The COVID-19 Test and the Failures of UK Government

Image by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When faced with a deadly pandemic, we find ourselves in the delicate fingers of systems and people that could ruin lives or save them. But this type of interaction is not new. Cars, security systems, surgeons, and pilots are all examples of everyday mechanisms or professionals that, if not up to their task, could do untold damage. In most cases, none of the vehicles or workers we’ll encounter will be dangerous to us, but because they’ve all been rigorously tested to ensure they can carry out their job.

For something or someone to be adequately tested, it or they must display that even in the most trying circumstances they will encounter in their role, they will endure. A car has a crash test dummy strapped into it and is driven full speed into a wall, a pentest will attempt to jimmy the lock of a security system with the most effective picks available. A surgeon has to demonstrate that they have a reasonable chance of saving a patient’s life, even in unusual and critical conditions, and a pilot must be able to navigate a plane through strong winds and fogs safely. None of us would imagine putting ourselves or our loved ones at the mercy of any of the above unless they had passed thorough testing.

Yet, many people and systems hold sway over our mortality and wellbeing that are prone to frequent failure. These systems are political and economical, and the people who run them are our officials and our financial seniors. All are continually demonstrating their inability to provide security and wellbeing for the general population they purportedly serve. Every week, we see the snafus of these people and systems in the papers, on television news, and in the material conditions around us.

While a surgeon that kills their patient or a car that cripples its driver is a rarity and would be cause for immediate reform, it is standard for neoliberal capitalism to leave people in poverty, extreme psychological distress, lifelong debt, or even to kill them. Yet, those in charge still consider these authorities and systems fit for purpose. Elements of the voting public also don’t demand the replacement of systems that are causing suffering and death on a vast scale, and may actively defend them. It would be hard to imagine them providing the same forceful apologism for technological systems or less privileged individuals, but hierarchical status is its own defence.

We kept saying that, globally, 2% of the people who’ve contracted COVID-19 have died from the disease. But not only is there not yet enough data to declare a definite fatality rate, but even if we did know that rate, saying something like “4.5% have died of the virus” would still be a half-truth. The fatality rate of COVID-19, or indeed, any virus, is not fixed. We know that countries that apply advanced healthcare apparatuses have much more luck tackling illness than those who don’t or can’t. Death rates from illnesses are an interaction between the illness and the systems which could control or cure them.

A lot of the people banding about the 2% figure are doing so with the best intentions. They want to highlight the extent of the crisis: 1 in 200 people will die. But this wording whitewashes over the fact that how many people will die is partly down to how our governments react. Neglect the vulnerable, and the mortality rate could be well above 2%, but mobilise quickly, smartly, and nationwide, and maybe we could get that number down below 2%. How prepared we are for the coronavirus is not the only factor with weight on that percentage, of course. For example, the unusually high mortality rate in Italy may be because Italy has a higher proportion of elderly citizens, in comparison to other countries. But how many of us survive this pandemic and how many can do it comparatively pain-free is a test of our governments and socioeconomic systems, even if the mortality rate is not an exact grade. Those who die are not just dead “from the disease”, many pass on from a combination of the illness and poor or half-cocked deployments of healthcare.

In the long run, COVID-19 will be a comparatively mild test of the powers that be. We are standing on the lip of climate collapse which would bring with it a severe and global state of crisis. We also know it’s only a matter of time[1] until we encounter another pandemic with the teeth of smallpox or Spanish flu. Coronavirus is a disaster on a much smaller scale than either will be, which is not to say that the emergency we are experiencing is not a valid cause for concern. At the time of writing, there have been 26,800 COVID-19 deaths. That’s not so much a tragedy as 26,800 tragedies. What I mean is that if the systems governing our lives cannot correctly approach this fiasco, the challenges of the mid-late 21st century will ravage our society.

Some of the damage done thus far, we must also lay at the feet of selfish citizens. From early on in the COVID panic, some people hoarded products in unreasonable quantities, bought up face masks that couldn’t help them but that doctors desperately needed, or ignored the NHS’s life-saving advice. But even this behaviour is part of a larger pattern of constant consumption; one encouraged by the consumer capitalism our government has thrown its weight behind. And however thoughtful your conduct is as an individual, there are essential steps in managing this crisis that only our leaders can take. We can stay inside, wash our hands, and buy only what we need, but that doesn’t keep a healthcare system or an economy afloat. Johnson and his administration have been slow to act, phasing in public protections bit by bit, testing for the bare minimum they can get away with.

As other countries afflicted by the virus shuttered buildings where people would gather, and instructed their citizens to remain indoors, the U.K. government told us that it was business as usual. “Social distancing” was not in their vocabulary, and no special provisions were made for the NHS, even after Italian critical care experts warned that COVID-19 would overwhelm hospitals. It took Imperial College London reporting that the U.K. officials’ strategy would kill 260,000 for Boris and his cohorts to change tack.

Now, every few days, the government implements a new protocol which would have been much more effective at curbing the virus had it been put into place two or three weeks earlier when people were arguing for it. Most of their plans are underdeveloped anyway. A comeback against COVID-19, especially one that doesn’t create another crisis in its place, requires intervention in every facet of society because the crisis threatens us on all fronts. But all solutions that the U.K. government have invented for the epidemic force us to fall back on safety nets which do not exist.

They tell us to work from home, but this is not an option for service workers or manual labourers. They tell us to remain in our houses and apartments, but how do you do that if you’re homeless? They tell us to go and get groceries as little as possible but if shops are running out of essentials or we don’t have cars, how can we stick to that policy? Schools have been closed but then who takes care of those kids out of education when we all need an income? Business owners will be able to take out a loan to help offset their losses, but if they’re not taking in enough revenue due to the pandemic, doesn’t this just land them with a lap full of debt? The police will help enforce social isolation, but with the U.K. police’s record on race and human rights, are these the enforcers you’d want? We’re told not to stockpile goods but also told to be ready for a fortnight of isolation at any time. The government will cover up to 80% of the wages of those who cannot work during this period, but what do you do if you’re a minimum wage worker who already doesn’t make enough to live on? What’s going to happen to you if you work through an agency or are on a zero-hours contract?

A solution which creates another problem is not a solution. And even if all the above faults in the system disappeared overnight, our healthcare infrastructure is not equipped for a sudden and enormous influx of the sick. The government is pledging “unlimited” funding to help the NHS during this crisis, but given the trail of dishonesty they’ve left on this issue, it’s hard to feel too confident about that promise. What’s more, money can’t transform a health system in the blink of an eye; substantial upgrades take time. As if that wasn’t worrying enough, NHS beds were at 94% capacity, and the service required 44,000 more nurses before COVID-19 arrived on the scene. At the time of writing, the government are still not testing or giving protective equipment for all NHS workers on the frontline for the virus, endangering both a vital workforce and the vulnerable they’re meant to be caring for. Imagine being an at-risk person in a hospital and not knowing if the people treating you have infected you with a potentially deadly disease.

All of the above problems require either better availability of public services or citizens having more money in the bank to solve. These are, of course, the same services and money which the Tories have spent the last decade robbing the public of under the excuse that it was the only option available. In Labour’s latest manifesto, the party proposed £150 billion for public spending and that we throw open the gates of free public utilities. The right answered the way they always answer: money doesn’t appear from nowhere, and Corbyn didn’t root his plan in reality. But now that we are faced with a pandemic, it is impossible to imagine not demanding the radical expansion of the health service, of job protections, of benefits a household can actually live on. And, right on cue, the Tories have produced hundreds of billions out of a hat, because they always could. When the sky is falling, we are all socialists, and the talk about hefty funding being wishful idealism was just that: talk.

Photos of empty South American supermarket shelves are part of the standard loadout of anti-socialist Facebook groups. Because what functional economy would find itself with a shortage of essential commodities? The link of those images back to socialist philosophy was always tenuous: many of the Latin American countries these images were taken in were host to more private than public labour. But if low stock in a supermarket is proof of a broken financial system, what does that say about consumer capitalism during the days of the coronavirus?

Not only do the measures which leftists were told were impractical now look to be the only practical steps, but proposed free-market solutions have become unthinkable. Even a dyed-in-the-wool Tory would think twice before suggesting that we should surrender ourselves to America-style healthcare where a single emergency room visit can cost thousands, and longer-term hospital care, even more. The life-threatening cases of COVID are classified as such because they induce pneumonia, and the average cost of a hospital stay for pneumonia in the U.S. was almost $10,000 based on data from 2014. It is no surprise that healthcare-related bankruptcy has swept the States. Proponents of capitalism often say that the production of goods and services is too complex a process for a government to wrap their fingers around. However, it is hard to believe that an archipelago of disconnected organisations, all guarding their own profit like dragons atop mountains of coins, could efficiently co-operate at a moment’s notice to help the public. At least, not unless they have governmental oversight.

For example, look at all the U.S. universities emptying their dorms to stop the human bodies inside becoming a network for infection. It was the right thing to do within itself, but it left many students stranded without accommodation. What those students needed was not just action from their university, but transportation to take them to another residence, and if they didn’t have somewhere to stay, temporary homes. Companies may strike deals where they render services to each other, but such agreements take aeons to cement and don’t appear at all if the potentially involved parties don’t consider them profitable enough.

To see an example of the opposite, look to China. Much racist rhetoric lately has tried to define the Chinese by the disease, but this eastern power has managed to excise itself of the virus far faster than any western country. We cannot ameliorate the authoritarianism of China, but there is a clear link between the Chinese government taking a more directorial role in running their country and their success in containing COVID-19. When New York Times science and health reporter Donald McNeil appeared on MSNBC, he emphasised the extraordinary coordination and mobilisation of material services as the cause of their success.

China had authorities taking temperatures at building entrances, protected professionals who could test citizens for the virus without risking infection, and dedicated containment centres. Each step in the chain of containment was deployed proactively and led onto another step instead of falling off into nothing. Their government was also willing to retain control of assets that would otherwise fall into the hands of the private sector if it could protect their citizens. Similarly, an essential panel in Spain’s waterbreak against the disease was the government nationalising their private hospitals. It is hard to imagine the men and women in charge of the U.K. controlling something as slight as the distribution of the toilet paper.

Capitalist proselytism is frequently ensconced in an individualist worldview. The idea is that we don’t need the support of the government or each other, and suggesting that we do is “asking for a handout”. Instead, we should take responsibility for ourselves, “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps”; after all, that’s what all those millionaires did. But pandemics are one demonstration that we are not lone actors who only affect ourselves and are only affected by our actions. Right now, whether we hoard or practice social distancing sets in motion chain reactions which decide what happens to the most vulnerable in our communities. It’s not even enough to tell everyone to stay inside; this is still asking everyone to practice individualist action when we need this accompanied by the systemic action of the ruling government.

Countries are also not going to create any net good by acting as individualist units. American voters elected Trump after he campaigned on a protectionist economic policy under which the U.S. would cut Chinese trade out of its diet and bring the manufacturing jobs back home. The president banned flights from multiple Muslim countries into America not long after taking office and responded to this catastrophe by closing America’s borders to mainland Europe. In the U.K., we have had our protectionist resurgence in the form of Brexit.

In many other countries, the leaders are people who became such on a ticket of inward-facing nationalism. See Brazil, India, Hungary, and Poland. But the virus spreads globally, and so, for maximum protection against it, we need to work against it internationally. If you want an example of the strength of international collaboration, note that the Chinese discovered COVID-19, Canadians first isolated it, and America was the first nation to trial a vaccine. The U.K.’s conception of how the virus will spread is rooted in data taken by Italians, and Italy, France, and Spain inspired the protection measures we’re considering.

Perhaps by the time you are reading this, some of the problems I’ve talked about here will have been fixed, but I would be surprised if the government plugged every leak in this ship. And, at this point, much of the damage has already been done. Not just by the government failing to contain the virus and support its citizens in the crucial early days of the pandemic, but also by the hatchet that they’ve taken to public services since getting into power. From day one, they’ve been rescinding vital supports for their citizens like someone pulling blocks out of a Jenga tower, seeing how much of the protective system they can get away with removing before the whole structure comes tumbling down. Now that we have a sudden need for those pieces of the system, we miss them all the more.

I am not suggesting that a societal collapse is imminent; we’re not even close. But with the world we are constructing, when we get over the coronavirus, that’s not going to be the end of emergency, that’s going to be the end of the first emergency. As paralysing as this crisis feels, this could well be an effective warmup. Is it so hard to imagine a future where pandemics, the economic fallout from Brexit, the individualist and elites-first attitude of modern governments, and climate collapse converge to bring the U.K. to a standstill and put a noose around the neck of the average person? Is it something you’d like to risk or get within spitting distance of?

The media is currently sidelining a lot of news about the environment, fascist policy, Brexit, the specific failures of right-wing governments, and human rights abuses to report almost exclusively on the virus, but this is a mistake because all these issues have a huge overlap. Changes in animal population, temperature, and weather are going to echo through whole ecosystems of which we are a part. Pandemics could, in turn, hinder our ability to manage climate change. Both sickness and climate change will impact our economy and a failing economy would feed back into both issues. And how much atrocity our governments are willing to let us endure, how truthful they are, and which demographics they’d throw under the bus are all going to matter when these destructive spirits visit us.

None of the dangers we face now is novel. It wasn’t the coronavirus that made us dependent on each other and our government. The Tories have long been killing people or making their lives arduous through underspending, discrimination, and general apathy for human life. We have, through the adulthood of a whole generation, been desperate to see the government produce adequate provisions for public life. It is simply that the coronavirus amplifies all of those issues in the immediate, bringing the need for societal reform into sharper focus.

It’s enervating to see so many people who won’t take steps to protect our communities endangering the helpless. But many of us are following protocol and have restructured our entire lives to fight this virus. And more than 500,000 people volunteered to aid the NHS. Why, then, will the government not do their bit and enact a radical change to prevent disaster? When we asked for the basic means to survive, we were told there are no free rides, but the Conservatives are perfectly happy to take millions of free hours of labour from the U.K. populace. There is a tendency now to see a new, kinder Tory party in their wide-reaching disease-prevention strategy and their billions for businesses and wage-earners. But it’s not nearly enough, and I don’t believe that after ten years of austerity and a decade of neoliberalism, the Conservative Party suddenly woke up one crisp March morning and decided they have a conscience now.

Their response to COVID-19 has been business-first, and so, is going to protect the interests of profiteers above all else. And if the government are to provide protection and funding now, only to discontinue it once the old economy whirrs back into gear, that’s not fixing the broken system, that’s supporting it. The coronavirus may be new, but it’s just a tracer in the bloodstream of a capricious, oppressive politics which has been with us for a very long time.

Our leaders and our political systems have not passed the safety inspection, and as we would with a deficient car or an undertrained surgeon, we must replace them. There is a cause for optimism right now because this isn’t the end. We’ll get to the other side of this emergency, shops will reopen, people will congregate in parks again, you’ll be able to see your friends in person. But the continuation of our society will also entail potential future emergency. One day, probably not that long from now, we’ll be the battered crash dummy getting loaded back into the car, and next time they run the test, we’ll be headed towards that wall at a far faster speed. Now is the time to decide what systems we want to protect us when that happens because we will not survive the 21st century intact under conservative capitalism. Thanks for reading.

  1. “It Hunts Us.” Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak, season 1, episode 1, Netflix, 22 Jan. 2020. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/watch/81048758?trackId=200257859.

All other sources are linked at relevant points in the article.

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Gamer_152

Moderator of Giant Bomb, writing about all sorts. This is a place for my experiments and side projects.