This is a guest article from Mike Haynes, a socialist who blogs and tweets as the Jobbing Leftie Historian. All guest articles express solely the views of their respective authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Left Lockdown Sceptics editorial board. Other articles published on this site should not be taken to represent the views of Mike, either.
I am part of what Owen Jones has called ‘the wonderful and weird extremely niche world of left lockdown sceptics’. I don’t believe that Bill Gates is at the centre of a global conspiracy nor do I follow Piers Corbyn. My own niche is to think that we need a serious socialist analysis of what is going on. Yet the left has all but collapsed into the welcoming arms of statism, nationalism and even racism. To explain my position I am not going to offer a big theory of capitalism and the pandemic but simply take you on my journey in 14 basic points.
In February and March 2020, I felt in a privileged position. I had written on public health, disease and capitalism. I am certainly not a ‘scientist’ but I like to think I could pass a general first year course in epidemiology. I was also very strongly aware that the burden of disease falls more heavily the further down the social scale you go, while the opportunity to get care and support rises as you go up it. I thought then, and think now, that this should be central to any left response
In the face of a degree of panic and left hysteria, I posted various links to academic papers, Sage reports on Facebook only to be told that I was selling out by not having a political faith that covid could be smashed. I lost count of the number of times people shouted Test, Test, Test or responded to a link to scientific paper with a piece from the Metro.
I understand the fear. What I do not understand is why hardly a single leftist I know in a good job, able to work from home on a protected salary, has reflected for a moment on their privileged position and what lockdowns have meant for others who are less fortunate. Elsewhere I have called these people the labour zoomocracy – a self-obsessed layer that has hung like a dead weight over the covid debate – gesturing to collective solidarity while supporting the most reactionary positions and waiting for the next home delivery.
But how do we distinguish good science and politics from bad science and bad politics? I am going to simply state my first 4 points:
|1. Covid is a serious infectious disease that is mild for many but kills vulnerable people
2. Long Covid too exists but is exaggerated by fear, self-report and advocacy groups
3. There are more dangerous diseases than covid
4. In absolute, and possibly relative terms, covid will kill more in poor countries
For me good politics and good science then feed off one another. But you have to make an effort to find out. At the start I listened to carefully to i-Sage but then I noticed weird things. One was the disappearance of Allyson Pollock from it. I knew of Pollock from her work in defending the NHS from privatisation so how could they fallen out? Years before I had heard Margaret McCartney, a Glasgow GP and writer, speak. Her book The Patient Paradox: Why Sexed‑Up Medicine Is Bad for Your Health (2012) is a real eye opener. Where was she in the debate? Then I discovered George Davey Smith. The name was familiar to me from the work of Danny Dorling but I didn’t realise that this leading epidemiologist was also a strong socialist. Soon I was on the track of a whole number of serious scientists and public health specialists (most of whom had not signed the Great Barrington Declaration) who had deep misgivings over the nature of the debate and who also felt undermined by what so many on the left were saying.
I mention this not to impress (well partly) but because while the labour zoomocracy was tailing i-Sage, the Zero Covid Action group and a motley collection of medical-political figures trying to make a big name for themselves by playing on fears, these people were also trying to organise scientific discussions of covid’s unknowns. I began to learn more about the often hidden complexity of infectious diseases. This led me to my next 3 points
|5. All epidemiology is about complexity and uncertainty with unexpected feedbacks
6. The nature of covid as a respiratory disease is that it will become endemic
7. The UK government has some terrific but fallible advisors. The government itself is useless and led by a charlatan
I have no time for Johnson but had Corbyn been in power as likely as not he would have been being given the same advice by the same advisors.
But I also think we need evidence-based medicine and evidence-based policy. The idea of EBM is that what works in theory may not work in practice. In the 1960s the child care specialist Benjamin Spock argued that babies would be safer if they were laid on their tummies. If they vomited, they would not choke and sudden infant death syndrome would decline. It seemed to make perfect sense. But it proved tragically wrong. Even so faith in ‘logic’ over evidence continued to prevail for far too long. Good people doing what they thought made sense caused perhaps tens of thousands of babies to die unnecessarily. Sadly, the history of medicine is often the story of good intentions leading to bad results.
Spock’s advice was an example of what today we call a non-pharmaceutical intervention. When the pandemic began it seemed that NPIs were the way forward – lockdowns, bubbles, masks, Perspex screens, work from home, border controls and so on. I perfectly understand this. But a year and a half on we still have no idea which, if any of these, work in practice. We are expected to accept them as a matter of faith. The next step is then to say that if they are not working this is probably because we are not doing them hard enough – so what we need is more of the same. So, strong is the faith that the left has fallen for the argument that all that matters is NPI policy. Every variation in the number of covid cases and mortality is then simply a product of government’s not having the will to impose the harshest restrictions.
Some will say that even if NPIs don’t work they are not necessarily making things worse. The Spock example shows that to be a dangerous logic. And even if the effect of a NPI is neutral in itself it may crucially misdirect us from finding out what does. So this takes us to points 8 and 9.
|8. The role of policy in the pandemic is usually exaggerated
9. All interventions should be evidence based. This is not being done for non-pharmaceutical interventions.
There is something else. We cannot all lockdown. Someone has to keep things going – actually quite a lot of people. We know that covid strikes poorer communities who tend to do the work which cannot be done from home and in which people live on top of one another. We know too that if a school is closed poor children are the most disadvantaged. So we are absolutely not in this together. Some of us have been doing very nicely thankyou while others have served and continue to serve us. Covid and its mitigation is a class act. It is not enough to say: ‘well, we have argued that these people need decent sick pay’. We all need to reflect on how our protection is someone else’s risk. So this is point 10.
|10. Covid and non-pharmaceutical interventions fall unequally and that the middle classes use their position to off load risk onto others.
Maybe some NPIs too are just a step too far for other reasons? I do not think a border can ever keep out an infectious disease but I am part of that socialist tradition that believes all border controls are racist. I am horrified that people I used to respect now chase the mirage of zero covid, defend red list, amber lists etc, demand more state controls and celebrate state repression in the name of public health.
|11. The left compounds its failures by supporting reactionary covid nationalism, racist border controls, zero covid fantasies
What we should be doing is engaging in a sustained social critique that looks at how both covid as a disease and our response to it is moulded by capitalism and its inequalities and campaigning for change in something more than zoom meetings.
|12. A radical programme would look beyond lockdown sticking plasters at structural factors in housing, work, income and at the scale and nature of health service provision
We are now at important place where we have vaccines that work. I think they need careful monitoring but so far there is nothing to suggest that we should not persuade people to have them. But I say persuade. I do not believe we should force people. Indeed, I think force is counter-productive because it will be used by the repressive state against the most oppressed people. I would have thought that this was left politics for dummies. Yet it seems for many on the left the highest form of class struggle is condemning Boris Johnson while demanding that the state he runs takes more decisive action to coerce people.
There is something worse. Many on the left demand ‘save our kids’ by jabbing them. But we know that children are at minimum risk. Yet there are people who need vaccines today who are at much greater risk. The trouble is they are in Latin America, Africa and Asia and they need more than the cheap solidarity of a zoom meeting. So these are my final two points.
|13. Vaccines work and adults should be encouraged but not forced to have them
14. Global vaccine inequality is a disgrace made worse by demands to prioritise low-risk rich world kids
Is this view niche? If it is the shame perhaps lies with those imagine that they can use covid to fight a proxy war against capitalism from behind their own sofas.