Why are we not in Trafalgar Square?
Updated: Sep 27, 2020
'The truth is that we have all been too cowed, too demoralised, hopeless or frightened. It is time for us to change that in ourselves.'
The virus is exploding in Britain, and we are heading into a new lockdown.
This happened before in March. But this time is different. Last time our leaders were ignorant, or stupid, or thought the lessons learned in Asia were irrelevant to white people.
Last time some of them believed that they could save the economy by letting the virus rip. Last time some of them believed the virus was like a cold. Last time some of them believed an app could solve the problem.
Or they believed whatever, it doesn’t matter. The point is that it is now obvious that they were wrong.
There is now a great deal of practice, many experiments and different policies in different countries.
Everyone who cares to now knows how to stop the epidemic. The scientists know it, the Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson does, his health minister Matt Hancock does, the opposition Labour leader Starmer does.
And this time we are going into an epidemic when we knows how to stop it.
Why are we not in Trafalgar Square?
Here is what needs to be done. Face coverings. Obvs. Social distancing. Obvs. Protective equipment for all workers. Obvs. Everyone who can works from home. Obvs.
But also, we need testing for everyone who is infected, or thinks they might be infected, or has been in contact with someone who might be infected, or who has symptoms, or is worried, or their parents are worried.
All those people need the results back within 24 hours, so they act on them.
Ideally, we need testing for most students and workers.
Everyone who is tested and is positive needs a place where they can be isolated, fed and treated. Don’t send them home to give it to other people in their household, who will give it to other people at work and school, and so on.
Alternatively, everyone who is positive and does not live with someone vulnerable could be quarantined, if the whole household was quarantined.
Everyone who has to stay home because they are infected, or because they might be infected, or because they are in serious danger if they are infected, needs enough money to live on. That means government payments.
We need people employed to trace all the recent contacts of each person who tests positive.
That means phoning all those people, and then being prepared to stay on the phone talking with that scared person for half an hour or an hour, explaining, answering their questions, arranging the immediate test for them.
If people don’t answer the phone, we need people who go knock on their doors.
We don’t have anything remotely like that. We don’t have it because the government has contracted out the services to private contractors who cannot wipe their own bottoms.
The only way test and trace and isolate will work is if it is run through the NHS.
That means run by local GP surgeries, hospitals and public health departments. It means hiring many extra workers, on proper salaries.
That will be good, because there are an awful lot of unemployed people on the dole. It means training those people on the job. It means asking final year science students to take one year out on decent pay to help.
That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But there are countries in the world that have done those things. They worked. In March there was a global shortage of the reagents for tests, the chemicals, the supplies. There is no global shortage now.
It sounds impossibly complicated to organise. It is not. Just ask the all the GPs in each area to organise it. And say to them, hire all the people you need to and spend all the money you have to, and the government will cover you.
Sounds expensive? Not compared to the economic consequences of what this government has done instead.
The key is – no private contracts.
Why are we not in Trafalgar Square?
As it happens, there are people in Trafalgar Square protesting over the epidemic. Anti-maskers, anti-vaccers, anti-lizard, climate deniers and racist conspiracy theorists. In substantial numbers.
I know people who look at all those people in Trafalgar Square and say how can they be so crazy, how can so many believe that? Because some of them are scared and angry and know that no one is doing anything for them. And because others are died in the wool political activists of the racist right.
But also, because we are not in Trafalgar Square. That’s why.
Covid and the related economic collapse are the most important political issue in the country in people’s real lives. It is obvious that the current situation is not good. Where are the people who protest everything else?
Where are the environmentalists? The Green Party? The Labour Party? The unions? The school students? The climate strikers? The anti-racists?
If those people do not fill Trafalgar Square, someone else will fill Trafalgar Square.
Other things we need
We know the other things we need to do too. People who are vulnerable, or live with people who are vulnerable, need to be paid enough to stay home. People need to work from home if they can. We need to be careful about how many of us come together.
None of this will work if we don’t control people coming from abroad.
Not asylum seekers – rich people, business people, tourists from abroad and British tourists returning.
We need to test everyone at the ports and airports, and give them the result before they leave the building. And offer them safe isolation. And check up on and arrest people who do not quarantine.
Many countries in the world doing this. It is crucial. Many countries have also blocked all but the most essential travel between places within the country, in complicated ways. That works too.
Not everything needs to work. We just need to get the R rate down below 1.0, so each person with the virus gives it to less than one other person. Many countries have done this.
Why don’t we? Lots of reasons.
For example, the government is venal and incompetent. Obvs. But one big reason is that the Tory ministers have a bedrock commitment to privatisation.
The one thing that is utterly nonnegotiable for them is that there must be outsourcing contracts. This is a central part of the neoliberal economic project they have been committed to for forty years.
It is also how their friends make much of their money. And it is how they hope to make money when they leave office.
We have learned, in the pandemic, watching them, that nothing is more important to them than outsourcing the contract.
This is not simply corruption, or stupidity. For them, this is bedrock principle. If they lose on privatisation here, they will begin to lose everywhere.
The other reason is the lack of an opposition. Starmer’s strategy is to wait for Johnson to eat his own head, and stand well back. That may win an election, but does not solve our problems.
But it would be silly to blame Labour, or the unions, the environmental movement, the Green Party or whoever.
The truth is that we have all been too cowed, too demoralised, hopeless or frightened. It is time for us to change that in ourselves. To do what we have done before, what we know how to do, what we do best.
Of course, we may not be able to protest in another lockdown. We can protest right after. Of course, most people will protest in their own town, not in London. Of course, banner drops, and spray painted sheets, and vigils at the hospital, the university or the school. Of course, anything and everything. But also, Trafalgar Square.
Is there a point? Can we move the government? Really? This government?
Maybe not all the way. Maybe our movement will not be big enough. But the government are in deep disarray, publicly shamed, and mired deeper in doo doo every day. A big enough movement can move them part of the way.
But this is also about the future.
There will be other global pandemics. Covid kills between one in a hundred and one in two hundred of those infected.
There will be a future pandemic that kills one in ten, or one in five, or one in two. When that comes, we need to already know what to do, to be practiced, to put our machinery into action immediately.
This is also about all the climate change disasters that are coming. It is a dry run, a practice test, on a very small scale, for the enormous task of stopping emissions and avoiding climate breakdown.
This is about what kind of society, what kind of place we live in, who we are, what we are ready to roll over for.
We don’t have to arrive in the square with agreed demands. The people in the Square now are diverse and utterly confused. But what they do still has an impact, and allows their different messages to grow.
So, why are we not in Trafalgar Square?
Jonathan Neale is a writer and climate jobs activist. He previously worked for the NHS. He tweets at @NealeSayles. This article first appeared in The Ecologist. Reproduced with the author's permission