Ben Wray – The Great Barrington Declaration is Capitalist Realism for the Pandemic-Age

At the current rate of growth (7 per cent increase per day), the number of covid infections in Scotland would be at the level of the March peak by the end of October. There are also rapidly rising hospitalisations over the past three weeks. Here is a very useful graph (figure 9) which shows Scotland on the same trajectory as France in rising case numbers but with a four week lag.

Trajectory of cases in France plotted 28 days ahead of Scotland and UK

Ben Wray is a freelance journalist leading BRAVE NEW EUROPE’S Gig Economy Project. He also produces a morning newsletter called Source Direct on Scottish politics, which you can sign-up to here:

Cross-posted from Source

If we’re four weeks behind France and we have been for several months, why didn’t we act when they were where we are now?. The lesson of the last spike was that when infections are growing exponentially, and you are following the same trend as a country that is a few weeks ahead of you, then the horrific sights of full intensive care units and entire cities locked to standstill will happen to you too.

There is a sense that the mood is changing around covid-19 restrictions. That people are now very fed up with uniform, command and control style restrictions on their social lives. Opposition politicians are responding to that, saying the measures are too tough on the hospitality sector. And right on cue, lockdown sceptics now have a legitimate voice to rally around, after many academics (including three University of Edinburgh professors), health practitioners and others signed the ‘Great Barrington Declaration’, which says the price of lockdown is too high on other aspects of our health, and calls for restrictions to be completely removed for those who are not in the high-risk categories for covid-19.

The Great Barrington Declaration is the case for herd immunity reincarnated, even though there is now evidence that immunity does not last long, potentially no more than two months. Neither is there any evidence that their plan to shield the vulnerable while exposing everyone else (as if the two groups can be easily split apart) has any possibility of working (there is no evidence it has worked anywhere in the world so far). They have nothing to say about the emerging evidence of long-term health implications from becoming infected. But more importantly, the Declaration is rooted in a deep seated pessimism about our ability as a society to address non-Covid harms to our health and covid-19 risks at the same time. It basically says adaptation is not possible, so the least worst option is to take the hit of covid-19 and preserve the norm on everything else. 

We should reject the Declaration, but we should also be clear that the risks it points to about non-covid harms to our health are very real, and that governments need to address them. That requires going beyond what government has been willing to do so far in adapting society around the imperatives of public health and care. We have not seen government’s really re-deploy resources on any serious scale to the imperatives of covid-19. One important example of that came yesterday, when it was revealed that the wealth of billionaires worldwide had risen 27 per cent to £7.9 trillion during the pandemic. We are fighting covid-19 while society pulls even further apart and inequalities become even more deeply entrenched – in that context, of course unemployment is going to rise and the poorest are going to suffer the most from lockdown.

There is still no serious debate in Scotland about this: if the UK Government won’t provide the resources, why can’t the Scottish Government ask the wealthy to pay a bit more in local tax and/or income tax to resource a proper job scheme to ensure full employment doing socially crucial work in the context of the pandemic? There is no reason why we can’t hire the contact tracers the country needs to have a fully functional localised system based on randomised community testing. There is no reason why we can’t hire the social care workers we need on sufficient wages so that care homes are not rendered exposed to this virus. There is no reason why we can’t hire the mental health officers the country needs to ensure those who need support in lockdown get it. These are all choices, just as much as it’s a choice to shut down the pubs or not. 

We seem to have entered a realm of pandemic-age capitalist realism where the only options available to us are hospitality workers scraping a living on minimum wage, zero-hours contracted work in bars full of infected people, or hospitality workers forced out-of-work and into the penury of unemployment. What a grim world we live in if that’s really all that’s available to us, but I refuse to believe that’s the case.

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