Mike Downham reflects on the impact of Covid, the aftermath of COP26 and what we might do differently in future. This article was first published in Scottish Socialist Voice.
It’s nearly two long years since we began to become aware of the potential scale and danger of the new virus. At that point some prescient people suggested that how we reacted to the pandemic would be a rehearsal for our performance in the forthcoming big show of climate breakdown.
This wasn’t the first time ‘rehearsal’ had been used for how we organise on the left. John Berger described every act of resistance as a rehearsal. Colin Barker called his 1987 book about the uprisings in France, Chile, Portugal, Iran and Poland between 1968 and 1980 Revolutionary Rehearsals. And he used this title again in his subsequent book Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age, written jointly with Gareth Dale and Neil Davidson published this year – posthumously for both Colin and Neil – which describes the uprisings in Eastern Europe, South Africa, Indonesia, Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt since 1989.
It’s reasonable I think to say that we’ve made a right mess of the Covid rehearsal. Had we known two years ago what we know today, we would have learnt our lines and our cues more thoroughly. What we know today is that 9,634 people in Scotland have died; that the majority of these snuffed-out lives have been among the poor, the disabled and the marginalised; that 99,000 people in Scotland are living with Long Covid; that about 10% of children who catch the virus go on to have disabling poor health for weeks or months; and that the NHS has broken down.
That the NHS has actually broken down, no longer something we just fear might happen, was brought home to me this week by hearing about a middle-aged woman in the Paisley area with an 18-month history of severe neck pain who waited so long for surgery that she’s been forced to give up her job as a care-worker, then lost her home because she couldn’t keep up with her mortgage repayments. Not that this is the only tragic story about NHS failure we could tell between us.
Now the omicron variant (whether or not it turns out to be as bad as feared – we’ll have to wait a week or so before we know) is shouting at us from the wings, telling us that if we allow the virus to spread, whether in Scotland’s communities, schools and workplaces in an incompletely vaccinated population, or in largely unvaccinated countries sent to the back of the queue because they can’t pay, sooner or later we’re going to get a variant which will evade current vaccines.
And yet the cues were there in the script from the beginning. If we’d read it and learned it we’d have known we couldn’t trust the governments of wealthy counties, including Scotland, to not rely so heavily on vaccines, or to prioritise supply and reduce the cost of vaccines for poor countries, because these governments are locked into a system where profit trumps health. Yesterday’s top news was about Pfizer rubbing its hands as it suggested that annual vaccination was likely to be necessary – without mention of the financial and logistical implications of vaccinating eight billion people annually. Pfizer is relishing not only the prospect of a limitless market but also that it has outcompeted AstraZeneca both technically and in its propaganda.
Just as profit trumps health, so that the ruling classes allow the Covid virus to spread, it also trumps the devastating impacts of global heating which are unfolding for all humanity. COP26 has finally made it clear that neither wealthy governments nor the oil and gas corporations are going to take effective action in relation to global heating, despite being fully aware of and no longer denying the scale of the impacts which will result from their inactivity.
How can it be that one small fraction of human beings can inflict such suffering on the rest of their species? Andreas Malm and colleagues, in their new book White Skin, Black Fuel try to explain:
They are not perturbed by the smell from the blazing trees. They do not worry at the site of islands sinking; they do not run from the roar of approaching hurricanes; their fingers never need to touch the stalks from withered harvests; their mouths do not become sticky and dry after a day with nothing to drink … After the past three decades, there can be no doubt that the ruling classes are constitutionally incapable of responding to the catastrophe in any other way than by expediting it; of their own accord, under their inner compulsion, they can do nothing but burn their way to the end.
As we get our last call to take the stage in the climate crisis, what have we learned from the Covid rehearsal? What are our lines and what are our most critical cues?
The best approach to these questions may be to ask first what mistakes we made in the rehearsal, to avoid making them again. We should perhaps beware of:
- Knocking politely on town-hall and parliament doors asking the politicians to do things few of them can even contemplate doing
- One-off marches and protests which aren’t part of a charted programme of resistance
- Loosely knit coalitions, which dilute militancy with compromise
- Hoping to build a social democratic party which could win at the ballot-box
- Organising strictly within our political silos, whether parliamentary parties, or revolutionary groups, or single-issue institutions
- Underestimating the extent to which the ruling classes have stifled trade union power so that collective withdrawal of labour is no longer the readily available weapon it used to be
How then can we organise, if not in these ways? First, the Covid pandemic is far from over – in fact it can be said to be at a critical point, with the prospect that vaccines may not protect us, and that relying on vaccines alone is not sustainable. We’ll only be able to overcome this pandemic through traditional public health measures, delivered through a greatly expanded and well-resourced public health service. This is what we can start turning our attention to and fighting for. Covid is offering us the experience of another rehearsal, the key changes needed to address both Covid and climate becoming more clearly the same – rolling out and investing heavily in existing technologies instead of switching to uncertain ones. Vaccination on its own becomes the equivalent of Carbon Capture and Storage, both of them profitable for the ruling classes but disastrous for the rest of us.
Second, COP26 has shown us that targeted and sustained direct action works. The Indian farmers, after a year’s disruptive presence in Delhi, during which 700 of them died at the hands of the police, have won a historic victory. The first thing Modi did when he returned from Glasgow was to announce that he was going to withdraw the three laws against which the farmers had been protesting. Two weeks later Shell announced that they are giving up their ten-year plan to extract oil and gas from the Cambo field. This is a huge victory for the Stop Cambo! campaign – a direct result of its persistent visibility in Westminster over the last year, then its strong performance at the COP in Glasgow.
But in the midst of our celebrations of these two wins, we can see that the farmers are continuing to swamp Delhi. They want to see the three laws actually withdrawn, not just hear a promise. It’s probable that even then they will continue their protest for further, more systemic changes. Stop Cambo! knows too that it must not relax. There’s still Siccar Point Energy to unseat (the majority partner in the development of the Cambo field), and there’s the UK Government to force into a decision that no extraction license will be granted. A win is the cue to increasing the strength of a protest, not to ending it.
Third, we would do well at this point to start discussing what so far we’ve shunned: how are we to oppose the state oppression which is bound to escalate in relation to increased direct action? Is XR right to remain adamant about non-violence? Or did Mandela have a point when he said “The attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with only bare hands”?