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Starmer Chameleon

26th April 2020

Keir-Starmer

Labour Leader, Kier Starmer – choices to be made

It is a well known characteristic of the leopard that it cannot change its spots.  The chameleon however is a creature of quite a different type, able to change it skin colour in order to blend in with its background.  Red, green or blue, the chameleon adapts in order not to stand out, becoming indistinguishable from any context it happens to find itself.

In his campaign to become Leader of the Labour Party, Kier Starmer was conscious of the popularity with the Labour membership of the policies developed under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.  Nationalisation of railways, the mail service and water have not been ruled out under Starmer for example.  Part of his ten point plan is to repeal the Tory Trade Union Act, which restricts the rights of workers.  He has been quoted as saying he will defend his party’s values including opposing “the moral injustice of poverty, inequality, homelessness”.

If Starmer is to be true to these promises then he will need a team around him which is capable of delivering and one which believes in this vision as the way forward for Labour.  So far, the signs are not good.  Starmer has been quick to remove Rebecca Long Bailey, Dianne Abbott and Jon Trickett from the National Executive Committee.  They are replaced by key Starmer supporters Jim McMahon, Jo Stevens and Jonathan Reynolds, who do not inspire confidence in sustaining progressive policies.

Starmer has found space for Long Bailey in the Shadow Cabinet, as Shadow Education Secretary, but she is very much in a minority of even remotely left wing voices in Labour’s top team.

Starmer is faced with two immediate issues he needs to address in order to determine Labour’s way forward under his leadership.

Firstly, there is the question of the leaked report into Labour officials effectively sabotaging Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and in particular the 2017 election campaign.  There can be little doubt that those engaged in such activity should be excluded from Labour’s ranks and that their actions should be universally condemned.  Starmer has said that the investigation he has initiated with Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner, will report by July.  Action arising from that report will be awaited with interest.

Secondly, there is the stance of Labour on the issue of COVID-19 and how to handle the current pandemic.  In general, Starmer has taken the ‘national unity’ approach, offering ‘constructive criticism’ of the government while at the same time broadly supporting its efforts to get the pandemic under control.

The consensus of the political and media establishment is that it would be wrong to ‘play politics’ at such a crucial time.  Yet, as ever, politics it is.  Every decision taken by the government is a political one, however much it claims to be led by the science.  The Chief Medical Officer can express his opinion but it is the government which must decide what to do.

Not to ‘play politics’ is merely to cover up the scandal of the government’s mishandling of the pandemic and fail to expose the fact that thousands of deaths could have been avoided with quicker, more decisive action.

A confidential Cabinet Office briefing from 2019, leaked to The Guardian recently, is clear on the need to stockpile PPE, establish protocols for contact tracing and draw up plans to manage a surge in excess deaths.  This report appears to have been sidestepped.  In addition, the government’s initial herd immunity strategy, flying in the face of World Health Organisation (WHO) advice, proved disastrous and was quickly reversed when it was clear that deaths were escalating.

While lockdown measures appear to be flattening the curve of the pandemic the PPE situation for frontline NHS staff and carers remains a scandal, while plans to expand testing and reintroduce contact tracing look cumbersome at best.

In the face of the mounting body count leading Tories appear more concerned about finding ways of lifting the lockdown and allowing businesses to function.  In the longer term this will be necessary but the country has the wealth to support business through this, if the government is prepared to take the necessary measures to squeeze the taxes of the rich, repatriate unearned income from offshore tax havens and commit to public investment post crisis to keep the economy moving.

The first priority must be to save lives.  Labour should be making this clear while making it equally clear that investment in the NHS, public health, social care and local government infrastructure will be vital to preparations for any future pandemic.  It will also mean better lives for working class families in the meantime.

If that is playing politics, Kier Starmer needs to get into the game, pick his side and make it clear which colour shirt he is wearing.  Unlike the chameleon, this is no time to be changing colour midway through the match.

 

 

 

Iran – regime negligent in the face of COVID-19

19th April 2020

Tehran shoppersShoppers in Iran last week – smart distancing?

The Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR) has accused the Iranian regime of gross irresponsibility and negligence in its approach to the COVID-19 pandemic in Iran.  While there were widespread indications that the virus had reached Iran in January, the regime refused to acknowledge its presence or take any measures to prevent its spread.

CODIR cites as evidence of the Iranian regime’s negligence the fact that the regime wanted mass participation in the celebrations marking the 41st anniversary of the 1979 Revolution on 11th February, as well as encouraging a high turnout for the parliamentary elections, that took place on the 20th February.

The regime’s policy towards the COVID-19 pandemic has proven costly.  The regime only announced the first two coronavirus deaths on the afternoon of polling day when the election was already well underway. By then the virus had taken hold throughout the country.

As of 17th April, according to the regime’s official figures, there were 80,868 cases of the virus resulting in 5,031 deaths.  However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has expressed doubts about these figures, given the size of the population in Iran (85 million) and the lateness with which any controls were introduced.

The recent announcement by the regime that Iranians should return to work will only exacerbate this situation and is likely to result in a more rapid spread of the pandemic.  In response to criticism of the policy, President Rouhani has stated that he would rather see 2 million die than 30 million hungry out on the streets.

Rouhani has urged people to use private cars after there were crowded buses on the first day of the relaxed rules last weekend, while the metro has called for “smart distancing”, although what this means in practice is not clear.

Iran’s medical system organisation expressed concern, saying smart distancing “was being introduced without considering the scientific and executive justifications for the project, or the threat that the past efforts of all people, officials and medical staff will be wasted”.

Surveys cited by the government showed that a third of people are experiencing financial problems.  Ali Rabiei, Rouhani’s spokesman, has said that the Covid-19 crisis has affected 3.3 million official employees through dismissal, suspension or reduction of wages, with a further 4 million self-employed also feeling its impact.

While the country’s under resourced and over stretched health sector struggles to deal with the pandemic, the sanctions imposed upon the regime by the United States have not only stayed in place but have been expanded.

The US is refusing to spare Iranian people from the negative impact of the sanctions, which affect the availability and provision of food and medicine while destroying the economic fabric of the country.  The United Nations and leading European powers including Britain, France and Germany have officially called on the US to remove the sanctions in order for a humanitarian relief effort to take place to help the beleaguered country’s people.

The US however continues to block a $5bn emergency loan application to the IMF by Iran to help tackle the COVID-19 crisis.

Against this background the fate of political prisoners is also cause for particular concern.  Prisoners are kept in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and are subject to routine mistreatment.  Since early-February there have been continual calls for the release of political prisoners or for them to at least be granted temporary leave.

Just before the Iranian New Year on 20th March, the regime grudgingly assented to the release of thousands of prisoners.  However, those political prisoners with a sentence of longer than 5 years were excluded from the release.

The regime is refusing to support the call for the provision of a safe environment for emergency work to be carried out and is not providing guarantees for workplaces that decide to stop production owing to the pandemic.  This means that workers are coerced into going to their workplaces, despite the dangers, rather than being left jobless, destitute and hungry.

The combination of the ineptitude of the Iranian regime and the vengeful action of the US, in intensifying sanctions, is putting the lives of many ordinary Iranians at risk.  Both must be opposed; both must be stopped.

 

Spies in the camp

15th April 2020

StarmerCorbyn

Kier Starmer – will he call out those who undermined Corbyn?

There has never been any doubt that political factions within the Labour Party consistently worked to undermine the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.  The abortive Owen Smith leadership bid of 2016 for example, with Lisa Nandy as campaign co- chair.  The Chuka Umunna led split to create the short lived political embarrassment of Change UK.  The regular pronouncements of former Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, culminating in the creation of internal faction Future Britain, in express opposition to the official policies of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.

Current leader, Kier Starmer, was to the forefront in calling for a second referendum on Brexit, in stark contrast to the agreed conference policy of honouring the referendum outcome, a position which had blown a hole in Theresa May’s majority in 2017 and brought Corbyn within a whisker of Number 10.

The Labour right though, wanting neither Corbyn as Prime Minister nor departure from the EU, deliberately failed to unite around and build upon the 2017 manifesto but consistently worked to undermine it.  A nest of spies in the camp.  The Tories, the BBC and the right wing media had no problem with following this line.

A leaked internal report, circulated at the weekend, shows just how deep the antipathy to Corbyn went, especially amongst those employed by the Labour Party to support Corbyn’s work as Leader of the Opposition.   The 860 page report, seen by Sky News initially but subsequently circulated more widely, finds “abundant evidence of a hyper-factional atmosphere prevailing in Party HQ”, going on to suggest that this “affected the expeditious and resolute handling of disciplinary complaints.”

This is significant as the major area of complaint focussed upon are those of antisemitism within the Labour Party.  Corbyn was consistently vilified by the press and his own Parliamentary party for failing to act swiftly enough in dealing with alleged antisemitism.    The leaked report indicates that, far from Corbyn being slow to act, the Party machinery deliberately sabotaged attempts to deal with the issue in order for it to be an ongoing source of embarrassment for Corbyn.

In the 10,000 emails and thousands of WhatsApp messages cited in the report it is claimed that senior former staff,

“…openly worked against the aims and objectives of the leadership of the Party, and in the 2017 general election some key staff even appeared to work against the Party’s core objective of winning elections.”

This is ironic as current Labour Leader, Kier Starmer, is in post precisely because of his perceived ‘electability’.  The fact is that many within Labour’s ranks were simply not up to the challenge of the direction which the Party’s policies under Corbyn, as endorsed by the membership, had taken.  They longed to get back to a cosy middle ground, free of any real challenge to the system or any real conflict.

The biggest fright for the right wing faction within Labour, along with the political and media establishment, was that Labour’s policies under Corbyn were actually resonating with a public sick of Tory austerity and the impact upon their standard of living.  The ramping up of the antisemitism smear campaign; the  blind alley of the so called People’s Vote call for a second referendum; and the personal vilification of Corbyn over the 2017 – 2019 period, were designed to bring about the election result which occurred last December, paving the way for Labour to be back in ‘safe hands’.

The Labour Movement has always had to contend with those who do not see radical change as an option for fear that it will cause conflict and disruption.  Yet radical change cannot happen without conflict or disruption.  Those who hold the levers of power run the system precisely to benefit their own class interests and are not going to give up control lightly.  They will mock, vilify and sabotage anything which they see as a challenge.

Labour’s programme under Jeremy Corbyn was hardly revolutionary but it was radical enough and potentially popular enough for the political establishment to be worried.  There is some irony in the fact that under the current COVID-19 crisis conditions, the increased state control and public spending, which Corbyn was so vilified for supporting, have become a necessity.

The real test though will come post lockdown when decisions have to be made as to who foots the bill.  Following the 2008 banking crisis the very NHS, local government and care sectors workers, whom even Tory ministers applaud on a Thursday night, bailed out the bankers by paying through enforced austerity measures.

Will the banks, corporations and City of London pay this time round for all of the effort the underfunded, underpaid and under resourced public sector has put into saving lives and stopping the spread of the virus?  Will Kier Starmer and Angela Rayner be leading the line in demanding that they do so?   We shall see.

 

US pandemic response – profits before people

12th April 2020

COVID-TrumpDonald Trump – seeking re-election at any cost

The withdrawal of Senator Bernie Sanders from the race for the Democratic nomination to contest the US election in November is a blow to the chances of any major progressive input into the campaign.  Sanders has said he will let his name stay on the ballot paper in states which have yet to declare, in order to keep some pressure upon Joe Biden to acknowledge some progressive policies, but the nomination itself now looks to be Biden’s for the taking.

As a contest Trump vs. Biden looks set to only go one way, with Biden’s appeal to the Democratic base being little more than the calculation that he is less likely to frighten off the establishment and by implication moderate voters, than self styled democratic socialist, Sanders.

Given that US political nominations are largely down to bankrolling the way to a nomination, there has been talk of Biden being gazumped by New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, for example, whose straight talking approach to the COVID-19 crisis has been compared favourably in some quarters to the bumbling mendacity of President Trump.

The mounting body count and mass graves being prepared in New York state may take some of the shine off Cuomo’s prospects, although to date he has not declared any intention of standing.  It is clear though that the most the Democrats are hoping for is a stop Trump candidate and at present Biden is the best they can agree upon.

However, the galloping COVID-19 crisis may yet dent Trump’s prospects in November, with the US now heading to the top of the world league for deaths related to the virus, and unemployment rising rapidly.  Last week alone saw 6.6m Americans lose their jobs.

The early inaction of the Trump administration has come under scrutiny this week with evidence that Trump was warned of the impact of the virus in January but did not act quickly enough, instead making statements downplaying the virus and comparing it to the common flu. Trump was backed in his assertions by his allies at Fox News who rushed to his defence, accusing the media of “scaring people unnecessarily” and trying to “bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.”

In seeking to apportion blame for the impact of the virus, upon US lives and the economy, Trump this week hit out at the World Health Organisation (WHO), accusing WHO of having “called it wrong” and being “China-centric”.

Trump went on to vow that he would put “a very powerful hold” on his government’s funding of the WHO, before backtracking and insisting that a freeze was only under consideration.

The facts remain that the WHO declared COVID-19 a public health emergency on 30th January, nearly a month before Trump tweeted: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA”, and proclaimed: “One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear.” He eventually declared a national emergency on 13th March.

While clearly mishandling action to halt the spread of the virus at home, Trump still finds time to direct fire at those attempting to tackle the pandemic internationally.  However, US efforts to characterise Cuban medical teams as “agents of communist indoctrination” has taken a blow, as Cuban doctors have flown off on new missions to battle COVID-19 in at least 14 countries, including Italy and the tiny principality of Andorra on the Spanish-French border.

In the city of Crema in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, 52 Cuban doctors and nurses set up a field hospital with 32 beds equipped with oxygen and three ICU beds.

“This is a strongly symbolic moment because the Crema hospital has been going through an extremely complicated situation from the start,” Lombardy’s top social welfare official, Giulio Gallera, said, “The number of patients who have filled and continue to fill the emergency room and departments has truly put the medical personnel to a hard test.”

The Trump administration has sought to cut off income to Havana as part of a long-term tightening of sanctions and continues to discourage countries from contracting Cuban medical workers.

Cuba currently has about 37,000 medical workers in 67 countries, most in longstanding missions. Some doctors have been sent as part of free aid missions, but many countries pay the government directly for their services. In some other cases, international health bodies have paid.

Pressure in the United States from the Wall Street business lobby could yet see social distancing restrictions lifted far sooner than the WHO would deem safe.  While the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH) is opposing such a move the bankers appear to be backed by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the US.

Recent CDC guidance on 9th April, states that essential “critical infrastructure workers” could go back on the job as long as they were pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic, even if they had been exposed to a virus victim within the prior 48 hours. The push to get everyone back to work, regardless of the danger, was stressed by Trump again recently, when he put forward the notion that the country should be ready for this by the end of the month.

Profits before people is unlikely to turn up anywhere as a campaign election slogan but that is precisely what Trump’s policies in relation to the pandemic amount to.  That is how things stand in the world’s richest and most powerful nation.

Meanwhile, 90 miles off the Florida coast a small island, against which the US maintains a 60 year long illegal economic blockade, continues to show that there is another way.

 

 

No billionaires, no living in a box

5th April 2020

Starmer

Kier Starmer changing the balance of power, or just getting Labour back into office?

Backing illegal US wars, buying in to the Trident deterrent illusion, not saying boo to the bankers and the fat cats in the City of London.  Is this what we can expect from a Kier Starmer leadership of the Labour Party?  A return to the pre-Jeremy Corbyn days of electability at all costs, rather than mapping out the changes needed to the society we live in, which allows billionaires to thrive while others live in cardboard boxes on the street?

The intensity of the media and establishment onslaught against Corbyn was precisely because the policies Labour advocated under his leadership were a challenge to the established order and were gaining increasing popularity.  The 2019 election result would not tell that story because by then the ruling class in the UK had ensured that anything associated with Corbyn was regarded by sufficient sections of the public as toxic. Defeat at the polls was almost a foregone conclusion.

Inevitably, following the election of a new leader, there is talk of unity, all sections of the party pulling together, getting behind the new man and giving him the chance of being elected.  A similar response to Jeremy Corbyn after the relative success of the 2017 election would have been welcome but, as ever with Labour, it is the Left who will compromise for unity, with the Right crying foul if the membership elect anyone with remotely radical credentials.

Starmer will get a honeymoon period with the press, not least due to the national emergency situation the country faces, and his declaration to work with Boris Johnson “in the national interest” to fight COVID-19.  Not even the Daily Mail will hold that against him.

Is Kier Starmer the man to challenge the balance of power, or just to get Labour elected back into office on a safe programme?  The real test will come when the current emergency is over, when the opportunity to draw conclusions and map a way forward for Labour in a changed world is presented.  The necessity of planning, co-operation and the mobilisation of the nation’s resources in a national effort is evident for all to see at the moment.  It could be argued that this should be the new normal, rather than the spectrum of inequality, from billionaires to cardboard boxes.

It has certainly become evident to many just how important, undervalued and underpaid the nation’s public sector workforce is in the present system.  Those workers deemed ‘business critical’ in the present crisis are not running social media, speculating on the stock exchange or building careers in advertising.  They are nurses, doctors, refuse collectors, care workers, social workers and local government staff, all mobilised to defend the vulnerable and provide a vital lifeline for the most socially isolated.

Co-operation is only possible under capitalism when circumstances dictate that there is no alternative.  Hence the constant war time analogies in relation to the present pandemic situation.

Even then, such co-operation goes against the free market grain of the current government and the desires of the private sector to pursue huge wealth.  Calls by the trade unions for the government to intervene in order to mobilise idle factories, to engage in the socially useful production of vital personal protective equipment for the NHS, have been slow to translate into action.

Starmer has taken the opportunity to level some criticism at the government, suggesting in a Sunday Times article that there have been “serious mistakes” in tackling the COVID-19 crisis, including the failure to provide enough protective equipment for frontline workers and delays over testing.  This is relatively safe ground and not out of step with the view of many epidemiologists.

The government target, announced this week by Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, of increasing testing ten fold to 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, is widely seen as ambitious, if not necessarily achievable.

There continues to be disagreement on the way forward.  Mark Woolhouse, at Edinburgh University, has suggested three strategies for dealing with the epidemic,

“Once lockdown has driven down the virus to low enough levels in the community we can go back to chasing down individual cases.  At the same time we build more ICU capacity in the NHS so that we can relax the lockdown without the health service being overwhelmed.  And thirdly we place new emphasis in shielding the vulnerable.”

John Edmunds, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has said that the lockdown policy needs to continue for many months, stating,

“Testing on its own will not stop this epidemic.”

The test for Labour, and Starmer in particular in his new role, will be to articulate a vision of society beyond the crisis, which resonates with the experience of ordinary people.  That will mean having to challenge some sacred cows, such as spending billions on Trident when the NHS is in crisis; giving the City of London free rein to gamble with pension funds; addressing the homelessness crisis when billionaire properties stand empty; and tackling the shortfalls and unequal distribution of funding across local government.

In short, it may have to be a programme the like of which the Labour Left, and Jeremy Corbyn, would approve.  Let’s see how long the press honeymoon with Starmer lasts if we get to that point.

UK Lockdown set to tighten

29th March 2020

Powis

Prof. Stephen Powis – urging against complacency

With the UK lockdown fully underway, and the further tightening of measures in prospect, the critical issue to address is the testing of health workers for COVID-19.  The NHS has had to deal with the crisis at a point when 10% of posts are vacant and many services sustained through the use of agency staff.  As a result of the crisis sickness levels in the NHS are already high, resulting in a shortage of medical staff, with many others self isolating with suspected symptoms.  Others are worried that they may be infected without showing symptoms, posing a potential risk to patients, colleagues and families. Widespread testing of NHS staff would help protect patients as well as allowing staff to return to the frontline faster.

The urgency of this strategy was underlined yesterday by national medical director of NHS England, Prof. Stephen Powis, at the daily Downing St press conference, that the UK “will have done very well” if deaths are kept below 20,000 in the current pandemic.  Given that deaths in the UK have just passed the 1,000 mark that represents only 5% of the potential death toll, even in a best case scenario.

At a cost of nearly £6m the government has taken the controversial decision to write to every UK household this week, in the form of a personal letter from Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, urging everyone to observe the lockdown measures currently in place, while reinforcing the social distancing and hand washing messages.

Debate has already started as to whether the letter is the best use of resources given the TV, radio and social media coverage of the stay home, save lives message.  Evidence suggests that in most instances behavioural change is taking place, with social distancing now being the norm in supermarket queues.  Amongst the minority where there is active resistance to the government measures people are unlikely to be persuaded by a letter from the Prime Minister.

The outpouring of public support for health workers, in the clap for carers initiative on Thursday and the rush of over 500,000 volunteers to provide support, has demonstrated the willingness of huge sections of the population to play their part in tackling the COVID-19 crisis.  This was swiftly followed by the embarrassment of Boris Johnson, testing positive with mild symptoms, Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, having to go into self isolation and Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, temporarily withdrawing from the public stage for the same reasons.

Substitutes have had to deliver recent Downing St daily press briefings, with appropriate social distancing being observed, and reporters asking questions via video link.

With week one of the lockdown over there is every expectation that the coming seven days will see pressure upon the NHS increase significantly.  Of the 6,300 COVID-19 patients in hospital, as of last Friday, at least half are in London alone, which is expected to be the worst hit part of the UK over the next ten days.  Privately, many involved in local resilience are expressing the view that London is, to all intents and purposes ‘lost’, and measures to contain the virus have effectively been too little, too late.

While government measures to help the employed and self-employed during the week were welcomed, the period of uncertainty leading up to the announcements meant that many continued to travel to work on crowded tube trains and buses.  Without any certainty about income people felt they were being forced to choose between going to work and taking their chances with the virus.

Similar scenarios are playing out across major conurbations across the world, with New York and Tokyo continuing to report significant increases in cases and Mexico announcing a nationwide one month lockdown in an effort to contain the spread of the virus.

In the UK, ‘field hospital’ arrangements have been set up in London, with 4,000 additional beds, with Birmingham and Manchester expected to follow.  NHS guidance suggests that staff from across hospitals including non-nurses such as care assistants, therapists and pharmacists may be drafted in to assist with the care of patients, with intensive care nurses overseeing teams of carers across several patients.   Guidance also suggests that staff volunteering to work in field hospitals may need to be prepared “to live-in for the period the field hospital is open.”

In the context of a lack of high grade masks and inadequate levels of personal protective equipment, in an already under resourced NHS, capacity is soon going to be stretched beyond any reasonable limits.

Under resourcing and the creeping privatisation of the NHS have been starkly exposed by the present pandemic.  The symptoms though have been presenting for a long time.  The drama of current events is increasingly confirming that the long term cure for health provision in the UK is only possible with the planning, investment and organisation necessary under socialism.

 

 

Whatever it takes?

20th March 2020

BorisBriefing

Boris Johnson – a little less bluster, a little more action?

The COVID-19 coronavirus crisis is throwing up significant contradictions for capitalism.  In a system built upon competition, the only way to defeat COVID-19 is through co-operation.  In a system which prides itself upon being dedicated to the free market and privatisation, the only answer to COVID-19 is centralised control and state intervention.  In a system in which companies in the FTSE100 are happy to rake off enormous profits when times are good, they are desperate for a government bail out when times get tough.

Having been elected on the ‘Get Brexit Done’ mantra the Tories are now running with ‘Whatever it takes’ as the slogan in their efforts to tackle COVID-19.  Rishi Sunak, newly installed Chancellor of the Exchequer, last week revealed a budget that sought to provide a bail out for business, but expects workers at the sharp end to settle for little more than half a loaf, as the economic consequences of COVID-19 begin to bite.

Capitalism inevitably sheds labour in times of crisis but is in danger of shedding more labour even more quickly than the system can cope with, plunging into worldwide recession as a consequence.

In spite of this, Parliamentarians and the press alike are being are being very polite.  It is a national crisis and we must all pull together to get through, it’s no good indulging in a blame game, after all, who could have seen his coming?

Short term memory is a wonderful thing.  Bird flu? SARS anyone?  It was only a question of time before another viral attack was unleashed upon the world and building capacity to resist should have been a priority for some time now.

The reality is somewhat different.  Ten years of Tory enforced austerity has not only weakened the capacity of the NHS to deal with the medical consequences of the virus but has severely undermined the community infrastructure necessary to help support people through the crisis.

Local government services already at breaking point have limited capacity to adjust.  The zero-hour contract, low pay, gig economy, beloved of so many of the companies Sunak will bail out, gives millions of workers no security or protection at such a critical time.  Many will turn to local services for support and find that these too have been eroded over the past decade.

UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has donned his populist cloak and claimed that, unlike the 2008 financial crash when the banks were bailed out, this time the people will be bailed out and not suffer unduly.  During the course of the same press briefing (19th March), Johnson also claimed that if we all pull together it will be possible to ‘turn the tide’ on COVID-19 within 12 weeks.

This seems to fly in the face of the assumptions made by the Imperial College London (ICL) report upon which the government is now making its planning assumptions.  The ICL report suggests that the mitigation approach, initially adopted by the government, would result in “hundreds of thousands of deaths” and overwhelm NHS intensive care units.  ICL models suggested 250,000 deaths in Britain based upon experience to date in the UK and Italy.

More effective, according to the ICL report is a strategy it terms suppression, now adopted by the government, which aims to reverse the epidemic growth altogether by reducing case numbers and keeping them down.  ICL suggest that,

“A minimum policy for effective suppression is therefore population wide social distancing combined with home isolation of cases and school and university closures.”

ICL claim that suppression policies would need to stay in place for at least five months and claim that, to avoid a spike when suppression is eased, restrictions in some form may need to be in place until an effective vaccine is available, which could be up to 18 months.

This is a far cry from the blustery optimism of Johnson’s turning the tide in 12 weeks rhetoric.

The UK has a total capacity of 5,000 intensive care unit beds in surge capacity mode.   In Italy, deaths increased when beds hit capacity and critical care was not available.  Estimates suggest that nearly 5% of people with COVID-19 will need to be hospitalised, a figure which increases into the older age range.  An estimated 70% of the over 80s who require hospitalisation will be likely to need critical care.

While the Tories cannot quite be accused of acting like Mexican president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who thinks he can defeat COVID-19 with lucky charms, including Catholic scapulars and a US 2 dollar bill, they still need to take more urgent action more quickly.

As ever, it is the poor and the elderly who are most at threat.  As ever, these people are the most reliant on public services which the Tories have consistently undermined.  As ever, these are the sections of the population which rely most on the NHS.

COVID-19 knows no boundaries, either of geography or class, but it is inevitably the case that those with the least resilience, both medically and financially, are at the sharp end of the social spectrum.  They will need more support than a few long terms loans to private business will provide.  They will need sick pay and their wages and housing costs covered in order to get through the crisis.

Whether the system can really be turned around to support the poor, the elderly and the unemployed, rather than the banks, the rich and the City of London, remains to be seen.  Johnson’s daily 5pm press briefings will continue to be monitored with interest.

 

COVID-19…Chinese whispers

9th March 2020

No queues at the Colosseum in Rome as COVID-19 hits tourism

Recent World Health Organisation (WHO) praise for the way in which the Chinese authorities have contained the coronavirus, COVID-19, outbreak has been tempered by those suggesting that, in world economic terms, China is too big to criticise, even for the WHO.  Routine anti-Chinese positions are not new to the Western media but attempting to undermine the WHO will not encourage public confidence in how the epidemic is being handled.

WHO representatives reported back recently on a joint WHO-China mission on COVID-19 after which epidemiologists were impressed by the ‘differentiated approach’ taken in China towards different situations, including sporadic cases, clusters of cases and community transmission.

The WHO recognition of the response measures in China has led EU representatives to express the desire to maintain close communication, in order to draw upon Chinese experience.

The WHO Regional Office for Europe stated that,

“We are encouraged by the continued decline in cases in China.  We remain concerned about the increasing signs of transmission outside China.  International cooperation between nations, sharing experience and best practice, has been, and will continue to be, crucial to managing this outbreak.”

EU health ministries have agreed to develop a co-ordinated approach to prevention and protection of people at risk, including coherent containment measures, as well as advice regarding travel to and from risk areas.

Uncertainty about how to contain the virus is having an impact upon tourism, travel and economic activity worldwide.  Stock markets opening in the City of London today (9th March) saw an initial fall in the value of shares on the FTSE 100 of 9%, the third biggest single day’s fall in history and the biggest since the financial crash of 2008, an indication of the impact which COVID-19 is having upon the world economy.

The impact of measures taken to combat COVID-19 in China is significant precisely because of its position in global trade.  China alone accounts for almost a quarter of global manufacturing, one quarter of global automotive production and a high percentage of parts for the automotive, steel, plastics and high-tech telecoms industries for Western manufacturers, all of which rely on just in time production processes, now grinding to a halt as goods stockpile in Chinese ports.

Almost inevitably, given the origin of the virus in China, conspiracy theories about COVID-19 are gaining a grip.  This is especially true in the United States, where anti-Chinese sentiment is barely beneath the surface in certain political circles and the demonisation of China may be seen to have some political advantage, especially in a presidential election year.

The most persistent rumour, repeated by many from right wing radio host, Rush Limbaugh, to former Donald Trump strategist and infamous right wing commentator, Steve Bannon, claims that the virus originated in a laboratory in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

However, a significant group of experts studying the virus have claimed recently in The Lancet that the virus originated in wildlife.  Scientists who have sequenced the genome of the virus have identified it as 96% the same as viruses that circulate in bats.  The first cluster of cases in China had ties to a live animal market in Wuhan, where seafood and other wildlife were sold as food, leading infectious disease researchers, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, to state that the evidence,

“…implicates a bat-origin virus infecting unidentified animal species sold in China’s live-animal markets.”

From there the virus made the leap to humans where it has been spreading ever since.

Another conspiracy theory, that the virus was a bio-weapon gone wrong is also dismissed by microbiologists, in part due to the unusual biochemical features of the virus and also because, as a weapon, it is not very efficient.  There are far deadlier pathogens which, if weaponised, could have a much more significant impact than COVID-19.

There is consensus however that live animal markets are a potential source of further viruses being generated, as there is the opportunity for transmission between animals and from them to humans.  If any criticism is to fall with the Chinese it is their approach to public health, which allows this potential for transmission in live animal markets.

China is not the only country in which such practice exists.  However, given its role as a global economic superpower, home to nearly 20% of the population of the planet, it does have some responsibility to stamp out practices which can impact adversely on public health both nationally and internationally.

It is positive that the WHO has praised the Chinese for their action in dealing with the outbreak, in spite of some of the criticism it has received for doing so, but action so far is only dealing with the symptoms.  For the Chinese, and others who allow unregulated live animal sales, the pressure now is to bring all of their economic and political influence to address the cause of COVID-19.

 

Experts fear coronavirus cover up in Iran

2nd March 2020

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread, there is growing evidence of an increasing impact in Iran.  It is feared that sanctions imposed by the US may have weakened the capacity of the country’s medical sector to cope.  Jane Green reports.

Iran subway

Coronavirus in Iran – may be worse than officially reported

Since first announcing the presence of coronavirus COVID-19 recently, Iran has reported a total of 388 cases and 34 deaths, a far higher fatality rate than seen elsewhere.  It is widely suspected that the official tally vastly underestimates the true number of cases.  Iran has the highest number of coronavirus cases outside of China.

A senior medical doctor at the Masih Daneshvari hospital in Tehran, the country’s top pulmonary public hospital and the main facility overseeing coronavirus patients was keen to retain his anonymity but stated,

“We think that this virus has been in Iran for the past three to four weeks and has circulated throughout the country. Right now in Iran we are facing a coronavirus epidemic.”

Medical teams are concerned that they do not have the means to test effectively or to screen potential cases.  Testing kits were not available in Iran until last week due to the sanctions imposed upon the regime by the US.

Medical workers are also concerned that their equipment is badly outdated, a situation made worse by the US sanctions, although the US administration says “humanitarian and medical needs” are exempt from sanctions.  Nevertheless, many European companies fear doing business in Iran for fear of retribution from the US.

In addition, sanctions on Iranian banks make it difficult to carry out financial transactions with Europe.  It can take three times longer to make a simple banking transaction with Europe under the newly imposed sanctions.

Ventilators and medicines are also in short supply as the scarcity of US dollars limits purchasing power.  While the government has imposed some restrictions on holy sites and called off some Friday prayer services, President Rouhani has said there are no plans to quarantine entire cities hit by the virus.

Due to the shortage of surgical masks and hand sanitiser in shops, public health experts say Iran could become the hub of a major outbreak across the Middle East, especially given its porous borders with unstable countries at war or in turmoil.

Studies by Human Rights Watch and other groups last year found the country’s health care sector was severely affected under the latest round of US sanctions, putting cancer and other patients in danger, without access to life-saving medicine.

Iran’s reported mortality rate for coronavirus, at just under nine percent, surpasses the rate for other countries by a wide margin. Earlier this week, it was 16 percent. China’s reported mortality rate is currently at 3.5 percent. In South Korea, 13 patients have died out of 1,766 cases, for a reported mortality rate of slightly less than 1 percent.

Precise figures for Iran however, are difficult to come by.  The head of the Medical Science University in Qom, Mohammad Reza Ghadir, a city in which there has been a significant number of confirmed cases, said on state television that the Health Ministry had banned releasing figures on the outbreak in the city.

Asked how many people had been placed in quarantine, Ghadir said, “The Health Ministry has told us not to announce any new statistics.”

The lack of clear reporting from Iran has prompted experts to raise concerns over whether there has been an official cover-up of the scale of the epidemic, and whether the country will be able to contain the deadly disease.

The response of the leadership of the regime has not inspired confidence, with the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, playing down the outbreak, accusing Tehran’s enemies of playing up “negative propaganda” over the coronavirus threat, to undermine recent Parliamentary elections.

The lack of concern shown by the regime is underlined by the fact that nine flights by Mahan Air, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps controlled airline, were made without any official permit to China, for the transportation of passengers and freight in the two weeks prior to the Iranian government’s acknowledgement of the presence of coronavirus inside Iran.

This was despite a rule having been made by the Iranian government supposedly suspending all flights between Iran and China. The passengers of these flights were not subject to quarantine or any control whatsoever upon their return to Iran.

However, given the growing international concerns and the prospect of the World Health Organisation (WHO) declaring a coronavirus pandemic, there have been growing calls upon the US to ease its restrictions on humanitarian trade with Iran, which would allow China and other Tehran-friendly countries, including Russia, to provide medical and humanitarian aid to the Islamic Republic before the disease escalates into a greater crisis in the region.

Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s emergencies programme, told reporters last week that the virus “came unseen and undetected into Iran, so the extent of infection may be broader than what we may be seeing.”

If the situation in Iran continues to deteriorate the US will come under mounting international pressure to remove some of its sanctions to allow humanitarian aid.  Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington, said last week,

“The Trump administration will face a moral dilemma: whether to remove some of the pressure on Iran or face international condemnation for putting millions at risk.”

Luft also expressed concern that, as fears of a global pandemic grew and countries stockpiled face masks and other medical equipment, it could be hard for other nations to help Iran effectively.

In an ironic twist State media said last week that a member of the Iranian Parliament, Mamoud Sadeghi, and the country’s deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, who lead a task force battling the virus, had tested positive. The news came a day after Harirchi appeared at a news conference looking feverish, reaching for tissues to wipe his brow. He wore no mask as the ministry spokesman standing next to him expressed confidence about the government’s response to the crisis.

Health ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur called on Iranians to avoid “unnecessary trips inside the country”, while Iran’s neighbours have closed their borders. The UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Estonia in northern Europe all recorded new cases of the virus in people travelling from Iran.

Globally, more than 80,000 people in nearly 50 countries have been infected with the coronavirus. Nearly 2,800 have died, the majority in China’s Hubei province.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star (02/03/20)

For more information visit www.codir.net

 

Pledges and priorities

23rd February 2020

palestine-psc-demo.-jpgPro-Palestine but against antisemitism – perfectly compatible

Voting for the Labour Party leadership will get underway this week, with the top job now narrowed down to three candidates; Kier Starmer, Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long Bailey.  To some extent all three are compromised, by supporting the Ten Pledges to End the Antisemitism Crisis diktat, by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which seeks to impose external controls on how the Labour Party addresses allegations of antisemitism, stating that,

“An independent provider should be used to process all complaints, to eradicate any risk of partisanship and factionalism.”

The pledges include handing responsibility for training on antisemitism to one group in the Jewish community, the Jewish Labour Movement, and for Labour to,

“…engage with the Jewish community via its main representative groups, and not through fringe organisations and individuals.”

This latter being code for the Board of Deputies or groups it approves as being ‘representative.’

This presumably excludes Jewish Voice for Labour, for example, which has supported a rejection of the Ten Pledges by the leadership candidates.

Even Rebecca Long Bailey, the most progressive of the leadership candidates, has fallen victim to the antisemitism smear campaign, suggesting in Jewish News that,

“Unfortunately, some people who regard themselves as anti-racist may nevertheless, when talking about the legacy of colonialism or the distribution of power within our capitalist society, use some of the negative stereotypical ideas or images that have become embedded within our culture over time.”

Long Bailey could have more usefully made the point that conflating criticism of the Israeli government’s failure to respect UN resolutions and international law with antisemitism, is the most dangerous of the “negative stereotypical ideas or images” being systematically embedded within our culture.

In the Deputy Leadership race only Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler have not agreed to the demands of the Ten Pledges, a position which has brought on predictable vitriol from the Board of Deputies and its mouthpiece the Jewish Chronicle, which quoted Board president Marie van der Zyl saying it “beggars belief” that Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon and Shadow Equalities Minister Dawn Butler had withheld their endorsement.

Butler, in a statement as to why she would not sign the Ten Pledges made clear,

“If I thought that signing these 10 pledges would help solve the problem, I would do it. It would no doubt be the easy thing for me to do and I know the attention not doing so will bring. I endure racism on a daily basis. I know what it feels like. I have dedicated my career and life to doing just that, including in my current role as Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities.

That’s how I know that the easy route is not always the best route and I must do what I think is best. I fear that signing the pledges without further discussion will result in no positive change and I fear it will just be a token gesture.”

Her full statement is here:-

https://www.dawnbutler.org.uk/news/statement-regarding-the-ten-pledges-for-labour-leadership-and-deputy-leadership-candidates-by-the-board-of-deputies-of-british-jews/

The Ten Pledges from the Board of Deputies has received far greater profile that the Ten Key Pledges to Support Muslim Communities, released by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) during the General Election campaign, and to which all leadership candidates have also signed up.

More information is here:-

https://mcb.org.uk/press-releases/all-labour-leadership-candidates-sign-up-to-mcbs-ten-key-pledges/

It is interesting to note pledge 10 on the subject of Ethical Foreign Policy which states,

“Support a binding recognition of Palestine as an independent and sovereign state, and address human rights abuses abroad, including in Kashmir, Xinjiang and Myanmar.”

The Board of Deputies will no doubt have a view on the Palestinian question.  It will be interesting to see how much time the successful candidate devotes to this MCB pledge, compared to those in the Board of Deputies set of pledges.  There can be little doubt which will receive the most scrutiny from the media and which organisation has the strongest lobby, both inside and outside of the Labour Party.

One thing is certain, real leadership will come from the candidate who is not only vociferous in their condemnation of antisemitism but who calls out racism in any form. That will mean being prepared to make the case for the rights of Palestinians, in accordance with international law, however strong the pressure may be not to do so.