Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Covid and Protests

From the start of the Covid outbreak, Labour and sections of the Left have presented the narrative, also purveyed by the media, that it represented some kind of existential threat to society. Of course, that was never true, but the general acceptance of it as being true was the basis for the demand that the whole of society be closed down to protect it from that existential threat. Indeed, if such an existential threat really did exist, then closing down society, and more, would be justified. But, it isn't, and it doesn't. The result has been inevitable contradictions in the arguments of those who have pursued the existential threat narrative.

First of all, of course, was the failure to actually close everything down. If an existential threat existed, in which the whole of society was in immediate danger of contracting some highly contagious disease that laid waste to everyone it infected, like Ebola, then, of course, not only would society need, but we would also all have a duty to demand that everything be closed down, that borders be sealed and so on. Of course, socialists would demand that we have no faith in the capitalist state to effect that. We would demand that, although, inevitably, it was the existing border control staff, police, and even military that initially brought it about, that they be under close democratic control, and that, we begin to create workers militia to undertake such actions, with those involved being provided with all of the PPE required to do so. If society faced the existential threat we were being told it did, then everything other than the most vital services should have been operating, and they should have operated under very strict protocols of the kinds only seen under martial law.

But, of course, that was never the case. Indeed, deadly diseases such as Ebola, fortunately, tend to be less contagious, whereas more contagious diseases such as coronaviruses, flu and so on, tend to be less deadly. Flu kills around 0.1% of those it infects, whereas Ebola kills around 90% of those it infects, but whilst millions of people, each year, are infected by flu, the number infected by Ebola amounts only to a few thousand. In general, coronaviruses, which cause the common cold, are less deadly than flu, other than for specific groups of people who are vulnerable. Such is the case with COVID, which is simply one form of coronavirus. At the moment, the data suggests that the mortality rate from COVID is higher than for flu, but that is largely an illusion.

Firstly, the number of deaths attributed to COVID are for the number of people who die with it, not from it. In other words, because more than 90% of people, whose deaths are attributed to COVID, are people over 60, and the large majority of them over 80, many of the deaths attributed to COVID are not a result of COVID at all, but simply of the old age, and other illnesses of those who die. Indeed, the average age of death of those with COVID is 82, which is greater than the average life expectancy of someone in Britain. To be included in the COVID data all that is required is that someone die, from whatever cause, within 28 days of having had a positive COVID test. They might have died from being hit by a bus, and yet their death would be recorded in the COVID death data. With people who are ill being given tests when they go into hospital, and with many of them being infected after they go into hospital, COVID is often just a side issue, or, at best, a contributing factor. So the figure itself is bunk. But, also, because those who are actually at serious risk from COVID are only these elderly people, and, much less so, others with other immune system vulnerabilities, what has been seen is an unusually higher mortality rate amongst those specific groups of people.

The truth is that we have no idea how many people in Britain have had COVID, because, for at least 80% of the population, who become infected, it produces no symptoms, or only mild cold like symptoms. By definition, the mortality rate amongst this huge section of the population is near zero, and yet is not represented in the official data, because those who are infected, but asymptomatic, never appear in the numbers of total infections. Only in random token gestures of mass testing of asymptomatic people do they, by chance, appear in the data, but those tests themselves are highly inaccurate. Nor do they show up all those who have actually been infected in the past, and who have, thereby, developed natural immunity. They only show up a tiny snapshot of those who might be infected at the specific moment they are tested.

Indeed, large numbers of people who have been given the COVID vaccine probably didn't need it, because, had they been properly tested for COVID antibodies, it would have shown that they had previously been infected, had been asymptomatic, and developed natural immunity anyway. If the actual number of people who die from COVID, as against with it, turns out to be even as high as 50,000, whilst the total number infected is 50 million, that is a mortality rate of 1:1,000, or 0.1%, the same as for flu. In fact, if those in the 20% actually at risk had been protected, the actual number of deaths would have been reduced to a fraction of that figure.

Yet, considering that all of the narrative was that COVID represented the greatest threat short of the zombie apocalypse, not only was no attempt at focused protection of that at risk group made, but the treatment of them was so lax that it made you wonder whether they were being deliberately sacrificed. For one thing, NHS hospitals did not even make any arrangements to establish isolation hospitals or even wards. They wasted tens of millions on show-piece Nightingale hospitals that remained as empty as a ghost town in a western, whilst, they placed people with COVID in the same wards as other elderly and vulnerable patients. No wonder that more than 25% of the people treated for COVID in NHS hospitals actually became infected with it after they went to hospital for some other reason. Then we had the NHS knowingly sending people with COVID back to care homes where they spread it to the other most vulnerable group of people, the elderly in those homes! No wonder not only that the elderly account for more than 90% of deaths, but that care homes account for around 40% of deaths, with the NHS the other large contributor to the total. If COVID was the existential threat we were being told, then this was a very, very strange way of going about dealing with it.

Whilst huge numbers of elderly and vulnerable people were being exposed to the virus in NHS hospitals and care homes every day, the focus of government, media, and opposition, instead was placed upon closing down the rest of society, where the number of deaths and serious illness was miniscule by comparison, but the latter played into the narrative of the existential threat, in a way that large numbers of deaths in NHS hospitals and care homes of elderly people clearly did not.

So, the mortality rate is distorted by the fact that it is based upon a large number of elderly people, who are the group more or less exclusively at serious risk from COVID, and amongst whom the data on infections is well known, whilst the large majority of the population, who may well have been infected, but who are asymptomatic, and so amongst whom the mortality rate is near zero, never appear in that data, or only accidentally. Given that the mortality rate is based upon the ratio of deaths to reported infections, the problem with this metric is apparent. Add in the fact that a large proportion of reported COVID deaths, are not due to COVID, at all, but to old age, and other associated illness, and the extent to which the mortality rate is an illusion can be seen.

Comparing it with the mortality rate for flu is, then, deeply flawed, because, unlike COVID, pretty much everyone who gets the flu is highly symptomatic, and, because it is potentially deadly to everyone, in fact more so for younger age groups, whereas COVID targets the elderly more or less exclusively, the mortality rate for flu is reliable whereas that for COVID is not. But, the comparison is also not valid, because we have had widespread flu vaccinations for those at most risk from it for decades, which means a large proportion of the population is protected from it. If we compare the mortality rates from flu, in bad years, such as 1968, 1957, or 1918, they are comparable to, and even worse than the numbers presented for COVID. Yet, there was no mass panic, no closing down of society in those previous pandemics.

And, this inflation of the COVID mortality rate has happened from the start. For example, if we take the Chinese data used by Imperial College, at the start of the outbreak, and used for its predictions that 45 million might die globally, and half a million in Britain alone, we find that this data only covered reported infections, even though it was well known that the vast majority of infections were asymptomatic, and so not reported. But, worse than that, the Chinese, in collecting this data, took out all of those that were actually known to have been previously infected with COVID, but who had recovered – or were never seriously ill – and so who had immunity. So, the number of actual infections were knowingly understated, which meant that the mortality rate was grossly overstated. Yet, the team at Imperial used this highly flawed Chinese data as the basis for their calculations of predicted mortality rates, and deaths!

Throughout the last year, this myth about an existential threat to society from COVID has been fostered. Even if we took the number of COVID deaths at face value, then the 125,000 deaths in the UK represents only a quarter of the average annual number of deaths. But, given that this average hides the fact that, in a good year, in recent times, UK deaths are as low as 400,000, and in a bad year as high as 625,000, that 125,000 figure will be seen as a mere blip, and far from any kind of existential threat. Indeed, every year, 80,000 people die from smoking related illness, and a further 320,000 come down with a serious smoking related disease. That represents a more existential threat to society than does COVID, because, with or without vaccines, it could not continue to kill the same numbers each year, as a result of the development of herd immunity.

The myth benefited from a perfect confluence of forces. On the one hand, a Tory government, facing the realities of the disaster of Brexit, was able to distract attention away from the chaos its policy had created. By presenting COVID as some kind of once in a century existential crisis, it could also distract attention from the crisis in the NHS, a crisis which occurs every Winter, and which has been exacerbated, not by COVID, but by a decade of Tory austerity, and the inability to recruit staff, as a result of Brexit.

For a 24 hour news media that needs something to justify its existence, now as entertainment as much as a news service, COVID was the best thing to come its way since the last war, on which it could provide wall to wall sensational coverage. For Labour, it was the perfect vehicle to opportunistically attack the Tories, without having to deal with its own pathetic record, and deficiencies, including its own collapse into Brexit nationalism and jingoism. All that was required, as with Brexit, was to demand that the Tories be even more reactionary, even more authoritarian, and to criticise them for their failure to be so. For sections of the Left, who have been insisting that capitalism is in crisis, and on the verge of collapse, despite the evidence of people's eyes indicating the opposite, it was a perfect opportunity to blame the virus on capitalism, and to insist that the economy be collapsed to confront it, so as to either confirm their assertions, or else as an act of spite, in which the failure of capitalism to collapse, as predicted, justified a desire that everything should just go to shit, reminiscent of the attitude of the Oehlerites, described by Trotsky.

But, the false narrative inevitably led to contradictions. Society was not closed down as was proposed, and as would have been required if any such existential threat really existed. In fact, the GDP data shows that at least 80% of the labour that normally occurs continued to occur. Workers were required to continue to go to work, other than in a very few cases, where shops and such facilities were closed down. Of course, not even all, or even most, shops were closed. To get to work, millions continued to travel by bus, train and taxi, each being, of course perfect vectors for virus transmission, were any such existential threat really to exist. The laxity and contradictions in all these measures, required to ensure the continued operation of the capitalist economy, are in stark contrast to the message of impending doom that we were being fed by the government, opposition and media.

And, the same contradictions were seen in respect of the Left that had been insisting on hard lockdowns for its own sectarian reasons of willing on catastrophe. Once an issue arose in which large sections of young people felt motivated to take to the streets to protest, over Black Lives Matter, that sectarian, opportunist Left that had clamoured for the harshest possible lockdowns, found itself in a bind, because now that narrative conflicted with the fact that a large part of its natural constituency was breaching its narrative, by taking to the streets. You can imagine the dilemma groups like the SWP would have had with this had their been some major strike, with mass pickets on the streets. None of these groups had even raised the question about how, to deal with the conditions created by the pandemic, it required the introduction of measures of workers' control and self government, so as to operate workplaces safely, and so on. They all just piled into the call for everything to be shut, for workers to be locked out, for everything to be stopped, even though common sense meant that such a course of action was not possible, something even the bosses realised. As Marx had said long before,

“Every child knows that any nation that stopped working, not for a year, but let us say, just for a few weeks, would perish.”

In order to extricate themselves from the mire of opportunism they had sunk into with the narrative about an existential crisis, and the need, therefore, to close everything down, these sections of the Left, in order not to alienate themselves from the protesters, had to find other excuses as arguments to square their positions. And, that has materialised again over last weekend with the vigil held over the murder of Sarah Everard. If all those who have been claiming that society faced an existential threat, as against what it really faced, which was a serious pandemic that is almost exclusively targeted on the over 60's, then its clear that whether legal or illegal, no such protests and social gatherings should be allowed.

As socialists, we have no faith in the capitalist state and its police, but the reality is that, here and now, that is what exists, and so any legislation banning such gatherings, is necessarily going to be implemented by that capitalist and its bodies of armed men. When anyone on the Left called for bans on social gatherings, and other such illiberal measures that was the reality they should have factored into their calculations, not some dream world of a future society in which worker exercise such control. If you demanded these measures of lock downs and so on, you automatically demanded the means of enforcing them that were inevitably going to follow. Given what we know about the nature of the state and of its bodies of armed men, in our dealings with it during strikes, and other protests, why any socialist would want to hand that power to them is a mystery to me.  Its like some liberal interventionist demanding that imperialist troops invade some other country, but then act as liberal humanitarians!

Now, as the logic of that unfolds, those that have pursued it have been led into further byzantine arguments. We are told now that the police cannot impose blanket bans on protest because that conflicts with the Human Rights Act, and right to freedom of assembly and protest. They can only ban each event separately. But, that changes nothing. The virus itself does not discriminate between those engaged in legitimate or illegitimate social gatherings! So, if your argument has been that the virus represents an existential threat, then it continues to do so whatever reason you have for such gatherings. If you believe what you have been shovelling for the last year, then there could be no legitimate reason for you to have been assembling, just because on this occasion it suits your agenda! This is the epitome of opportunist politics.

And, the same is true with Labour. For the last year, it has been egging the Tories on to ever more authoritarian measures. Now it has sought to attack them and the Metropolitan Police for implementing the very lock down policies it has been calling for. More, it is now deciding to vote against the new Tory legislation on protests, and yet, for the last year, it has been at the forefront on demanding that protests and other social gatherings be banned. Again this is the epitome of opportunism, and, as each day goes by, more instances of these contradictions are developed.

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