Free market dogma has made us vulnerable to epidemics but Getintothis’ Jono Podmore argues global solidarity can save us.
Guitarist and producer Andy Gill died in February this year, like so many others will in the coming weeks, of pneumonia.
He left a fantastic legacy of work but there’s one track he wrote with his band Gang of Four that’s been on repeat in my mind over the last few weeks.
It’s the B-side of one of their energetic, jagged, punk-funk 1981 masterpiece To Hell with Poverty, entitled Capital (It Fails Us Now).
At the time, ‘capital’ was failing us because, as in the song, children were born on credit.
Debt was slipping out of control as the markets were beginning to be able to trade it as a commodity.
But short-term goals were being met and so the population didn’t bat an eyelid, vision focused on consumer goods.
As the 80s stormed on, the neoliberal free-marketeers continued dancing around the bonfire of regulation as resources were drained and infrastructure sold off to increase profits in the private sector.
The process continued unabated until it imploded in 2008.
In response, governments drained the population further to refloat the banks with quantitative easing (free money), and it was back to business as usual, although now with less risk.
The traders now knew that the debt would always be socialised while the gains would remain private.
The result is that none of that money given to the banks was invested back into infrastructure and our societies have become weaker and vulnerable to events such as epidemics.
Governments were warned but heeding the warnings would make banks, funds and businesses uncompetitive so it was ignored.
In the next two weeks we will reap what was sown in the 80s.
After 10 years or more of austerity measures forced on to public services to pay the banks for their unsustainable greed, and a crash of their own making, we ended up with, for example, just 5,000 intensive care beds in the UK.
That’s fewer than half per capita than Italy whose health service has almost collapsed with 90,000 cases and rising. The most optimistic projection is that we will need 11,000 beds at the peak of this outbreak, at worst 180,000.
Imperial College are making regular statistically based reports on the outbreak and its impact. Their verdict on the UK response so far is: “…the resulting mitigated epidemic would still likely result in hundreds of thousands of deaths and health systems (most notably intensive care units) being overwhelmed many times over.”
New research is revealing population behaviours in response to #COVID19 policies across the globe. Our @Imperial_IGHI's Big Data & Analytical Unit (BDAU) is tracking and visualising the outbreak daily. Check our their animated charts: https://t.co/SqLIhYSH1a
— Imperial College (@imperialcollege) March 29, 2020
Who decides which patient gets intensive care and which doesn’t? How many will die at home?
I’ve had a couple of emails now from Sainsbury’s Chief Executive Mike Coupe: “As we work to feed the nation, we are also focusing all of our efforts on getting as much food and other essential items from our suppliers, into our warehouses and onto shelves as we possibly can. We still have enough food for everyone – if we all just buy what we need for us and our families…”
That’s very nice of you Mike, but surely feeding the nation is the responsibility of government involving long-term planning in the interests of creating a stable supply of healthy food, not the responsibility of a public limited company, whose biggest shareholder (at 21.99%) is the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar.
Whatever Mike tells us about feeding the nation, to keep his job the nation that he really has to feed, with wealth, is Qatar.
Basic infrastructure, supplies of drugs and food have all been handed over to the market, a system now proven to be volatile, unreliable and inadequate.
Panic buying of toilet roll may seem ridiculous, but our entire system is based on that very principle.
Runs on stocks and currencies that can destroy the livelihoods of huge populations are created by traders behaving in exactly the same selfish and irresponsible way as the idiot stuffing his shopping trolley with toilet paper.
Journalist mouthpieces of the free market like our Prime Minister have been lying to us for 40 years.
Now at the first real test their central dogma seems as plausible and relevant as that of the anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers.
As the death rate climbs and we all lose someone we know to the disease, we will realise once and for all that the market does not provide.
Only collective efforts with collective resources put in place for the benefit of a population that collectively pays for them, will be able to withstand crises like this.
We need to be wary of war metaphors.
We are not at war with an invisible enemy or battling to save our loved ones. We are collectively trying to prevent as many people as possible from dying.
The big difference is that war is good for the markets, prevention and collective effort is not.
Prevention means spending money on something that may not happen and when it does, their deaths generate no wealth.
On the contrary, war is the sort of stimulus markets adore.
Surprisingly enough, there are still dormant vestiges of collective state control that 40 years of market forces have not managed to obliterate, like the Civil Contingencies Secretariat.
Keir Starmer has suggested using this arm of government to co-ordinate response to the epidemic: the power is still there to order businesses and banks to act in the public interest.
Other countries still use these powers. Not just China and Cuba, but EU members; for example Spain took all private hospitals in to public ownership back on March 16 in response to the need for beds.
Our government has to do nothing less than take command of the economy.
Chancellor Sunak‘s pledge of £330bn of soft loans for businesses will just increase debt.
He knows this and also knows the people who will trade in the debt his generous offer to businesses will generate.
It shows how the politicians we now have in power simply do not have the mind-set, the ideas, that will be needed to keep our population healthy and our economies functioning under this kind of stress.
He says he will “do whatever it takes”. A child of the free market at its worst like him simply cannot comprehend what it will take.
Survival will take a Global Green New Deal: a recognition that our vulnerabilities go beyond national borders and that wealth cannot be hoarded by a few; that we can no longer pillage our finite resources for infinite profit; that the market must have a reduced, controlled and restricted function in a stable society; and that investment must be focussed on people, their health, education, housing and security.
The epidemic has created a fork in the road for humanity.
We can choose to continue to compete with each other along arbitrary lines for the sake of the markets, or to choose, in the words of historian and writer Yuval Noah Harari, “global solidarity”.
“If we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes in the future. If we choose global solidarity, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century.”
We have to make a collective choice to act collectively.
The extremists and free-marketeers are busy devising plans to shore up their positions of power – delaying the US election being the most obvious.
But despite their 2016–2019 surge the writing is on the wall.
The 40-year experiment has failed and should act as a parable to future generations.
We need to nationalise, or even globalise, key infrastructure including the market itself.
Anything else will be opening the door to more preventable deaths and instability in what was once considered the civilised world.