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.


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


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


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


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.