Covid crisis exposes a rotten system that must be challenged

Fifty million people have been infected with Covid-19 globally, with over one and a quarter million tragically losing their lives. In Ireland, we’ve had 65,000 cases with over 1,900 deaths in the South and 42,000 cases with over 750 deaths in the North. A second wave is now overwhelming health services across Europe.

Like climate change, the roots of this pandemic lie in the destruction of our planet in the interest of greed-driven production-for-profit, which clearly cannot sustainably coexist with nature.

The working class, the poor and the oppressed will continue to die because of government inaction, or more accurately, willful criminal neglect. An economic slump – triggered by the pandemic, but caused by deeper contradictions inherent in the capitalist system – will also make poverty, oppression and inequality much worse.

Working-class and young people are fighting for their lives. We need to get organised and mobilised now to break once and for all with this ruinous system that is destroying the world.

People being sacrificed for profit

Despicably, the super-rich have taken advantage of the crisis, with the world’s billionaires increasing their wealth from $8 trillion to $10 trillion since March. In Ireland, the richest 300 have increased their fortunes to €93 billion. These parasites, who can retreat to their yachts, private islands and mansions for safety, or if needed can quickly access the best of healthcare, are using their substantial political influence to ensure business interests and profit predominate, even during this pandemic – illustrating again how backward and unjust society is.

This was shown too in the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party government initially rejecting the advice to go to Level 5, having recklessly reopened the economy in the summer because short-sighted businesses opposed continuing with the restrictions. They refused to organise the required systems of mass testing and tracing, or properly equip the health service. Evidently, people’s health and lives cost too much. Little surprise either that establishment commentators increasingly legitimise variations of the callous ‘herd immunity’ strategy.

It is a deception to suggest any contradiction between maintaining the economy and living standards, and protecting public health. The wealth and resources exist to do both. The real contradiction is between the policies that businesses dictate and governments impose, and the actual needs of the majority of people. 

This deception will increasingly be pushed to obscure the reality, and we can’t accept this. The health and economic emergencies, and their ramifications, are not being dealt with. The government is not looking for actual solutions. Its policy is about convincing people “to live with” (and die with) Covid-19, because they have no alternative. But this will mean things can, and likely will, get much worse. We reject this approach: the virus and the economic crisis can be overcome. 

Accentuating inequalities

Already the pandemic has compounded the injustices and inequalities of capitalism in Irish society. The risk and infection rate is highest among working-class, migrant and Traveller communities, and asylum seekers in Direct Provision are particularly vulnerable. 

Working-class women are disproportionately impacted too, with layoffs and cuts to hours and conditions in the retail and hospitality sectors, for example. The ‘double shift’ of working and managing family life has been exacerbated by extra tasks connected with cleaning, sanitisation and caring for children, and for elderly and vulnerable family members. There has also been an 18% increase in calls to Gardaí reporting intimate partner violence this year. 

The continued unnecessary restrictions on abortion, and the heinous decision to seal the mother-and-baby homes records, testify to the sexist and misogynistic attitudes that the Irish state fosters, which are still prominent in the education, health, welfare and legal systems. The explosive combination of exploitation and oppression means working-class women will be at the forefront of the fightback we need. The inspiring struggle of Debenham’s workers, and the mass movement in Poland now against a new attack on abortion rights, demonstrate this.

Government incapable of dealing with virus or crisis

All the effects of Covid-19, including the inevitable inequality in access to a vaccine when one is developed, will cause much more turmoil and further death – big pharmaceutical companies are already salivating at the conservative estimates of a $10 billion annual market for the vaccine, and market logic dictates that the wealthy will jump to the front of the queue. 

The powers-that-be are responsible for squandering the progress that was made during the first wave (which was achieved in the main by the discipline that ordinary people displayed in those months) exacerbating the extent and the impact of the resurgence of infections and deaths that led to the second lockdown. But how many more waves, infections and deaths will there be? The economic tsunami that will break again and again over people’s lives in the next years will knock society back decades. 

It’s clear that if permanent chaos is to be averted we need revolution. Working-class people, across borders, with young people in the forefront, need to assert their rights, take control of the direction of society and break with catastrophic capitalism. 

Workers & students should act to secure their health & safety

The start of this change can be workers and students insisting on their right to be safe, and where this is not respected by bosses, managers or officials, they should walk out of work, school or college until the anti-virus conditions are satisfactory.

Workers in Moy Park poultry factory in Portadown, at Goodman meat plant in Lurgan and at the sorting office in Derry, did just that and walked out demanding proper protection from the virus. In Greece, students occupied over 700 schools to protest against unsafe conditions. 

The silence of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) during the crisis has been deafening. Clearly we can’t rely on it or wait for it to act. Instead, workers and students should take the initiative in responding to infections and trying to suppress the virus. If and when workers take action, or school or college students rebel against a dangerous situation they have been forced into, trade unions and student unions should support them unconditionally. 

In reality, if there was a trade union leadership with any conviction in this country there would already have been a general strike to insist that the wealth appropriated by corporations and the super-rich here be re-appropriated and used by the state to put in place a system of mass and immediate testing, and to construct the world-class health service we require. 

This is crucial, as lockdowns alone – without mass testing and tracing, and all necessary anti-virus infrastructure – will not stop the infections or the needless deaths. Such a general strike doesn’t have to be called from above, it can be built from below on the issues of combating the virus and economic crisis. What is clear is that we need a movement of workers, women and young people, organised from below, if a decent feature for people and the planet is to be secured.

Government adherence to capitalist ideology is destroying lives 

A staggering 320,000 workers are now jobless in the South, and hardship, stress and anxiety are set to worsen. Twice in just over a decade capitalism in Ireland and internationally has thrown the world into a deep economic mess. 

The needless anarchy of the capitalist market system is exposed. The skills of unemployed construction workers could be married with some of the billionaires’ wealth, which should be seized, and turned into hundreds of thousands of new homes and essential physical and social infrastructure. This is beyond what the market system is capable of, however.

Instead of taking and using the wealth to deal with the multiple crises we face, the government is opting for deeper debts on the financial markets, and soon enough those debts will be paid back through a new programme of vicious austerity on working people. 

All the while this government will maintain Ireland as a tax haven for multinational corporations and hope that this creates economic spin-offs. In other words it has no developed economic strategy. This approach condemns Ireland to chronically underfunded public services, an increasingly low-wage economy and gross inequality. 

A large part of this borrowing will be used to fund a programme of ‘corporate welfare’ – bailouts for businesses. They claim that this will incentivise the bosses to keep jobs. Not only will this not work in practice, but the logic is crazy. Basically, they want to use our money to assist bosses to maintain profits so that the bosses continue to employ us! Instead, let’s really save money and get rid of the profiteering ‘middle man’, then use the wealth to create direct employment in publicly owned and democratically run industries and utilities to provide the goods and services we need.

We need a revolution from below

We can’t afford to accept the reckless approach to the virus that’s being adopted. Neither should we accept what is unfortunately inevitable on the basis of the economic status quo – that ordinary working-class people pay the price for the Covid crisis in the form of economic dislocation, social disintegration and extreme political instability. 

We need a revolution that takes the ownership of the economy out of the hands of the billionaires, and instead democratically plans the use of society’s wealth and resources to benefit all in society. If organised, working-class and young people have the numbers and the power to achieve such change. As well as all the other factors, the climate change clock is ticking. We don’t have unlimited time: a break with capitalism and real democratic socialist change is now an urgent necessity. Below is the programme the Socialist Party will adopt to fight the pandemic and for socialist change – join with us today. 

10-point programme on the Covid crisis

  1. Mass testing key to defeating Covid – end government’s reckless inaction 

Lockdowns are not enough. They, and the difficulties they create, are often necessitated by government refusal to organise proper mass testing. Mass testing, including if necessary the population being tested over a short period of time, alongside rapid tracing and treatment, is the most effective way of dealing with the virus and reduces the need for restrictions. To achieve this we need emergency requisition of all private labs, as well as investment in state labs and the development of necessary infrastructure in workplaces, schools, colleges, airports and all major public locations. This is a vital investment for future potential pandemics. PPE must also be generally and freely available, produced and supplied by the state.

2. Workers should strike if their health is not safeguarded – assert your right to control health & safety

Government or individual bosses cannot be trusted to safeguard health and safety – there is an economic conflict of interest. The criminal silence and inaction from ICTU on this is an abdication of responsibility. Workers have a right to work in a safe environment, and that means they must also have the right to withdraw their labour if they have serious concerns, without any victimisation or cuts to their income. For a general strike from below – a discussion should begin in workplaces and in the trade union movement about organising a one-day stoppage to demand real mass testing and tracing; the establishment of a properly funded and publicly owned, one-tier health service; and that big business and the super-rich pay the price for the economic crisis. 

3. For health and safety in schools & colleges – transform the education system

Class sizes must be drastically reduced and buildings transformed and renovated to facilitate health and safety. There are grave concerns that currently education is not safe, but information on infections is being hidden. Teachers, SNAs, and college and school students have the right to work and study in a safe environment and should exert democratic control over health and safety. If they deem it necessary, schools and colleges must be shut down until all concerns are addressed. Support the planned industrial action by ASTI; other teachers’ unions must follow their example – for united strike action by teachers and students. School or college students should also strike if they have serious concerns over health and safety, and coordinate actions with other students – unity is strength. Use this opportunity to abolish the stressful and outdated Leaving Cert system once and for all. It was cancelled for 2020; proper planning and resourcing can make the misery of the Leaving Cert system history. Invest in third-level education and expand places for all who want to go on to college or university.

 4. Support women at the coalface of the Covid crisis  

Emergency action to deal with the rise of gender violence: urgent massive investment in refuges, shelters and all services supporting those experiencing gender-based violence. There must be appropriate accommodation immediately available to everyone who leaves their home due to abuse. Funding must be allocated for training and education programmes that raise awareness of gender violence and challenge backward attitudes in schools, college, workplaces and throughout society.

The state must invest to develop a free, public childcare service for all, based in communities and workplaces. It is unacceptable, particularly in the context of this ongoing Covid crisis, for people in receipt of the One-Parent Family Payment to be harassed by the state – furthermore, this payment must be increased to €350, in line with the PUP. Likewise, all unnecessary restrictions placed on those requesting an abortion, including the superfluous second GP consultation, must be scrapped, and where necessary, hospitals and GP surgeries should be mandated to provide a service locally. Abortion is a medical procedure and should not be restricted by legislation, but rather should be governed by medical guidelines. 

5. Housing and Covid-19

Slash and freeze rents to levels that are affordable. Keep the ban on evictions in place. Reinstate the moratorium on mortgage repayments, if requested and without interest being applied. The model of co-living will only spread the virus — it must be opposed. For the immediate abolition of Direct Provision. For proper and culturally appropriate accommodation for Travellers as well as other supports for the Travelling community in the context of the Covid-19 crisis. 

Overcrowded housing conditions and homelessness are fuelling the Covid-19 crisis. This overcrowding crisis is a condemnation of the wilful refusal to build social and affordable homes by successive governments. That now needs to end. We need a major programme to build public homes on public lands to rent or to buy for all those who need them. 

 6. Avert the poverty trap

Defend the living standards of workers and the unemployed in this crisis. For a universal and comprehensive sick pay system. All unemployed people must be given the €350 Covid payment at a minimum. Workers, backed by the trade union movement, should resist all attacks on their pay and conditions. For a €15/h minimum wage with no exemptions. For a standard four day/30 hour working week with no loss of pay. 

7. We need a free, universal public health service

We are currently paying the price for the gross underfunding of our health service. For immediate investment to recruit nurses, doctors and other staff, necessary beds and ICU capacity, equipment to tackle an upsurge in Covid cases, and to maintain non-Covid health services. For the provision of 24-hour and free counselling services to tackle the mental health crisis. 

This unjust, two-tier health service must go – nationalise the private hospitals with no compensation. Integrate them into a fully resourced national public health service that is free at the point of use, with staff and representatives of the broader community at the heart of management. The health services and health workers in the North and in the South, including those involved with testing and tracing, should fully cooperate and have an integrated system to deal with the pandemic. Bring big pharma into public ownership – provide drugs and vaccines for need not profit. Nationalise all privately owned nursing homes.

8. Tax big business and the rich – no mass redundancies  

End Ireland’s status as a tax haven for multinational corporations. Introduce an emergency Covid Wealth Tax, abolish the tax loopholes for big business and the wealthy, and double corporation tax to fund public services and maintain incomes. State assistance and cheap credit from a public, non-profit banking system should be provided to small businesses on condition that there is a maintenance of jobs, wages and conditions, as well as mandatory recognition of trade unions. Job-shedding companies should be required to open their books for scrutiny by their workers. Companies that announce redundancies should be brought into democratic public ownership, with workers at the heart of management.

9. No future of mass unemployment for young people 

A new generation must not be faced with a future of mass unemployment. We need real training programmes and apprenticeships for young people, with decent pay and conditions. No to another free labour scheme like Jobbridge. The state must invest the wealth of society to provide skills, education, and jobs. 

Mobilise and utilise the capabilities of the 320,000 workers that have been made unemployed by this crisis. No reliance on the private sector to solve this crisis. For an industrial policy based on state investment in socially useful infrastructural projects such as state-run schools, hospitals, care homes and creches, as well as a viable and environmentally sustainable manufacturing base. Invest in green jobs and renewable energy – for a zero carbon economy by 2030. 

10. Covid and the case for socialist change 

Seize the wealth and resources of big business and the super-rich and bring them into the democratic public ownership of the working class, where the resources are organised by and for the majority in society. On the basis of an economy that is democratically planned, we can ensure that these resources are invested to meet the challenges of this and other potential pandemics, as well as climate change – all while protecting and raising the living standards of the vast majority.

Malcolm X, the revolutionary civil rights leader, said “we are not out-numbered, we are out-organised”. There are 2.3 million workers in Ireland and 600,000 members of the ICTU. Combining with a movement of young people, this is an extremely powerful force. Covid-19 has also magnified the oppression of women and people of colour in capitalist society. We need a multi-gendered, multi-racial, working-class socialist feminist movement to end the rule of capitalism.

Joining with a revolutionary struggle of the working-class and oppressed globally, we can build a democratic and sustainable socialist world. For such a movement to win, we need a party committed to socialist change and this is what the Socialist Party is striving to build.