Lashing together a life raft: Covid-19 strategies for the left

Reflecting on two years of Covid-19, James Meadway lays out the challenges the British left will have to adapt to and confront

May 20, 2022 · 7 min read
Illustration by Laurence Ware

This article first appeared in Issue #235, ‘Educate, agitate, organise’, published March 2022.  Subscribe today to read more articles and support fearless, independent media.

If it wasn’t clear already, the Omicron variant has drummed the message home: Covid-19 is not going away. We may get better vaccine technology, and we certainly will improve the treatments as we come to understand Covid-19 better. We can hope (but not guarantee) that future variants will be less destructive. The central question for progressives and socialists should be how we adapt fairly and effectively to our changed reality.

Cost-cutting, however, is likely to shape both big employers’ and the Tory government’s approach. Covid-19 has already imposed appalling costs on society: 5.5 million people have died with the virus globally, and current estimates suggest that 1.3 million people in Britain alone suffer from ‘long Covid’. The Health Fund estimated at the end of 2020 that the costs to the NHS of managing Covid-19 in the long run will come to £10 billion extra a year.

Lateral flow tests – critical to managing the virus – will soon no longer be available free on demand. Statutory sick pay will remain at miserly levels. Major employers, such as Ikea and Ocado, have said they will reduce sick pay for their unvaccinated workers in a classic attempt at divide-and-rule cost-cutting.

Partly as a result of Covid, the ‘cost of living crisis’ is unlikely to disappear. Surging demand for gas as economies reopen has caused its price to spike, but the government’s response is to push those costs onto households while letting a few major gas producers, such as Shell and BP, make record profits.

Back to ‘normality’

Attempts to manage costs go together with the rush to demonstrate that ‘normality’ has returned. The drive to push people back into their workplaces is part of an ideological rollback on some of the more challenging ideas that the pandemic has thrown up. What we pay for work may not reflect its true value, as with delivery riders; ‘efficiency’ and cost-cutting may directly hurt people.

The Tory right, grouped around the Coronavirus Research Group, has become notorious for its insistence that life should just carry on as if nothing has happened. On its fringe, this has shaded into outright denial that Covid-19 exists as a serious threat. The anti-lockdown right is building on the real and understandable frustrations of the past two years.

But the response to the delusions peddled by the anti-vaxxers shouldn’t be illusions of our own. We have to recognise that this battle of ideas has roots in real difficulties and challenges. Socialists and progressives must start from a recognition of the hard facts of life with Covid.

First, we should rule out some non-starters. ‘Zero Covid’ is over. Even China, with its immense political and economic resources, is starting to feel the strain of policing a virus as infectious as the Omicron variant. No other country is still pursuing the goal of eliminating Covid-19.

Second, we cannot allow ourselves to become painted as enthusiasts for lockdown. While perhaps for a section of the service sector middle classes working from home, ordering takeaways and binge-watching Netflix doesn’t seem too bad, somebody else has been delivering the food and the Amazon packages – often in miserable conditions.

Covid-19 is one part of the broader challenge of adaptation

Third, we should be aware that while Covid-19 has been an unusually far-reaching disaster for humanity, it will not be the last such calamity. The rate at which new diseases emerge is accelerating, and intensive farming and climate change are set to increase it further. New pandemics should be expected. At the same time, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and over the past year have driven food price spikes. Even semi-conductor manufacture has been affected, as droughts in Taiwan and wildfires in Texas hurt production. Our economies, designed around just-in-time production, economic insecurity and fragile but allegedly ‘efficient’ essential services, are not built to withstand shocks like these.

The challenge to adapt

Covid-19 is one part of the broader challenge of adaptation – but a critically important one. A socially just programme for adaptation must start with a realistic assessment of how the costs of the virus can be minimised and the burden spread more fairly. There are some signs of Labour politicians waking up to the challenge. Labour’s new health secretary, Wes Streeting, has presented the party’s plans for life with Covid-19. These include maintaining a national manufacturing capability for rapid testing, better resourcing for the NHS and big increases and extended coverage for statutory sick pay.

Yet these proposals still fall short of the wider plan for economic and social adaptation required. Some of this will take a physical form: the shift to online shopping and out of city centre workplaces represents a permanent loss for existing high street economies. We will not be able to manage high streets as we have, centred on commercial activity. Instead, we need to reimagine them as public spaces – converting shops into galleries, shared workspaces or libraries, or turning underused city streets into parks and green spaces.

If social distancing remains an intermittent requirement in the future, our public spaces need to be enlarged and expanded. And if social contact remains problematic, we should prioritise and support those real-world contacts we find valuable – social occasions, meeting friends in the pub – over those we dislike, like commuting. Economic valuation must consequently shift towards wellbeing measurement.

If extended supply chains are at risk of global disruption, production should be brought closer to consumption. Circular economy measures to promote reusing, recycling and reprogramming could be critical here and the tax system used to support this. Taxes should be used to shift the burden of ecological adjustment onto the wealthiest, and prices subject to ecological shocks – as in the spike in food and gas prices – selectively regulated and subsidised.

The benefits of working from home and reduced working time should be made more widely available, reducing the ecological impact of commuting. Fast, free, reliable broadband is an essential in this new world. But so, too, is a secure form of income not tied to work: the case for universal basic income is becoming very clear, both as social insurance against future shocks and as support for flexibility in the use of time.

We are looking at a future that is worse than many of us expected and any of us wanted. There is little space for optimism in the world we are entering, but instead an urgent need to respond to its demands with a sober sense of its constrained possibilities. Our aim should not be to build utopia, but to lash together a life raft.

James Meadway is director of the Progressive Economy Forum 

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