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Fighting Covid: the police or workers' control?

Submitted by AWL on 24 November, 2020 - 8:50 Author: Rhodri Evans
Zero Covid campaign

A new campaign was launched on 14 November, called ZeroCovid. It takes up full isolation pay and public-sector Test and Trace, two of the demands raised by campaigns like Safe and Equal, and it is backed by a number of left-wingers, notably in and around the SWP.

Yet its chief demand is a “full” and indefinite lockdown of everything which is not “absolutely essential” until we get to zero or “near-zero” infections.

And its second demand is for international travel to be “reduced to an absolute minimum”. As we shall see, that means closing borders.

The model for ZeroCovid “working” is New Zealand. On 26 March, New Zealand started a lockdown. It wasn’t special. It was similar to the one Britain had from 23 March in its rules and in its perspective, to “flatten the curve”.

But infections started to decrease fast as early as 29 March. NZ’s experts had a new thought: maybe they could actually get cases down to zero. They didn’t keep NZ fully locked down right to zero, as ZeroCovid recommends. There were easings as early as 27 April. But by 6 June they indeed had zero cases in the whole country.

The “zero” proved unsustainable. A new (lighter) lockdown was imposed in the Auckland region from 12 August to 23 September, and wasn’t driven to zero either. Since late September NZ’s active cases have oscillated around 50. But certainly NZ has done well, with only 25 deaths so far.

The police dealt with 37,000 breaches and got new powers to enter homes without a warrant. But the restrictions were sufficiently brief and effective enough for huge voluntary compliance (as in the early-2020 lockdown in Britain, though there was much more police action in France and Spain).

NZ’s special virtue was not making lockdown sharper, or continuing it more doggedly. Buenos Aires continued a sharp lockdown for many months from 19 March, yet cases rose until late October. Many countries which have done well have had no lockdowns (in East Asia) or only light ones (Norway, Finland): the strongest common factor is greater acquired social solidarity of one sort or another.

The NZ lockdown worked so fast mostly because the virus had reached NZ later than other countries, and because NZ closed its borders rigidly from 19 March. It is two remote islands.

ZeroCovid talks about the pandemic being “over far sooner” the NZ way, but the border closure is far from “over”, and won’t be for a long while yet, even with vaccinations.

Another problem with the “ZeroCovid” programme is its idea of the role of the labour movement.

If all workers other than those doing “absolutely essential” work are staying home, workers’ action is by definition no factor in the programme except in improving precautions within “absolutely essential” workplaces.

Socialists are no more against all police-enforced virus curbs than we are against police-enforced traffic laws. We were against the reopening of pubs and cafés and tourism in early July. It doesn’t follow that we can zoom off into enlightened-despot-by-proxy politics (as Momentum has put it, “strong leadership”), and pretend that it is really all about freedom and social solidarity.

Labour movement

The specific role of the left and labour movement should be to fight for the social measures and social provision necessary to underpin the social solidarity required for effective covid-distancing.

Borders in Europe are often crossed and not easily closed. Generally that’s good, not bad. Britain usually has about 400,000 entries per day. At the lowest this year, it went down to about 30,000, plus 10,000 truck drivers coming through Dover each day and 1,200 through Holyhead. By contrast, on many days in mid-2020 literally no-one entered NZ.

Britain’s quarantine system for arrivals could surely be made better than the government’s current token effort, but even with tight policing it is bound to be leakier than NZ’s.

When praising “full lockdown”, ZeroCovid skates over the fact that it means also and centrally (in NZ, too) barring people from meeting their friends, family, lovers. People will do it voluntarily for a while, but not for indefinite months just on the say-so of ZeroCovid amateur epidemiologists.

A full lockdown for as long as it takes to get to zero across Europemight have been plausible in early February with rigid border controls. I don’t know. Not even relatively successful Norway and Finland tried anything like that.

From now, a new indefinite “full” lockdown in Britain would not bring a quick “zero” like NZ in March. Melbourne, in Australia, had a second surge from mid-June, apparently caused by a “leak” from its border quarantine system. It took restrictions and lockdown until28 October to get back to the near-zero it had in early June.

That was a much smaller surge than in Europe now, and with closed borders. ZeroCovid’s “full” lockdown would have to be for many months, at least. It probably would fray long before it got anywhere near zero.

• See also “Quarantine, not border closure” and “Momentum and the pandemic"

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