by Tom Vickers
27th October 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed even more starkly many of the lines of division that are documented in Borders, Migration and Class in an Age of Crisis and has woven an additional strand into capitalism’s systemic violence.

It has accelerated many longer-term developments, including the hardening of borders, the increasing intensity and extent of discipline over mobility and the extension and deepening of conditions of precarity. In Britain, and many other countries, it has also resulted in an apparent shift in welfare policy, with huge injections of funding for state healthcare, job retention schemes and more, but these continue to be bound by the ideological and material limits of capitalism in crisis.

Many states have tightened border controls over human mobility, nominally aimed at limiting the spread of the virus. But this has involved tensions, arising from the contradictory demands of human health versus the labour needs of capital. So, the famously anti-migrant government of Boris Johnson did not introduce a home quarantine for new arrivals to Britain until June, and then quickly backed down by introducing a host of exemptions, after complaints from businesses. Deportations of refugees have continued alongside charter flights to bring in migrant workers. Compare this with Cuba, a socialist country organised according to the priority of human needs, which introduced a strict quarantine and testing system for new arrivals from January, using a network of residential centres, alongside extensive screening, testing and isolation of cases within the community. According to figures compiled by Worldometer, by 12 October Cuba had recorded 530 cases/1 million population, and 11 deaths/1 million, while Britain and the north of Ireland had recorded 9,085 cases/1 million and 631 deaths/1 million. This is an important demonstration that it is not states and borders per se which threaten human welfare, but states and borders that are rooted in capitalist relations.

Lockdowns and social distancing can be understood as an extreme form of discipline over human mobility, and a new way of politicising the movements of human bodies and the relationships between them. The ways in which these measures have been applied in Britain reflect the capitalist relations in which they are embedded. The British government’s response to the pandemic has emphasised an ethos of individual responsibility for social harms, from the emphasis on washing hands and coughing into your elbow in the period before the lockdown was imposed, to suggestions that the high death toll was due to individual failings rather than government policy. Lockdown measures began to be relaxed even while infections remained at a level some experts considered dangerous, justified explicitly by the need to ‘protect the economy’, meaning profits for capitalists.

The COVID-19 crisis has intensified precarity for some groups, and extended precarity to wider sections of the population. For example, in hostels like Urban House in Wakefield, people seeking asylum reported being kept in close contact with one another for months. When infections started to spread, they were dispersed, in some cases to houses totally unfit for human habitation. Racialised minority workers are disproportionately concentrated in sectors experiencing the worst job losses. Together with an accelerated growth of digital platforms that involve precarious work arrangements, this will make it easier for employers to drive down standards and replace workers who try to organise. Britain’s immigration controls will make the consequences of this particularly severe for some people – more than a million have a ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ condition attached to their immigration status and will be denied access to many forms of state welfare if they lose their jobs.

In response to the pandemic and lockdown, the British government introduced a Job Retention Scheme, paused evictions and benefit sanctions and directed additional funding to unemployment benefits and the NHS. Yet, many of these measures were temporary, and there was no break from the logic whereby human lives are valued according to the needs of capital. For example, hospital capacity was protected by transferring patients to care homes, and hospitals were given priority over care homes in accessing testing and protective equipment. This reflects a devaluing of lives that are of no further use to capital, due to old age or limiting disabilities. Reflecting the same logic, the test and trace scheme has been fatally undermined by outsourcing to private companies. There is also the question of how increased government spending resulting from the pandemic, estimated to total £210 billion so far, will be repaid. The experience of previous crises suggests that the brunt of the cost will be paid by the working class.

At the time of writing it is too early to say for certain, but it is quite possible that the pandemic will prove to be a crucible within which the multiple crises arising from capitalism will give birth to a transformative movement. Already, in a few short months we have seen the Black Lives Matter movement sweep the United States, Britain and many other countries, winning significant concessions.

As the intersecting crises of borders, welfare and work continue to develop, intensified and accelerated by the pandemic together with the environmental crisis, then wider sections of society will be forced to mobilise and organise; this creates possibilities for new alliances, as discussed in my concluding chapter. As activist intellectual Bobby Seale wrote 50 years ago, we must Seize the Time.

Tom Vickers is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Nottingham Trent University. His research is intimately connected to his participation in social movements, community organising and community education, as a form of critical public sociology spanning diverse struggles.

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