Forty-five million people have been infected by Covid-19 globally, with over one million tragically losing their lives. The UK has now surpassed 1.37 million cases, with around 52,000 deaths. In Northern Ireland, we have reached 46,359 cases and 846 deaths. While there are promising signs that effective vaccines may be available in the near future, there is evidence that new strains of the virus are rapidly emerging. There are also serious questions about how rapidly, efficiently and equally vaccination programmes will be rolled out.
Like climate change, the roots of this pandemic lie in the ruthless destruction of our planet by big business and its inability to co-exist in a sustainable manner with nature.
Worldwide, it is the working class, the poor and the oppressed who have borne the brunt of this crisis. Overcrowded housing, deficient health and safety in workplaces, lack of proper PPE, inadequate systems of testing and contact tracing, and decades of underfunded health services are helping to exacerbate the spread and severity of the virus.
At the same time, we are facing an economic slump — triggered by the pandemic, but caused by deeper problems and contradictions inherent in the capitalist system — that will devastate living standards, particularly with the likely imposition of a new regime of austerity in the future.
People versus profits
For the super-rich, however, things are very different, as the unprecedented growth in wealth inequality demonstrates. The billionaires globally have increased their wealth from $8 trillion to $10 trillion in the last seven months. The richest six people in the UK own as much wealth as the bottom 13 million. Such individuals can easily afford to escape the impact of the pandemic in their yachts, private islands and mansions, or if affected, can quickly access the best healthcare there is to buy.
But these fortunes are built on the mass exploitation of human and natural resources. Millions of workers created this wealth — running the industries and services that produce profits and make society function. The Covid crisis has again powerfully demonstrated the essential role of workers — those on the frontline in health, retail, transport and sanitation especially. Clearly, this wealth should be taken from the bank accounts of the billionaires and used to protect the health, lives and livelihoods of working-class people.
Yet, we have also seen in this crisis the power that the corporate and super-rich elite wield over Westminster and Stormont. When it comes to making decisions about restrictions on social and economic activity, which is necessary to stop the spread of the virus, government policy has been primarily dictated by the business interests to which parties like the DUP, Sinn Féin and the Tories are beholden.
This is the explanation for why Stormont and Westminster rushed to end the lockdown prematurely in the summer without having the necessary safeguards in place — most notably a real system of mass testing and contact tracing, and substantial investment to reinforce the health service to combat a second wave. It is also the reason that growing numbers of establishment commentators in Ireland – North and South – as well as globally are suggesting variations on the “herd immunity” strategy, which will be used to justify more and more people contracting the virus.
The Socialist Party rejects the callous logic of this approach. We do not see a contradiction between maintaining our living standards on the one hand, and our health and safety on the other – as the choice is posed by the Stormont parties – when the wealth and resources exist to ensure both. The contradiction we see is between the policies that are needed to suppress the virus and support people to do this, and the unwillingness of the present government to implement them.
No to sectarianism
Even through the course of this crisis, the sectarian politicians in Stormont have continued with their modus operandi of ‘divide and rule’ – looking to pit Catholic and Protestant workers against each other. One such example of this is Edwin Poots’s attempt to paint the resurgence of Covid as the responsibility of the Catholic community. The comments weren’t just a political attack on Sinn Féin leaders’ double standards on the Bobby Storey funeral – his comments went much further, suggesting ordinary Catholics have broadly flouted the rules while Protestants have abided by them.
These comments underline the fractious nature of the Stormont Executive. They are deeply divided on issues of legacy, Brexit and more. The facade of a “united front” in the face of Covid has broken down. Even in the face of a serious crisis, the Orange and Green politicians are incapable of putting sectarianism aside, as this is what they rely on to maintain their base of support. Sectarian division remains a reality in our society. But united struggle by workers and young people for our common interests can point the way towards breaking down these barriers and challenging the dominance of sectarian forces.
Injustices of society exposed
The pandemic has also lifted the lid on, and in many cases has compounded, the plethora of injustices and inequalities that are built into the DNA of capitalist society today.
Migrant workers are the lowest paid and most precarious section of our workforce and working on the frontline of this crisis, in sectors such as food and retail. Combined with their hazardous housing conditions, this means they are particularly vulnerable to contracting the virus.
Women’s oppression magnified
It is shameful that no support has been given to those women who are victims of intimate partner violence. This is despite an appalling rise in such violence in the context of the pandemic and restrictions on movement generally. Calls to the PSNI in relation to domestic violence have increased by 15% compared to 2019. We need emergency measures to assist those who need to flee from abusive situations.
In general, the pandemic has hit women disproportionately. Women make up the majority to frontline workers, who are some of those most at risk from the virus. Women make up the majority of workers in some of the sectors hardest hit by mass redundancies, such as retail. And the existing ‘’double burden’’ of unpaid domestic work has been exacerbated: from additional cleaning and sanitisation, and tasks connected to caring for elderly or vulnerable family members, to the lack of childcare and access to schools. The pandemic has been used as an excuse to undermine abortion access. The Northern Health Trust has had to close its early medical abortion service due to limited resources.
In the South, the patronising and paternalistic attitude of the state towards women was graphically illustrated by the decision to seal the Mother and Baby home records. This has continued through the pandemic. On 18 October, the Irish Examiner carried a story which reported on the experiences of women claiming the single parents’ allowance. This included unannounced visits from social welfare inspectors looking for evidence such as ‘’men’s clothes’’, or women being told that if they entered a relationship they would lose their payment and inspectors waiting outside houses.
However, women can also be to the forefront of building the fightback we need. This has been exemplified by the Debenhams workers – a group of overwhelmingly women workers who, after the closure of shops in the South and an attempt by their employer to just dismiss them without their full redundancy entitlement, have fought tooth and nail for over 200 days to win decent redundancy.
The right to control our health & safety
Westminster or Stormont cannot be trusted or relied upon to get us through the pandemic or the economic turmoil we’re facing. When it comes to our health and safety, we have to take control – of our workplaces, communities, schools and universities – through democratic committees for health and safety. If left up to bosses, then profits will come first. Meat plants are a notorious example of this, but there are many others. And despite the best efforts of staff, there is now a growing number of Covid clusters in schools. We must support demands coming from the teaching unions for smaller class sizes and other supports must be granted urgently.
Some workers and students have already shown the way in this regard. In March, 1,000 workers in Moy Park poultry factory in the North struck to defend their health and safety. More recently, postal workers and members of the CWU (Communication Workers’ Union) refused to enter the sorting office in Derry, where there was an outbreak of Covid-19. Their actions forced Royal Mail to carry out a deep clean on the site. In Greece, 700 schools have been occupied by students to protest against the Covid threat and the inaction of their government.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), whose silence has been deafening during this crisis, must be prepared to support all workers, whether they are in a union or not, who take action to ensure that neither they, nor their workmates or families, contract this deadly virus.
A failed system
Unemployment in the North now sits at 7%, including nearly 1 in 10 young people. Economists are forecasting 100,000 claiming unemployment benefits in the near future. Significant hardship is now a reality for many, with little certainty for the future – stress and anxiety abound. Capitalism will not solve these problems in any real way – because the system doesn’t work. The last decade has amply demonstrated its crisis-ridden nature.
The anarchy and irrationality of the market system is demonstrated in one example – thousands of skilled workers are unemployed yet, at the same time, there is a major dearth of affordable homes, for example, and other important public needs go unmet. The skills of these workers could be utilised through a major programme of state investment in public housing, public creches, public transport, renewable energy infrastructure, and the creation of a environmentally sustainable manufacturing base.
Such policies are inconceivable as far as the political establishment are concerned, due to their right-wing ideology in which the private market rules all – notwithstanding that the pandemic has forced them to break with that ideology several times in recent months to avert total disaster.
Instead of such public investment, the Tories intend to pursue their strategy of turning the UK into a low wage, low regulation economy to out-compete the EU in a race to the bottom. Likewise, the Stormont politicians offer no alternative. Their strategy consists of kowtowing to the demands of big business at every turn. Their approach during the Covid-19 pandemic illustrates this.
Instead of taxing profits and the rich, the Tories would rather create a new mountain of debt in the form of loans from the financial markets. Invariably, such loans will have to be paid back and it will be workers, not the corporations and wealthy, who will be expected to foot the bill – through a future programme of austerity. Workers, already struggling, should not pay one penny towards this crisis, which is a crisis of the system made worse by the failures of the main capitalist parties – the DUP, Sinn Féin and the Tories.
The whole strategy of these parties in relation to the crisis of mass unemployment has been to implement a programme of “corporate welfare”, in the form of a reduction in VAT, “Eat Out to Help Out” and bailouts for businesses. This is about the right of bosses to make profits off the backs of their workforce and hoping that will incentivise them to expand their operations. However, they will only provide jobs if enough profit is being made, and so inevitably these jobs will increasingly be low-paid and precarious.
This is not a solution or a future we should accept. In the same way that we must act to defend our health and safety, we must also act to defend our living standards. That means organising and mobilising now in workplaces, communities, schools and colleges to resist all attacks, and for an alternative to continual capitalist crisis.
A socialist alternative would break from this model of economic development which puts the profits of big business and the rich ahead of public need. It would mean taking the major companies and financial institutions that dominate our economy out of private hands and into democratic public ownership. On this basis, we can fully utilise society’s wealth and resources, and – through a democratically planned economy – we can direct those resources to where they are needed. In this way, we can implement the necessary measures to tackle this and future pandemics.
Fighting for such an alternative means building a working-class movement and a party based on a programme for socialism.
Ten point programme for the Covid-19 crisis
1. For free PPE and proper testing and tracing
PPE must be made freely available in all workplaces, schools, colleges and creches. No reliance on the private sector — all private labs must be requisitioned immediately, and brought into public hands so their resources can be utilised to combat the emergency. Invest in the necessary labs and infrastructure to create a quality system of testing and tracing, with a maximum 24-hour turnover. Such testing should take place in workplaces, schools, colleges, airports and all major public locations. Economic and medical support must be given to all those who are forced to self-isolate. Ensure that we develop the infrastructure and policies to guard against inevitable future pandemics.
2. Workers’ control of health and safety
Don’t allow Covid-19 policy to be dictated by big business and government. The criminal silence and inaction from ICTU must end. Workers have a right to work in a safe environment and the right to democratic control over health and safety must be asserted. Workers, with the full backing of the trade union movement, have the right to walk off the job where there is a threat to their health and safety and not return until it is fully guaranteed. There should be no cuts to the incomes of workers when such action is taken on health and safety grounds.
3. Defend health and safety in schools
Like with workers, college and school students have the right to be educated and study in a safe environment. We need democratic control by students and staff over health and safety. If deemed necessary, education must be shut down until teachers, staff, students and parents are satisfied that there are adequate measures taken to defend health and safety. For united strike action by teachers and students.
Reduce class sizes to a ratio 15:1. Demand PPE and cleaning staff. We need an immediate introduction of mass testing in both primary and secondary schools. Students must not be trapped in leases for housing they don’t need – full support to the rent strikes. Kick private profit out of education. Abolish the transfer tests and suspend all other exams for the duration of this crisis, with guaranteed access to higher education for all who want to study. For free, fully public and high-quality education for all at all levels.
4. Challenge the unequal impact on women
Emergency action is needed to deal with the rise in intimate partner violence and elder abuse. There must be accommodation available to everyone who leaves their home due to violence. Massively increase investment in refuges, shelters and all services supporting those experiencing gender-based violence. For the right to access abortion pills via the post following remote consultation with a doctor, and the right to take both pills at home. Abortion is a medical procedure and should not be restricted by legislation.
Childcare has been a huge extra pressure on women during this pandemic – the state should invest to develop a free, public childcare service for all based in communities and workplaces. From childcare workers to care workers, many groups of mainly women workers who have been on the frontline of this crisis are also among the lowest paid and most undervalued. The trade union movement should launch a fighting campaign for decent pay and conditions and trade union rights for all workers in these sectors. Child benefit and universal credit payments must be increased to match the reality of the cost of living. Extend the ban on sanctions for universal credit recipients.
5. Guarantee quality, affordable housing for all
Slash and freeze rents now to levels that are affordable. Ban all evictions. Reinstate the moratorium on mortgage repayments. Overcrowded housing conditions and homelessness are fuelling the Covid-19 crisis. 30% to 40% of Housing Executive stock needs replaced urgently. There are nearly 40,000 applicants on the housing executive waiting list. The practice of outsourcing the construction of social housing to associations must end immediately. We need a mass programme to construct high-quality and affordable social housing for all who need it.
6. Avert the poverty trap
Defend the living standards of workers and the unemployed in this crisis. An immediate moratorium on redundancies and sackings for all but gross misconduct. For the extension of the furlough scheme and payments to be topped up to 100% of wages by employers, or by the state where that is demonstrably unaffordable. Workers, backed by the trade union movement, should resist all attacks on their pay and conditions. Anti-union laws must be repealed to assist workers to stand up for their rights. For a £12/hour minimum wage with no exemptions. For a four-day work week with no loss of pay and no extension in the working day. For benefits which guarantee freedom from poverty.
7. Defend and extend the NHS
We are currently paying the price for the gross underfunding of our health service. For immediate investment to fund recruitment of nurses, doctors and other health staff, necessary beds and ICU capacity, equipment to tackle an upsurge in Covid cases, and ensure no cancellation of elective surgeries or cancer screenings. For the provisions of 24-hour and free counselling services to tackle the mental health crisis.
Covid has only exacerbated a staffing crisis that already existed due to years of underfunding. Prior to this pandemic, Health Trusts already had up to 20% of posts vacant, with sickness levels of up to 15% due to work-related stress and other issues. Mass hirings are necessary, linked with an immediate 15% pay rise for all health workers.
We must fight to defend our NHS and stop attempts to undermine it. Private hospitals must be brought into the ownership of the NHS, their beds and resources used to fight the pandemic rather than private profit. The health services and health workers in the North and in the South, including those involved with testing and tracing, should fully cooperate and have an integrated system to deal with the pandemic. Investment in such a service must be maintained. Bring big pharma into public ownership – provide drugs and vaccines for need, not profit. Nationalise all privately owned nursing homes and provide them with the necessary staff and resources.
8. Tax big business and the rich – no mass redundancies
Wesminister must introduce an emergency Covid Wealth Tax and abolish the tax loopholes for big business and the wealthy. Corporation tax should be increased to fund public services and to ensure no cuts to incomes. State assistance and cheap credit from a public, non-profit banking system should be provided to small businesses on condition that there is a maintenance of jobs, wages and conditions, as well mandatory recognition of trade unions.
The books of job-shedding companies must be opened for scrutiny by their workers. Companies that announce redundancies should be brought into democratic public ownership, with workers at the heart of management and integrate them into planning of resources of the economy for people not profit.
9. Guarantee decent jobs for young people
A new generation must not be faced with a future of mass unemployment. We need real training programmes and apprenticeships for young people with decent pay and conditions. No to another free labour scheme like Steps to Work, where unemployed people serve as a free labour source for private companies. The state must invest the wealth of society to provide skills, education, and jobs.
Mobilise and utilise the capabilities of the workers that have been made unemployed by this crisis. No reliance on the private sector to solve this crisis. Transform the economy with an industrial policy based on state investment in socially useful infrastructural projects such as schools, hospitals, care homes and creches, as well as a viable and environmentally sustainable manufacturing base.
10. Fight for socialist change
It is the plan of the Tories and Stormont to offload the cost of the health emergency and the economic crisis onto the shoulders of the working class, as they did after the Great recession of 2008-2009. We must resist any new regime of austerity in the interests of the super-rich and financial markets.
Seize the wealth and resources of big business and the super-rich and bring them into public ownership, where their resources are organised by and for the majority in our society – working-class and young people. On the basis of an economy that is democratically planned by the working class, we can ensure that these resources are invested to meet the challenges of Covid-19, other potential pandemics, and climate change – all while protecting and raising living standards.
Malcolm X said that “we are not out-numbered, we are out-organised”.
There are just under 470,000 workers in Northern Ireland and nearly 250,000 of them are organised in unions. Combining with a movement of young people, this is an extremely powerful force, which if organised and conscious of its power, could end the rule of capitalism and all the horrors that a capitalist future entails. Joining with a revolutionary struggle of the working-class and oppressed globally, we can build a democratic and sustainable socialist world.