What socialist response to coronavirus?

By Malcolm Hunter

What line should socialists be taking on the threat from coronavirus?

Although not yet certain, it is looking increasingly likely that we are on the verge of a major pandemic and, although coronavirus is not nearly as deadly as say smallpox, bubonic plague or the 1918 strain of flu that killed more people than the first world war, it still appears tokill a substantially higher proportion of people than seasonal flu, which itself kills a significant number of people. Given this and the fact that no one has existing immunity to this strain of coronavirus, so that the proportion of people who catch it is likely to be high, this does look like being considerably worse than an epidemic of seasonal flu and we could be facing the prospect of 10s and quite possibly several 100s of thousands of fatalities, in the UK alone.

The Government has been seeking to reassure people that the NHS is equipped to cope,despite years of chronic underfunding, but a recent survey of doctors found that hardly any agreed. We should therefore be demanding a massive injection of funding to help the NHS meet the challenges it is going to face, although injecting funding now can only do so much,in terms of restoring adequate staffing levels, given past failures to invest in training, so we should also be demanding that lessons are learned from this, so that recruitment and training are properly funded in the future.

In the meantime; however, the Government are talking about mobilizing an army of volunteers and of getting former staff to return, to fill gaps. I don’t think that we should collude with Government attempts to get people to work for nothing, to make up for their failure to adequately fund the NHS and think that we should be calling for funds to be made available to properly pay people for their labour. We could also point out that, if people are to be asked to donate their labour for free, in a crisis, then the same should be asked of private companies, who ought to be asked to donate things such as drugs and protective clothing for free.

There is probably a role for volunteers doing things that the need for only arises in exceptional circumstances, though and one issue that is likely to arise is around access to essential supplies, where people are self-isolating.   This could create an opportunity for the LP to build deeper roots in communities and to demonstrate that we can do more than just ask people for their vote and the Labour Party should perhaps look into the possibility of establishing its own volunteer service to deliver essentials to people, in conjunction with trades unions and perhaps the Coop. This might also be combined with a food bank function, if people are forced to self-isolate on other than full pay.

In addition, though, as Paul Mason points out in this article, it is not just underfunding that has left our NHS and our public services in general ill equipped to face this crisis, it is also privatization and contracting out. As Paul points out, contracting out makes it very hard to apportion responsibility. From my experience of working in social care I am also very conscious of the fact that contracting out services creates a great deal of inflexibility, with private providers being contracted to carry out specific tasks and being reluctant to do anything else in changed circumstances, without a new contract (while still expecting to be paid for whatever they were originally contracted to do, even if it is no longer needed).

We should therefore be taking the opportunity to highlight this and argue for things to be brought back in house.Moving on, it appears likely that the spread of coronavirus will lead to increasing numbers of people being asked to self-isolate, to slow its spread. In many circumstances this is likely to be appropriate but many ordinary people simply cannot afford to take time off work. This throws into sharp relief big holes in our benefits system, which in this situation have major implications, not just for individuals, but for public health.

It is to be welcomed that the Government has announced that people who are self-isolating on medical advice, despite not being actively ill, should still be entitled to sick pay; and that they have just announced that Statutory Sick Pay from day one, but this on its own is totally inadequate. Statutory Sick Pay is not enough to cover most people’s loss of earnings and all employers need to be required to make it up to full pay. Entitlement to SSP also needs to be extended to the 2 million workers who currently earn too little to qualify. In addition, an entitlement to time off on full pay needs to be introduced for parents, forced to take time off to care for their children, if schools are closed. Furthermore, nominally self-employed workers in the so called have been told that they will have to claim Universal Credit, but there is a five week waiting period before UC is payable. This needs scrapping and UC too needs to be made payable from day one.

In addition, the need to avoid disincentives for people to self-isolate is yet another argument for building strong unions and for removing the legal shackles on them, since unions may help to secure some of these things in unionized workplaces, even in the absence of government action and they can help workers resist inappropriate pressure from employers, to continue working when they shouldn’t be.

There is also the issue of the economic impact of a pandemic, both as a result of large numbers of workers being off sick, or self-isolating, in case they are infected; and as a result of things being closed and cancelled, as a way of preventing the spread of the disease by limiting social contact. Reduction in economic activity could have an adverse impact on both workers’ livelihoods and on employers’ profits. There is a danger that the government may ignore medical advice and resist closures and cancellations that are needed, in order to protect profits. We need to argue that lives should take priority, but also for the cost to be borne by those with the greatest resources, so as well demanding full pay those having to self-isolate, we should also be calling for any lay-offs to be on full pay.

As well as short term economic impacts; however, there is also a strong likelihood that that a temporary slowdown in economic activity, as a result of coronavirus, could tip the economy into a longer term recession, on a par with 2008, or worse, especially since such a recession is already in the pipeline, for numerous other reasons. Employers will argue that protecting their profits, in order to avoid this, therefore has to take priority over the kind of measures to protect workers that I have argued that we should be calling for, but one argument against this is that money in the pockets of ordinary workers, rather than the rich,helps to stimulate the economy, because it is more likely to get spent, rather than squirrelled away.

Of course, individual firms might be pushed to the wall, threatening workers’ jobs and livelihoods, but our answer to this should be that socially useful businesses should be taken into public ownership, while workers in other firms should be offered retraining and good alternative jobs. Our opponents will ask where new jobs and money for retraining will come from, but so called “quantitative easing” (QE), basically central banks creating new money to inject into the economy, has become a standard tool to try to stimulate economies out of recession. The problem is that up until now the money has been fed into private banks and has mainly ended up funding speculation, rather than going into anything productive. QE, could instead be used to fund things like social housing, greening the economy and retraining; providing good quality alternative jobs and workers with the necessary skills to fill them.

Another issue that we need to think about how we should respond to the use of coercive powers, for instance to enforce things like quarantine. I don’t think that we can totally oppose them, because there are circumstances where they may be necessary and I also don’t think that we are at a point where it would be credible to argue for the use of coercive measures to be under the control of the labour movement, but I think that we need to be on our guard against abuse of such powers for other ends and ready to call out any abuses.We should also be seeking to ensure that emergency powers incorporate maximum safeguards and have built in time limits.

Finally, at the time of writing I have just heard that the Government are suggesting perhaps suspending Parliament for months, to stop the spread of coronavirus. This sounds like a try on to avoid democratic scrutiny and will be exposed as such if the Government tries to go ahead with the idea, without also forcing the shutdown of all non-essential workplaces that bring similar numbers of workers together. They should also be asked what alternative mechanisms for holding them to account they propose and whether they have considered Parliament continuing to meet virtually, using things such as video conferencing technology.

Malcolm is an activist in Leicester South CLP and a retired social worker.

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