I curse the day I made a commitment to myself to write these pieces about the ‘situation’ we are in during this pandemic. I was happy writing plays that I knew no theatre on earth would opt to produce. Now I look around and see a world in which theatre may be considered the most contagious art and that if like in other sectors we are going to be left only the well upholstered ‘centres of excellence’ all that’s worst will persist in an anaesthetised form. Effectively there may be no theatre on earth so it will be doubly impossible to get my plays on. I will talk about that in the next piece in this damned series.
Before I entered this recent period of playwriting after I returned from a working trip to China, I emerged as a Masters of Science in Ecological Economics (Sustainability) from the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds. I’d worked as a theatre director/writer/company artistic director/course director for decades. In 2009 a dreadful curiosity beset me. Most of my course was concerned with climate change models. Trying to engage with the complexity of the microbiology, immunology, epidemiology, politics and economics of the ‘situation’ reminds me strongly of the pain I encountered when attempting to come to terms with ‘uncertainty’ in earth systems modelling. It brought me to tears. The margins of error in measuring, for example, ocean temperatures (the mechanics of the instruments), the complexity of the feedback loops involved in the albedo effect as the ice sheets decreased, the interaction between the increased salinity of sea water due to acidification and oceanic carbon take-up, the countervailing process produced by fresh water entering the earth’s oceans from melting ice coupled with continuing alterations in human production systems, mitigations, adaptations all combined in a single model where the scientists were feeding in data from their own area of expertise in a situation where it was impossible to know about the field of a scientist who was entering data from theirs so somebody working in cryospheric changes knew next to nothing about the impact of changes in consumption of plastics and that uncertainties had to be measured, in terms of complex combinations of probabilities, that were due to the interaction between the data coming from different scientific areas.
What I did learn was that when it came to dealing with the impacts of climate change and building human resilience, the social systems that adopted ‘bottom up’ approaches where community needs and information was gathered, listened to, collated, organised in a participatory way were 100% more effective than ‘top down’ organisational structures. No doubt. Informed engaged communities create effective resilience. An open and shut case.
If you are unfortunate enough to have found yourself reading these disagreeable attempts at sense please bear the foregoing in mind. Also, I have put no references in this piece but if you want to find out more about any of the assertions do contact me.
There are differences within the scientific community about aspects of the spread, identification and treatment of CV-19. This is unsurprising. How these are being aired and how they relate to differences in national approaches may tell us a lot about ‘recovery’ strategies. Looking at these issues means understanding the political and commercial interests involved.
There are a number of differences in the scientific community. One is to do with the modelling of the spread of the virus. One school contests that the virus has followed patterns formerly seen in other similar pathogens and may well be now past the peak of its impact. There are disagreements about the lethality (the ratio between the number of cases and the number of deaths) of the virus. People who believe that the virus has moved beyond its peak impact tend to be associated with those who believe that the lethality has been over-estimated. There are differences around the accuracy of the testing processes, particularly with the most common method which is based on Polymerase Chain Reaction identification. The difficulties in testing are to do with problems encountered in the isolation of the virus. As I understand it, the virus is a Ribo-Nucleic Acid but the testing processes are able only to sequence and ‘amplify’ DNA. This and associated problems of accurate definition and isolation make understanding the relationship of the virus to the etiology of disease indecisive. This also means there are questions about anti-bodies and whether immunity is created in people who have recovered from the impact of the virus. There has been some circumstantial evidence that the malarial drug, Hydroxichloroquine or Chloroquine can help resistance to the disease. This issue has two aspects; one is the use of this antimalarial drug to reduce recovery time for sufferers and the other is its use as a prophylactic or preventive treatment. There is evidence that the drug can be harmful if applied to people who are suffering advanced respiratory collapse. On the other hand a drug called ‘remdesivir’ has just been adopted as a treatment here in the UK. This is produced by US pharmaceutical company Gilead Inc. In January 2020 this drug was sold on license to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and during trials in March it was discovered not to have effect in reducing recovery time from Covid -19 and had adverse effects. Nevertheless this drug has the backing of governments and the World Health Organisation. Gilead is a large and politically powerful company on whose board Donald Rumsfeld once sat. Gilead developed ‘remdesivir’ for use against Ebola, then against SARS, then against MERS. In January laboratory testing started for its effectiveness against CV-19. There’s nothing against the supposition that cures exist and are waiting for the appropriate diseases to emerge. I’m suspicious and I have to admit to being prejudiced against Donald Rumsfeld but what worries me most is the lack of clear lines between government and business. In a recent Horizon programme which claimed to be about the science addressing the virus these other dissenting perspectives were totally excluded. Science only appears to be speaking with one voice. The UK government’s mantra has been that they are following the science. But which science? Already their Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies team has been riven by dissension, mainly over the question of transparency. Surely there should be clearer public information. It is for this reason that I reiterate the need for there to be a popular movement of resistance based on publicly-sourced knowledge and information.
One way of seeing how these differences of scientific opinion are enacted is to ask what it was that led to the UK government to change tack from the strategy of allowing the development of the population’s natural immunity to conforming to what was becoming the more internationally accepted strategy. This appeared to be in response to the key paper produced by Imperial College. In this paper two basic strategies were outlined one of which was ‘mitigation’. This involved ‘lockdown’ and flattening the graphic curve which measured the rate of transmission of the virus. The other was suppression which involved lock-down/social distancing plus testing, tracking and tracing the incidents of the virus. We could say that the national strategies fell broadly into these two options with Sweden and Brazil offering eccentric approaches and the UK and the US pursuing mitigation but ineffectively and without resolution because of the severely deteriorated public health systems in both countries. The commonplace argument as to why this turn in policy took place is that the government had its attention called to the disastrous and politically unacceptable consequences of the impact on the public health services and the care sector of following the ‘natural’ ‘herd’ immunity route. The government had to conform to what other countries were doing or face destabilising comparisons which may damage their political credibility.
How did this scientific consensus emerge in relation to political considerations? How were these political considerations influenced by commercial pressures? What commercial pressures are active in the scientific community? Were other arguments put about how the lockdown strategy could be used to political advantage and how it might advance the interests of production sectors that the Tories wanted to keep onside? In looking at the views, on the one hand, of the ‘dissenting’ scientists and the ‘orthodox’ science community, on the other, one issue stands out: the search for a vaccine. The question of the effectiveness of a vaccine has been radically called into question by the ‘dissenting’ community on a similar basis to their criticism of the accuracy of the prevailing testing processes. From the point of view of microbiology this turns around the ability to isolate the virus and be able to clearly understand its impact on other organisms. There have been calls from extremely powerful individuals like Bill Gates, for universal vaccination. What is the relationship between the interests of the big pharmaceutical corporation and the information technology ‘giants’. The relationship between testing and tracking and tracing is operationally close. Are the main players in this system commercially close? The pharmaceutical operation that can produce an approved vaccine will make a lot of money, especially if we accept that the only way of managing the impacts of the virus is through a mass vaccination programme. Of course there may be competing ‘vaccines’. All those seeking to receive public money for research, the development and the production of vaccine on a mass scale will have an interest in emphasising the virulence of the disease, its exceptional part in the ethology of disease, its complex symptoms, its multiple physiological impacts and its widespread intergenerational impacts. The relationship between public and private institutions in these activities is obscure. Public health services present enormously rich pickings for a capitalist system constrained, because of the falling rate of profit, to predate on public goods. Health is big business as is the development of the technologies that are at the interface between microbiology, nanotechnology and bioengineering. A recent indication is the expansion of the genomics sector which relates therapeutic procedures to genetic profiling. The data processing involved in tracking and tracing adjoins with the collection and management of genetic information.
The strategy of lockdown and the population controls involved, the centralisation of data collection that it enables, is a business opportunity for already powerful corporations and the association of these powerful communications controllers with pharmaceutical corporations is already taking place.
The UK government are engaging with logistics and public service organisations complementary to these organisations. This may have been why the lockdown strategy, as well as helping to save lives through relaxing pressure on health services, appeared attractive enough to turn government policy. It would be reassuring if our public institutions were under democratic control or even subject to the requirement for transparency so that conflicts of interest, if not prevented, were at least visible. However, the people who stand to gain most from the development of an approved vaccine and all the other special services and activities demanded by the situation created by the pandemic are at the heart of the governing circles. It is as if there are two divergent scenarios. One is a virus that will be suppressed through widespread immunity created through contact and the other is virus that will continue to plague the human population until a vaccine is found. Neither is likely to be completely true. But the pertinent issue is that no scientific work is free from political pressure and no political strategy is free of financial pressure. Along with centralisation secrecy is enabled and without transparency and popular participation the situation is open to corrupt manipulation and this is inevitably accompanied by incompetence. This is the political and social culture we need to resist.
I cannot make a judgement about whether a universal vaccine and the inoculation of the entire human population – or at least all those who want immunity passports – is a good idea. Look at the actions of institutions with which Dr Anthony Fauci has links. He is head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and is a chief adviser to the US government. He rose to prominence during the HIV epidemic of the 1980s. His organisation has been a conduit for funds to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. They were carrying out a joint study with Fort Detrick, a US military biological weapons research establishment which was hastily closed down in August 2019. International co-operation in science is important. People working working in epidemiology and immunology know each other and collaborate across frontiers. However as soon as aspersions were made about the Wuhan Institute being a possible source of CV-19, the US funding scheme made by Dr. Fauci’s NIAID through an intermediary organisation was withdrawn? Why? What was being hidden? Was it because knowledge of this link might give credence to a suspicion that the source of the infection may also be the source of the cure? Why was there no public debate. It would be upsetting if Dr Anthony Fauci stood to gain financially from the development, patenting and sale of a global vaccine.
In Naomi Klein’s recent article she warns about the domination of the post-Covid world by tech giants and she calls the recovery settlement dominated by these corporations a ‘screen new deal’. She describes the appearance of ex-Google boss Eric Schmidt next to New York Governor Cuomo in one of his public addresses. Schmidt was promoting the prospect that many public functions like education and health could be brought online and an implicit vision of a world where the privileged may no longer have to leave their houses while the poor – who presumably will be deprived of immunity passports – will be productively organised in massive distribution warehouses and food supply centres. Surely we should be ensuring access to public information about what this world dominated by tech giants and Big Pharma may look like so we can decide whether we want it.
While the opposition to the government in the UK is being distracted by the idiotic behaviour of the government’s chief adviser and cooing with admiration at the forensics abilities of the leader of her majesty’s loyal opposition, investment accounts and contracts are being prepared and even operationalised – with the accompanying socially-distanced flesh being pressed- to give enhanced powers of control to a new and unsavoury gang consisting of charismatic overgrown puerile schemers and the arch knowing fixers of nano circuitry.
The science is highly politicised and commercialised. The supposedly most powerful man/person in the world (not for long maybe!) advertises that he is taking a particular cure. Sales escalate. Institutions tremble. Authoritative scientific reports are produced. Institutions lose their funding. Even as the action in response to the impacts of CV-19 are articulated through ‘science’ so too will be the ‘recovery’ strategies. I emphasise again that it is these that may be far more deadly to human life than the virus.
What will be the consequences of all this for international relations? Will the responses to the virus reorganise the relationship between nation states. And how far will the recovery from the CV-19 pandemic be determined internationally?
The virus is international but the political strategies it has evoked have appeared to be uniquely national. So some kind of shake up is involved and the scale is massive and the depth is fundamental. Comparable upheavals to this pandemic, measured in terms of stress on public resources and the scale of exceptional financial arrangements, are the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century, the First World War, the Second World War, the Great Depression of 1929 and the 2008 financial crisis. These all led to major changes in the political shape of the world. This is the first pandemic/economic crisis that has been global in its impacts. Each nation-state has conducted a different campaign to suppress or manage the impact of the virus. This is to do with the relationship between the social state (national) and the economic state (international). Health and the reproduction of labour power (reducing the cost of doing so) is the business of the capitalist state. Even in a hybrid state organisation such as the European Union it has been noticeable that each nation-state has separately been required to manage according to the level of its preparedness and of its public health infrastructure. The southern states have been exposed because after the 2008 crisis it was only they that had to apply cuts to social spending. These states (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and France) have been faced by the refusal of their northern partners to develop a eurobond that would enable them to spread the load of the borrowing they are constrained to make. Germany, Netherlands, Finland have in some instances deprived their partners of vital material as well as financial assistance. This structural inequality has led to fissures in an already volatile union and exposed the myth of ‘social’ Europe exposing the EU as a bare economic structure.
If nation-states’ struggle against CV-19 is a war, it is a war of a peculiarly internal sort and on the face of it the peace settlement that will follow seems like a domestic issue. So even as the national strategies for management of the impact of the virus have been variations on certain key science-affirmed ‘narratives’ conforming broadly to international imperatives, the recovery strategies will be shaped by a similar combination of internal and external factors.
We know that the spinal cord of politics unites ‘home’ policy and ‘foreign’ policy and the extended trick played by the ruling group is to conceal this vital connection by enacting policy through apparently separate government departments. What is the relationship between recovery at a local level and the global reorganisation of international order?
For example, what is the relationship between the demand for local authorities to maintain the higher quality of air gained during the lockdown through horticulturally attractive ‘parklets’ placed in roads to decrease pollution from motor vehicles and the five Iranian oil tankers, guarded by the Venezuelan armed forces, docking in the port of La Guaira near the Venezuelan capital of Caracas?
Venezuela has, rather like the southern states of Europe, been refused credit needed to mitigate the economic impacts of the virus. The IMF members were said to have disagreed as to whether Maduro or Guaidó might be the recognised President of the country. Iran has similarly been refused borrowing rights. At a recent online meeting of G7 foreign affairs minsters an argument broke out as to whether the virus should be called ‘corona’ or ‘Wuhan’, exposing the lineaments of the international contest that underlies the world of the pandemic. IMaybe the CV-19 pandemic is not changing our world but simply driving forward changes that were already taking place. The key determining movement has, for some time, seemed to be the escalating confrontation between the US, in decline, and China, in the ascendent. As the US Congressional Research Service’s Global Economic Effects of Covid-19 tell us, ‘policy approaches are displaying differences between countries that promote nationalism versus those that argue for a co-ordinated international response. They are also intensifying policy differences between developed and developing economies and in Europe between northern and southern members of the Eurozone’
As for the struggles on the ground like the action to secure environmental improvements at a local level, it is already clear that the UK government is moving in the opposite direction from a recovery that will be localised, democratic, participatory. There is a vital link between localised movements of resistance and for sustainability and resilience and international political alliances and movements.
In the supply chains to the Health Service the UK government has centralised the purchasing functions easing the way towards privatisation. They have centralised the track and trace systems, engaging the US privately owned contact centre company Sitel in the operation of these systems. They engaged Deloitte’s to organise the logistics for the testing programme. This transatlantic company is involved in what appears to be collusive relationships with other so called ‘public service providers’. It was found guilty of improper auditing of Serco subsidiary, Serco Geographix in 2009. It was the internal auditor for Carillion before it went into liquidation.
Rather than engaging in regenerative democratically controlled and participatory strategies that galvanise peoples’ ingenuity by using the enormous public resources that can and are being released, the UK government are planning to ‘bail out’ large corporations and secure the corporate and financial sector that has close and strong ties with US business. All this indicates that it is these alliances that will be strengthened during the recovery process. This will forestall and extinguish localised public benefits? Even if this was not the case is this policy direction wise from the point of view of realpolitik? This might be the moment for a relatively independent and developed country to seek a unique unilateral path of development towards increased self-sufficiency, ecological sustainability and local empowerment.
All nation-states will become more reliant on the international alliances they make or they strengthen during this period. This is the importance of the Iran-Venezuela entente. The reason for this interdependence is to do with the role of currencies in the financial markets. All states have engaged in monetary and fiscal policies that put their currencies in unstable relationship to each other. The basic recourse has been to increase financial liquidity by ‘central banks’ buying government bonds thus ‘lending’ money to the state. Also there has been a relaxation of the terms by which banks are able to make loans. The attendant danger of increasing liquidity is of inflation, of money losing its value. This will leave more vulnerable economies liable to have their assets and property bought up by holders of more robust currencies and will lead to a disastrous increase in the centralisation of wealth, i.e. inequality. In the past couple of days two governments, Lebanon and Argentina have defaulted on their interest payments.
At the beginning of this period of instability two tendencies were in evidence. One was to head for safety by buying dollars or assets held in dollars, the other was to buy Chinese government bonds. According to one trader this was the “single largest change in capital markets in anybody’s lifetime”. The Chinese People’s Bank is the largest holder of US government bonds. Many Chinese corporations hold debts in dollars yet this bank has no immediate access to dollars. China must be looking forward to the time when transactions are no longer related to the dollar. If they started to sell their US government bonds this would erode the value of the dollar and create a major shift in financial power undermining the US and exposing its enormous indebtedness. It is only secured by the strength of its military or its military spending.
The UK is effectively a US client state and the interpenetration of their banking, economic and political structures shores up the value of sterling. So it is vulnerable. The UK under the Tories has gained no independence nor sovereignty by becoming independent of the EU. In asking whether it is wise for us to integrate more strongly with the US I am not necessarily suggesting China as an alternative special partner.
China produces 90% of the antibiotics used in the US, it produces 70% of the ingredients for drugs production. An added dimension to the weakening of US power is decarbonisation. As the world moves away from oil the dollar’s position as its key benchmark value indicator becomes more precarious. A few weeks ago crude oil attained negative value. This is to do with the downturn in consumption and the limits on world storage capacity.
While the US were stealing shipments of medical equipment and while the ‘northern’ EU states were refusing to allow Italy to borrow money, the Chinese medical delegation arrived in Northern Italy with medical equipment supplies and a banner proclaiming ‘We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden’. I’m not saying the Chinese are nicer or better than the Americans I’m simply pointing out their relative strength and confidence. It isn’t a matter of morality, it is a matter of integrity and survival for the UK to move away from this dependence on US power.
In these circumstances the policies of the Labour Party in the last election for a nationalised and publicly controlled pharmaceutical industry and for a nationalised information technology network may look enlightened and attractive.
Contrary to the policy of her majesty’s loyal opposition in its basic support for the government in what is falsely called its ‘war’ against the virus, the opposition should be animated by deep and imaginative demands. This is a turning point moment. The scale of the resources being released through public borrowing and the potential for participatory investments led by local needs and the development of the foundational economy can increase community resilience locally and human resilience globally. Since these resources are public resources the people should be actively engaged in their disposition. This will produce the skills and tools that will put us in the situation of being able to show material solidarity to communities all over the world. The UK government strategies are leading us towards dangerous partnerships.
But as I said in my blog before last resistance to the government’s ‘disaster capitalism’ has to be based on superior intelligence, derived from participatory information and knowledge management.