The future of the left since 1884

Science and socialism

In the face of the coronavirus crisis, strong opposition is needed more than ever. Labour must engage with scientists to hold the government to account, argues Joe Buckley.


Long read

As I sit in my kitchen, writing behind a folding pasting table repurposed as a makeshift desk, it is easy to neglect the importance of the moment we are living in. It has been predicted that 500,000 people will die from Covid-19. To put it in perspective, that is twice the number of people who died in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Coronavirus would be the third greatest disaster the UK has ever been through, behind the Irish potato famine and the Black Death; one of which led to Irish Independence, the other of which led to the end of feudalism. Given all this, it is baffling that the government has consistently acted too slowly and has refused to take decisive action on many key issues.

It is at the worst of times that good governance is needed the most. But the last few weeks have been dominated by indecisive action based on incorrect science, unclear and misleading communication, contradictory statements and poor leadership. It is this vacuum that Labour, as the opposition, needs to fill. By engaging with the scientific community, Labour can amplify our concerns and force the government to backtrack on their poor decisions.

With the prospect of at least half a decade in opposition, Labour’s only option is to force U-turns and set the narrative for the government, as it has done on many issues under Jeremy Corbyn. During this crisis, we have already seen one U-turn precipitated by good science:  switching from a herd immunity-based strategy to a social distancing-based strategy – and Labour can help force more.

Current predictions do not expect a vaccine to be available for 18 months. The most promising options are mRNA vaccines, a novel type of vaccine that uses genetic information from the virus to train the immune system to be resistant. These vaccines are quicker to develop than traditional vaccines, however no vaccine of this type has ever been approved for medical usage. Similarly, as early results from tests of antiviral medication range from inconclusive to promising, it is unlikely an effective antiviral treatment will be available in the short term. Therefore, the only options to tackle the virus are public health-based options, with social distancing and self-isolation likely to be present for the next year. This means Labour must continue to stand up for people most affected by these measures, and advocate for radical policies such as universal basic income and rent holidays.

The Labour party should engage with groups like Scientists for Labour, as well the Royal Society and similar organisations. To fully comprehend this crisis requires at least an understanding of the epidemiology, virology, vaccinology pharmacology and calculus, so any politician without a strong scientific background faces an uphill battle and should not be afraid to reach out for advice when needed. It is vital that the Labour party doesn’t spread any disinformation or cause confusion – the government is doing enough of that as it stands. Scientists for Labour are producing daily briefings on the latest research, as well as more in-depth reports on specific topics, and we highly recommend any elected Labour politician working on anything coronavirus-related to engage with us. We have a network of experts able to help.

Immediate action is required to get through this crisis. The NHS is about a week away from exceeding critical care capacity, a situation which will be exacerbated by frontline workers having to go without personal protective equipment. The Spanish government has acted decisively to expand hospital capacity by requisitioning private hospital beds and giving itself the ability to requisition factories if needed. We need to be willing to follow this example.

The government spent the last few weeks forcing people to choose between following medical advice and paying their rent. It still hasn’t taken sufficient action to protect workers, particularly the self-employed and renters. Drastic measures such as universal basic income need to be seriously considered for this crisis. Similarly, action needs to be taken to protect the homeless and other vulnerable populations and to support foodbanks which are likely to see increase pressure during this crisis.

The ongoing mental health crisis is likely to become much worse as a result of self-isolation and social distancing, as well as due to the other stresses caused by coronavirus. As such, the government should look into setting up an NHS 111 style mental health advice line, as well as providing the funding required for an adequate mental health service. The loosening of protections against mental health-related detentions during this crisis is worrying, particularly given the potential racial disparity in its application: black people are already currently four times more likely to be detained than white people.

Continuity of research, particularly into Covid-19, must be ensured. Laboratories and research centres must be given the support the need to stay open, which will also require vital support staff such as cleaners, finance, procurement, as well as the delivery and postal networks to continue operating. Furthermore, production of vital consumables, such as reagents and solvents, must continue in order to facilitate research. Science is a deeply interdependent field and effective collaboration is the only way to progress.

Patent law relating to coronavirus needs to be examined: we have already seen a lab attempt to patent a promising antiviral. Nobody should be profiting on the back of coronavirus. Similarly, steps need to be taken to allow the use of other in-patent drugs to tackle this emergency. In my research group, we have had to accept we cannot even consider researching anything which is in patent, no matter how promising it may be.

Finally, as socialists we must ensure the most vulnerable people in society do not bear the burden of this crisis. There must be protections for the poorest in society, and we cannot allow discrimination of any kind, particularly relating to forced quarantine. With the recent spike in hate crimes against people of Chinese descent, we need to tackle racist narratives and we must not cede ground on human rights. We cannot allow Covid-19 to usher in precedents for racist immigration policies or embolden the far right. There is a lot that needs to be done, but if we work together, put our belief in science and socialism, and all do our bit, we will get through this.

Photo credit: Tai’s Captures on Unsplash

Joe Buckley

Joe Buckley is the treasurer for Scientists for Labour and is currently researching the virus responsible for COVID-19. He is co-author of A Science-Based Socialist Response to COVID-19.

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