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Resisting Coronavirus

By Andy Climacus, 26 February 2020
Image: Electron micrograph of infectious bronchitis virus

On the politics of the pandemic and organising to protect those most vulnerable 

I know my left wing friends don't want to talk about coronavirus, but to me what is happening right now is terrifying and raises political questions at every level. I would like to see friends talking and thinking about what a political response might look like.

Right now it looks like a global pandemic is unavoidable, with outbreaks across the world. While government approaches in the media are sticking to the headline figures of 2% fatality (this is already very high) the more important figure is that 20% of cases are severe and require medical intervention (most often beds, oxygen, and monitoring.) There are no countries in the world prepared for this, and the treatment this 20% receive will determine the outcomes. Certainly here in the UK this is well beyond the capacity of the NHS, which is already stretched due to cuts and recruitment shortfalls.

In particular this virus is dangerous to older people and people who have compromised immune systems (for example people who are already sick, people who have had chemo, or who have HIV/AIDS), and is also leading to more complications for people with diabetes, high blood pressure, and among smokers (all of whom are more likely to be poorer too.)

We know also that there are certain sections of the global population who are going to be more seriously affected: in places where there is poor medical infrastructure, among poor populations in countries where medical care is entirely privatised and accessible only to the wealthy. The outbreaks in Iran right now are particularly scary, because of the prospect of sanctions meaning that medical goods cannot get to the people who need them. Many of the poorer countries in the world don't even have test kits, never mind capacity to treat people. The other people who are particularly at risk are imprisoned and detained populations - and we should be setting up campaigns around this immediately with regard to prisons and immigration detention centres. At a more minor level working class people who use public transport, and who live in shared and cramped accommodation will be at much greater risk.

Here in the UK, while we have the NHS which is supposed to be for everyone, there are also parts of the population who fear using it: for example there are large numbers of paperless people who fear deportation if they go to hospital. In particular people who do jobs cleaning stuff (especially toilets), emptying bins, will have large numbers of people who can't access healthcare and who are particularly in harm's way. We should think about setting up calls for immediate amnesty here.

The question of the treatment of sans papiers, asylum seekers, and immigrants more broadly will have effects beyond immediate healthcare provision. We live in a time of increasingly nationalist and autocratic governments, and it seems likely that those pushing for this politics will leverage any crisis arising from coronavirus against migrants, or indeed against anyone they consider as foreign. That might mean demands, for example, for healthcare only for native citizens. But it might also be used as a justification for the hardening of borders, surveillance and detention, and possibly even extradition of migrants. It will certainly mean travel between countries and access to welfare and healthcare will be sites of increasingly severe antagonism.

Meanwhile, working conditions are going to play a major role in how this situation progresses: people who have regular salaried jobs, with permanent contracts are far more likely to be able to take time off, or to get paid when workplaces get shut down. Again, campaigns will be needed to keep precarious, temporary, and daily/weekly waged workers paid if there are serious shut downs. And we need to get organising for this now. Similarly, people actually being able to take time off work if they think they are getting sick will save lives. The very fact of precarity is going to put parts of the population in serious danger. I am hoping, too, that the nurses and doctors unions get organised very quickly on all of this.

One of the reasons that much of this is hard to judge is the state of the media at the monet. It has been concerning in the last weeks that so many of the stories coming from Hubei Province have been broken by the massively sinophobic New York Times. This sort of racism in the press undermines the credibility of important information. At the same time, governments have been suppressing information, whether in the case of the Chinese State’s deletion of posts from Weibo, or in the US government’s refusal to test or give straight numbers of incidents. This is compounded by the fact that monopolistic internet platforms have been disaggregating content about the epidemic, and around the world have been sending all searches towards government sources. The capacity for normal people to tell their stories about what is happening is increasingly stifled by social media, instead of being amplified by what appear to be people-powered networks. At the same time, the lack of decent on the ground and investigative journalism reflects the largescale disinvestment from this type of expensive work over the last two decades.

I don't have any immediate plans for trying to organise around this but thought I thought I'd put this here to get the ball rolling. But as I say I think there are questions here about work, incarceration, borders, international aid, care, poverty, housing etc. There are other immediate things people should do: wash your hands well and regularly. If you feel sick stay away from work. If you are coughing and sneezing into tissues then put them in a bag and take them outside yourself so as not to put comrades in the cleaning sector at more risk. Same with toilets: don't leave a mess for someone else to clear up. And bear in mind spaces you share with people who might have weak immune systems for reasons you might not know about.