The new English Health Minister Sajid Javid has announced that on the 19th of July Boris Johnson will stand in front of the English people, barefaced, and proclaim “freedom”. England will remove all Covid-19 protections and let the virus circulate wildly at even higher levels: in other words “herd immunity” is back with a bite. Cases are expected to hit 100,000 each day, with children being put at particular risk and scientists accusing the government of ignoring the threat of Long Covid in children. The vaccine might have ‘weakened the link’ between infection and rates of hospitalisation and death, but still far too many more will die, be hospitalised and develop chronic illness as a result of the UK’s negligent and callous approach to public health. It also risks the evolution of yet another even more deadly variant. Analysis has shown that more than 150,000 people have already died from Covid-19 in the UK, 60% of whom were disabled people, with 2,000,000 reporting as having suffered Long Covid, so far.
There is a myth that Mark Drakeford and the Welsh Government has protected us from the worst in Wales, however the data suggests that the death rate per capita is on a par with England’s, with nearly 6,000 official deaths registered so far. The reality is that Welsh lives have been made inferior to the demands of capital, as Undod highlighted back in December. Eluned Morgan, right on cue, is already parroting Westminster saying that people will need to “learn to live with” the virus. However, there is some welcome indication that they will not be removing all protections quite yet, although details have not yet been released.
The alleged freedom of “freedom day” is in reality an immature gesture that will limit freedom for many. The rhetoric plays on Johnson’s Churchillian obsession and depends on a flight from reality into a selfish fantasy of being able to do what you want, when you want, however you want, without consequences or responsibilities. Our Etonian elites are so used to being pampered, so accustomed to privilege, that a mere face covering that saves lives is seen as an affront to their sense of innate divinity. Their freedom relies upon the unfreedom of others — it is anti-liberatory. It is however consistent with British libertarianism, which has built its entire wealth and power upon the backs of others, in the pursuit of a freedom for some, from the many. As Aurelien Mondon put it in a tweet: “You have to be a particular kind of ‘rebel’ to celebrate our Etonian elite removing all safety measures for Covid including incredibly banal ones and stay silent about the protest bill”.
“Freedom day” depends upon the negation of the freedom of the unvaccinated, the susceptible and the immuno-compromised, as they will be forced to avoid crowded public places — if they can, that is. It further subordinates the lives of frontline workers who must risk their health to service the needs of the so-called free who demand a return to their fantasy of a Great Britain. To be clear, it hasn’t been safe for these workers throughout — be it health workers, teachers or more recently bartenders, but the rolling back of the remaining Covid-19 protections will make it even less safe than it already has been. There is callous disregard shown for these workers at Whitehall. Perhaps the Welsh Government would act better if they had the means to do so, but that remains an if, and as they seem happy to support the union, they are complicit.
“Freedom day” is predicated on a stunted conception of freedom that believes that some deserve freedom more than others. Of course, it’s a self-deception because those complaining the most are already freer than most. Money buys freedom. They’re petulantly disavowing their own actual freedom because they want ever more. The relaxing of Covid protections is driven by the neoliberal project of hyper-individualisation whereby health is reduced to a personal characteristic, to which the individual is solely responsible. It’s the continuation of the Thatcherite project of destroying society and community. It says that ‘my freedom is my property’, all the while ignoring and punishing the collective that sustains them. It’s an illusion of individuality sustained by capitalism’s ability to mystify social relations. It neglects solidarity and begets lone wolves. The pandemic has not affected all people in the same way, as was once touted by the media earlier in the pandemic. Class and other intersectional inequalities have ensured that BAME communities have been hit the hardest. “Freedom day” will no doubt hit these communities hardest once again as a result of Britain’s structural racism.
“To be free is not to have the power to do anything you like; it is to be able to surpass the given toward an open future; the existence of others as a freedom defines my situation and is even the condition of my own freedom.” Simone de Beauvoir, in The Ethics of Ambiguity
We all want freedom from Covid-19 — none of us want another long winter lockdown like last time, and that will only come when we confront reality as it actually exists, not as a fever dream. When we realise that the only strategy to overcome the virus is when we place value on everyone’s life. When global vaccination is rolled out equitably, as opposed to the current vaccine imperialism based on the demands of racial-capitalism. That my freedom is dependent on your freedom.
The UK’s approach thus far has been to lurch from lockdown to lockdown whilst ignoring the fundamental requirements needed to ensure a robust response such as ensuring full payment support for isolating individuals, an effective track and trace system and early, decisive action to prevent excessive spread of the virus. These are the bare minimum requirements, setting aside more effective proposals such as an emergency basic income and other demands that Undod put forward at the beginning of the pandemic. But these would require placing the needs of people above the needs of capital. To believe in the sanctity of life, not the sanctity of capital.
The current capitalist response means we will be fighting Covid for a very long time. It can only be concluded that there is no real desire to eradicate Covid-19 — it is all about that horrible euphemism: “living with the virus”. But who lives with it? It won’t be the wealthy. As someone who has just spent the last 15 months living with Long Covid, I can attest that living with the virus is not to be embraced. For those who have lost loved ones, they will forever be living with the effects of the virus.
To put this into a fuller current context, the full extent of British state-inflicted misery must be added, with the recent announcement of the new immigration plans that will see the building of offshore camps for refugees and their further criminalisation, and the passing of the new police bill that targets Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and seeks to outlaw protest. The U.K. has moved into a new stage of its rampant libertarianism, it’s an extension of the “hostile environment” — a continuation of the securitisation of society to protect the property of the rich, as capitalism breaks down further. It says ‘I can be free’ if you are unfree. If tolerated, it will lead to further misery and destruction. The call to action, ‘socialism or barbarism’, is as pertinent now as it ever was, and it is indeed a call to action. The response of the left mustn’t be to resign itself to these deathly pronouncements; it must organise, fight, prevent and build a better alternative.
An alternative to the right’s continued pursuit of individualised freedom and security is put forward in this excellent piece by Olufemi Taiwo, where he discusses the concept of “collaborative security” and links it to the struggle for police and prison abolitionism. It’s security with, not security from. As he puts it: “The deciding aspect of politics over the coming century will be whether or not popular movements can challenge the current elite stranglehold on who and what is secured in society when crisis strikes.”
In Wales it has been painfully clear since the beginning that the Welsh Government is too impotent to help protect its people from a deadly virus and does not have the necessary levers at its disposal. It’s becoming clear to all that being in this union is one that risks our futures. As Gareth Leaman astutely elaborated, all the way back at the beginning of the pandemic, the “British virus” must be overcome, only then can we start to even contemplate building freedom.