By Alex Callinicos
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Covid-19 is creating new political divides

This article is over 1 years, 3 months old
Issue 2724
Boris Johnson hasnt defeated coronavirus as he claimed he could
Boris Johnson hasn’t defeated coronavirus as he claimed he could (Pic: Tim Sanders)

“This week feels a bit like mid-March in slow motion,” tweeted the epidemiologist Adam Kucharski the other day. As the infection numbers shoot up and Covid-19 spreads across student halls, you know what he means.

The realisation is sinking home that Covid-19 can’t be “wrestled to the ground” in a few months, to use Boris Johnson’s infantile metaphor. Nothing since the Second World War has so seriously disrupted the global economy and societies everywhere.

Of course, the pandemic doesn’t wreak the physical destruction that the war did. Nor is it likely to lead to such a high body count.

But the virus is going to be with us for years, particularly if, as one study suggests, it’s mutating its way around counter-measures.

Moreover, the disruption it is causing will be more than a short-lived economic depression. Particularly if vaccines don’t give full or lasting immunity, societies are going to have make long-term adjustments, with major economic consequences, positive and negative.

Johnson’s awe-inspiring bungling is making all this very visible in Britain. But we see it elsewhere as well. Infections soared in the Spanish state and France earlier and higher than they did in Britain. Meanwhile, Covid-19 is entrenched in large parts of Latin America and the US.

More and more this reality is reshaping politics. It started with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. The protests were a response to police killings of black people, but the pandemic’s unequal impact pervaded them.

According to a recent study, the age-adjusted mortality rate from Covid-19 for black people is 3.4 times that for white people.

But now we’re seeing increasingly strong resistance to the lockdowns from the right.

Encouraged by Donald Trump, the far right is using conspiracy theories and appeals to individual freedom to mobilise in Germany, Britain and the US.

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But opposition to more restrictions is growing also on the centre-right.

Marseille in France has been hard hit by the new spike in infections. But an order by the French government to close bars and restaurants was denounced by local politicians and brought landlords and restaurateurs onto the streets.

Even more serious is the situation in Madrid, where the infection rate is running at 722 per 100,000 inhabitants.

The regional government, headed by the conservative People’s Party, has rejected a central government call to impose restrictions on movements between neighbourhoods.

The surge in infections throughout Europe is caused by the hasty moves to relax lockdowns during the summer.

The same is true in Britain of course. Johnson has his own problems with regional governments in Scotland, Wales, and the north of Ireland. But with an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons he should have a free hand in England. In fact he’s caught in a vice.

The scientific advice is that the restrictions he announced last week are nowhere near enough to halt and begin to reverse the rise in infections.

His own MPs are getting increasingly restive about the Johnson omnishambles. “Every week is an ordeal,” a Tory MP told the Financial Times newspaper.

Sir Graham Brady, chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, told the Spectator magazine that he “now has the numbers to defeat the government on his amendment forcing ministers to give parliament a vote every six months approving the government’s far-reaching coronavirus powers”.

Characteristically, Johnson is responding by ducking and diving. Hence his ridiculous suggestion last week that Britain has a higher infection rate than Italy or Germany because “our country is a freedom-loving country”.

This earned him this putdown from the Italian president, “We Italians also love freedom, but we also care about seriousness.”

Johnson was playing to the Tory gallery. But there’s more trouble ahead, with not just the pandemic but the post-Brexit trade deal. Covid-19 is a hurricane that is destroying not just lives but political careers.

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