(It’s a work in progress – I want to hear about yours, too.) What do we change, what do we scrap – what can we do?
Like many, I spent a lot of these last weeks zooming, reading and watching anything I could find to explain what’s happening to us and ask what we need to do. Here, I add my voice to those who think we’re in danger of taking several fatally wrong roads.
Who has been locked down, are they still locked down? – and who is alert?
Firstly, we did not have a lockdown. The UK government were notoriously hesitant about the idea of a shut-down and utterly unwilling to implement the kinds of measures other countries have taken to make it possible for people to stay off work for any length of time (you know, the things they did in France and Spain to get the rent paid and keep the food coming in).
What we did have was a massive, national effort, despite the government, to find and care for those who needed help staying at home. Many volunteers are still losing sleep over the fact that we almost certainly missed some people who were and are in severe difficulty. It’s hard to imagine a worse time to have an irresponsible government.
But we did well, and saved many from immediate disaster. What we had was a thinking, responsible majority who made it their business to find a way of life that minimised their travelling and potential virus-spreading, and volunteered in their thousands in many towns, to maximise their ability to help each other.
What we have now is a population who are increasingly aware that whatever our government thinks it’s for, it is not about putting people’s needs and wishes first. Why would we pay tax to, or support, a government that didn’t have those priorities?
So the first item on my post-lockdown manifesto is:
Re-purpose our government
It’s an administration, not some royal family that owns the country. Its first duty is supposed to be keeping the population as safe as possible, and keeping everyone supplied with the necessities of life. It’s supposed to ensure housing, healthcare, education, food supply and as much elbow-room for living a decent life as possible – the only thing I can imagine an honourable government prioritising above all that is to ensure our environment becomes and remains in a condition that allows humans to thrive – but there’s barely any sign of genuine action on climate and environment in this government.
Our government is serving some mythical beast called ‘the economy’ which appears to work well for tax-avoiding billionaires, is a disaster for the environment and treats people as disposable tools. And yet most people, whilst trying to act responsibly, are still trying to get their information from a media that obsesses alternately over government ministers and ‘the economy’.
Limit fatal viruses
One of the knottiest problems I read about this week is that despite the way the media allowed the government to present it, covid-19 is not a freak, is not a one-off, and was not unexpected.
There’s a vague understanding that it’s all the fault of something that happened in China, and is more likely to happen in ‘places like that’. Sometimes, a half-truth is worse than no information at all. It was China because of the range of wildlife there, the mixing of people, the mixing of people and animals, and the vast number of people who got on planes or in cars and travelled long distances with the virus (because the first wave of infection coincided with Chinese New Year activity.)
That means there are three obvious culprits:
1. increased wealth in some parts of the population creates an increase in long distance travel, particularly international by air and cruise ship;
2. population pressure encourages the constant delving into new wildlife-rich environments, delving which uncovers and carries cross-species infections,
3. financial pressure obliges poor people to work in crowded and unsanitary conditions.
None of those issues are unique to China, and covid-19 isn’t unique of its kind. We need to understand, and to act.
Social control or social change?
The conclusions offered by the Horizon documentary I watched during the week were that we need faster vaccine production and we need to limit social mixing.
The big problem with vaccine production is that we’re not looking at one virus but a new susceptibility to such viruses. That means we’ll always be a year or so behind – yes, we should seek a vaccine but if we do it at super-speed every time a SARS/covid type crisis happens, the casualties of hastily-tested vaccines could sometimes be just as numerous and tragic as the tragedies of viruses.
So, social control? I was horrified by the suggestion in the same program that a long-term social distancing strategy might be to go back to work and school, carefully, doing as much as possible online, and then not meeting people after work. Bearing in mind that most people don’t get to choose the nature of their work or their colleagues, and that the schools we have now, with the added tyranny of social distancing, may well be the worst possible environment for growing healthy children, the idea that we may all have to work all day then avoid family, friends and shared-interest comrades in our time off is appalling to the extent that we’d have to ask what life is for.
Careful science and people-centred change
I can’t emphasise enough that our government is not thinking in our interests. We need to do our own thinking, and come up with some requirements. Let us proceed with the vaccine search, but carefully. Meanwhile, let us look for answers to those three susceptibility factors.
1. Increased travel
Air and sea
Who does all the airplane hopping? It would be a good start to try and convince Harry down the road that there are good holidays to be had a lot nearer to home than Spain but let’s also look at big business, politics and war (modern war is pretty much the business that drives international politics – but it’s the arm that creates the worst and dirtiest air traffic). The people who think of themselves as ‘business class’ have long been of the opinion that meetings have to be in fancy destinations, and have to be three days long, to allow for a spot of skiing, sight-seeing or whatever (way too much of the whatever). That has to stop. And, remember that private jet that got sent back from France with a ‘no thank you’ during our first lock-down bank holiday? Rich people travelling for fun are a major cause of our trouble. I’m sure the government would like an answer to this that does not amount to wealth redistribution but I have a feeling realistic tax rates, especially a land tax and a flight tax would be a good start. Maybe private aircraft should be illegal.
Aircraft designed and used solely to rip round the world destroying other people’s towns and cities should of course be illegal. They do no good to anyone but the arms industry. Perhaps consider what would happen if the membership (and so funding) or organisations like Stop the War went up exponentially, as membership in the Labour Party did a few years back, when people got their hopes up…
In the first few weeks of ‘lock down’, many of us discovered a new world. I live on a relatively busy road and the improvement in air quality and the wildlife about the place was surprisingly quick and glorious to watch when the traffic stopped. Meanwhile, the front garden and the street and therefore neighbours and passers by became more a part of our lives. For the first time ever, I developed a habit of sitting in the front garden, smiling at people. A reminder for anyone who needed it that, as their cars gathered dust (or bird droppings for those without garages) the rest of their world improved enormously.
It would be nice to say ‘let’s just leave the car at home’ but that is difficult after decades of consolidation of services (ie, things getting further away). For the first half of my life, just about every household had a butcher, a baker, a greengrocer, a newsagent and a pub or café within walking distance, quite a few even had a small supermarket, and the vast majority of kids walked to the local school.
The government could make car use a rarity by severely restricting availability of petrol and diesel, and prioritising essential workers (food, cleaning and health and social care providers) and to some extent I think they should do that but perhaps more importantly, the government needs to put massive resources into enabling local food production and distribution, and local services, and also urgently look at why so many people now reject the nearest school (clue: they’re usually shopping around for something that’s not a robotic academy), and why children are hastily dropped off at school by parents driving to one of several jobs (clue: better wages and working conditions would mean parents would have more leeway for at least partial home-time in the family years).
Another factor is perceived risk to children on the street. When I was young, most kids walked to school then came home and played in the street. That would terrify most parents now – because of the amount of traffic, and because of perceived social danger. So – we need a larger police force, with officers trained to community focused practice, so that rather than telling us that if we’re attacked, the evidence will be on a camera somewhere, they can tell us we’re not likely to be attacked because the police are there, and know their patch.
One thing that would most definitely reduce the pressure of ‘the school run’ would be a guaranteed living wage for a working week that fits inside the school week – a policy that would also go a long way to solving unemployment and in-work poverty, by sharing readily available work more widely among those who need it. That is one of many measures which, at first glance, attract cries of ‘too expensive!’ – but I have a feeling that a bit of research into the extent and nature of the problems that would solve would reveal an overall saving rather than added costs.
Globally, there are twice as many of us as there were around 50 years ago. Yes, population growth has a lot to do with deforestation and other delvings into our remaining wildernesses but how much of it is essential? Just looking at the UK for now, what proportion of our housing shortage could be addressed by repurposing unused buildings, outlawing urban land-banking and, when we run out of brownfield sites, looking at golf courses, private estates, and other sources of land which are currently denied to the citizens of this country? I suspect that with a government of the right mind-set, we could leave the remaining wildernesses alone for a long time – but let us stick to the idea of brownfield sites – ex-industry, ex-commerce, derelict or empty, off-shore owned buildings, not everyone’s favourite urban green spaces and those stolen school grounds.
Beyond UK land use, let’s look at population growth. The single best known and best evidenced factor for reducing population growth is education, and offering alternative opportunities, particularly for women and girls, so that no-one feels they need a personal tribe to protect them in old age. Young people need to see a free choice of life-paths where they could grow and thrive, so that marrying and raising families isn’t seen as a vital, life-preserving pursuit.
3. Poverty and austerity
Poor people in crowded and unsanitary conditions – we know the answers to this, and must demand a government that prioritises them: better housing and land use, better pay and conditions for the people we now recognise as key workers – those who provide our food, health and social care, and a far, far greater emphasis on efficient public health.
We need to do the thinking
Lots of people are busy campaigning to try to get our government to take some of these issues seriously but it’s clear their mind-set doesn’t lead them that way. So what are they thinking?
Anyone who can remember what they said last month, and compare it with what they are saying this, can confirm that this is not an honest government. They aren’t telling us what they think. Far too many redacted papers are coming out of government committees to leave any doubt on that. We need to understand that deeply, keep it in mind as we work, and decide what we’re going to do about it. I was a part of the movement for popular democracy and socialism in the Labour Party. I have seen how efficiently the establishment came together to put paid to that, so don’t expect help from ‘above’.
For starters, here’s one guess at what at least some government ministers are thinking…
There is every indication that our government is still thinking in terms of herd immunity being the only solution – not just to covid-19 but to the growing virus susceptibility problem outlined above. The argument for that is bolstered by the discovery that people can get this virus, recover, develop an unknown level of immunity for we don’t know how long – but that they can get the virus again, and can then carry it around unknowingly, without developing noticeable symptoms.
That means unless and until an effective and universally affordable available vaccine is there (something private patenting companies will work against) the only conceivable herd-immunity type answer to that is to accept increased deaths every year from this, and the next, and the next new virus, or waiting for the next generation, a generation which will presumably pick up a degree of immunity from their mothers and/or a generation who catch the virus when young and not suffer so badly from it.
(note to self: add promote friendly assistance with breast feeding as much as possible to your manifesto!)
Maybe that would be an okay answer with a government that took full responsibility for those who remain vulnerable – but we don’t have that, we have a government dedicated to business-model ‘health care’, so when governments complain about spying (and a lot of them are doing that right now) what’s concerning them is that other countries or businesses will get hold of the solutions they are developing, thwarting their hopes of an exclusive discovery and a big-profit win – so along with our campaigns for safeguarding must come a demand for a much wider change of attitude from government. No-one should be just written off as too much bother to protect.
So – they won’t do it, we’ll have to. Good places to look for discussion or learning that I’ve found are The People’s Assembly Against Austertiy, Open Democracy and (particularly for Labour members) Don’t Leave Organise and the Labour Left Alliance. The chances are that your local party/TUC have started at least informal zoom meetings by now – so if you haven’t heard about any, do go ask questions, and…
What do you think?
This manifesto is a wish-list (actually, an urgent-needs list) and a load of questions. Here’s another – what do you think? Please take your ideas to any online meetings you’re joining, and/or post them here. Comments button below. I will especially value comments with links to events, campaign groups or other organisations readers might want to team up with to work on actively making change happen…