Stay Alert: the Poor are Expendable

The UK government’s decision making during the Coronavirus pandemic has been Boris Johnson’s persona in policy form. Bumbling, scruffy and barely concealing cold, calculated ambition.

The address given on Sunday, laying out the ‘plan’ to ease lockdown is the latest example of this. The ‘stay alert’ message is vague to the point of meaningless. The government is tired of us staying at home and being unproductive so they decided that slogan needed to change. Transferring the onus on the public to keep eyes and ears open for an invisible virus means it will be our fault if there is a second wave. But at least some manufacturing will have taken place in the meantime. When your ‘utterly bonkers’ strategy has made even mild-mannered Phillip Schofield irate, there are obviously gaping holes in it.

With this Conservative government, the economy trumps humanity every time. The easing of restrictions is not in response to medical advancements or public unrest, so we can only assume it at the behest of impatient donors. There has been a decline in the number of deaths, and the percentage of those that are due to Covid-19 in the past couple of weeks, but there is a lag in getting death data and without an accurate testing programme we can’t be sure that figure will continue to decrease. In his announcement, Johnson applauded the efforts of the public so far but added “we must also recognise that this campaign against the virus has come at colossal cost to our way of life.

We can see it all around us in the shuttered shops and abandoned businesses and darkened pubs and restaurants. His definition of our way of life is centred entirely on commerce. The reason for lifting lockdown is not so we may see our family, improve our mental health or feel freedom of movement. The urgent need is for access to shops and opportunities to consume. Never mind that over 80% of British people want health to have equal or greater impact than the economy on decisions to remove restrictions.

Despite repeated claims from the government that they are ‘following the science’, a group of medical professionals have felt the need to convene an independent version of SAGE, the scientific advisory group. The new government guidance does not follow this group’s advice or the example of other countries, who are starting to ease measures after being in lockdown for longer and having a better idea of the extent of infection. Independent SAGE warns that the response needs to be proactive, not just limited to preventing the NHS from being overwhelmed. A rigorous testing system should be implemented locally, and start with hospitals, care homes, prisons and crowded housing. Rushing to get ‘back to normal’ is likely to result in a second wave of infections and render the sacrifices we have made so far utterly pointless.

When the virus first reached the UK, the government’s early responses seemed to be based on attempting to achieve ‘herd immunity’. This was strenuously denied, as was the report that Dominic Cummings had said this approach would “protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.  There was not then, and there is not now, evidence that contracting the virus results in future immunity from the disease.  There is, however, evidence emerging that even after recovery there may be long-term symptoms and consequences, including lung scarring, heart damage and cognitive impairment.

So who will be suffering these consequences and – ‘too bad’ – losing their lives?

The poor, the working class and ethnic minorities.

These groups are already dying at a higher rate than the wider population. Men in lower paid jobs such as bus drivers, security guards and care workers are suffering the most: the kinds of jobs you can’t do on a laptop while your banana bread is in the oven. People of ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in these people-facing roles and this may be contributing to the alarming death rate among this group. At least a quarter of the working population have been traveling to work as normal during the ‘lockdown’ period but now Johnson has urged us ‘back’ to work this will undoubtedly rise, increasing the risk to those who continued working as well as those now leaving home.

A huge danger for those returning to work is the journey. Government guidance issued since Sunday included the massive understatement that “there may be situations where you can’t keep a suitable distance from people” on travel networks. We have already seen the packed buses and tubes in London this week. The RMT has expressed anger at the risk this poses to its members as well as the public. Johnson’s tone-deaf advice was for people to travel by car if they can. They can’t. Of the people with the lowest incomes, only 35% of households have a car.  In the fight against a disease that attacks the respiratory system, it is unacceptable to encourage drivers back on the roads.

Not if they are heading off on a lovely day trip, apparently. The new guidelines have lots of baffling detail on how we can travel and socialize more, including driving to another area for our daily walk. How on earth is this a priority? Fresh air and exercise are fresh air and exercise, whatever the distance from your home. It’s pleasant to have a change of scene, but surely this is not as vital as the life of a bus driver? The essential activities of angling, tennis and golf are also now available to us. Well, to those of us they were available to before.  Of course physical contact and the sharing of equipment is far easier to manage at a golf club than a park playground, but the fact that the space and stimulation needs of rich white men are prioritized over city-dwelling children tells us all we need to know about the government’s priorities.

Hilariously, in his announcement Johnson specifically said “I believe that as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom – Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland, there is a strong resolve to defeat this together. And today a general consensus on what we could do”, at the very moment the leaders of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales were preparing guidance for their own populations that are in almost complete opposition to England’s. Perhaps there is a magical force field along the borders that renders the virus far less potent there. His aim is clearly not about getting the country moving again, but the City. For that to happen, he needs the working-class people who turn the cogs of the financial machine in the line of fire. They are to be sacrificed for a herd immunity that doesn’t exist and an economy reliant on a smaller, younger, whiter population.


Comments (14)

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  1. Zoonotic Gnostic says:

    The article claims there is no evidence that contracting the virus confers immunity and provides a link to a 24thApril WHO briefing on this subject.
    The day after WHO released this statement they clarified their position on Twitter as follows: ‘Earlier today we tweeted about a new WHO scientific brief on immunity passports. The thread caused some concern and we would like to clarify: We expect that most people who are infected with COVID 19 will develop an antibody response that will provide some level of protection.’

    1. Molly Scanlan says:

      Thank you for pointing that out. Our knowledge about the disease is developing all the time. Still not a great idea just to let huge swathes of the population get it, though!

      1. Zoonotic Gnostic says:

        Huge swathes of the population already have it or have had it. Researchers from University of Manchester, Salford Royal and Res Consortium have shown that a significant proportion of people in the UK – over 25% – is likely to have been infected already by the COVID 19 virus.
        The findings are published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice and conclude that the R-value is well below 1.
        Dr Adrian Heald of University of Manchester has said that: ‘COVID 19 is a highly infectious condition and very dangerous for a small group of people. However a much larger group seem to have low or no symptoms and have been unreported. This study tried to provide an estimate of the number of historic infections – and gives us all a glimmer of hope that there may be light at the end of the tunnel.’

    2. Jeffrey Lever says:

      “We expect” … “some level” … of protection? On that basis, we’d be more likely to crush the virus by a rigorous lockdown-plus, as China and others in SE Asia/West Pacific did in fewer than eleven weeks. Why are our boastful “entrepreneurial” leaders so much less ambitious for us than the “orientals” whom they have historically considered to be their inferiors? The restoration of most businesses is unrealistic unless they fully reconfigure their business models to ensure social distancing, or merely allow the contagion to continue transmission, infecting, disabling or killing their employees, owners and customers. No prizes for guessing which of these choices will prevail under Johnson. Conversely, using social solidarity to attack the virus hard, and mopping up residual cases in single figures, saves countless lives AND reduces the disruption of established businesses in the short and long term.

    3. Chris Connolly says:

      That’s an equivocal statement to say the least. “We EXPECT that MOST people infected with COVID-19 will develop an antibody response that will provide SOME level of protection.”

      Relaxing the lockdown measures would be a much better idea if it read “We KNOW that EVERYBODY infected with C-19 will develop an antibody response that will provide TOTAL protection. ”

      The English government’s approach is like building a housing complex close to a nuclear power station and saying “We EXPECT there won’t be an accident that irradiates the immediate area.” Much better to build it somewhere else (or not at all) and to keep the lockdown measures in place till there is confidence we are not going to invite a second wave and have to start all over again.

      1. Zoonotic Gnostic says:

        Chris and Jeffrey, you both refer to the WHO quote and completely miss the study I mentioned by the University of Manchester.
        The article published by the University to promote the study says R-value ‘fell as a consequence of social distancing combined with the natural consequences of cumulative community infection.’
        Community infection is just a polite term for herd immunity. They are saying , love it or loathe it, herd immunity is what you’re getting.

        1. Chris Connolly says:

          Fair point, ZG.

          Dr Heald’s comments are even more equivocal that the WHO statement, mynd ye.

  2. James Mills says:

    It is being reported that ”delirium and confusion ” are often aftereffects of those who have had Coronavirus – as a recovering patient this would explain much of Boris Johnson’s recent change of policy !
    Or will that be an excuse he uses during the Whitewash Inquiry ?

  3. meg macleod says:

    The government is missing an opportunity to rearrange the social structures..something so many people desire to be done….I too thought ..good..we have a chance to out right all the things that have drifted to the surface..but of course it is a vain hope with the conservative priorities overlooking the detritus left behind by their policies. People must vote for something different do we make that happen.perhsps a law that politicians are not allowed to lie might help .

    1. Blair says:

      Our politicians have a plan

      One day they will realise that this one will be as unsuccessful as the rest because they lack comprehension of how incompatible their ideas are.

  4. Josef Ó Luain says:

    Predictably, Macron and Merkel are in the process of drumming support amongst E.U. member states for a borrowing spree in the world money markets, supposedly to alleviate the fall-out from the pandemic. Back-to-future it is then, with the banks laughing and austerity for the greater citizenry well into the future.

    1. JP58 says:

      Interest Rates are at all time low rates.
      We need to borrow money to build economy to increase tax threshold and support people.
      What is alternative cutting and austerity like post 2010. This has hollowed out our public services and chickens have come home to roost with lack of infrastructure to deal with covid.

  5. Mach1 says:

    Yes, we are all learning as we go along, but some are faster learners. The situation in our largely private, publicly funded, care homes is a case in point, as the latest evidence from Hong Kong suggests:
    It is difficult to address the structural failings of past privatisations, but if the most vulnerable are to be protected, I would hope the Scottish Government takes heed. Failure to give age range breakdowns of death tolls on a daily basis has also detracted from the stark reality of who is at most risk: the elderly and infirm. Othersanomalies will have to be investigated much more closely, including the now largely unused ventilator capacity that was built up despite some medics warning they were inappropriate for treating patients with a respiratory disease. Covid is not like a Sars virus; it is a Sars/Mers-type virus, it would appear and the lack of preparedness for its inevitable appearance is the greatest scandal of the current crisis.

  6. SleepingDog says:

    Yes, we should be paying greater scrutiny to any cold calculations rather than bumbling performances (my impression is that Boris Johnson autocue-reading is adequate, if unreassuring). Johnson will have his own idea of the noble lie (often associated with lying nobles). Plato’s version in The Republic was the basis of justifying an invented class (or caste) system.
    According to Christopher Hill in his book The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution, the noble lie was reasserted in England after the failed revolution and restoration of the monarchy. The poor again had to wait for a better world in heaven, swallowing the piae fraudes (holy cheats) of the clergy that kept them in their place, whilst courtiers could sin as long as they “did not justify such practices openly”. Hypocrisy, cant, double standards reasserted as if they never went out of fashion. The Lord Mayor shows return, while “The greatest show of all was the monarchy.” Hill also claims that William Blake condemned the classics for desolating Europe with wars. So an essential component of the classical, elitist education of the modern British aristocrats groomed for power is the delivery of the noble lie, straight to camera.

    To the frustration of Conservative leaders, decreasing public faith in afterlife solutions means that people tend to be more sceptical of the preacher’s offer of pie in the sky in Joe Hill’s satirical song.

    Perhaps the benefits of unionization will occur to more people.

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