Back to the lockdown, then forward to...?

Submitted by AWL on 10 November, 2020 - 9:06 Author: Martin Thomas
After lockdown

We’re now in a new era of lockdowns. This article reviews the progress of some of them and looks back to discussions around the first wave of lockdowns.

Ireland’s lockdown, running from 21 October to 2 December, with non-essential shops shut (as well as cafés, pubs, etc.), but schools open, has brought a 66% reduction in new case rates from peak.

Northern Ireland’s lockdown, 16 October to 13 November, which included closing schools to 2 November, has produced a 40-odd% reduction in new cases from the peak.

Wales’s, from 23 October to 9 November, has brought new infections only, at best, marginally lower. Schools were closed for years 9 and above until 2 November.

France’s new lockdown, 30 October to 27 November, generally stricter but with schools open, has produced no deceleration of cases yet. Nor yet has Germany’s, 2 to 30 November, with shops also open and limited household-visiting allowed.

The Netherlands’, from 14 October and tightened from 4 November, similar to Germany’s, has seen cases go down about one-third from a peak on 31 October.

Israel’s second lockdown, from 18 September, with schools reopened from 1 November, in stages, and non-essential shops due to reopen from 15 November, has seen a reduction in new case rates from the peak in late September of 90%, but bottoming out from about the third week in October.

Melbourne, in Australia, from early August to early November, had a tight lockdown. Schools were reopened in stages from 12 October. Large steps towards reopening have come from 8 November after new cases were reduced to zero on most days since 25 October.

That was about a resurgence much smaller than in Europe (new cases per million for Australia at peak, 20; for Victoria, 100; for UK currently, 300).

Another marker for comparison is Greater Buenos Aires, in Argentina. It had a lockdown continuously since spring until 6 November, but new cases kept going up until 22 October.

Lockdown is the oldest and clumsiest form of infectious-disease control, dating back at least to medieval quarantines and used in the “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918-20. It has costs, which, like the pandemic itself, hit the worst-off hardest, and often countries which have “done well” in the pandemic so far have done it without general lockdowns: South Korea, Taiwan, Japan…

Being a remote island which closes borders helps (as in New Zealand and Australia), and so do a prior pandemic-awareness in the population (from SARS and such), an accepted high level of state surveillance of individuals, and a better system of elderly care.

Where infections have already risen high, well-organised lockdowns have capacity to buy time. They take a while to grip, so the idea of a brisk two-week effort “breaking the circuit” was always fantasy. And they don’t stop cases rising again after they finish. But their slowing of the curve may be vital.

That is how we saw it back in March. We deferred to the scientists’ view that time had to be bought by lockdown to stop the NHS being swamped, and argued for the labour movement to fight for social measures (isolation pay, workers’ control in workplaces, requisitioning to boost the NHS and its supply chain…) We were slow to pick up on the centrality of bringing care homes into the public sector with staff on regular public-sector pay and conditions. We weren’t as clear as we could have been that the pandemic was not a short “crisis” to be fixed by a few weeks or months of restrictions. Even a good vaccine, even soon, is unlikely to fix it. We will need sustainable counter-measures at least for many months, and probably much longer.

This is not a “second wave” of the virus, in the way that the “Spanish Flu” had three successive waves with distinct mutations of the virus. It is the same wave as earlier, only resurgent.

From April European governments tried to find what restrictions could be eased while still reducing infections. Until June-July that went well. Whether a workable regime, with public provision for self-isolation, attention to care homes, etc. could have been reached, we don’t know. We’ll soon have to try to find out again, and battle to get the social underpinnings for it.

With, and probably because of, the decisions to reopen tourist industries, cafés, pubs, etc. in the summer, and a correlated rise in private socialising, the infection curve started rising again, slowly at first, then fast.

Governments failed to use the virus lull in summer to establish sustainable curbs against a resurgence in winter which was always probable.

Britain’s Tories have made a special mess of test-and-trace: we want a public-health effort in place of their web of profiteering contractors. But, on international evidence, even the best test-and-trace effort cannot quell infections on its own. It can only be part of a broader range of measures.

To get sustainable virus curbs we must get the labour movement to continue to organise as an “essential service”, and to win the social underpinnings for those curbs.

• What we said in March

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