English version - German version
The beginning of 2020 saw a new form of highly infectious corona virus spreading across the globe which triggered wave of justified fear and uncertainty, forcing governments across the globe to act. Most followed the authoritarian Chinese national lock-down model, others chose to make measures voluntary, and yet others didn't act at all. The inhabitants of Germany were relatively lucky in that most parts of the country experienced only a mild lock-down, or rather a 'shutdown', in contrast to many other countries which underwent draconian emergency measures and the suppression of human rights. Unfortunately, the actions of the German government contributed to the confirmation that authoritarian lock-downs were in fact a viable measure, and due to the low death rate in Germany compared to in many other countries, most people, including many on the left, are now convinced that lock-downs are responsible for saving lives, a claim which is only possible to refute when observing developments on an international level. Worryingly for those who value democracy, and despite growing evidence to the contrary that lock-downs are a viable measure, many people are even willing to give up their rights and responsibilities again should the much predicted 'second wave' hit us this winter.
So was the use of authoritarian lock-down measures at all effective or was it like hitting a mosquito with a sledgehammer? You could say it was effective if you were only interested in covid-19 related deaths. A national lock-down being, after all, a very extreme form of social distancing. But when we take into account that such measures are increasing suffering and the number of deaths from other causes, then the answer has to be no. Sacrificing lives to save lives might be a convenient political option for those whose main concern is getting re-elected or increasing profits, but for the rest of society such thinking should be abhorred. An ongoing increase in excess deaths from untreated, hypertension, diabetes, Alzheimer's, cerebrovascular and cardiovascular diseases, etc has been reported in the last few months, not to mention the effect on mental health and the rise in the suicide rate. Are the lives of these people also not important? Alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic abuse have also all risen sharply. And if that's not enough, hundreds of thousands will die in poorer countries due to a growth in the already high poverty rates and the lack of vaccinations and treatments for other deadly diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria.
Germany has been used as a paradigm of success for the supporters of lock-downs without acknowledging the fact that the country has one of the best health care systems in the world, despite the growing lack of care personnel, which possibly contributed to the lower death rate. Countries that were much harder hit such as Spain, France, the UK, and Sweden have all been going through an extensive privatisation during the last few years, which left them even less prepared for the pandemic, especially with regards to risk groups. For example, in 2017 Germany had on average 33.9 hospital intensive care beds per 100,000, about 30% more than in the USA and more than three times as many as in Italy. Claiming that the lock-down alone was the cause for success draws attention away from future privatization plans to turn hospitals into businesses at the expense of patients and personnel.
When comparing countries we see that lock-downs are not the panacea they are often claimed to be by politicians and the mainstream media. If we look at Peru which introduced one of the harshest lock-downs world-wide even before the first covid-19 death in that country, we can see it is also one of the countries with the highest death rate per 100,000. Nobody took into account the fact that large part of the population don't have the luxury of staying at home. Many people cannot afford refrigerators and are forced to regularly send someone to the market to buy produce, where they often contracted the virus and brought it home spreading it to the others in their large households. New York and New Jersey was another example of harsh, rapidly implemented lock-downs in high population density areas and correspondingly high death rates. The Chinese authoritarian government has been praised by many in the West for having defeated the virus with its extreme lock-down, but can we really take claims coming from the Chinese dictatorship at face value, after all, they have been accused of initially attempting to suppress knowledge of the outbreak, costing the rest of the world precious time and lives. As Anarchists we must be sceptical of any information coming from governments, but most of all that coming from authoritarian regimes.
If we look at countries which didn't implement official lock-downs, we see a different story. Sweden (5,895 covid-deaths*), after its initial failure to protect the risk group in nursing homes, has not suffered any more than other European countries with harsher lock-downs, like Belgium (10,037 covid-deaths*), the UK (42,358 covid-deaths*), and France (32,171 covid-deaths*), in terms of covid related deaths. Death rates were low in Japan (1,594 covid-deaths*), which due to its laws couldn't implement an official lock-down, as the majority of the people were willing to follow government guidelines voluntarily and were as a society more prepared for an epidemic than most countries. The Tanzanian government (21 covid-deaths*) gave up with many measures when it was realized that they were doing more damage than good. After all, the average age in Tanzania, as in most African countries, is 18 years-old. African countries, such as Nigeria (1,112 covid-deaths*), which did introduce harsher measures also had a relatively low covid-19 death rate for a country of over 207 million, but there has been a steep rise in death and suffering due to other untreated diseases and a sharp increase in poverty levels, as well as a reported tripling in the number of rapes and gender-based violence. Taiwan (7 covid-deaths*) reacted promptly to the outbreak on mainland China by implementing an efficient scheme of tracing and isolation of the infected, and keeping the public well-informed without terrifying them and without needing to resort draconian lock-downs.
In Germany (9,531 covid-deaths*), we experienced what some call 'lock-down light', which although not as drastic as in most other countries, was still a step closer to the authoritarian model than the more democratic Taiwanese model. Over 50% of German citizens suffered only minor inconvenience: supermarkets were still open; it was possible to go outside without much police harassment; home office wasn't a problem for the more well-off population. Despite the criticism, at least the German government appeared to have a relatively clear line, unlike in some other countries, like the UK, where chaos and contradiction have been the order of the day, resulting in a confused and traumatised population and more authoritarian atmosphere, but this doesn't mean it was necessary or effective – but it was politically convenient.
There are also the countries which didn't introduce any measures, for all the wrong reasons. In Brazil, the right-wing conservative government of Bolsonaro claimed that covid-19 wasn't any worse than a light bout of the flu. In Belarus, Lukaschenka suggested vodka and saunas as the best protection against the virus. In Burundi, the president left it to God to decide people's fate. Despite the extremely questionable reasons for not implementing lock-downs these countries didn't suffer any more than countries with harsh lock-downs: Brazil had 145,388 deaths in a population of 212 million compared to Peru's 32,535 in a population of 33 million; Belarus has experienced only 844 covid-deaths, if the word of a dictator is to be accepted; Burundi has astoundingly had only 1 death*, probably less due to God's intervention and more to do with having a much younger population than most countries outside of Africa.
From comparing countries we see their was a total lack of international co-operation and the failure to take regional issues such a the average age of the population and the population density. Could the failure of the WHO to deal with this situation on a worldwide scale have had anything to do with its domination or pressuring by the Chinese government and the pharma-lobby?
* Data from John Hopkins University on 03.10.2020
Alternative measures to national lock-downs
In times of a pandemic measures may be deemed necessary to curb the spread of a disease, the most important being to protect the risk group without holding them in prison-like conditions. Other accepted measures include restrictions on mass gathering, social distancing, quarantining the infected, and local lock-downs. But what about national lock-downs? This is a measure that has never been used before and with good reason – as already mentioned, such a measure can be potentially more damaging than the effects of the pandemic itself.
Local lock-downs and micro-containment have been used in the past, being recorded as early as during London’s great plague of 1665 and the Marseilles outbreak in 1720, but implementing a lock-down of areas where the disease hadn't spread to wouldn't have occurred to them as practical or logical. Today we live in a world of nation states and governments which have much more control over larger areas than in the past, making national lock-downs a viable and appealing option to them, but in order to implement it the threat, real or perceived, must warrant the untold damage that would be caused.
The correct way to go about dealing with the problem, presuming the country isn't governed by an authoritarian regime like in China, would be to gather together a large number of independent experts from various fields, including epidemiologists, immunologists, and virologists, to evaluate the risk of the virus, but also statisticians, economists, and other public health officials to assess the extent of the risk from the virus and any possible damage which might be caused by a lockdown. With this information a thorough risk assessment should be carried out and conveyed transparently to the public. Although they might be included in the process, domination by government scientists and those with clear links to the pharma-industry should be limited to make any decisions more trustworthy and free of political and economic vested interests. Unfortunately, very few governments did this, which shouldn't be considered surprising, considering we live in a capitalist indirect democracy where we might get to choose our representatives/oppressors, but otherwise have very little say in how society is governed.
Winners and Losers
It has been said that capitalism has failed in this crisis, but failed for whom? Certainly not for the pharma-industry, which is set to make billions from this crisis, certainly not on-line retail companies like Amazon, certainly not the banks, and certainly not tech-companies like SAP and Microsoft. In fact, multinational companies have done pretty well out of the crisis. Even large firms in sectors drastically affected, like Lufthansa, are receiving bailouts while having a free hand to lay off unwanted workers without the threat of industrial action – it's the fault of the 'Corona-crisis'. We are witnessing the spectacular success of disaster and crony capitalism. The 1% are rubbing their hands with glee.
While the middle-class, especially in the West, has only suffered a little during the crisis, it is those at the bottom of the social pyramid who have been the worse affected by the international lock-down politics, even in wealthy countries like Germany. We are not all in the same boat in this crisis – the privileged are safe in their luxury yachts while the majority fight for their lives in leaky, overcrowded rowing boats. Those with low-paid and precarious jobs, in particular immigrants in the west, but whole sections of society in developing countries like India, have been drastically hit – not only their livelihoods, but also their basic human rights.
Refugees have been hard hit by the closing of borders – Fortress Europa has never been more impregnable. Languishing in refugee camps across the globe, abandoned by countries more concerned about their own well-being, while the war and exploitation continues in the refugees countries of origin, thousands of people see even less hope for the future, as nationalist sentiments thrive even among the more liberal sectors of western society.
In western countries, victims of the lock-down politics include small and medium-sized businesses, and the entertainment industry, gastronomy with governments doing little to help them out financially, preferring to bail-out the large companies Lufthansa [and other countries] in line with their usual capitalist politics. Furthermore, the vulture capitalists are waiting on the sidelines to swoop down on the carcasses of the victims to make a tidy profit and further commercialize culture.
The right to demonstration
Every country which implemented a lock-down also drastically curbed the right to protest. While some countries have gradually allowed demonstrations to take place again, others are still suppressing the right to protest with violence or the threat of huge fines. Israel was an exception, recognizing the importance of the right to protest despite having undergone one of the hardest lock-downs, at least until the end of September. In Germany, to a backdrop of new police laws and evictions of political squats, demonstrations have mainly been allowed, although the size is often restricted. Notable exceptions being the politically questionable 'Querdenker' demos in Berlin and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. The former might have been allowed in order to undermine the claims of a 'Merkel-dictatorship' and that the government were trying to remove the fundamental right to protest, to subsequently attack the movement via the mainstream media. The large Black Live Matter demonstrations might have been allowed as not to antagonise the left, who had been pretty much on board with the governments 'Corona crisis' politics – a repeat of riots and unrest in Germany had to be avoided. Anyway, the movement mainly targets Trump's America. Worldwide, from Australia to South America, populations haven't been so lucky, with a drastic increase in human rights violations under the cover of protecting public health.
Lock-downs and the radical left
The crisis that started at the beginning of this year is unique in history. Never before have so many governments damagingly closed down their economies to the applause of the majority of the population. This unprecedented situation proved a problem for the modern radical left, which has never had to react to deal with such a pandemic, where the disease was highly contagious, but not fatal to a large proportion of the general population. Even during the 1917 flu pandemic, in which people were literally dying in the street, lock-downs were only implemented on a local basis to avoid further damage. This new situation has resulted in the paralysis and division of an already splintered radical left. Some have chosen to uncritically accept information coming from a capitalist government and its representatives, while others remain critical. As radical leftists it is more important than ever to listen to numerous critical voices of independent epidemiologists and other medical experts regarding lock-down politics in order to form a clear opinion, instead of relying solely on the opinions of medical representatives of capitalist governments and the pharma-lobby, whose words are too easily influenced by politics and the drive for profit. This lack of criticism of the lock-down policy sets a dangerous precedent for the future. Information from a right-wing-liberal, capitalist government should be received critically during 'normal' times, and even more critically during times of crisis, as governments have a history of using real threats such as pandemics, climate change, and terrorism for their own political advantage. We must always be on our guard against the reinforcing of nationalism through nationwide lock-downs, but most of all against a new kind of emerging fascism in the form of authoritarian, techno-capitalism and we must resist it.