By Finghín Kelly
Last week while being interviewed about Ryanair’s near €1billion loss Michael O’Leary arrogantly attacked the Covid-19 measures, calling for a complete re-opening of society (and crucially for him the airlines!) once over 50s have been vaccinated.
Should his demands be satisfied it would guarantee a new wave of infections, thousands more deaths and potentially a major impetus for the development of more harmful strains of Covid-19.
O’Leary has always been one of the most arrogant and ignorant representatives of big business. It is no surprise that he cares little for the well-being of his workers, customers, or public health. For him his profits and the future of his company come first, regardless of the wider cost.
However, O’Leary is not an aberration. He might be an outlier in terms of crudity and vulgarity, but the logic of weighing up the interests of business and their profits with public health is the approach of capitalism. Such an approach goes to the heart of the government’s, ‘Living With Covid’ plan; a plan whose logic is that there is an acceptable level of infections and death.
Government prioritises business interests
The Socialist Party rejects that logic and demands an approach that is aimed at dramatically repressing the virus. Public health and well-being must come before the interests of capitalism. We support the approach of suppressing the virus until there are very low, single digit cases per day, and putting all the resources needed for thorough tracing of detected cases. Mass testing to identify as many asymptomatic and undetected cases as possible is also essential. Such an approach would end the yo-yo lockdowns and the massive disruption of people’s lives. It would also dramatically eliminate the scope for more mutations of the virus to emerge.
In the run into Christmas huge pressure was put to bear on the government to reopen the economy. Retail Ireland (an arm of IBEC) lobbied hard in November for an early opening of shops. The publican lobby also pushed hard with the Vintners Federation of Ireland and Irish Hotels Federation even attacking the government’s shift to level 3 at the end of November as being “a stunning act of hypocrisy” and “short sighted” – they wanted a complete reopening! A whole myriad of scare stories and fake statistics were used to back their call for a full reopening. This is despite international evidence showing indoor pubs and restaurants to be areas of high infection.
The government, which is tied to the interests of business and in particular the hospitality industry, nevertheless bent to this pressure and reopened the economy. This was while infections were running at around 300 per day. Even with the discovery of a new more infectious strain in Britain on 14 December the government still did not alter its decision until the Christmas shopping was finished.
Opposition parties cave to pressure
At the time this was supported by many in the opposition, including Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald who described the lifting of the restrictions “absolutely the right call”,  while Labour’s Alan Kelly described the relaxation of restrictions as being “welcome”, and in the Dáil on the day of the lifting of restrictions said, “today is a good day.” Alan Kelly and the Labour Party, in particular, went out of their way in October and November to push for the demands of the publicans and hospitality industry.
The last year has been very difficult. People have been cut off from meeting family and loved ones for most of 2020. It is understandable that people would have wanted to celebrate Christmas. However, the way in which the government opened the economy including restaurants and retail was done in the interests of profiteers in those sectors, not the well-being of people.
When rates of infection grew the government was then forced into bringing in a harsh lockdown after Christmas which will last at least until the first week of March. Worryingly, the more virulent “UK” strain was able to gain a foothold due to this opening and is now the dominant strain in the country.
This third wave can be traced back to the government backing up the interests of business. That is where blame lies.
Underfunding of health service exposed
This third wave combined with the effects of years of underfunding and running down has put the health service on the verge of collapse. The numbers admitted to hospitals with Covid-19 peaked at 2,020. ICUs at one stage had 221 Covid patients pushing the state’s ICU capacity to be exceeded and forcing medical staff to make decisions about who could get care or not. An additional 1,625 people have died in this wave to date. It is significantly worse than last April and figures remain extremely high.
This has taken a huge toll on health care workers, with many working around the clock in extremely mentally and physically difficult conditions. PTSD symptoms have been reported among some workers. Rates of infection have again increased, with the INMO raising issues around PPE. At its peak hospitals even called in staff who were isolating due to being close contacts.
In the face of this crisis, incredibly, the government’s “Ireland On Call” initiative — in which thousands of qualified medical professionals who were recently retired, in other jobs or not in work, volunteered to assist the effort — remained effectively unused by the government. Many were angered by seeing their former colleagues go through hell while they still await to be called by the HSE.
This wave will leave an indelible mark on the consciousness of workers in the health service. The INMO has called for bonuses, extra holidays, and the nationalisation of private hospitals in the context of the pandemic. This would be welcome, and we should go further. Never again should it be acceptable to have a health service put under this kind of strain. We need a programme of massive public investment in the health service and the creation of a one-tier, properly funded and resourced healthcare system that is free at the point of use, which could deliver high-quality care. This means ending permanently the private ownership of for-profit hospitals.
The crisis in the health service raises a question mark over the ability of the government to implement a speedy vaccine rollout plan, particularly when it comes to vaccinating the 18-65 cohorts. Key to the plan will be staffing, but still these plans for the rollout remain unclear. It is an open question as to whether enough resources will be deployed.
We have also seen the European Commission at sixes and sevens in the face of the pandemic, which has acted as a blow to the prestige of the EU and has put a question mark over the future of Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen. It was unable to prevent member states hoarding PPE and essential equipment, and came late to acquiring vaccines. Then in an extremely hamfisted attempt at vaccine diplomacy, attempted to block vaccines leaving the EU which has resulted in escalating sectarian tensions in the North and nationalist sentiment more generally. The supply of vaccines is key to the government’s plans, but it remains an open question whether the EU and the Irish government will be able to deliver.
As previously mentioned, concerning new strains have emerged with the so-called UK, South African and Brazilian variants.
This has raised the prospect of the danger of the virus undergoing mutations that will see it not just become more contagious, but also to an extent that it can become more deadly, or even where it is not impacted by the vaccine. Studies have already shown the AstraZeneca vaccine to be less effective against the “South African” strain, raising the prospect of new vaccines having to be developed or adapted alongside new lockdowns and restrictions for a whole period of years.
It has also underlined the urgent need to have a speedy and global roll-out of the vaccines. To allow the virus to remain circulating on some parts of the world will allow for new and uncontrolled mutations to occur; to avoid the prospect of waves of infections we urgently need to end the hoarding of vaccines by wealthier states and the plans for the pharmaceutical companies to ramp up profiteering on the vaccines. The case for bringing these resources into public ownership, control, and management and abolishing patenting of vaccines and drugs for profit has never been stronger.
It is in this context, that there have been increased demands for restrictions on international travel. Given the dangers of new strains of the virus and the need to dramatically suppress it, non-essential travel should not be permitted at this point.
For those who must travel, such as people carrying out necessary and essential work, attending specialised medical appointments abroad, or attending to family emergencies, there should be an obligation to have a negative test before travel, and for a quarantine to be respected.
For people who have essential reasons to travel they must be given information, advice and support to quarantine effectively, including income support and an obligation on employers to provide remote working in order to remove an economic push for people to break a quarantine.
Hotel facilities should also be provided free of charge for people to safely quarantine where they feel that they cannot do so, for example, people in crowded housing. This option should be extended to all who need to quarantine and not just for people entering the country. Where people choose to quarantine at home, their whole home should be part of a quarantine bubble.
Much of the media, many of the opposition parties, and even some on the left have gone as far as arguing that all people arriving in the country should be forced to quarantine in state-provided facilities that would be policed and monitored. There is clearly a very strong case for extreme caution for people travelling from areas with high levels of infection, or where new more virulent, or dangerous strains of Covid are circulating.
Such an approach however does raise serious concerns and needs to be weighed up against the effect of such a policy, and the implications it would have on civil liberties now and into the future.
Dangers of unnecessary state powers
To enforce such a policy on all people arriving regardless of the risk posed by that person can be disproportionate and can be seen as amounting to detention without trial. This is an extraordinary power to give to the state.
Over the last year, we have seen states gain extra powers to tackle the virus. There have been numerous examples of these powers being used against workers with protests banned, strikes broken up, and as cover for police harassment.
Some on the left have mistakenly praised the Australian model of detention. This system obliges all entrants to forcibly quarantine in state-run hotels and hostels. This is a system that has come under considerable criticism from Human Rights groups.
The Australian model has been criticised for keeping people in extreme isolation which has an impact on people’s mental health. This is particularly grave when you consider that among people entering the state – especially where non-essential travel is banned – will include many vulnerable people, unaccompanied minors, people with special health needs returning from procedures abroad etc.
The conditions are equivalent to solitary confinement. There have also been cases of facilities actually seeing outbreaks of Covid-19 and therefore being counterproductive to the goal of suppressing the virus. The Australian state of Victoria at the time of publication is about to enter a 5-day state-wide lockdown due to an outbreak traced back to a detention centre.
We also need to be cognisant that there will be a push for the retention of these facilities after the immediate crisis has passed. Private hotels will have a vested interest in profiting from this, especially where their revenues are under pressure from the fall in tourism.
It must also be noted that the debate around the compulsory detention of people arriving from abroad has been marked with racist and xenophobic overtones. The basis of quarantine policy needs to be based on scientific evidence and not racist prejudice. We already have a state that oversees a racist immigration policy. There is a danger that this quarantine policy could develop into a more long-term attack on the rights of migrants, with people from poorer parts of the world particularly affected – as wealthy nations horde vaccines and leave them to suffer the virus for longer.
It would be foolish to trust the capitalist state with such a power, or to implement such a system in a proportionate way that respects people’s rights and well-being.
Working-class oversight and control
There are legitimate fears about quarantines not being properly respected. There have been cases of outbreaks linked to travel, especially over the summer when tourism travel was permitted. We do not accept that what would amount to a new system of detention centres is necessary in order to ensure that international travellers quarantine. The best and most effective way to deal with this is to significantly boost the resources given to assisting and checking people quarantining. As part of that, visits could be carried out by public health officials to households under quarantine.
We need to see the radical suppression of the virus. In order to achieve this, the interests of public health must be put before the interests of business and the likes of IBEC, publicans and Ryanair. All non-essential economic activity must be closed down. Workers should not pay the price – there needs to be job and income guarantees for all workers impacted. The PUP should be increased to reflect people’s incomes and jobs should be guaranteed.
Where work is necessary it should be workers in workplace committees that monitor compliance and have the power to enforce safety measures. There also needs to be opposition to the pressure to re-open the economy in the coming weeks which if permitted will see a resurgence in cases again in the late spring.
– Invest in a strategy to fully suppress the virus, with a proper system of mass testing and tracing to detect asymptomatic and undetected cases.
– Put public health before the interests of the businesses. No re-opening of the economy or schools until it is safe to do so. Workers, backed by the trade union movement, should refuse to work in unsafe conditions. We must demand that health and safety are under democratic workers’ control and oversight – we can have no confidence in the bosses and government to deal with this crisis, they have prioritised business interests over our health from the beginning.
– To suppress the virus and protect against new strains, a ban on all non-essential international travel and 14-day mandatory quarantining for those arriving into the state, with proof of negative tests before travel and testing on arrival, is necessary. For the provision of information, advice, and support to ensure quarantine effectiveness, including income support and an obligation on employers to provide remote working in order to remove an economic push for people to break quarantine. Boost the resources given to assisting and checking people quarantining. For democratic workers’ and community oversight of the quarantine regime.
– Bring all private hospitals into full public ownership. For a one-tier public health service, that is democratically controlled, adequately funded, and free at the point of use.
– End the patenting of vaccines to allow for the production of generic vaccines. Take all pharmaceutical labs and production facilities into public ownership under workers’ control and gear them towards assisting with the effort to combat the pandemic
– For democratic socialist change – capitalism is an increasingly uncontrollable threat to health, lives and the environment. Seize the wealth and resources of big business and the super-rich and bring them into the democratic public ownership of the working class. Plan their use for the benefit of all. On the basis of economic planning and real democracy, we can overcome the challenges of this and other potential pandemics and crises.