in their bid to escape to somewhere they might be able to live in peace and scratch a living.

All these horrors demonstrate that the world is crying out for an end to capitalism, and yet its defenders press on regardless from one utopian scheme to another.

It is no coincidence that the majority of people putting forward such ideas themselves are for the moment at least enjoying a reasonably secure life (even if some a lot more than others), and they therefore feel they have something to lose in the turmoil of socialist revolution.

In our view, it is time they accepted that socialist revolution is inevitable and that, to minimise as far as possible the suffering of humanity, it should take place as soon as possible, with all attempts to hold it off being abandoned by every person of the working class.

What is UBI?

The UBI idea proposes that by allowing all adult citizens a basic, non means-tested monthly or weekly allowance, workers will be able to sustain themselves at an adequate level regardless of employment status and earnings, putting everyone on an ‘even keel’ and giving a baseline minimum level of spending power to every individual.

It has gained some traction during the coronavirus crisis because huge masses of people have suddenly become unexpectedly unemployed at the same time, and even bourgeois governments are recognising that something must be done to support them.

The British government is borrowing vast amounts of money in order to pay 80 percent of their wages. However, this is being done primarily in the interests of saving their employers from bankruptcy, so that when the crisis is over some businesses at least will be able to get going again with all their old staff in place.

Even then, chancellor Rishi Sunak is warning that the government cannot keep up these payments for more than a few months – even though they do not extend to all working people who have lost their livelihoods as a result of the crisis, much less to those who remain in employment.

So it is self-evident that no bourgeois ruling class is going to be prepared to commit to paying a living wage to everybody regardless of whether they are working or not. It’s just not going to happen. Those who think that the working class can force the ruling class to grant such a concession are really living in a dream world.

Furthermore, if UBI were really to be sufficient to live on, a whole lot of people would obviously choose not to work at all, which is certainly not acceptable to the bourgeoisie, since it is in the business of exploiting the working class to make profits – there is, after all, no other source of wealth.

Undeterred by logic or common sense, some proponents of UBI promote it primarily as a route towards poverty reduction, while others see it as a way to release workers from the drudgery of non-stop physical and mental labour and so provide the whole population with an opportunity to pursue their own personal creative and entrepreneurial interests.

Petty-bourgeois intellectuals are particularly attracted by the idea of not having to work at all unless the work is to their liking, but still they expect to share in the products of society even if they have done nothing to contribute towards them.

Under capitalism, the bourgeois ruling class needs the working class, as it is the labour-power of workers that is the sole generator of profit – the whole point of capitalist production. It can be seen that on the face of it, it would be in the interests of the capitalist exploiters of labour-power to keep the working class contented, healthy, educated and grateful in order to get the maximum of high-quality work out of them – much as one gets the best milk from happy, well-fed and well-tended cows.

However, because of the need to get ahead in the battle of competition (or face going under), the capitalists are forced to reduce the cost of the labour-power they employ to the lowest possible figure – to pay wages at the lowest level they can get away with; to spend as little as possible on the working environment; to contribute as little as possible to the provision of social facilities for the benefit of the working class; to replace workers with machines, and so on.

This generates an army of unemployed, who increase the potential supply of labour-power and therefore reduce its price (wages) below value – the value being what is necessary to support the workers as workers and enable them to bring up the next generation of workers to replace them.

It follows that workers forced to sell their labour-power below its value receive in wages and other benefits less than they need to live reasonably well, however modest their needs.

The UBI utopians believe that if the bourgeois state would give away to workers proposed amounts that vary depending on who’s talking between £400 and £1,000 per month, this situation could be radically altered.

The sheer absurdity of this can be gauged by turning one’s mind to the las few years of austerity, during which, rather than increasing the benefits being handed out to workers, even those most dreadfully in need, bourgeois governments all over the world have been slashing them – drastically cutting back on unemployment benefit, housing benefit, welfare services, drastically reducing expenditure on education, eliminating student grants and making students pay huge fees, drastically reducing pensions and care provision – and on and on.

Why would any bourgeois government in these circumstances give out a universal benefit, especially to people who didn’t even need it? All one can say is: fat chance!

The way in which UBI is generally presented is very seductive, holding out the possibility of workers being able to choose a job rather than take the first available; of not having to fear complete destitution as a result of unemployment; of having the option of earning higher wages on top; and of using the opportunity to further their studies (assuming they can afford the fees, of course. Will UBI be sufficient to enable anyone, whether working or not, to afford to study in higher education or start a new business [assuming UBI is enough to pay the start-up costs, of course! But £1,000 a month won’t cut it, unfortunately …])

Given the dire situation currently faced by millions of workers even in imperialist countries as a result of the coronavirus crisis, UBI is now even receiving attention from some mainstream commentators and politicians, trusting in the abject naivety of those whom they address.

The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon recently stated that the case for UBI has been “strengthened immeasurably” by the present crisis, responding to a report from the Reform Scotland think-tank, which suggested that along with eliminating the risk of people falling into a “benefit trap” (owing to the available employment paying less than benefits), UBI could be implemented to support people who are unable to work as a result of social distancing and quarantine measures. (Case for universal basic income ‘strengthened immeasurably’ by coronavirus pandemic says Nicola Sturgeon by Ashley Cowburn, Independent, 10 April 2020).

It is difficult to see what the connection is between UBI and giving support to those who have lost their income as a result of the crisis.

Some temporary (although far from adequate for many) support is being given, as mentioned above, by the British government, which has every intention of recouping the cost from future taxes and future austerity measures. That is very different from pledging to give permanent support to everybody, regardless of whether they are working or not.

The ‘benefit trap’ could very well be avoided far more cheaply by raising the minimum wage, although it would be naïve to expect even such a modest reform from our heavily indebted bourgeois governments or the rapacious employers under their protection.

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, made a high-profile announcement in favour of UBI as he transferred $1bn into his charity trust to aid the coronavirus relief effort, stating that the charity’s efforts will “focus” on UBI. Well, of course, some employers may well be endorsing a permanent extension of the wage subsidy currently being paid by various governments to employers, hoping that these will continue after the crisis is over, thus substantially reducing the costs of production for individual businesses.

It has also been widely reported that Spain is in the process of implementing UBI as a means of tackling the economic fallout from coronavirus. A closer inspection of governmental plans, however, reveals that what is being considered is a ‘basic income’ benefit for the most vulnerable in society (as a replacement for currently available benefits), rather than the touted ‘universal income’ scheme that is more generally discussed various pundits.

The UK city of Hull, meanwhile, put forward a proposal for trialling UBI back in January, supported by a cross-party group of city councillors (before the idea that the coronavirus was the root cause of the then-impending financial crash had been promoted). Similarly, Labour’s John McDonnell announced a plan to run a UBI pilot scheme in Sheffield and Liverpool if his party had been elected in December last year. (Hull asks to be first UK city to trial universal basic income by Josh Halliday, The Guardian, 19 January 2020)

Absolutely nothing was said about where the cash-strapped local authorities were going to find the money to finance the scheme. Had a Labour government been returned, maybe it would have made the money available, but since the bourgeoisie was deadly opposed to all the proposals for increasing public spending that were being promoted by Corbyn’s Labour party, the bourgeois media went all out to smear the party and stop it getting elected.

It whipped up a fake antisemitism storm, and constantly portrayed Corbyn as incompetent – and the electorate fell for it hook, line and sinker. The Labour party, meanwhile, shot itself in the foot by reneging on Brexit. So the utopian trial in Hull went by the board.

In the US, presidential candidate Andrew Yang made a proposal for UBI a prominent part of his platform – an action that helped to push the concept into the edges of mainstream discourse on both sides of the Atlantic, but which also no doubt helped make sure that Andrew Yang was dropped pdq.

While Yang’s unsuccessful bid for the presidential nomination is over, a few politicians in the States, both Democrat and Republican, have seized on UBI strictly in the present crisis situation – not as any attempt to balance out economic inequalities, but rather in a desperate bid to ward off complete societal collapse.

What is behind the call for a universal basic income?

So what are we to make of calls for a UBI? There are several aspects of the mainstream news narrative that need to be considered when we look at the arguments being put forward.

First, we cannot afford to overlook that the fact that the coronavirus is being used to explain why the global economy is sailing yet again into crisis, since this underlying deception obscures and detracts from the inconvenient truth about the overproduction crisis of capitalism – the real root cause of ever-deeper cyclical financial crashes.

Second, we should take care to distinguish the various discussions of UBI as a temporary support scheme for workers who’ve suddenly found they have no job to go to, no money for rent and essentials, and no prospect under lockdown conditions of finding employment elsewhere, from proposals to implement UBI permanently as a way of restructuring society.

For so long as the coronavirus lockdown is needed, we maintain that the state is responsible for providing the protection and support required by all those workers who have been most immediately and severely impacted by social distancing and quarantine measures.

It was noticeable that the British government embarked on a mission to bail out large corporations so as to protect shareholder dividends and the investments of the super-wealthy as a matter of priority, leaving the vast majority of the working class to trust them on their word that we would be sorted out with loans or a state-subsidised portion of our wages at some future date.

It may be the case that, in Britain, a blanket implementation of some form of UBI, covering all workers for the duration of quarantine and social distancing measures, would have been a far more efficient and equitable approach than the half-hearted and haphazard measures we actually had, which have resulted in a mass of confusion and uncertainty for those struggling to work out what they might be eligible for and how they should go about applying for it – all while the clock ticks and the purse remains empty.

But putting aside the question of whether a tottering, decadent imperialist power such as Britain would actually be capable of implementing such a policy, it’s worth taking stock of what UBI would mean for a country like ours if it were put into place as a permanent replacement for the existing social benefit system – and who would ultimately benefit most.

From time to time, especially when terrified that workers at home might follow the example of Russia’s October Revolution, the rulers of imperialist countries have reluctantly succumbed to the process of distributing a portion of their superprofits from imperialist exploitation amongst the working class at home.

The aim has always been to raise living standards just enough to dampen and divert the class struggle and buy off the danger of revolution. To this end, a few morsels have been spared from the table on which the super-wealthy ruling class devours the stolen riches and resources of plundered colonies, client states and defeated rivals, in addition to the wealth produced through exploitation of the masses at home.

Britain’s welfare state as we know it has its origins in the Keynesian postwar consensus, when a mixture of American loans and colonial extortion paid for the building of a modern welfare state infrastructure. Again, this aimed to ensure that the working class derived a definite benefit from the new world order in which British imperialism subordinated and enmeshed itself with the increasingly dominant US imperialist power.

With the ruling classes of the imperialist countries united in their hatred and fear of socialism, and the postwar prestige of the Soviet peoples and their achievements riding high in the hearts of millions of workers worldwide, raising living conditions for British workers was understood to be a necessary endeavour in order to placate their demands for a socialist society on Albion’s green shores.

Similar moves were made in all the various imperialist states – just as much as was required in each case to quieten the revolutionary sentiments of the masses.

It’s important to remember that, at that point in our history, workers were very much aware of their own collective power and agency. They had been through the experience of the general strike of 1926 and the great depression of the 1920s and 30s, as well as the national effort for WW2, with its huge mobilisation of working men and women in the industrial, agricultural and military spheres.

It cannot be stressed enough that the postwar cross-party consensus, which led to the implementation of the ‘cradle to grave’ welfare state and the NHS, came not simply as a philanthropic reward for services rendered to British imperialism, but because Britain’s rulers were mortally afraid of the working class taking the road of the October Revolution, and determined to do all in their power to prevent such an outcome.

In short, the point of the postwar consensus, and also of the wider Marshall Plan (which saw huge US investment and loans pour into the war-shattered economies of western Europe), was to convince workers that they could have all the social benefits of socialism without needing to overthrow the rule of capital through revolutionary class struggle.

Since then, the process of exporting productive work, along with much of the machinery and industrial infrastructure required to perform it, to developing countries overseas (a process described by Lenin a century ago) has continued apace, allowing the owners of capital to continue to rake in vast profits from the superexploitation of the oppressed world.

The terrible conditions formerly endured by European industrial workers and described so graphically by Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England have not disappeared from the face of the earth, even if they are much attenuated in imperialist countries. Rather, they have been replicated in countries all over AsiaAfrica and Latin America as a result of the never-ending quest to maximise profits.

As industrial employment has decreased in the centres of imperialism, the British working class has been subject to decades of abusive treatment, with the vast numbers of formerly productive industrial workers being thrown on the scrapheap of long-term unemployment, or having their employment opportunities restricted to insecure and badly-paid retail and service-sector jobs.

Alongside this there has been a consistent effort, orchestrated through mass media and popular culture, to demonise and devalue productive work as ‘menial’ or ‘unskilled’, with the aim of conditioning successive generations of workers to feel shame and disdain for their class origins and heritage, rather than pride and an urge to take control of the modern world that their labours have created.

It is in this context that UBI is sold to us, with the working class of the imperialist bloc expected to accept our place as useless, defunct organisms, with no purpose other than to consume or sell to others the products of capitalist production in order to achieve some vague sense of happiness and contentment.

According to the popular narrative, we are supposed to be relieved that now, since we’ve been made ‘redundant’ by developments in automation and computing technology, we are all to become eligible for ‘free money’ that will supposedly enable us to lead happier, stress-free lives.

Who really pays? A recipe for parasitism

But glaringly obvious is the fact that UBI proposals are anything but ‘universal’ in the global sense. Production of the necessities of life must continue to take place. To the extent that workers in Britain are no longer producing these, we have to live off the work of those labouring in the oppressed countries.

Workers of poorer, developing countries will continue to toil to produce surplus value from their labour, which will continue to be appropriated by imperialist masters – some of them British – some of which they can then hand over to a working class at home that has been reduced to parasitism.

Presumably the architects of UBI proposals understand, on some level, that the piggybank from which their benefit would be funded will still be relying on capitalist-imperialist economic relations to keep it topped up.

Under such a system, where the means of production and distribution remain in the hands of a super-wealthy, exploiting minority class, such schemes would serve merely to reconcile workers to a purely parasitic existence, with less social agency as a class than at any point in living history.

As if to highlight this point, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee wrote recently in the Guardian (which has been notable for championing the cause of UBI):

“In our recent book, written before coronavirus struck but with a title that is now eerily appropriate – Good Economics for Hard Times – we recommend that poor countries implement what we call a universal ultra basic income (UUBI), a regular cash transfer that amounts to enough for basic survival. The virtues of a UUBI are its simplicity, transparency, and its assurance that nobody will starve.” (Coronavirus is a crisis for the developing world, but here’s why it needn’t be a catastrophe, 6 May 2020)

Sure enough, these 2019 winners of the Nobel laureate for economics advocate the universal adoption of mobile phone microbanking – ie, extending the reach of finance capitalism in a time of world depression and mass hunger to the huge market of microtransactions it lusts after, thus proving Engels’ point that the capitalists can find money even where thieves can find nothing to steal!

The proposal is that small exploited nations give their citizens a pittance – just enough to ward off starvation (and revolution) – by increasing their national debts and thus further ensnaring themselves in the debt trap that leaves them helpless vassals of western finance capitalism.

A less enticing ‘solution’ to the problem of world poverty could scarcely be found than this proposal to deepen the debt slavery of the world’s working and toiling masses. Nor a more blatant acceptance of the idea that workers in the oppressed countries should be expected to live on far less than those in the imperialist heartlands – and that their workers should continue to subsidise the living standards of ours – in perpetuity.

Our future is one of dignified, useful labour

The demand of workers everywhere should be that we have a right to work, not only in service industries and as handmaidens to finance capital but also in industry, making the essential articles of consumption on which we depend. Everyone in society should have both the right and the duty to work, and advances in productivity should make that work lighter and reduce our working hours, not render us superfluous.

For us to echo calls for universal basic income in Britain would effectively be to abolish this demand, acquiescing in the notion that industrial workers in particular are helpless and redundant in the face of technical progress, and that we need capitalism to ‘save’ us from oblivion.

However, as Lenin demonstrated beyond all question in his Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, the workings of the capitalist system force the capitalists to export their capital (ie, the accumulated surplus value produced by their workers) in order to maximise profits by transferring their operations to countries where direct and indirect wages, as well as land prices, are far lower, so that gradually the ‘mother country’ becomes parasitic, with the upper classes living by ‘clipping coupons’ and the working class, except for a shrinking upper layer, abandoned to poverty and unemployment.

The demand for UBI seeks to make the working class complicit in this shameful parasitism, but it is hard to see why the bourgeoisie would ever actually cede such a concession. Why would it feel compelled to support a working class that it had rendered redundant?

Instead of sheepishly accepting that we have outlived our usefulness to the capitalist system, and graciously drawing our redundancy package in the form of UBI as we’re ‘put out to pasture’, workers should recognise that the increasing prominence of arguments twinning UBI and automation as the blueprint for our future demonstrates that, in fact, it is capitalism that has outlived its usefulness to society, and has nothing meaningful to offer.

Once this is grasped, we will be on a footing to take the hold of society’s instruments of production and put them properly to use.

RA, Stoke

Posted in Campaigns, UK0 Comments

British trade agreements after Brexit

By pinning all their hopes for Britain’s future on a US trade deal, our rulers are taking us out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Ella Rule

Boris Johnson seems to have decided that the way to ‘take back control’ from the EU imperialist bloc is to hand it over to US imperialism. What could possibly go wrong?

A large proportion of Britain’s economy is based on international trade. “In 2019, the UK’s total trade (imports and exports) equalled £1.4tn, of which £724.5bn was imports and £698.6bn was exports. Exports as a percentage of GDP was 30 percent”. (World Bank and OECD national accounts data)

Manufacturing, fisheries and farming

More than that, British manufacturing is intimately connected to global supply lines operating on a ‘just-in-time’ basis – ie, stocks are ordered only when they are on the verge of running out in order to minimise the time that capital is tied up in stockpiles awaiting use.

“Last year, £672.5bn (47.3 percent) of the UK’s total trade was with the EU and £750.6bn (52.7 percent) was non-EU. The UK’s top 10 non-EU trading partners include the US, which in 2019 accounted for 15 percent of total trade, China at 5.1 percent, Switzerland at 2.6 percent and Japan at 2.2 percent.

“UNCTAD has calculated that the UK risks losing up to 14 percent of its exports to the EU in the event of a no-deal Brexit, as opposed to only 9 percent if a trade deal is agreed, assuming that a free trade deal with the EU would not address NTBs (non-tariff barriers) such as the harmonisation of health and safety, employment rights, environment protection and food safety standards, which normal FTAs do not normally do.” (Ed Balls, Nyasha Weinberg, Jessica Redmond and Simon Borumand, Will Prioritising a UK-US Free Trade Agreement Make or Break Global Britain?, Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business & Government at Harvard Kennedy School, May 2020)

Clearly, it is important to the British government to find some way of making up for the projected shortfall of exports to the European Union. It will also want to make good quite significant losses to the country in relation to the very significant additional cost of trading with the EU.

“Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the UK’s tax-collecting agency, estimated that British businesses would spend £15bn ($19.6bn) extra per year on paperwork in the event of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit.” (How Britain and the EU would trade under WTO rules by Bryce Baschuk, Washington Post, 3 February 2020)

This paperwork would apparently include “up to nine documents that would be needed to sell a British product to an EU country [in the event of there being no free trade agreement concluded with the EU]. Under any sort of deal, exports and imports will need a certificate of origin, transit certificates, customs valuation documents and, if exporting to northern Ireland, destination paperwork to ensure goods are not then moved to the EU.

“Without a comprehensive trade agreement, there will need to be other pieces of paper: VAT and excise documents, freight certificates, health and veterinary documents, exit and entry summary declarations, and safety and security permits.” (UK’s hardline Brexit stance starts to sour relations with business by Daniel Thomas, Financial Times10 March 2020)

In the circumstances, the British government’s insistence that it is prepared to face the future without a deal with the EU seems somewhat insane. The reason for this insistence is the EU’s intransigent insistence on including in any such deal certain protections for EU producers – what is termed a ‘level playing field’.

It seeks to prevent British producers undercutting European costs of production by reducing employment rights, food safety standards and environmental protection below European standards, or by providing government subsidies that enable British producers to undersell their European competitors. The British argue that no such provisions exist in any of the other free trade agreements that the European Union has negotiated with countries around the world, so why should the UK be singled out?

However, it is easy to see that the sheer volume of trade between Britain and the EU does make it different from all the other non-EU countries with which the EU has dealings. Britain claims it has no intention of lowering standards but does not want to be committed to maintaining them as this would be the kind of incursion against its sovereignty that Brexit seeks to avoid.

There are also arguments around fisheries, since clearly Britain would prefer to have its extensive territorial waters to itself rather than share them with other EU countries, even though the fishing industry represents only 0.9 percent of the British economy. (EU-UK trade talks: four key battle lines for post-Brexit settlement by George Parker, Financial Times, 27 February 2020)

However, the huge advantages to Britain of a free trade agreement with the EU would appear to justify some concessions being made. Both Britain and the EU stand to lose out if no agreement can be reached, but Britain, it is thought, far more so than the EU.

If dealings with the EU have to be under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, 10 percent tariffs will automatically come into force on all exports of motor vehicles and aviation products to the EU.

In the case of the former, however, Britain’s motor manufacturers will then have the protection of 10 percent tariffs on vehicles coming in from abroad, so that equivalent foreign-made cars would be some £3,000 more expensive than those locally produced, which might overall mean an increase of sales for British manufacturers.

One assumes, however, that the same would not be true of the products of the aviation industry.

There will also be tariffs on food exports, quite apart from the mountain of paperwork: “The EU’s average most-favoured nation tariff rates are 11.1 percent for agricultural goods, 15.7 percent for animal products and 35.4 percent for dairy.” (Washington Post, op cit)

Since Britain’s exports to other EU member states account for 60-65 percent of its total agricultural exports, with a value of some £14bn (€16bn) slapping on the EU’s heavy WTO tariffs will clearly impact heavily on Britain’s farming industry.

However, Britain has been importing from the EU twice the value of agricultural produce than it has been exporting, so if Britain is left to deal with the EU on WTO terms, it will also apply its own WTO schedule terms to imports from the EU, which is also likely to impact heavily on EU farmers but put farmers from around the rest of the world on a ‘level playing field’ with the EU as far as exporting to the UK is concerned.

The resultant rise in food prices in Britain will considerably make up for the loss of EU exports to British farmers, as they will be able to sell their produce at home not only at a higher price but also in greater quantities. But, of course, it is the consumer who will pay the price.

The service sector

The greatest worry for Britain’s exports if no trade deal is reached with the EU is in relation to the service sector, especially financial services. “Britain’s services providers … collectively make up 79 percent of the UK economy and 45 percent of exports.” (Washington Post, ibid)

Moreover, “Financial services accounted for 6.9 percent of UK gross domestic product in 2018 and future access to the European market is crucial not just for the City of London but to EU consumers and businesses who rely on its deep pool of capital”. (Financial Times, op cit)

As a member of the EU, British service providers could trade throughout the EU as freely as in the UK – establishing headquarters wherever they wanted, moving staff around, etc, and they required no more special permits to trade than they would if their activities were restricted exclusively to the UK.

All this freedom will go at the end of this year. The EU is only prepared to negotiate allowing freedom to export financial services under the principle of ‘equivalence’, which it describes as “a key instrument to effectively manage cross-border activity of market players in a sound and secure prudential environment with third-country jurisdictions that adhere to, implement and enforce rigorously the same high standards of prudential rules as the EU commission”. (Staff working document, EU equivalence decisions in financial services policy: an assessment, 27 February 2017)

The problems with ‘equivalence’, although it seems fair enough on the face of it, are: (1) that separate assessments of ‘equivalence’ have to be made for each and every individual financial service; (2) the EU is the sole judge and jury on the question of whether ‘equivalence’ exists; (3) an ‘equivalence’ assessment can be withdrawn at any time on short notice; and (4) freedom of establishment and of movement of personnel are separate issues that can by no means be guaranteed.

This being the case, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that by leaving the EU, British imperialism has shot itself in the foot in relation to its financial services industry, considerably undermining “London’s fight to remain a global financial hub”. Frankfurt is only too willing to fill the void! (Washington Post, op cit)

It is clear that Britain wants rather more from any free trade agreement with the EU than it is usual for such agreements to cover, since they do not usually deal more than cursorily with trade in services. And since Britain really rather desperately needs its freedom to trade in services in the EU to continue untrammelled, it is not unreasonable for the EU to expect quite major concessions in return.

But of course major concessions are an anathema to the Brexiteer, who sees the whole process as returning sovereignty to the UK and would be horrified to find this ‘sovereignty’ compromised in any way.

Press reaction to a no-deal Brexit

Despite these undoubted difficulties, and despite the disruption being caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the British government has proudly announced that it does not wish to extend the period within which any free trade agreement with the EU must be concluded beyond the end of this year.

It is all ready for its ‘no-deal’ Brexit, a position much lauded by such sections of the press as the Telegraph and desperately decried by the Financial Times.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Telegraph, normally a most sober economic analyst, is in raptures over the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. After accusing the EU of stifling innovation through an ingrained policy of risk aversion, he goes on to say:

“The question Britain must grapple with as it seeks to shape its destiny for the next fifty years is whether it wishes to stay with to the Cartesian, top-down, deductive method of Europe, or return to the bottom-up, free-thinking empiricism of Bacon, Locke, Hume, Smith and Darwin, the marvel of Britain’s best three centuries, and which so binds us to America, the Anglosphere, and, for that matter, India.” (Our Brexit destiny in the 21st century is a watershed philosophical choice, far beyond immediate trade, 31 January 2020)

This is quite a contrast with Martin Wolf of the Financial Times:

“The idea seems to be that, in the midst of the pandemic, nobody would notice the additional disruption imposed by an overnight break in economic relations with the country’s most important partners and eternal neighbours. Here are seven reasons why this is a disgraceful idea.

“First, it is not what the leave campaign actually promised. The country was repeatedly told it would be easy to secure an excellent free trade agreement, because it held ‘all the cards’ …

“Second, the notion of some economists that Brexit would lead to unilateral free trade has also proved a fantasy. The UK has published a tariff schedule that is far from free trade … The political economy of trade and the need to preserve some tariffs for use as negotiating chips in future trade deals made this outcome almost inevitable.

“Third, the UK is breaking its word. In order to reach his exit deal last October, Mr Johnson agreed that northern Ireland would remain in the EU’s customs area and single market. But standard customs and regulatory checks must be imposed in the Irish Sea if the EU’s customs area and single market is not to be vulnerable to trans-shipment via the UK. Either Mr Johnson does not understand this, which would be stupid, or he does, which means he has wittingly lied.

“Fourth, the political declaration accompanying October’s exit agreement stated that: ‘Given the Union and the UK’s geographic proximity and economic interdependence, the future relationship must ensure open and fair competition, encompassing robust commitments to ensure a level playing field … In so doing, they should rely on appropriate and relevant Union and international standards, and include appropriate mechanisms to ensure effective implementation domestically, enforcement and dispute settlement (my emphases).’ Thus, EU demands were known and accepted by the UK.

“Fifth, the globalising world economy assumed by leave in the referendum campaign no longer exists. The world trading system is under mortal threat, given the breakdown in relations between the US and China and the neutering of the World Trade Organisation in both its judicial and legislative functions. A ‘global Britain’ will not emerge, but one seeking crumbs from the tables of more powerful trading powers, themselves engaged in vicious squabbling.

“Sixth, we are in the grips of a pandemic-induced depression of vast magnitude and unknown duration. It is a good bet that, at the end of 2020, the UK economy will still be very depressed, with damaged businesses and frighteningly high unemployment. That would hardly be a good time to add to the shocks already crippling the economy.

“Finally, the longer-run outcomes of the pandemic will probably include permanently lower output, as happened after the financial crisis of 2007-8. Over and above that will now come a huge trade shock from an ultra-hard Brexit. The consensus of professional opinion is that the lost trade opportunities would lead to substantial long-term reductions in levels of productivity and output. These losses will now add to the losses from the pandemic.” (A no-deal Brexit amid the pandemic would be disgraceful, 21 May 2020)

Martin Wolf would appear not to subscribe to the solution upon which both British trade secretary Liz Truss and his fellow journo Ambrose Evans-Pritchard are placing their faith: a comprehensive free trade agreement with the United States, which US president Donald Trump has suggested will be a “very big trade deal”, signalling great enthusiasm.

However, it would seem probable that financial services are off the table, as are motor cars – just for starters. Remember that for Trump it’s America First: his anxiety is to open up markets abroad for American farmers and multinationals, and the concept of giving anything away in exchange amounts to a total anathema for him – and, indeed, for US imperialism in general.

US imperialism is the top dog – it doesn’t have to make concessions. To the extent that it has, in respect of any commodity, limited internal production facilities in relation to demand, President Trump doesn’t mind letting foreigners fill the shortfall, but it’s only a question of preferring one foreign supplier over another, certainly not a question of putting US producers at a disadvantage.

Thus, the US has a free trade agreement with the EU. It will be happy to deal with the UK instead if it can get better terms, and is hopeful that competition for US trade between Britain and the EU will force both of them to offer more concessions than they would otherwise contemplate.

The Labour party’s Ed Balls, former economic secretary to the Treasury, is among those who are only too aware of where US priorities lie:

“Long-held American ambitions for a UK bilateral deal have not gone away, and include greater access to UK agricultural markets based on lower tariffs and US-style regulation, deregulation of NHS drug pricing and opening up public procurement to US companies. More recently, new issues have also caused friction between the US and UK on digital taxation, 5G procurement and privacy standards.” (The UK is on the horns of a dilemma in US trade talks, Financial Times, 12 May 2020)

Agriculture

What has limited US agribusiness access to European markets has been food safety and animal welfare considerations. GM crops, chlorinated chicken and antibiotic/hormone-saturated beef are all cheap to produce and therefore highly competitive as compared to traditionally produced equivalents. But do we want them?

“Academics point to research published last year [2018] which found washing food in bleach does not kill many of the pathogens that cause food poisoning. Instead, it sends them into a ‘viable but non-culturable state’, which means they are not picked up in standard tests, which take a sample of the food and try to culture any germs on it.

“The presence of the pathogens is thus masked by the bleach, but they are still dangerous to human health.

“Erik Millstone, professor of science policy at Sussex university and co-author of the briefing, told the Guardian lives would be at stake if food based on these lower standards were sold in the UK. ‘I am satisfied [by the evidence] that US food poisoning cases are significantly higher than in the UK. A minority of people suffer fatal complications,’ he said. ‘There will certainly be fatalities, and they typically affect vulnerable people, such as infants, small children and the elderly.’” (Science on safety of chlorinated chicken ‘misunderstood’ by Fiona Harvey, The Guardian,13 September 2019)

Anyone ‘risk adverse’ to eating this meat would share with the Brussels ‘bureaucrats’ the “‘precautionary principle’ and the utopian goal of zero-risk” much berated by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in his article referred to above, which puts the goal of a trade deal with the US infinitely higher than any trade deal with the European Union.

As for GM crops, Ambrose claims that EU opposition to them “lies behind the pseudo-science of Europe’s ban on GMO crops, a lurch into Stalinist Lysenko obscurantism. The consequence of refusing to tweak genes for better yields is that EU farming relies more on chemicals, just as Europe’s horror of gas fracking and nuclear power cause it to burn more coal.”

However, we are not talking about GM crops in the abstract – we are talking about what is available today; and what is available today has overwhelmingly been developed by US multinationals as a means of increasing their profits, with scant regard for the interests of humanity as a whole.

“Most GM crops fall into one of two categories. They are either engineered to resist chemical herbicides, or they are engineered to produce insecticides in the plants themselves. Herbicide resistant crops increase the use of herbicides [the ‘chemicals’ Ambrose thinks are reduced by GM crops], increasing costs for farmers as well as creating environmental and health problems, affecting poorer communities who live near large GM farms in developing countries, as well as causing pollution.

“Insecticide crops are constantly producing toxins when they’re not even necessary, and can indiscriminately kill other insects beneficial for the environment.” (What’s wrong with GM crops?, Stop the Crop)

In other words, even though the crops themselves are not necessarily unhealthy to eat, the environmental damage they is enormous. Furthermore, the plants do not generate seeds for future crops: causethese have to be purchased from the multinationals in question.

The fact that the multinationals producing the engineered crops operate in a similar way to the tobacco industry when confronted with scientists trying to investigate the dangers of smoking hardly increases confidence in the product.

“Critics often disparage US research on the safety of genetically modified foods, which is often funded or even conducted by GM companies, such as Monsanto …

“Schubert [1] joins Williams [2] as one of a handful of biologists from respected institutions who are willing to sharply challenge the GM-foods-are-safe majority. Both charge that more scientists would speak up against genetic modification if doing so did not invariably lead to being excoriated in journals and the media. These attacks, they argue, are motivated by the fear that airing doubts could lead to less funding for the field. Says Williams: ‘Whether it’s conscious or not, it’s in their interest to promote this field, and they’re not objective.’

“Both scientists say that after publishing comments in respected journals questioning the safety of GM foods, they became the victims of coordinated attacks on their reputations. Schubert even charges that researchers who turn up results that might raise safety questions avoid publishing their findings out of fear of repercussions. ‘If it doesn’t come out the right way,’ he says, ‘you’re going to get trashed.’” (The truth about genetically modified food by David H Freedman, Scientific American, 1 September 203)

In the circumstances, it is not only European governments but also most of the European population who would prefer to play it safe – particularly since the lion’s share of any profits generated by the use of GM crops will land in the greedy grasp of US multinationals.

Finally, as a nation of animal lovers, British people would prefer not to be party to animal husbandry practices of intensive farming so inhumane that they demand extensive use of antibiotics and hormones, as is the practice in the US.

Any use of antibiotics in animals raised for eating is going to result in those antibiotics being passed on to those who consume them and to accelerating the process of generating antibiotic resistant bacteria. And the hormones routinely used to beef up American beef have been linked to an increased risk of breast or prostate cancer:

“The European Union boycotts the US’s hormone-grown beef. The routinely used synthetic hormones zeranol, trenbolone acetate and melengestrol acetate pose ‘increased risks of breast cancer and prostate cancer,’ says the European Commission’s scientific committee on veterinary measures.” (Here’s why most of the meat Americans eat is banned in other industrialised countries by Organic Consumers Association, EcoWatch, 9 July 2017)

The NHS and government procurement

The British government has offered assurances that the NHS and the price of drugs will not be on the table in any US-UK negotiations for a free trade agreement.

It remains to be seen whether the US would accept that. Certainly in deals it has struck with other countries such as south KoreaMexico and Canada, it has seen to it that such limits as the NHS currently sets to the price it is prepared to pay for drugs from abroad and as to whether it is prepared to use drugs that in the opinion of Nice (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) do not offer value for money are swept aside, as well as the length of time a patent can be held before expiring.

One can only hope that the British government, in the event that it does conclude a trade deal with the US, will keep its word, as the cost to the NHS of succumbing to what US imperialism would really like is enormous. The single measure of allowing US pharma to prolong its patent rights over drugs would by itself cost billions of pounds.

“Unless you suffer from a debilitating illnesses such as Crohn’s disease or rheumatoid arthritis, you are unlikely to have heard of Humira.” Its generic name is adalimumab, and it is a human monoclonal antibody (or ‘biologic’) that binds and inactivates the inflammatory protein TNF-a.

“That drug, made by the US pharmaceutical company AbbVie, has transformed the lives of thousands of sufferers. It’s also the drug that costs the NHS more than any other – £450m a year …

“Last year, British doctors were allowed to prescribe drugs that do exactly the same job as Humira but at a fraction of the cost. They are known as biosimilars and are the equivalent of generic drugs in relation to chemical drugs. This will save the NHS more than £150m a year, equivalent to the cost of employing thousands of doctors and nurses.

In the US, the system of intellectual property and patent law means these cheaper drugs can’t be offered to patients until 2023.” (My investigation into a US trade deal shows it really could cost the NHS millions by Antony Barnett, The Guardian, 27 November 2019, our emphasis)

British ‘sovereignty’

An important consideration for very many of those who advocated leaving the European Union and now take a cavalier attitude towards the need to secure a trade deal with that body is the importance of regaining ‘sovereignty’, so that Britain ceases to be a ‘rule taker’.

It is hard to understand why people who are so anxious to preserve British ‘sovereignty’ would seriously contemplate even trying to negotiate a trade deal with the US. That country has signed huge numbers of bilateral trade deals – it prefers bilateral agreements precisely because it is bigger and stronger than the individual countries with which it deals and is therefore in a strong position to impose its terms, however onerous.

US trade deals are pretty much on ‘standard terms’ that put the interests of US multinationals far above the interests of the countries with which they deal. In this context, Britain is a very small fish. US GDP was $21.73tn – between seven and eight times that of the UK in the last quarter of 2019, at $2.824tn. US negotiating strength vis-a-vis the UK is therefore of similar proportions. (US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), Gross Domestic Product)

Among the ‘rule-taking’ that the US will expect to impose on Britain will be a prohibition on dealing with Chinese tech leader Huawei, joining in all the various sanctions regimes that the US unilaterally imposes on governments it does not like, and certainly withdrawing its plans for a digital tax that enables the UK to tax American companies (like Facebook and Google) that make fabulous profits in Britain but pay virtually no tax.

It may even try to impose the nefarious ‘investor state dispute settlement’ (ISDS), “a mechanism in trade deals that enables corporations to challenge, in a secret and parallel judicial system, policies that affect or might affect their profits – even when these policies are specifically designed to protect the public interest …

“In practice, this means corporations can sue governments for doing almost anything they don’t like. Governments have been forced to pay out millions of pounds of taxpayers money to corporations. In talks, although not specifically naming ISDS, the US and UK were revealed to be positively disposed towards strong investor protection.

“All the more concerning is that, right now, experts are anticipating that governments across the world could face a wave of new ISDS cases for the measures that they take to protect life and livelihoods from the threat of coronavirus.” (What’s at stake in a US trade deal?, War on Want, May 2020, our emphasis)

Just what we need! It should be noted that the US has not included ISDS in its trade deal with Canada and has inserted it in a more moderate form in its deal with Mexico. However, in view of the British government’s disposal ‘towards strong investor protection’, it may well be that this will win out over any desire not to be a ‘rule-taker’.

And what does Britain stand to gain from a deal with the US? “The government has projected that the long-run boost to GDP from a UK-US deal is just 0.16 percent, or £3.4bn in today’s money, over the next 15 years.” (Ed Balls et al, op cit)

When one further takes into consideration US imperialism’s propensity unilaterally to withdraw from treaties, agreements and commitments whenever it wants …

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

Whether or not Britain is able to reach a trade deal with the European Union, it is undoubtedly the case that its international profiteering interests will have been dealt a severe blow from its withdrawal from the bloodthirsty imperialist EU bloc – a weakening of our class enemy that that is surely to be welcomed.

However, to sign up as an appendage of US imperialism could well prove even worse. China, the world’s second-largest economy, is able, ready and willing to enter into a trade agreement with Britain that would impose no onerous conditions and would genuinely provide a boost to British trade, but, toady of the US that he is, Boris Johnson would not even begin to contemplate negotiating such a deal.

It is clear that there is no advance to be made by workers while the monopoly capitalist ruling class remains in the driving seat. For us, it is socialism or barbarism!

______________________________

NOTES

1. David Schubert, an Alzheimer’s researcher who heads the cellular neurobiology laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California.

2. David H Williams, a cellular biologist from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Posted in USA, UK0 Comments

Covid-19 furlough scheme: a bonanza for big business

While thousands of workers find themselves without a job, bosses are cashing in on the ‘free money’ of the furlough scheme.

Proletarian writers

While many of the poorest and most insecure workers are not entitled to any protection at all, not having PAYE contracts in the first place, big corporations are taking the opportunity to sub huge pay packets for directors from the public purse.

A new word has entered the popular vocabulary. Instead of being laid off when Covid-19 called time on production, workers are now told they have been furloughed.

What is the difference between being laid off and being furloughed? Well, the theory is that this way, when the economy emerges on the other side of the health emergency, you can have your old job back – on the somewhat risky assumption that your employer will still be around to employ you as the economic crisis continues to darken post-Covid.

The other difference between being furloughed and being laid off in the old-fashioned way is that the government is, under certain conditions, undertaking to foot 80 percent of your employer’s wage bill.

It has been clear from the start that this scheme, blazoned forth as a generous helping hand for the country’s beleaguered workforce, is intended first and foremost to subsidise big business.

From the worker’s viewpoint, he is getting a 20 percent pay cut and kept dangling in the fragile hope that his company may be one of the survivors in the storm to come.

From the commanding heights of monopoly capitalism, conversely, the view is more enticing, with the prospect of a veritable bonanza funded from the public purse. The Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) estimates the cost of the furlough scheme to be £42bn.

A recent survey by the High Pay Centre think-tank has made clear who is really hoping to reap the benefit of all this taxpayer largesse. The Times sums up the survey’s most galling conclusions, to wit:

“Bosses of leading publicly quoted companies who have paid themselves as much as £46m over the past five years are using the taxpayer-funded furlough scheme.

“Eighteen FTSE 100 companies that are intending to take advantage of the scheme on average paid their chief executives £3.6m a year over the past five years and paid £293m each in dividends to shareholders, according to the High Pay Centre.

“The think-tank’s report shows that in the past five years these companies have spent a combined £321m on chief executive pay and £26bn in dividends.” Among the biggest rogues in this gallery are such companies as Melrose (steering the engineering giant GKN), Compass and Taylor Wimpey.

The Times continues: “There were at least 18 FTSE 100 companies and 23 percent of FTSE 250 companies intending to access the coronavirus job retention scheme.” (Companies using furlough scheme paid bosses £321m by Alex Ralph, 27 April 2020)

The average annual pay for a chief executive at one company, revealed the High Pay Centre, was enough to cover more than 200 households’ annual universal credit claims.

Whilst at one pole, wealth concentrates in ever fewer hands, at the other gathers the stark misery of ever more working-class families.

Posted in Health, Politics, UK0 Comments

The corona pandemic and the capitalist world economic crash of 2020

Our rulers are keen to convince us that the deepest depression in the history of capitalism is a random and unpredictable ‘black swan’ event.

Ranjeet Brar

The onset of lockdown in Italy turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. A crisis that has been brewing for several years, and which has at its root the saturation of global markets that has been worsening since the late 1970s, has finally broken out in full force – and it looks set to be the worst that global capitalism has ever experienced.

As this article was being written, in the last week of April 2020, there was already enough information – and disinformation – about the coronavirus pandemic (novel coronavirus disease 2019, SARS-Cov-2 or Covid-19) to fill an encyclopaedia. It is an all-encompassing topic around which have coalesced not only problems of medical science and systems of medical care, but questions of world economics and politics.

Events surrounding the pandemic have brought the normal functioning of our society to an abrupt, if temporary, halt. Crucially, they have also held up a mirror to our society, in which can be discerned the true and ugly features of our brave new world order, just as they are, freed from the orthodox mainstream media gloss and Downing Street spin. And we’re not just talking about an increasingly discombobulated President Trump advising US citizens to drink bleach.

That mirror is revealing a stark and dystopian vision of our planet under the sway of monopoly capitalism, one which has been visible to social campaigners for some time, and has been keenly felt by workers not only in the oppressed world but increasingly even in the heartlands of the richest nations on earth.

Within the daily press briefings, escalating case numbers and mounting death toll can be seen the gross and burgeoning inequalities that underpin our society. Opposing class and national interests in our world are being starkly laid bare, and are colliding furiously before our eyes.

The public health response of Britain and the United States, in view of the wealth of those nations, has been particularly poor, in keeping with both countries’ 40-year trajectory of impoverishing workers and decreasing the social wage – an attack on the working class set in train by the end of the postwar boom and facilitated by the decline of the organised socialist movement and of the socialist states. Britain and the USA are on course to have the highest levels of fatalities from Covid-19.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the European people’s democracies, we have seen an acceleration in the systematic running down of Britain’s social housing and medical provision. The uneven distribution of national and global wealth has never been more glaring.

The plight of workers under threat of the coronavirus pandemic has been compounded by the triggering of a long-anticipated economic crisis, which within the space of one week wiped out a third of the value of global stock markets. The all-or-nothing (first nothing, then all-out lockdown) response of our government and health administrations to the coronavirus has shown their incompetence and incapacity, revealing also the seamy underlying philosophy which conditioned that response.

Both British and US governments moved at a snail’s pace to protect the public. Despite months of warnings their paralysis was total.

But when the stock markets collapsed and the economy went into freefall, they moved swiftly in an attempt to bail out the richest on earth – at the expense, of course, of the working-class.

The very economic system of capitalism is systemically stricken and is on trial before the public opinion of the workers of the world.

Stock market crash: Black Monday, Black Thursday and the Great Depression of 2020

On the week of 24-28 February 2020, stock markets worldwide reported their largest one-week declines since the 2008 financial crisis, signalling the beginning of a profound collapse of the global capitalist economy. Despite marked volatility, the downward trend continued.

On Monday 9 March, global markets went into freefall. “Almost £125bn was wiped off the value of the FTSE 100 in the fifth-worst day in history for the index of leading UK company shares, as it plummeted by 7.7 percent to finish the day below 6,000 points, its lowest level since straight after the Brexit vote in 2016.

“On that day, Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, extended the red zone restrictions in the north to the whole country, banning all public gatherings and preventing movement other than for work and emergencies.” Britain had recorded just five deaths attributed to coronavirus at that time, and had made no attempt to curb its spread.

“Trading on Wall Street was frozen within minutes of the market opening as the system to buy and sell shares failed to keep pace with events. The Dow Jones closed down by more than 2,000 points for the first time ever, a decline of 7.8 percent.” (Global stock markets post biggest falls since 2008 financial crisis by Richard Partington and Graeme Wearden, The Guardian, 9 March 2020)

This haemorrhaging of share values became known as ‘Black Monday’, and was the worst drop since the last great recession in 2008. But it did not keep its record for long.

“The rout wiped about £150bn off the worth of Britain’s largest companies. About 15 of the top 100 companies lost more than 10 percent of their value within the opening 30 minutes of trading, and at one point one of the few companies with a rising share price was funeral arranger Dignity.”

“The slump was led by huge falls in the share prices of leading oil companies … At one point BP was down almost 20 percent, while Royal Dutch Shell shares fell even more steeply with a fall of about 22 percent.

“It followed the biggest one-day collapse in the oil prices since the first Gulf war in 1991 after the Saudis said they would ramp up production and cut prices.” (Black Monday: Fourth biggest City fall as coronavirus panic hits markets by Jonathan Prynn, Simon English and Joe Murphy, Evening Standard, 9 March 2020)

The proximate cause of the crash has been attributed to the evolving coronavirus pandemic on the one hand, and the oil price dispute between Russia and Saudi Arabia on the other. The manipulation of the global oil price – flooding the market to keep prices artificially low – has been part of the US’s strategy for weakening key states it considers opponents while maintaining global economic advantage via the shale boom for over a decade. (How the US and Opec drive oil prices, New York Times, 30 September 2015)

In this instance, the Saudi ruling elite’s desperation at falling oil revenues has been amplified by the rising discontent of many of Saudi Arabia’s people, by the ongoing criminal war the country is waging on behalf of imperialism against the people of Yemen, and by the tail end of its illegal campaign in Syria.

Falling demand for oil with the global spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and the likely ensuing lockdown indicated that oversupply would become a strong global factor. Indeed, by early April, three billion of the world’s people were under some form of lockdown restrictions, and US oil was trading at negative prices – that is: if you have the means to transport and store it, they’ll pay you to take it off their hands!

Just three days after Black Monday, markets resumed their precipitous descent in what was rapidly christened ‘Black Thursday’. Stocks across Europe and North America again fell – this time more than 9 percent. Wall Street experienced its largest single-day percentage drop since Black Monday in 1987, and the Borsa Italiana fell nearly 17 percent, becoming the worst-hit market of the day.

The US’s Federal Reserve announced it would inject $1.5tn into Wall Street to curb the “highly unusual disruptions”. The flower pines for water, but the heartless brook babbles on; US capital yearns for calm, but the storm thunders on.

After a brief rally on the Friday, all three Wall Street indexes again fell more than 12 percent when markets re-opened on Monday 16 March. At least one benchmark stock market index in all G7 countries and 14 of the G20 countries has been declared to be in bear markets – a price decline of 20 percent or more over a two-month period.

As of March 2020, global stocks have seen a downturn of 25 percent or more, and 30 percent in most G20 nations. On 20 March, Goldman Sachs warned that the US’s GDP would shrink 29 percent by the end of the second quarter of 2020, and that unemployment could skyrocket to at least 9 percent.

Meanwhile, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has told his countrymen they face an economic crisis “the likes of which we have not seen since the Great Depression”.

Bailing out the wealthy – at the expense of the poor

On 17 March – three days before schools closed for the ‘lockdown’ in Britain – chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a package of some £330bn to bail out businesses hit by the world economic crisis.

The Conservative government, announcing a raft of spending measures, apparently in order to address the corona pandemic, that made Corbyn’s allegedly uneconomic election pledges look like child’s play, said it would cover 80 percent of companies’ PAYE wage bill (up to £2,500 per employee) by means of a government ‘furlough’ scheme to ‘protect jobs’.

Funds are to be allocated according to business value – thus, the larger the company, the more funds they will be eligible to receive. Banks, we are told, will offer household and landlord mortgagees a three-month holiday (but please read the small print of your mortgage agreement), landlords are to be covered also, via an increase in housing benefit.

This is all to be financed by Treasury (state) borrowing at the taxpayers’ expense, and so will inevitably impel another tightening of austerity measures in the near future, once the pandemic has passed.

Tax avoidance by the billionaire elite

Meanwhile, the perennial billionaire tax-dodgers immediately found a new cause on which to pin their avoidance.

Technology firms including Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon were quick to use the coronavirus crisis as a reason for pleading that they should not have to pay a newly-imposed UK digital services tax – even though most of them are booming as ever more of the world’s interactions and businesses move online.

Trade body TechUK, which represents hundreds of technology companies in Britain including the four giants, said the government should “look again” at the new levy, asking for “a bit more breathing space” and a delay in liabilities for another year – at an expected cost to the Treasury of £440m.

“Google’s UK staff earned an average of £234,000 each last year as the tech firm paid more than £1bn in wages and a share scheme – but only £44m in UK corporation tax.

“Google UK reported £1.6bn in revenues in 2019, up from £1.2bn, but this does not reflect how much it makes in total advertising revenues in the UK as these are reported in other jurisdictions.

“The research company eMarketer estimates that in reality Google made about £5.7bn in ad revenue in the UK last year, accounting for 39 percent of the total digital ad market, and will make more than £6bn in 2020. (Google’s UK staff earned average of £234,000 in 2019 by Mark Sweney, The Guardian, 7 April 2020)

This means that Google in reality has a UK tax rate of less than 0.8 percent.

Branson and the airlines

Richard Branson has publicly requested $7.5bn from the British government to bail out his Virgin Group – in particular, the Virgin Atlantic airline. A public backlash has so far delayed any transfer of funds, but it remains on the cards. Flybe, his European airline operation, has gone into bankruptcy, and has now been joined by Virgin Australia.

Branson, let us remember, is one of the richest men on earth. He “bought Necker Island, where he lives, in 1978 for $180,000 … This property and others, as well as his businesses, contribute to a personal net worth that Forbes has estimated at $4.3bn.” (Billionaire Richard Branson pleads for UK bailout of Virgin Atlantic by Caitlin O’Kane, CBS News, 31 April 2020)

This is the same Richard Branson who is among the largest NHS privateers, having taken over east Kent hospitals and being the manager of GP practices with more than three million ‘NHS’ patients on their books. Branson recently sued the NHS for failing to grant him a lucrative £82m contract to supply paediatric services to the ‘NHS’ patients of Surrey.

In 2018, it was revealed that “Virgin has been awarded almost £2bn worth of NHS contracts over the past five years as Richard Branson’s company has quietly become one of the UK’s leading healthcare providers … The company and its subsidiaries now hold at least 400 contracts across the public sector – ranging from healthcare in prisons to school immunisation programmes and dementia care for the elderly.

“Virgin UK Holdings, the UK business which holds its rail and healthcare ventures, reported revenues of £1.5bn in 2016 and paid £22m in tax.” (Virgin awarded almost £2bn of NHS contracts in the past five years by Hilary Osborne, The Guardian, 5 August 2018)

Meanwhile, the US Senate on 25 March passed a $58bn (£46.6bn) aid package for its airline industry, which included cash for paying pilot, crew and staff salaries.

Macroeconomic measures impoverish workers

In response to the financial crash, the Bank of England has taken similar measures to those it took in 2008, ‘creating’ £100bn to be passed to banks (so-called ‘quantitative easing’) and reducing the base interest rate to almost zero. This will have an inflationary effect (ie, prices will go up because the currency is worth less) – and, indeed, the value of the pound has already fallen steeply.

Thus British workers’ wages, assets and savings will be decreased in value and living standards will inevitably decline still further.

In stark contrast to the largess offered to the super-rich, on 20 March, Britain’s schools were closed and the poorest and least secure workers were invited to sign up for universal credit, receiving the princely sum of £90 per week – but having to wait an average of six weeks for their applications to be processed.

During lockdown, as in the school holidays it is estimated that three million British children are at risk of being hungry, made up of more than a million children who qualify for free school meals and about two million who are disqualified from free school meals because their parents work but remain in poverty. (Charities preparing to feed children if schools shut over coronavirus by Robert Booth and Richard Adams, The Guardian, 9 March 2020)

According to the Child Poverty Action Group, an incredible one third of British children live in poverty that puts them on the edge of starvation.

Unemployment rockets

Over a million newly unemployed workers, dumped at the first whiff of economic uncertainty by their employers, signed on in the first week of the lockdown. Unemployment in Britain has soared in the last six weeks, with at least 1.5 million newly unemployed adding to the official figures.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said almost 950,000 new claims for universal credit were made between 16 and 31 March alone. But this leaves open the question of where the true unemployment figure really stands.

“Despite the government’s attempts to incentivise employers to keep staff on, investment bank Nomura predicts the effect of the pandemic will hit ‘multiple times that of the [2008] global financial crisis’.

“Nomura expects an unemployment rate of eight percent in the April to June quarter, rising 0.5 percent in the following three months. According to the Sunday Times, the eight percent would be the equivalent of an additional 1.4 million people in unemployment and a total number of 2.75m.

“The [official] UK unemployment rate has generally fallen since late 2013, and in the three months to January 2020 was estimated at 3.9 percent. An estimated 1.34m were in unemployment, 5,000 more than a year earlier but 515,000 fewer than five years earlier, according to ONS data.” (Unemployment to double as coronavirus cripples the economy by Angharad Carrick, City AM, 29 March 2020)

We note that the economically inactive population – those of working age who do not have employment –was actually 8.5 million in 2019 – 25 percent of the workforce, so the real figures are far in excess of official estimates.

In October 2019, before the coronavirus had been heard of in Britain, OECD researchers were pointing out that official government unemployment figures were heavily politicised and wildly inaccurate.

“The true unemployment rate should rise from 4.6 percent to 13.2 percent of the working-age population not in education. The OECD made the estimate by creating an adjusted economic activity rate, which removes students, retirees and people caring for family.” (Unemployment figures should be 3 million higher, says research by Richard Partington, The Guardian, 17 October 2019)

Millions of impoverished workers, laid off and living hand to mouth, are in desperate financial need, so that “Demand for advance payments [on benefits] is also up, with people applying for loans to cover their finances as they wait up to five weeks for their first payment.

“Around a quarter – 70,000 out of around 270,000 universal credit applications in one week – applied for an advance payment.

“The Salvation Army has warned that the loan system could cause a ‘coronavirus debt crisis’ for thousands of people, calling it a ‘point of critical failure that the government must address’.” (Universal Credit: Nearly one million people apply to claim DWP benefit in two weeks during UK coronavirus outbreak by Serina Sandhu, i, 2 April 2020)

The 21st century’s great depression

In an article titled Forget ‘recession’: this is a depression, economics professors David Blanchflower and David Bell pointed out that unemployment is rising at the fastest rate in living memory.

“UK unemployment could rapidly rise to more than 6 million people, around 21 percent of the entire workforce, based on analysis of US job market figures that suggest unemployment across the Atlantic could reach 52.8 million, around 32 percent of the workforce.” (The Guardian, 3 April 2020)

We note again that the ‘economically inactive population’, those of working age who do not have a job, was already 8.5 million (25 percent of the population) in 2019 – before the latest economic collapse, when the quoted rate was just 3.9 percent. A rise of 18 percent could see real figures of joblessness, or ‘economic inactivity’ rising to the mid-40s percent range.

“While joblessness would rapidly rise, they cautioned it was uncertain how long the impact would last and how quickly unemployment would come down. During the Great Depression [of the 1930s], records show unemployment hit 24.9 percent in the US and 15.4 percent in the UK over several years.” (Unemployment in US and UK ‘may be worse than in Great Depression’ by Richard Partington, The Guardian, 3 April 2020)

In other words, we have already surpassed the levels of economic dislocation and poverty seen in the 1930s Great Depression, which triggered the imperialist political trajectory into World War 2. And we are still riding on the rollercoaster of economic descent.

US economic turmoil – rapid decline of the ‘growth engine of global capitalism’

The USA has long been considered the growth engine of global capitalism – the most powerful nation militarily and economically with the largest domestic market. Much of China’s recent private-sector growth has been fuelled by exporting consumer goods to the US market, and China holds over a trillion dollars in bonds (more than five percent of the total) of US government debt.

So the crashing of the US economy has global significance. Unemployment in the USA grew 10 million in the last two weeks of March alone, and has already increased by 20 million overall since Black Monday. US economists widely predict more than a 30 percent downturn in the US economy in the second quarter of 2020 – its worst ever performance.

The US government’s 2.2tn bailout package did little to stem the panic sell-off of stocks, and moves are afoot in Washington to increase this record bailout of Wall Street “amid growing signs that the economy is deteriorating much faster than expected and that the initial $2tn law is proving insufficient”. (Worried that $2 trillion law wasn’t enough, Trump and congressional leaders converge on need for new coronavirus economic package by Erica Werner and Mike DeBonis, Washington Post, 6 April 2020)

Goldman Sachs projected that the jump in new spending combined with a sharp drop in tax revenue would push the federal budget deficit to $3.7tn in 2020, up from previous estimates of $1tn, which many experts had warned was already too high.

President Trump has characteristically predicted that the economy will bounce back and be stronger than ever, but increasingly, to use perhaps rather too grand a simile, he looks like King Canute, ordering back the tide as the lifeblood ebbs from the capitalist economy.

That lifeblood, at root, is the ability of workers to buy the goods that the monopoly capitalist manufactories produce. Yet the very workings of the system that have generated such fabulous profits for the corporate elite have done so by downsizing their workforce and impoverishing the worlds masses to an unprecedented degree.

It is this collapse in ‘effective demand’ that has pushed the global economy to the edge – the same ultimate cause of the 2000 ‘dotcom bubble’ and the 2008 ‘housing bubble’. These are classic symptoms of a systemic crisis of capitalist overproduction.

The worldwide bailout of failed banks (Northern Rock, RBS, Lehman Bros et al) in 2008, led by Gordon Brown and Barack Obama, has simply ballooned credit and transferred even greater indebtedness from the financial monopolists, the banks and stock markets (considered ‘too big to fail’) onto governments and private citizens. Thus the very means of ‘weathering’ the last crash have led inexorably to the next, which is far more profound, and diminished the means of exiting it by any market mechanism.

The very imperialist powers that have shaped this ‘new world order’ in their own image and to their own advantage during an era of unbridled ‘globalism’ – that is, laissez-faire free-market fundamentalism, or the unchallenged dominance of the monopolist corporations – stand helpless in the face of the poverty of the global population upon which the fabulous wealth of their ruling corporate elites was built.

Poverty and want are universal. The real needs of the world’s population are crying and acute. Yet the relations of production – the need for the capitalists to make profit from every transaction – stand like a ghost between the glut of unsalable goods and the empty stomachs and unclothed backs of billions of impoverished workers.

And, every day, the living standards of the workers in the imperialist world, Britain included, are being forced down toward the level of workers in the most oppressed nations. In this sense, and this sense only, capitalism may be considered a great leveller.

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Covid-19: What is the coronavirus and is it a real threat?

Dr Ranjeet Brar takes a look at the medical aspects of the present pandemic, comparing Covid-19 to other viruses such as influenza and Sars.

Ranjeet Brar

Total confirmed Covid-19 deaths per million people, as of 12 May 2020.

Given the general, rising (and totally justified) levels of distrust in the British and US media and governments, it is not surprising to see a strong current of discussion on alternative media questioning all aspects of the official narrative regarding the coronavirus pandemic.

In this article, we address the most fundamental of these: whether Covid-19 is indeed a real pandemic that threatens human life on a vast scale, or is really just another flu whose threat has been magnified by imperialist states in order to disguise the causes of the economic crisis, justify a bailout of big business, and provide cover for passing yet another raft of repressive anti-worker legislation.

What is coronavirus?

A virus is an infective agent that hijacks the metabolism of the host cell to reproduce itself, and in so doing produces its symptoms. It consists of a protein coat, containing a few proteins and the genetic material to code for its reproduction (DNA or RNA). Those new viral particles are then released from the cell and expelled into the environment (to infect others) or go on to infect adjacent cells of like kind within the same organic tissue of that host (worsening the condition of the same).

Coughs, colds and the common flu are all airborne viruses. The coronavirus affects the upper airway and the lungs, producing fever, cough, aching joints and headache. For young and fit people, it may cause no symptoms whatsoever, but one may nevertheless infect others before getting symptoms, so its spread is difficult to control.

It is more dangerous than the flu, but its effects vary. The elderly, especially those over the age of 80, are most severely affected. Those with other illnesses (diabetes, heart and lung problems, immune problems and chronic medical conditions) are most affected. Men are more severely affected than women.

The sparing of the young and the relative sparing of women is most likely due to their relative under-expression of the ACE-2 receptor, which in the case of Covid-19 is the surface receptor protein by means of which the virus gains access to the lung’s cells. Around 5 percent of the infected population seem to develop a severe viral pneumonia, requiring oxygen, and a proportion of these will need ventilation in hospital to survive.

The virus seems to have originated in Wuhan, China – or at least, it was first identified as a new disease there.

The Chinese people and government have done an amazing job of combating the infection. They recognised the new virus, decoded its genetic structure and shared it with the world, and developed anti-viral medical treatment that is effective.

They threw up hospitals for those requiring oxygen therapy and for those requiring ventilation. Frontline medical staff heroically battled the virus. Extraordinary public health measures were taken to contain the virus, including testing 1.6 million people a day, rigorous contact tracing and isolation of infected and potentially infected citizens, providing sufficient ventilatory support and ITU beds, and closing down inter-state transport and social functions.

First appreciation of a novel virus

“In December 2019, a local outbreak of pneumonia of initially unknown cause was detected in Wuhan (Hubei, China), and was quickly determined to be caused by a novel coronavirus, namely severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The outbreak has since spread to every province of mainland China…”, and subsequently has been identified throughout the nations of the world. (The Lancet, 19 February 2020)

Charting the spread of Covid-19

The World Health Organisation (WHO), after declaring Covid-19 a global health emergency on 30 January 2020, went on to declare it a world pandemic, with Europe as the global epicentre on 12 March.

The Chinese government, collaborating with international institutions, including the WHO and Johns Hopkins university in the USA, initiated a coordinated global effort to share information about the epidemiology of the evolving outbreak. These widely available and daily updated figures chart the relentless spread of the virus across the globe.

In a matter of a few short weeks, the novel coronavirus transformed from a worrying but apparently distant ‘Chinese’ phenomenon into a major pandemic affecting the whole world.

Graphical depictions of the number of people being diagnosed with Covid worldwide, having tested positive, alongside numbers of people who have died from the disease, show that we are still in the exponential growth phase of the pandemic, with ongoing propagation of the virus throughout the world’s population. (Coronavirus hub on Worldometers.info)

Thus, at the present moment, all the public health measures taken – on a world scale – have failed to check its spread. Even the limited data available makes it clear that there are, however, individual national success stories – most notably in China itself, where the total numbers of cases have remained static at around 82,000 (0.005 percent of the Chinese population) owing to the extraordinary and timely public health measures put in place to contain it.

Notable for having mitigated the impact of infection to varying degrees, with respect to comparable neighbours, are VietnamKorea, Singapore and Germany. Vietnam, in fact, has been among the first countries to begin to lift its lockdown restrictions (on 23 April) having reported zero deaths and less than 300 cases of coronavirus since the first one was identified in January. (Vietnam starts to lift lockdown measures after no deaths reported by Kate Ng, Independent, 23 April 2020)

Scale of the problem

At the time of publishing almost 3.5 million cases had been diagnosed by testing worldwide. Of these identified sufferers, 248,000 have died and 927,000 recovered, with the majority of the test-diagnosed patients still having active disease, although the majority of these are reported to be mild (97 percent) and a minority critical (3 percent).

Almost a third of all proven cases are in the United States of America, which has now declared 900,000 cases and 50,000 deaths from Covid-19, with the epicentre of the US outbreak being New York, which together with its environs accounts for half of the initial US death toll.

Sordid details of an increase in unmarked burials of New Yorkers on the mass burial grounds of Hart Island have starkly illustrated the point.

Low levels of testing outside China – where an impressive 1.6m tests were performed every week – with the exception of the relatively small nations of Korea and Singapore, and the larger central European state of Germany (which has managed to test 160,000 of its citizens a week) , means that we do not have accurate data for the true spread of the disease, which is likely to be at least ten times more widespread than test-diagnosed cases indicate.

The fact that testing is expensive and relies upon the existing health, industrial and scientific infrastructure will also mean that we will perhaps never know the extent of the infection throughout much of the oppressed world. Again, this fact highlights the egregiously uneven development of global monopoly capitalism in 2020, in what can only be described as its decaying imperialist stage.

Impact in the ‘third world’

The obscene levels of poverty throughout the exploited world are well illustrated by the fact that “for many children in the global south – 85 million in Latin America and the Caribbean alone – school closures mean no more school meals. Which in turn (in some African households in particular) means an end to the only hot meal anyone among family members would get in a day.

“Already before the coronavirus crisis, more than 820 million people went to bed hungry. This is an enormous number to grapple with, not just morally but from a policy perspective. The world has, after all, committed to ending all forms of hunger and malnutrition by 2030.” (Coronavirus could worsen hunger in the developing world, by Dongyu Qu, World Economic Forum, 10 April 2020)

It is clear that the global monopoly capitalist order has no such intention, however, and in the conditions of world economic depression would not be able to do so even if it did want to.

“After the economic crisis came the virus itself. Africa, which had practically no cases a month ago, now has more than 7,000, with clusters of infections in almost every one of its 54 countries. Cases in Brazil alone quadrupled in the past week to more than 8,000.

“While that is still behind Europe and the US, the numbers are rising rapidly and public health experts worry the pandemic could tear through tightly packed slums and informal settlements in some cities.

“Nor do poorer countries have robust health systems. Africa is the worst off. Governments on the continent spend an average per capita of $12 a year on health compared with $4,000 in the UK, according to the OECD. ‘Everybody is talking about ventilators,’ says Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian finance minister. ‘I hear some countries have less than 100.’

“Some experts hope that generally younger populations will limit the number of fatalities. Africa has a median age of 19.4 against 40 in Europe. Of the continent’s 1.2 billion people, only about 50 million are over 60. In India, the median age is 27. In Latin America, 31.

“There is also speculation that the virus might spread more slowly in hot and humid climates, though evidence for this is patchy. Set against that are the number of people who are malnourished or whose immune systems are compromised by HIV and other conditions, especially in Africa.

“That could mean the death rate is actually higher. Bill Gates has warned that 10 million people could die in Africa if the virus is not contained, while Imperial College London have estimated the global death toll – which at the moment is under 60,000 – would have reached 40 million had the world not responded.” (Threat of catastrophe stalks developing world by David Pilling, Jonathan Wheatley, Andres Schipani and Amy Kazmin, Financial Times, 3 April 2020, our emphasis)

So it is not Covid in isolation that is causing the misery; it is simply compounding it. Nor is the criminal impoverishment of humanity a matter of chance. The wealth of the monopolists is built upon the systematic robbery of billions of workers across the globe, and, in turn, upon the colonial legacy of the wealthy imperialist nations.

Global finance capital and its so-called ‘development’ banks (the IMF and World Bank) enforce the national debt trap under guise of ‘relief’ and demand the further stripping of national assets in a process that endlessly compounds an already dire situation.

Keeping resource-rich nations in a subordinate position, maintaining their financial subordination and the ongoing plunder of their resources, was the reason for decades of war in Congo, for the wars on Libya, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, the stubborn sanctions enforced against Zimbabwe, the war on Yugoslavia, the Orange revolution and coup in Ukraine, and, of course, the wars and campaigns being waged throughout the middle east: in SyriaAfghanistanIraq and Iran.

This domination of the global capitalists is the essence of all injustice in our world today.

Covid-19 is extremely contagious.

Seasonal influenza – aka the flu – is about as infectious an agent as we are used to dealing with, and that spreads rapidly because every person who has it is likely to give it to just over one other person, hence it keeps rolling on through the population. It also mutates its surface markers, or antigens, so that it continues to be active against people who have previously contracted flu in a slightly different form.

The number of people to whom each infected individual passes on a virus is known to epidemiologists as the reproductive number – denoted R0.

Covid-19 has differing rates of infection dependent upon the societal conditions it experiences. Data from the period before the limiting of population movement, migration and intercourse – from before the lockdown – showed that each person with Covid-19 was likely to pass it on to as many as two to six others, with an average over differing studies of 3.3 +/-1. This, together with the fact that it is an entirely novel strain of virus, to which there is no pre-existing immunity in the world’s population, accounts for its rapid transmission. [1]

Moreover, there is a latent phase during the period after infection but before the appearance of any symptoms, during which one is still able to infect others, and which may last anywhere from 2 to 14 days.

The difference between these numbers is significant. If R0 = 1 then by the time ‘patient zero’ has passed the infection on, person to person, ten times, or to the tenth generation of infection, ten people have been infected. If R0=2, over a thousand are infected (210). If R0=3 then there are almost sixty thousand (310) who have been infected. If R0=4 the numbers infected by the tenth generation of spread will reach one million (410).

How severe is Covid-19 infection?

This question is still not decided; the picture is incomplete and continues to emerge. What is clear is that the spectrum of clinical severity of the novel coronavirus infection is broad.

Corona viruses, or coronaviridae, are not new. They circulate widely in human and animal populations and clinical consequences tend to be trivial. The common cold is caused by corona and rhino viruses, for example. Indeed, evolutionarily this is the case because a virus that kills its host will be less successful at reproduction and passing to another host than one that does not, and is therefore less likely to persist. That is why viral diseases like Ebola, for example, tend to have sporadic outbreaks and then die down.

The presenting symptoms of Covid-19 vary widely, from being almost asymptomatic to a mild disease causing cough, fever, sinusitis-like symptoms including headache and a feeling of pressure or being ‘blocked in the head’, often accompanied by lethargy, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, abdominal pain and diarrhoea, and even ‘anosmia’ (an inability to smell or taste food) in isolation.

Sars

What makes this virus different from other coughs, colds and the flu (an orthomyxovirus) is its ability to spread into the cells of the lung tissue – the lining or ‘endothelium’ of the broncheo-alveolar (airway) tree – and cause a severe lower respiratory tract infection – hence the prefix ‘Sars’, which stands for severe acute respiratory syndrome.

This pneumonia causes characteristic patchy, ground-glass shadowing on X-Rays and CT scans and can progress to affect the entirety of the lungs, causing what is known as ‘white-out’ – the lungs being filled with inflammatory exudate that severely decreases their ability to oxygenate the blood. A near equivalent non-infective condition termed ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) is seen in a variety of other severe medical conditions, and is known to carry a very high mortality.

Dr Roberto Cosentini, an emergency physician at Papa Giovanni hospital in Bergamo, Lombardy, at the heart of Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, describes Covid-19 as a “viral pneumonia”, which is a useful way of thinking about it. When this pneumonia progresses, a proportion of patients – perhaps as many as 5-10 percent, will need hospital admission for oxygen therapy, and a subset of these may need ITU care and invasive ventilation, involving the use of an artificial mechanical ventilator.

The risk of developing severe infection is greatly increased in people over the age of 60 and mortality rates are markedly increased in the over-80s – rising to perhaps as high as 14 percent. But given that the median age of the UK population is 40.5 years, this still represents a high-risk population of tens of millions of Britons. Those with comorbidities including diabetes, obesity, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, cancer or other immunosuppressive conditions are also high-risk groups.

If one further considers that diabetes (4 million afflicted in the UK) and obesity (60 percent of women and 70 percent of men in the UK are overweight or obese) are themselves at epidemic proportions in our population, such are the poor nutritional standards of Britain’s food industry and our absence of preventative healthcare measures, it is not hard to see that the British population is at great risk of infection.

Conversely, children are virtually spared of morbidity (there are a few exceptions, but reported deaths have all been among children with chronic diseases), and a young 20- or 30-year old without any illness faces little risk of mortality (perhaps 0.2 percent or less), although as we have seen this is not zero, and they can certainly be severely enough affected to require hospitalisation and ventilation.

Previous severe outbreaks of coronaviridae – the 2002 Sars and 2014 Mers (middle east respiratory syndrome) outbreaks – were both zoonotic coronaviruses – that is, they had their origins in animal diseases to which humans proved susceptible. Both had a much higher propensity to cause this severe viral pneumonia (Sars) and a much higher death rate (10 percent and 34 percent respectively), but their saving grace was the fact that they did not spread easily from person to person, as we now know that Covid-19 does, principally in respiratory droplets and to a lesser degree aerosols. [23]

Of almost one million (947,317) diagnosed cases that had a recorded outcome at the time of writing (mid-April 2020), 755,526 recovered, while 191,791 had died. That means that currently on a world scale, the percentage of people who have been test-diagnosed and proven positive for Covid-19 but died rather than recovered is running at more than 20 percent. Deaths as a percentage of total test-positive diagnosed cases is lower at 7 percent.

Considering that the world influenza pandemic of 1918-19 is considered to have a case fatality rate of just 2 percent, and caused 50-100 million deaths worldwide, this is a hugely alarming figure, but is also likely to be wildly inaccurate.

The best estimates of true mortality rate remain those that came from Wuhan, the capital city of the Hubei province in China, where the novel coronavirus was first identified and brought under control.

True mortality rate of Covid-19

On the basis of figures from Wuhan, the WHO has used a crude estimate of mortality rate from China to be 3.4 percent. Chinese clinicians point out that with improved testing, care and public health measures, that rate fell to 0.7 percent.

It is widely believed by epidemiologists that the true case fatality rate is between 1 and 2 percent. If this is correct, an unchecked spread of the virus could cause massive death tolls in Britain and across the world – in excess of 150 million worldwide deaths if 80 percent of the world’s population were to be infected.

In Germany, a random sampling of 500 subjects from the population in one particularly hard-hit municipality (Gangelt, near the border with the Netherlands, which following a carnival had an increased number of cases), showed that 2 percent of residents were actively infected by the coronavirus and a total of 14 percent had antibodies, indicating current or previous infection.

“From the result of their survey, the German team estimated the death rate in the municipality at 0.37 percent overall, a figure significantly lower than the Johns Hopkins dashboard, where the death rate in Germany among reported cases has now reached 2 percent.” (Blood tests show 14 percent of people are now immune to Covid-19 in one town in Germany by Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review, 9 April 2020)

This is relatively reassuring – but it also shows that the vast majority of the population remains vulnerable.

The common flu has a mortality rate of around 0.1 percent and probably results in around a million deaths a year globally.

The lowest estimate of mortality from the Chinese experience – 0.7 percent, which relies on excellent health infrastructure and treatment protocols being in place for all patients – would lead to 7 million deaths if the infectivity rate were the same as the flu’s. But clearly not only is the infrastructure not in place in many countries (our own included), but Covid-19’s infectiousness is also far higher than the flu’s.

We cannot but conclude that Covid-19 is real and presents a serious danger to humanity if measures are not taken to stop its spread.

In the next article in this series, we will look at whether the threat posed by Covid-19 justifies the response.

______________________________

NOTES

1. The reproductive number of Covid-19 is higher than that of the SARS coronavirus, according to a study by Ying Liu et al published in the Journal of Travel Medicine, 13 February 2020.

2. Coronavirus Covid-19 has killed more people than Sars and Mers combined, despite a lower case fatality rate. BMJ 2020;368:m641.

3. We note that the virus is also detectible in other bodily fluids and secretions, including in faeces.

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‘Back to work’ stampede – and may the devil take the hindmost

Reopening schools and workplaces without proper safety measures highlights the government’s true priorities.

Proletarian writers

In a state of panic over the mounting bad news for the British economy, the government is trying to stampede employees back into work, without even the ghost of a plan to explain just how any of the essential measures to protect workplace safety are to be enforced upon employers.

The tragic death of a young mother working at London’s Victoria station highlights the perils faced by workers whose jobs involve interaction with the public.

Belly Mujinga developed Covid-19 after being spat at by a member of the public. Her needless death focused attention on the corner-cutting practices engaged in by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR).

The TSSA (the railway union representing office workers and sales staff) drew attention to GTR’s failure to protect its staff, with bosses ordering employees to work on the crowded concourse and clean down ticket machines without providing suitable protective gear, and failing to enforce social distancing.

The union reports that many people working in Victoria station are now fearful for their safety. (Belly Mujinga – TSSA demands for staff safety, TSSA, 14 May 2020)

ONS: low-paid most likely to die

Figures issued by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) make it clear that it is those whose jobs necessitate physical proximity to members of the public or to their workmates, jobs which are frequently dismissed as ‘unskilled labour’, who are most at risk from the disease.

Men in low-paid manual jobs are four times more likely to die from the virus than are men in professional jobs. Women working as carers are twice as likely to die of the virus as are relatively more privileged women occupying professional and technical roles.

High up in the risk league are jobs like supermarket check-out staff, construction workers, cleaners, security guards, bus drivers and plant operatives – in other words, all the people without whose toil society would soon grind to a halt. (Low-paid workers more likely to die from Covid-19 than higher earners, The Guardian, 11 May 2020)

It is workers like these who, even before the current effort to chivvy everyone back to work kicked in, have routinely been threatened with the sack if they dare to self-isolate in order to shield vulnerable relatives from potential exposure to the disease.

Bosses seek to justify this cruel blackmail by referring to Public Health England guidance stating that staff with vulnerable family members can go to work provided they keep 2m apart at home and at work. But if you work somewhere like a care home or a school, or if your family is crammed into a tiny flat at home, then social distancing goes out of the window.

Unison has highlighted the case of a care worker who is self-isolating to protect his wife, a nurse. He told the union: “I need to work but need to protect my family first. I have a wife, a six-year-old and a new baby on the way. We live together in a one-bedroom flat.

“My managers say I don’t qualify for the furlough scheme, and as a migrant worker I don’t qualify for help from the state, so I have no income. We don’t even qualify for food parcels for my young son.” (Frightened workers self-isolating to protect vulnerable loved ones shouldn’t be punished by Tim Lezard, Unison, 7 May 2020)

Back to school?

Also caught up in the ‘back to work’ stampede now are teachers and pupils, with the government dictating arbitrary deadlines for a return to school without proper consultation with the unions and justified on the back of some very dubious science.

This was highlighted in a joint statement from the teachers’ unions: “Uniquely, it appears, school staff will not be protected by social distancing rules. Fifteen children in a class, combined with their very young age, means that classrooms of four and five-year olds could become sources of Covid-19 transmission and spread.

“While we know that children generally have mild symptoms, we do not know enough about whether they can transmit the disease to adults. We do not think that the government should be posing this level of risk to our society.” (Education unions’ statement on the safe reopening of schools, TUC, 13 May 2020)

But the social risk posed by a premature and badly planned mass return to work, across all sectors, weighs lightly for a government that exists to protect the interests, not of society, but of those who sweat profit from the labour of others.

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Debenhams shafts its cafe workers

Catering staff at the department store have been summarily dismissed without notice or redundancy pay.

Proletarian writers

Another big company making the most of the Covid-19 state bailout for the benefit of its shareholders, not the workers.

In April last year, the prestigious department store chain Debenhams went into administration, no longer able to hack it in the ruthlessly competitive retail market. Shock therapy at the hands of the administrators closed 22 of its stores at that time, enabling the stricken company to limp on for another year, until the pandemic came along and tipped it back into administration in April.

Workers employed in the 100+ cafes run by Debenhams were put on furlough, with the government paying 80 percent of their salaries. Whilst they tightened their belts, at least they could look forward to resuming their normal jobs when the lockdown lifted – or so they were encouraged to believe.

This expectation was rudely shattered on 27 May, when staff were summoned by text to a conference call the following day. Staff wondered what the meeting would be about. Maybe it would be to discuss plans for the reopening of stores on 15 June?

Instead, workers were told that the cafes would not reopen, and they were being made redundant with immediate effect and without any period of notice. Worse, because their jobs no longer existed, the furlough payments would cease at once. And when staff asked about redundancy pay, they were told to apply to the government.

Had Debenhams been straight with its workers back in March and given notice of redundancy, at least staff would have had some time to seek alternative employment. Instead, the company strung the cafe staff along for two months (at taxpayers’ expense) before summarily ditching them, with no better prospect than joining the long and winding queue for universal credit.

Posted in Health, Human Rights, UK0 Comments

Second spike looms: Boris opts for ‘whack-a-mole’ over having a good plan

On every level, the performance of socialist countries in dealing with Covid-19 is putting the profiteering, anti-worker ethos of capitalism to shame.

Proletarian writers

North Korea’s strict precautions, taken on the principle of ‘better safe than sorry’ have ensured that the country has so far been completely free of Covid-19.

The soothing mood music emanating from Downing Street is aimed at giving workers the impression that the health crisis is calming down and the government, guided by sober science, is now judiciously engaged in fine-tuning the gradual easing of the lockdown. The reality is quite other, however: the illness is not going away any time soon.

Every day, a further 8,000 people are getting infected by Covid-19, and there is every possibility of the illness building to a lethal second spike, thanks to the disorderly stampede back to work, the precipitate reopening of schools and the loosening of restrictions on social contact – a loosening driven not by science but by a desire to court cheap popularity and to reduce losses to big business and costs to the Treasury.

The reality is that Britain has so far notched up the second-highest death rate in Europe, narrowly pipped at the post by Spain, as measured by excess mortality figures. The Financial Times explains: “Excess mortality is calculated by counting everyone who has died in a country and subtracting the average number of people who passed away over the same period in the past five years,” and notes that “Chris Whitty, the UK’s chief medical officer, called excess deaths ‘the key metric’.”

By this internationally recognised measure, Britain “has registered 59,537 more deaths than usual since the week ending 20 March, indicating that the virus has directly or indirectly killed 891 people per million”.

And unlike other countries, which have managed to contain the worst of the virus mostly to within one or two geographical areas, in Britain the excess death rate rose sharply across the whole country. Given the tardiness of the government in imposing lockdown in the first place, and the precipitate way in which restrictions are now being eased, the conclusion drawn by the FT article makes sobering reading:

“Examining the cause of the high death rates in certain countries, the strongest link appears at this stage to be between the date of a country’s lockdown and the probable number of infections that already existed when restrictions were applied.” (UK suffers second-highest death rate from coronavirus by John Burn-Murdoch and Chris Giles, 28 May 2020)

Guided by the science?

The scientific establishment, until now tending to keep any concerns it may have had about public policy under wraps, is starting to show signs of discomfort at being asked to lend its professional credibility to help fill the government’s own gaping credibility gap.

No less than three of the government’s scientific advisors have started vigorously blowing their whistles over the latest batch of mixed signals issuing from Number Ten.

“Professor John Edmunds OBE sits on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – advising ministers on its response to the pandemic. The professor has warned Covid-19 incidents remain ‘really quite high’ in England, warning on the easing of restrictions: ‘We can’t lift things very much at all.’

“Prof Edmunds’ concerns join a growing list of expert advisers to the government expressing apprehension about England’s easing of lockdown. Prof Edmunds was joined by Professor Peter Horby, of the University of Oxford, and Sir Jeremy Farrar to warn that ministers are taking risks. All three are members of the Sage committee.

“Speaking to ITV News, Prof Edmunds said: ‘I think we are taking a bit of a risk at the moment, there’s a couple of things. One, the reproduction number is only just below one at the moment, so we don’t have a lot of headroom, we can’t lift things very much at all.

“‘Secondly, the incidents are really quite high, so [according to] the ONS survey we are getting 8,000 new infections every day in England, in just the community, that’s not counting cases that may occur in hospitals and care homes, and even other settings such as prisons. That’s quite a lot of cases, 8,000 every day.’” (Easing lockdown is ‘taking a bit of a risk’ warns top scientific adviser to government, ITV, 30 May 2020)

Another expert to speak out was a former director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Professor Anthony Costello. He warned that the country could face a “resurgence” of the disease.

Ever since news of the pandemic hit the headlines, the government has been inconsistent in its handling of the situation. It delayed implementing a lockdown in the first place, allowing major crowd events like the Cheltenham races to claim their crop of victims. Once the lockdown was in place, the official advice came out in piecemeal form with many mixed signals, with even the police struggling to make sense of the rules.

And now that the government has begun to relax the rules in fits and starts, it is suddenly getting enthused about test, track and trace as the panacea that will fix everything – having dragged its feet for months on testing, and having as yet only got so far as launching eleven track-and-trace pilot experiments.

Boris Johnson’s ‘whack-a-mole tactics’

Boris Johnson’s reaction to the recent Covid outbreak in Weston hospital neatly sums up the chaotic opportunism which takes the place of any real planning.

When news broke that 40 percent of the staff who had been tested for the virus came out as positive (many of them asymptomatic) and more than 60 patients were infected, necessitating the closure of the hospital to new patients, the prime minister seized on this disaster to blow his own trumpet, claiming that it demonstrated the efficacy of government policy.

Rather than ponder about what such an occurrence might warn us about encouraging day trippers to head en masse to seaside locations like Weston, he claimed that the decision to close the hospital was in accordance with a grand plan to enforce more localised measures in a bid to stop the spread of the virus.

Johnson claimed: “We will be working with the local outbreak committees, and those responsible for dealing with whatever happens locally, and we will go through the local resilience forums which are leading on this.

“The Joint Biodiversity Centre will be looking at, for instance, the other day you saw there was an outbreak in Weston-super-Mare. We moved very quickly to close things down there to try to sort it out. That is the kind of whack-a-mole tactics that we are going to use as we keep driving the virus down and keep reducing the incidents.” (‘Whack-a-mole’ closure of Somerset hospital is first example of new localised lockdown tactics to curb coronavirus spread – Boris Johnson by Tomas Malloy, Somerset Live, 27 May 2020)

Or, in other words, keep on reacting to events, keep on fighting individual brush fires, and muddle through with no real plan.

Meanwhile, the stick needed to enable this ‘whack-a-mole’ strategy to be implemented – testing, tracking and tracing – is noticeably absent. Test results still routinely take 48 hours to arrive, despite the fact that effective contact tracing needs to be done within two days of a person becoming symptomatic.
Moreover, although some 2,000 people a day are presently being tested positive for coronavirus, the contact tracing that is supposed to follow diagnosis is not actually in place.

In the first four days of the tracing system going live, many of the 3,000 clinical caseworkers and 15,000 non-clinical ‘tier 3’ tracers who have been employed to do this vital job reported being unable to log into the system in order to carry out training modules, or unable to see any cases when they had logged on.

As one tracer put it, there is “an awful lot of money being poured into people to sit around not doing the job they were hired to do”. Despite all the evidence from other countries that this infrastructure would be our only route to contain the virus and first prevent and then come out of lockdown, the government only began seriously to discuss it in late April. (Contact tracers claim they have no work in ‘shambolic’ system by Billy Kenber, The Times, 1 June 2020)

Capitalism serves profit, not the people

Only a national plan driven by the welfare of the population, not by the capitalist market, would deal with the pandemic in the most humane and sane way, and only socialism can deliver that, as demonstrated in ChinaCuba and the DPRK.

In a recent article in the Guardian, George Monbiot pointed to what he describes as “the pernicious role of corporate power in public policy”, and how that hampers efforts to deal with health crises like the current pandemic.

A case in point has been the tragic farce over getting hold of the right personal protective equipment (PPE). Monbiot notes that some lucky manufacturing companies “have mysteriously been granted monopolies on the supply of essential equipment. These private monopolies have either failed to meet their contracts, or provided defective gear to the entire NHS, like the 15m protective goggles and the planeload of useless surgical gowns that had to be recalled.

“Instead of stockpiling supplies, as emergency preparedness demands, companies in these chains have been using just-in-time production systems, whose purpose is to cut their costs by minimising stocks. Their minimised systems could not be scaled up fast enough to meet the shortfall.”

An approach to inventory control like this may be superb for generating profits but has proved a disaster when it’s a question of protecting the health of key workers.

Again, speaking of the wholesale privatisation of the care sector, Monbiot notes: “Even before the pandemic, the system was falling apart, as many care companies, unable to balance the needs of their patients with the demands of their shareholders, collapsed, often with disastrous consequences.

“Now we discover just how dangerous their commercial imperatives have become, as the drive to make care profitable has created a fragmented, incoherent system, answerable sometimes to offshore owners, that fails to meet basic standards, and employs harassed workers on zero-hour contracts.”

And if the moneybags fear that emergency steps taken by a national government to deal with a national crisis may harm a hair on the head of their profit-taking, they will not hesitate to go to a (bourgeois) court to defend the rights of private property against the people’s health and welfare.

Monbiot cites a report by the Corporate Europe Observatory, which “shows how law firms are exploring the possibility of suing governments for the measures they have taken to stop the pandemic. Many trade treaties contain a provision called ‘investor state dispute settlement’. This enables corporations to sue governments in opaque offshore tribunals, for any policies that might affect their ‘future anticipated profits’.

“So when governments, in response to coronavirus, have imposed travel restrictions, or requisitioned hotels, or instructed companies to produce medical equipment or limit the price of drugs, the companies could sue them for the loss of the money they might otherwise have made.” (Tory privatisation is at the heart of the UK’s disastrous coronavirus response by George Monbiot, The Guardian, 27 May 2020)

Socialist planning serves the people

Such is the morality of the degenerate capitalists, shaping the morality of the societies they dominate. It is past time for it to be seen off by the revolutionary morality of the working class.

When apologists for capitalism furrow their brows and tell us how complicated it is to plan to meet the needs of society, we should invite them to take a look at how China and Cuba have been dealing with the pandemic. Or have a look at how the DPRK has been coping, despite the imposition of US sanctions, which seek to punish the Korean people for choosing the socialist path.

In a recent interview, Russian ambassador to Pyongyang Alexander Matsegora paid tribute to the vigorous measures that the north Korean government has taken to protect the health of its people.

“I must say that the leadership of the DPRK has taken the most resolute and strict measures to prevent this infection from entering the country. And it did so before anyone else. Even China still kept its borders open, but here entry/exit restrictions were introduced at the end of January, and since the beginning of February, the outer borders were tightly closed with an iron lock.

“Since then, it has become absolutely impossible to come here, even for north Korean citizens who are abroad – all of them still cannot get to their homeland (as you know, it is the compatriots returning from abroad who are the main distributors of infection for any country). The border provinces that have the most advanced ties with China were isolated from the rest of the country, as, by the way, was Pyongyang, where Chinese tourists came back in January.

“As for those who entered here after the outbreak of the epidemic in China, all of them, including foreigners, were placed in an unconditional 30-day quarantine, followed by daily checks by visiting teams of doctors for another month.

“Already in February, everyone here wore masks, and in every institution, in every entrance to residential buildings, their temperature was measured at the entrance and their hands and shoes were disinfected. School children and students were placed in complete isolation in mid-February, which began to weaken only in early May.

“Now there has been further easing of the measures. We are able to visit the market and all major shopping centres and the country has gradually begun to import goods again, but there is no international passenger traffic, and masks and widespread disinfections remain.”

Countering those who dismiss the DPRK’s efforts to combat the pandemic and accuse the government of secrecy about the virus, Matsegora pointed out: “Pyongyang does not hesitate to give World Health Organisation (WHO) and international humanitarian organisations comprehensive information about such diseases as tuberculosis or dysentery (and receives substantial assistance for their treatment).” (Russia unhappy at dialogue deep freeze between Pyongyang and Washington, The Communists, 31 May 2020)

It is the imperialist media in the west that try to conceal the successful efforts of the socialist countries in dealing with the virus, eager to hide their success, fearing that the world’s peoples might learn from their example.

Posted in Health, UK0 Comments

Solidarity Includes Wearing a Mask at Protests

The life you save may not be your own. Those who wear a mask at protests are making clear that they’re willing to undergo some discomfort to protect people they don’t even know.

by: Norman Solomon

A person wears a mask that reads "I CAN'T BREATHE" as demonstrators continue to protest the death of George Floyd following a night of rioting on May 29, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A person wears a mask that reads “I CAN’T BREATHE” as demonstrators continue to protest the death of George Floyd following a night of rioting on May 29, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The nationwide outpouring of protests during the last 10 days has provided a historic moral response to the murder of George Floyd. In one city after another, people braved tear gas, pepper spray, clubs and other weaponry—as well as mass arrests—to nonviolently challenge racist police violence. Those same people were also risking infection with the coronavirus.

Photos from around the country show that a large majority of protesters have been wearing masks, often under very difficult conditions. By doing so, they aren’t only protecting themselves to some extent—they’re also protecting people nearby. As the New York Times just noted, “most experts now agree that if everyone wears a mask, individuals protect one another.”

In other words, wearing a mask is about solidarity.

Unfortunately, some protesters have not worn masks, perhaps unaware that they were putting others at risk. Meanwhile, some police officers have disregarded orders to wear masks.

“While some hazards probably can’t be avoided at demonstrations, wearing a mask remains vital.”

With latest research indicating that about 35 percent of infected people have no symptoms at all, unwillingness to wear a mask jeopardizes the health of others. That jeopardy is far from evenly distributed. Older people and those with underlying health problems are at higher risk of dying from the coronavirus. African Americans and other people of color are also dying at much higher rates, due to structural racism.

“UC San Francisco epidemiologist Dr. George Rutherford described the protests as a kind of uncontrolled experiment, one that will test what happens when people are wearing masks in an outdoor setting, but yelling and not maintaining their distance,” the Los Angeles Times reported this week. Said Rutherford: “If you have breakdowns in social distancing and don’t have masks on, then you’re deeply in trouble.”

Addressing the chances of exposure to the virus while protesting, California’s Department of Health is urging caution: “Even with adherence to physical distancing, bringing members of different households together to engage in in-person protest carries a higher risk of widespread transmission of COVID-19. . . . In particular, activities like chanting, shouting, singing, and group recitation negate the risk-reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing. For this reason, people engaging in these activities should wear face coverings at all times.”

Also, if you’re headed to a protest, you might want to consider giving away some masks.

“The virus seems to spread the most when people yell (such as to chant a slogan), sneeze (to expel pepper spray), or cough (after inhaling tear gas),” The Atlantic reported as this week began. “It is transmitted most efficiently in crowds and large gatherings, and research has found that just a few contagious people can infect hundreds of susceptible people around them. The virus can spread especially easily in small, cramped places, such as police vans and jails.”

In Minnesota, the Star-Tribune reported, “state health officials will be encouraging people protesting the death of George Floyd to seek COVID-19 testing—regardless of whether they feel sick—due to the increased risk of the disease spreading at mass gatherings.” The newspaper added that “a key recommendation will be when asymptomatic protesters should seek testing, because the incubation period of the virus following infection is around five days—with a range of two to 14 days.” Testing too early could miss the virus.

Protesting is crucial at a moment like this. But protesting must be done without ignoring the pandemic.

While some hazards probably can’t be avoided at demonstrations, wearing a mask remains vital. The reality that it’s difficult if not impossible to maintain six-foot social distancing at a protest makes wearing a mask all the more important. The life you save may not be your own.

At campaign rallies last fall and winter, Bernie Sanders struck a chord when he asked: “Are you willing to fight for that person who you don’t even know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” It was a powerful statement that resonated deeply and became a viral rallying cry. The ethical core remains. And by speaking out and protesting in the wake of George Floyd’s death, large numbers of people have been answering that question with a resounding Yes.

At the same time, those who wear a mask at protests are making clear that they’re willing to undergo some discomfort to protect people they don’t even know.

There are many things we have no control over as we keep pushing to change the political direction of the United States. Whether we wear a mask isn’t one of them.

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America’s Unfinished Revolution

Will we advance our unfinished revolution or will our spontaneous actions end in the acceptance of petty reforms and a return to the status quo?

by: Josephine Lee

While Derek Chauvin and his fellow police officers must be prosecuted and convicted for homicide, we must see what the real role of the police is in our society. (Photo: Ella/cc/flickr)

While Derek Chauvin and his fellow police officers must be prosecuted and convicted for homicide, we must see what the real role of the police is in our society. (Photo: Ella/cc/flickr)

It takes but a few minutes for the ruling elite to recast collective calls for an end to state violence against blacks into images of criminality of black protestors and a call to end looting. How quickly the government wants us to get back to the status quo where the ruling elite has been looting from the working poor every single day of our lives. Looting from the labor of black workers over 200 years of slavery in our country. Looting from the labor of black workers in the 100 years of convict-leasing and forced contractual tenant-farming under the Black Codes. Robbing working people, and always the hardest hit black and brown people among them, their schools, their homes and communities, their labor, their health, their rights, and their lives. Even during the three months of this pandemic, a handful of billionaires have already looted $434 billion from the backs of the working people while people continue to suffer.

If we’ve learned anything from the legacy of the Black Codes, which were created by former slaveholders after the Civil War to re-enslave freed blacks into a system of enforced labor, perpetual inequality and second-class citizenship, we know that all this looting by the ruling elite cannot occur without a legalized system of criminalization and state violence.

The police violence sets the stage for intensifying inequality so the ruling class can manage to maintain order as they continue to loot from us.In Policing the Crisis, Stuart Hall looked at the law and order policies that mirrors Reagan’s manufactured campaign against drugs and muggings in the black community. Hall argues that at every turning point or crisis when people come together to challenge the legitimacy of the government, when we unmask the illusions of our “civil democracy,” that the ruling elite do two main things to hold on to their power in order to continue looting from working people: a) They refashion and rename the laws that criminalize sections of the working class, legally making them an underclass of second class citizens without rights. b) They will intensify state violence and terror. Law and order.

While Derek Chauvin and his fellow police officers must be prosecuted and convicted for homicide, we must see what the real role of the police is in our society. It is to flex the muscle of the ruling class and to maintain the ruling class’ interests. To manage dissent as our collective exploitation deepens. To keep order as the disorder in our lives becomes unbearable. The police violence sets the stage for intensifying inequality so the ruling class can manage to maintain order as they continue to loot from us. 

Police power is sanctioned by laws of criminalization. Thus, the slave laws became the Black Codes after the Civil War, and then the Drug Reform Act after the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. But during the same year that Reagan signed into law the Drug Reform Act and introduced the mass incarceration system we know today, he also signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act and a provision, called the employer sanctions provision. Following the same form of the slave laws and Black Codes, this law makes it a crime for undocumented workers to sell their labor freely, relegating them into an underclass of workers with no rights. At a time when workers across racial divides were just beginning to unite and fight for better conditions, not only did this law lead to the criminalization and incarceration of countless undocumented workers, but it pit undocumented workers against other workers, particularly poor black workers, forcing them into a cycle of unemployment, underemployment, mass incarceration, and poverty.

So at this critical juncture when we face another turning point, a crisis of legitimacy, what will be the result of the spontaneous actions of the multitudes of people that have united together to denounce our government:

Will we release some steam for a few days, be satisfied with the prosecution and conviction of a few cops, accept a few reforms of a police system that will never be accountable to anyone else but their maker–the ruling class?

Will we settle for mere survival, to not be killed, so that we can live under the peace of everyday violence and robbery forced upon our labor, our communities, our health, and our lives?

Will we hang onto the illusions that equate equal opportunity to be as exploited as a vanishing group of white middle class workers or equal opportunity for a few black and brown faces to rise into positions of power and wealth to be the liberation of us all?

We must see that these state-sponsored killings are a war—not only on black people, but on all working people.

If we’ve learned anything from our history, it is that our history’s turning points failed to turn towards true transformation and liberation for people because at each critical juncture from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement to even the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, the ruling power has hereto been able to disunite working people- poor white farmers from freed slaves, industrial from agricultural workers, citizens from immigrants, and consequently, succeeded in deceiving people into accepting reforms that served only a fraction of the working class while undermining the collective unity of the 99 percent.

We must see that these state-sponsored killings are a war- not only on black people, but on all working people. And it is time that working people, the 99 percent, provide political leadership, starting with a clear demand to end the criminalization that divides working people and fight for equal rights for all workers. Only then will we be able to unite together against our common oppression and exploitation and realize our unfinished revolution.

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