June 14, 2020: This blog has ended. Further coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe and of the economic crisis it is producing will be carried in specific articles from Green Left's European desk and other sources.
Week ending June 7, 2020
THE SECOND WAVE THREAT
WHO interview: 'If our behaviour returns to normal Europe risks new waves of Covid-19'
Date: June 5, 2020
Source: The Local (Germany)
The Local sat down with, John Arne Røttingen the man at the forefront of the World Health Organisation's quest for a coronavirus treatment to ask whether reopening our societies will create a second wave and what happens when populism meets science.
The Local: European countries are easing restrictions on social distancing, reopening societies slowly. Are we risking new waves of infection?
Røttingen: We are very vulnerable to new rounds of infection. To achieve herd immunity, at least 50 percent of the population in a country needs to have had the virus. No European country has those levels yet.
The “R” (virus reproduction rate) is important. If we manage to keep it below 1, we will avoid a resurgence.
The Local: We’ve seen European countries taking different measures to contain the virus. Sweden kept things largely as normal, while southern European countries like France, Italy and Spain imposed strict nationwide lockdowns. What’s the best option?
Røttingen: It's a misunderstanding that Sweden did nothing to limit the spread of the virus. The population followed a lot of health precautions even if they didn't go into lockdown.
But our societies need to be prepared to impose restrictive measures earlier than they did last time.
It would be better to begin with the measures that are less harmful for the economy and the society at large. We know that closing schools is very expensive, but probably not very efficient in reducing the spread of the virus.
The Local: It seems like we here in the south of Europe are struggling more than people further north to keep up with these social distancing rules.
Røttingen: Yes, in Nordic countries we sometimes joke that, when they told us that we can stop having to keep two metres between each other, we said “phew, finally, we can go back to our usual five metres".
The Local: What are the most efficient steps countries can take to stem the spread of the virus?
Røttingen: Social distancing. Reducing use of public transport and avoiding large gatherings.
If our behaviours return to normal I believe that we will see new waves and will need new rounds of restrictions. It's an important balance to strike between resuming social life and taking health precautions.
The Local: So basically we can keep working and going to school but we have to stop everything that’s fun?
Røttingen: Yes, social distancing is not very social is it.
This is why testing is so crucial. We need to continue our efforts to develop a vaccine, continue testing and contact tracing, and we need to keep up social distancing and general hygienic measures.
The Local: Will we ever get a vaccine and, if so, when?
Røttingen: There is a big, global race to get a coronavirus vaccine going on with more than 100 drugs being tested right now.
In a best-case scenario, we get a vaccine approved early 2021. Then we need to produce the quantity to begin to vaccinate people, which means we are quickly moving into late 2021, early 2022.
But all this depends on decisions that are being made right now.
The Local: What kind of decisions?
Røttingen: You might have seen the initiative by the WHO together with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other state leaders, which works to set up a large-scale development, production and distribution of vaccines.
If we manage to set this up now, we will be able to begin to vaccinate earlier than we usually would.
The Local: What kind of vaccine are we talking about? Will it be a one-time vaccine that will make you immune against the coronavirus for years, or a short-term vaccine that we’ll need to take again and again?
Røttingen: That’s difficult to say because how long an immunity lasts depends depends partly on how quickly and how much the virus is changing and partly on the properties of the vaccine.
Chances are we will see new outbreaks, perhaps not every year, but every two-three years. But right now it's too early to say.
The Local: Tell us about the WHO study into possible treatments. What kind of results are you seeing?
Røttingen: We ourselves are not allowed to check the results. There is an independent committee overseeing the process, and analysing the results in intervals as they come.
We will stop the study as soon as we know that a drug is efficient - or as soon as we see that it is either not having the wanted effect or that other, unwanted side effects emerge.
The Local: Hydroxychloroquine, one of the drugs you are testing, has been hailed as a miracle cure by some, while others claim its proponents are charlatans.
Røttingen: We have seen that several leaders including US president Donald Trump and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, have spoken out in favour of hydroxychloroquine.
One big question about hydroxychloroquine has been whether it has serious side effects or not.
A study in The Lancet, (which concluded that hydroxychloroquine had dangerous side effects, before doubt was cast on it) had some methodological weaknesses and potential failures in their dataset.
We were very unsure whether we should stop the branch of hydroxychloroquine or not, but we decided to put the brakes on it until we had analysed our data. We have now made the decision to resume the hydroxychloroquine arm of the study after our independent data and safety committee advised continuing.
The Local: Is it dangerous that populism is interfering with science?
Røttingen: Yes. It’s a shame that these kind of scientific questions become political.
In South America patients are often being offered the drug as a treatment even though it isn’t approved as an efficient treatment for Covid-19 yet. This complicates things for us because we can’t include patients who have already been taking one of the treatments into our study.
The Local: What role does WHO play in all this?
Røttingen: The WHO plays a crucial role as a neutral and normative actor, which always stands on the shoulders of science. All its guidance are based on neutrality and independent data.
But we know that the WHO is suffering from political pressure, and member states use the institution to push their own agendas. I have argued for separating science from politics in the WHO, to protect its scientific role.
The pandemic shows us how much we need this kind of scientific, global institution.
EASING LOCKDOWNS AND COVID-19 CONTAINMENT
Sweden starts to doubt its outlier coronavirus strategy
Author: Richard Orange
Date: June 5, 2020
Source: Deutsche Welle
Until now most Swedes have backed their country's approach to the coronavirus pandemic. But as the death toll has catapulted Sweden into the ranks of the worst-hit countries, people are beginning to balk.
Few here seem aware that Sweden has throughout the day dominated the global media's COVID-19 coverage, after its state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell for the first time conceded that the countrymight have benefited from some tougher restrictions.
And if they are aware that the country's per capita death toll from the virus has just passed that of France, bringing it firmly into the group of worst-hit countries, they are not showing it.
"I wouldn't say that it has taken over the whole society. People are still living their lives," says Kristina Hakansson, as she unchains her bike to head home. "I think it's a very good thing that we in Sweden — instead of just jumping to conclusions — we try to, you know, actually base our actions on research."
"I think it's good," says Karin, a pensioner enjoying an ice cream with her husband who didn't want to give her surname. "I like the way that it's up to the people, to us, to behave in a sensible way."
Karin is satisfied with the way Sweden has dealt with coronavirus
But there are doubters too.
"Personally, I don't think it was right. It's too free here, even for the old people," says Mike Gozi.
"If you look at the statistics, we have failed," agrees Bengt Kristoffersen, who has been out on the Kallbadhuset pier.
But even they admit that as younger people in Sweden have largely been able to live life as normal, there is little of the public anger present in other countries.
"We haven't had a lockdown; they are frustrated and they are outraged because they want to get out," Kristoffersen explains. "In Malmo, life is more or less normal," says Gozi.
Health officials in charge
Sweden's government is perhaps alone in the world in delegating the country's coronavirus response almost completely to its public health agency.
And while state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has become a polarizing figure internationally as he explains Sweden's approach in interview after interview, at home he exudes calm and dependability.
Every working day, for 60 days now, he or one of his deputies has held a press conference at 2 p.m. at the offices of the Public Health Agency. There they run through the same charts of new cases, deaths and hospital numbers, in front of the same background, in front of many of the same journalists.
Over the course of the crisis, Tegnell, who has a gift for a well-turned phrase lacking in his counterparts in other countries, has enjoyed enormous support in Sweden. Public trust in the agency rose from 75% when the crisis hit at the end of March to as high as 82% at the start of May, according to the pollsters Kantor Sifo.
It is only in the last few weeks, as Sweden's per capita death toll has risen to more than 10 times that of Norway and 4.5 times that of Denmark, that support dropped, hitting 70% in the most recent survey.
"It's quite obvious that at the beginning of the pandemic we had a rally-around-the-flag effect, and that was also seen in the media," says Bengt Johansson, professor of media and communication at Gothenburg University. "There was some criticism of course, but those voices weren't heard, and most media supported the strategy."
When 22 researchers wrote an opinion piece in Dagens Nyheter newspaper in mid-April calling on the government to seize control and make "radical and rapid" changes, all Tegnell had to do was raise a small, insignificant quibble with their figures to have their arguments roundly condemned by media commentators.
But in the past few weeks, as Sweden's death rate has risen to 10 times that of Norway and nearly five times that of neighboring Denmark, the media has become more critical.
"This picture has turned a bit because of the still quite high death rate, so we have more critical voices nowadays," Johansson says.
Over the weekend, Anna Dahlberg, political editor of Expressen newspaper, published an article accusing her fellow Swedes of believing their country was somehow more sensible, balanced and rational than other, more impulsive nations, with their unnecessary lockdown restrictions. "Sweden was seen as a little smarter than other all the other countries," she complained.
Peter Wolodarski, editor of Dagens Nyheter newspaper over the weekend called on Sweden's health professionals to stop lecturing the rest of the world, calling for "reflection and humility," "not more overblown statements on how the rest of the world doesn't understand how good Sweden is."
As if bending to this new public mood, Tegnell on Wednesday morning for the first time suggested in an interview broadcast on Swedish radio, that Sweden's strategy from late March perhaps should have been closer to that of other European countries.
"If we were hit by the same disease, knowing exactly what we know today, I think we would end up doing something between what Sweden has done and what the rest of the world has done," he said.
He later backtracked, saying he still believed Sweden's strategy was right, and did not believe more thoroughgoing lockdown restrictions would have helped.
Calls for Tegnell to go
On Thursday, the media climate became tougher still, with Hugo Lagercrantz, emeritus professor at the Karolinska medical university, going as far as calling for Tegnell to be fired and replaced in an article in Expressen.
So far, there is little sign that this will happen, with the political fallout for Sweden's government still limited in comparison to the level of anger in the UK.
"It's still not that politicized," Johansson explains. "The opposition parties are criticizing to a certain extent, but not the strategy as such."
Also, as the opposition parties also backed Tegnell's approach in March and April, it is difficult for them to now suddenly blame the government for also doing so.
"It's kind of hard for them to say: 'We supported the strategy, from what we knew but now we know more about this, Sweden shouldn't have done it,'" Johansson says.
In addition, healthcare and elderly care in Sweden are largely the responsibility of regional and municipal governments in Sweden, many of which are controlled by opposition parties. "There is an argument that we have weak responsibility or accountability mechanisms in Sweden," Johansson adds.
Back on Malmo's Ribersborg beach, these arguments about blame and accountability seem far away.
Bengt Kristoffersen suspects people in Sweden may, in the end, start to feel the crisis had not been not handled ideally. "If we look back retrospectively, maybe we will think we should have done something else instead," he says.
But he does not expect this to have a big impact on the public mood. "Things could have been better, but they could have been worse as well. We are ice cold people here in Sweden, many believe."
UK trial on hydroxychloroquine: ‘It doesn’t work’
Date: June 5, 2020
New twist for controversial drug, which has been championed by Donald Trump
A large, randomized U.K. trial found “no clinical benefit” of hydroxychloroquine to treat hospitalized COVID-19 patients, researchers announced Friday.
“It doesn’t work,” declared Martin Landray, one of the lead researchers, at a briefing. Patients receiving hydroxychloroquine died at about the same rate — about one in four — as those receiving regular care in a randomized trial being conducted by the University of Oxford and the U.K. National Health Service.
Researchers said they're no longer giving patients the malaria drug in the so-called RECOVERY trial, which will continue to evaluate three other treatments as potential coronavirus fixes.
For anyone who's hospitalized, "hydroxychloroquine is not the right treatment," Landray said.
Researchers reviewed their data earlier than planned following a request Thursday by the U.K.'s drugs regulator.
It’s the latest twist for the controversial drug, championed by U.S. President Donald Trump, among others. Last month, a massive observational study published in the Lancet suggested it increased the risk of death, prompting the World Health Organization to pause its study of hydroxychloroquine.
As questions about that study grew, leading to the Lancet's retraction on Thursday, the WHO restarted its hydroxychloroquine study, saying the data from current randomized trials don't show it causing extra harm.
Peter Horby, the other principal investigator, said he informed the WHO Friday morning about their determinations.
However, the U.N. health body’s Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan said the WHO’s study of hydroxychloroquine “will continue for now.”
Noting that the U.K. researchers had only released a statement, not the full results, Swaminathan told reporters that the WHO would wait “to see the final data analysis and the publication.”
Among the 11,000 patients in the RECOVERY trial, 1,542 were randomly assigned to receive hydroxychloroquine compared to 3,132 getting regular care, with the rest using the other treatments in the study. After 28 days in the hospital, 26 percent died on hydroxychloroquine, while 24 percent in the control group died, a statistically equal result.
There was no evidence the drug shortened hospital stays or otherwise improved outcomes, researchers said. Nor was there evidence it caused greater risks.
THE FACE MASK DEBATE
WHO recommends wider use of face masks to curb COVID-19
'In light of evolving evidence, WHO advises that governments should encourage the general public to wear masks where there is widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult.'
GENEVA, June 5 (Xinhua) -- The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday updated its guidance on the use of masks for control of COVID-19, advising all people aged 60 years or over, or those with underlying conditions, to wear a medical mask in situations where physical distancing is not possible.
The new guidance advises medical masks for all people working in clinical areas of a health facility in areas with widespread transmission, not only workers dealing with COVID-19 patients.
"That means, for example, when a doctor is doing a ward round on the cardiology or palliative care units where there are no confirmed COVID-19 patients, they should still wear a medical mask," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a virtual press conference.
The new guidance also updated the WHO's advice on the use of masks by the general public in areas with community transmission.
"In light of evolving evidence, WHO advises that governments should encourage the general public to wear masks where there is widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult," Tedros said while introducing the new guidance.
Based on new research, the WHO also advises that fabric masks should consist of at least three layers of different materials.
However, the UN health body warns that masks are not a replacement for physical distancing, hand hygiene and other public health measures, and they are only of benefit as part of a comprehensive approach in the fight against COVID-19.
"The cornerstone of the response in every country must be to find, isolate, test and care for every case, and to trace and quarantine every contact," Tedros stressed.
Spain: Face masks will still be obligatory after the state of alarm
A draft decree being prepared by the government includes fines of up to €100 for people who do not wear the protective equipment in closed public spaces
Date: June 6, 2020
Source: El País
Face masks are here to stay. Not only are they obligatory in Spain at the moment, while the state of alarm emergency measures are still in place, but they will also continue to be in the future, in the so-called “new normality,” until the government declares the coronavirus crisis to be completely over.
A draft decree for the new normality, which the executive is currently debating with Spain’s regions and is due to be approved on Tuesday by the Cabinet, includes obligatory use of masks in closed public spaces where a safe distance of 1.5-2 meters cannot be observed, and also fines of up to €100 for people who are not wearing them. The decree also leaves open the possibility of regulating their use in the open air.
According to the text, masks will have to be used on all forms of transport, including in public vehicles with up to nine passengers, such as taxis or private hire vehicles. In the case of ferries and other passenger vessels, masks will not be obligatory in cabins. The decree also specifies that people with any kind of respiratory disease or breathing difficulty will not have to wear the protective equipment.
The draft decree sets out the general lines for the use of masks but now these powers will pass to the regional governments, who will have to set out the details. Spain is currently in an asymmetrical deescalation process, and the final stages will see control handed over from Madrid to the region’s governments.
The text of the decree specifies other measures such as obligatory distances in the workplace, as well as the requirements for airlines and other transport companies to hold the details of all passengers for a month including where they sat so that they can be identified in the case of a positive coronavirus case being confirmed.
The decree will also require the regions to offer guarantees of hospital bed capacity and the ability to carry out PCR tests to detect coronavirus cases. “The health system will have to guarantee capacity to respond if there are rises in infections and the resulting rise in case numbers,” it reads. “To do so, it must have in place, or have access to, or have the capacity to, install between 1.5 and two intensive care beds for every 10,000 inhabitants, and between 37 and 40 beds for the seriously ill for every 10,000 inhabitants, in a maximum time frame of five days.”
There are also general rules for the workplace in the decree. Companies will have to “adapt the layout of work spaces, the organization of shifts and working conditions so that a minimum safe interpersonal distance of between 1.5 and two meters between employees can be guaranteed. When this is not possible, staff should be provided with protective equipment that is appropriate for the level of risk.”
For schools and other places of learning, an issue that is subject to intense debate between the government and the regions, the decree sets out very generic rules. And for commercial premises, the text takes a similar line: “The adoption of organizational measures must be taken to avoid crowds and guarantee that customers and employees maintain a safe distance of between 1.5 and two meters. When it is not possible to maintain this safe distance, adequate hygiene measures must be observed in order to prevent the risks of infection.”
Translation: Simon Hunter
Other links on this topic:
Finland: Researchers call for widespread mask use in open letter (YLE, public broadcaster)
Montenegro: National Coordination Body: Obligation to wear protective masks ceases (Government media office)
Moldova: Fears Church Festival Could Worsen Spike in COVID-19 (Balkan Insight)
WORKER AND TRADE UNION STRUGGLES
Workers Party of Belgium MP Sophie Merckx on nurses
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Britain: 20 days to go to stop 'disaster' of rent debt and evictions crisis
Date: June 5, 2020
Source: Morning Star
Less than 20 days are left to avert a “disaster” of rent debt and an evictions crisis “worse than anything we’ve ever seen” in Britain, the London Renters Union (LRU) warned today.
The government’s temporary ban on evictions is set to end with the reopening of housing courts looming on June 25.
Just 48 per cent of rent has been collected during the crisis, according to a survey by Remit consulting, indicating that thousands of renters have gone into arrears or seen existing rent debts spiral.
This puts them at great risk of eviction and homelessness, LRU warned.
The government has resisted calls to block landlords from seeking eviction notices or to stop courts approving them from June 25.
Housing lawyers have also warned that changes to repossession hearings will mean that tenants can no longer ask to be represented by a duty solicitor on the day.
“If you’re not rich, you will be denied justice and you’ll be stopped from properly defending yourself from eviction and homelessness,” an LRU statement said.
“A government that allows this is a government that doesn’t care about renters.”
LRU organiser Aaron, who is an NHS worker but whose total household income decreased severel during lockdown, said he had not paid rent for months in order to afford basic essentials.
“And of course the veiled threats of eviction from our landlord began quickly, despite evictions supposedly being illegal right now,” he said.
“It’s been really horribly stressful and I’m dreading the end of the month. It’s appalling that the government is prioritising landlords’ profits over renters’ survival.
“Landlords own so much wealth, but they get mortgage holidays and it’s them subsidised by increases in housing benefit.”
Aaron warned that the “disaster” of rent debt and evictions crisis, which would be “worse than anything we’ve ever seen before in this country,” must be stopped.
“But the government’s no longer even offering stop-gap solutions,” he added. “They’re just leaving us to the mercy of our landlords.”
Thousands of renters have signed up to LRU’s “Can’t pay? Won’t pay!” campaign to withhold rent so that they can afford food and other essentials.
Other links on this topic:
BIG BUSINESS AND THE PANDEMIC
UK: The corporate bailout you've never heard of
Date: June 7, 2020
Do you know about the Covid Corporate Financing Facility? Well, don't beat yourself up if the answer's 'no', very few do. You'll find it scarcely reported in today's papers. In fact, the Bank of England at first wanted no one to know about - they sought to give out public money to corporations in complete secrecy, requiring participants to sign a confidentiality agreement. Thankfully, a campaign by Positive Money pressured them to reveal which UK companies are getting a bailout. The list makes for very interesting reading.
£300 million each goes to Brian Souters' Stagecoach, outsourcing giant G4S, and Rolls-Royce, which just announced it was laying off 9000 workers, including 700 at its Renfrewshire plant. Easyjet, which announced it was cutting 30 per cent of its staff last week, gets £600 million. The Intercontinental Hotels Group, which only yesterday announced it was starting a redundancy package at its hotels in Glasgow and Edinburgh, also gets £600 million. You get the picture. The only strings which are tied to this cheap money is a request by the BoE to be restrained in paying dividends. It doesn't matter if they are climate polluters or tax-haven users or have exposed their workers to harm during the pandemic, the BoE will bail them out if they are making a "material contribution" to the UK economy, just so long as they are also corporate giants.
So far, 152 companies have taken just over £16 billion from the scheme, with the BoE green-lighting £67.7 billion in total. The way it works is the BoE provides short-term liquidity based on the credit ratings of firms prior to 1 March, i.e. before the economy crashed. The money has to be paid back but attracts a minimal rate of interest, much smaller than these firms would get from commercial banks. CCFF is based not on a firm's future prospects, but on how big it was before the crisis (you have to be 'investment-grade' to apply). That's why the airliners, for example, have been first in line (£1.8 billion in bailout money combined): their prospects now look disastrous, but the CCFF stumps up cheap cash regardless. Indeed, the list of companies reads like a who's who of carbon polluters: one in five of the firms to receive the bailout money so far are airlines, oil & gas or car manufacturers. So much for claims from Ministers' that this would be a green economic recovery.
Not only is this money being dished out without social or ecological purpose, it provides a market advantage to company's purely based on their size pre-crash. For football fans out there, Man Utd and Tottenham are the only clubs eligible for CCFF (Tottenham has taken this up, with a £175 million loan), so if you are a supporter of another team, tough luck - they'll have to go to pay commercial rates if they need a loan. Meanwhile, five to ten clubs in the lower English leagues are on the verge of going under. This is not "free-market" capitalism - it is a corporate cartel.
Positive Money warns that many of these companies may be back for more before long as they burn through cash, with the BoE now having a direct stake in their survival. It is becoming absurd that this institution is 'independent' of government, i.e. of democratic accountability, when its influence on the UK economy is so massive and so skewed towards protecting the super-rich. Research on the impact of Quantitative Easing in the UK - another BoE corporate welfare scheme, which now totals £645 billion - shows it has had the effect of increasing wealth inequality.
The economy is rigged; Britain PLC wins even when they lose. And the role of the Bank of England in rigging the system is crucial.
Peter Mertens (Belgian Workers Party): 'Let's Not Offer the Employers Our Holidays'
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UK: Government urged to scrap Serco's contract after leaked email
Date: June 5, 2020
Source: Morning Star
THE government was urged to scrap Serco’s contract for the test-and-trace system today after the outsourcing giant bragged it was using it to “cement” privatisation into the NHS supply chain.
Serco is among several firms being paid to recruit, coach and manage a network of 25,000 tracers in the scheme, which is being led by Baroness Dido Harding.
A leaked email from Serco chief executive Rupert Soames said he doubted the scheme would run smoothly — but hoped it would further embed private firms in the NHS supply chain.
In an email to staff, Mr Soames said: “There are a few, a noisy few, who would like to see us fail because we are private companies delivering a public service.
“I very much doubt that this is going to evolve smoothly, so they will have plenty of opportunity to say I told you so.
“If it succeeds ... it will go a long way in cementing the position of the private-sector companies in the public-sector supply chain. Some of the naysayers recognise this, which is why they will take every opportunity to undermine us.”
The repeatedly delayed test-and-trace system, designed to prevent a second wave of Covid-19, is not expected to be fully rolled out and working at “a world-class level” until September or October, according to the scheme’s chief operating officer, Tony Prestedge, who admitted as much in a staff webinar.
But Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said today that Mr Prestedge was talking specifically about the app, which the government said is not now due to be rolled out until the end of June — despite ministers previously promising that it would be in operation by mid-May.
The leaks were made as the official toll of deaths in Britain linked to the coronavirus passed 40,000. Another 357 deaths were recorded before the weekend, taking the total to 40,261.
The number of positive coronavirus tests increased by 1,650 to reach 283,311.
Cat Hobbs, director of public ownership campaign group We Own It, slammed Serco as “disgusting” for failing to deliver the test-and-trace system — which public-health experts have said needs to be fully operational before the lockdown is eased — while profiting from taxpayers amid a public health crisis.
She added: “Lives are at stake but the outsourcing companies can only see pound signs.
“The government must scrap Serco’s contract and give local public-sector teams the responsibility for getting us out of lockdown safely.”
Keep Our NHS Public co-chair Dr John Puntis told the Star that it was “appalling” that the government was “throwing money” at Serco to run the scheme when the company has a “long history of failing to deliver on public contracts.”
The paediatrician added that the government had marginalised existing contact-tracing teams in local authorities, failed to invest in public services, and shunned a community-based approach to test-and-trace.
Mr Puntis said: “Throughout the Covid crisis, the government has been determined to hand contracts to the private sector without competitive tendering or transparency.
“The inevitable consequences have been both tragic and predictable.”
Labour shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth described the Serco leak as “scandalous,” adding that the coronavirus crisis “shouldn’t be an excuse for more Tory privatisation.”
Other links on this topic:
THE ECONOMIC CRISIS
Without a global recovery plan, demand will stagnate and inequality will increase
Date: June3, 2020
Source: Financial Times
Covid-19 has brought economies to their knees. The question is how long and how severe the resulting recession will be. The answer depends on the quality and quantity of global stimulus packages. To work, they must address both demand and supply, delivering income to the most vulnerable through well-structured universal basic income policies or national job guarantee schemes, and assistance to companies to get back on their feet as well as providing a bold, green direction for investment.
Economic growth will also depend heavily on the speed at which we can find a vaccine, manufacture it at scale and make it globally accessible. The World Health Organization initiative to ensure worldwide sharing of all Covid-19-related knowledge, data and technologies by making a pool of Covid-19 patent licences freely available to all countries is a great move in this direction. The virus can only be defeated with truly collective intelligence.
In developed economies such as Japan, the EU and the UK, government stimulus has been large but mainly reactive and the same levels have not been matched elsewhere, especially in developing countries. Given the global nature of the economy, without a truly global recovery plan, demand will stagnate. Even worse, inequality, which has made the crisis worse than it had to be, will only increase.
While assisting citizens and businesses is the right thing to do, the structure of that aid matters. Loans and mortgage holidays, which only delay interest payments, risk increasing private debt, already at record levels. True debt relief for the most vulnerable individuals and families could avoid this. We need policies that are not only reactive but also strategic, bringing us closer to an investment-led global Green New Deal. Bold plans to create carbon-neutral cities and regions could foster creativity and innovation — especially now that many have rediscovered the joys of walking and biking. Social, organisational and technological innovation could help change how we eat, how we move, and how we build, spurring a green transformation. Conditions attached to bailouts of the most polluting industries, from steel to airlines, can make this happen quicker.
Let’s remember 2020 as the year we rediscovered the need for strong global health systems and the world avoided a new Depression with a Green New Deal and an investment-led recovery.
Note: This was one of a series of answers to the Financial Times' question: Are we heading into another Depression?
Other links on this topic:
Hungary: That it Will Hurt, all Agree, but Opinions Vary as to How Much
POSITIONS AND PROPOSALS FROM THE LEFT
Behind the spin on the EU’s recovery plan
Date: June 6
Source: Irish Broad Left
Addressing members of the European Parliament on 27 May, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proposed the creation of a ‘Next Generation’ European Union recovery fund worth €750 billion, to be raised by the Commission – a temporary Eurobond. The funds would be disbursed as €500bn in grants and €250bn in loans. The von der Leyen proposal followed the announcement of a deal between Germany and France on 18 May for a common debt instrument to raise €500bn to be disbursed as grants.
Her plan was welcomed by many EU government leaders and has been hailed by the media as “historic”, “fiscal shock and awe”, and the EU’s “Hamilton moment”. The latter refers to the agreement between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in the US in 1790 for the new federal government to assume the colonies’ wartime debt, viewed by historians as a defining moment in the development of the US federal system.
The Commission proposes to temporarily lift the ceiling on the EU’s own resources by 0.6 per cent of the EU’s gross national income in order to borrow the €750bn on the financial markets, to be spent during the period 2021-2024. The bonds will be repaid after 2027 and before 2058, and have varying maturities. If the Commission proposal is agreed upon by all 27 member states and the European Parliament, it will not be the first time a Eurobond has been used, but it will be the first time that a large sum is raised.
The recovery plan aims to boost certain aspects of the next long-term EU budget, the Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF). The heart of the proposal is the creation of a new ‘Recovery and Resilience Facility’ of €560bn.
There are, of course, strings attached to the recovery facility, which will be “embedded” in the European Semester, the EU’s framework for surveilling and controlling member states’ national budgets. The funds raised will not go directly towards governments but will be administered through the MFF.
According to the plan, “Member States will design their own tailored national recovery plans, based on the investment and reform priorities identified as part of the European Semester”. A survey of the reforms pushed by the Commission through the European Semester process identifies increasing the pension age, cutting funding to health, restricting wage growth and reducing job security, and cutting welfare supports to be among the most common priorities.
In her Brussels speech, von der Leyen said the Next Generation fund would “sit on top of a revamped long-term EU budget of €1.1 trillion,” bringing the new measures she was announcing to €1.85tn, on top of the earlier package of €540bn. “In sum, this would bring our recovery effort to a total of €2.4 trillion.”
A breakdown of the numbers shows this is a serious distortion of reality.
The first response package that supposedly consisted of €540bn includes €100bn in loans for short-time work schemes and €240bn in potential loans from the European Stability Mechanism bailout fund (ESM) – that has so far been left untouched because it is politically toxic due to its association in the minds of the public with the hated Troika. The last component of the first response package consists of €200bn in European Investment Bank loans to SMEs – but the Commission is basing this figure on “leveraging” €25bn to mobilise private capital to make up the remainder. In reality this “€540bn package” consists of €100bn in loans that will actually be disbursed, and €25bn of additional funding for the EIB.
The European Parliament, usually on board with massaging the numbers through “leveraging” in order to impress their constituents, warned the Commission earlier this month “against the use of financial wizardry and dubious multipliers to advertise ambitious figures” in its response to the pandemic because the EU’s credibility was at stake.
The €1.1tn figure is the EU’s long-term budget so should not be included in examining the specific responses to the coronavirus pandemic and related lockdowns. In any case, this figure is even lower than the Commission’s 2018 legislative proposal for the budget that will run from 2021 to 2027. The EU’s budget consists almost entirely of contributions from member states based on their GNI.
The long-term budget has been steadily declining as a percentage of GNI-based contributions since 1995. The three institutions – the Parliament, Commission and Council of 27 member states – have been arguing fiercely over the size and content of the next MFF since 2018. The MFF operating from 2014-2020 was set at 1.03 per cent of EU28 GNI, but that rises to 1.16 per cent of EU27 GNI, once the British contribution is removed.
The Commission’s 2018 proposal for the 2021-2027 MFF was for 1.11 per cent of EU27 GNI, a sum of €1.135tn. The Parliament wants more, while a group of member states refuse to countenance contributions of more than one per cent of their GNI.
The current proposal before the Council, put forward earlier this year by its president Charles Michel, is for an MFF of 1.069 per cent of GNI. It includes a massive increase in expenditure on security and defence, with severe cuts to spending on cohesion and the Common Agricultural Policy, by -12 per cent and -14 per cent respectively in comparison to the current MFF.
Cuts of this magnitude would be devastating to many of the EU’s so-called peripheral economies, who are disadvantaged by the architecture of the monetary union. For example, 80 per cent of public investment in Portugal relies entirely on EU cohesion funds.
The von der Leyen proposal for a budget of €1.1tn is slightly higher than what is currently on the table at the Council but still represents a retreat from the Commission’s original proposal. Her plan includes using the funds borrowed by the Commission to reinforce certain budget programmes including adding €55bn to cohesion policies, around €32bn to the planned Just Transition Fund (originally proposed to receive a paltry €7.5bn), and €15bn to rural development. While directing some of the borrowed funds back into cohesion and rural development will help restore some of the resources these programmes were to lose in the next MFF, the final outcome actually represents a cut to the existing level of funding.
The centrepiece of the von der Leyen proposal – a new Recovery and Resilience Facility of €560bn – consists of grants of €310bn and loans of €250bn. Loans of any kind should not be included in assessing the response to the coronavirus pandemic; all member states can borrow at low interest rates.
If we remove all the spin, the amount of real new funds from the EU for this recovery plan is €310bn. It is not an insignificant sum, and it has been welcomed by countries such as Italy and Spain. But it is nowhere near the €2.4 trillion touted by von der Leyen in her speech.
Even the proposed €750bn in borrowing represents is in reality less than what was put forward in the German-French plan for €500bn in grants.
Crunching the numbers, Eurointelligence estimates that, “The recovery element of the package amounts to an annual 0.56% of the EU’s 2019 GDP, for four years”.
The economic outlook has grown darker each week for the past three months. The Commission estimates that EU GDP has already fallen by 15 per cent in the second quarter of 2020 compared with 2019. The optimistic estimate is that GDP will fall by more than seven per cent in 2020 – but the Commission notes that this will be around 10 per cent in the worst-affected countries.
However, if a second wave of infection leads to extended lockdown measures, EU GDP may drop by 16 per cent this year. It is increasingly unlikely that a second wave can be avoided, given that several countries that eased lockdown measures, such as China and Germany, quickly experienced an spike in the infection rate.
Eurozone member states have so far spent around four per cent of eurozone GDP, with around 20 per cent of eurozone GDP committee to loan guarantee schemes. But there is a huge difference between the member states’ responses, based on the sate of their public finances. German spending accounts for more than half of all state aid used so far, with its measures totally 29 per cent of German GDP. Italy, by comparison, has spent 17 per cent of its GDP.
The debt and deficit rules of the Stability and Growth Pact – that states’ debt-to-GDP ratio must be kept below 60 per cent, and annual budget deficits must be limited to three per cent of GDP – have been temporarily suspended but are enshrined in the Treaty and will return.
Under the Next Generation plan, the Commission’s €750bn debt will be repaid using three possible options, with von der Leyen saying her preference is for the EU to raise new own resources in future, such as a digital tax, a carbon border adjustment tax, the expansion of the emissions trading scheme, and a tax on large multinationals. The other two options are to pay back the money through future EU budgets until 2058, either through increased member state contributions or reduced programmes.
Raising significant new own resources will be difficult without changing the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, which requires unanimous voting on taxation in the Council. A carbon border adjustment tax may gain the support of member states, but corporate tax proposals always stumble in the Council due to the opposition of a cabal of the EU’s tax haven member states – which includes the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Ireland, Belgium, Hungary, Malta and Cyprus.
Proposals for a financial transaction tax, a common consolidated corporate tax base, and a turnover tax on digital companies have been defeated or blocked in the Council. The proposal in the German-French plan for a minimum corporate tax rate in the EU was absent from von der Leyen’s proposal.
In its Financial Stability Review released on May 26, the European Central Bank (ECB) predicted public debt will reach 200 per cent of GDP in Greece, 160 per cent in Italy, 130 per cent in Portugal and 120 per cent in France and Spain. On average, Eurozone debt will rise from its current 86 per cent of GDP to above 100 per cent, while average deficits will be eight per cent of GDP.
Several states including Italy, Spain, France and Portugal will have to refinance large proportions of their debt within the next year. The ECB warned: “The associated increase in public debt levels could also trigger a reassessment of sovereign risk by market participants and reignite pressures on more vulnerable sovereigns.”
The Commission acknowledges, “Government finances may be permanently weakened”. This presents a unique problem in the Eurozone due to the ‘no bailout clause’ in the Treaty that prohibits direct monetary financing of government debt by the central bank, and the Stability and Growth Pact rules that impose a deflationary dynamic in a downturn.
The issuance of common bonds could be welcomed if the ECB was permitted to purchase unlimited bonds and cancel the debt or hold them in perpetuity. The Next Generation plan fails to deal with the fundamental contradictions of the EU’s economic architecture; it will add to member states’ national debt and trap them in a permanent austerity spiral.
Germany did an about-face on the question of eurobonds this month after its constitutional court ordered the country’s central bank, the Bundesbank to stop participating in the ECB’s quantitative easing programme within three months unless certain conditions are met.
The implication of the ruling is that the German court believes for the ECB to comply with the monetary financing prohibition, it can no longer take the “whatever it takes” approach of guaranteeing unlimited support for eurozone economies.
Far from being a “Hamilton moment”, this plan represents German acquiescence to doing the bare minimum to hold the Eurozone together in the short term.
Other links on this topic:
WHAT POLICIES POST-PANDEMIC?
The World Health Organisation we want
Source: The Lancet
The 73rd World Health Assembly convened virtually in May, 2020, in a climate of international dissent. Caught in the midst of tensions between the USA and China, WHO has been the target of US President Trump's attacks and of multiple grievances.1, 2 In recent years, WHO has often been criticised for what it should have done or did not oversee, and for the political approach3 to the agency's management by its Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
WHO is not perfect. No one would deny its limitations, dysfunctions, and bureaucratic processes.4 However, we believe that WHO should be supported in its full mandate and its coordinating role in international health crises should be reaffirmed. The global community also needs to clarify what we can expect from this UN agency.
Never has the need for multilateralism been greater. Never have health challenges been more global.5 The response to the COVID-19 pandemic calls for unprecedented global solidarity.6 No nation can address this crisis in isolation, even if some governments retain the illusion they can.
In the past 20 years, multilateral cooperation helped in responding effectively to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.7 Multilateral cooperation also paved the way for large-scale vaccination campaigns in fragile settings.8 Many low-income and middle-income countries have been supported by multilateralism to develop sustainable, resilient, country-owned health strategies.9
We call on UN member states to recognise their roles and responsibilities in the governance of WHO. We call on nations to restore multilateral cooperation on global health. Such cooperation will require funding, collective thinking, political leadership, and technical rigour. We also need active intellectual and strategic investment; support, not empty criticism; and commitment, not abandonment.
The global community must reflect on which WHO we want in leading the response to COVID-19. In the wake of the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, WHO member states ratified the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR) 10 as a legally binding international treaty. In doing so, member states committed to report to WHO and to prepare for and respond to any disease outbreaks that could become global public health threats.11
Created in 2016 after the outbreak of Ebola virus disease in west Africa, the WHO Health Emergencies Programme12 has been effective in responding to outbreaks of yellow fever, polio, smallpox, and Zika virus disease, as well as Ebola virus disease in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,13 despite scarce funding and operative challenges. However, COVID-19 has exposed how inadequate the preparedness for a pandemic has been, including in those countries with strong health systems.14 Clearly, the IHR needs to be comprehensively strengthened.
In relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, we call on WHO to focus on and be held accountable for the following areas of work. First, provide regularly updated recommendations from independent expert committees on preventive strategies and potential treatments for COVID-19. Second, propose universal and standardised ways of collecting and reporting epidemiological data from countries. Third, accelerate the evaluation, selection, and prequalification of diagnostic tests. Fourth, consolidate information on COVID-19 vaccine research progress and work upstream with partners to ensure equitable access and affordability of therapeutics and vaccines as they become available. Fifth, facilitate logistical coordination and supply of reagents, personal protective equipment, and potential treatments. Finally, support countries with fragile health systems to maintain continuity of routine health care, particularly for chronic diseases, and primary health care.
Which WHO do we want after the COVID-19 pandemic? WHO must evolve to become more results-oriented and responsive. Such an evolution requires more than a functional review: it calls for a thorough transformation that overcomes political divisions and empowers WHO with the ability to question and constructively criticise national health strategies.15
We call for a WHO whose technical authority is fully recognised by member states and is free of political considerations, and whose funding does not depend on unreliable voluntary contributions; a WHO that gives a fair role to civil society and other non-governmental actors in its governance; and a WHO that primarily focuses on the mandate of a technical agency in health, as set by its founders in 1948.16
We call for a WHO with full legitimacy as the world's leading institution in global health, with enhanced authority to enforce its norms and standards and to coordinate global action. WHO needs the resources to publicly warn and potentially call for sanctions against member states that do not comply with global health imperatives.
Health is a global political matter17 and a public good for humanity.18 The prevention of illness and promotion of health entail programmes that sometimes conflict with economic priorities.19 WHO should thus be able to recommend scientific and evidence-based solutions, such as decisions aimed at reducing consumption of tobacco, alcohol, and sugar-sweetened beverages or reducing environmental risks, such as those associated with air pollution.20 WHO should be granted the full authority to coordinate global health emergencies. The agency should be empowered to compel health-related data transparency by sending independent observers to countries.
WHO will evolve only if national governments give priority to a global collective approach to global health issues. However, this move is not enough. The new health governance should give appropriate space to emerging economies and to low-income countries. WHO will not recover its full authority if member states do not waive some of their national prerogatives for the benefit of global public health.
Note on authors: Marie-Paule Kieny is a former Assistant-Director General of WHO. Lelio Marmora is a former Executive Director of Unitaid and is a member of the board of directors of Orasure Technologies, Inc. Michel Kazatchkine is a former Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. We are all members of the Santé mondiale 2030 think tank. We declare no other competing interests.
Note on references: These can be checked via the original text, to which the references are linked.
Scotland: 'Act like a tourist', or build community wealth?
Date: June 6, 2020
Source: Source Direct
Live in Edinburgh? Your city needs you. For the good of Scotland's capital, you must "act like a tourist".
You see, the tourist industry doesn't have any tourists to sell their stuff to, so residents need to take their place. Out of the goodness of your hearts, the people of Edinburgh need to rush back to parts of the city they had been banished from through hyper-commercialisation, and spend, spend, spend like they too can't work out what's vastly over-priced. And if they do that, they just might sustain the wreckage of over-tourism in the city centre for long enough until tourists start boarding flights and come back again, at which time they can head back to the city's outskirts and be happy in the knowledge that they helped save Edinburgh.
No, really. This is what Donald Emslie of the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group, a lobbyist for tourism companies in the city, has argued.
"Edinburgh will open up for locals first, so we want to encourage them to be a tourist in their own city," Emslie said.
"We want to encourage locals to visit unexplored parts of Edinburgh, and that in turn will encourage businesses to reopen."
What Emslie means by "unexplored parts" is bits of the city that had basically become so commodified that no local would have any desire to spend time there. The city centre may well be a ghost town now, but before Covid-19 the few locals who had hung on to tenement flats rather than cash-in with an AirBNB claimed of feeling like they lived in a 'Disneyland set'; a place that wasn't really a place, it was a whirl of selfie-sticks and photo ops, as new people came and went every couple of days, totally drained of community life.
Over-tourism had not only led to social isolation, overcrowding, air and noise pollution, an exhausted city infrastructure paid for by locals, and increased monotony in the city's culture, it is also highly questionable how good it was for the economic health of Scotland's capital. While undoubtedly it generated GDP growth, and profits for aviation companies and rentiers of all kinds, the high commercial rents also forced high value added work like manufacturing out of the city, to make way for low-paid, insecure work in hospitality and retail, and the high residential rents led to sky-high housing costs. Dr Jim McCormick, head of the city's Edinburgh Poverty Commission, found that: "The modern face of poverty in Edinburgh would be you’re under 50, probably working and probably renting." If a city's economy is not working for its people, is it really a success?
While tourism was booming, poverty was also on the rise in Edinburgh too. By August last year, 21,000 children in Edinburgh were living in poverty. In some parts of the city one in three were in poverty. Now with the Covid-19 crisis, the poverty gap is widening still further. Those who benefited least from over-tourism suffer most from its collapse.
And it's not the tourism industry who are left picking up the pieces, it's communities themselves. Edinburgh Helping Hands, a coalition of community groups, have bandied together to deliver a People's Free Food Program for the past ten weeks, providing thousands of healthy meals and cleaning supplies to families in the city on a regular basis. They've even expanded to provision of online keep fit classes, bikes for free hire and mental health support.
One family in Pilton, North Edinburgh, who received the food packages, said: "Both me and my partner are temporarily out of employment, with two kids at home. The first week we survived thanks to the kindness of a neighbour. I really appreciate the food packs and the different foods we are receiving now. It has saved us".
This shouldn't happen in one of the wealthiest city's in the world, where one in five children go to private school, but it does because we have an economic model that isn't resilient to crisis and is dominated by multi-nationals which extract wealth out of the urban environment. Building and sustaining the wealth of communities themselves should be at the centre of Edinburgh and Scotland's economic recovery.
Common Weal's new paper, 'Resilience Economics: An Economic Model for Scotland's Recovery', looks in detail at how this can be done. Spoiler alert: it doesn't involve "acting like a tourist".
How well are support programs to small business and self-employed working?
Other links on this topic:
Czech Republic: Economist Danuše Nerudová says coronavirus crisis has brought opportunity for ‘smart’ reform (Radio Prague International)
Czech Republic: Bon Voyage? Czech Tourism Spies Opportunity in Pandemic (Balkan Insight)
Germany: How COVID-19 could speed up smart-city visions (Deutsche Welle)
Germany: German stimulus package hands families €300 for each child (Voice of Vienna)
European Union: Schengen also needs urgent recovery plan (Europost)
Greece: SYRIZA leader Tsipras says environment should be one of our top priorities (Athens-Macedonia News Agency)
Iceland: Bill to Limit Right of Travellers to Reimbursement Lacks Support (Iceland Insight)
REAL EXTENT OF THE PANDEMIC
100 cases of Covid-19 at Belarus’ nuclear plant confirmed
Date: June 5, 2020
Rosatom, the Russian corporation building the Astravyets nuclear plant in Belarus, has confirmed around 100 Covid-19 cases at the construction site some 50 kilometres from the Lithuanian capital
Alexei Likhachev, CEO of the Russian state atomic agency, confirmed on May 26 the surge in new infections, according to Belsat, Poland-based Belarusian news agency.
On Friday, Likhachev said in a video message that the company took “unprecedented sanitary and epidemiological safety measures” for the 6,000 workers on the site.
This follows the earlier hospitalisation of 15 Russian workers who arrived at the nuclear plant with coronavirus infections in April, according to Belsat.
There are nearly 56,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in Belarus, though observers doubt the accuracy of Minsk's official reporting.
Despite the rise in infections, Rosatom is pressing ahead to complete the plant to launch the first reactor in July 2020. Lithuanian intelligence has previously warned that Rosatom prioritises on-schedule delivery over safety at the nuclear plant.
Officials in Vilnius also say the plant is being built in breach of international safety standards, an allegation Minsk denies.
Coronavirus seals off city near secret Russian nuclear accident site
Authorities have blocked access to Severodvinsk, the north Russian city located near the site of last year’s mysterious nuclear testing accident as the coronavirus outbreak there intensified.
The governor of the Arkhangelsk region signed an order to close public access to Severodvinsk this Saturday, the city’s press service said Thursday. Severodvinsk is near the Nyonoksa testing site where an August 2019 explosion during a rocket engine test killed five Russian nuclear workers and led to a radiation spike.
Severodvinsk will set up checkpoints Friday and restrict entry and exit starting midnight Saturday to everyone except workers and people attending funerals, going to country houses or transiting through the city.
“The measure remains in effect until special orders,” the city’s press service said in a statement.
Around 700 people have been infected with Covid-19 at two of the city’s major shipyards since April, an unnamed shipbuilding industry source told the Vedomosti business daily. The Sevmash and Zvezdochka shipyards reportedly saw more than 200 new cases in the past week alone.
The outbreak has prompted federal health officials last week to order enterprises in Severodvinsk to limit their activities.
The Arkhangelsk region has confirmed 2,496 coronavirus infections since the start of the outbreak. Severodvinsk accounts for roughly half of the region’s overall cases.
Last August, a missile exploded during what is believed to have been a recovery operation. The secrecy surrounding the accident has led outside observers to speculate that the explosion involved the Burevestnik nuclear-powered intercontinental cruise missile, dubbed the SSC-X-9 Skyfall by NATO.
President Vladimir Putin later said the accident occurred during testing of what he called promising new weapons systems.
Note: This article first appeared in The Moscow Times and was republished in a sharing partnership with the Barents Observer.
Spain’s macro study shows just 5.2% of population has contracted the coronavirus
The results of the second round of testing suggest the deescalation of confinement measures has not so far caused a significant resurgence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus
Date: June 5, 2020
Source: El País
A second set of tests conducted in Spain as part of a macro coronavirus study show that 5.2% of the population has developed antibodies after exposure to the virus, according to results released on Thursday.
This is up just 0.2 percentage points from the results of the first wave of the study, which were released on May 13.A health center in Barcelona tests patients for Covid-19 as part of the serology study organised by the Spanish Health Ministry. (Credit: Enric Fontcuberta | EFE)
The results indicate no major resurgence of the virus in this period, and confirm geographical variations observed the first time around. They also underscore the role of asymptomatic spreaders and the greater presence of the coronavirus in large cities.
The eight-week seroprevalence study is being conducted by the Carlos III Health Institute, a public research agency. It comprises three waves of testing on a random sampling of households across Spain, and is due to end in late June.
Between May 18 and June 1, researchers tested 63,564 individuals, a large sample size compared with similar studies conducted worldwide.
No major resurgence
The results, which reflect the presence of IgG antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, suggest that the gradual scaling down of confinement measures in Spain has not so far caused a significant resurgence of a pathogen that has already killed more than 40,000 people, according to some estimates.
“The increase was predictable,” explained Daniel López Acuña, a former director of crisis health action at the World Health Organization (WHO). “I wasn’t expecting a huge increase, but it makes sense to expect some, because this is a cumulative study that incorporates new cases.”
But other experts warn that Spaniards should not let their guard down because coronavirus transmission is still taking place in practically every province.
“It’s a very important reminder that this is no time to relax. The figures are good, but we’ve got to remain alert,” said Pere Godoy, president of the Spanish Epidemiology Society.
Godoy also noted that the second wave is “highly consistent” with the first one, which shows that “the study is very well done from a methodology viewpoint, making it even more valuable as a tool at the current stage.”
Experts also underscored the fact that around a third of individuals with antibodies said they never experienced any symptoms, making them effective spreaders of the virus.
“This drives home the point, and it’s an important one during the deescalation process, that the real problem lies with this type of [asymptomatic] infection,” adds López Acuña.
Another pattern that emerges from the study is that the coronavirus spreads more in urban settings with populations of over 100,000. The second wave of tests shows that prevalence in these areas grew to 6.8% from the 6.4% recorded in the first round of testing. In smaller localities, the prevalence rate remained unchanged.
For the first time, the research also reflects people who tested negative in the first wave and positive in the second, indicating a recent infection. The national average for this group of people is 0.8%, but it rises significantly in some central and northern provinces: in Ávila, Valladolid and Palencia it is close to 2% while in Madrid, Soria and Segovia it is 1.5%.
Broken down by gender, 5.4% of women showed antibodies, compared with 5.01% of men.
The study also confirms that younger children have lower seroprevalence rates: 2.2% among babies under one year of age, 2.4% for children between one and four years old, 2.9% for those between five and nine years old, and 3.8% for those between 10 and 19.
For the 20-40 age bracket, the seroprevalence rate was around 4.5%, and after that the figure is similar to the national average.
The noticeable differences between provinces that were observed in the first round of testing were also confirmed by the second round of tests. No province comes even close to reaching so-called herd immunity, which experts place at 60% at the very least.
The three regions of Spain with the greater proportion of residents who have developed antibodies are Madrid (11.4%), Castilla-La Mancha (10.3%), Castilla y León (7.5%) and Catalonia (7%). The lowest rates are in the Balearic Islands (1.5%), Murcia (1.6%) and Asturias (1.6%). The biggest rise between both sets of tests was recorded in Catalonia (1.1%), but in general the variations were very low.
The study is made up of three rounds of testing. The third one will take place in late June.
Deaths and cases
Spanish health authorities on Thursday reported 195 new daily coronavirus cases, although there are 139 more cases to add from previous days.
The Health Ministry reported 56 new deaths, but only five took place in the previous 24 hours. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Spain has recorded 240,660 positive cases through PCR tests and 27,128 official deaths. Both indicators show a downward trend based on accumulated seven-day figures.
The Health Ministry recently changed the way these numbers are being presented, to factor in cases and deaths that were recorded several days after they occurred. This has made it difficult to compare current data with older figures from the beginning of the pandemic.
With reporting by Emilio de Benito.
Translation: Susana Urra
Other links on this topic:
Netherlands: Mass testing is finding more Covid-19 cases, death toll rises by six (Dutch News.nl)
Russian Federation: Coronavirus spikes in Arkhangelsk (Barents Observer)
Scotland: Care homes crisis--four questions for the Health Secretary (Source Direct)
Finland: Re-opening schools did not lead to jump in coronavirus infections (Helsinki Times)
Romania: The highest number of new COVID-19 cases in the past 3 weeks. A quarter of new infections – in Bucharest (Romania Journal)
Serbia: Big number of coronavirus infections in North Macedonia and Serbia (Sofia News Agency)
North Macedonia: Second wave a result of failure to comply with measures (Macedonia Information Agency)
Estonia: Ten recent COVID-19 cases linked to same Tallinn company (ERR, Estonian public broadcaster)
Bulgaria: Hiccough in Bulgaria’s system for reporting Covid-19 cases (Sofia Globe)
THE PANDEMIC AND DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS
European Commission wants social media to report monthly on COVID-19 misinformation
Date: June 5, 2020
Facebook, Google and Twitter will have to provide monthly updates on how they're tackling misinformation connected to COVID-19 under plans to be unveiled next week by the European Commission, according to four officials and outside experts who have reviewed the proposals.
The latest push by Brussels to clamp down on rumors, bogus cures and state-backed disinformation linked to the global public health crisis will be published on Wednesday. It forms part of the Commission's wider efforts — to be published later this year — to overhaul how social media giants monitor and police online content.
As part of Wednesday's proposals, the Commission is expected to call for greater cooperation with international partners, including NATO and the G7 group of the world's most wealthy nations, on combatting digital misinformation. Officials are also expected to call out both Russia and China for efforts to spread coronavirus disinformation aimed at undermining the West.
"It is high time to step up on this and not to allow others such as China to occupy the space," Věra Jourová, the Commission's vice president for values and transparency, said Thursday during a webinar organized by her political group Renew Europe in reference to ongoing disinformation. "We need to get better at assessing the threats and liaising with partners such as NATO on this."
Jourová and Josep Borrell, the 27-country bloc's top diplomat, will make the disinformation announcement next week. Officials and experts told POLITICO that the contents of the communication, which will be nonbinding for the platforms, had yet to be finalized, and some of the details may still change. A new version of the draft communication was expected to be circulated on June 8.
A Commission spokesperson declined to comment on the upcoming communication.
This is not the first time that the Commission has pushed tech giants to do more to tackle misinformation.
In 2018, Brussels published a voluntary code of practice that urged Facebook, Google and Twitter to report regularly on how they were stopping such falsehoods from spreading; how they were removing automated accounts from their global networks; and how they were increasing transparency around political advertising on the platforms.
Next week's communication will again call on these social media companies to adhere to this code of practice at a time when Facebook, Google and Twitter have gone further than ever before in deleting COVID-19 misinformation from their networks and promoting government information on how the public can keep safe during the pandemic.
Despite these efforts, misinformation remains rife across the platforms. Conspiracy theories linked to 5G, the next generation mobile technology, bogus cures and false stories about governments creating the virus as a bioweapon, are still prevalent across Google, Facebook and Twitter. Foreign governments also have pushed bogus claims, including that the United States was behind the spread of COVID-19.
The Commission's plan next week to call out Russia and China as two countries peddling disinformation aimed at the European Union is also likely to cause a stir.
While this reference may still be removed from the final communication, Brussels has so far struggled to speak with one voice over how Moscow and Beijing have spread divisive and inaccurate messages across social media. In April, for instance, Chinese officials put pressure on the EU to water down a report that criticized Beijing's role in promoting COVID-19 disinformation.
Within the Commission, discussions are ongoing over how the final disinformation draft should be written. That includes ongoing discussions about whether to demand that home-grown groups should stop spreading COVID-19 misinformation. Some politicians and EU citizens have promoted conspiracy theories and inaccuracies related to the pandemic.
Questions also remain about how the communication could affect people's freedom of expression at a time when the Commission is asking the social media giants to potentially remove reams of individual posts and videos on their networks connected to the coronavirus.
Other links on this topic:
World: Why outsourcing and secrecy are the route to contact tracing and testing failure (Source Direct)
THE POLITICS OF PANDEMIC
President: Slovakia needs to fight corruption virus and fraud epidemic now
Date: June 5, 2020
Source: Radio Slovakia International
The most frequently used words in the first speech reporting on the state of the Slovak Republic pronounced by the president Zuzana Čaputová were "virus" and "pandemic". However, she did not mention them only in connection with coronavirus. The president also spoke about the sick economy, the hoax epidemic and pointed to a corruption virus that emerged from the Threema application, which revealed secret communication between the controversial businessman Marián Kočner and several Slovak politicians and judges.
On the other hand, Čaputová appreciated how responsibly ordinary people had approached government regulations connected to the COVID-19 pandemic. She highlighted the activities of non-governmental and civic initiatives and pointed out that the crisis had brought society together. She, however, underlined that the will to preserve solidarity and mutual support should remain even after the crisis is over. "Nevertheless, I regret to say, the opposite tendency is visible in society," said the president, pointing to people who have called for changes regarding some cultural and ethical issues.
The president also pointed out that the Slovak economy is too oriented towards one area, and the economic model based on low salaries and attracting foreign direct investment has already been exhausted. According to her, the fact that Slovakia is an assembly shop for global carmakers should be viewed as a transitional period that has had its pros, but there is a need to move away from this by supporting the domestic business environment.
Moreover, she appealed to the government to pay more attention to topics such as healthcare, seniors, social services facilities and the environment.
In reaction to the speech, prime minister Igor Matovič described the report as dignified and fair. "The speech was balanced and fair towards Slovakia and towards the people," he said. The chairman of the opposition party Smer-SD, Robert Fico, said that he was not surprised by the president's report. However, he reproached her "many inaccurate numbers" in connection to the European funds. Smer-SD vice-chair Richard Raši said that the speech was well balanced.
The first report on the state of the Slovak Republic pronounced by the presided Zuzana Čaputová was 3600 words long and the president concluded it by saying that Slovakia faces not only the pandemic induced crisis and its economic consequences but also a crisis related to the trust in democracy and a global climate crisis.
Other links on this topic:
Eastern Europe: Democracy Digest: Elections, Economy and School Violence amid COVID19 (Balkan Insight)
Bosnia: Coronavirus Safeguards Stop Large-Scale Bosnian War Trials Resuming (Balkan Insight)
Week ending May 31, 2020
SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC IMPACT OF PANDEMIC
Germany in Europe: Economic Scars for Decades to Come
Similar stories from students leaving high school or university are everywhere these days. Of the cancelled traineeship at the travel agency, the cancelled trainee post in event marketing, of the future hotel management trainee who nobody needs right now. Or of the engineer trainee who isn’t getting that dream job at German flag carrier Lufthansa. Of the non-university prep high school graduates who are in a state of panic because very few of them are landing training positions.
Almost one-third of all apprentices receives training in the craft trades in Germany. According to a poll taken by the German Confederation of Skilled Crafts (ZDH) among its members before the loosening of the lockdown rules for the retail trade, one in four businesses planned to reduce its commitment to training. Only 45 percent of the companies said they intended to take on the same number or even more trainees than last year.
If a third of the current school year is cancelled, employment income could fall by 3 to 4 percent, according to the calculations of educational researchers. The affected pupils would earn tens of thousands of euros less over the course of their working lives.
He still lacks the proper slogan for the conflict between the generations. It's also questionable whether young people will really rise up. What's certain is that the movement will have to change if it wants to survive. Otherwise, Blasel's generation could be torn apart by the question of what is more important: the economic crisis or the climate? The social question or the ecological one?
There's disappointment in Daria Quelle's voice. Italy hasn't exactly gone out of its way to offer her generation the best opportunities. The global financial crisis, in particular, hit young Italians especially hard. Many people didn't allow themselves to begin hoping for things to improve until a year or two ago. It's a similar situation in Spain, where people talk about a "lost generation." In both southern European countries, youth unemployment is around 30 percent.
Even in wealthy Germany, more than two-thirds of students have side jobs -- generally on a 450-euros-a-month basis and often in restaurants, which have been especially hard hit by lockdown restrictions. The German government has tried to help by giving out more loans that are "initially interest-free."
Other links on this topic:
THE THREAT TO DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS
Coronavirus contact tracing reignites Polish privacy debate
In Poland, the official contact-tracing app released by the government has spurred the debate on privacy and surveillance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics see ample opportunity for abuse.
The efficiency of contact-tracing applications in tackling the coronavirus crisis remains unproven. Nevertheless, like many other countries, Poland, which has so far recorded 23,155 cases of COVID-19 and 1051 deaths, is working on its own smartphone solution.
ProteGO Safe app is based on OpenTrace library, an open-source version of the protocol used by Singapore's TraceTogether application. ProteGO Safe allows users to perform self-assessment of the risk related to contracting COVID-19, but the core functionality of the application is contact tracing by broadcasting identifiers (IDs) and scanning the environment in search of signals emitted by other phones equipped with the app. Also, the program saves the history of IDs of smartphones detected nearby. Government-backed ProteGO Safe developers promise that, in order to protect privacy, the data is not transferred to any central server, and it's deleted after two weeks or at the user's request.
Yet the Polish solution is not fully decentralized. The risk assessment of exposure to COVID-19, which is a crucial element of contact-tracing apps, is performed on a central server controlled by the Ministry of Digital Affairs. ProteGO Safe developers in project documentation argue that this functionality is dictated by "the need to extend the use of the application to older devices, on which such analysis would be difficult or impossible."
This explanation, among many other issues, is what worries Polish privacy advocates like Katarzyna Szymielewicz, the president of the privacy watchdog Panoptykon Foundation. As she points out, the project specifications lack certain clarifications when it comes to data processing.
What is worse, ProteGO Safe claims to be fully transparent and open-source, but the source code of the application processing data on the server was never disclosed. "At the moment, the code responsible for alerting users to the risk of contracting the coronavirus and data transmission doesn't exist," says Szymielewicz, who stresses the importance of scrutiny on the elements of automated decision-making related to risk assessment within the app.
The worries are shared by experienced software engineer and open-source contributor Jaroslaw Potiuk, who initially participated in the ProteGO Safe project.
"We knew from the very beginning that such an application will have to be done together with the government, which keeps the health records and is the only entity that can build the necessary logistics for testing the people who are at risk of contracting the disease," Potiuk tells DW. "The initial idea was to keep maximum privacy. We were very keen on that aspect of the solution and we knew that it is very easy to use the exceptional time and needs of the pandemic to justify the invasion of privacy and potential surveillance. On the other hand, we also knew it can be done with full preservation of the privacy rights," he adds.
Potiuk left the project after one meeting with the Ministry of Digital Affairs, where it emerged that the officials wanted the app to link the data with users' mobile phone numbers, which could enable simple deanonymization of users. For Potiuk at this stage, this was no longer negotiable: "I knew that at least my red lines had been crossed so I quit immediately."
Project manager Mateusz Romanow, who is on board of the ProteGO Safe team, says that the Polish solution does not require users to register with a mobile phone number, and this factor sets it apart from the apps introduced in other countries, like the Czech Republic or Norway. He underlines that "he is not and never will be the spokesman of the ministry," but at the same time he quickly adds that officials never wanted to push the team toward ethically unacceptable directions.
Yet the fears of potential misuse of ProteGO Safe prevail. During a press conference in late April, the Ministry of Development announced that QR codes embedded within the app could be used to manage the numbers of customers entering shopping malls during the reopening of the economy, incentivizing the installation of the application. This raised questions about the voluntary nature of ProteGO Safe.
Romanow admits that the development team was unaware of such ideas. The officials were quickly persuaded to abandon the plan and, in his words, the ministry now calls it a "communication glitch."
Questions of trust
"Due to the COVID-19 situation, it's much easier to sneak-in surveillance solutions under the cover. It is very easy to justify such plans by claiming that this has to be done to save lives, and there is no time to discuss the details," points out Jaroslaw Potiuk.
In his opinion entrusting the state with sensitive data processed by the ProteGO Safe app is not so simple — "especially that the government already made the mishap with the shopping malls announcement, which would mean potential discriminative use of the app."
Potiuk notes that the current political situation in Poland — along with social polarization — is not making the matter of trust any easier. "Recent government actions related to the presidential elections and the way they deal with the judiciary is one more reason to wonder that a lot of people will not trust the government and they will simply not install the app," he underlines.
Joanna Debek, deputy director of communications at the Ministry of Digital Affairs, in an emailed statement said that the government was focused on integrating the ProteGO Safe app with the Google and Apple Exposure Notification system — the contact-tracing framework natively supported by iOS and Android mobile operating systems, that was released on May 20.
"The installation of the application remains voluntary, but its success depends on its wide adoption and number of its users," explains Debek, adding that the ministry will keep encouraging the installation of the ProteGO Safe app.
ProteGO Safe still remains in development. According to the official website, version 4.0 is based on the Exposure Notification system; the whole infection risk assessment process takes place on users' device; and temporary unique identifiers cannot be used in any way to identify certain devices and their users.
Other links on this topic:
WHEN AND HOW TO EASE LOCKDOWNS?
First to close — first to reopen: Denmark’s gain from virus response
Date: May 27, 2020
Source: Financial Times
Denmark was one of the first European countries to close down its public spaces to stem the spread of coronavirus, shutting its borders, schools and restaurants in mid-March.
Its swift response seems to have paid off. As Covid-19 cases plummeted, Denmark last month became the first EU nation to reopen primary schools. Its restaurants, hairdressers, shops, museums and zoos have now all followed suit. The authorities in Copenhagen are promising a massive ramping up of testing to minimise the risk of a second wave of infections.
Neighbouring Sweden hogged the international headlines for its relaxed, no-lockdown approach to the virus but experts say Denmark’s cautious response was a counter-example worthy of attention.
“Denmark is top of the class when it comes to a fast response. We have built a bubble around Denmark,” said Soren Riis Paludan, professor of virology and immunology at Aarhus University.
But he added that the country’s biggest challenge was not a second wave of infections but ensuring the economy recovered. “We have been hit at the very heart of our economy and our culture. We are an outward-facing nation and we can’t be that at the moment — that is the challenge,” he said.
Denmark has had 563 coronavirus deaths so far, with just 12 in the past week. That gives it a per-capita death rate roughly similar to neighbouring Germany, double that of Norway, and about a quarter of Sweden’s.
Mette Frederiksen, Denmark’s centre-left prime minister, this month said coronavirus was “under control” in the country and was speeding up a reopening of society.
Theme parks, museums and zoos were last week allowed to open several weeks earlier than planned after health experts concluded that there had been no increase in the so-called reproduction rate in the month since schools started again, although they were not sure why.
Now the focus is moving to the health of Denmark’s export-orientated economy.
Denmark’s government said on Tuesday that it expected GDP to contract by 5.3 per cent this year, on the same day as Sweden’s finance minister said its economy was likely to shrink by about 7 per cent.
Magdalena Andersson told the Financial Times that Denmark’s main exports of “drugs and pigs” — pharmaceuticals and food — meant it was likely to “take less of a hit than the Swedish economy”, which relies more on cars, trucks and heavy industry.
Henrik Poulsen, chief executive of the Danish renewable energy company Orsted, praised the government for being “decisive” and keeping the pandemic “well contained”. He added: “That becomes the foundation for a relatively fast reopening of society and business. The art of it is not to let go of that opportunity to bring business back to life.”
Soren Skou, chief executive of shipping group AP Moller-Maersk, said he was also keen to see the government boosting domestic consumption and opening up for tourism.
But he added: “The biggest risk we have is that we don’t deal with the unemployment.” The official jobless rate is about 4 per cent but the government is picking up the wages of many workers under a short-time working scheme, which would push the rate to about 10 per cent.
Politically, one difficult question is the opening up of borders. Opposition politicians have urged Ms Frederiksen to open up to Germany and Norway immediately to help tourism before the crucial summer season, as well as to further ease the flow of goods.
More controversial has been the suggestion by several rightwing parties not to open the border with Sweden despite a relatively low infection rate in the neighbouring Swedish region of Skane.
Mr Paludan said the challenge of encouraging people to behave normally again was as much psychological as political or economic.
“Danes do what they are told. That has its effect in the lockdown. But for the opening-up stage, I see a tendency towards cultural distancing and closing off from the outside world. You have put people in a cave and it’s hard to get them back out,” he added.
Allan Randrup Thomsen, a professor of virology at the University of Copenhagen, said he was worried that the focus on the economy and opening up could lead Danes to lower their guard.
“The problem is if we loosen up too quickly, the public feeling will be that it’s over and we can go back to how we were. So my main concern isn’t the physical opening itself but the impact on behaviour,” he said, adding that there was already anecdotal evidence that Danes were not washing their hands as often as last month.
He added that one big difference with Sweden was that, according to the latest results for several weeks ago, only about 1 per cent of the Danish population has had coronavirus whereas about 7 per cent of people in Stockholm had.
Mr Paludan said it was still early days to judge how any country had fared in tackling Covid-19 but he thought a hybrid approach from the Nordics could work. Denmark closed its schools against the advice of its health authorities. He added: “You could probably argue that the next time we see a pandemic the correct approach is something between Denmark and Sweden — close something down but not everything.”
As Europe comes out of lockdown, what lessons can be learned from Sweden?
Date: May 26, 2020
Source: The Local (Sweden)
As countries across Europe ease their coronavirus lockdowns, many may look to Sweden to see how the Scandinavian country has fared without tight restrictions. They could learn both from its failures and from cautious signs of what's working.
At first glance, the popular waterside bar Mälarpaviljongen looks no different from in any other year - groups of people sit eating, talking and laughing on the terrace, some wrapped in blankets against the surprisingly cool May weather.
Then you'll notice the markings on the floor, signs urging patrons to "keep distance", and plexiglass between groups.
Not quite normal, but a lot closer to normal than elsewhere in Europe where bars and cafes have until recently remained shut for weeks.
In Sweden, pubs, restaurants, gyms, shops, hairdressers, and schools for under-16s have all remained open throughout the pandemic, despite the wide spread of coronavirus throughout the country.
Despite death tolls well above the figure in neighbouring countries, hospitals in Sweden have not been pushed to breaking point with 20-30 percent spare capacity in intensive care units - due to huge efforts to double the number of beds early on. In recent weeks the number of patients in critical condition has been falling and Sweden's 'R number' or infection rate is now reportedly below 1.
It might be appealing to make the conclusion that Sweden has managed to keep the epidemic under control, without having to restrict individuals and businesses or pressing pause on the country's whole economy to the same extent as elsewhere in Europe.
But that would be a dangerous conclusion to draw.
If those countries moving out of lockdowns are to learn from the Swedish approach three things are essential: they must understand what's actually been happening in Sweden, which parts of the strategy have and haven't worked (and for whom) and finally the reasons why they either succeeded or failed.
Making comparisons between countries and even within areas of the same countries can be fraught when so many factors play a part, warns Peter Lindgren, Managing Director at the Swedish Institute for Health Economics.
"We have the same measures throughout Sweden and very different infection rates and death rates," he tells The Local.
"The situation is quite severe in Stockholm, but in Skåne (in southern Sweden) the infection rate is similar to Denmark where there is complete lockdown, so there are lots of factors to assess as to whether it's successful as a strategy," he said.
One significant caveat to any assessment of Sweden's strategy is the testing rate, which is among the lowest per capita in Europe and well below the target set by the Public Health Agency.
This has been the subject of criticism within Sweden and made it hard to know exactly how the virus has spread
What Sweden cannot teach others is how to stem the pandemic without a high human cost. With over 3,700 deaths by May 20th the per-capita death toll is far higher than its Nordic neighbours and only behind the UK, France, Italy, Spain and Belgium in Europe. Like in many countries in Europe a large proportion of Sweden's coronavirus-related fatalities occurred in elderly care homes, despite the government imposing a ban on visits.
Protecting these vulnerable elderly is an area where the country's now well-known state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has admitted failure and says is a source of "deep regret". An investigation has been launched into "serious flaws" in the homes. On this issue any lessons will have to be learned from further afield, for example Hong Kong which has managed to avoid fatalities in care homes.
Can guidelines work without enforcement?
Nevertheless, Sweden's decision not to impose a strict lockdown means countries can learn from its successes and failures as they move to get up and running again, people back to work and the wheels of the economy in motion.
"If we are to reach a new normal, in many ways Sweden represents a future model," Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, has told reporters, while emphasising that the extent of Sweden's success remained to be seen.
"Society may need to adapt for a medium or potentially a longer period of time in which our physical and social relationships with each other will have to be modulated by the presence of the virus [...] so I think there may be lessons to be learned from our colleagues in Sweden."
The guidelines that are at the basis of the Swedish strategy, repeated regularly at near-daily press conferences, are familiar: stay at home with the slightest symptoms, practice good hygiene, keep your distance from others and avoid non-essential travel. So the foundation of the Swedish strategy is something that's happening in most other countries already.
For those at highest risk of serious illness, life in Sweden during coronavirus is similar to any other country: over-70s and others in risk groups are asked to avoid all possible social contact, including trips to the shop and visits with family and friends.
Authorities have repeatedly said the guidelines should be followed at all times. Initially vague appeals to use "common sense" and "act like adults" have gradually changed to specific guidance such as "you can travel no more than two hours from home by car".
Sweden's experience suggests that guidelines can be effective even without specific rules such as limits on the number of people you can meet outside your household or setting specific times for when you can leave your house.
Proof that these guidelines can be effective without the legal enforcement of police stops and steep fines seen in countries like France, Germany and Italy, can be seen in the significant change in public behaviour in Sweden.
The latest surveys by Sweden's Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) show that 87 percent of respondents report keeping a greater distance from others in places like shops, 66 percent are participating in social activities outside the home to a lesser extent than before the outbreak, and 55 percent were inviting friends to their home to a lesser extent.
This self-reported data is backed up by mobile data showing how people in Sweden have reduced their movement. Telia mobile datashows a reduction in long-distance travel of up to 96 percent over the Easter holiday; the kind of scenario that authorities repeatedly warned, in national and local press conferences as well as through information campaigns, should be avoided.
Mobility data from Google shows that by early May movement in 'retail and recreation' areas had fallen by 16 percent compared to baseline data from January-February, and by 17 percent in transit stations. Those numbers aren't far behind Denmark (-22 and -27 percent) or Norway (-18 and -22 percent), both with far stricter lockdowns.
Peter Lindgren from the Swedish Institute for Health Economics says clear communication with the public has been crucial to ensure guidelines are followed.
"They've been fairly transparent in the reasons for their decision-making, they've been open about what they do and don't know and the uncertainties, such as when it comes to the risk of re-infection," Lindgren said.
State epidemiologist Tegnell told The Local: "It’s a lot of explaining why things should be done and what’s the goal; not to talk so much about how to do things but getting people to understand why you do things so they themselves can see how to do it."
Sweden benefits from an environment that is naturally less favourable to the spread of diseases, both due to the low population density and the habits of the population.
Sweden has 25.4 inhabitants per square kilometre, based on 2019 data, compared to an EU average of 117.7. Around 40 percent of people live alone. The vast majority of over-70s (95 percent) do not share their home with someone under the age of 40. Compare that to Italy, where 18.9 percent of over 65s have their children living with them.
Sweden is also an outlier when it comes to its high public levels of trust, both in institutions and fellow citizens, something that several of the experts The Local spoke to cited as a factor in the Swedish strategy. MSB's surveys showed high trust for the healthcare sector (80 percent) and Public Health Agency (77 percent), figures which have increased since the start of the outbreak.
"If you have a society where the government is fundamentally mistrusted or a polarised environment where the strategy would get politicised, this may well not work," said the Swedish Institute for Health Economics' Peter Lindgren.
"But in the Swedish parliament, there is very little disagreement – there's some disagreement on the details but everyone is buying in on the general strategy."
Lars Trägårdh, a professor of history and civil society who has studied Swedish individualism and trust said: "If you have mutual trust you don't need harsh measures.
"Harsh measures can only work for short periods, so in the long run we have to depend on people voluntarily following these rules, it's the only way that's sustainable."
Adaptable and reactive
Just as the Swedish response cannot be copy and pasted with an expectation of the same results, nor should we dismiss it as an anomaly or a strategy that was only possible due to the unique Swedish conditions.
Trägårdh says that the stereotype of the individualistic, high-trusting Swede shouldn't be taken too far. People in Sweden aren't necessarily more inclined to follow social distancing, he says, and trust isn't always an advantage.
"It's not that Swedes are asocial, but sociability in Sweden is based on voluntariness. In some cultures you're more forced into community, to live with your parents and so on, and in Sweden the idea is that the welfare state means community is more voluntary," he says. "But the virus doesn't care if you're socialising voluntarily or not. [...] And a risk with high trust that if you make a bad policy choice, they might all march over the cliff together, so to speak."
There are also examples of government efforts having positive results to slow the virus even in parts of Sweden with lower trust levels and higher population density.
Authorities were initially slow to publish the coronavirus guidelines in languages other than Swedish and infection rates rose in immigrant suburbs around Stockholm like Järva.
But after a push in multilingual information campaigns and new measures like opening emergency accommodation for at-risk people living in cramped conditions, the infection rate began to fall. This suggests low trust and cultural barriers weren't the reason for the early high spread as some had claimed. Even in areas with many people in crowded housing and insecure employment, it proved possible to slow the spread of the virus without using laws to confine people to their homes.
And even high-trust Sweden hasn't left everything to chance.
A new law allows the government to take more sweeping measures including the closure of schools, restaurants, and transport hubs without parliamentary approval, something previously not possible under the constitution.
"One big advantage of a somewhat looser framework is that you can allow a bit more flexibility, it's easy to adapt measures at a workplace or business for example, based on local needs rather than having to follow a precise law," says Peter Lindgren.
The Public Health Agency has even said at times that Swedes have taken their advice too strictly and even asked sports training sessions for children to resume because it was "important for children and young people to move around".
One major difference between Sweden and other countries around Europe is that primary schools have remained open. Again the government chose to push new guidelines to reduce spread of infection rather than simply close schools down and force working parents to stay at home.
These measures included staggering class, break and lunch times and spacing out tables and chairs to ensure social distancing.
"Our schools and teachers are working so hard to follow the recommendations and I think they're doing all they can, even though it's sometimes difficult – with kids between six and ten it's harder to maintain social distancing," admitted Maria Olausson from the National Agency for Education.
When deciding to reopen schools, Norway's Public Health Institute used the experience of Sweden, along with Iceland, Taiwan and Singapore – where no clusters of the virus were linked to schools – as an example when it explained its own reasoning.Restrictions where it matters - and communicating why
In environments considered a high risk for infection, more detailed recommendations and rules apply.
Shops in Sweden have been asked to set up information signs or use audio announcements, mark out distances on the floor, rearrange furniture, and designate a member of staff who is responsible for these measures.
In restaurants and bars, these recommendations are enforced – regional infectious disease physicians carry out inspections to ensure that tables are spaced out, only table service allowed, and crowding is being avoided. Venues which have not followed the measures can be closed temporarily. A new law will give municipalities the power to close restaurants that fail to follow the rules.
Large gatherings have been prohibited with organisers risking fines and when it came to care homes the government banned visits.
State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said the strategy has been "constantly changing" based on available evidence and the current risks. "When we see restaurants are very crowded, we go in with regulations and when that doesn’t help, we have gone in with inspections and closed them down, so it’s constant adaptation," he told The Local.
Mälarpaviljongen, a waterside bar and restaurant in Stockholm, had not yet opened for the season when the restrictions on restaurants were introduced. "We discussed our plan of action, tried moving furniture around, looked at how to put signs up that people would read," restaurant manager Christofer Kinunnen told The Local.
Those measures included removing 50 percent of the tables, putting plexiglass on benches to divide customers and having doormen to seat customers and manage the flow of guests in the venue.
A key factor in making sure the measures are followed was open dialogue with customers, including on the restaurants' social media channels. This has meant reporting the feedback from inspections and detailing the measures in place.
While the restaurant has successfully passed three inspections, the loss of seating to ensure social distancing has hit hard meaning they, like other restaurants and bars have had to rely on financial support from the government, including adjusted rent.
Health economist Lindgren also stressed that the country's strategy depends on cooperation throughout different authorities.
"People need to be able to act in accordance with the recommendations. In Sweden one recommendation is you should stay at home with any symptoms even if they are mild, but for that to work you need a safety net so that you don't have to go to work with symptoms for economic reasons. One change the government made early on was extending the regulations for sick leave so you got paid from day one and didn't need a doctor's certificate," explained Lindgren.
Even with these changes, those on hourly contracts may fall through the gaps – something that has been blamed for the widespread deaths in care homes where a large proportion of staff are not salaried employees.
"You need to make sure all the systems are in lockstep, make sure it's possible for people to act in the intended way without running into problems with other parts of the system," said Lindgren.
The need for extensive financial support for businesses and individuals highlights another warning from Sweden; just because the lack of lockdown doesn't mean the economy is fit and well. Countries easing restrictions and opening schools to allow people to return to work shouldn't expect the economy to burst back into life.
In Sweden one in ten retail stores have lost 80 percent of trade, and Nordic banks SEB and Swedbank do not expect Sweden to benefit financially from its looser restrictions in comparison to its Nordic peers. Staff have been furloughed and unemployment is expected to rise dramatically.
Sweden's Deputy Prime Minister told The Local the economic situation was "very, very tough" and warned that not all companies would survive the crisis.
The word repeatedly used by Swedish authorities and the Public Health Agency to sell their softer strategy has been "sustainable"; in other words, it's the only way to keep the healthcare system from being overwhelmed and society functioning long-term.
It's a word repeated by the country's Prime Minister Stefan Löfven who said the fight against the virus was a "marathon not a sprint".
State epidemiologist Tegnell has said the strategy is designed to last for months and will help put Sweden in a better position to handle any second wave because the level of collective immunity will be higher in Sweden than in countries where lockdowns were imposed. The World Health Organisation says it is still very unclear whether people who have had the virus are protected against re-infection, or how long any immunity would last.
Sweden's approach has been oversimplified by critics as a "gamble" that may or may not pay off, but authorities in the country have not been relying on guess work and chance to overcome the pandemic.
The strategy has been divisive and mistakes have been made as its failures to increase testing, protect elderly care homes, and communicate with minority and immigrant communities show.
But the approach to voluntary measures provides a combination of warnings and lessons for other countries, who emerge from lockdown with the real fear that a second wave of the virus could put them back to square one.
As the WHO suggests, countries can take lessons and heed warnings from Sweden, but they will need to find their own way forward.
"Every country has to determine the right package of blended measures based on the context," a spokesperson told The Local. "Many factors are important in assessing the context, including population density, geographic spread of the population, living conditions, cultural and social norms and practices, characteristics of vulnerable populations.
"WHO recommends that each country put in place a combination of measures based on a thorough assessment of the evolving situation that looks at real-time surveillance, capacity to identify, isolate, test and treat all patients, and trace and quarantine contacts."
In other words, countries will need to be ready to adapt their strategy based on an ever-changing situation.
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STATE OF THE PANDEMIC
How Europe underestimated the danger
A review of the minutes from a meeting of the continent’s top health experts in February reveals that there was little understanding of how great a risk Covid-19 posed to the population
Author: Oriol Güell
Date: May 19
Source: El País
It’s Tuesday, February 18, and Europe is on the brink of the worst epidemic in a century. In just three days’ time, Italy will discover that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been silently spreading in the north of the country. Over the coming days, the rest of Europe will make similar discoveries. The virus, as it will later be revealed, has entered senior residences and the lungs of intensive care patients across the continent.
But that Tuesday, the 30 people who were beginning a two-day meeting in the headquarters of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in Solna, Sweden, do not recognize the risk. They are the members of the ECDC’s Technical Advisory Committee, the guardians of public health in Europe. Among this group is Fernando Simón, the director of the Spanish Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts and Emergencies and the man who has been offering daily figures on coronavirus deaths and infections in Spain since March. The meeting revolves almost completely around a problem that is considered under control.
Health workers hug outside the emergency ward of the Severo Ochoa hospital in Leganés (Madrid) during the peak of the pandemic.
A review of the minutes from this meeting, to which EL PAÍS has had access, is disconcerting. Reading this document three months and more than 166,000 global fatalities later, it is evident that no health official present there foresaw what was about to happen. The Technical Advisory Committee believed that Covid-19 presented a “low” risk to the European population, and only a few warnings were raised about the danger of the virus, the need to detect whether it was already in Europe, and the need for measures to stop it from spreading. But these warnings only comprised around 20 points on a 130-point document summarizing the deliberations of the two-day meeting.
All actions appeared to be left for a future date, and some proposals were postponed until two or three weeks later. The health officials from Austria and Slovakia said that it would be unwise to spark fear among the population, while Fernando Simón warned against the risk of “stigmatizing” people getting tested for Covid-19. When asked what he meant by this on Monday, Simón replied that he was referring to the need to “control the transmission” of the virus, rather than focus on a few individual cases.
Most of the meeting was spent discussing technical and preparatory details, such as what criteria should be used to test suspected cases of the virus, which would erupt across the continent in less than 72 hours.
The ECDC is an organization with few powers. Its goal is to provide expertise and proposals for coordination so that countries can more effectively protect the health of their population, an objective that was not met in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. The minutes show signs of the coming disaster, yet proposals to address the problem were left in limbo.
False sense of calm
By the time the meeting took place, there were 45 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Europe. All of these cases had either been imported or transmitted to one of their contacts. An 80-year-old Chinese tourist from Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus pandemic originated, had also died in Paris. The ECDC studied these cases and underscored that local contagion “appeared to be minor,” with few infections that were easy to track. This led the group to conclude that the virus presented a “low” risk to Europe and a “low to moderate” risk to the health system.
Mike Catchpole, the chief scientist at the ECDC, warned, however, about the high transmission rate after reviewing the first two coronavirus outbreaks recorded in Europe – one in a German company, and another in a ski resort in the French Alps. The representative from Germany expressed his misgivings about the containment strategy that was being followed at the time, arguing: “It has not worked because diseases do not respect borders.” The German official also suggested taking more steps, but apparently without any success.
No trace of the virus
At this point, the SARS-CoV-2 virus was spreading throughout Europe, but was not being detected by healthcare systems. The reason for this was the definition of a coronavirus case and the criteria used for testing. Under this criteria, a patient must have traveled to Wuhan in order to be tested. This meant that no tests were being carried out on people showing coronavirus symptoms, or on intensive care patients with pneumonia of unknown origin.
The technical committee agreed on this criteria in February and only appeared to waver when the representative from Denmark argued: “It is important to know where and when to look for the virus.” “For example, in the case of severe pneumonia it would be logical to look for the virus,” he added the next day.
The representative from the Netherlands explained that a group of doctors had been tasked with collecting samples to analyze. He urged taking a “proactive” approach and getting “ready” to manage outbreaks such as those reported in Japan and Vietnam. What is certain, however, is that the criteria for testing was not changed until February 25, four days after Italy recorded its first two coronavirus fatalities.
Shortage of tests
When the crisis hit, several European countries found that they did not have enough tests to diagnose all suspected cases of Covid-19. The meeting in February foresaw this problem. The committee suggested that travelers coming from countries such as Japan, Vietnam and Singapore, which had begun to detect community transmission of the virus, should also be tested for Covid-19. But the representative from Finland warned that this would be “unsustainable.” He explained: “This would lead many people to ask for tests, most of which would come back negative, but the burden on the health system would be enormous.”The representative from Germany said that protocols for PCR tests, the most reliable detectors of the virus, had been distributed “to more than 20 hospitals,” while more than 1,000 tests had been carried out. It was an early indication of how Germany, the country which has made the most effort in testing suspected cases, would approach the pandemic in the future.
Shortage of face masks
When Germany tried to buy personal protective equipment (PPE) for its health workers, it found the international market “empty” of stock, the German health official explained at the meeting, noting the difficulties of encouraging “national production.” The representative from the Netherlands stated that “there is very little PPE available,” while the Irish official said that the country had “declared a health emergency and is stocked.” The minutes from the meeting do not indicate whether Fernando Simón said something at this point. What is known is that on March 8, as the pandemic was taking hold of Spain, the country did not have enough PPE for health workers. Two days later, the Spanish Health Ministry would try to centralize all PPE purchases rather than have each regional government procure its own supplies, a move that did little to solve the problem.
There is just one mention in the minutes of what would eventually become one of the major problems of the coronavirus crisis: overwhelmed hospitals. The only reference to this issue was made by the representative from the Netherlands, who said his country “could have problems with bed capacity in hospitals and that the main concern lies in adopting measures to slow and mitigate the epidemic.”
“They underestimated the virus,” said Daniel López Acuña, a former official at the World Health Organization who currently teaches at the Andalusia School of Public Health, after reading the minutes from the ECDC meeting. It is a position shared by all sources consulted by EL PAÍS. “Even looked at from the perspective of back then, with what was already known [about the coronavirus], it can be seen that neither the transmission capacity of the virus or the impact of international travel were adequately assessed,” he added.
“The fear over what happened with H1N1 [swine flu], when governments were later criticized for having invested in prevention, had an influence [on the response to the coronavirus crisis],” explained an EU source who wished to remain anonymous. During that health crisis, EU agencies were accused of taking action that led to a “waste of large sums of public money, and unjustified scares and fears about the health risks faced by the European public,” as claimed in a 2010 report from the Council of Europe.
Joan Ramon Villalbí, a member of the board of the Spanish Society of Public Health and Administration (Sespas), agreed that the experience of the first SARS and MERS epidemics “did not indicate at any point a propagation” comparable to that which has turned the coronavirus into a global pandemic.
Translation: Melissa Kitson.
Iceland: 'The most beautiful possible picture'
Author: Staff writer
Date: May 28, 2020
Source: Iceland Monitor
“This is the most beautiful picture possible at present,” stated deCode Genetics CEO Kári Stefánsson at an informative meeting at the headquarters of deCode Genetics last night, mbl.is reports.
He was referring to a graph, showing the number of active COVID-19 cases in Iceland.
Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason agreed with Kári in his speech, stating, “It’s got to be beautiful, because all of us are presenting it.”
Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir agreed with Kári and Þórólfur that the picture is pretty and jokingly added that stretched out, it reminded her of Snæfellsjökull glacier.
Þórólfur stated that for an infectious disease of this sort, the curve is an unusual one. “What makes it unusual is the steep curve upwards, which happens very quickly.”
He added that compared with similar diseases, it is unusual, too, how fast the curve falls. That he thanks the quick reaction of health officials in Iceland.
Right now, a total of 1,805 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Iceland. Of those, 57 percent were in quarantine at the time of diagnosis. Three active cases remain, but no COVID-19 patient is hospitalized.
A total of 60,141 people have been screened for the virus in Iceland, or 16.4 percent of the nation. The pandemic has claimed ten lives in Iceland. During the month of May, seven new cases of the disease have been confirmed.
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Spain: Excess deaths during coronavirus crisis reach 43,000 (El País)
EUROPEAN COMMISSION'S €750 BILLION COVID RECOVERY FUND: DETAILS AND REACTIONS
Von der Leyen proposes €750 billion stimulus under member states’ grip
European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, proposed on Wednesday (27 May) an unprecedented stimulus of €750 billion, mostly through non-refundable grants, with governments having a crucial role in deciding how the money will be spent.
The new recovery fund will include a total of €500 billion of grants, while the rest will be offered to governments via loans on favourable terms.
“Our willingness to act must live up to the challenges we are all facing,” von der Leyen told the European Parliament.
The fund is part of an updated multi-annual financial framework (MFF), the EU’s long-term budget. The MFF will mobilise an additional €1.1 trillion between 2021 and 2027.
In order to raise the €750 billion, the Commission will ask permission to the member states to borrow from the markets at record levels by increasing the EU’s own resources to 2%, up from 1.2% currently.
The EU executive intends to pay back the debt by spreading the costs over a long period of up to 30 years, and by introducing new EU taxes, including ‘green’ duties on carbon emissions or plastics, or a digital tax.
In order to have the MFF and the recovery fund up and running on 1 January 2021, the Commission said that an agreement on the main features of the package should be reached by summer.
The package announced represents the EU’s biggest fiscal stimulus in its history to overcome the deepest recession since the bloc came together nearly seven decades ago.
On top of the EU package announced today, member states have also adopted national fiscal stimulus measures totalling more than 3% of the EU’s GDP (around €420 billion).
In addition, the EU has offered €540 billion in liquidity assistance to member states and companies.
Von der Leyen said that the funds will benefit the most affected regions and sectors in particular.
As a result, the bulk of the grants will go to Italy, which could receive up to €82 billion and Spain (up to €77 billion).
But all member states could access the recovery funds. The Commission proposed an allocation key that will set a ceiling of the maximum amount of grants and loans each capital could access, as long as their national plans “tick all the boxes” and member states agreed, explained an EU official.
Von der Leyen’s recovery fund is along the same lines of the proposal made by Germany and France last week, supported by hit-hard countries such as Spain.
But the ‘Frugal four’ (Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Sweden) oppose borrowing such a large amount and giving grants to the countries in need.
“By moving to the South and the East, the Commission has avoided any difficult decisions or compromises at this stage”, said an EU diplomat from a Northern country.
In his view, leaders have been set back “significantly” in their efforts to reach a compromise “fast”.
The approval of new taxes to repay the EU debt burden are also likely to be fraught. Member states have repeatedly failed to adopt digital taxes or a common consolidated corporate tax base.
Von der Leyen however found support among the largest groups of the European Parliament.
“Solidarity is back”, said the head of the European People’s Party (EPP) group, Manfred Weber.
In a concession to Northern countries, von der Leyen proposed that member states have a say in deciding on access to the funds.
National governments will have to present recovery and resilience plans for investment and reform, in order to access the bulk of the €750 billion.
Through these plans, the Commission aims to save and transform national economies.
Investment plans should be aligned with the Green and Digital transformations and respect the Rule of Law. Meanwhile, reform proposals should be “guided” by the country-specific recommendations issued by the Commission to member states last week.
Once the national plans are sent to Brussels, all member states will decide whether those investment and reform proposals are worth receiving the recovery funds via the ‘comitology’ procedure, which requires the consultation of national governments.
Von der Leyen decided to introduce the ‘comitology’ procedure to ensure “collective ownership” of the funds, so all member states are convinced that the EU is financing “the right priorities”, explained an EU official.
National plans would need to be approved by a qualified majority of member states (at least 15 member states representing 65% of the EU’s population).
The ‘Frugal Four’ said in their proposal for the recovery fund that there should be “a strong commitment to reforms and the fiscal framework”.
The blueprint sets the stage for one of the most difficult negotiations in the EU’s history.
“The positions are far apart and this is a unanimity file; so negotiations will take time. It’s difficult to imagine this proposal will be the endstate of those negotiations,” said a Dutch diplomat.
The stakes will also be high for von der Leyen herself. Following a difficult start of her mandate, the German president will try to protect the integrity of the euro and the internal market with her recovery plan, and by doing that regain the political initiative in a decade already deeply marked by the pandemic.
EU takes baby steps towards solidarity but old dogmas unfit for Next Generation
Author: United European Left-Nordic Green Left statement
Date: May 27, 2020
A common debt instrument and grants to member states are overdue measures to address this unprecedented crisis but recovery can only happen without punishing conditionalities, Left MEPs have argued in response to the Commission’s long-term budget and recovery package proposals.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced today that the EU intends to borrow €750 billion on the financial markets for a total EU budget for the period of 2021-2027 of €1.85 trillion.
However, these amounts are well-below what the European Parliament had demanded and punishing conditionalities are likely to be attached for countries already battered by austerity.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the deepest ever recession to hit the EU and while the proposal speaks of new resources, it fails to tackle massive tax dodging by the super rich and big businesses. GUE/NGL Co-President Manon Aubry says this needs to change:
“The Commission’s plan envisages a welcome kernel of European solidarity. But the root of the problem remains the same: the weight of public debt will continue to increase and the blackmail of austerity will intensify to pay for the rescue of the old productivist world. It is ironic to call this plan ‘NextGenerationEU’ when it is this new generation that will pay the debt!
“The announcements on own resources and in particular the taxation of plastic, multinationals and ecological dumping at the borders are a step in the right direction. But this will probably not be enough to cover the entire European loan, part of which will surely have to be repaid by the states. So we are adding debt to debt instead of asking the central bank for cancellations.”
For Co-President Martin Schirdewan, the Commission’s proposals leave many questions open and even more concerns over the EU’s ability to recover from this crisis given the limited amounts on the table:
“The use of a common debt instrument, the majority to be disbursed as grants, is overdue but welcome and represents an important step forward. I urge member states not to block this proposal. But we are fooling ourselves if we think that this amount will be sufficient to keep member states’ economies from sinking into a long depression. It is less than half of the 2 trillion fund the Parliament has called for, while the economic outlook for the coming years deteriorates every week – and the proposed MFF is still lower than the Commission’s 2018 proposal.
“I’m concerned that the one-off nature of the fund limits our ability to boost this response in future years, and there will be big questions about how the funds will be disbursed. It must be on the basis of need. The loans aspect of the fund is disappointing and will add to the significant public debt held by member states, which forces them into a future of austerity under the Stability and Growth Pact. Given the doubts raised by Germany’s constitutional court over the future safety of the sovereign bond market, we now need major changes in the EU Treaty – to change the mandate of the ECB, and to get rid of the Stability and Growth Pact for good,” Schirdewan concluded.
Left Bloc leader Marisa Matias criticises proposal for European fund as ‘underfunded and overconditioned’
Date: May 29, 2020
Matias, a Left Bloc MEP, reacted to the announcement of the Recovery Fund proposed by Brussels, considering that "it falls far short of the amounts we would need to respond to the pandemic crisis".
In addition, the MEP also criticizes the “great deal of conditionality associated” with the European Union Recovery Fund. In summary, for Marisa Matias this is an “underfunded and over-conditioned” fund.
In the video posted on her Facebook, Marisa Matias recalls that this same conditionality was the option taken in “previous crises”, and that it led to the divestment in necessary public services, as seen now with the pandemic crisis.
The Bloc leader considers this conditionality as a “shot in the foot”, because “it will make us pay a much dearer price later than what is now being stated.”
For the Bloc MEP, the European Commission should have presented a “robust proposal, with financing that would have responded to needs, and that would have removed conditionality from map of the resources that will be made available”. And so, with this proposal we will be “moving towards a future that we already know, because it is very like the past ", Marisa Matias stressed.
EU recovery fund plan ‘absurd,’ Orbán says
Hungarian PM complains scheme would mean ‘financing the rich from the money of the poor.’
The European Commission's proposal to allocate a large portion of a €750 billion recovery fund to relatively well-off countries is "absurd and perverse," Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said Friday.
"Financing the rich from the money of the poor is I think not a good idea," Orbán told state-owned Kossuth Rádió.
Under the Commission's proposal, unveiled this week, the EU would raise €750 billion on the markets and distribute the money as a mix of grants and loans to member countries. The bloc would repay the grants over 30 years, starting in 2028.
The largest beneficiary of the plan would be Italy, which would be eligible for accessing up to €172.7 billion out of the €750 billion, according to Commission figures seen by POLITICO. Spain would be the second-largest beneficiary, receiving a maximum of 140.4 billion, followed by Poland with €63.8 billion.
Hungary would be eligible for a total of €15 billion — €8.1 billion in grants and €6.9 in loans.
"The situation is that the new distribution system that they presented to us is an absurd and perverse solution, because it gives more resources to the rich than to the poor," Orbán said.
While noting that there is a need to study the Commission proposal, Orbán raised concerns about Hungary participating in guaranteeing EU borrowing.
The proposal would mean "you as a Hungarian citizen need to take responsibility for the repayment of Greek, Italian or French debt, and if they can't, you pay it back," Orbán said.
The prime minister also announced a new "national consultation" where Hungarians would receive questions by post, including on Hungarian-American businessman George Soros' idea of perpetual bonds, which Orbán referred to as "debt slavery."
The Franco-German proposal for a €500 billion European pandemic recovery fund has kindled a fierce debate about EU finances.
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THE DEBATE OVER GUARANTEED INCOME
Spain approves guaranteed minimum income scheme for vulnerable families
The Spanish Cabinet on Friday approved a guaranteed minimum income scheme set to help 850,000 vulnerable families. It is not the first welfare program of its kind in Spain: there are already 17 different schemes in Spain run by each of the regional governments. But the distribution of this aid is very uneven and only reaches around 300,000 homes. The new scheme from the Social Security Ministry will nearly triple that figure. It will also be compatible with existing regional aid, according to Social Security Ministry José Luis Escrivá.
Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Finance Minister María Jesús Montero called the guaranteed minimum income scheme “a giant step in the fight against inequality in our country.” The program aims to lift around 1.6 million people out of extreme poverty, a group that represents 12.4% of the population, compared with the EU average of 6.9%. And 26.1% of the population is at risk of poverty, meaning that they are living on less than 60% of the median income, or €8,871 a year.
“Today is a historic day for our democracy,” added Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias, who is the leader of the leftist Unidas Podemos, at the press conference. “Today this government is showing that its political choice is social justice and that it takes the [Spanish] Constitution seriously.”
The plan for a guaranteed minimum income dates back to December 2019, when the Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos struck a governing agreement after the inconclusive results of the November general election. In this deal, the parties agreed to create “a general mechanism to guarantee earnings for families with no or low income.”
The coronavirus crisis accelerated the plan and in April, the government released the first details of the minimum income scheme, which is set to cost the government €3 billion a year. Drafts of the welfare program have been seen by several ministries, regional governments, social organizations and even associations that work with potential recipients. These texts are not final, meaning some of the details may change when the royal decree is published in the Official State Gazette (BOE). This is what is known so far about the minimum income scheme and how it will work.
Who is eligible?
To be eligible, claimants will have to be of legal age and under 65, given that above that age there are non-contributory pensions that pay out a minimum of €462 a month. If the beneficiaries live alone, they must have been emancipated for at least three years and be at least 23 years old, according to a draft to which EL PAÍS has had access. Other drafts set the age at 21. If the claimant has been a victim of abuse or human trafficking, this requirement is omitted.
In theory, the payment will be made out to a single individual, but destined to the entire household. To be eligible, families must be in a vulnerable financial situation. A family is defined as vulnerable when their monthly income is €10 or more below the minimum income for their situation.
Are migrants eligible?
Yes, migrants who have been living legally in Spain for at least a year can apply for the guaranteed minimum income.
How much is the minimum income?
There is not a set amount, as payment depends on a family’s income and their overall situation. The lowest rate will be €462 a month for adults who live alone, and the highest €1,015. But the scheme will complete family income to those levels, rather than paying out that amount.
How is a family’s income calculated?
A family’s earnings are calculated based on their net income from the previous year. This does not include grants or rental assistance. Given that this method could leave out the economic victims of the coronavirus crisis, the latest draft of the scheme includes an additional provision which takes into account a claimant’s income from this year. This provision will be in place for all of 2020. The decree also considers setting conditions to assess an individual’s loss of income in a year, so that they do not have to wait for the following year to claim the minimum income.
A family’s assets, such as property and savings, is also calculated toward their income. But this does not include the family home.
Do claimants need to be looking for work?
Social Security Minister Escrivá has said on many occasions that it is his intention to make the minimum income scheme compatible with paid work as a way of fighting against work poverty. Those who are not employed must be registered as job seekers in public employment offices. This requisite has been rejected by the Association of Social Services Managers, who argue that many of the main potential beneficiaries are unemployable due to their personal circumstances, such as drug addiction and mental health problems. The document opens the door to allowing some exceptions to this rule, but it must be done through a new regulation.
Who will manage the scheme?
The National Social Security Institute (INSS) will be in charge of managing the scheme in all regions of Spain except Navarre and the Basque Country, where the government has reached a deal with the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) to give the region control of the welfare program.
From next year onward, another 15 regional authorities could reach an agreement to also manage the scheme.
How will it be funded?
The figures provided by Escrivá suggest that the program will cost around €3 billion a year, to be funded through government transfers to the Social Security system. In order to get local governments involved in managing the program, these will be allowed to add a 5% expense in personnel costs.
Translation: Melissa Kitson
Encouraging European solidarity: An unconditional basic income
We are living in extraordinary and exceptional times. Many have lost their jobs and incomes. The crisis is first and foremost a public-health crisis, but its economic repercussions demand a response which manifests our solidarity and which can help ensure basic living conditions throughout Europe and the wellbeing of all.
Unconditional basic income is today, more than ever, an essential step. It encourages solidarity because it is unconditional and universal. A crisis for which we had no responsibility, and for which no one is accountable, should be answered back through unconditional measures which do not damage future choices even further.
We are witnessing a sharp decline in the world economy—a staggering picture considering initial predictions of growth for 2020. In the eurozone, the European Commission, several member states and the International Monetary Fund already assume a slump into recession. In some member states, budget deficits could rise to 7 or 10 per cent of gross domestic product, with extreme impacts on incomes and employment.
In Norway, for example, unemployment has already risen steeply, from 2.3 per cent to 10.4 per cent in just a few weeks. In Portugal, the finance minister, Mário Centeno, anticipates the crisis being much worse than the eurozone crisis, with unemployment also predicted to rise above 10 per cent.
Portugal was ravaged by austerity and two million people are at risk of poverty and social exclusion—roughly one in five of the population. Around one quarter live on the minimum wage and one third would be unable to cover unexpected expenses.
For all these people, any decrease in monthly income, still moreso unemployment, can be disastrous. Yet one million are already laid off, earning 70 per cent of their salary—part covered by the employer and part by government—and this number can only increase in the coming months.
That scenario is not confined to Portugal. In 2018, European Union leaders congratulated themselves on the fact that there were nearly 240 million Europeans in employment. But the job market is polarising: both high-paying and low-paying jobs are on the rise, as is job insecurity. The average income of the richest 1 per cent of Europeans has grown twice as fast as that of the bottom 50 per cent, while the poverty rate in Europe remains 21 per cent, the same as for nearly two decades.
Civic society mobilising
Not all the news is bad. In most countries, most people are helping each other. Companies are changing their business model to assist the national health system. Startups are joining forces, creating ‘hackathons’ to find innovative solutions to tackle Covid-19.
Civic society is mobilising throughout Europe to create networks of support for the most vulnerable citizens. People are singing and playing music in their balconies to share the burden of social distancing and quarantine. Never before has the role of civic society, and the importance of strong and resilient public health systems, been celebrated by so many from all segments of the political spectrum
Awareness of climate change is also growing. The decrease in carbon-dioxide emissions generated by the slowdown is raising the debate on ‘degrowth’ versus ‘green growth’ when economies start healing.
But a silver lining is not enough. Europe should step up to its task, and at least match the efforts of its civic society, member states, companies and individuals, in looking for innovative measures and strengthening solidarity networks in response to the crisis.
Clear, strong measures are needed, beyond ‘rescue’ packages which raise concerns of a further austerity wave in the eurozone and ‘quantitative easing’ with its mostly regressive impact. We need a unified policy which injects money into the economy quickly, with no intermediaries.
For all these reasons, we advocate an unconditional basic income. A monthly payment should be provided for the duration of the crisis—a three-month measure which could be extended to six months—to all eurozone citizens, independently of what they do our how much they earn. We recommend a €350 UBI for all adults over 18. This is a higher amount than that proposed by Philippe Van Parijs, taking into account the significant loss of income most European citizens are facing.
It would be an expensive measure. But its impact in stopping the collapse in demand, and so supply, can compensate for its cost. Also, and most importantly, it is a matter of social justice.
Many of those hit hardest by the crisis have low salaries and insecure jobs—the basis of the economic growth in the eurozone in recent years. We all benefited from that economic development and it seems only fair that we all share the burden now, helping the most affected ensure they can face the current crisis while still enjoying basic living conditions and some quality of life.
This is not to say that individual eurozone countries should not contribute. On top of the European Central Bank issuing ‘helicopter money’, each member state could add a certain amount and increase the potential positive impacts of a higher UBI. In Portugal, for example, we could add €250 to the monthly payment. Over six months this would amount to 9 per cent of Portuguese GDP (2019 figures). But, by including a mechanism of repayment in two years (say)—where the most vulnerable and those who faced a significant loss of income would keep most or all of the money, while those with more resources and who did not face great losses would return most or the total amount—the additional budgetary cost could fall below 3 per cent of GDP (again 2019 figures). This would be a more reasonable cost, nonetheless representing the magnanimous, collective effort needed to avoid a major social as well as economic recession.
Unconditional basic income is the most effective measure to tackle our current challenges—without bureaucracy and restrictions and without needing to verify those who are poorer and those who are more vulnerable. In extraordinary and exceptional times such as these, avoiding unnecessary procedures and ensuring no one who needs help is left behind is crucial.
The point is not whether we have the resources but to whom those resources should be directed: to the banks and companies, or to the people. We believe it should be to all. We should not disregard the support people need, by claiming that the money is better spent or needed most by companies and the financial sector. It is also not a discussion about which member states are dealing better with the crisis, which have the most resources and which are lagging.
It is about the eurozone recognising the equality of its citizens and restating the European Pillar of Social Rights, with its social commitment to all citizens alike. It’s about solidarity.
The EU might not have a second chance to contain not just the economic but, even more, the political effects of misjudged decisions. As many are saying, if not now, when? And if not this, for all of us, then what is the role of the EU?
Note on authors: Catarina Neves is a teaching assistant in the Nova School of Business and Economics in Lisbon and is completing a PhD in political and social philosophy in the Centre for Ethics, Politics and Society at the University of Minho, where Roberto Merrill is assistant professor of philosophy. They are both involved in the scientific project Universal Basic Income Experiments, funded by the Portuguese scientific agency Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia, which he co-ordinates.
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THE POLITICAL CONSEQUENCES OF PANDEMIC
Scotland and COVID-19: Why independence won't go away
Polls all point one way at the moment for both Scottish independence and the SNP. According to another Ipsos Mori poll published on 26 May, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon enjoys a massive 82 per cent approval for her coronavirus performance. Meanwhile, 55 per cent of Scots think Prime Minister Boris Johnson has done "badly" during the pandemic.
After a slew of such polls, it is clear the early optimism on behalf of many unionist commentators that the independence movement had been struck dead by the global pandemic (for how could independence supports fail to appreciate UK solidarity in such a dangerous and changeable world order) was badly misjudged.
This failure is one of political analysis, in two ways.
First, the Scottish independence movement emerged precisely as a response to war, economic crisis, environmental decline, national, local and global inequalities. It identifies the British state as a road block to sound governance and a serious orientation on the social, economic and geopolitical problems we face. Since it is a response, fresh stimulus will not quiet it.
Second, it implies (as unionism generally does) a recourse to settling grievances through the existing institutions of the British state. These have scarcely ever been weaker.
The Conservative party won a stunning victory in December 2019. Since then, the official opposition has been more quietist and a-political than any time in recent years; perhaps in living memory. Sir Keir Starmer has made no secret at all of his courting of elite circles, touring the Tory press from the Times to the Telegraph making the case for a more subdued Labour with a collegiate attitude to the British establishment.
He has been largely absent from the enormous controversies of the pandemic era. And he wants to be seen to be absent. As the Dominic Cummings scandal rolled into its sixth day, he said: "This was the week when we should have been talking about how we ease the lockdown safely. How we restart our economy, support businesses, get more children back to school."
That is, he wanted to lift the pressure on Johnson’s government and engage in appeasement of big business interests, who want a rapid re-launch for the economy.
So as Britain emerges from lockdown with the worst per-capita death rate in the world, and with the government’s leading strategic thinker himself a flouter of government measures, the official British state channel for dissent is closed. This will breed extra-parliamentary developments, and in Scotland one of those, indeed a central one, will be the independence movement.
Yet many problems unquestionably remain for independence supporters. Indeed, rather than kill-off the independence cause as many unionist commentators had hoped, one could make a strong case that the pandemic rescued Sturgeon from her independence woes.
It seems like a lifetime ago, but was only January, that the first minister drove a second vote through the Scottish Parliament demanding the powers from Westminster to hold a vote on Scottish independence. Johnson of course rejected the request, just as his predecessor did. The ‘gradualist’ road to independence, the staple of decades, had finally reached a dead-end. Largely because of this, the cohesion of the independence movement was beginning to show fractures.
All of the pressing strategic questions that faced independence campaigners before the pandemic remain, and they do not go away because of polling figures or political framing. Yet it remains the case, as a political response to a world disorder and a failing state, the national question will not disappear.
Democracy Digest: Pandemic Heralds a More Conservative Slovakia
“The number of infected people in Slovakia has decreased significantly, so we can afford this step,” Prime Minister Igor Matovic told a news conference on Monday.
With only 28 fatalities, Slovakia has the lowest per-capita coronavirus death rate in Europe. Total infections stand at just over 1,500, with 257 active cases as of Thursday.
Slovakia has gradually eased a fiercely criticised quarantine of five segregated Roma settlements in the eastern part of the country. It has also begun mass testing in care homes for the elderly.
In the midst of the economic, public health and social crisis, Slovak science celebrated a victory last week when a team of local scientists got certification for an original COVID-19 test kit they had developed. Health officials will get the first 100,000 tests free.
“If we want to get back to normal life, we have to be able to catch the potential new hotspots of infection, where testing will be key,” said Robert Mistrik, a scientist and a member of the Slovak crisis staff.
The so-called PCR tests were developed by Pavol Cekan, a scientist at the MultiplexDX company, in cooperation with other Slovak biotech companies and scientists at Comenius University and the Slovak Academy of Sciences.
In recent weeks, the government has faced criticism for making state quarantine compulsory for all Slovaks returning to the country. The public were appalled by images of overcrowded accommodation, and Slovak ombudswoman Maria Patakyova said the enforced quarantine could violate human rights.
Another blow to the government came from the Constitutional Court, which stopped a coronavirus law allowing the government to collect phone data for contact-tracing technology. The court argued the law was too vague and did not give enough assurances against the misuse of people’s private information.
A ‘conservative revolution’
As the emergency recedes, discussion has turned to the effects of the crisis on human rights — and in particular women’s reproductive rights.
Debate has reemerged over abortions, with new Health Minister Marek Krajci, a conservative Christian politician from the governing OLANO party, declaring that terminations are not considered “undelayable procedures” — namely, matters of urgency — amid reports that doctors were cancelling appointments in hospitals.
Commentators and analysts predict that a “conservative revolution” will sweep Slovakia after the crisis.
“In coming years, we can expect the character of the state to change significantly in Slovakia,” Michal Vasecka, a sociologist at the Bratislava Policy Institute, told the Aktuality.sk news outlet.
Noting that conservative voices now have a majority in parliament, he added: “I am completely sure that an anti-abortion law will be passed.” Vasecka said he also feared that a rise in conservatism could go hand-in-hand with a rise in authoritarianism.
Culture wars already came to parliament when ombudswoman Maria Patakyova criticised anti-abortion efforts, along with a lack of LGBT rights and limited access to clean water in some Roma communities in her annual human rights report. A debate about her report turned into a nasty confrontation between ultra-conservative and liberal MPs.
Milan Mazurek, a lawmaker from the neo-fascist People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS), convicted of making racist remarks against Roma in 2019, called transgender people “mutants” and “transformers” and compared them to animals.
Stefan Kuffa of the same party used his speech to lay into the abortion issue, using a pregnant colleague from the centrist For the People party as a visual prop.
In the end, only 34 out of 150 lawmakers formally acknowledged the ombudswoman’s annual report. “Parliament has won over human rights,” wrote commentator Samuel Marec in the SME daily.
In sharp contrast, progressive Slovak President Zuzana Caputova expressed support for Patakyova as well as the human rights issues detailed in her report.
“Of course, the report tends to be critical, it points to the ineffectiveness of certain institutions, but it is all the more important because of that,” she told parliament last week. “This report describes concrete stories of people, including children, elderly and other vulnerable groups.”
Since the debate, two conservative MPs from the governing OLANO party, Richard Vasecka and Anna Zaborska, have announced plans to have the abortions banned in Slovakia.
In addition, several MPs from opposition parties that had pledged never to cooperate — SMER-SD and LSNS — created a parliamentary platform aimed at protecting a “normal Slovakia” and promoting conservative issues.
“Today we have shown that the politics of values has a significant majority in parliament,” said Tomas Taraba, an MP from the LSNS club. “Today we saw that a lot of MPs have the same arguments that we do.”
Michal Havran, a publicist and theologian, addressed the conservative MPs’ efforts to limit reproductive rights in an interview with TV SME.
“There could be a nuclear war, a conflict, a pandemic — they still think that their agenda is the only important thing in the world,” he said.
The pandemic has also prompted conservatives to propose closing shops on Sundays.
“The pandemic has shown that it’s not the shops that we miss on Sundays; it is our loved ones, our families,” OLANO party lawmaker Zaborska told Teraz.sk.
Prime Minister Matovic also supports the idea of keeping shops closed on Sundays after the pandemic ends. “I would like that, but the agreement in the coalition is that it’s a temporary measure during the corona crisis,” he told TV Markiza in April.
The liberal SaS party, a junior member of the governing coalition, opposes the measure, arguing that store owners and shop assistants should not be forced to close.
On Wednesday, a poll carried out by 2muse agency said that 80 per cent of Slovaks favoured shops closing on Sundays.
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Week ending May 24, 2020
POSITIONS AND PROPOSALS FROM THE LEFT
The Deadly Consequences of Neoliberalism: The Covid-19 Pandemic in Germany
Unlike the endless praises in the liberal and social democratic press in North America, the Covid-19 pandemic is relentlessly uncovering the weaknesses of the German healthcare system – the deadly consequence of two decades of neoliberal policies. Indeed, just last week the London-based Financial Times reported on a rebound of cases in Germany.
Thomas Sablowski works for the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, a research and political education centre aligned with the German socialist party Die Linke. Thomas is a senior research fellow in the area of political economy of globalization, a member of Die Linke, and on the scientific advisory board of Attac Germany. he was interviewed by Saliha Boussedra of the French journal Cause Commune in late April.
Cause Commune (CC): There have been far fewer deaths in Germany than in France. How do you explain this?
Thomas Sablowski (TS): We still know relatively little about this new corona virus and the dynamics of the Covid-19 pandemic. Comparisons between countries are difficult because the testing practices in the countries are very different. The numbers of unreported cases of Covid-19 might vary from country to country. The testing practices are also different with regard to the analysis of the causes of death. However, one hypothetical explanation for the apparently lower number of deaths from Covid-19 in Germany could be that in the initial phase of the pandemic in Germany, younger people could have been more seriously affected than in France. Many cases occurred during skiing holidays of Germans in Austria. This would mean that older people could have been affected more at a later stage of the pandemic after which the death rate rose in Germany, as well.
Another explanation is that the death rate depends very much on the situation in the hospitals and in residential homes for the elderly: Is there enough capacity for intensive care in the hospitals? Are there enough ventilators? Are there enough protective masks and protective clothing for the doctors and nurses working in the hospitals and for caregivers of the elderly? When high-risk groups such as the elderly and people with chronic diseases are consequently not protected, the death rate can rise quickly. The same holds if the hospitals are overloaded or not equipped well: The death rate rises quickly, and even the employees in the hospitals are getting infected to a high degree. Fortunately, it seems that Germany has avoided, more or less, an overload of the hospitals, so far. German newspapers reported that an overload of hospitals occurred in the region Grand-Est in France and that there was no more care for elderly above 80 years because of a lack of ventilators.
CC: Germany’s ability to quickly redirect its industry played a role in managing the crisis. How do you explain that Germany has managed to preserve its industrial fabric?
TS: I am not sure to what extent there really was a redirection of the industry in Germany during the crisis so far. The media reported that some firms have now started producing protective masks instead of t-shirts, or ethanol for disinfection instead of liquor. However, we should not overestimate this conversion of the industry. The German government, in fact, took a very liberal stance and did not intervene in the private production sector. Of course, the government looked for manufacturers of protective masks and protective clothing when it became evident that there was not enough material even for the employees in the hospitals. However, the government did not force private companies to redirect their production, which it should have done, in my opinion. The result is that we are still lacking protective masks for the whole population. The government first told the people that protective masks do not help much, probably because it wanted to keep all available masks for the hospitals, the police, etc. Now the government is changing its policy. Now we are forced to use masks in supermarkets and on public transport, even if we have only provisional masks.
It is true that Germany has managed to preserve an industrial fabric to a higher degree than France. However, you have to keep in mind that the productive apparatus of Germany was broader and more integrated than the productive apparatus of France even before the process of neoliberal globalization and financialization of the economy started in the late 1970s. Germany had, and still has, a specific strength in the machinery industry, which has developed over the course of a 150 years. The machinery industry is important because the increase in labour productivity in the whole economy depends on it. The French political left had already discussed in the 1970s how France could become less dependent on Germany and the USA with regard to industrial equipment. The German government could blackmail the left French Government under Mitterrand because of its economic policy at the beginning of the 1980s: France had trade deficits, which were partly due to the weakness of the French productive apparatus.
The German economy also has a broader stratum of medium-sized companies, while France depends more strongly on a smaller number of giant corporations. The French state has for a long time focussed on promoting these “national champions”, as far as I know. The composition and strategies of the national labour movements probably also play a role. In Germany, we have unitary trade union organizations dominated by a social-democratic reformist orientation. The trade unions were always inclined to make compromises with the capitalists in order to keep workers’ jobs. The majority of the labour movement accepted the competitiveness of German industry in the world market as a precondition for any progress. In the last decades, the trade unions accepted many concessions in order to keep jobs in Germany.
However, even the German productive apparatus was hollowed out due to the internationalization of production and race across the globe for higher profits. We depend almost totally on protective masks manufactured in China and India, for instance. The same holds for key drugs. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a shortage of important pharmaceuticals in Germany. Now even some conservative politicians seem to have changed their minds. They have begun to realise how important the secure provision of basic goods can be. However, this change of mind is limited. The left is struggling for higher public investment in the social infrastructure and for an industrial conversion based on the needs of the people and ecological necessities.
We have to redirect our productive apparatus away from useless and harmful products, away from weapons, luxury cars, etc. German society has become increasingly dependent on the car industry over the last years, and this is really a serious social and ecological problem.
CC: There are two health systems in Germany – public and private. What consequences has this had for patients?
TS: The various governments in Germany have enforced a neoliberal policy in the area of public health as they have in other areas for many years now. In the year 2000, the government formed by the Social Democrats and the Green party changed the financing of the hospitals fundamentally and introduced Diagnosis Related Groups (DRG). Since that time, the hospitals get a lump sum for each patient based on the diagnosis. This system of financing does not cover the necessary costs of the hospitals and has created permanent pressure to lower costs. In turn, this has led to a serious lack of nurses, for instance. The remaining nurses are underpaid and overworked. In order to cover their costs, the hospitals have to process a higher number of patients and to dismiss patients earlier. While patients remained in a hospital on average 14 days in 1991, today they remain only 7 days on average.
At the same time, the central government has shifted many social responsibilities onto local governments without increasing the financing of the municipalities sufficiently. Many municipalities have been underfunded for many years. That is why many communes privatized their hospitals over the last few decades. The share of private hospitals in the total number of hospitals increased from 14,8% in 1991 to 37.1% in 2017. Today, even the majority of the public hospitals are organized under the auspices of private law. Because of these processes, the total number of hospitals also declined from 2,411 in 1991 to 1,942 in 2017. The number of available beds in hospitals per 100,000 inhabitants declined even further from 832 to 602. As recently as last year, Bertelsmann Foundation, one of the most influential neoliberal think-tanks in Germany, told us that we would still have too many hospitals in Germany and proposed to close more than 800 of the remaining hospitals.
We also have two forms of health insurance. Ordinary wage earners with a gross wage of less than 4,687.50 Euros per month have to join a compulsory public health insurance. People with a higher income and the self-employed (the petty bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie) can use private health insurance or pay a doctor, or for a hospital stay, on their own. As people with private health insurance often get a preferential treatment, we are talking about a two-tier health system. As in other countries, health is a class-issue in Germany. The working class suffers from bad working and living conditions more than other classes. Poor people have a much lower life expectancy than the rich do. We have no data yet, but I assume that the death toll of Covid-19 will also be higher among the proletariat.
CC: We are talking about many poor workers in Germany, a lack of nurses and a shortage of masks. Could you tell us more about this?
TS: Although the German government did develop a plan for dealing with a possible pandemic already in 2012, it did not stick to its own plan and did not really prepare for this case. That is why we now have a lack of protective masks, protective clothing, ventilators, basic pharmaceuticals, etc. Like in other European countries and in the USA, the German government hesitated to react adequately. The Chinese officials informed the World Health Organization about the new lung disease on December 31, 2019. On the same day, the authorities in Taiwan started taking the temperature of all people coming from mainland China.
Not so in Germany. On January 23, the Chinese authorities started the lock-down in Wuhan. At that time 17 deaths were reported in China. Nothing happened in Germany. On February 22, the lock-down started in Italy. Nothing happened in Germany. Only when the number of reported infections started to increase in Germany, on February 27 the government established a task force on Covid-19, considering measures for containment. It took again more than one week until the government recommended on March 8 to ban public events with more than a thousand participants. Only in mid-March did the central government and the regional governments take comprehensive measures like the closing of shops, schools and nurseries.
However, contrary to Italy and Spain, the German government did not enact even a partial lock-down of industrial production. Workers were required to abstain from almost all social contacts in their free time, but had to continue exposing themselves to the risk of infection during work. This reveals that the capitalist state in Germany, like in other countries, is caught in a contradiction: On the one hand, it has to take measures in order to contain the pandemic and to secure the general conditions of production, in particular the health of the workers. On the other hand, it hesitates to apply appropriate measures in order to allow for the continuity of the production and valorization of capital. The strategy of the German government seems not to be stopping the pandemic, but to slow it down and to use the hospitals as much as possible in order to avoid a rupture of production.
Germany is better off than other countries because it occupies a position at the top of the hierarchical international division of labour. This has enabled the German government to mobilize economic aid programs for companies (mainly credits and guarantees) with a volume of about 7 per cent of GDP, so far. This is far more than in Italy, for instance. However, these measures will just postpone and ease, but not avoid, the coming wave of bankruptcies.
The Covid-19 pandemic is hitting German society like other societies after 40 years of neoliberal ‘reforms’. Social inequality has increased very much. Germany has one of the largest sectors of low-wage employment in Europe. The workers with precarious part-time and temporary contracts are most vulnerable with regard to the present crisis, which is the deepest crisis since the Second World War. The neoliberal policies have partially destroyed our healthcare system. That is why we are short by more than a hundred thousand nurses. Hundreds of workplaces within the local public health authorities have disappeared over the last few years. The consequence is that the German state is unable to test the population comprehensively and promptly for Covid-19. It is also still unable to provide the population with protective masks because it does not want to challenge private authority in the economic sphere.
CC: Do we know the real number of deaths in Germany due to Covid 19 since there is no post-mortem test?
TS: Yes, you are right. We do not know the number of cases of unreported deaths. As I said before, test practices are different from country to country, and they are changing over time, which makes comparisons between countries difficult. For instance, the Robert-Koch-Institute, the main national medical institution in charge of the monitoring and containment of the pandemic, first said that post-mortem examinations would not be necessary. The Robert-Koch-Institute even recommended against post-mortem examinations because they could lead to infections of the medical personnel. Only recently, the people in charge have changed their minds. Now they recommend doing post-mortem examinations in order to learn more about how the virus affects the human body.
CC: From what I understand, according to the German left, hospitals are on the verge of collapse following this health crisis, what do you think?
TS: The doctors and the nurses had already been on the verge of collapse before this health crisis because of the severe lack of personnel in the hospitals. One of the most important struggles of the last few years in Germany was, and still is, the struggle for more personnel and for better pay for nurses in the hospitals. In the past, the hospital staff was not known for strikes. However, over the last few years, workers in the hospitals learned to strike. In the largest hospital in Berlin, the German capital, nurses struck successfully for a collective agreement defining a minimum number of nurses in each ward. This struggle had a nationwide vibrancy and led to a series of struggles in other hospitals.
The German government is following a risky course regarding the Covid-19 pandemic. First, it delayed the measures to contain the pandemic. Then it took half-hearted measures. Now it is already relaxing the original measures. So far, an overload of the intensive care units has largely been avoided. However, if we see infections rising again, we also could experience in Germany what we have seen in France and Italy: wartime practices of ‘triage’, meaning a carnage that could have been avoided under different social conditions.
The Covid-19 pandemic is relentlessly uncovering the weaknesses of the German healthcare system and the deadly consequences of neoliberal policies. The good thing is that we maybe have the chance to change the system fundamentally. We need to struggle for the abolition of the DRG system and for a completely new funding structure for hospitals and the public health system.
We also need to struggle for the socialization of private hospitals. We have to bring them back into public communal ownership. We need to struggle for more nurses and for better wages for nurses and care workers.
Finally, we have to put these struggles in the broader framework of the struggle for the eco-socialist transformation of society. However, we will not be successful in this struggle if we allow capitalists and governments to play workers in different nations off against each other. We also need an internationalist perspective. •
Note: This interview first appeared in French in the journal Cause Commune.
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PUBLIC HEALTH SYSTEMS UNDER STRESS
Bidding wars and scammers: The new life of healthcare procurement officials in Spain
The coronavirus crisis has turned an anodyne administrative procedure into a high-pressure job as regional governments scramble to secure medical supplies on the international market
Luis Ruiz, secretary general of health services in the Spanish region of Castilla-La Mancha, has been getting very little sleep of late. His time is spent going back and forth between two very different time zones: the Spanish one and the Chinese one.
Like other procurement officials in charge of purchasing medical supplies, he has been following the advance of the Covid-19 epidemic in Spain with a feeling of anguish. The crisis caught the country unprepared, without enough reserves of personal protective equipment (PPE), testing kits or ventilators.
Before he knew it, the act of buying face masks, gowns and safety glasses had become a risky game of trial and error that nobody was prepared for. “We are at war. The goal is to emerge from this with as little damage as possible,” notes Ruiz.
Before the coronavirus turned the world upside down, purchasing medical supplies had been an anodyne administrative procedure. A hospital or health service would put out a tender, suppliers would make their offers and one of them would be selected, generally the one offering the best price for similar quality. There was always enough stock, and suppliers would deliver orders within 48 or 72 hours.
Until recently, according to the health technology industry association Fenin, Spain was purchasing nearly €8 billion a year in medical supplies from the Spanish subsidiaries of multinationals like Siemens, Roche, Medtronic and Dräger. There were also a few smaller suppliers with decades of experience, such as Distribuciones Levantinas Sanitarias (Dilesa) from Paterna, in the region of Valencia.
But by mid-February, the main multinationals began running out of stock. Production could not keep up with demand. And many countries of origin started to ban exports of medical supplies, according to an industry professional.
The Spanish government decided to centralize purchases through a decree that stopped short of prohibiting regional authorities from procuring their own supplies, but slowed them down. Deaths began to spike, and so did transmission among healthcare workers. Hospitals and senior residences found themselves without enough protective gear. On March 14, the government declared a state of alarm and introduced a strict lockdown.
By then, procurement officials from all over the world were already competing with one another to get their hands on medical supplies. New middlemen and companies with ties to China emerged. The notion of centralized government purchasing began to crumble. It became a case of each man for himself.
China, the new El Dorado
Before Covid-19, the medical supply needs of a country like Spain were evenly divided into two categories: health technology, and items produced in large numbers (face masks, gloves, gowns), explains Luis Furnells, president of Oesía Group, an IT engineering and consultancy firm. But now, the second category has grown to represent 80%.
National production of face masks comes nowhere near covering domestic demand. There are only two factories: Diseños NT in Alcalá la Real (Jaén), which makes 80,000 surgical masks a day, and Sibol in Zamudio (Bizkaia), which makes 16,000 FFP3 masks – the highest level of protection – a day.
The reason that so few are being made in Spain is that they are cheaper to import than to manufacture, since the profit margin is very small. The production of perishable medical supplies was outsourced years ago, and China became the top manufacturer. This leadership has been reinforced during the coronavirus pandemic, with China accounting for 85% of the global production of face masks, according to investment banking company Morgan Stanley.
“Right now, even textile companies in China that are able to do so are converting themselves into face mask manufacturers,” explains the head of a major Spanish firm with a presence in China, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The same guy who used to sell you a yacht or electric motorcycles is now offering you face masks,” adds an entrepreneur from Seville who has factories in China. And sellers are demanding advance payment on the orders. “It’s 50% when you place the order and the other 50% when it’s manufactured, not when we receive it,” explains Luis Ruiz.
'I have a contact'
Together with the new suppliers, a whole set of middlemen and brokers began to knock on the doors of regional health departments and hospitals, offering them protective gear. “Everyone has a friend who in turn has a contact in China,” notes Ruiz. “We are receiving 100 offers a day for medical supplies, and this figure probably falls short.”
Many of these offers are bona fide, but others are questionable. All of them are expensive. Surgical masks that used to sell for €0.027 cannot be obtained these days for under €0.40, and sometimes up to a whole euro.
“The price hike has been spectacular. In normal situations we would never approve it, but right now we have no choice but to accept them at that price,” adds Ruiz. The price probably conceals commissions for intermediaries, but there is no way of knowing for sure.
“Ordinary suppliers are doing what they can, but the market is much tougher now and they’re having a lot of trouble,” adds Sara Manjon, director of the Area of Professionals and Organizations at the Catalan Health Service (CatSalut). “Other suppliers have stepped in and you don’t know who the manufacturer is. They’re just salespeople, and you need to do some vetting.”
A private manager said that he recently received two offers on the same day for FFP2 face masks, one for €3.5 a unit, and another one for €6. Before the crisis, these masks could be bought at any local pharmacy for €2.5. Their price has been as high as €9 since then. A 50-unit box of surgical masks that used to cost €2.50 at the most is now going for up to €5. And a 100-unit box of gowns that was once sold for €45 is now selling for €65 to €80.
“Excess demand has not only stressed the factories, but also the transportation routes,” notes Furnells. “There are fistfights to get your own supplies loaded onto cargo aircraft.”
This also means that the cost of air transportation has quadrupled: a cubic meter of cargo space on a flight between a Chinese city and Madrid used to cost around two euros per kilogram. This is now around €14 and “nobody guarantees that it will arrive on time,” adds Michael Voss, director general of a Bilbao-based logistics company named Sparber, which has offices in Shanghai.
New laws introduced in China to guarantee the quality of exports has contributed to slowing down the process, says Furnells. “It leaves out those who were planning to get rich quick, but it stresses the entire chain of logistics.”
In these conditions, predicting the day that a shipment will arrive gets complicated. That is why Oesía, Fenin and the airline Iberia have set up a Madrid-Shanghai airlift service with three flights a week. In the last two weeks, these flights have brought 16 million face masks and two million units of other PPE to Spain.
In the northwestern region of Galicia, the multinational Inditex – owner of the fashion brand Zara – is assisting the regional government with purchases and logistics. Galicia is also attempting to encourage local production of simple products that are in high demand, such as surgical masks, and it has placed orders with up to six local companies. Regional authorities in Castilla-La Mancha and La Rioja have made similar moves. In the town of Arnedo, shoemaking companies are now making reusable gowns, and in Ezcaray, businesses that manufactured seats for auditoriums are now making plastic aprons.
Several sources consulted for this story said they believe that the government’s lack of experience may explain why it recently purchased 640,000 defective fast tests that it was forced to return to China. The Health Ministry, which has declined to comment, has yet to reveal the name of the “Spanish distributor” that it bought the shipment from, or for how much money.
“Any region, even a large hospital, handles more purchases than them,” says a regional source, suggesting the central government was not ready to deal with the situation. “If we’d just sat and waited for the government to buy material in a centralized way, we’d have all been in chaos for three weeks, we’d be in a situation of total tragedy.”
The middlemen who have popped up during the crisis “shoot at everything that moves,” says Antonio Sanchís, manager of a distribution company named Dilesa that managed to import 100 respirators from Turkey despite Ankara’s veto on exports. And these brokers make the most of the “despair” of hospital managers.
The Valencia region was the first of Spain’s autonomous communities to manage to charter an entire plane of medical supplies. The last one flew in 60 tons of equipment. “It would have been good for Europe to use its weight to set a price for purchases,” notes the regional premier, Ximo Puig. “But after that we were no longer in that scenario. We needed supplies no matter what.”
Avoiding scams has become a priority for regional procurement officials. Alex Arriola, director general of a Basque business development agency named SPRI, says he has acted in an advisory capacity to prevent several regions from getting fleeced. With seven years of experience as chief of purchasing for several industries in China, he has a reliable network of contacts. “I know there are governments and companies that have tried to steal our products,” he says. The trick resides in offering two to three times the amount of money for a shipment that has already been paid by another client.
Javier Díaz, technical chief for Asepal, an association of personal protective equipment, has been testing the quality and authenticity of around 100 shipments from China since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. He found that 60% had false certification, and stopped the imports in time. “There are some perfectly good certificates, and others that are shamelessly phony,” he says. “But with this volume of imports, it is impossible to have total control. The Netherlands also ended up with 600,000 deficient face masks.”
Díaz says that some Chinese labs that issue quality certificates have created webpages to help European authorities and companies avoid fraud. “With these websites, it is easy to find out if a factory or product has the official certification,” he says.
With reporting by Ferran Bono, Jessica Mouzo, Ignacio Zafra, Juan Navarro, Javier Martín-Arroyo, Sonia Vizoso, Juan José Mateo and José Marcos.
Translation: Susana Urra
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NATIONAL RESPONSES TO PANDEMIC
Nordic Countries concern over Covid-19 spread in Sweden
Norway and Finland are looking at opening their borders for the tourist season and are said to be considering retaining travel restrictions on Sweden.
In Denmark, several opposition parties want to open to Germans and Norwegians, but not to Swedes.
With cases having crossed the 30,000 mark, Sweden's death toll in the pandemic has reached over 3,800, more than three times the combined total of Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland.
"We can see that Sweden has a good overview of the situation and it's transparent. We speak to our Nordic colleagues weekly and there are ongoing discussions on how to lift the restrictions in the best way," Line Vold, department director for infection disease control and preparednesss at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, tells Radio Sweden.
Click on the link to hear our interview with Line Vold, which also covers Norway's lockdown strategy.
Danish PM 'falsely claimed health agencies backed lockdown'
Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has been accused of misleading the public by implying that the country's health agency backed her decision to impose a strict lockdown on the country, when in fact it had not.
THE SOCIAL IMPACT
Spanish state: Sent home over Covid-19, laid-off workers still waiting for their cheques
Delays processing income support claims have left thousands of families in a precarious financial situation
Thousands of workers in Spain are still waiting to receive unemployment assistance after being placed on a temporary layoff scheme known as ERTE (or expediente de regulación temporal de empleo in Spanish).
Under the scheme, employers can send workers home without pay for a certain amount of time, but must take them back once this period ends. Workers can claim unemployment during this time, and companies can also put staff on a reduced schedule.
Nearly half a million companies filed for ERTEs in response to the coronavirus lockdown, which forced the temporary closure of businesses across the country. While this measure brought relief to some workers, thousands more are still waiting for their unemployment benefits.
Labor Minister Yolanda Díaz announced last Friday that the national agency SEPE, which handles jobless claims, had recognized and paid 3.3 million beneficiaries within 33 days. According to the minister, 46,000 more requests were set to be resolved in the following days. “It is not true that payments will be delayed until June 10 due to a lack of liquidity,” Díaz told Congress on Wednesday.
But the government’s claims have been contradicted by organizations such as the General Council of Administrative Gestores of Spain, an association of professionals who help the public with the paperwork involved in administrative processes such as taxes or property registration.
According to a survey published by this group on Wednesday, more than 900,000 workers placed on the ERTE scheme had still not received their unemployment assistance by mid-May. Meanwhile, the Madrid Hospitality Association says that 40% of workers in the sector have not yet received any payments.
Sara is one such case. This 31-year-old worked at a bingo hall in Xirivella, Valencia, until she was placed on an ERTE. The mother of three has been fighting since March 14 to receive her unemployment benefits. Sara’s husband, who harvests oranges, has just returned to work after recovering from Covid-19, which kept him on sick leave for one month and a week.
“In April, I didn’t receive any payment form March, and in May I was only paid 17 days from April. It is all that I have received in three months,” says Sara by phone. “SEPE tells me that if it [the payment] hasn’t been processed it is because the company had to send some files and hadn’t yet.”
“It is not just a problem with my own gestoría, it is happening with many others across Spain. They have not been given enough information to know what to do, nor even what type of ERTE they were dealing with,” she continues. According to Sara, some of her 35 colleagues have only received €48 in all this time. She figures that, after having sent in all the necessary documents, she will be paid the €500 owed to her from April on June 10.
According to the Independent and Civil Servants Union (CSIF), SEPE is managing 530% more jobless claims than in 2019, as revealed by figures from the Labor Ministry. Although the workload has increased exponentially, the union complains that staff numbers have only risen by 10%.
€280 in two months
María Victoria Gómez is a cook in a bar in Valencia. She stopped working there on March 12, and since then has only received €280 owed to her from that month. The bar, which has an outdoor eating area, is set to open soon under Phase 1 of Spain’s deescalation plan. “I am going to return to work having received no unemployment assistance whatsoever,” she says. “For 15 days, I’ve been waking up at 9am and making calls and sending emails until 2.30pm. I live alone, I have a daughter to look after, I have rent, electricity and water bills to pay, and all the payments are late because I can’t do anything with €280. Unfortunately, I don’t have relatives to help me out.”
Gómez is one of 11,255 members of a support group for workers who have been placed on ERTEs. On social media, they share their experiences. “It’s awful what you find there,” says Gómez. “Although some people have been paid, there are 17 families who have only been paid the equivalent of four days of March, and others whose jobless claims have not even been processed despite being filed two months ago.”
Translation: Melissa Kitson
Protests across Ireland in solidarity with asylum seekers in Direct Provision
United Against Racism (UAR), in cooperation with the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), held a day of solidarity with asylum seekers living under the Direct Provision system today, 21 May.
It was a day not only to stand in solidarity with asylum seekers during the pandemic but also to repeat our calls to end the Direct Provision system. The pandemic, despite all its challenges, has also prompted waves of solidarity in our communities and workplaces. This solidarity must be extended to all marginalised groups, including asylum seekers.
Crammed together during pandemic
Twenty years on, the so-called temporary measure of Direct Provision has turned into a massive, for-profit business with unimaginable suffering inflicted on people seeking protection and safety.
The current pandemic is affecting the most marginalised in the most severe ways. In Ireland, asylum seekers are crammed together in hostels and unsuitable accommodation centres where in many cases the social distancing rules and other health and safety measures are impossible to adhere.
With the Covid-19 outbreak we have seen worsening conditions in Direct Provision centres. At the beginning of May, there were more than 20 cases of coronavirus in a centre in Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry, including a seven-year-old child. Asylum seekers in Cahersiveen and elsewhere repeatedly appealed for safe housing, but despite the very real health risks they are facing, the government failed to act with any sense of urgency. Residents in the Cahersiveen direct provision facility continue to seek help from the government.
People show solidarity despite their own hardship
When proposing this day of socially distanced solidarity rallies I wasn’t fully sure if it would go ahead, given the necessary pandemic restrictions and the understandable fear we all have about the outbreak.
I was also concerned that despite the outcry by asylum seekers and news reports of virus outbreaks in Cahersiveen, people may not mobilise. People face so many issues and concerns that Direct Provision may not be in people’s consciousnesses – I feared.
But today, something brilliant happened. There were simultaneous rallies in Dublin, Cahersiveen, Miltown Malbay, Waterford, Galway, Mosney and other places. People came out and showed their support to asylum seekers. In Cahersiveen locals and Direct Provision residents gathered in unity.
This demonstration of support for asylum seekers was important on many fronts.
- It shows that Direct Provision is in the consciousness of people and there is a much stronger movement of solidarity with asylum seekers compared to several years ago. The hard and long struggle is stronger than ever.
- Despite all issues, heath concerns and difficulties people made a serious effort to get out and defend asylum seekers.
- Our political, anti-racism and solidarity campaigns may be hindered by the logistics of the Covid-19 outbreak but they are alive. Activists are not gone away. We don’t simply talk on Zoom meetings; we also act while taking care of safety and respect to each other’s health.
- Asylum seekers and their supporters face an ongoing threat from pockets of far-right groups and social media lunatics but the anti-racist movement are much stronger, much more organised and more united than ever. This has to be recognised and cherished.
- Today was not just about real actions on the streets; it was also a contribution to renewed hope for our future struggles.
An alternative to cruelty
The official line of successive Irish governments has been consistent over the past two decades – that there are no alternatives to the Direct Provision system. We must debunk this propaganda.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had said, “Direct provision is imperfect but alternative is camps and containers” – forgetting the fact some of these centres are concrete camps. The Minster for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, has accused those campaigning for an end to Direct Provision of having no alternative proposals. He has said, “I have yet to hear a credible alternative being proposed in almost two decades to the current system.”
This question above can also be put as follows: Are there no alternatives to cruelty? Direct provision is cruelty!
There are very credible and achievable alternatives to the Direct Provision system, but they require political will and a genuine interest by the government in the wellbeing of asylum seekers.
Alternatives to direct provision are documented in great detail by organisations such as MASI, UAR, and various NGOs and progressive political groups.
Housing, health and other socio-economic crises are the consequences of government choices and not the making of marginalised groups in our society.
Asylum seekers are not a burden to Ireland. Given the chance, they will become part of our communities and workplaces. People fleeing wars and oppression don’t just turn up at our doorstep looking for handouts. Like the Irish immigrants in the UK and USA, they bring a pair of capable hands and a deep willpower to contribute to our society.
Twenty years on, the Direct Provision system can be compared to the Magdalene Laundries. We don’t have to wait another 20 years before recognising its horrors.
We must continue to build our campaign repeat our calls:
End Direct Provision.
Stop the cruel dispersal of asylum seekers.
Give asylum seekers the full right to work and social protection.
There are enough resources to provide everyone with a home. Not one child, not one family left behind.
Stop all deportations.
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THE ECONOMIC CRISIS
The Coronavirus Could Cripple Public Finances
The coronavirus has plunged the global economy into a new phase of uncertainty. Governments and central banks are once again trying to shield companies and banks from collapse with massive bailouts. But there is danger in stimulating the economy on credit: It could spark a post-crisis crisis.
Johannes Slawig hasn't had a lot of down time in the past few weeks. The head of the coronavirus task force in the German city of Wuppertal has had to procure protective equipment for the health department, hire doctors for the makeshift hospital in a local gymnasium and check the financing of the fire department's new test center.
Slawig hasn't even found the time to check out the webcams on the municipal zoo's website, which have been documenting the first steps of the newborn elephant, Kimana.
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THE FRENCH-GERMAN €500 BILLION RECOVERY FUND PROPOSAL
Reaction 3: 'Frugal' Denmark, Sweden and Austria outline alternative EU recovery plan
Four EU countries dubbing themselves the "frugal four" presented their own proposal Saturday for post-coronavirus economic recovery, restating their rejection of any jointly-issued debt instruments.
The group, comprising Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, wants emergency help for badly affected countries to take the form of one-off loans which must be agreed within two years, according to a proposal published by the office of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
In addition, the money lent must be "directed towards activities that contribute most to the recovery such as research and innovation, enhanced resilience in the health sector and ensuring a green transition," the proposal says.
Earlier this week French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed a 500-billion-euro ($546 billion) fund to mend an economy devastated by the pandemic.
The fact that Germany signed up to a plan involving jointly-issued debt was seen as a historic turning point for the European Union.
But the so-called "frugal four" continue to insist there must be no "mutualisation of debt" -- a process they believe would let the less disciplined and weaker EU economies get an undue benefit of cheaper funding on the back of their stronger northern peers.
The proposal published Saturday says that support for economic recovery should be accompanied by "a strong commitment to reforms and the fiscal framework" -- a key obligation for recipient states.
The four countries also say it will be necessary to "protect spending from fraud" by closely involving European prosecutors and anti-corruption officials.
The proposal rejects the prospect of any "significant increases" to the EU's budget, as envisaged by the Macron-Merkel plan to fund the recovery programme.
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THE POLITICS OF PANDEMIC
Opinion: Don't fear the coronavirus protests
Conspiracists worldwide are protesting government measures aimed at fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Politicians and media outlets should ignore them and offer assertive solutions instead
I have an acquaintance and Facebook "friend" in Atlanta, Georgia, in the US. His name is Karl. For the past few weeks, Karl has been posting like crazy on the coronavirus. His opinions indicate he would be a perfect fit for protests against government lockdown measures designed to curb the spread of the deadly infection.
Karl is wholly convinced that Bill Gates is a baby killer, that immunization is about boosting profits for pharmaceutical companies, and that the coronavirus was created by the Democratic Party. But Karl does not belong to any group, nor is he an activist. He gets his inspiration from other like-minded social media users.
Debating with anti-vaxxers: An experiment
I decided to conduct an experiment with Karl. I entered into a debate, in which I took the time to quietly employ my investigative journalistic skills and seriously consider his claims. I took those claims seriously, followed them up and ultimately wrote back to him. When I informed him that the sources he cited were fictitious, I asked him once again for his thoughts on the matter. His response: "I don't care if they are fake or not — they could still be true!"
Eventually, Karl asked me if I wasn't perplexed by the fact that the Bible predicts that humanity will fall prey to a massive virus between 2020 and 2030, and that vaccines are the devil's work? Despite persistent requests to tell me where exactly I could find that information in the Bible, I never got a reply.
Karl had disappeared on Facebook.
Long story short, the experiment was a failure. Karl isn't looking for someone to have a rational debate with; he is looking for fellow combatants. And that is the same thing most people yelling about vaccines, Bill Gates and lockdown measures on the streets these days are after, too. They are not interested in participating in a broad social debate — they want total victory. And anyone wearing a yellow Star of David on their chest with the word "unvaccinated," as was recently the case in Berlin, belittles the murder of millions of European Jews during World War II. Such people have one goal, and one goal only: Maximum provocation and a thirst for attention.
In the end, this article itself is counterproductive because its subject is a toxic alliance of disgruntled provocateurs. Ultimately, it is politicians and media outlets that are making these so-called protests out to be so much larger than they actually are. Add to that the fact that many of these protests are crawling with conspiracy theorists, anti-Semites and far-right extremists who have sought to exploit every opportunity to attack our open society. It seems the rest of society would very much like to leave those people just where they are: in isolation.
Germany and other democracies fall into a trap each time they seek to justify their actions to these supposedly "concerned citizens." What can come of a discussion with 5,000 people who are allowed to protest thanks to the protection of police – despite the health risks posed to them – and then scream at journalists, complaining that they can no longer speak their minds? It would be much more constructive to continue to publicly debate the pros and cons of various coronavirus measures in parliament and in the media.
Conspiracy theory as business model
Those who value democratic society really only have one thing to fear: The fact that the ear-piercing screams of those opposed to our current open democracies have morphed into a business model. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the US news outlet Fox News earn millions each year by spreading half-truths, hate speech and anti-Semitism. Anyone concerned about the impact that this business model can have on a democracy need look no further than the incredible rise to power of one Donald J. Trump.
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Week ending May 17, 2020
REAL EXTENT OF THE PANDEMIC
Slovenia Declares 'Victory' Over Coronavirus Pandemic
Slovenia became the first European country to declare an end to the coronavirus pandemic in its territory on Thursday, although the government warned that some measures would have to remain in place for the time being. See Wikipedia entry for latest information
The Slovenian government announced the end of the coronavirus outbreak in the country at a telephone session on Thursday, having imposed emergency measures on March 12, the first European country to do so.
The current situation “makes it possible to relax measures that were urgent to contain and manage COVID-19, but they cannot yet be completely abolished,” the government said in a press release.
Prime Minister Janez Jansa on Thursday said Slovenia had been “the most successful country in the EU in dealing with the epidemic”, that the epidemiological situation was now favourable, and the government would now focus on economic issues and recovery following the health crisis.
The National Institute of Public Health, NIJZ, reported that Slovenia had registered only 35 cases of COVID-19 in the past 14 days, and the reproduction rate, which shows how many people once case infects on average, had fallen below 1.
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Slovenia, an EU member state with a population of about 2 million, was recorded on March 4. By May 13, 1,464 cases had been determined and 103 people had died from the coronavirus.
The authorities rapidly imposed a strict lockdown, closing most shops and all schools and banning outdoor movement and gatherings in public places. In mid-April, Slovenia started easing the lockdown.
The government said testing, contract tracing, isolation and quarantine of high-risk contacts, observance of social etiquette and physical distancing would remain the key measures to fight the remains of the epidemic.
Slovenia has decided to allow EU nationals to cross the border at selected checkpoints, ending the policy of seven-day quarantine. Third-country nationals will be subject to a two-week quarantine, with some exceptions.
The spread of COVID-19 has coincided with the return to power of the veteran right-wing political Janez Jansa, who critics accuse of using the pandemic to restrict freedoms.
Slovenia becomes first EU country to officially declare Covid-19 epidemic over
Slovenia has become the first country in the EU and emerging Europe to declare the end of the coronavirus epidemic.
The decision was taken on May 14 after the number of new infections in the country had fallen considerably over the past two weeks. There have been only 35 new cases of Covid-19 since May 1.
However, “the current epidemiological situation enables the relaxing of some some measures which have so far been necessary to control the spread of Covid-19, but not their lifting in entirety,” the government statement said.
While the epidemic is now formally over, some restrictions are still in place. They include social distancing and wearing masks in indoor public spaces such as shops. Public gatherings of more than a handful of people are still banned.
Slovenia first began easing lockdown restrictions on April 20. Public transport resumed earlier this week, while some pupils are set to return to school from May 18. Bars, restaurants and small hotels (of up to 30 rooms) will also open next week.
Officially declaring the epidemic over came as a surprise to many in Slovenia, as the Prime Minister Janez Janša had earlier in the dat told parliament that the epidemic would be declared over at the end of May.
It seems that by the evening, he had changed his mind.
“Slovenia has tamed the epidemic over the past two months. Today Slovenia has the best epidemiological picture in Europe,” he said late on Thursday.
With the pandemic declared over, people who are enter Slovenia from the European Union and have not left the EU in the past 14 days will no longer be subject to a seven day period of quarantine.
Instead, they will be given a warning about the measures they need to take to stop the spread of the virus. Those travelling to Slovenia from outside the EU will still be subjected to a mandatory 14 day quarantine, with the exemption of diplomats and people transporting cargo.
There has been speculation that the government’s announcement has more to do with money than medicine.
Had the epidemic not been declared over, the government would have had to spend several million additional euros on subsidies and compensation for citizens and businesses. This is because the crisis intervention law would have been automatically extended until the end of June.
Despite its border with Italy, Slovenia has been one of the countries least affected by the pandemic, with only 1,464 confirmed cases, compared to Serbia’s 10,374 and Romania’s 16,247, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. According to the same source, there have been 103 fatalities. The first case of Covid-19 in Slovenia was confirmed on March 4 and the epidemic was officially declared on March 12.
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THE POLITICS OF PANDEMIC
Europe’s Far Right has a Cure for COVID-19: Nationalism
The far-right in Europe is seizing on the scourge of COVID-19 as evidence of the folly of open borders and free movement of people.
The absence of a pan-European response to the pandemic, leaving the hardest-hit countries like Italy and Spain to do much of the heavy lifting themselves, has only served to reinforce one of the far-right’s key messages – when the going gets tough, it’s every country for itself.
“France stole masks from Sweden, and Italy was furious that no other country helped out in their crisis,” Angry Foreigner, whose real name is Haris, told Balkan Insight. “Countries like Serbia were denied help from the EU and instead received it from Turkey.”
COVID-19, he said, has exposed the “flawed nature of globalism right now, in the sense that since everyone is connected it also means everyone depends too much on each other.”
Haris, who declined to give his surname, does not speak in a vacuum. Some of his videos get hundreds of thousands of views, while his opinions are shared by far-right figures and movements across Europe.
Such opinions, experts warn, threaten to infiltrate the mainstream as Europeans try to find their feet in societies and economies reshaped by a virus unlikely to be vanquished anytime soon.
“We have already seen various radical right attempts to make use of [COVID-19] for their own ends,” said Matthew Feldman, a professor at Britain’s Teesside University and director of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.
Feldman warns that the far right will seek to exploit the pandemic to push xenophobic messages into mainstream political discourse, hoping that they are adopted by more established political actors.
“This has been the working practice of fascism since 1945,” he told BIRN, “which often boils down to attempting to enter the mainstream on the back of public issues.”
Curse of ‘open borders’
Sporting a slicked-back Mohawk and goatee, Haris has made a name for himself on the YouTuber scene with videos – in English and Swedish – in which he preaches against immigration and “open borders”. One from 2019 was posted under the title Open Borders Spread Disease, a popular far-right slogan.
“You have the voice of reason,” one viewer commented on a March 2020 video in which Haris accused Turkey of wanting to trigger a new migrant crisis in Europe. Another wrote, “It’s interesting that a single YouTuber posts more factual info than the mainstream media.”
The irony is that Haris himself is an immigrant, having left his native Bosnia in the 1990s as a refugee during the bloody collapse of federal Yugoslavia.
Haris prefers to characterise himself as “left-libertarian” rather than right-wing and has had links with the Sweden Democrats, a populist party with roots in the neo-Nazi scene in Sweden in the 1990s.
He looks beyond Sweden too, however; in 2017 a video featuring large groups of refugees running across European borders was produced by the interior ministry of Poland under the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party and subsequently put into limited viewership by YouTube, meaning it would not show up as a recommended video or in searches – Haris shared it himself on his own channel under the title ‘Based Poland.’
The title was no accident. ‘Based’ is a term used widely by far-right outlets such as Daily Stormer and on forums like 8chan for a country or an individual deemed worthy of support.
The term was co-opted from American rapper Lil B, who has explained “based” as meaning, “Not being scared of what people think about you. Not being afraid to do what you wanna do.”
In the far-right universe, a “based” country is a country that is openly proud of its ethnic, religious and national background and, crucially, not being afraid to go up against what the far-right sees as the western liberal order.
‘BasedPoland’ is also the name of a popular far-right Twitter account with more than 121,000 followers and run by Adam Starzynski, an ethnic Pole born and raised in Sweden but who now lives in Poland and received Polish citizenship in 2016.
As COVID-19 swept Europe, Starzynski’s BasedPoland account fired off tweets with videos painting minorities in a negative light, such as accusing Muslim migrants and Roma communities of failing to follow social-distancing requirements.
He has also sought to present eastern European countries such as Poland and Hungary as better placed to confront the pandemic thanks to their right-wing, anti-migrant policies.
In western European countries like France, Starzynski said in an April 2020 tweet, multiculturalism has undermined “social cohesion”. More monoethnic, homogeneous societies like those of Poland and Hungary are better able to confront such pandemics, so the argument goes.
Starzynski did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. But he is not the only far-right figure in Poland making such arguments.
Szturm magazine, which describes itself as “national radical”, has argued that “ethnic uniformity” is a solution to the crisis.
In a March 2020 article on the magazine’s website, Szturm contributor Jaroslaw Ostrogniew argued that what Europe needs to fight the COVID-19 pandemic is “a return to ethnically uniform nation-states.”
“Ethnic uniformity,” he wrote, “ensures a higher level of social trust as well as better functioning of society, which becomes particularly important in the face of any crisis.”
Mateusz Marzoch, leader of the ‘Młodzież Wszechpolska’ or All-Polish Youth, a self-described ‘nationalist’ youth organisation and descendant of the ultranationalist groups active in Poland the 1930s, said the EU had been unmasked by the pandemic, a ‘union’ undone by the initial national hoarding of medical supplies and refusal of wealthy northern states such as Germany and the Netherlands to consider ‘Coronabonds’ to share the debt burden of harder-hit countries like Italy.
“After COVID-19, disappointment with the European Union and globalisation will increase,” he told BIRN.
“I think people will realise that they don’t need the European Union,” said Marzoch. “What they need is a strong national government, a strong country that can protect them when danger comes, when something threatens them.”
“I think after this COVID-19 situation many other countries will start to care more about their own safety, their own circumstances, not the problems of other countries.”
Influence on political culture
With more than 120,000 lives lost so far in Europe, the continent is living a new normal – one in which once-fluid borders are heavily monitored, where minorities such as refugees and Roma face being stigmatised even more and where countries cooperate less and look inward for answers.
Criticism of the apparent lack of solidarity among EU member states went beyond the bloc’s own borders to countries hoping to one day join.
In Serbia, a candidate for EU membership, conservative President Aleksandar Vucic seized on a March 2020 EU decision to block exports of key medical equipment to countries on the bloc’s periphery as evidence of a lack of care, while rolling out the red carpet for aid and assistance arriving from China.
“The crisis caused by the coronavirus epidemic shows once again that the EU is unable to function and that the values on which it is based are absent in practice,” said Dragana Trifkovic, chair of the foreign affairs committee of the far-right opposition party Dveri.
Dveri, a fiercely anti-western, pro-Russian party, believes the pandemic proves the wisdom of its policy against Serbia’s eventual EU membership.
“Crises in the EU have been catching up with each other in recent years, from economic, political, migrant and now epidemiological, and European institutions can’t find a solution,” Trifkovic told BIRN. “It turns out there is no common policy, just a growing divide between EU countries.”
But while Dveri may be banking on a pandemic-related bounce in support, poll numbers have sunk for a number of far-right parties in the likes of Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden since COVID-19 began coursing through the continent.
It may not be felt directly at the ballot box, but analysts say the message of ‘more nationalism’ may grow in influence within the political mainstream, as already witnessed in Italy.
With more than 30,000 coronavirus-related deaths to date, Italy is the hardest-hit country in the EU.
The neo-fascist movement CasaPound Italia has been working overtime to promote its own brand of nationalist as a cure for the country’s ills, from online and print propaganda to grocery deliveries in CasaPound-branded bags.
But its efforts have not yet translated into greater popularity, said political scientist Giorgia Bulli, a professor at the University of Florence and co-author of CasaPound Italia: Contemporary Extreme-Right Politics, published in February 2020.
Self-proclaimed “third-millennium fascists” have yet to see any discernible rise in support since the pandemic struck Italy earlier this year, Bulli told BIRN, but this does not mean the efforts of CasaPound and their like across Europe should be dismissed.
The movement’s attention-grabbing demonstrations and grassroots mobilisation has generated headline after headline in Italian media and there is talk of a post-pandemic meeting of minds between CasaPound and the likes of the nationalist Lega Nord of former interior minister Matteo Salvini or the national-conservative Fratelli d’Italia in a more insular, EU-sceptic Italy.
“They have had more impact on political culture than on policy-making,” Bulli said.
As the party’s official mouthpiece, Il Primato Nazionale, wrote in March, “If the virus is global, the reality is that all the answers have been national.”
The revolt of the 1% against the coronavirus ‘oppression’ in Spain
Residents of the posh Madrid district of Salamanca have been demonstrating against the government for allegedly curtailing their freedoms
Residents of Madrid’s upscale Salamanca neighborhood have been making headlines since Sunday with a series of street protests against the government over its handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Demonstrators have been using the words “dictatorial” and “oppression” to describe their situation under the ongoing lockdown. Madrid, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, is still in the early stages of a national deescalation plan that is expected to end in late June, if there are no new spikes in transmission.
The protests reflect a view, held by some in Spain, that the state of alarm introduced in mid-March to combat the coronavirus pandemic is really an excuse for the central government to grab extra powers. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, of the Socialist Party (PSOE), heads a minority government and he has been facing growing difficulty to secure enough congressional support for back-to-back extensions to the state of alarm.
The sentiment mirrors similar feelings elsewhere in Europe, where protesters from across the political spectrum are beginning to demonstrate against prolonged confinement measures (see box below). A recent report by Spain’s Civil Guard underscores the risk of social unrest in Spain if confinement measures are prolonged.
On Wednesday, around 100 locals banged on pots and pans on Núñez de Balboa street, without respecting social distancing rules. There were couples, families and people with dogs. Some marched with face masks that had tiny Spanish flags embroidered on them; others waved enormous flags instead. The demonstrators called for the government to resign.
“I pay my taxes and we have a government that is doing nothing,” said María Jesús, 56, who was out with her husband Rafael, 60, and their son Pelayo, 16. “That is why I am walking and protesting. You see these gloves? I paid for them myself. And this face mask? I’ve paid for it, too.”
“We’ve even had to pay for our own [coronavirus] test,” added her husband. “It cost me €80”
The Salamanca district is named after a 19th-century marquis who was instrumental in the area’s development. It is home to more than 150,000 people, including the wealthiest 1% in all of Spain and the wealthiest 3% in the Madrid region. Household income here is an average €50,376, compared with €33,000 in the region and €28,417 in Spain.
Asun (“I won’t tell you my surname, and you never ask a woman about her age”) is a civil servant who has been protesting every day since Monday. “You’d think we were criminals with so many police around. There is no freedom. You should publish that [Pablo] Echenique and several other podemitas live around here, eh?” she said, alluding to leading members of the leftist Unidas Podemos group, which is the junior partner in Spain’s coalition government.
“We are in a dictatorial system, and I know what I’m talking about,” said Magdalena, a local resident who works as a lawyer. “They are applying a decree that bans our freedom.”
The demonstrations began on Sunday night. Several residents say that a collective protest sprung up after several dozen youths gathered under the balcony of an apartment that was blaring out loud music. Minutes later, a police van showed up and handed out fines to 12 members of the public for violating the lockdown rules. Several residents criticized the police presence, crying out “Freedom!”
By Thursday, however, the street protests had all but disappeared, with just a few scattered people marching and chatting with reporters. One of them was Laura Domínguez, 39, whose dog Barri wore a Spanish flag as a cape. “I am here because I am sick and tired,” said Domínguez, wearing a face mask and holding a cigarette. “They’re creating a country of idlers. And now they want to take everything away from me.”
On Núñez de Balboa street, nearly 50% of residents voted for the conservative Popular Party (PP) at the last general election, held in November 2019, followed by the far-right Vox with 23%, the center-right Ciudadanos with 6.7%, and the Socialist Party (PSOE) with 5.4%. The leftist Más País and Unidas Podemos attracted less than 1% of the vote.
The regional premier of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso of the PP, has been encouraging these street demonstrations. “I hope people will go out on the street – the events of Núñez de Balboa are going to seem like a joke then,” she recently said. Meanwhile, Madrid Mayor José Luis Martínez Almeida, also of the PP, said this week that “as long as [safety] conditions are maintained, everyone is free to voice their opinion.”
Vox leader Santiago Abascal has been pushing for anti-government demonstrations and challenging authorities to ban them, arguing that this would prove that fundamental freedoms are being violated. At a recent session of Congress to extend the state of alarm, Abascal said that his party would apply for permission to hold demonstrations against the government on the streets of Spain’s main cities, but that in order to respect social-distancing measures, the protests would be held inside vehicles rather than on foot.
Other links on this topic:
POSITIONS OF NATIONAL GOVERNMENTS AND PARLIAMENTS
OPINION: Watching the US coronavirus response from Denmark is surreal
American expat and former editor of The Local Denmark Justin Cremer on the head-spinning contrasts between the two countries' responses to the crisis
THE SOCIAL CRISIS
Missing farm workers in pandemic times: Is it really 'the virus’s fault'? The view from Italy
Author: Irene Peano
Date: May 15, 2020
Source: Left East
Note from LeftEast editors: this article is an extended translation by the author of a text, which initially appeared in Italian in Rivista “il Mulino”.
Two months ago, farmers’ organisations across Europe (and beyond) started to raise the spectre of ‘empty supermarket shelves’ due to the lack of seasonal labour for the harvest of crops. After a spate of contradictory statements, internal clashes and U-turns, the Italian government seems determined to proceed with an amnesty for undocumented migrants to solve the problem. Thick and heated discussion over the issue has animated this whole period, with farmers’ organisations and several politicians across parties pushing for ‘simplifications’ in labour regulations, that would have allowed laid-off workers, students, pensioners and the unemployed that currently receive benefits to ‘volunteer’ in the farms. However, in a pattern that keeps recurring across Europe, very few citizens have come forward to dutifully fill the gap, and despite resistance (especially from Lega and the Five-Star Movement), an amnesty is presented as the only viable alternative.
Yet, scratching the shallow surfaces of a very foggy debate, the mainstream narrative starts to appear grossly inadequate. From all sides (with politicians, unions and farmers’ organisations leading the way) alarming figures have been reeled: 370.000 workers are declared missing in the agricultural sector. Official statistics in hand, based on social-security records, this would amount to the entire contingent of foreign agricultural workers in the country. Of those, according to the data elaborated by Coldiretti farmers’ union labour official, who for the past few years has curated the section on farm labour in Italy’s most authoritative statistical yearbook on immigration, about 130.000 are EU citizens (around 100.000 of whom are Romanians, with the other 30.000 including Bulgarians, Poles and Slovakians). Conservative estimates on the lack of migrant ‘manpower’ in the farming sector keep to a more cautious 150-200.000 figure. Yet, this is still an incredibly high count in relation to the alleged total, also considering that the yearly seasonal-labour quotas, issued by government decree to recruit farm labourers from outside the EU, are regularly unfulfilled. Given the availability of about 18.000 work visas annually, only about 3.500 were issued yearly between 2016 and 2018. Moreover, seasonal working permits that were about to expire were extended by government decree during the emergency lockdown (just like all other permits for non-EU citizens) and will probably be extended even further, until the end of 2020. But, as mentioned, and unlike most other Western European countries, where heavy reliance on seasonal labour migration through legal channels is the norm, Italian farmers have instead resorted to informal recruitment practices for decades.
What are, then, the reasons for such an allegedly vast gap between the demand and supply of farm labour this year? Without doubt, the fact that the adoption of measures to contain the pandemic in Europe and northern Africa coincided with the period when agricultural work should have resumed after the winter break played an important role in lowering the number of available farm workers in Italy. Those migrants who could more easily get back to their place of origin (i.e., besides EU citizens, people originating from countries nearby, provided of course that they had a valid permit) most likely got stuck in significant numbers in Morocco, Tunisia, Albania and Macedonia. The same is true for the few from West Africa and South Asia who had returned home for some months. But besides the ‘bottlenecks’ created by the closure of borders during the state of emergency, another series of elements must be considered, which, taken together, tell a different story from those the media usually feed us.
First of all, at the beginning of March, when countries such as Romania and Bulgaria adopted severe measures to control the incoming flows of emigrants returning home, media reports from both origin and destination spoke of a mass exodus. This is particularly the case for Romanians returning from Italy, the European country where they are recorded in the highest number (about 1,2 million people), and especially from the northern regions which, on the one hand, were most severely hit by the spread of the virus, and on the other are those hosting the majority of migrants. In essence, it appeared that many migrant workers could not swallow the idea of risking their life for a job (be it in the farming, construction or care sector, where they are most concentrated) which in the majority of cases is severely exploitative.
At the same time, such mass outflow confirms a tendency that, in the case of Italian agro-industrial districts, was already in place starting at least from 2016. Since then, the number of migrant EU workers in the farming sector, that had swelled in the first decade of the 2000s following Eastern European countries’ accession, has been steadily decreasing, anticipated by Poles – the first to desert Italian fields, already from 2010. Economic growth in the countries of origin, on the one hand, and the less-than-ideal conditions in which many were, sometimes literally, forced to work, on the other, are certainly to account for such shifts. As a matter of fact, albeit still a small fraction of the total, the number of non-EU workers who obtained a seasonal permit to work in the farms in 2019 has grown from previous years. One could speculate this is partially to compensate for the loss of EU farm workers, whilst also being an effect of the ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on migration through the Central Mediterranean route, which was initiated in 2017 and reached its peak the following year. Indeed, already at the start of the previous agricultural season farmers’ organisations were lamenting the lack of workers as a consequence of the convergence of these two trends.
Reinforcing the tendency of EU workers to flee Italian fields is the egregious diplomatic failure experienced by the Italian government and farmers’ associations, whose attempts to set up the celebrated ‘green lanes’ for seasonal agricultural labour sanctioned at EU level seem to have fallen on deaf ears. This failure stands in stark contrast to what happened with the UK and Germany, where several charter flights from Romania and Bulgaria have landed in the past weeks, filled with thousands of workers ready to harvest asparagus and other horticultural products. To be sure, despite the propaganda, in northern Europe labour conditions also proved to be different from what was expected and promised. However, in the UK and Germany, salaries are certainly better than in Italy, usually by twice the going rate (which in Italy is well below minimum legal standards in the majority of cases). Other considerations, to do with the spread of the virus and the country’s healthcare response, might have played a role in influencing workers’ choice, at least as far as Germany is concerned.
The subjective dimension of workers’ increasing refusal of certain living and work conditions is echoed by another scenario, underlying the forthcoming amnesty for those undocumented non-EU citizens who can prove they have some chance of getting hired as farm workers. Mainly from west and northern Africa, or southern Asia, an unspecified number already work in the Italian ‘green factories’ without any kind of protection, not even on paper. Irregularity in the sector is deemed to account for about 25% of the total labour force (possibly an underestimate), whilst the estimated total of undocumented migrants this year is thought to have reached 650000 individuals. Yet, it should not be forgotten (as the vast majority of commentaries does) that the proposal of an amnesty was not born with the pandemic. Cyclical recourse to this extemporaneous form of regularisation in the history of Italian migration policies (the first of seven amnesties to date took place in 1986) had halted in 2012, just a year after labour quotas were also terminated, except for seasonal work. De facto, the quota systemhad always amounted to an under-the-table regularization for undocumented migrants already in the country. The closure of such channels coincided with the period when the Central Mediterranean opened up to trans-Saharan migration, as a consequence of the fall of the Ghaddafi regime. Thus, what numbers of non-EU migrants were previously ensured by labour quotas were, since then and up to 2017, obtained through other, much more brutal routes.
With these shifts, that also followed the 2008 economic crisis, a period of legal void ensued, during which no channels for regularization existed for undocumented migrants (again an anomalyin Western Europe) aside from asylum applications, which anyhow are rejected in the majority of cases. In this scenario, the parallel swelling of slums – hubs for the recruitment of West African farm labour and a media favourite – went hand-in-hand with forms of protest and self-organization. Through the years, migrants confined to these spaces have demanded regularisation, housing, transport to and from the workplace and more generally the respect of labour standards. Of course, the legal right to stay is a precondition for the recognition of other guarantees.
The latest, glaring episode of struggle saw the contemporaneous blockade of the Port of Gioia Tauro, in Calabria, and of the Industrial Zone of Foggia, in Apulia, by hundreds of African farm workers, supported by some Italian allies, on 6 December 2019. They were requesting to confer with the Ministry of Internal Affairs on the issue of regularisation. A few days later, on 23rd December, and again on 15th January, speaking in Parliament, the Minister confirmed her intention to proceed with an amnesty. This also triggered the uncontrolled spread of unfounded rumours among non-EU migrants as to the alleged possibility of requesting regularisation already. If considering the coming amnesty uniquely as a result of the demands of slum-dwellers-cum-farm-workers would be delusional, the role that these struggles have played towards it cannot however be ignored. Without doubt, the measures adopted are insufficient to guarantee the whole range of undocumented migrants, and in any case are inconsequential vis-à-vis the urgent need to radically rethink migration policies. Indeed, these shortcomings will likely inaugurate a new cycle of struggles. As a matter of fact, most amnesty decrees in Italian history have been accompanied by protest. The last regularisation, for example, was labelled a ‘mass swindle’ by many, who had to pay high fees and got their application refused, and led to harsh and even spectacular contestation, with some migrants in Brescia climbing a construction crane where they remained for over two weeks.
Hence, to go back to numbers which don’t add up, it should be clear from what was said above that current estimates, as much as government measures to face the lack of farm workers, demonstrate – if ever it was needed – how in Italy the farming sector rests on a vast proportion of undocumented and undetected labour. Only thus, and by acknowledging the role of longer-term acts of refusal and flight, can as high a number of missing workers as official estimates calculate be explained. In this respect, the forthcoming amnesty seems as much like a covert, unacknowledged response to years of struggle as a way to fill a labour gap, given that undocumented workers are already moving across the country and working the fields. Furthermore, the cynical auction-like game played in the media over figures highlights once more how the agri-food sector as a whole (despite being an important pillar of the Italian economy), together with immigration policies, do not currently rely on any form of structural planning. An ad-hoc regularisation scheme is certainly not going to change such state of affairs, but the demands of those concerned might, and in part they are already.
Irene Peano holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and is currently employed as a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, within an ERC Project titled ‘The colour of labour: the racialised lives of migrants’ (PI Cristiana Bastos). She has also worked at the Universities of Bologna and Bucharest. Her main interests include migration and labour (particularly sex work and farm labour), especially from the point of view of subjectification and resistance in relation to patterns of containment and exploitation. She also investigates these through genealogical methods, focusing specifically on the afterlives of forms of forced labour and techniques of containment. Her research is founded on an engaged positionality and committed to the support of the struggles of those she works with.
 Magrini, R. (2019). I lavoratori stranieri nel settore agricolo. In Centro Studi e Ricerche IDOS (ed.). Dossier statistico immigrazione 2019. Rome: Centro Studi e Ricerche IDOS/Immigrazione Dossier Statistico.
 Magrini, R. (2017). I lavoratori stranieri nel settore agricolo. In Centro Studi e Ricerche IDOS (ed.). Dossier statistico immigrazione 2017. Rome: Centro Studi e Ricerche IDOS/Immigrazione Dossier Statistico; Ibid. 2018, 2019.
 Caritas, Dossier Statistico Immigrazione 2011Caritas/Migrantes.
 For an overview, see e.g. Jokubas Salyga, ‘Why Migrant Farm Workers Are Living Four to a Caravan in a Time of Social Distancing’, JacobinMag 2nd May 2020.
[Thou shalt] Honour the asparagus!: Romanian Agricultural Labour in Germany during the COVID-19 Season
Not even a pandemic should endanger the Germans’ asparagus consumption. Even if Romanian seasonal workers bear the health costs for it – or die.
On April 11, a 57-year-old Romanian harvest worker died from his corona infection.1 He had worked on an asparagus farm in Bad Krozingen in the state of Baden-Württemberg before the borders were closed. His employer had not adequately protected him from infection with Covid-19 – just as he hadn’t protected his co-workers. Other Romanian laborers from the same enterprise reported that they are sharing a room with four other people, have not been tested or isolated despite exhibiting symptoms and had to wear the same face masks for several days.2 Over 15 workers from this asparagus farm have now tested positive for Covid-19.3
Most of the seasonal laborers who work in Germany’s fields come from Romania, the country has the highest share of a population at risk of poverty in the EU.4 As a result, more than 20 per cent of Romanians live and work abroad. Seasonal labour is an alternative to permanent emigration. Some Romanians therefore exercise their right to free movement within the European Union, which allows them to work in another EU country for up to 70 days.
According to EU legislation, workers are entitled to “equal treatment with nationals of the host country in terms of access to employment, initial and continuing training, trade unions, housing and all other social and tax advantages, as well as in terms of working conditions.”6 Officially, they receive the German minimum wage of 9.35 Euros per hour.7 Yet from that are now deducted not only the fees paid to agencies that place workers in Germany, but also some or all of their travel expenses, eight euros a day for accommodation and four euros a day for lunch.8
During the corona pandemic, there are new regulations for seasonal workers in Germany. Until the end of October 2020, they can now be employed for up to 115 days without social security, which should give German companies “greater planning reliability”.9 Yet the seasonal workers do not get the same planning reliability as their employers. They have no health insurance coverage in Germany during their employment. They have to travel on charter flights to avoid the risk of infection during long bus journeys. The employment contracts further stipulate that working hours may be extended by up to 50 per cent over the legal maximum of eight hours. Working on Sundays and public holidays is also allowed if deemed necessary.10
These provisions are part of a concept for the “limited entry of seasonal workers under strict conditions,” which was presented by federal interior minister Horst Seehofer and the agriculture minister Julia Klöckner at the beginning of April. Up to 80,000 workers are to be allowed to enter Germany in April and May. But it is unclear when they will be able to return. For this purpose, airlines require the chartering of entire aircrafts with at least 150 seats.11 It was also unclear to what types of employment the exemption would apply. Only the image of people bending over long rows of asparagus which accompanied the press release hinted at the prime target of the regulation. When it entered into force, Germany’s borders with neighboring countries had already been closed for more than two weeks due to the corona pandemic.
The corona pandemic exposes and further exacerbates structural inequalities. Yet the working conditions under which Eastern European workers are employed in Western Europe are not only of a systemic character, but also have a long history. Already during late-19th century industrialisation in the German Reich, seasonal agricultural work became increasingly unattractive for the domestic population. Industrial centres such as the Ruhr area attracted hundreds of thousands of German workers and their families. Conversely, the recruitment of Polish workers on the large estates east of the Elbe became increasingly profitable.12
Among others, sociologist Max Weber investigated the growing importance of inexpensive Polish labour on large country estates as early as 1895. Even though the Polish peasants had German citizenship at the time, Max Weber described the situation as an “economic struggle between … nationalities”.13 The desire to protect “the Germanism [Deutschtum] of the East” led Weber to defend “German standards of value” against international standards of social justice. He saw these as emanating from political economy: “[…] the science of economic policy [Volkswirtschaftspolitik] is a political science. It is a servant of politics, not the day-to-day politics of the individuals and classes who happen to be ruling at a particular time, but the lasting power-political interests of the nation [der dauernden machtpolitischen Interessen der Nation].”14
Still today, the political economy of (asparagus) consumption promotes an “economic struggle between nationalities” without calling for social justice. The Corona crisis reveals a German economic policy in which the same power-political interests of the nation are enforced that Max Weber conjured up 100 years ago. In a renewed “struggle between nationalities”, the protection and rights of Eastern European workers are pitted against the safe-guarding of the consumption habits of Western European populations.
In the meantime, Romanian workers are also flown to the UK to help with the strawberry harvest – to a country in which they have been explicitly unwanted since Brexit. France is signalling labour demand for the upcoming grape harvest. Parts of the German, Romanian, and British press are discussing whether the supply of food to Western Europe should be secured at the expense of the health of Eastern European seasonal workers. In a worldwide pandemic, we depend instead on a global cooperation that is based on social justice and that guarantees equal labour rights and health protection to all.
Note of Left East: Manuela Boatcă is Professor of Sociology at Albert-Ludwigs University of Freiburg, Germany. She is co-editor of Decolonizing European Sociology; and Global, Multiple and Postcolonial Modernities; and author of From Neoevolutionism to World-Systems Analysis. The article was first published online by the German magazine KATAPULT on 30. April 2020. It was translated into English by Philipp Lottholz.
 Capital (ed.): Apel disperat din Germania! Muncitorii plecați la cules sparanghel se tem că vor muri pe capete, on: capital.ro (19th of April 2020).
 Stuttgarter Zeitung (ed.): Zahl infizierter Erntehelfer in Bad Krozingen auf 16 gestiegen, on: stuttgarter-zeitung.de (29th April 2020).
 Eurostat: Statistics on income poverty, on: ec.europa.eu (May 2019).
 Friedrich Ebert Foundation (ed.): Săracii români sunt cei mai săraci dintre săracii Europei, on: monitorsocial.ro (Data from: 2016/2017).
 Federal Government Commissioner for Migration, Refugees and Integration: EU Citizens, on: https://www.eu-gleichbehandlungsstelle.de/eugs-en/eu-citizens/information/working-in-germany/equal-treatment-of-eu-workers (4th of May 2020)
 Federal Ministry of Interior Building and Community (ed.): Klöckner/Seehofer: “Vorgaben des Gesundheitsschutzes und Erntesicherung bringen wir zusammen”, press release from 2nd of April 2020, on: bmi.bund.de.
 For an example of a work contract in Romanian-German translation, see : static4.libertatea.ro (accessed 30th of April 2020).
 Eurowings (ed.): Eurowings fliegt Erntehelfer zurück in ihre Heimat, on: eurowings.com (no date).
 Federal Centre for Political Education (ed.): Geschichte der Migration in Deutschland, on: bpb.de (14th of May 2018).
 Weber, Max: The National State and Economic Policy (Freiburg Address), in: Economy and Society (9/4)1980, pp. 428-449.
 Ibid., emphasis in original.
Other links on this topic:
THE ECONOMIC CRISIS IN EUROPE AND HOW TO RESPOND
COVID-19: The EU has failed a test of solidarity. The price will be more austerity - and worse
The global economy was already heading into a downturn when the latest novel coronavirus struck, but is now experiencing a unique crisis, one reaching deep into the productive sector and challenging established orthodoxies. Panicked economic and social lockdowns to contain the pandemic have ground much production to a halt, while consumption has also shrunk massively. With millions now working from home, and millions more frontline workers all but sacrificed to the market, the logic of capitalist production and social organisation doesn’t seem quite so “logical” any more, and the EU sits perched on a cliff-edge.
The first responses in Europe were largely national, focusing on border closures, social lockdowns, and – eventually – widespread industrial shutdown. The border closures – an assault on a symbolic key “pillar” of the EU – eventually brought an open rebuke from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Some countries cushioned the immediate shock for workers and industry with subsidised wages and corporate bailouts, but when the pandemic hit Italy, its cry for help was all but ignored, except by China and Cuba. Italy’s ambassador to the EU, outraged, warned that Europe’s leaders risk “going down in history like the leaders in 1914 who sleepwalked into World War I”. It was beginning to look like “European solidarity” was an idea for fairer weather.
The EU eventually stumbled into action with a belated series of reactive and short-term measures, bungled announcements, political shadow games and abortive grand schemes, none of them equal to the scale of the problem. When the European Central Bank (ECB) announced measures to ensure liquidity in the financial and banking sector, they were almost undone the same day when its president, Christine Lagarde, declared the bank was “not here to close spreads” in sovereign debt markets. The statement spooked markets, angered Italy, and serious cast doubt on whether the ECB would provide the necessary support to member states.
The bank’s follow-up measure was the 750 billion euro Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP), allowing the ECB to purchase more large amounts of sovereign debt, thereby enabling greater public debt and heavy government spending. This was combined with looser state aid rules and temporary suspension of the austerity-imposing Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) – which limits budget deficits to three percent of economic output and debt to 60 percent. It was unprecedented in scope, arresting an alarming sell-off of risky eurozone debts, but it was also short term and woefully inadequate, and the market gains were short-lived.
The debate over a lasting “pandemic crisis support” tool quickly evolved into a high-stakes political showdown, as longstanding divisions over the future of European economic and political integration took centre stage, confining the needs of half a billion working people to a mere afterthought. Leaders of more fiscally conservative countries, like Germany and the Netherlands, insisted that any response rely upon the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the EU’s 410 billion euro bailout fund. While the ESM allows eurozone members to draw a credit line worth 2 percent of their economic output, these loans come with strict “conditionalities”. Designed – and badly so – for the sovereign debt crisis of a decade ago, the ESM is especially unsuited to the current crisis.
Nine EU governments, including Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece – rightly associating the ESM with damaging and brutal austerity policies – instead proposed a common debt instrument via special eurozone bonds. Dubbed “eurobonds” or “coronabonds”, these would spread debt across the eurozone and facilitating government borrowing, while avoiding – supposedly – crippling national debts and austerity. All the debt would be rated equally, and would not be included in national accounts. The idea – representing a significant step towards a full monetary and fiscal union in the eurozone – is widely supported in southern Europe, and ECB President Lagarde, her predecessor Mario Draghi, as well as numerous economists, have lent support to the idea.
Superficially, the coronavirus crisis is ideal for eurobonds. It is an example of an “exogenous shock”, where “moral hazard” arguments – of not rewarding supposedly “profligate” governments with cheap credit – shouldn’t apply. There ought to be no moral risk in helping Italy or Spain to run huge deficits to fight COVID-19 and the economic crisis it has caused, as no one “blames” Italy or Spain for the current crisis the way Greece was blamed – wrongly – for theirs. It’s difficult to moralise during a pandemic.
Unmoved, Germany and the Netherlands maintained their rejection of eurobonds or any similar instrument, unwilling to accept shared debt without the power to impose further structural reforms on weaker economies. This also stems from domestic considerations, as eurobonds would signal the EU transformation into a “transfer union”. The institutional framework of the EU and eurozone have granted Germany, the Netherlands and others, significant economic and strategic advantages – contributing to systemic divergence across the bloc – but a union that encouraged the levelling out of wealth within the EU would diminish some of these gains, even while it would strengthen the position of countries like Italy, which has gone backwards after 20 years in the eurozone.
Ironically, excluding debt servicing, Italy’s primary deficit – the difference between government spending on day-to-day running costs and total tax revenues – has been running a fiscal surplus almost continuously since 1992, but trapped in an endless “debtors prison” – its wealth has been funnelled wealth northwards to creditor countries. The average public debt for the eurozone late last year was 86%, yet for those states heavily hit by the 2010-12 debt crisis the level remains much higher, despite regular, sometimes crippling, repayments – nearly 180% for Greece, 137% for Italy, 120% for Portugal, 100% for France and 98% for Spain. The accompanying austerity measures have devastated public services and weaken member states’ ability to respond. Poignantly case-in-point, a recent report commissioned by the left in the European Parliament found that between 2011 and 2018, the European Commission explicitly demanded member states cut spending on, or privatise, healthcare services a total of 63 times.
While Italy and Spain continued to reject the ESM and its inevitable austerity within the European Council and Eurogroup, the Dutch and Germans dug their heels in. Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte made his case plainly: “if Europe does not rise to this unprecedented challenge, the whole European structure loses its raison d’être”, while Portugal’s Prime Minister António Costa accused the Dutch Finance Minister of threatening the future of the EU, but Germany’s Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte refused to budge an inch. Even Ursula von der Leyen openly supported the German position, backtracking at the realisation she made the Commission appear little more than a proxy for German conservatives.
A French attempt at compromise – a one-off fund to raise debt and issue government loans while referring vaguely to future “innovative financial instruments” – was deemed too much. A more sensible proposal from Spain – to fund spending through perpetual EU debt and grants – was barely acknowledged. Ultimately, Italy and its allies caved, and the hardliners prevailed – the ESM would be the mechanism for “helping” affected member states, alongside a proposal to beef-up the coming 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) – the EU’s seven year budget.
Yet MFF negotiations are deadlocked, with current funds running out at the end of the year. The proposal would also redirect further much-needed funds from existing cohesion policy funding. The suggestion that vulnerable member states should pay in additional billions of euros, effectively guaranteeing loans to themselves, is also unsustainable at a point when many economies are rapidly contracting. Such an approach can only lead to a continued dependence on ESM loans and an increase in suffocating sovereign debt. Finally, claims that the ESM credit lines would be without conditionalities were also misleading – access to the loans will be, but the loans themselves will still be subject to oversight.
The Commission also flagged plans to raise 320 billion euro on the markets in order to “leverage” further funds – an old parlour trick used repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, by EU institutions to “mobilise” private investment off the back of public funds. Despite further claims the Commission could “generate” 2 trillion euros, the April 25 European Council meeting ended with a mere “declaration of progress”, vague commitments to a Recovery Fund linked to the MFF, but without agreement on size, structure, nature, or sources of funding. Responsibility for a final proposal was hand-balled to the European Commission to make at some at a later date.
Details were thin, but the direction of travel was clear – eurobonds were off the table, and orthodoxy prevailed. The response required – a massive increase in member state public spending without worsening public deficits in already-stressed member states or pillaging more public services – poses a significant problem for the EU, which remains wedded to a self-imposed monetarism enshrined in its guiding treaties. Of the four new instruments that had been agreed to combat the crisis, the vast majority come in the form of loans or guarantees, still subject to the EU’s “economic and fiscal coordination and surveillance frameworks” – to the inevitable demands for repayments and austerity measures, underpinned by the SGP.
And eurozone governments will almost certainly need to finance their massive spending increases through borrowing. They are unlikely and largely unwilling to raise sufficient funds to address the crisis through taxation, and are restricted from following the likes of the Bank of England in direct monetary financing – not by any universal rule – but by the self-imposed and dangerous ideological constraints of the EU and eurozone, and a thoroughly unaccountable ECB allergic to inflation. While stagnation is currently a greater threat than inflation, the mandate of the ECB prevents it from taking the necessary steps – even if it wanted to. The institutions are hamstrung by their own incoherence.
Even EU actions as banal as quantitative easing are coming under attack. The German Constitutional Court recently heard a case against the ECB’s Public Sector Purchase Programme (PSPP) – precursor to the PEPP – for breaching EU law, supposedly harming German taxpayers by providing assistance to Italy. Using shoddy legal – and worse economic – arguments, the German court ruling on May 5 effectively set aside the European Court of Justice’s decision in support of the scheme, and issued a “please explain” notice to the ECB. The ruling not only sets a bomb under EU law, it also places the ECB’s response to the new economic crisis in doubt. While the ECB immediately insisted its schemes were proportionate, if Germany’s Bundesbank – the largest shareholder in the ECB – withdraws from the bond-buying scheme, it will further spook the markets upon which the EU response depends and nip the stimulus in the bud.
COVID and Consequences
The outcomes will be as political as they are economic, bringing further “integration” through debt, with national budgets under increased central control from Brussels, and creating a defining crisis for the EU and the euro. As the COVID-19 death toll continues to mount, the prospect of another generation of indebted servitude, austerity politics and enforced poverty even led some member states governments to threaten independent action – a direct challenge to the integrity of the eurozone. Before his capitulation, Conte declared that Italy – in its worse crisis since the Second World War – would rather go it alone than accept loans under the ESM with further disciplinary terms.
There is now mounting concern that support for the EU in Italy is lost. A survey in March found 67 percent of Italians believed being in the EU was a disadvantage, with many feeling abandoned. If Italy ends up with a compounded debt burden, high unemployment, and low growth – along with no fiscal sovereignty and the trauma of over 30,000 dead from coronavirus – it will be fertile political ground for the neofascist and far right, whose combined support is already at 40 percent. In France, where polls show 70 percent believe the government has botched the response, the far right senses blood too, and similar conditions are not so far away in the Spanish state.
The EU has a habit – some might say a skill – of “muddling through” crises, suffocating change while deflecting the costs onto ordinary people, and it is unlikely that Italy or others will make any sudden moves unless backed into a corner. This is – after all – not a fight of the Netherlands and Germany against Spain and Italy, but a contest between their various elites over the future shape of the European project, and if they can avoid such a calamitous break, they will. Recent history shows that to cross the EU institutions unprepared will only bring fresh, unwelcome, punishments, and in recent years, even Italy’s eurosceptic populist Five Star Movement and the far right Lega have moved away from their calls to exit the euro.
The instability in Italy and other “southern” member states is also not the only major challenge facing the EU. In Poland, Hungary and several other former East Bloc member states, increasingly authoritarian governments are intensifying their campaign against human rights and freedom of speech, dismantling the rule of law under the guise of defence of national sovereignty. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party has undermined the judiciary and the separation of powers, and continues to attack reproductive and LGBTI rights. Meanwhile – using the COVID-19 pandemic as pretext – Hungary has accelerated its already concerning slide away from democracy by adopting an emergency law that allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s to rule by decree indefinitely.
Despite these governments repeatedly breaching so-called “European values” – including attacks on the rights of journalists, minorities, refugees, civil society organisations, and more – the EU has long delayed taking effective action. In large part, this can be explained by the political weight these countries have brought the centre right at a European level, helping strengthen the conservative pole across the EU. While Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party was suspended from the mainstream European People’s Party – the largest political grouping in the European Parliament – it remains a member, despite repeated calls for its expulsion. More trigger-happy critics are also constrained by the fact that while Article 7 of the EU Treaty allows for countries to be suspended from the EU for rights breaches, they cannot be expelled, and the loudest threats will eventually prove hollow.
The EU’s belated response has also been seriously undermined by the double standards already being applied from one country to the next – while the EU has initiated disciplinary proceedings against Hungary and Poland, no such moves have been taken against western EU states who have breached these same values. The impunity of state violence against “yellow vest” protestors in France, for example, and the collusion of judiciary and police violence against Catalan independence supporters in the Spanish state, undermine the EU’s dubious claim to evenhandedness. It should therefore be no surprise that within hours of the German Constitutional Court’s transparently political ruling on quantitative easing, the Polish government used it to justify its own disregard for EU law. Without resolving these contradictions, EU moves to “discipline and punish” such member states will be as counterproductive as eurozone economic policy, and the situation will only worsen.
The neoliberal “centre” of the EU is therefore walking the same flimsy tightrope that similar forces fell from in previous generations. An economic strategy of ever-worsening austerity and privatisation, while refusing to allow progressive – even just Keynesian – alternatives, will leave the stage wide open for a populist resurgence on the far right. While the far right has – so far – failed to capitalise on the crisis, this is unlikely to last once the new wave of austerity hits. Unless the progressive forces can regain lost political capital and champion the fight for an alternative, there is the risk of – if not a far right-led exodus out of the EU – then the creeping growth of a more authoritarian style of capitalism, with greater surveillance powers, more “Fortress Europe”, and diminished workers rights at its core.
This is a defining moment for our generation – and for many to come. The EU and its institutions are not fit for purpose, incapable of responding to the social and economic needs of the majority, and working instead for the interests of billionaires and multinationals. Many economic and political taboos will therefore have to be broken if we are to address the ballooning social, economic and environmental crises in an equitable, sustainable, and just way. A deep social and economic transformation, including the radical extension of participatory democracy and meaningful solidarity, is required to avoid working people once again being made to pay the price of saving capitalism from itself, while the private sector continues to profit at the public expense.
The COVID-19 crisis – by bringing the issues of public healthcare and services back into the spotlight – already makes a compelling case for a radical reorganisation of our economic and social system on a daily basis. The progressive forces have both the opportunity and the urgent responsibility to build on this, to put forward and win support for a genuine alternative. The sobering reality, however, is that despite the crisis, the structural forces and institutions of capital remain strong, while the progressive forces – unions, parties, working class institutions – are still recovering from years of collapse and disorientation. Such a far-reaching post-pandemic transformation will therefore require sustained analysis and renewed levels of social organising if forces for change are going to take advantage of the opportunities this crisis provides.
Note: Political analyst Duroyan Fertl is a former Political Advisor for Sinn Féin and United European Left-Nordic Green Left group in the European Parliament.
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ANALYSIS AND PROPOSALS FROM THE LEFT
Putting the Cat Back in the Bag
Author: Grace Blakeley
Date: May 13, 2020
Austerity is back on the political agenda for one reason – the establishment is terrified that recent state interventions will raise the demand to solve other social problems the same way
In the midst of a crisis as significant as this one, it is often said that everyone is a socialist. There are few politicians and economists calling for the state to step back, let businesses fail, banks go bust and homeowners default on their mortgages. If socialism meant corporate welfare, then it is true that we would be entering a massive socialist revival.
But socialism is not, of course, corporate welfare. No matter how much a capitalist state spends on healthcare and education – or, in this context, furlough schemes and business loans – it will never become a socialist state. The fundamental character of political power in any country is always determined by the balance of power between labour and capital, and the way in which this balance is institutionalised. The British state is spending more because British capitalists – and indeed capitalists around the world – need it to spend more.
The object of socialist policy development has always been to use democratic measures to shift the balance of power between labour and capital. In the context of growing support for public ownership, a revival of the trade union movement and a drastic expansion in political education, policies like a Universal Basic Income or a Green New Deal could shift the balance of class power that underpins modern capitalism. But without these ‘non-reformist reforms,’ more state spending – even state spending that supports working people – simply serves to support the interests of the ruling classes.
It is important for socialists to understand the Conservative Party’s apparent move towards greater state intervention under Boris Johnson in these terms. Johnson has not constituted a ‘worker-friendly’ government in response to the shifting nature of his electoral coalition, he has simply recognised that the needs of capital – and the middle class homeowners upon whom capital depends for popular support – have shifted. Without extensive state support, businesses, banks and investors would all find themselves substantially in the red.
Even support for workers must be understood in these terms. Consumer spending makes up around 70 per cent of UK GDP, measured according to expenditure. Without workers to buy cars, houses, clothes, TVs, meals out and the plethora of other consumer goods now available to nearly everyone thanks to the dramatic expansion in debt-fuelled spending that has taken place since the 1980s, the British economy would collapse. Businesses would fail to realise the profits generated in production, default on their loans and bring the banks down with them. As Gary Stevenson recently argued, “the government has created new money to replace the lost spending of the rich, so that working people can continue to pay their bills to the rich.”
This spending will continue for as long as it benefits the wealthy – and not for a minute longer. That’s why yesterday’s leaked Treasury document should come as no surprise. It proposed increases in income tax, a two-year public sector pay freeze and pension cuts to pay for the measures introduced during the crisis. It’s clear that the chorus of calls for fiscal retrenchment has already returned. George Osborne, the architect of the last round of austerity, has already begun to argue that similar measures will be needed in the wake of this crisis.
I, and many others on the Left, have written extensively about the weaknesses of the arguments for austerity. Cutting state spending when demand is weak, businesses and consumers are indebted, and uncertainty about the future is high only serves to constrain business investment and consumer spending, reducing GDP – and therefore tax revenues – over the long term. But this isn’t the point.
Austerity was never really about reducing the country’s debt; it was a class political project intended to curb the power of working people at a time of fragility for the ideological and material foundations of global capitalism.
A state that provides a strong social safety net threatens to erode the desperate reserve army of labour that capital relies upon to generate profits and discipline workers. Perhaps even more importantly, high levels of state spending of the kind seen during moments of crisis threaten to politicise management of the economy. If the state could afford to spend billions of pounds during the crisis, then why shouldn’t it provide higher education, housing and healthcare when the crisis ends?
Defeating this kind of thinking requires a powerful countervailing ideology. The ideology of austerity is meant to convince us that periods of largesse must be balanced by periods of retrenchment. The power of this narrative lies in the fact that it parallels the lived experience of most workers under capitalism – if you go on a debt-fuelled spending spree, eventually you’ll have to pay the money back, or else.
As we are already beginning to see with this latest leak, the same arguments used in the wake of the financial crisis will be trotted out in response to this pandemic. Just as we must understand the state’s current generosity in class terms, we must understand the austerity ideology in class terms too. We cannot respond with the same technocratic arguments that have been made by liberals non-stop for the past twelve years.
Instead, we must ask why working people are always the ones forced to pay for bailouts that ultimately benefit the interests of big business. If, as a society, we really must pay the piper, then why should it be the people whose labour has kept society running during this crisis who bear the brunt? Why not introduce higher taxes on corporate profits and wealth, or demand public ownership of corporations that have received state support?
Thankfully, the public is onside with such policies. Unfortunately, the Labour Party is not. Socialists must be ready for a long fight in the wake of this crisis to ensure that real, systemic alternatives remain on the political agenda – and that another wave of austerity is not forthcoming. If the Left doesn’t capture the radical energy generated by this crisis, then the far-right will.
Note: Grace Blakeley is the author of Stolen: How Finance Destroyed the Economy and Corrupted Our Politics (Repeater, 2019).
Week ending May 10, 2020
REAL EXTENT OF THE PANDEMIC
People Before Profit's TD [Member of the Dail, the Irish Parliament] Bríd Smith says the state's actions in dealing with covid-19 outbreaks in the direct provision system is "an abuse of human rights".
More than 160 residents of direct provision across the country are known to have tested positive, while around 75 people living at one centre in Co Kerry are being treated as close contacts.
The Movement of Asylum Seekers says residents there are being blamed for failing to socially isolate, but find it impossible to do so.
People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith says the message being given to asylum seekers is "insulting".
"The letter says that the residents have been putting themselves in danger because they haven't been self-isolating," she said.
"We have some People Before Profit in that particular town who have been, along with other local people, delivering food and baby stuff to them.
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WHEN AND HOW TO EASE LOCKDOWNS?
France Unbowed denounces the government's huge confusion over schools reopening after May 11
Author: France Unbowed media release
Date: May 5, 2020
Source: France Unbowed web site
Although May 11 was chosen as the day to begin easing the lockdown, the Minister of National Education has decided not to follow the recommendations of the Scientific Council, which came out against reopening schools on May 11, recommending instead to keep them closed until [the start of the new school year in] September.
After the health crisis started in France, the Minister of National Education Jean-Michel Blanquer constantly contradicted himself before the lockdown about the closure--or not--of schools and he now contradicts himself about whether the resumption of classes is compulsory or voluntary [Note: see here for Blanquer's explanation of the situation (in French)].
What justification is there for this rapid reopening in the face of scientific recommendation? Is it the government's desire to provide child care so parents can get back to running the economy? Does the health of our children, educational and council staff matter so little? Faced with these contradictions and risky decisions, parents of students and teaching staff are totally confused. Will schools reopen? How? In what conditions? Worse still: local mayors are finding out about the new version of the health regulation at the same time as teachers and parents.
In the meantime, everyone can see and point out a whole series of inconsistencies:
- Sports facilities, but not schools, will remain closed until the start of the new school year;
- Wearing masks will be compulsory for teachers and students throughout the day, but not on coming to school;
- There will be no generalised testing;
- Personal protective facilities are more or less inadequate;
- Hydro-alcoholic gels are late in arriving;
- Colleges in declared hot spots are to remain closed, but not schools;
- The very great difficulty in enforcing social distancing where children are concerned;
- The inappropriate and unenforceable regulations...
It is extremely upsetting for all parents of students to find themselves subject to such unbearable instructions. Ultimately, their "choice" [as to whether return their children to school] will not be a choice at all. Parents will decide according to their work and the decision of their council mayor, and not according to what they consider good for the health of the whole family or even the education of their child.
How can we let children go to school when a second wave of infection is inevitable given the holes in the health system? How can we not be worried when the alert is given about a syndrome affecting the youngest children and when its link with COVID-19 has been established?
Teacher collectives have already called for use of the right to withdraw their labour. They are also concerned about the impossibity of getting very young children to understand the need for social distancing.
As expressed by a large number of headmasters and headmistresses and also by teachers' unions, the right decision would be to set up a system for looking after children with difficulties and children whose parents have no choice but to return to work (and who lack any childcare alternative). France Unbowed calls for the creation at the local level of parent-teacher collectives, like those we advocate for the workplace.
The current conditions for reopening schools place pupils, parents, teaching staff, teaching aides and municipal staff in an uncertain situation in terms of both health and education. In order to preserve the health of all, we demand that the recommendations of the Scientific Council be applied. France Unbowed calls for the postponement of the return to school until the beginning of the school year in September.
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THE ECONOMIC CRISIS AND HOW TO RESPOND
An absolutely enormous output gap is forming
Date: May 4 2020
Source: Financial Times
The output gap is a concept we got familiar with during the global financial crisis. But it’s time to revisit it, in some detail.
One reason the measure often gets overlooked in mainstream headlines is because it doesn’t sound all that consequential. Yet it is. Arguably more so than ever. Encumbering its popularity, however, is the fact it’s not always universally considered to be a thing. Saltwater-type economists (a.k.a the stimulus inclined) are far more partial to backing its theoretical existence than fresh water austerity types because it helps them justify more government spending. Added to that, it’s also notoriously difficult to measure in real time.
The measure’s importance today, however, relates to it being uniquely useful in expressing the equity that’s been lost in the economic system because of Covid-19 lockdowns. This equity isn’t just something that can be conjured up out of thin air when we restart. It’s a real loss that can only be compensated for with faster than usual catch-up growth. In many cases, however, missed opportunities are gone forever.
While the scale of the lockdown-triggered economic slump may finally be penetrating mainstream consciousness, we think there’s a strange denial — even in supposedly informed policy circles — about the scale of the wealth that’s been permanently destroyed. Only the output gap can properly illustrate the damage, which is why it’s time to make the measure popular again.
So what is the output gap?
In its simplest terms, the output gap measures the difference between actual output (or GDP) and potential output (or potential GDP). Since this gap illustrates how much better the economy could be faring at any given time had whatever demand shock which slowed growth not occurred, it indicates the theoretical excess supply capacity in the system. Whenever output is running under potential output, there is said to be economic slack, which supposedly justifies additional stimulus as the slack is the factor that is likely to keep price inflation at bay. Or so the theory goes.
The last time it was sexy to sound knowledgeable about the gap, was roughly 2011 — at which time a big advocate of the concept was Paul Krugman, who used it as the basis when he called for additional stimulus.
Today’s crisis is clearly very different to 2008. But one key factor differentiating it is the widely held (and potentially very wrong) perception that the slump is only temporary. This is important because so much private and public policy is now being determined by the notion that the economy can be easily stop-started without any real long-term negative consequences. It’s this sort of thinking that is backing the V-shaped recovery argument, which in turn is justifying putting the economy’s needs second to the needs of saving lives (whether rightly or wrongly, we won’t and don’t want to speculate). What that theory neglects is the amount of damage that has been wrought on the supply side — effectively wiping out potential GDP as well as actual GDP. The output gap might offer a clue to the size of this forever-lost GDP.
Here, via Guggenheim Investments, is a good depiction of how policymakers view the current output gap stalking the US economy:
It took 10 years to catch up on the output lost in 2008. The newly formed wedge in the chart implies we are starting all over again, and this time from an even more extreme scenario.
Globally, the picture is no better. Here is BCA Research from last week illustrating some regional comparatives between this time and 2008:
It’s this sort of thinking that’s influenced the IMF’s most recent dismal forecast for the global economy which, as BCA highlight, indicates an output gap of as much as $9tn:
What these charts suggest is there will be little permanent economic damage — justifying economic policy responses that act as bridging measures, and which would later on serve to validate calls for aggressive monetary and fiscal stimulus.
However, if lockdown-type measures are to persist for up to two years — as is increasingly thought — the impact would be not only an upper double-digit trillion bill in terms of overall economic losses, but could also destroy supply capacity and potential GDP. The longer the lockdowns last, the graver the supply-side impact is likely to be.
If demand for the spare capacity sitting on the sidelines never comes back, which it may never do (especially when it comes airline and leisure assets), those assets will have to be written down. That equates to a huge economic opportunity loss. It also means the output gap is a lot smaller than policymakers now assume.
It doesn’t bear thinking about it, in other words.
Even if stimulus cheques prop up that lost demand by transferring it into new economic areas (such as stay-at-home goods and services), there’s no guarantee the economy will be able to transition quickly enough to make up the loss to potential GDP. It could therefore run hot and very inflationary in the new demand zones. And if inflation rates bifurcate, that could have a lasting impact on debt obligations and as a result global savings, many of which would then be eviscerated.
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HOW TO FUND RECOVERY IN EUROPE?
Germany’s Judges Declare War on the ECB
In a new ruling, Germany's highest court has threatened to throw a wrench into the European Central Bank's efforts to extend liquidity and other forms of assistance to distressed eurozone governments. Coming amid a deep economic crisis, the court's decision could force one or more countries to crash out of the monetary union.
NEW YORK – Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court has just set in motion a process that could culminate in the unraveling of the European Economic and Monetary Union. The court has ruled that, following a transitional period of no more than three months, the Bundesbank may no longer participate in the eurozone’s Public Sector Purchase Program (PSPP), unless the European Central Bank demonstrates that the policy’s objectives are “not disproportionate to the economic and fiscal policy effects resulting from [it].”
The court’s decision covers the period between the PSPP’s first asset purchases on March 9, 2015, and the reinvestments phase that began on January 1, 2019, thus effectively stopping the clock on November 8, 2019, when cumulative PSPP purchases amounted to nearly €2.1 trillion ($2.3 trillion). Primarily at issue is a ruling in December 2018 by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), which itself contained two key elements.
First, the CJEU ruled that the PSPP did not circumvent Article 123 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which prohibits the monetary financing of member states’ budgets. Second, it decided that the program also did not violate the “principle of proportionality,” under which “the content and form of Union action shall not exceed what is necessary to achieve the objectives of the Treaties.
”The German court does not dispute the first point, nor does it address more recent measures taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the expansion of the PSPP to include a €750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program, or the ECB’s most recent targeted bank-lending operations. But it does reject (rather contemptuously) the CJEU’s conclusion about the principle of proportionality. In the German court’s view, the CJEU’s ruling on this point went far beyond its legal authority as stipulated in the Treaty on European Union.
Indeed, the German court openly questions the CJEU’s legal competence, explaining that it will respect CJEU decisions, “as long as the CJEU applies recognized methodological principles and the decision it renders is not arbitrary from an objective perspective.” The implication, of course, is that the CJEU has not satisfied this basic criterion.
Citing Articles 5.1, 5.2, and 5.4 of the TEU, the German court then rubs the point in further. “The CJEU held that the Decision of the ECB Governing Council on the PSPP and its subsequent amendments were still within the ambit of the ECB’s competences,” the judges state. “This view manifestly fails to give consideration to the importance and scope of the principle of proportionality … and is simply untenable from a methodological perspective given that it completely disregards the actual economic policy effects of the program.”
To my mind, it is remarkable that the German court has gone so far as to dispute the PSPP’s wider economic-policy effects, above and beyond what it may have achieved (and continues to achieve) in terms of keeping eurozone inflation “below, but close to 2%.” Did the German court summon a panel of expert witnesses comprising Old and New Keynesians, Monetarists, behaviorists, and Marxists to provide evidence of these supposed effects?
This is not to jest, because the situation is very serious. It is highly unlikely that the ECB Governing Council will offer a narrative that will convince the German court that “the monetary policy objectives pursued by the PSPP are not disproportionate to the economic and fiscal policy effects resulting from the program.” After all, the PSPP clearly has a significant effect on the terms on which some member states can access sovereign-debt markets. Italy is an obvious example. So, too, is Greece, following the ECB’s decision to include sub-investment-grade public debt in the PSPP.
Looking ahead, as public-sector deficits expand as a result of the pandemic response, PSPP purchases of sovereign debt may become important drivers of sovereign borrowing costs and even of sovereigns’ market access. If Germany were suddenly to say “nein” to the PSPP, one or more eurozone countries could be forced to crash out of the monetary union.
Worse, the German court’s ruling touches on much more than the PSPP/sovereign-debt nexus. For example, the judges also express concerns about the effects of ECB asset purchases not just on banks’ balance sheets and interest rates, but also on zombie companies, and thus on potentially every saver, lender, real-estate owner, and insurance-policy holder in the eurozone.
Yes, portfolio-balance considerations imply that quantitative easing and qualitative easing affect asset yields and prices, and thus real economic activity and the economic wellbeing of domestic and foreign residents. These are legitimate issues for the ECB, the European Parliament, and the European Council to consider. But they are no business of the German court.
Paolo Gentiloni: EU emergency finance has no ‘draconian’ strings attached
Countries tapping the European Stability Mechanism will be allowed to borrow up to 2 percent of their GDP
Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni encouraged Italy and other countries to make use of emergency finance from the European Stability Mechanism, assuring them that the money will not come with "draconian" conditions.
In an interview with La Repubblica published late Saturday, the former Italian prime minister said the credit line which was finalized on Friday, is "the symbol of the different way in which we face the crisis: ten years ago a country in trouble asked for help in exchange for draconian conditions while today, with Europe facing a common crisis, we have an instrument accessible to all and without conditions."
The ESM would allow countries to borrow up to two percent of their gross domestic product, which, "for Italy is €36 billion to €37 billion at a rate close to zero," Gentiloni said.
The ESM has become politically toxic in Italy because of the stigma attached to the labor and budgetary reform conditions that were imposed on Greece during the euro crisis.
Countries tapping the ESM would have 10 years to pay back the debt, under the preliminary agreement struck by the Eurogroup ministers in a short videoconference. Their leaders have asked for the credit lines to be ready by June 1.
Recovery Fund needed ASAP Conte tells State of Union
Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte told The State of the Union Friday that the EU's planned Recovery Fund should be set up as soon as possible, offering one trillion euros to help the union out of the coronavirus crisis.
"The COVID crisis is a grave and unprecedented challenge for the European Union and makes more necessary an approach to the European project that is future-proof.
"Our continent will only prevail if it will be capable of remaining united and and of realising a coordinated response based on the fundamental principle of solidarity."
Conte went on to say that the EU should introduce its Recovery Fund "before it is too late" and that Europe should act without any further delay to kickstart a recovery.
He said the SURE programme, the European Investment Bank and the European Stability Mechanism were "insufficient" and that the Recovery Fund was essential.
Conte said a one trillion euro fund would be in line with the EU's financial needs. The Italian premier said the Recovery Fund should be set up in the second half of this year.
"Either we all win together, or we all lose together", he said.
POSITIONS AND PROPOSALS FROM THE LEFT
Anticapitalists (Spanish State): Let the Rich Pay!
For a European COVID-19 tax on profits and wealth
Ten years have passed since the last crisis in which European institutions and national governments bailed out banks while letting millions of workers drown. A decade later, we see how the profits of large corporations continue to rise while our wages fall and our working conditions worsen.
The COVID19 crisis has put the need for increased social spending on the agenda, but they continue to dedicate more money to saving companies making profits than to workers. Who is going to pay the bill? Where will the money come from? What are they going to do with it? Do they want to socialise losses when they never redistributed wealth? The EU's own economic architecture promotes tax evasion and fraud. They want to get us into debt and to keep paying the bill for ever.
But there is another way. It will not be easy, it will not be decided in parliamentary committees. A path of struggle and mobilisation, aimed directly against those who confuse their special interests with the interests of all.
We have to change course. We do not want more austerity or a future of indebtedness. Let that dangerous minority, those who have gotten rich at the cost of our lives, give back everything that belongs to us. We will not pay for their crisis a second time. Shall we unite? Shall we fight? Shall we go after them?
Let the rich pay: for a European COVID-19 tax; to end tax havens; to nationalise banking and strategic sectors; to share work and implement basic income support; for social control and workers participation in companies.
Lithuanian union: Saving businesses will not save the people
Author: G1PS (May 1 Labour Union)
The coronavirus has brought to the surface the issues of our economy – those who do the most important work for the society are doing so under the poorest conditions and receive the smallest wages, writes May 1 Labour Union (G1PS).
According to Lithuanian government officials, almost half of the working population have seen their wages decline since the start of the coronavirus quarantine.
Around 300,000 have been furloughed, around 55,000 self-employed people have lost their livelihoods, and the number of unemployed is constantly growing – since the beginning of the quarantine on March16, some 30,000 jobseekers have registered at the national Employment Service.
Instead of helping people, the government has focused on providing support for businesses. While politicians are telling that the state will focus on helping small businesses, now it is clear, that the wealthiest businesses owned by the most rich segment of society received the largest amount of subsidies. In addition to covering wages and providing tax exemptions, there are plans to subsidise commercial rents and provide state-funded loans.
These subsidies will cost the state massive amounts of money, but economists from commercial banks assure us that we should not worry about it.
The good side of the crisis, according to a Swedbank representative, Nerijus Mačiulis, is that the state can borrow money at a very low price – this was not an option ten years ago, when the world economy crashed because of the credit bubble. The main goal would be to feed the money into business, so people can start consuming and the economy starts growing again.
But the money does not come out of thin air and even if we can borrow today, we will have to repay tomorrow. Who will pay this price – the corporations, the banks, the richest 1 percent who have seen their profits and incomes grow at the fastest pace over the last decades?
No. It will be us, workers, because we are the ones who create the profits, but are the first ones to bear the losses. Once again, we will be told that, for the sake of the economy, we must work harder and longer, while enjoying fewer protections, less funding for public services such as healthcare, education and pensions.
We already see multiplying demands from business, supported by liberal and conservative parties in the parliament, to once again loosen labour laws – allow employers to not pay for overtime, legalise zero-hour contracts that would tie people to their employers without any guaranteed income.
Now, the demands do not gather a lot of support, as this would cause enormous outrage among the public. No ruling party wants to pass a death sentence to themselves before the parliamentary election in October 2020.
But we can be sure that demands from teachers to raise their wages will be met with simple explanations from the government: we do not have the money, because we gave everything to businesses. And if nothing changes, the burden of saving the businesses will be put on our backs.
Instead of feeding benefits to businesses, we demand that the economy serve the needs of the people.
Firstly, it means providing living wages for those whose work is low-paid or seen as marginal. The quarantine showed that the functioning of our society requires not entrepreneurs and business managers, but thousands of supermarket workers, truck drivers, hospital workers, cleaners, teachers and care sector workers.
These people had to work despite risks to their health because the society cannot survive without them. And these people barely make a living wage working 12 hours a day, while their employers enjoy substantial profits year by year.
Instead of working longer, we should be shortening the working day to 6 hours while keeping the same wages.
The problem for working people is not simply a lack of money. The problem is a lack of time. Because to survive, to pay the bills and to buy food, one has to work 12 hours a day – and it feels like slavery.Coronavirus: Letting bad science slip through the cracks?
Giving more free time means not only giving time for rest, but also allowing people to take care of themselves and their close ones. It means allowing people to engage in meaningful work around communal, environmental or social issues. In the end, it means healthier society, environment, and economy itself.
Instead of giving money to large property owners such as the Maxima supermarket chain, by covering its commercial rent, the state should freeze all rent payments.
It would save thousands of people who lost their income from being forced out of homes. The right to housing is far more important than the right to profit from property.
The same should be done with bank loans – instead of forcing people to repay their loans so that banks can save their profits, we should be using the vast amounts of financial capital to develop public infrastructure and provide free services for all.
While these demands can sound utopian and unrealistic, it is only because we do not believe in our own strength as a society to mobilise and demand what we need.
We should always remember that not long ago a free weekend and eight-hour workday were also denounced by large business owners as unrealistic and utopian. People were told that the economy would crash if workers’ demands were realised. And yet the economy did not crash, only rich people were forced to provide better conditions for workers.
What is truly unrealistic and utopian is to think that everything can stay the same – that the economy and profits can continue growing without end.
The politics of saving the business is dead end politics – it is demanding too much from us and the environment. So let’s be realistic – the economy has to serve the people, not the wealthiest business.
Note: G1PS (May 1 Labour Union) is an independent organisation uniting workers from retail, service and cultural sectors as well students and the unemployed.
Portugal: Left Bloc proposes emergency temporary unemployment benefit
The bill of the Left Bloc, which will be presented to the Assembly of the Republic this Wednesday, creates an Extraordinary Unemployment and Termination Allowance and is applicable to employees, independent workers and casual workers excluded from others means of support. The amount will be equivalent to the social security scale, currently at €438.31 a month, and will last for six months.
Speaking to TSF radio, Left Bloc MP José Soeiro recalled that "at the moment we are in a situation where there are hundreds of thousands of workers who have lost their jobs, income or economic livelihood and are unprotected" and who "are excluded from both from already existing unemployment benefits and from the extraordinary interim financial support that has been set up."
The bill states that this allowance can be accessed by, specifically, “workers covered by the general Social Security regime for employees; self-employed workers; domestic service workers; members of management bodies; workers enrolled in the Pension Fund of Lawyers and Solicitors; managing partners of companies in which they are the only worker; and disability pensioners in the general Social Security regime who have been declared fit for work by a disability review examination but have become unemployed."
This allowance cannot be combined with other support. "It is exceptional support, with a temporary character. We are not redesigning the social security system with this measure, we are creating a measure that is valid for six months, an extraordinary measure, financed by the State Budget, as has happened in fact in other countries ", José Soeiro told TSF, giving the example of Spain.
"It is a minimum of minimums to guarantee that people who are currently at zero can have this support", Soeiro said, noting that "it does not require a guarantee period nor that people have paid a certain number of months of social security contributions". Proof of eligibility is "very simplified" and in some cases it may only be a sworn personal statement, to be verified later by Social Security.
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THE POLITICS OF PANDEMIC
Pandemic mismanagement sends Madrid regional government, PP leader Casado's 'laboratory', up in flames
The Community of Madrid, presided over by [People's Party (PP) premier] Isabel Díaz Ayuso, is the main focus of the coronavirus pandemic in Spain, with almost 69,000 cases and more than 8500 deaths. Since the declaration of the state of alarm on March 14, Ayuso's regional government has maintained its powers of management over health and also over the administration of the 475 nursing homes in the region, where there have been 5811 deaths due to--or suspected of being due to--the COVID-19 virus.
Since the beginning of the health emergency and despite these official figures, PP leader Pablo Casado has regarded the management of the pandemic and the policies implemented by Díaz Ayuso as an "example to follow". "It is what we would do at the national level," he said last Saturday, after participating in the Community of Madrid's official ceremony on the occasion of the May 2 holiday [celebrating the 1808 uprising of the city against Napoleonic French occupation].
A week later, this "laboratory" of the policies Casado wants to implement throughout Spain blew up, precisely because of its management of the pandemic. The disagreements and the lack of coordination between the Madrid region's governing partners, the PP and Citizens, have worsened in recent days and the chasm reached its widest point on Thursday, May 7, with the resignation in the midst of the coronavirus crisis of the Director of Public Health, Yolanda Fuentes. Fuentes refused to sign the report requesting that the Spanish Ministry of Health allow Madrid to enter Phase 1 of the lockdown de-escalation, a request that has finally been rejected by Spanish health minister Salvador Illa. In her letter of resignation, Fuentes stated that she did not agree with the request to the ministry as it was not based on "health criteria".
Premier Ayuso acknowledged on Friday (May 8) that her former Director of Public Health, to date the most important professional managing the pandemic in the region, had refused to sign the report requesting the jump to Phase 1 because she considered that the inflow of patients into Intensive Care Units (ICUs) had not been sufficiently reduced and there was "risk" of a new "collapse" (in the Madrid premier's own words). Ayuso had put forward the very same argument on Wednesday morning (May 6), just hours before deciding that economy should take priority over health.
The conflict over the de-escalation is one more episode, without a doubt the most serious to date, in a confrontation that its protagonists are making little effort to cover up. Since the coronavirus crisis hit Madrid, the PP and Citizens have been experiencing widening distancing: the process began when [Citizens' deputy premier] Ignacio Aguado's began to feel that he had been sidelined from management of the pandemic and it got worse the day Ayuso decided to withdraw administration of aged care facilities from Citizens. The health crisis has widened a breach between PP and Citizens that has been there ever since the Madrid government was formed in August 2019.
As for Pablo Casado, from the very beginning of the pandemic he has launched a campaign against the central government [of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos], at all times ignoring the situation in a Community of Madrid that is managed by his own party. He claims that the PSOE-led administration is exclusively responsible for the deaths from the coronavirus and accuses it of "lying" about the death toll, despite the fact that autonomous communities [regional governments]--also those governed by the PP (such as Madrid)--are responsible for communicating mortality statistics to the executive of [Spanish prime minister] Pedro Sánchez.
What's more, Casado, who has also complained about the television time being given over to the government's messages, has used every public intervention on his peculiar lockdown tour - which saw him visiting such disparate places as the Madrid Showground [converted to a field hospital], the Madrid fruit and vegetable market, a sheep farm and a hotel - to support the management of two of his protégés: Ayuso herself and the mayor of Madrid, José Luis Martínez Almeida, who has fewer powers, a lower profile in the crisis and a more conciliatory attitude than his fellow PPer.
The government of the Community of Madrid bears Casado's personal seal. Its premier was his personal appointment as candidate for the position of Madrid PP leader for the May 26, 2019 regional elections. Casado also appointed the former PP health minister Javier Fernández Lasquetty to the regional government, where he currently runs the treasury portfolio. Between December 2018 and August 2019 Lasquetty was PP president Casado's cabinet head, an appointment that sought to "ideologically strengthen a PP that needs to recover the neoliberal essence that gave it its best electoral triumphs", as party leaders acknowledge.
As one of the foremost representatives of Aznarism--an ultra-conservative sector [named after former PP prime minister José María Aznar] that Casado has placed in the main leadership positions since his victory in the PP primaries of 2018--Lasquetty was secretary-general of [neoliberal think tank] the Foundation for Analysis and Social Studies (FAES). Later, former Madrid PP premier Esperanza Aguirre brought him into her government, first as Immigration minister (where he kept a low profile) and afterwards into the health portfolio (where he set about giving substance to his very reactionary ideological agenda).
The 2012 Plan of Measures to Guarantee Public Health System Sustainability in the Community of Madrid was Lasquetty's. In practice, it involved the privatisation of six hospitals, dozens of community health centres and any activity that was not strictly related to health delivery. On Lasquetty's watch operating theatres stopped working in the afternoons and the 30-day legal time limit for surgery was violated.
Lasquetty's management, marked by ultra-neoliberal budgets, gave rise to the movement of rejection of privatisation of Madrid health that became the White Tide, organiser of dozens of mass protests in support of the public system. The lawsuits lodged by this movement stopped Lasquetty from carrying his privatisation plan to conclusion: when the High Court of Justice of Madrid (TSJM) provisionally suspended the privatisation process in January 2014 Lasquetty resigned as a consequence.
A starved system
The PP has governed the Community of Madrid since 1995 and although parts of Lasquetty's privatisation plan were frustrated, health has been one of the public sectors most affected by budget cuts in the region. Despite being the autonomous community with the highest GDP in Spain, the Community of Madrid allocates less than the national average to health care (only exceeded by Catalonia). In 2018, health expenditure per inhabitant was €1154.20, while the average for the Spanish state was €1295.85.
Staffing levels in health in the Community of Madrid are also lower than ten years ago despite the population increase experienced by the region. At the start of 2019, there were fewer professionals in hospitals and other centres than in 2010: 54,531 as against 55,433 ten years ago (according to the Official Reports of the Madrid Health Service).
Casado uses practically every public intervention to insist that Madrid is the laboratory of ultra-liberal policies that he wants to apply throughout the country if he ever manages to enter the Moncloa [the prime minister's residence]. Despite massive tax cuts like those he proposes in the presence of the coronavirus, the PP leader does not bother to explain where he would get the income to maintain public services.
One of the PP leader's main points of reference in management is Díaz Ayuso, who decided to place Antonio Burgueño, another of the architects of the PP's health privatisation, on the advisory team of the Ministry of Health when the coronavirus crisis broke out. And in April, she also signed up his daughter, Encarnación Burgueño, as part of nursing home management, the area most affected by the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Casado persists in his attacks on the government, which he repeated during the Wednesday May 6 Congress of Deputies debate on the extension of the state of alarm, in which the PP, for the first time, abstained.
In his very harsh intervention, the conservative leader once again accused Sánchez of "lying" during the coronavirus pandemic and of having entrenched himself in "absolutism" and "caesarism" after his "negligent", "ineffective" and "incompetent" performance during the crisis. "Chaos--that's you!", "You are the epitome of bungling!" and "At the worst of times we've had the worst of prime ministers!"--these were some of the phrases that the PP leader dedicated to Sánchez. Casado went even further, using a quote from ex-Constitutional Court judge Manuel Aragón, who in a media article said that "the exceptional situation does not allow for the establishment of a constitutional dictatorship."
The tone and content of his words foreshadowed that the PP was going to vote against extending the state of alarm. But the agreements reached by the government with Citizens-–the formation with which the PP governs in Madrid–-and with the Basque Nationalist Party included the main demands publicly made by Casado as a condition for supporting the extension of the state of exception. Which is why the PP leader chose the option that in reality meant not taking a position in this case: abstention.
With his stance in such a key debate as the extension of the state of alarm, which spelled out the institutional framework in which the de-escalation will take place (granting sole command to the central government for two more weeks) Casado left the space in the centre to Citizens. Given the willingness to dialogue expressed by its new leader, Inés Arrimadas, Citizens has shifted towards a stance of negotiation and voted in favor of the extension. By contrast, Casado came close to the most extreme position of Vox--which opted to vote against - with its insults and permanent attacks on Sánchez and his entire ministry.
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ISSUES IN THE SCIENCE
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Week ending May 3, 2020
WHEN AND HOW TO EASE LOCKDOWNS?
Easing the lockdown in Belgium: How big business imposed its agenda
“If the death rate goes up, we may have to say: so what?” That is what one big boss said a few days ago in demanding the quickest possible restart of the economy. Has the strategy of unwinding the lockdown adopted by Belgium been determined by the imperatives of big business? An investigation.
The decisions of the National Safety Council with regard to the strategy of easing the lockdown in the country were taken late in the evening of Friday, April 24. The factory restart is scheduled for May 4. It is expected that commerce will also be able to reopen on May 11.
On the other hand, our social life prospects are being put off to beyond May 18. And “testing-tracing-isolation" (TTI), the only method for permanently containing the pandemic, is still not ready to be put into operation.
How is it that the economic dynamic, the dynamic of profit, has prevailed so much to the detriment of the health risks raised by the experts?
The big business lobby has been in full swing from the beginning
From the start of the lockdown, the pressure from big business to keep production going despite everything was strong. Many businesses continued working without following basic health rules. Official figures show that 85% of inspected work sites did not respect the rules of social distancing.
In a whole series of large companies, it was the workers and the unions who had to mobilise to force production to stop. This was especially the case, for example, with Audi, Volvo, Neuhaus, Safran Aero Booster and Atlas Copco.
In response, the employers' federations have carried out intense lobbying. They have sought to have as many sectors as possible recognised as “essential”. In this case, these sectors have not had to respect the rules of social distancing. The ministerial decree which defines sectors as essential thus got longer from the version of March 18 to that of March 23. After May 23, two million of the private sector’s three million workers finally have found themselves in so-called essential sectors. The automotive industry federation (TRAXIO) does not hide the lobbying work done to be able to expand this list, as can be seen on its web site,
An unbalanced ‘task force on lockdown easing’
Debate quickly focused on the need to fully restart the economy. A new group of experts--the Group of Experts in Charge of Exit Strategy (GEES--was set up by the government on April 7 to prepare recovery from the lockdown. Its composition already gave an idea of its orientation. Alongside health experts, it contained stakeholders from the business world such as Johnny Thijs, chairman of the board of directors of Engie-Electrabel, and Pierre Wunsch, chairman of the National Bank and former chief-of-staff to [former Belgian finance minister] Didier Reynders, but there were no union or labor representatives.
'All businesses must reopen’, Voka demands
On April 9, the day more than 280 deaths were announced and the death toll had not yet been reached its peak, the Flemish employers' lobby Voka was already pressing to restart the economy as a whole. “We see that the other European countries are gradually reviving their economies. As an exporting country, we cannot be left behind and lose our competitiveness”, writes Hans Maertens, boss of Voka.
Agoria, the powerful metal employers federation, deploys a “lobbying scenario” towards GEES and the government that pushes for the reopening of businesses where the rules of social distancing cannot be respected.
In a slightly more subtle way, the Belgian Business Federation (FEB) called for “not counterposing health and the economy” and allowing all businesses to restart (Le Soir, April 15). The following fortnight was marked by many similar interventions. On April 22, the Voka press release was even more explicit and assertive: “Companies are really pushing for a restart in the economy. This is why the National Safety Council must decide on Friday to quickly reopen all businesses and all stores." If not, big business promised “an economic and social drama”.
Expert advice set aside
For the health experts, the gradual relaxation of lockdown measures can only be contemplated if a series of strict conditions are observed:
Reduction in the number of hospitalisations to less than 100 per day and a maximum occupancy rate of intensive care beds of 25%, i.e. 500;
Carrying out a daily minimum of 25,000 tests (ideally even 45,000, according to several experts);
The employment of 2000 people to follow up on COVID-19 positive people and to contact their relatives (“contact-tracing”);
The obligatory implementation of preventive and safety measures in schools and workplaces, in agreement with the workers;
The recommended wearing of a cloth mask by the whole population, with this being compulsory in public transport.
According to experts, it is only if all these conditions are met that we can consider moving to the first stage of easing the lockdown. And this exit must be done in phases, with at least two weeks between the measures so as to be able to assess their impact on the epidemic. However, during the press conference of the National Safety Council, the Prime Minister and the minister-presidentsi quickly passed over these conditions while keeping to the level of general declarations. They announced the opening of much of business in a week, and almost nothing was said about workplace safety. In the plan published on its site, the government is just as vague about the binding nature of the conditions that should govern the easing of the lockdown. The Prime Minister has just declared that “nothing is guaranteed” about the opening of shops on May 11.
It must be conceded that we are still a long way from being able to fulfill the following conditions:
As of April 25, daily hospital admissions are at 217 and this number has not gone down for several days;
The government has promised 10,000 PCR tests a day for a month now and it has not once achieved this figure;
The contact-tracing teams for people who have tested positive are not ready at all;
Attorney-general Koen Geens has said it will not be possible to distribute a mask to everyone by May 4.
Instead of telling the truth about these challenges, the National Safety Council has chosen to minimise them and set them aside. Yes, of course, they decided to put off the prospects of a return to social life until later: the economy comes first, we’ll be seeing our boss before our loved ones. “When you turn on one tap, you have to turn off another,“ the April 25 De Standaard reported Liberal deputy prime minister David Clarinval as saying.
‘This won’t work by May 3’
The reality is that we are not ready. Marc Van Ranst, virologist and GEES member, pointed out following the National Safety Council meeting that a whole series of conditions had not been met for considering easing the lockdown and that it perhaps would not be possible by May 4. That resulted in his being violently attacked, in particular by Geert Moerman, a Voka official in the province of East Flanders. However, he is not alone. Fellow GEES members Marius Gilbert (Free University of Brussels) and Erika Vlieghe (University of Antwerp) also openly expressed doubts and queries about these decisions. Another of the GEES experts, microbiologist Emmanuel André, also expressed disagreement before resigning from the group and from his role as its spokesperson.
In addition to the situation with the epidemic, the key issue is the implementation of a massive policy of testing and tracing contacts. There are currently scarcely eight people in Wallonia and around 20 in Flanders to do this work, while at least 2000 are needed for the whole country. The regional ministers interviewed are unable to say what their recruitment and training plan is. In short, there is no chance of being ready by May 4, experts say. “Forget this May 3 date. Until then, contact tracing will not be ready”, insists Professor Wouter Arrazola de Oñate, in charge of setting up contract-tracing in Flanders (De Standaard, April 22).
No matter the collateral damage
Some on the side of the employers and the right-wing parties are openly assuming the consequences of this political choice. Volvo Ghent boss Geert Bruyneel says he wants to “restart the plant entirely as soon as possible“, adding that “when it is fully operational all safety rules against coronavirus cannot be followed. But you have to have the courage to make choices” (De Tijd, April 25). Or Francis Van Eechkout, the CEO of Deceuninck Plastics, who wants his business to restart as quickly as possible, explaining that, “if the death rate goes up to 300 per day, it should perhaps be said: so what?” (De Tijd, April 24).
Priority to health or economic interests?
These bosses are saying what they really think. For them, workers' health is only collateral damage. What matters are their economic interests, not health nor the needs of workers. The decisions of the National Safety Council go in the same direction. This is why FEB managing director Pieter Timmermans said he was “satisfied with these decisions” (Le Soir, 25 April).
In short, the big bosses are satisfied, while a certain number of experts are sounding the alarm about the dangers of too rapid an exit from lockdown without the conditions being met. As at the beginning of the lockdown, it will take broad worker mobilisation to impose these conditions and push back those who want to put their profits before our health. To ensure that the lobby of the heart proves stronger than the lobby of big business.
i In Australian terms, the premiers of the Flemish and Walloon regions, of the capital Brussels and of the French- and German-speaking communities.
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PANDEMIC CONTAINMENT ISSUES
Face masks against COVID-19: Why Slovakia became the trailblazer
During the first half of March, as Slovakia went through an early stage of the COVID-19 crisis, it managed to take fast and critical measures. The country’s largest cities were the first places in the EU that enforced compulsory face masks in public.
Date: April 28, 2020
Slovakia remains at the bottom of the EU list when it comes to the number of total cases and, more importantly, deaths per million.
The first place in Europe where face mask wearing became compulsory in public transport was in Slovakia’s largest cities, and the regulation did not come up by chance. In fact, it had been the result of the honest and selfless work of several engaged people who collected and synthesised scientific data, and of the thoughtful assessment by decision-makers.
In the end, it may turn out that Slovakian representatives evaluated the available data on face mask wearing earlier and perhaps even better than many leading health agencies, including the World Health Organisation (WHO) or the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Both organisations have, until recently, refused to recommend face masks for the general population; mass wearing of cloth face masks has not been recommended either.
The beginning of the story of face mask wearing in Slovakia can be dated long before the COVID-19 epidemic spread to our country.
Like all surgeons, I have had my own experience with face masks. We know that it is not a problem to spend many hours wearing face masks – e.g. during brain tumour resections. In addition, in our country, those colleagues who are allergic to disposable masks use their cloth versions.
In late February, medical doctors in Slovakia paved the way for a larger, nation-wide debate, depicting the very alarming consequences of a coronavirus pandemic, approaching the subject in several blogs; they actively emphasised that if we all wore a face mask, the effect might be similar to that of collective immunity after vaccination.
At this point, I, like many others, began to think about how I could help the good cause. The idea was nothing more than to do the usual when it comes to preparation of any scientific publication: summarising of (at least) basic data – in this case, data on the impact of cloth and/or disposable face masks wearing on the spread of respiratory infections.
According to WHO, besides contact routes, SARS-CoV-2 virus is primarily transmitted among people through droplet transmission – i.e. via particles >5 μm, so-called “respiratory droplets”.
Surprisingly, according to a study funded by US National Institute for Occupational and Safety and Health (NIOSH), even home-made cloth face masks may offer marginal protection against much smaller particles <1 μm; thus, cloth mask might potentially offer some protection even against so-called “droplet nuclei” (aerosol particles <5 μm).
Important data was also found in several other publications – e.g. regarding the protection of nearby healthy persons when the face mask is worn by an infected person.
Of note, in a study published in PLOS One, the essential role of early deployment of face masks in a population at risk for a viral respiratory infection epidemic was described – presented mathematical models showed the crucial role of the initial number of infected people.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to discuss this basic “literature review” with several important Slovak scientists, and also with Martin Barto, a Slovak politician formerly involved in mathematical modelling. On 6 March, Barto became the first Slovak politician to emphasise the potential benefits of wearing face masks in public.
On 8 March, our work and discussion resulted in a short summary of basic data regarding COVID-19 and facemasks, which included two papers published in a world-renowned magazine “The Lancet”.
In the first paper, the authors consider case isolation and contact tracing alone to be insufficient to control a disease outbreak, and in the second, the authors called for a consideration of mass wearing of face masks for effective source control in community settings.
The summary was delivered to some Slovak politicians and stakeholders, including the chairman of the Slovak Medical Doctors Trade Union. It was also shared by the most popular satirical social media page in Slovakia, Zomri.
In parallel, the initiative titled Face mask is not a shame kicked off on 10 March, and a day later the Call of the Slovak health professionals on COVID-19 management followed, signed by almost 15,000 people.
Particularly crucial was the activity of the then designated Minister of Health, Marek Krajčí. Based on his own evaluation of provided data, he has been advocating face mask wearing since 12 March, perhaps as the first minister in the EU.
On 13 March, during one of the most-watched live TV programmes, designated prime minister Igor Matovič and Marek Krajčí wore face masks, it was a situation conditioned by data knowledge. The idea of the TV presenter, one of the leading figures in Slovak journalism, to put on masks while broadcasting live and wear them without hesitation for the entirety of the show, turned out to be largely symbolic for the whole country.
The same day, outgoing prime minister Peter Pellegrini also encouraged people not to hesitate about wearing face masks. The initial use of disposable medical face masks was later largely replaced by cloth face masks, as the more efficient medical face masks were in short supply and had to be reserved for healthcare workers.
Days after, photos of Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová and representatives of the new Slovak government all wearing face masks literally travelled around the world. On 16 March, the largest cities introduced the first regulation on compulsory (cloth) face masks in public transport, the very first such legislation in Europe.
Nowadays, more and more European cities and countries have adopted similar rules, and since 3 April, CDC recommends wearing cloth face masks.
To sum up, the first politicians in the EU who promoted face masks by wearing them in public, have been from Slovakia.
Nevertheless, the most decisive role was and is played daily by all the people in our country, who have accepted and honestly adhered to the obligation to wear masks, to the amazement of many in Europe. Of course, a big thanks also goes to the Slovak media, whose editors and presenters are setting an example every day.
Nevertheless, it is exceptionally important to emphasise that face masks are not some “miracle help” in the fight against COVID-19.
All other measures – including social distancing, correct hand washing etc. – are important, and face masks can by no means substitute those The war against SARS-CoV-2 virus is far from over… However, face masks could represent an additional help, and perhaps time will show them to be of the important, life-saving factors during the COVID-19 crisis.
Other links on this topicSlovakia: European nation with fewest virus deaths proves speed is key (Bloomberg)
POSITIONS OF NATIONAL GOVERNMENTS AND NATIONAL PARLIAMENTS
WHO says Sweden's Corona strategy could be "a future model" post lockdowns
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has highlighted Sweden's strategy in fighting Covid-19 as representing a possible 'future model' for countries to follow in adapting society to the virus after coming out of lockdown.
Dr Mike Ryan, the WHO's top emergencies expert, asked about Sweden's strategy of shunning lockdowns and allowing most schools and businesses to remain open, told a virtual news conference on Wednesday: "If we are to reach a 'new normal', in many ways Sweden represents a future model."
"What it has done differently is that it really, really has trusted its own communities to implement that physical distancing," he said, adding that Sweden had put in place a "very strong public health policy".
Click here for what Ryan said in full.
Swiss soldiers fight Covid-19 armed with Bluetooth app
Swiss army conscripts are taking the fight to the coronavirus pandemic by field-testing a Bluetooth-based smartphone app aimed at stopping a resurgence of Covid-19.
The rapidly-created app traces people who have inadvertently crossed paths with someone infected with the virus.
It uses wireless technology with each phone registering the others it has come into close proximity with for a sustained period of time.
For the field test, the infantry recruits went through a normal day: physical training, theoretical study and shooting at targets 300 metres away.
Full story here.
THE ECONOMIC CRISIS
The Coming Greater Depression of the 2020s
While there is never a good time for a pandemic, the COVID-19 crisis has arrived at a particularly bad moment for the global economy. The world has long been drifting into a perfect storm of financial, political, socioeconomic, and environmental risks, all of which are now growing even more acute.
NEW YORK – After the 2007-09 financial crisis, the imbalances and risks pervading the global economy were exacerbated by policy mistakes. So, rather than address the structural problems that the financial collapse and ensuing recession revealed, governments mostly kicked the can down the road, creating major downside risks that made another crisis inevitable. And now that it has arrived, the risks are growing even more acute. Unfortunately, even if the Greater Recession leads to a lackluster U-shaped recovery this year, an L-shaped “Greater Depression” will follow later in this decade, owing to ten ominous and risky trends.
The first trend concerns deficits and their corollary risks: debts and defaults. The policy response to the COVID-19 crisis entails a massive increase in fiscal deficits – on the order of 10% of GDP or more – at a time when public debt levels in many countries were already high, if not unsustainable.
Worse, the loss of income for many households and firms means that private-sector debt levels will become unsustainable, too, potentially leading to mass defaults and bankruptcies. Together with soaring levels of public debt, this all but ensures a more anemic recovery than the one that followed the Great Recession a decade ago.
A second factor is the demographic time bomb in advanced economies. The COVID-19 crisis shows that much more public spending must be allocated to health systems, and that universal health care and other relevant public goods are necessities, not luxuries. Yet, because most developed countries have aging societies, funding such outlays in the future will make the implicit debts from today’s unfunded health-care and social-security systems even larger.
A third issue is the growing risk of deflation. In addition to causing a deep recession, the crisis is also creating a massive slack in goods (unused machines and capacity) and labor markets (mass unemployment), as well as driving a price collapse in commodities such as oil and industrial metals. That makes debt deflation likely, increasing the risk of insolvency.
A fourth (related) factor will be currency debasement. As central banks try to fight deflation and head off the risk of surging interest rates (following from the massive debt build-up), monetary policies will become even more unconventional and far-reaching. In the short run, governments will need to run monetized fiscal deficits to avoid depression and deflation. Yet, over time, the permanent negative supply shocks from accelerated de-globalization and renewed protectionism will make stagflation all but inevitable.
A fifth issue is the broader digital disruption of the economy. With millions of people losing their jobs or working and earning less, the income and wealth gaps of the twenty-first-century economy will widen further. To guard against future supply-chain shocks, companies in advanced economies will re-shore production from low-cost regions to higher-cost domestic markets. But rather than helping workers at home, this trend will accelerate the pace of automation, putting downward pressure on wages and further fanning the flames of populism, nationalism, and xenophobia.
This points to the sixth major factor: de-globalization. The pandemic is accelerating trends toward balkanization and fragmentation that were already well underway. The United States and China will decouple faster, and most countries will respond by adopting still more protectionist policies to shield domestic firms and workers from global disruptions. The post-pandemic world will be marked by tighter restrictions on the movement of goods, services, capital, labor, technology, data, and information. This is already happening in the pharmaceutical, medical-equipment, and food sectors, where governments are imposing export restrictions and other protectionist measures in response to the crisis.
The backlash against democracy will reinforce this trend. Populist leaders often benefit from economic weakness, mass unemployment, and rising inequality. Under conditions of heightened economic insecurity, there will be a strong impulse to scapegoat foreigners for the crisis. Blue-collar workers and broad cohorts of the middle class will become more susceptible to populist rhetoric, particularly proposals to restrict migration and trade.
This points to an eighth factor: the geostrategic standoff between the US and China. With the Trump administration making every effort to blame China for the pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime will double down on its claim that the US is conspiring to prevent China’s peaceful rise. The Sino-American decoupling in trade, technology, investment, data, and monetary arrangements will intensify.
Worse, this diplomatic breakup will set the stage for a new cold war between the US and its rivals – not just China, but also Russia, Iran, and North Korea. With a US presidential election approaching, there is every reason to expect an upsurge in clandestine cyber warfare, potentially leading even to conventional military clashes. And because technology is the key weapon in the fight for control of the industries of the future and in combating pandemics, the US private tech sector will become increasingly integrated into the national-security-industrial complex.
A final risk that cannot be ignored is environmental disruption, which, as the COVID-19 crisis has shown, can wreak far more economic havoc than a financial crisis. Recurring epidemics (HIV since the 1980s, SARS in 2003, H1N1 in 2009, MERS in 2011, Ebola in 2014-16) are, like climate change, essentially man-made disasters, born of poor health and sanitary standards, the abuse of natural systems, and the growing interconnectivity of a globalized world. Pandemics and the many morbid symptoms of climate change will become more frequent, severe, and costly in the years ahead.
These ten risks, already looming large before COVID-19 struck, now threaten to fuel a perfect storm that sweeps the entire global economy into a decade of despair. By the 2030s, technology and more competent political leadership may be able to reduce, resolve, or minimize many of these problems, giving rise to a more inclusive, cooperative, and stable international order. But any happy ending assumes that we find a way to survive the coming Greater Depression.
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SOLIDARITY AND RESISTANCE
French workers 1, Amazon 0: Interview with Stéphane Enjalran (Solidaires) on Covid-19 court victory
Interview with Stéphane Enjalran, National Secretary of the Solidaires trade union, which led the court action, about the significance of the court ruling.
A significant victory has been won by Amazon workers in France. The global distribution giant has shutdown six warehouses after losing a court case brought forward by French unions representing Amazon workers, who have been forced to work in close proximity to one another during the Covid-19 pandemic, putting them and others at risk of infection.
The unions won the first case in the Court of Nanterre on April 14th. Amazon appealed that decision, but were defeated again at the Court of Appeal in Versailles on April 24th. Giving her verdict, the appeal court judge made it clear that “employees…are the primary actors of their health security.”
The victory has resounded internationally. Jeff Bezos, Amazon boss – and the richest man in the world – has seen his wealth grow by $24 billion in the lockdown period alone as demand for e-commerce spikes. Bezos is getting even richer on the backs of a global workforce of approximately 780,000 who are putting their lives in danger, forced to choose between their health and their wage. The French court victory shows that Bezos is not all-powerful: workers’ rights, even at Amazon, can be fought for and defended.
The Gig Economy Project spoke to Stéphane Enjalran, National Secretary of trade union Solidaires (SUD), which has been organising Amazon workers and led the coalition of unions which defeated Amazon in the courts.
Enjalran explains the background to the court action, the ‘struggle union’ organising model of Solidaires, and the wider context of Covid-19 in France, which comes on the back of a wave of strikes and protests since 2018 that have rocked Emmanuel Macron’s presidency.
When did Solidaires begin organising Amazon workers?
We started organising in Amazon no more than five years ago. It was very difficult in the beginning. Amazon has a very aggressive policy against workers trying to build unions. I think it is like this everywhere in the world. A lot of workers are on time-limited contracts, and the company is always trying to clear out ‘troublemakers’.
What is the Solidaires model?
We should call it a ‘rank-and-file’ type of union. It is different from other unions in France like CGT and CFDT, which are a confederation model. We are a group of unions but we operate independently. For example, I am the National Secretary, but I can’t say to any union ‘you have to do that’. All the decisions are taken by the assembly of our unions.
How did the Amazon Covid-19 dispute start?
It began in the middle of March, at the beginning of the confinement in France, which continues now. The government immediately made several rules for the confinement period. For example, it is forbidden for more than 100 people to gather in France in the same place.
In these Amazon warehouses there were sometimes 300-500 people who were working together. At the beginning, they weren’t provided with proper protective equiptment. The masks arrived, but they arrived late. That was the first problem.
Then one of the major problems became the lack of social distancing. It’s impossible for workers to maintain a proper distance, so they said: ‘What do we do? How can we do what you ask us to do before the pandemic while respecting the social distancing? It’s impossible.’
So the answer of Amazon was to hire what they call ‘safety angels’. People that are there to watch in the rooms of the warehouses that workers maintained the correct social distancing from each other. It was impossible for these people to ensure workers stayed one metre apart. They would have to be everywhere at every moment. So the workers said: ‘Your safety angels are very nice, but it’s not enough. It’s not effective.’
Amazon’s first line to the press and to the workers was: ‘We are doing everything to ensure the safety of workers’. The workers responded: “No, it’s not enough, you have to convene a special meeting to speak about distancing, to speak about a global plan, because the problem is that some things are done in one warehouse, but not in the other. They asked for a unified plan for safety. Amazon refused, and that’s where it reached crisis point.
We tried to use what in French is called the ‘right of withdrawal’. That means that “in case of serious and immediate danger”, those are the exact words, workers have the right to withdraw their labour. There are procedures to instigate this measure. And then the employee has to pay, even if the workers do not work, because of the danger. So we tried to instigate this, and Amazon said ‘no, we don’t agree, there is no immediate danger’. I was certain that as soon as possible Amazon would fire people who used the right of withdrawal, and workers were fearing this to be honest. The law is that if the employer does not agree with the right of withdrawal, it can go to court. But this can take years, so you can be completely blocked.
The Ministry of Labour, after carrying out an inspection, officially recognised that Amazon was not meeting health and safety standards. But, back in 2016, the government reduced the power of work inspectors. Now you have to go to court, so it’s not a remedy in an emergency.
That’s why our union decided to take legal action.
Now the six warehouses are closed down. What does this mean in terms of Amazon workers pay?
First of all, closing down was the decision of Amazon, not of the judge. Even if our unions were asking this of the judge, the judge didn’t agree to fulfil our request to close warehouses. The judge stated that they could remain open as long as health security was assured and as long as Amazon delivered only essential products. Amazon chose to close, for one reason, because they knew that they weren’t in a good position on safety: so they wanted to avoid being fined.
So Amazon started the closures on April 16th. They chose to pay the wages of all of the workers, and still are right now. That, for us, was the first good decision they have made in this crisis. If the warehouses remain closed for a significant period; there could be a struggle on the wages issue. After the second judgement of the Appeal court, Amazon said the warehouses would be closed until May 5th. And they continue to pay the workers. I think they were afraid of public opinion if they tried to take the state funding for furloughed workers, which is supposed to be for companies that are in difficulty.
How significant do you believe the Court ruling is in terms of the health security of French workers as a whole during the Covid-19 crisis?
Yes, that was one of our principal hopes. We think this ruling creates a jurisprudence; a law that will be useful for other cases. Clearly, if you read the statement of the Judge, it will help for people who have the same situation in other factories in France, and in other countries.
How important is organising internationally to Solidaires?
We were already building an international network of Amazon workers before this crisis. About ecological questions, about employment questions, about work conditions, etc. And of course about the aggressive policy of Amazon against unions.
We had a meeting a few months ago in Brussels of Amazon workers internationally, and we plan to do another one in France later in the year, though we will have to see what is possible.
The Covid-19 crisis comes after the wave of pension reform strikes and protests in France from December last year to February. The Yellow Vests movement had rocked France in 2018 and 2019. How do you interpret the situation in France now?
That’s a very complex question. I tell you what I think, it’s only my opinion. I think the social contestation has been increasing for a few years in France. Not only in France, in other countries. I think the anger is growing.
The Yellow Vests were the first wave. It was the revolt of people who mainly weren’t in unions, many of them were even of the opinion that unions are also corrupt. We did a lot of work to try to connect with some of the Yellow Vests and in the end it worked – we connected. That was the first wave, and that was the first time that ‘Jupiter Macron’, as we call him, agreed to give concessions to the demands of the social movement. The second wave was this big strike and social movement over pensions.
The pandemic changes everything. It has opened the eyes of people who previously had some confidence in the government and to the French state. People see that the government is objectively lying on some points. For example, yesterday the government changed again what they are saying is going to happen with the confinement period. It’s like a pilotless plane.
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PROPOSALS FROM THE LEFT
Overcoming the crisis, promoting food sovereignty
We need policies that promote food sovereignty, ensuring greater autonomy for local populations. Proximity production and consumption can make an enormous contribution to combating climate change and boosting the economy
Author: Ricardo Vicente (Agronomist and Left Bloc MP)
Date: May 1, 2020
Source: Web Site of Portuguese Left Bloc
The current pandemic highlights the many limitations of our food production and distribution system. Globalisation has destroyed the connection of populations to their territory: today we have many food items (fruits, vegetables, fish, etc.) on the shelves of the nearest supermarket that could have been produced locally many times a year, but have come to us from the other side of the Atlantic--at enormous environmental and socio-economic cost. At the same time, we have farming and fishing communities struggling to sell and realise the value of local production. They are victims of the squeeze between rising production costs—with fertilisers, pesticides, seeds and plants becoming increasingly expensive—and falling selling prices.
For decades, governments and local councils have favored opening big supermarkets and shopping centres and have thereby destroyed local economies. Currently, with the market in food products cartelised by the distributors in an oligopolistic regime that allows them to set prices as they like, the farmers and the fishing communities that supply them with food are left without bargaining power. They often end up selling their produce below cost, while consumers pay a high price for the same products.
By way of example, according to the National Statistical Institute the cost of seeds, plants and fertilisers increased by 34% between 2010 and 2017 while the price of vegetables paid to farmers decreased by 9%. In this period, while farmers saw their margins crushed by rising production costs and falling sales revenue, supermarkets increased consumer prices by 9%. All producers understand the blackmail applied by those who dominate the food market in Portugal.
Some more examples: it is common to find farmers selling tomatoes below cost (at €0.40 a kilo in the greenhouse) while consumers pay about €1.50 a kilo. A similar process takes place with other products, especially those for fresh consumption and with less possibility of being conserved, from vegetables to fruit. A fishing cooperative recently told us that sea bass that sold at auction on April 17 at €4 a kilo retailed to the consumer at between €17.50 and €24. Butter mackerel, the best we have, raised between €0.80 and €1.20 a kilo at auction on April 25, while the consumer paid between €9 and €10 a kilo.
In the light of the major public health problem that is the COVID-19 pandemic, we all realise that it is safer to rely on local markets and production, if possible by buying directly from producers and their organisations. When we do, we greatly help local markets and contribute to a fairer distribution of wealth that allows everyone to live better.
We need policies that promote food sovereignty, guaranteeing greater autonomy for local populations, allowing them to decide how their food is produced. Proximity production and consumption can make an enormous contribution to combating climate change and boosting the economy. It is not a question of reducing the diversity of our food throughout the year, but of adopting a preference for local production and for environmental and socio-economic sustainability.
In the current crisis scenario, strong public policies are needed, which on the one hand boost the economy and employment and on the other absorb the lessons learned from the pandemic. To transform the food production and distribution system, the Left Bloc proposes two broad classes of measure:
1. Develop and implement Regional Plans of Agro-Food Implementation. Their objective is to promote food sovereignty and the ecological agro-forestry transition, with the priority of remodelling agriculture to meet the needs of the local population while combating climate change. In this way, rules for the implementation and management of agricultural production areas are defined according to local soil and climate conditions, maximum and continuous areas for cultivation are established, as well as measures to protect the population and the various surrounding areas (housing, water, public roads, etc). Conditions are also created to promote short production circuits and to supply local markets. The specification of these regional plans is also essential to allow a fairer application of the [European Union's] Common Agricultural Policy, promoting a better distribution of public financial support and greater territorial cohesion.
2. It is necessary to establish rules in the food market and to combat the exploitation of farmers and fishing communities by the distribution chains. In addition to the enormous pressure these chains exert on producers to lower prices, reaching levels often below production costs, it is also necessary to prevent producers bearing the burden of in-store promotions as well as of the application of discounts resulting from falls in demand and other pretexts unrelated to the producer. In order to make market relations more transparent, an EU Community Directive was issued with minimum, but still insufficient, rules that have to be applied in the Portuguese national context by 2021. But it is necessary to go further, which is why the Left Bloc proposes:
To oblige supply contracts to stipulate payments above cost price and to end the abusive practice of burdening farmers and fishing communities with the cost of promotions and discounts;
To set a floor price for the first sale of fish at auction above that of production cost and to expand the storage capacity of Docapesca's1 facilities to protect fishermen from falling prices;
To have the definition of minimum prices done by a public institution designated for this purpose and with the involvement of fishing and farmer organisations.
1 Docpesca is the publicly owned company that manages Portugal’s fishing ports and fish auctions.
Guy Standing: Time to pilot Basic Income
Guy Standing writes about Basic Income; as the economic crisis will go on for longer and will be worse the longer the pandemic itself lasts. In those circumstances, now is the time to try out different or complementary approaches and policies.
‘In a dark time, the eye begins to see.’ Theodore Roethke’s pithy aphorism comes to mind in reflecting on the government’s spate of ad hoc economic measures since the shambles of the first Budget of a young politically inexperienced Chancellor on March 12.
One should not expect much light from a part-time Prime Minister, who may be taking parental leave soon, and a Chancellor who was a hedge-fund manager for Goldman Sachs, before operating out of a tax haven and marrying a billionaire’s daughter. Empathy with the precariat is unlikely. But being in the dark may lead them into some light.
As the hotch-potch of fiscal measures unfolds, one can predict that the anomalies will multiply, as they have been doing. One day it is the so-called ‘self-employed’, the next day it is ‘the starters’, the next ‘the fishing community’. When will it be the turn of lolly-pop ladies? They are having a hard time.
While having some sympathy for a government having to make it up as they go along, surely this is a time for modesty and quiet experimentation. We do not know how long the medical crisis will last. But what has become clear is that the economic crisis will go on for longer and will be worse the longer the pandemic itself lasts. In those circumstances, now is the time to try out different or complementary approaches and policies.
The Labour Party put in its manifesto last year a commitment to pilot basic income. The Green Party had a full commitment to basic income. The Scottish National Party had gone further in that Nicola Sturgeon had given £250,000 to assist in the preparation of pilots in four areas of Scotland. I have just had a Zoom debate with Sir Vince Cable, and he conceded that piloting basic income would be a good idea. So, perhaps the Liberal Democrats can be regarded as supporters in prospect.
Over 170 members of the House of Common and House of Lords have signed a motion of support for basic income. On April 22, 110 MPs signed a letter to the Financial Times demanding an emergency basic income. And several weeks ago, a poll found that 84% of the public support having it.
The Chancellor has dismissed the proposal out of hand, and the Treasury has responded to a petition of over 100,000 signatories with a dismissive response that any knowledgeable economist could counter with ease. Iain Duncan Smith is trying to rally Tory MPs by claiming that a basic income would be a disincentive to work, when anybody should realise that it is his own Universal Credit that does that, through poverty traps and precarity traps, as shown elsewhere.
But this is not the time to score debating points, let alone for retreating into ideological bunkers. That applies to critics from the left as well as those on the right. We are in a dark time.
Last year, Liverpool City Council voted strongly in favour of being the venue of a basic income pilot. Sheffield followed soon after, and I recall a meeting with Coventry City councillors who also wished to be a venue for a pilot. Since then, several other local authorities have expressed the desire to be a venue. In my new book, emanating from a report done for John McDonnell, I have suggested several variants and thus a few pilots in a variety of types of community.
There should be several key points to be kept in mind by all of us. In all likelihood, if there are groups omitted from economic protection, the pandemic itself and social illness more generally will be prolonged. If one group is left vulnerable, we will all be left vulnerable. That principle should guide policy design. No exclusion.
Second, we should do everything possible to avoid means-testing. At the best of times, they result in huge exclusion errors, and some inclusion errors, and they automatically entail poverty traps and what I call precarity traps. Even the Department for Work and Pensions openly admit that over £16 billion of benefits for people eligible for existing benefits are not paid to them, due to lack of awareness, ignorance of procedures, fear and pride.
Universal Credit is and has been from its outset a disaster, being both mean-spirited, over-complicated, punitive and moralistic. This is the time to put it to sleep, in the dark, so that those who have dedicated themselves to its design and implementation can go to sleep with the consoling claim that circumstances ruined everything.
Leave them with their pride. But do not fall into the trap of saying that because hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on it over the past decade, it must go on. Every economist of any worth knows that historical cost is not relevant in making a decision on future cost and benefit.
To colleagues and friends who are proposing schemes that involve means-testing and lots of application procedures, such as the New Economics Foundation’s proposed ‘minimum income guarantee’, one should plead for their backing for basic income pilots. A rule of thumb should be that whatever is done should minimise means tests and application procedures through an over-worked and inherently bureaucratic system. Simple automatic procedures must have high priority.
Let us all unite in this endeavour. Let the government appoint three senior persons from across the political spectrum to coordinate a few pilots in a spirit of national unity in a dark time. Try out variants of a basic income for one year, and then evaluate them. There are places ready to go.
International solidarity in times of corona-crisis
In times of crisis, international solidarity is more than ever necessary, simply because this is the most civilised way to deal with the problem. By cooperating we can better protect people's health and maintain as far as possible our employment and our productive capacity. It makes a mockery of things to be falling out at European Union at such a time, and to be widening the economic differences between northern and southern states. We need to cooperate in our approach to the fight against the coronavirus, out of respect for all the people who now stand in the front line of our public services, indebted as we are to these soldiers in the line of fire.
Let's first of all make it clear that the debate over the eurozone is wholly necessary, because it's indisputable that northern countries which use the euro benefit more from it economically than do those in the south. In the last crisis the EU was concerned only with rescuing the financial sector. This must not be the case this time. Instead, the focus must be on the security of people's means of existence, on work and a decent income.
However, the argument that solidarity within the eurozone is possible only by means of a common approach to debt is entirely misplaced. Incurring state debts has up to now been a national competence. The EU can impose no taxes on individuals and has no equivalent of a national debt. There are many ways to aid countries in financial difficulties without further deepening the euro system by establishing a common European debt. This would require a democratic debate, given that it would involve an enormous transfer of sovereignty to the European level. Such a debate cannot be properly conducted in a time of crisis.
Organised solidarity is the answer to this crisis, in the Netherlands, in Europe and across the world. Governments and parliaments everywhere bear responsibility to do what is necessary. Here too, international solidarity offers a solution. For that reason the Dutch government must come rapidly to a just agreement with all of the other EU member states to give immediate support to the worst affected countries which now need it. Due consideration is clearly necessary – but to do nothing is for us not an option. We must not leave these countries to their fate, and our government needs to take its foot off the brake and instead contribute to creative and effective solutions.
Globally organised international solidarity too is now badly needed. That will require major sums in aid as well as unorthodox measures. Impose a solidarity tax on 'flash capital' – very short term investments which can be instantly withdrawn – and use the resulting revenue to combat the corona virus crisis, within and beyond Europe. Ensure that major corporations which are rolling in profit and even looking to pay out dividends to their shareholders hand over a gigantic solidarity tax. In addition, a tax on financial activities is clearly needed in order to ensure that the financial sector pays its share. If we are now to instigate the fight to save people's lives across the world, to protect their health and keep our societies functioning, then we will all in the end have to do a great deal better. Existing international structures such as the World Health Organisation, the United Nations, the International Monetary Find and the World Bank must all be directed towards overcoming as quickly and effectively as possible this unprecedented international crisis.
The call from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres for a moratorium to be declared on all armed conflicts deserves everyone's support, including that of the Dutch government and the European Union. Regions afflicted by such conflict lack by definition a functioning government, which gives the corona virus a free hand.
This crisis is laying bare throughout the world the many defects in the organisation of our societies and economies. Let's agree that what we are now observing in this respect will not be quickly forgotten but will instead be used to put in place sustainable social improvements, in order that by so doing we can cope more effectively with any future crisis. In the Netherlands, in Europe, and in the world.
Renske Leijten and Bastiaan van Apeldoorn, are Socialist Party spokespersons on European Affairs in the lower house of Parliament and the Senate respectively
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THE POLITICS OF PANDEMIC
FACTS: Who is behind anti-quarantine protest in Lithuania?
Fringe protests against coronavirus measures have been seen across the world, including in Lithuania. While organisers seek to present the protests as spontaneous grassroot movements, conspiracy theories and fringe activists play a central role in them, LRT FACTS has discovered.
About ten cars turned up near the parliament building in Vilnius on April 24, honking as they drove past before the police ordered them to disperse, the tv3.lt news website reported.
The action was entitled ‘For freedom, let's stop quarantine’ and was organised anonymously through a channel on the Telegram messaging app.
The channel, which includes nearly 250 members, and its messages are public. A link to channel was posted by a fake profile on a public Facebook event page.
Many of the messages criticised the Lithuanian government's decision to extend quarantine measures, arguing they were destroying the economy.
However, the invitation to the event included puzzling combinations of letters and numbers.
“We are tired of your bans and we will not remain silent! Let's all unite! 21_Q17_30. The number 21 is a sign of success angels. The angel's number 21 is unity, fulfilment and happiness. Q17 30 years since the independence from the Soviet Union,” the invitation read, adding the hashtag #WWG1WGA.
#Q17 and #WWG1WGA are popular hashtags associated with the notorious American conspiracy theory QAnon. According to its proponents, the so-called deep state is conspiring against President Donald Trump and his followers, while the world is run by a secret government assisted by the media and a “paedophile ring”.Mysticism and grievances
The organisers of the Lithuanian anti-quarantine event used quasi-religious vocabulary reminiscent of that associated with QAnon, invoking the “awakening”.
“I hope that there are awakened ones among the officers," some of the messages read, or “we need to share so that people are awakened” and “people in Lithuania are only starting to awaken, but it will take some more time, not everyone understands”.
Most participants in the discussions, however, invoked much more down-to-earth conspiracy theories popular in Lithuania, for instance, that the coronavirus is much less dangerous than claimed and the authorities are hiding the truth about it.
“The quarantine gets extended every two weeks, because they were scared to announce for months, for fear of panic,” the Telegram channel's administrator wrote.
“The WHO said they would enter people's homes and take the infected away. The laws are being made to suit them,” another participant said.
“[We're staying home] over a fake pandemic, a flu under a different name,” a user wrote, adding that the media in different countries were reporting about the death of one boy, but giving him different names.
“The death statistics are falsified,” was the comment among many.
On the channel, people expressed frustration over the work of the Lithuanian government and parliament, “lies propagated in the media” and called for resisting “the system”.
They were also posting links to stories about protests in the US and other countries as well as to other conspiracy theories, about vaccines and George Soros.
A common call was to use national symbols to protest quarantine measures: wave flags, sing the national anthem. Some proposed the slogan “freedom to the nation, enough with lies” and invoked the Lithuanian book smugglers from the 19th century, as well sa the anti-Soviet guerilla fighters, potent symbols of resistance against foreign domination.
Some people on the channel, however, were sharing genuine personal frustrations. “I won't be able to survive another month [at home] with a wife and a small kid,” said one. “Why won't they let us get a haircut, one can't breathe through the mask or see anything through the hair,” complained another.
Well-known conspiracy theorists
While the protest was organised anonymously, it involved people known for propagating fringe conspiracy theories.
Early on, a call to take part in an action against “total control” appeared on the Facebook profile of Marius Gabrilavičius, also known as M. G. Maksimalietis, the founder of minfo.lt.
The website, as well as Gabrilavičius' personal profile, publishes dubitable information on subjects like vaccination, health and international politics.
The website itself has announced that Facebook started blocking links to its stories, since many of them have been deemed misleading by third-party fact-checkers.
The well-know reporter Rita Miliūtė said back in 2018 that the website posted disproportionately much information about the activities of politicians from one party – the Farmers and Greens Union which currently leads the Lithuanian government – and one of the writers was the party's member and a parliament staffer.
Meanwhile the website's non-political sections are dominated by stories about dangers of vaccination.
On his Facebook profile, Gabrilavičius has called on Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis and Health Minister Aurelijus Veryga – both delegated by the Farmers and Greens Union – to stop executing “demands of the WHO devils”.
Discussions about the protest action also took place on the ‘Unfollow 15min.lt’ Facebook group (the name refers to one of Lithuania's main online media outlets) which currently boasts 20,000 members and features conspiracy theories about harmful effects of 5G and vaccination.
Kazimieras Juraitis, a fringe politician who tried to run for president in 2019, invited his followers on YouTube to attend the protest. His channel also posted a video saying that Juraitis was approached by the police over the protest.
“As far as I know, he [Juraitis] is not organising the event, it's a civic initiative,” an unidentified spokesman for Juraitis claimed in the video which, however, also included advice on how to avoid police attention during the protest.
Juraitis' channel, much like minfo.lt, has been identified by fact-checkers as misleading.
Conspiracy theory. Organisers of the anti-quarantine protest near the Lithuanian parliament took pains to present it as a grassroot action, even though well-known conspiracy theory propagators, including Marius Gabrilavičius and Kazimieras Juraitis, were behind the fake Facebook profiles that organised the event. Conspiracy theories and unverified claims that the government was hiding the truth were used to mobilise more people.
ISSUES IN THE SCIENCE
'How blind can you be?'--What history can tell us about today's coronavirus pandemic
DER SPIEGEL: Years ago, you warned that SARS, avian influenza and swine flu were merely dress rehearsals for something much bigger, a really terrible pandemic that was to come. Were you thinking of a pathogen like SARS-CoV-2?
"By creating the myth that we could grow our economy exponentially and infinitely, by almost 8 billion people living on earth, excessive travel, environmental pollution, by pushing back nature more and more, we created almost ideal conditions for the coronavirus to emerge, spread and hit us especially hard."
Week ending April 26, 2020
Experts blame lack of foresight by authorities for the high impact of the coronavirus on Spanish professionals
Spain is by far the country with the highest number of coronavirus infections among healthcare workers, according to available official data.
A report published on Thursday by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) underscores that 20% of registered coronavirus cases in Spain are healthcare workers, compared with 10% in Italy as a whole (in the hard-hit region of Lombardy the percentage rises to 20%). In the United States, infected healthcare workers represent 3% of total cases, while in China they are 3.8%.
Although the ECDC study uses Spanish figures from April 21, more recent data confirms this trend. On Friday, the Health Ministry reported that 35,295 healthcare workers are infected, 940 more than on Thursday. In Italy, the second most affected European country, there are just under 18,000 infected healthcare workers, according to figures released on Tuesday by Italian health authorities.
Besides the more than 35,000 health professionals, an El País estimate based on available regional statistics shows that nearly 12,000 employees of senior residences and other care centers have also been infected. But the real figure is probably much higher due to under-reporting. The Basque Country, Navarre and Castilla y León do not offer figures from care centers, while Madrid only reports those from public residences, which represent a fraction of the total.
Lack of measures
The high number of infections among health personnel in Spain is due to the absence of “the indispensable safety measures” that should have preserved their health, according to the Spanish Medical Colleges Organization (OMC), a regulatory body for the medical profession. The OMC also notes that 37 healthcare workers have died of coronavirus in Spain.
“There weren’t face masks for the workers. And when the masks arrived, many of them were defective. At this point in time, not all doctors and professionals have been tested yet. You cannot confront an epidemic of this magnitude in these conditions,” says the organisation, which is planning to pursue legal action in cases involving defective face masks for healthcare workers.
Manuel Cascos, president of the nurses’ union Satse, also blames a lack of protective gear and testing kits for the high prevalence of infections among health personnel. “This was the determining factor,” says Cascos.
The union estimates that between 60% and 65% of affected healthcare workers are nurses. “The lack of foresight and diligence by the relevant health authorities has put healthcare professionals in a position of great defenselessness, where they remain to this day,” says Cascos.
Satse said it will report this “deplorable situation” to the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Labor Organization and the European Commission, among others.
A known risk
“Healthcare professionals went to war without protection,” says Daniel López Acuña, a former WHO official who teaches at the Andalusian School of Public Health. “First they got infected, and later, without knowing it because many of them were asymptomatic, they infected colleagues and patients.”
López Acuña sees “an aggregation of factors” behind the enormous impact of the coronavirus on Spanish healthcare personnel. “Many health facilities did not have enough protective gear. The recommendations to use masks were not uniformly issued at the beginning of the epidemic. And the very limited number of tests performed at the beginning prevented us from knowing what proportion of health professionals were infected.”
“But to me, the determining factor, the one that has multiplied and made worse all of the above, is the asymptomatic transmission of the virus,” he adds.
José María Martín Moreno, a professor of preventive medicine and public health at Valencia University, laments the fact that authorities did not adopt the lessons learned from the SARS and MERS epidemics early on. “The risk for health professionals was a known factor. But for some reason, the system was not made ready in time.”
Yet despite these shortages, he adds, professionals at health centers and senior residences continued to perform their work “out of ethics, professionalism and a sense of duty.” This in turn raised the probability of contagion.
Translation by by Susana Urra (El País)
Andrea Crisanti is the head of epidemiological control of Italy’s Veneto region, which borders on Lombardy, the epicentre of the Italian COVID-19 disaster with more than 13,000 victims (see this account). Crisanti explains the reasons for the Veneto’s relative success in containing the spread of the virus, even allowing for the Veneto having half Lombardy’s population of ten million. Crisanti also comments on various issues in the COVID-19 debate, including the proper pace of easing lockdowns and the role of China and the World Health Organization (WHO).
What is the situation across Italy, comparing North and the South and Lombardy and the Veneto in the North?
Andrea Crisanti: Overall, things are getting better. We have fewer and fewer people needing to be admitted to hospitals, and the occupancy rate of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds is declining steadily. The situation is much better than it was thirty days ago. Unfortunately, we still have a lot of deaths every day.
How do you explain that there are many more victims in Italy, Spain or the United Kingdom than in Germany?
That’s related to the ability to make diagnoses. In Spain and Italy we underestimated the number of people infected.
And the differences between Lombardy and the Veneto?
In the Veneto, from the very beginning, we adopted very aggressive measures against the epidemic, making as many diagnoses as possible, isolating infected individuals, monitoring contacts. We made a great effort to carry out tests on anyone who had been in contact with infected people or whom we suspected had had contact. This had an impact because the more infected people you identify, the less people are able to transmit the disease. So you have fewer patients in hospitals and ICUs.
Lockdown measures in Italy have already begun to ease and the first week of May will be a little more relaxed. What is the risk of a new outbreak?
The risk is high. And we cannot rule out that we shall see an increase in the number of cases. But the good thing is that the virus seems to be very sensitive to high temperatures, because in southern Italy we have not seen the same spread of cases.
Does this mean that the arrival of summer can help stop the pandemic?
I have no other data to explain why, for example, in the tropics the virus has not spread much further despite people living in overcrowded cities with poor health systems.
Could it be that not many people have been tested there?
But we should have at least seen a dramatic increase in the number of deaths, and that hasn't happened. In southern Italy, the death toll is also low.
Isn't fighting an epidemic with a seemingly medieval method like lockdowns self-destructive?
It is a very old style approach of great brutality, which has tremendous consequences in terms of individual freedom and for the economy. The approach taken by South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore has been much more effective. But at the beginning Europe was not seriously prepared.
Did Europe not read the signals coming out of China well? Or did China never send the right signals?
Part of the truth is that the Chinese have not been transparent. Another is that we in Europe and the United States thought that we were better than the Chinese. But no. If we had been, we would have done better.
Have you ever believed China's official figures?
No. If you look carefully at the curves they have posted, they don’t look right. Where is the exponential jump in deaths? At the very least, they have hidden from us two months of the epidemic with thousands of cases and deaths. No, they probably haven’t been transparent.
On February 14, Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College published a study indicating that there could be 50,000 undetected cases daily in China. Do you think it is possible?
I tend to agree. And probably even more. I can’t believe that the Chinese confined an entire region [Hubei Province] of 60 million people and that they only had 2000 or 3000 cases a day when in Italy on some days we reached 6000 or 7000. I find it very hard to believe what they have said.
When did the virus arrive in Europe?
The study we did in the small town of Vo ’Euganeo (in Padua, in Veneto) tells us that it was already circulating there in the second week of January. For certain.
Does this mean that the European Union reacted very late and badly?
A lot of misinformation from the WHO was also responsible. The WHO accepted everything the Chinese told them without any critical assessment, without any real inspection. And, of course, that had an impact on the virus's ability to reach other parts of the world, because we implemented measures that were not the correct ones.
Can a person who has overcome the coronavirus get sick again in a short period of time?
Nobody knows. It's too early to tell how the immune system responds. And also to determine why children are so resistant to the virus.
Today Spain is beginning to relax lockdown measures for children. What is the best way to minimise the risk of new outbreaks?
The risk of a new outbreak is there. All you can do is be prepared to isolate a new nucleus of infection in a city, region or area if any takes place. All you can do is lock down and isolate and do tests to identify as many cases as possible. Failure to do so will never stop the epidemic.
Can what some experts call a health certificate be useful in fighting the pandemic?
It makes no sense at all. Because we don’t know if the presence of antibodies protects or not.
Are you optimistic right now?
To tell the truth, I'm not sure. Because the Eastern European states have reacted differently. We have not had a common European policy and many states have adopted approaches that are incompatible with others. You need a coordinated effort. If you don't, you run the risk of having an epidemic in one part of Europe and not another.
Other links on this topic
WHEN AND HOW TO EASE LOCKDOWNS?
Science will eventually provide these answers, but not now. It will take time, a long time. Proper science requires meticulousness, doubt and tirelessness. And sometimes it has no choice but to deliver bad news like that in Kissler’s study: Defeating the virus may take many months, perhaps even years of shutdown. But people don’t like hearing bad news like this when the sun is shining and they are fed up with the shutdown. This has tempted some politicians to try to order the scientific foundations themselves for loosening the lockdown.
PROPOSALS FROM THE LEFT
Prevention must be a central aspect of our health response to the coronavirus pandemic, both to stem the spread of the virus and to deal with the social consequences of the crisis. If many countries are not up to the job, it’s mainly due to their organisation of health care, confirming the importance of a strong public health care system.
"You really are the men and women who do everything eh, you people!" That was the reaction of an 88-year-old patient when she received a phone call from one of our Medicine for the People (MPLP) volunteer workers or staff in mid-March. At the outset of the coronavirus epidemic in our country, the 11 MPLP medical centres together decided to pay special attention to elderly patients, who would definitely be the most vulnerable in this crisis. So 3367 patients were elected on the basis of their medical records, with the goal that all of them would get called up proactively, in anticipation of potential problems. Setting up this work took a lot of energy, particularly given a period when all medical centres had to completely reorganise in the face of the sudden surge of the coronavirus. But it was well worth the effort because, in addition to getting a lot of gratitude, we gathered a great deal of information about the needs of this vulnerable group.
Many people were anxious, and sometimes slightly panicked; others were not yet fully aware of the danger and the precautions being recommended. Many elderly people living alone faced practical problems they could not solve. All of this was mapped and tracked by a team ringing around on the telephone. People’s health-related queries were then passed on to the doctors, while social issues went to the volunteer workers’ coordinator to look for solutions. Since then, for several weeks now, a few dozen patients have received help from neighbourhood volunteers, for example, to do their shopping.
One patient wrote a small thank-you letter to our team after one of these phone calls: “Your interest in the solitude of elderly people living by themselves really touched me. Good health care is more essential than ever today." This coronavirus crisis has made many people aware of the importance of work methods in being prepared to meet large-scale health threats. Projects such as calling on the elderly show how crucial these proactive prevention initiatives are in fighting an epidemic. On the one hand, you find people who are still insufficiently informed, which allows you to increase follow-up on recommended precautions. On the other hand, you also detect additional needs, which can then be taken care of, since health is not limited to the absence of viruses, even in the middle of a coronavirus crisis. There is also mental well-being, physical autonomy... Unfortunately, such initiatives are all too rare in our country.
The authorities' preventive approach isn’t enough
After telephoning elderly patients, we quickly realised that we had to worry about the situation in nursing homes. Everywhere the feedback was the same: there was not enough protective equipment, directives were not clear, and management did not have an action plan. On Tuesday April 7, an MPLP team set off to screen its first nursing home in Zelzate (East Flanders). On Wednesday, 85 other nursing homes finally received the long-awaited screening kits from the authorities. But what happened? Two days later, due to a lack of trained staff and faulty instruction manuals, it turned out that some people had been tested the wrong way. A painful mistake.
Virologist Erika Vlieghe, a member of the coronavirus expert group, said the morning after on Flanders public broadcaster FTV’s Radio 1 that the experts had already urged the creation of mobile screening teams for visiting nursing homes two months previously. They hadn't been listened to. Now that the authorities have had to rectify the situation in a hurry, they are even calling in the army and Doctors Without Borders to do the job. If someone had said three months ago that this would happen, they would have been taken for a fool. Between the start of the lock-down of nursing homes on March 11 and the first reports of concern at the start of April, almost three weeks passed. Three weeks during which the authorities failed to limit the spread of the virus among our most vulnerable population. Almost all attention has gone into preparing the hospitals. The hard lesson to be learned now is that in combatting the epidemic cure has been prioritised over prevention.
There are, of course, lock-down measures in place. This is the largest preventive intervention our authorities have ever carried out. But even on this front, most western countries are not up to the task. We cannot stem the epidemic unless we also go to search proactively for the virus. Already in February, the World Health Organization (WHO) wrote: "Fundamental to these measures is extremely proactive surveillance to immediately detect cases, very rapid diagnosis and immediate case isolation, rigorous tracking and quarantine of close contacts [...]." In Wuhan, at the height of the epidemic, 1,800 epidemiological teams totaling 9000 people worked to locate thousands of people every day. This is one of the keys that has enabled the Chinese government to contain the epidemic. But this experience is not applied here in our country.
Media reports point to the lack of screening equipment, but this is not necessary to track and follow up on contacts. The government announced late and timidly that monitoring would start in a few weeks. We’re already hearing that the ministers concerned are mainly seeking to develop one or more apps, and not so much to train enough staff. However, although an app can certainly help, experts warn that it can never replace human labour, according to Wouter Arrazola de Oñate in the April 8 De Standaard.
Anyway, we have the necessary expertise. For tuberculosis, another dangerous and highly contagious disease, Respiratory Trust Fund (FARES) teams have existed for 100 years. With each new case, a prevention team tries to get in touch with all the close contacts of the patient. All these contacts are then followed up and tested as necessary. This is exactly the same principle that WHO recommends for coronavirus.
Faulty system in the organisation of our health care
What is stopping [Belgian health minister] Maggie De Block, [labour, economy and consumer affairs minister] Wouter Beke, [Wallonia government health minister] Christie Morreale and [Brussels government environment minister] Alain Maron from working with more people in the field? Hundreds of health professionals have signed up on the volunteer list, but many testify that they have still not been called. Hundreds of medical students also want to help, but have been waiting for weeks for concrete news. “We are ready to help—now”, they write in an open letter published on the Vif.3 website. They perfectly fit the profile required for setting up mobile screening teams in nursing homes or for following up the contacts of infected people.
The fact that all these volunteers have so far not been used enough is a political choice. Could it be the result of an error in political judgment? Hard to believe with so many renowned virologists and epidemiologists in our country?
The reality is that our health care system is not geared to providing a rapid response in such work of prevention. Health care in our country is particularly fragmented. For prevention, and therefore to fight large-scale epidemics, we need a network of neighborhood-based primary care zones that are also well connected with each other. In addition to this, the remedial and preventive aspects of health provision belong to fragmented jurisdictions divided among our nine health ministers at the different levels of power. This reflects the painful absence of a global vision of health, which we are paying for dearly today.
Three essential pillars of a strong preventive orientation and firm response to emerging epidemics
Above all, the front line must be at the core of the health care system. Today, in Belgium, it receives only 5% of the total budget of the National Institute for Health and Disability Insurance (INAMI). Yet it’s at this level that most of the work is being done to stem the epidemic. In a country without a front line, such as the United States, everyone with symptoms currently goes straight to the emergency department, but at the cost of a loss of care quality because good treatment requires the ability to follow up on symptoms, be informed about the illness, organise supervision, pay attention to mental well-being, etc... The front line works by integrating the remedial and preventive aspects while taking overall care of the patient. The system works in this way for tuberculosis at FARES, where contact-tracing is carried out as part of the treatment that also monitors diagnosis and treatment.
The system of funding is the second pillar. Applying a comprehensive approach is harder if you are paid by service provided. It is thanks to the flat-fee system operating in health centres that we were able to quickly free up resources for projects of prevention in our MPLP centres, such as the proactive ringarounds to the elderly. This system allows care-givers to be more independent, because they are not financially dependent on the number of services provided. In situations like this, it has made it possible to quickly reorganise work, for example by switching to phone consultation without worrying about the remuneration for this service.
Finally, it is important that a structure exists to connect all health professionals. Currently, our health care provision is fragmented. This makes cooperation extremely difficult. Nursing homes do not know where to turn to in the event of a problem. Contact tracing teams have no-one to start out from. In a public health system like Sweden’s, for example, everything is built from a central structure, so that everyone knows exactly who is responsible for which part of the population. Each neighborhood has its own front-line health centre, where all service-providers work together under the one roof and where all residents of the neighborhood can go to ask all their health-related questions.
Coronavirus, starting point for a new model of health care?
"Radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades — will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix."
This quote was taken from an editorial in the Financial Times earlier this month. It applies to health care systems around the world. The principles above can only be applied if a public authority takes care of the organisation of health care centrally. In 1978, the WHO launched this universal model of «Health for All» at Alma-Ata. It was, however, immediately discarded when neoliberal doctrine began to dominate politics everywhere soon after. Today, the catastrophic management of the coronavirus crisis in the United States shows the complete bankruptcy of this model.
In the past, big epidemics have been moments in history when major changes have taken place around the world in the way we view health. Cholera gave rise to the establishment of public sewer systems and the Spanish flu to the first systems of public health care. Today’s epidemic could be another tipping point of this kind. In recent weeks, there has been regular talk of offering a bonus to health care workers after this crisis. But the discussion in this area is not just about increasing resources. No country spends more on health care than the United States and yet that country’s system has not worked well.
In the short term, the government must set up social-epidemiological teams. These teams can help nursing homes and institutions contain the epidemic and begin tracing and tracking close contacts for each new infection. It is better to integrate these teams into existing front line areas, so that the relation with this front line is optimal. The government has just announced its intention to recruit 2000 people for this task. That’s a start, but it might be too little, too late [in English in original]. In Wuhan, a total of 9000 people were mobilised for a population of 11 million. But here we are talking about a plan with 2000 people, and the Belgian Federal Public Health Service is already warning that they will not be able to get to work "for a month at least" (Het Laaste Nieuws, April 22). However, given the scale and duration of the challenge, swift and ambitious action needs to be taken now. We will have to hire staff, but we can already start looking for these people on the medical reserve list, among students, in medical centres and in the many structures for prevention and health promotion in our territory, and among local volunteers.
After the crisis, we will be able to learn from this experience, and see to what extent we can keep some of these teams for future preventive work. A large group of academics has warned in the past that the budget for prevention in our country is far too low (as reported by Wouter Arrazola de Oñate and André Emmanuel in De Standaard on October 7 last).
This crisis opens up the debate on the organisation of our entire health care system. Growing health care needs require more resources, which should be allocated as a priority to the front line. Let’s reintegrate prevention and health insurance into a single central administration, and rethink with the existing professionals the organisation of our health care within the framework of a global public vision, along the lines of the Nordic model in Sweden. Increasing the number of medical centres will be a key factor in this plan. That is the only way to better arm ourselves against future epidemics.
Note: The references listed in the original article have been incorporated into the translated text as links.
Other links on this topic
International: Patents vs. the pandemic (Institute for New Economic Thinking)
UK: What happens after the clapping finishes? The pay, terms and conditions we choose for our care workers (Resolution Foundation)
HOW TO FUND RECOVERY IN EUROPE?
Author: Martin Schirdewan (Die Linke)
Date: April 24
Last night's EU Council meeting once again failed to agree a rescue package large enough to meet the scale of the coronavirus crisis – and hung Europe's peripheral states out to dry.
The European Union Council summit held yesterday[April 23] was another disappointment, following a string of recent high-level meetings that have failed to deliver a sufficient economic response to the Covid-19 crisis.
Leaders of the 27 member states of the EU issued a “declaration of progress”, through which they made a vague commitment to establishing a Recovery Fund linked to a bigger long-term EU budget (the Multi-annual Financial Framework, MFF). At the same meeting, European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde warned that Eurozone GDP may shrink by up to 15% this year.
The Council could not agree on the precise size, structure or nature of either the Recovery Fund or future MFF. It did not reach agreement on how they will be funded, or whether the funds raised will be disbursed as grants or loans. The task of filling in the blanks is now with the European Commission, which will publish a proposal on May 6 or possibly even later. The option of ‘coronabonds’ appears to be off the table.
Media reports prior to the Council meeting showed that the Commission claimed it can “generate” €2 trillion through the Recovery Fund and new resources for the MFF, but no agreed-upon financial goal was announced following the summit. In her remarks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of measures worth just half that amount.
According to the pre-summit plan, the Commission said it aimed to raise €320 billion on the markets, then use that sum to “leverage” a much higher amount. The ‘leverage’ scheme has been favoured by the EU institutions since the global financial crisis, aiming – and always failing – to mobilise or ‘crowd-in’ private investment by providing a guarantee of a small amount of public money.
France, Italy, Spain and other member states have called for the funds raised to be disbursed through grants instead of loans, but Merkel said grants “do not belong in the category of what I can agree”. Politically, the EU is failing the test of solidarity both among and within member states.
Germany’s ‘exorbitant privilege’
The ‘exorbitant privilege’ Germany experiences within the EU has allowed it to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and economic losses far more powerfully than other states. An analysis of the budgetary measures taken so far within the EU shows that Germany has been able to provide around €150bn in expenditure based on immediate spending to respond to the health impact, grants to SMEs and self-employed people; social assistance. More than €1trn in liquidity and loan guarantees has also been provided, mainly through the state development bank.
While the German government’s coronavirus response is not perfect, its size and impact dwarfs those of other states. France by comparison has injected around €67mn in immediate spending, as well as €300bn of loan guarantees.
The differences between member states’ GDP size, public debt levels and ability to borrow cheaply on the market have all contributed to this divergent response. The institutional framework of the EU and the Eurozone has also provided advantages to Germany in each of these areas.
The average public debt to GDP ratio in the Eurozone was 65% in 2007. In late 2019 it stood at 86.1%. But for the countries affected by the sovereign debt crisis in 2010-2012, the debt level in 2019 was far higher – almost 180% for Greece, 137% for Italy, 120% for Portugal, 100% for France and 98% for Spain. Germany’s debt level for the same period was 62.6% of GDP.
The level of public debt in the EU was not caused by reckless government spending, but rather by the socialisation of private debt through the rescue of the financial sector, and dramatic increases in the costs of borrowing due to “market discipline” linked to the ECB’s failure to intervene. The pro-cyclical impact of the austerity programmes imposed by the Troika not only limited growth but devastated the public services, including healthcare.
In this way, the debt overhang from the Euro crisis has directly impacted on the ability of member states to respond to the pandemic effectively.
The debt weapon
Debt has been used as a weapon against the member states of the EU over the past decade in a similar way as it has been used by the IMF against the countries of the Global South for decades, demanding the imposition of structural adjustment programmes in all but name.
The EU has used debt as an instrument to transfer wealth from the public to private sector, and from the poor to the rich, while also using it to intervene in public policy areas it does not have legal authority over. For example, a report I commissioned earlier this year found that the Commission had used the Stability and Growth Pact to order member states to cut spending on, or privatise, healthcare services 63 times between 2011 and 2018. States were told to raise the pension age or cut funding to pensions 105 times over the same period.
The prospect of the massive spending required now and in the future being added to the balance sheets of member states’ public debt presents unique problems in the EU. While countries around the world are monetising their debt through their central banks, the EU has tied its own hands behind its back by enshrining monetarism and austerity into its Treaty. We remain stuck in the 1990s while the rest of the world has moved on.
Eurozone members cannot issue their own currency, but they do not have any control over the independent and entirely unaccountable ECB. Unlike during the 2008 crash and sovereign debt crisis, the ECB appears willing to act to support spending by member states, but cannot do so effectively due to Treaty constraints forbidding it from directly financing government spending or debt. Its mandate is solely to maintain price stability – to keep inflation low.
The design of the Eurozone contributes to debt crises, while the debt and deficit rules enshrined in the Stability and Growth Pact enforce anti-worker and anti-growth policies.
For members of the single market with an export-oriented economy, such as Germany and the Netherlands, the EU provides a major free-trade zone for its products. This set-up has allowed Germany to build up a massive trade surplus, under which it exports around €300bn more than it imports each year.
But for every surplus, there must be an equal deficit. Around two-thirds of Germany’s surplus is generated by intra-EU trade, sapping demand from the economies of other member states and forcing many of them to run significant trade deficits. If foreign direct investment is not forthcoming, these member states must borrow in order to finance this deficit.
Due to the harsh fiscal austerity applied after the recession, there is now not enough internal demand in the Eurozone to sustain German industry. Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, a global slowdown was unfolding and the Eurozone was on the verge of another recession, exposing the dangers of this economic model.
Germany’s economic model is not only damaging for working people across the EU; the success of its export-led model is dependent on the impoverishment of German workers. The less a company has to pay its workers, the cheaper its exports can be. This long-term strategy was intensified in 2003 under the then social-democrat/Green coalition government, which carried out a radical and vicious reform of the labour and welfare systems entitled Agenda 2010 (also known as the Hartz reforms).
By 2015, more than 12.5 million Germans, out of a population of more than 80 million, were at risk of poverty. A significant proportion of this number is the working poor, employed in part-time, precarious or platform jobs, and those working full-time on the minimum wage. In 2018 the share of workers at risk of poverty in Germany had doubled to 9.1% from 2005, growing at a faster rate than all major EU economies.
There are many proposals on the table to deal with the massive economic contraction brought about by the coronavirus, including an important proposal from Spain for spending to be funded by perpetual debt. Our key priority must be ensuring that there is no return to the failed policies and models of the past – policies and models that harm us all.
The full power of the ECB must be used to finance government spending. The public spending required now cannot be added to the member states balance sheets, facilitating future decades of crushing austerity under the EU’s debt and deficit rules. We cannot nurse the corporate sector back to health with public money and then let it run wild again.
In the EU we need to fight not only for solidarity among member states, but above all, for international working-class solidarity among the people of Europe.
The decisions taken by the Eurogroup [of European Union finance ministers] on April 7 were limited to a package of debt instruments, some of which are the result of initiatives already known to the European Commission, together with use of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). This mechanism currently charges a higher interest rate (0.76%) than the Portuguese state’s most recent emission of seven-year Treasury bonds.
Even if that interest rate were reduced for the purpose of this line of credit (which was not announced), the advantage of issuing Treasury bonds is still greater at the present time, because a substantial part of these bonds will be acquired under the European Central Bank’s (ECB) securities purchase program. And 90% of the income obtained through the interest on these bonds remains with the Banco de Portugal [Portuguese central bank] and returns to the state in the form of corresponding dividend payments.
Finally, there are no constraints on the end-use of financing obtained through the state, it does not entail any loss of finance market credibility (unlike resorting to the ESM) and it is considerably more robust. According to the ECB’s capital key, the limit on purchases of Portuguese government bonds under the ECB’s €750 billon program alone is €14.2 billion. In other words, more than three times the ESM. And this figure does not represent the full capacity of the ECB, which has, moreover, admitted to deviating from that key.
These are the reasons why the Portuguese Ministry of Finance has already affirmed that it has no plans to use the mechanism proposed by the president of the Eurogroup...
Along with these ineffective or inadequate instruments, the Eurogroup meeting practically buried the proposal for Eurobonds, cryptically referred to as belonging to the category of “innovative financial instruments”. In any case, is clear that such proposal would be useful only if it did not contribute to the build-up of intolerable levels of debt in the Eurozone.
The profound hypocrisy of the European Commission and the German government must be emphasised. Both have produced numerous public statements in the name of "solidarity" but both have opposed all solutions other than those contained in their initial proposals. Outrage with the Dutch Finance Minister’s unacceptable public statements should not overshadow the fact that Germany once again led the opposition to any kind of solidarity-based response in the European Union, with the support of the European Commission chaired by Ursula von der Leyen.
The idea that the instruments adopted do not imply the imposition of austerity policies is an absolute fraud. The Eurogroup document itself already makes reference to compliance with Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) rules, which means that the corollary of a European response based on the accumulation of debt will be pressure on member states to implement austerity policies soon afterwards.
The only reference in the conclusions of the Eurogroup meeting that could open the way to an economic response commensurate with the crisis is that of a Recovery Fund to finance countercyclical policies. However, the essential questions remain to be answered: How big will this fund be? How will it be financed? How will it be distributed? What strings will be attached to it?
This proposal by the Left Bloc aims to answer these questions, and seeks to spell out the character of a Recovery Fund, the only potentially acceptable instrument on the table today.
1. Conditionality — which means a memorandum of economic adjustment — must always be ruled out. On the contrary, the response to the crisis must be aimed at economic recovery. It is absurd to create financial mechanisms to support member states if recessionary measures are then to be imposed on them that would drag out what could be a temporary crisis.
2. The size of the Fund proposed here is directly commensurate with the impact of the recession. The amount to be made available should be that needed to restore the Eurozone’s real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to 2019 levels, including a real growth rate of 3%. The fund’s amount will be calculated to meet that objective. For a minimum estimate of the fall in GDP, we take the average value of the fiscal multiplier estimated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the 2013 study by Blanchard and Leigh and the OECD’s formula (a 2% fall in GDP for every month of lock-down) for a minimum of two months. The fund must therefore be immediately endowed with a capacity of at least 6.3% of the Eurozone’s GDP, that is, about €750 billion. Once the Eurozone GDP figures are known, the Fund should be increased by €120 billion for every percentage point of fall in GDP beyond 4%: that is, it could reach €1.47 trillion for a 10% fall in GDP.
3. Fund financing must be made through bonds issued by the Fund itself (if it has a formal existence) or by the European Investment Bank (EIB). In either case, the bonds are fully acquired by the ECB. Securities will have an interest rate of 0.05% and a maturity of 80 years.
4. This amount must be distributed among the member-states of the Eurozone/European Union according to the formula for the distribution of cohesion funding, as an instrument associated with the EU Community Budget. Each Member-state will be responsible for repaying the debt obligation that corresponds to its own financing (or by applying the ECB’s key).
We believe that the current crisis, much like the previous one, has confirmed the inadequacy of the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact, such that its current suspension should continue until it can be repealed. In any case, the debt contracted under the Recovery Fund will not be considered as such for the purposes of meeting the goals established by the SGP, even if the current suspension is lifted.
Formally, the Economic Recovery Fund proposed here is a debt instrument. However, the characteristics of this debt are radically different from those of the debt produced under instruments agreed to date The near-zero interest rate avoids a counterproductive deterioration of the debt service obligations of the affected countries. On the other hand, the long [80-year] maturity not only allows the repayment schedule to be uncoupled from any relevant decision horizon of states and investors: more importantly it also ensures that the principal will devalue over time. This amounts in reality — but not legally, which makes a difference — to a partial monetisation of the debt by the ECB, thus making this fund a hybrid of debt and monetary financing. With an average annual inflation of 1.5% until maturity, the principal would devalue by around 70%.
Finally, a financing package of this nature will reduce the financing pressure on all member states, contributing, together with the ECB’s own actions, to the reduction and convergence of the public debt spreads via which the states finance themselves. In responding to the ECB’s calls for a determined fiscal response to the crisis, the fund would make it possible to improve the conditions and effectiveness of its recently announced monetary policy measures.
Despite the Left Bloc’s critical position on the various legal constraints and treaties that define the actions of national and European institutions, including those of the ECB, this proposal has one political advantage — it is achievable within the existing legal framework. It is a proposal for multilateral and voluntary financing that is available to all member states and without direct (or indirect) transfers between member states, and in which the issuing of currency has as counterpart the transfer of an asset to the balance sheet of the ECB. There is not even risk-sharing between states because the securities will be held by the ECB.
The economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be acute, so it is unacceptable for EU decisions to contribute to its degeneration into prolonged recession. It will be possible to resume the levels of economic activity before the crisis in a short time, so long as there is an immediate and determined response from the European institutions and conditions allow member states to translate this response into concrete policies, without fear of a subsequent new wave of austerity.
If this cooperation does not exist, the European Union will have abandoned each country to its own fate.
Translation: Bloco de Esquerda, amended by Green Left European Bureau.
The disruption in the European Union caused by the COVID-19 pandemic should be temporary, but only if EU leaders take the extraordinary measures needed to avoid long-term damage. Fortunately, there is an easy, fast and low-cost way to finance the proposed €1 trillion European Recovery Fund.
NEW YORK — European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has announced that Europe will need about €1 trillion ($1.1 trillion) to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. This money could be used to establish a European Recovery Fund. But where will the money come from?
I propose that the European Union should raise the money needed for the Recovery Fund by selling “perpetual bonds”, on which the principal does not have to be repaid (although they can be repurchased or redeemed at the issuer’s discretion). Authorising this issue should be the first priority for the forthcoming European Council summit on April 23.
It would, of course, be unprecedented for the EU to issue perpetual bonds, especially in such a large amount. But other governments have relied on perpetual bonds in the past. The best-known example is Britain, which used consolidated bonds (Consols) to finance the Napoleonic Wars and war bonds to finance World War I. These bond issues were traded in London until 2015, when both were redeemed. In the 1870s, the US Congress authorised the Treasury to issue Consols to consolidate already existing bonds, and they were issued in subsequent years.
The EU is facing a once-in-a-lifetime war against a virus that is threatening not only people’s lives, but also the very survival of the Union. If member states start protecting their national borders against even their fellow EU members, this would destroy the principle of solidarity on which the Union is built.
Instead, Europe needs to resort to extraordinary measures to deal with an extraordinary situation that is hitting all of the EU’s members. This can be done without fear of setting a precedent that could justify issuing common EU debt once normalcy has been restored. Issuing bonds that carried the full faith and credit of the EU would provide a political endorsement of what the European Central Bank has already done: removed practically all the restrictions on its bond purchasing program.
Perpetual bonds have three additional advantages that make them appropriate for these circumstances.
For starters, because perpetual bonds never have to be repaid, they would impose a surprisingly light fiscal burden on the EU, despite the considerable financial firepower they would mobilise. The EU, moreover, would not have to refinance them when they came due, make amortisation payments, or even set aside money (for example, in a sinking fund) for their eventual repayment.
The EU would be obligated only to make regular interest payments on them. A €1 trillion perpetual bond with a 0.5% coupon would cost the EU budget a mere €5 billion per year. This is less than 3% of the EU’s 2020 budget.
The second advantage is more technical but almost as important. The market may not be able to absorb a €1 trillion issue all at once. By issuing a perpetual bond, the EU could raise this amount in installments, without creating a new bond each time.
The third advantage is that an EU-issued perpetual bond would be a very attractive asset for the ECB’s bond-purchase programs. Since the maturity of a perpetual bond is always the same, the ECB would not be required to rebalance its portfolio.The EU does not need to create any new mechanism or structure to issue the bonds, because the EU has issued bonds in the past. The proceeds should be used for investments and grants related to fighting the pandemic. The European Commission would disperse the funds either directly or through the member states and other institutions (such as municipal governments) that are directly involved in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
The disruption caused by the pandemic should be temporary, but only if Europe’s leaders take the extraordinary measures needed to avoid long-term damage to the EU. That is why the EU Recovery Fund is so desperately needed. Financing it with perpetual bonds is the easiest, fastest, and least costly way to establish it.
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POSITIONS OF NATIONAL GOVERNMENTS AND NATIONAL PARLIAMENTS
Iceland has the coronavirus pandemic under better control than most other countries. In an interview, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir explains the next important steps for her country.
When a child in her son’s class fell ill with the coronavirus, Katrín Jakobsdóttir had herself tested and stayed home until it was clear that she had not been infected. The prime minister of Iceland was following the advice of her scientists — advice that has been vigorously implemented in Iceland, with its population of 364,000.
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Europe: Denmark and Poland fire warning shot to Europe’s tax avoiders, ‘You won’t get bailouts’ (Forbes)
REAL EXTENT OF THE PANDEMIC
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THE THREAT TO DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS
The Chief of Staff of Spain’s paramilitary Guardia Civil police, General José Manuel Santiago, tried on Monday to calm the political storm his words had caused the day before when he said the body he oversees is working to “minimize the climate against the government’s management of the crisis.”
General Santiago’s words drew a furious response from opposition parties on the right, particularly the PP, Cs, and Vox parties, while a Guardia Civil professional body, the JUCIL, called for Santiago’s immediate sacking for “casting doubt” on the work of officers “in the defense of the rule of law.”
Referring to his words at a press conference on Monday, Santiago insisted that what he said had been misinterpreted and he added that in his 40-year career he had “learned that people come first.”
However, also on Monday, the leader of far-right Vox, Santiago Abascal, warned that his party will begin legal action against the general for “devoting Guardia Civil resources to ‘minimize’ the climate against the government’s management.”
Meanwhile, the PP and Cs opposition parties reacted to Santiago’s words on Sunday by calling for the Socialist interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, to give an explanation of the general’s words, which they described as “extremely serious and worrying,” in the Spanish parliament.
Yet, Grande-Marlaska played down the incident, attributing Santiago’s words to a “slip of the tongue” and the minister accused PP, Cs, and Vox of using the incident for political profit. “All I ask is that they leave the general alone,” he said, adding also “that they leave the Guardia Civil alone.”
As for the Catalan government, its spokeswoman, Meritxell Budó, said on Monday that she believes there was more to the general’s words: “I think that he let it out by accident but it does not distract from the reality behind these statements,” she said.
Orders to track down fake news campaigns
Yet, Santiago’s appearance does not seem to have put an end to the controversy, as Cadena Ser radio reported on Tuesday that the general sent an email to all police stations calling on them to identify fake news campaigns.
According to the outlet, the email sent on April 15 calls on commanders to compile reports based on the disinformation campaigns they find that “provoke social stress and disaffection in the institutions of government.”
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THE POLITICS OF PANDEMIC
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Western Balkans: After the pandemic: Perils and promise
Week ending April 19, 2020
There are images that mark an era, that are engraved in the collective imagination of a country. The one that the Italians will not be able to forget for years is the one that residents of Bergamo photographed from their windows on the night of March 18.
Seventy military trucks crossed the city in sepulchral silence, one after the other, in slow motion as a sign of respect: they were carrying corpses. They were being taken to other cities outside Lombardy because the cemetery, the funeral home, the church converted into an emergency funeral home and the crematorium in operation 24 hours a day were no longer sufficient.
The image captured the magnitude of the ongoing tragedy in the area of Italy most affected by the coronavirus. The next day, the country woke up with the news that it was the world leader in official deaths by COVID-19, most of them in Lombardy. But, why is the situation so dramatic precisely in Bergamo? What has happened in that area such that in March 2020 there were 400% more deaths there than the same month of 2019?
On February 23, two people tested positive to coronavirus in the province of Bergamo. In one week, the figure reached 220; almost all in Val Seriana.
In Codogno, a Lombard town where the first official case of coronavirus was detected on February 21, 50 diagnosed cases were enough to close the city and declare it an official danger zone.
Why was the same not done in Val Seriana? Because one of the most important industrial centres in Italy is concentrated in this Serio river valley, and the industrialists pressured all administrations to avoid closing their factories and losing money. And so, incredible as it may seem, the area with the most deaths from coronavirus per inhabitant in Italy — and in Europe — has never been declared an official danger zone, despite the stupor of the mayors, who called for it, and of the citizens, who are now demanding accountability. The General Practitioners (GPs) of Val Seriana are the first to speak out: in their helplessness they say that if an official danger zone had been declared — as all the experts were advising — hundreds of people would have been saved.
The story gets even murkier: those with interests in keeping factories open are, in some cases, the same as those with interests in private health clinics. Lombardy is the Italian region where the model of health care commercialisation has gone farthest and has been the victim of a large-scale corrupt system headed by its premier of 18 years (from 1995 to 2013), Roberto Formigoni, a prominent member of [the Catholic movement] Communion and Liberation (CeL). He was from [former prime minister Silvio] Berlusconi's party Forza Italia and was dubbed by him "Lombardy's premier for life”, but he always had the support of the [Northern] League, which has governed the region since Formigoni departed after being accused — and later convicted — of corruption in health care. His successor, Roberto Maroni, started a health care reform in 2017 that further cut public investment and has practically abolished the figure of family doctor, replacing it with that of “manager”. "It's true, in the next 5 years 45,000 general practitioners will disappear, but who still goes to the GP?", impervious League politician Giancarlo Giogetti said in August last year when he was a deputy secretary of state in the [Giuseppe] Conte – [Matteo] Salvini government.
Start of a nightmare
The epidemic in the Bergamo area (the so-called Bergamasca) officially began on the afternoon of Sunday, February 23, although the GPs — in the forefront of denouncing the situation — claim that since the end of December they had been treating many cases of abnormal pneumonia in people as young as 40.
At the Pesenti Fenaroli hospital in Alzano Lombardo, a municipality of 13,670 inhabitants a few kilometers from Bergamo, the results of the coronavirus tests of two hospitalised patients arrived on February 23: they were positive. Since they had both been in contact with other patients and with doctors and nurses, the hospital management decided to close the doors. But then, without any explanation, they reopened them a few hours later, neither disinfecting the facilities nor isolating the patients with COVID-19. Furthermore, the medical personnel worked for a week without protection; a good number of hospital health workers were infected and spread the virus among the population. The infections spread throughout the valley. The hospital turned out to be the first major source of infection: patients admitted for a simple hip problem ended up dying from coronavirus.
The mayors of Nembro and Alzano Lombardo, the two hardest hit municipalities of the Val Seriana waited every day at seven in the afternoon for the order to shut down their towns, which was what had been agreed to. Everything was ready: the municipal ordinances drafted, the army mobilised. The police chief had informed the mayors of the shifts to be maintained by the police and accommodation tents had been set up. But the order never came, and no one could explain why. On the other hand, continuous calls did come in from businessmen and factory owners in the area, extremely concerned to avoid at all costs closing down their activities. And they acted openly.
Without shame, on February 28, in full coronavirus emergency — in 5 days with the virus already out of control an official figure of 110 infected people had been reached in the region — the Italian industrial employers umbrella Confindustria started a social network campaign with the hashtag #YesWeWork. "We have to tone things down, make public opinion understand that the situation is getting back to normal, that people can return to living as before," the president of Confindustria Lombardy, Marco Bonometti, told the media.
The same day, Confindustria Bergamo launched its own campaign aimed at foreign investors to convince them that nothing was happening there and that there was no way they were going to stop production. The slogan was unmistakable: "Bergamo non si ferma" (Bergamo isn't stopping).
The message of the promotional video for international partners was absurd, downplaying with the line that "coronavirus cases have been diagnosed in Italy, but just as in many other countries". And they lied: "The risk of infection is low." They blamed the media for unwarranted fear-mongering, and while showing workers at work in their factories boasted that all factories would continue "open and at full capacity, as always".
Stop coughing, keep working
Just five days later, the huge outbreak of infections and deaths arrived, and ended up being the most important in Italy and Europe. But not even then did the employers withdraw the campaign, much less did they consider closing the factories. Confindustria Bergamo groups 1200 companies that employ more than 80,000 workers. All were exposed to the virus, forced to go to work, largely without adequate measures — overcrowded, without safe distancing or protective material — exposing themselves and everyone around them to risk.
Bergamo Mayor Giorgio Gori of the Democratic Party had also joined the clamor not to close the city, and on March 1 invited people to fill city centre businesses to the slogan "Bergamo isn't stopping". Later, faced with the evidence of the catastrophe, he expressed his regret and acknowledged that he had taken measures that were too soft so as not to hinder the economic activity of the powerful companies in the region.
On March 8, official infections in the Bergamasca had gone, in a week, from 220 to 997. In the afternoon it was leaked that the Government wanted to isolate Lombardy. After hours of chaos in which many left Milan in a stampede, prime minister Giuseppe Conte appeared at dawn in a confused Facebook press conference to announce the decree. It was not what the mayors of the towns of the Val Seriana had been waiting for: not a red light, but an orange one. That is, entering and leaving the municipalities was restricted, but everyone could continue going to work.
After two days, the lockdown spread equally to every part of Italy. But nothing changed in the Bergamasca area, where infections spread and grew at the same unstoppable rate as factories kept operating at full speed. "When everyone in the area, especially in Nembro and Alzano Lombardo, took it for granted that the red zone was going to be declared, some important companies in the area pushed to delay it for as long as possible," said Andrea Agazzi, secretary general of the Bergamo branch of the Metallurgical Employees and Workers Federation (FIOM) on the RAI Report program. And he added: "Confindustria played its cards and the government chose which side it was going to be on."
The infections and deaths increased unstoppably, especially in the industrial areas of Lombardy located between Bergamo and Brescia. An exact month after the first official case of coronavirus in Italy, on Saturday, March 21, the sad record score of almost 800 daily deaths was reached. The premiers of Lombardy and Piedmont — another major industrial centre — declared that the situation was unsustainable and that it was necessary to stop all productive activity. An overwhelmed Conte, who until then had been opposed to the measure, appeared at night to say "yes, all non-essential productive economic activities" would be closed down.
The unions pressure Conte
Confindustria immediately moved to launch a pressure offensive on the Government. "Not all non-essential activities can be closed," they said in a letter to the prime minister detailing their demands. The industrialists managed to delay approval of the decree by 24 hours and have Conte to accept their conditions. Indeed, the government had chosen which side to be on, and it was not that of the workers.
En bloc, the unions rose up and threatened a general strike if a real shutdown of non-essential productive activitiy was not observed. Confindustria had managed to add many activities that were not essential to the list of those that could continue to operate, such as the arms and ammunition industry. In addition, they included a kind of clause that allowed, in practice, any company that declared that it was "functional" for an essential economic activity to be able to remain open. This had the result that in Brescia (the other Lombard province hit by the coronavirus) in just one day more than 600 companies that were not on the essential list began the procedure to continue operating.
”I don't understand the reasons why the unions would want to strike. The decree is already very restrictive: what else would have to be done?”, said a not very sympathetic Vincenzo Boccia, president of Confindustria. And he added: “We will already lose €100,000 million a month; not stopping the economy is good for the whole country.” Annamaria Furlan, secretary general of the Italian Confederation of Workers Unions (CISL) tried to explain why: “I have been a unionist for 40 years and have never asked for the closure of any factory, but now people's lives are at risk.”
Factory workers launched protests and work stoppages while unions negotiated with the government, which eventually reconsidered. Several activities were removed from the list of the more than eighty considered essential, such as the arms industry or call centers that sell unsolicited offers by telephone, while the operations of the petrochemical industries were restricted. It was also agreed that the self-certification of a company was not enough for it to be considered part of essential production, and a commitment was given to safeguard the right to health of workers who continued in the factories. All in all, ambiguous points remain in the decree and there is a grey area that allows many factories to remain open. Similarly, many workers continue to work without proper distancing or the proper protective material.
Practically all Bergamasca factories remained open until March 23, when the official figure for infections in the area was already almost 6500. A week later, on March 30, despite the decree to close "all non-essential productive activities", the area had 1800 factories open and 8670 infected people.
The guilty profiteers
Let's name the factories that did not want to close. One of the companies in the area is Tenaris, a world leader in the manufacture of pipes and services for the exploration and production of oil and gas, with a turnover of $7.3 billion and legal headquarters in Luxembourg. It employs 1700 workers in its Bergamasca factory and belongs to the Rocca family, with Gianfelice Rocca, the eighth richest man in Italy, as its owner.
In the province of Bergamo, as in all Lombardy, private healthcare is very powerful. In the Bergamasca, specifically, half of health care provision is done by private companies. The two most important private clinics in the area, with a turnover of more than 15 million euros a year each, belong to the San Donato group — whose president is none other than the former Italian deputy prime minister Angelino Alfano, former heir apparent of Berlusconi — and to the Humanitas group. The president of Humanitas is Gianfelice Rocca, also the owner of Tenaris, the industry that has not wanted to send its workers home. Bergamo private health services were not activated to meet the coronavirus emergency until March 8, when, by decree, all non-urgent services had to be postponed. Only then did the private clinics begin to make room for COVID-19 patients.
Brembo is another big company with factories in Bergamasca. It belongs to the powerful Bombassei family, also involved in politics: Alberto, the founder's son, was a deputy for Civic Choice, [former prime minister] Mario Monti's party. It has 3000 workers in its factories in the Bergamo area, where it produces car brakes. Turnover: €2600 million. It didn't want to close.
The Val Seriana was largely industrialized by Swiss companies more than 100 years ago, so the presence of factories linked to Switzerland is still important. Another large company that has more than 6000 workers in Italy, more than 850 in Bergamasca, is ABB, with Swiss and Swedish capital. Leader in robotics, it turns over €2000 million. On March 30 it was still operating normally.
Persico, an Italian company that produces automotive components, with 400 workers and a €159 million turnover, is based in Nembro, the municipality with the most deaths from COVID-19 per inhabitant in Italy. Pierino Persico, the owner, was one of those most opposed to the declaration of an official danger zone.
In March 2019, 14 people died In Nembro. In the same month of this year the figure was 123 (an increase of 750%). And even so, the officially infected only amount to 200. In Alzano Lombardo, nine people died in March 2019; this March, the figure was 101. In the city of Bergamo (with 120,000 inhabitants) deaths this March have been 553, while in March 2019 they were 125. The data on infected people is not reliable because there are no tests, and Italian Civil Protection — which does the counts — has cautioned that the numbers should be multiplied by at least ten.
According to a study published by the Giornale di Brescia, in this Lombard province the number of infected would be 20 times higher than the official one, namely 15% of the population. The same goes for the dead. According to this study, they would be double the official number, that is, 3000 in the province of Brescia alone. The lack of testing — of the living and the dead — makes it impossible to carry out a reliable count. What is known is that Italy is the country in the world with the most deaths from COVID-19, around 18,000, and that most are from the industrial north.
Now, given the thousands of corpses and a population that is beginning to turn its pain into rage, everyone is denying their guilt. The governor of Lombardy, the League's Attilio Fontana, blames the central government and claims that he was not stricter because it did not let him. In fact, had he wanted to be, he could have been, just like the governors of Emilia Romagna, Lazio and Campania, who decreed official danger zones in their regions. The truth is that no authority has been up to the task, except the mayors of small towns, who are the only ones who have recognised — and denounced — the pressures of the industrialists, who were besieging them with calls to try to avoid or postpone the closure of factories.
From a wounded Bergamo that is still in shock, citizens are staring to organise to ask that the facts be clarified and that someone assume, at least, the responsibility of having allowed economic interests to prevail over the health — that is, the life — of Bergamasca workers. Many of them, by the way, casuals.
Changing perspectives on preparation and mitigation
In a pandemic, patient-centered care is inadequate and must be replaced by community-centered care. Solutions for COVID-19 are required for the entire population, not only for hospitals. The catastrophe unfolding in wealthy Lombardy could happen anywhere. Clinicians at a hospital at the epicenter call for a long-term plan for the next pandemic
We work at the Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital in Bergamo, a brand-new state-of-the-art facility with 48 intensive-care beds. Despite being a relatively small city, this is the epicenter of the Italian epidemic, listing 4305 cases at this moment — more than Milan or anywhere else in the country (Figure 1). Lombardy is one of the richest and most densely populated regions in Europe and is now the most severely affected one. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported 74,346 laboratory-confirmed cases in Europe on March 18 — 35,713 of them in Italy.
Our own hospital is highly contaminated, and we are far beyond the tipping point: 300 beds out of 900 are occupied by COVID-19 patients. Fully 70% of ICU beds in our hospital are reserved for critically ill COVID-19 patients with a reasonable chance to survive. The situation here is dismal as we operate well below our normal standard of care. Wait times for an intensive care bed are hours long. Older patients are not being resuscitated and die alone without appropriate palliative care, while the family is notified over the phone, often by a well-intentioned, exhausted, and emotionally depleted physician with no prior contact.
Western health care systems have been built around the concept of patient-centered care, but an epidemic requires a change of perspective toward a concept of community-centred care.
But the situation in the surrounding area is even worse. Most hospitals are overcrowded, nearing collapse while medications, mechanical ventilators, oxygen, and personal protective equipment are not available. Patients lay on floor mattresses. The health care system struggles to deliver regular services — even pregnancy care and child delivery — while cemeteries are overwhelmed, which will create another public health problem. In hospitals, health care workers and ancillary staff are alone, trying to keep the system operational. Outside the hospitals, communities are neglected, vaccination programs are on standby, and the situation in prisons is becoming explosive with no social distancing. We have been in quarantine since March 10. Unfortunately, the outside world seems unaware that in Bergamo, this outbreak is out of control.
Western health care systems have been built around the concept of patient-centred care, but an epidemic requires a change of perspective toward a concept of community-centred care. What we are painfully learning is that we need experts in public health and epidemics, yet this has not been the focus of decision makers at the national, regional, and hospital levels. We lack expertise on epidemic conditions, guiding us to adopt special measures to reduce epidemiologically negative behaviors.
Pandemic solutions are required for the entire population, not only for hospitals.
For example, we are learning that hospitals might be the main COVID-19 carriers, as they are rapidly populated by infected patients, facilitating transmission to uninfected patients. Patients are transported by our regional system,1 which also contributes to spreading the disease as its ambulances and personnel rapidly become vectors. Health workers are asymptomatic carriers or sick without surveillance; some might die, including young people, which increases the stress of those on the front line.
This disaster could be averted only by massive deployment of outreach services. Pandemic solutions are required for the entire population, not only for hospitals. Home care and mobile clinics avoid unnecessary movements and release pressure from hospitals.2 Early oxygen therapy, pulse oximeters, and nutrition can be delivered to the homes of mildly ill and convalescent patients, setting up a broad surveillance system with adequate isolation and leveraging innovative telemedicine instruments. This approach would limit hospitalization to a focused target of disease severity, thereby decreasing contagion, protecting patients and health care workers, and minimizing consumption of protective equipment. In hospitals, protection of medical personnel should be prioritized. No compromise should be made on protocols; equipment must be available. Measures to prevent infection must be implemented massively, in all locations and including vehicles. We need dedicated COVID-19 hospital pavilions and operators, separated from virus-free areas.
We need a long-term plan for the next pandemic.
This outbreak is more than an intensive care phenomenon, rather it is a public health and humanitarian crisis.3 It requires social scientists, epidemiologists, experts in logistics, psychologists, and social workers. We urgently need humanitarian agencies who recognise the importance of local engagement. WHO has declared deep concern about the spread and severity of the pandemic and about the alarming levels of inaction. However, bold measures are needed to slow down the infection. Lockdown is paramount: social distancing reduced transmission by about 60% in China. But a further peak will likely occur when restrictive measures are relaxed to avoid major economic impact.4 We strongly need a shared point of reference to understand and fight this outbreak. We need a long-term plan for the next pandemic.
Coronavirus is the Ebola of the rich and requires a coordinated transnational effort. It is not particularly lethal, but it is very contagious. The more medicalised and centralised the society, the more widespread the virus. This catastrophe unfolding in wealthy Lombardy could happen anywhere.
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SOLIDARITY AND RESISTANCE
It’s been described as the biggest peacetime crisis to face Europe for 75 years. Yet, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, our European Union (EU) leaders were caught flat-footed, and were soon floundering and overwhelmed as the death toll rises and unemployment goes through the roof.
EU solidarity to member states impacted by the coronavirus outbreak hasn’t just been slow. At times, it was an unedifying spectacle as member states wrangled over budgets and bonds whilst our citizens lay dying, and our essential workers risked their lives to treat us, transport us and feed us. We have set out here what needs to happen policy-wise at EU level to respond to this crisis — a massive, coordinated European Emergency Response Plan. However, faced with this emergency, and a mostly inadequate response at both EU and national levels, people are building their own collective response.
People-to-people solidarity — between friends, neighbours, within communities and in towns and cities across Europe — has flourished. Here, we are going to showcase some glimpses of true EU solidarity, big and small, that continue to inspire and help carry us through this moment with hope that another Europe is possible.
Communities coming together
In the absence of state action, grassroots groups have mobilised to support their neighbours, especially people without nearby family, elderly people, and people with a disability or long-term health condition such as cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease. Known as mutual aid groups, they help people to fetch their groceries, walk their dogs, pick up prescriptions or simply have a chat over the phone or Skype if they were feeling lonely or frightened.
Incite, a network of radical feminists of colour, has put together a set of principles of community accountability that are guiding many of the mutual aid groups based on the principles of transformative justice. Among them, a commitment to ongoing development of all members of the community, and the community itself, to transform the political conditions that reinforce oppression and violence.
A group of volunteers in Brussels has also been organising the distribution of daily meals for health workers who have been forced to do overtime shifts during the emergency. The hashtags #prenonsSoinDesAutres #ZorgVoorElkaar have already been shared widely in encouraging people to share their own acts of kindness. In Dublin, as in many other cities, restaurants have been giving free meals to the homeless.
Meanwhile, volunteers in Germany have set up a platform to coordinate direct people-to-people assistance. Services on offer include grocery shopping, babysitting and other forms of day-to-day support. People registering their requests on the platform are linked with volunteers in their area offering these services.
Defending our public services
After years of austerity and threats of privatisation, hospitals have struggled to access basic equipment such as face masks for doctors and nurses. Workers in essential services that have continued to operate during the pandemic, such as supermarket staff, have also been affected. Faced by this situation, a group of Belgians put out an appeal on social media for volunteers to help make face masks at home. This DIY tutorial gives detailed instructions on how these can be made, for example. Even prisoners have joined the effort, sewing 2000 face masks in a short period.
Similar initiatives are taking place right across Europe. In Spain, a community of “makers” — 3-D printing aficionados — are collaborating to 3D print ventilators and face masks. They’ve created a website to mobilise members of the community, CoronavirusMakers.org, and their Telegram channel already counts 15,000 volunteers. Their initiative does not stop at Spain’s borders. They have shared their models with “makers” from other countries so that similar initiatives can spring up elsewhere.
In Italy, 8000 doctors have signed-up to volunteer in the worst-hit regions. Thousands of ordinary citizens in member states have signed up to help overcrowded hospitals. In Germany, migrant and refugees have responded to a government appeal for help in hospitals and in farms.
Supporting frontline workers
Many of the most precarious and low paid workers in society have continued to work during the pandemic as governments deemed their work ‘essential’ to keep countries running. There has been greater public debate, and visibility on social media, about the way these workers have been treated in the past, creating momentum in their long fight for better working conditions.
In recognition of their work, families are leaving messages of thanks on their post boxes to people delivering their mail, or clapping to thank health workers every day at 8pm. With the spike in online shopping, Amazon workers are calling for strike actions to protest against the corporation’s continued disregard for the health and safety of its poorly-paid workers. People across the world are standing in solidarity with them, using the hashtag #BoycottAmazon, joining in on one-day boycott actions and cancelling their Prime accounts.
In Greece, networks that have been sprung up since the 2008 financial crisis have returned and intensified their work to support the already battered communities. Solidarity for All, part of a solidarity economy movement, runs a network of solidarity healthcare clinics, food solidarity structures and solidarity kitchens, “without middle men” networks, immigrant solidarity networks and cooperatives.
Rather than requesting economic assistance, Solidarity for All asks people to “adopt” collective initiatives and forge direct connections of mutual support. This has been crucial for Greece’s ageing population, who sometimes rely on help from volunteers to access food, hygiene and other errands.
Local governments have also played an important role in forging community solidarity, working with local organisations and volunteers. The Municipality of Rafina — Pikermi, which was plagued by Greece’s fires of 2018 that devastated much of the region, has set up a solidarity and support structure for citizens, with a call-center under the slogan “Stay home, we are here for you”. People have called the line for medical support, home distribution of necessary medical equipment and food. The Municipality has also set up a psychological support helpline as part of the initiative.
Small businesses have been hit hard by the crisis, with many risking closure. In Thessaloniki, for example, local volunteers have come together to save a pastry shop at the threat of closure by ordering lots of pastries, eggs, pies, juices, which were then distributed to the locals.
Across Europe, people have been leaving notes at the entrance of buildings and on announcement boards offering help with grocery shopping and support for elderly and disabled people. Two members of the local community in Ptolemaida, Greece made available tablet computers so that people in hospital isolation could remain in contact via video link with their families.
The cultural community, which were among the most affected by austerity cuts, have offered concerts, book readings, classes and theatre plays through their social media channels to combat isolation and loneliness, and to help people stay connected.
Let us know what is happening where you live and we will keep updating this article!
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REAL EXTENT OF THE PANDEMIC
France: 'We are moving towards alternating periods of tightening and relaxing lock-downs'
Explanations from specialist in epidemic modeling at the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS)
What indicators are available to you to determine the stage of the epidemic?
Jean-Stéphane Dhersin: In France, before March 1, a person affected by the virus infected an average of 2.5 healthy people. This figure, called the basic reproduction rate or "R zero", is determined by three criteria: the number of contacts of the infected person, the ease with which the virus is transmitted and the duration over which the infectious person can infect others. Without a proactive response, the progress of infection in any epidemic is exponential. But after a while, when the rate of people who have been infected increases and exceeds 60% of the population, it is no longer possible for an infected person to transmit the virus to more than one person and the epidemic rapidly declines. This is called collective or "herd" immunity.
Where are we today in France?
Jean-Stéphane Dhersin: In France, to reach a "zero R" of 1 (where an infected person only infects one other on average), we worked on several determinants: initially, when there were few cases, it involved tracing and isolating infected people and their contacts. That was a method which had proved its worth with SARS, because SARS displayed marked symptoms even before people became contagious ... Alas, for COVID-19, it is the other way round: people with it are contagious while they still show little or no symptoms of the disease. That changes everything!
Another response that was put in place fairly quickly was to limit the risk of transmission via measures restricting movement, social distancing and having infected people wear a mask (in Asia, this was the case for the whole population; in France as we know, the shortage has complicated matters).
Finally, as that was not enough, particularly because of the percentage of asymptomatic people that is difficult to estimate but which is probably the source of a considerable percentage of infection, it was necessary to act to limit the number of contacts by carrying out a general lock-down, but blindly since we do not have the means to test people.
The aim of this final measure is to lower the basic reproduction rate (R zero) voluntarily so that the number of patients decreases and hospitals can receive and treat serious cases. These days, we should finally be able to see it stabilise slightly below 1. That corresponds to the peak of the epidemic.
Will this peak translate into a continuous decrease in the number of deaths?
Jean-Stéphane Dhersin: Yes, but there is a lag between action and measurement of the impact. We are only starting to see people from the lock-down period arriving in hospitals. You should also note that lock-down does not prevent intra-family contamination. In addition, the figures for hospitalisations and deaths are reported to Public Health France with a delay of sometimes several days, so the date of the peak will only able to be determined a posteriori.
There will therefore be a delay between what is called the epidemiological peak and the decline in cases and deaths. In fact, the peak in hospital congestion will be at least a fortnight after the peak of the epidemic itself.
What are the indicators to be observed in order to know when and under what conditions easing of the lock-down could take place?
Jean-Stéphane Dhersin: Since collective immunity has not been reached, any loosening of the measures will once again increase infection, so we must wait so as not to overload the hospitals.
One strategy would be to extend lock-down until a vaccine is obtained which, if inoculated in more than 60% of the population, would allow everyone to circulate safely. Because of the delays and the economic and social cost that this would represent, it is unlikely that this option will be preferred.
The others involve the three parameters mentioned above: if we identify and isolate the contaminated cases, if we maintain social distancing, barriers to movement and if everyone wears a mask while respecting strict instructions as to their use then we can imagine easing the lock-down without exploding the rate of infection. This is the most likely scenario because its economic impact is less damaging. But there will have to be enough serological test kits for mass screening, including of children, whose rate of contamination is currently hard to measure. We will also need instruments for tracing people... This will not happen for several weeks.
Is easing of the lock-down on an intermittent basis conceivable?
Jean-Stéphane Dhersin: One thing is almost certain: if we ease up too much, too quickly, we will have to retreat. There will inevitably be rebound effects. In my opinion we are moving towards alternating periods of lock-down and easing of lock-down, and to avoid an episode of massive reinfection it is likely that the French will be prevented from going on vacation this summer.
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PUBLIC HEALTH SYSTEMS UNDER STRESS
You denounce the policies of the European Union (EU) as responsible for the health care situation. Why ?
Martin Schirdewan: On 63 occasions between 2011 and 2018, the European Commission recommended that EU member states privatise parts of the health sector or reduce public spending on health. These recommendations targeted almost all states, which generally complied. There has obviously been an impact on the state of national health systems, especially in those countries affected by the 2008-2014 financial crisis. This state of affairs is all the more serious today, with the coronavirus crisis. The response capacity of countries has been weakened [Note: as a percentage of GDP health expenditure in Ireland Greece is still under its 2009 level].
Do these recommendations explain why European hospitals are unable to cope with the crisis?
Martin Schirdewan: They bear witness to the ruling regime of economic governance and expose that the EU's neo-liberal economic model is incapable of maintaining public services and protecting the basic needs of citizens. The problem is not the recommendations per se, but the fact that the EU’s economic model is based on austerity and not on solidarity. Today, the lack of staff, of intensive care units and of medical equipment in hospitals is a direct result of the austerity policies that have diverted money from the public sector to the private sector.
Public health falls within the competence of the member states. Is the EU solely responsible?
Martin Schirdewan: No, of course not. It was the member states that led and implemented austerity policies. National governments must also be held to account. However, national policies are constrained by the European framework. This is what we have to think about now: we have to get rid of the Stability and Growth Pact once and for all [Editor's note: It was suspended on March 20]. It limits state spending in an entirely arbitrary manner. New economic governance is needed that allows member states to tackle the health sector crisis immediately and to cope with the dramatic socio-economic impact of the coronavirus crisis.
What would a progressive European health policy be?
Martin Schirdewan: We must first redefine the concept of public service at European level — public services must once again serve people. Rather than cutting public spending, member states need to invest much more in the health sector. They should be able to spend as much money as they want on public services at any time. Secondly, I think that health should be administered by the state, in particular so that everyone can have access to it. We must renationalise what has been privatised, that is essential. The raison d'être of hospitals is to protect people's health, not to make a profit. Let's get public services, and health care in particular, out of the capitalist dynamic! It is not for the market to define health policies.
Isn't the European level the best suited to respond to the crisis?
Martin Schirdewan: I think both levels of response are important. We need a European response based on solidarity. And, at the same time, we need a national rethinking of the structure of health provision.
Interview with Marina Geli (Catalan health minister, 2003-2010)
Marina Geli, the health minister in the 2003-2010 "tripartite" Catalan government of the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), the Republic Left of Catalonia (ERC) and Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV), has a degree in medicine and is a specialist in internal medicine. She currently coordinates the Centre for Health and Social Studies of the University of Vic, where she is also head of the Faculty of Medicine.
Could we have avoided getting into the current situation?
This is an extremely unpredictable and very cruel kind of health crisis. Given the experience of the Asian flu coronavirus in 2002, the type A influenza in 2009, the outbreak of this coronavirus in December and the January 30 Declaration of Emergency of the World Health Organisation (WHO), it was thought that this outbreak would be less intense when it arrived and that we would have greater capacity to isolate it. And that was a mistake.
And in Catalonia we had more time...
In Spain, the first case was on January 31 and the first in Catalonia was on February 25. We had an extra month and we thought that since the virus was imported, we could isolate and control the spread of the epidemic. But it has overwhelmed Catalonia and the rest of the world because it has spread faster than we thought. So, looking at thing from the point of view of government, I think the importance of the threat has not been read well.
There were more mistakes...
There was, in my opinion, one wrong decision: I think Catalonia should have refused to accept the centralisation of health care responsibilities [under the Spanish government]. We should have rejected it and said so out loud, as premier Torra did when demanding a more complete lockdown. Centralisation is a big mistake, because the Spanish health ministry has not managed the Catalan health system for forty years, and for twenty years it has not managed those of the non-historical communitiesi. Therefore, it is not used to purchasing and this may have held back our own purchasing capacity in international markets and access to the provision of such key items as protective equipment, test kits and ventilators. This is a global problem and we know that the countries that have done most testing, such as South Korea and Germany, have been better able to contain the pandemic. That is why it is a relevant issue. It was thought that centralised purchasing from Madrid would yield millions of test kits.
Now, however, we are in different phase and that will change many things. Now it is not a question of containing the epidemic but of mitigating it and determining which of us is infected, especially in the health care and nursing home sector, but also among patients who are staying at home. Sure, we needed the test kits before, but now the need for them is just as massive — to do population sampling and to make decisions on ending lockdowns and allowing the return to work. These are not minor decisions.
And yet we have a good health system on paper...
Catalonia has a potent, well-organised epidemiological response capability, but this pandemic has exceeded all expectations. We can carry out epidemiological monitoring, sampling and analysis, because we have well-equipped and well-resourced laboratories, as well as very powerful tools like the information plan on acute respiratory infections in Catalonia, which has been monitoring the situation since 2000 with regard to influenza, but also as far as other viruses and coronaviruses are concerned. It was already a very powerful tool in the A-type influenza crisis, because comparative studies were carried out and severe cases were detected and reported.
What are the priorities now?
We need tests to detect infected people. This would tell us about the magnitude of the epidemic, because we are underdiagnosing the cases of people with COVID-19 symptoms, and infected people showing no symptoms can also be a focus of infection. We now have about 20,000 people infected, but there are many studies that show that for each detected infection we could have five to ten more cases of infection. In addition, antibody tests also need to be performed, because if many people have already had the illness we may already have significant degree of population immunity.
The complicated situation in aged care has also come to light...
This must be discussed, because we are dealing with a highly vulnerable sector, with patients with advanced and complex chronic complaints in an area where lockdowns have a greater cost. It is a sector that should have been medicalised and given the same status as other health areas.
Just another thing that will need to be reviewed when all this is over...
It’s true that there are things that were pending or half done and that now becomes matters of urgency. Medicalisation of nursing homes is one of them. But there are others that are also important, such as having 21st century epidemiological information systems. In South Korea, apart from the many tests, the population was geolocated to monitor its movements. The tools are there, now we have to take advantage of them. In that regard, when the test kits arrive the Catalan health department’s mobile phone app can be helpful in determining who should be tested and help in the decision about lifting the lockdown. Some studies indicate that 20% to 30% of the population may already be immune.
Now we’ll have to see whether the world reacts to the crisis by taking care of health at a global level or by tending to local accumulation of resources, to local management and self-defense...
We need to do both things. The problem is who will lead the world in this regard. Does the WHO have the ability to do so? Does Europe? What is clear is that this is a situation without a way back and that we will learn a lot from it. A number of reforms pending will need to be confronted. We must be self-critical and change everything that does not work, at the social, health and economic level...
Will many changes be needed in the sphere of Catalan health care?
For sure. We already needed them, but strangely enough, everyone was pointing to a different scenario than the one we find ourselves in now. It was as if we were living in a fantasy world: we were talking about adapting the system to the chronically ill, because the reports were telling us that so many hospital beds would no longer be needed. Now we must have a dose of humility and acknowledge that this was not the case and that mass infections are not so out of the ordinary—people die from cancer, strokes, heart attacks and accidents, but also from acute infectious diseases. Obviously people with chronic conditions suffer more, but that will make us strengthen the system of public health and of epidemiological monitoring. We will definitely review the role of primary care, we will definitely medicalise nursing homes, we will definitely review purchasing systems, including those of the private sector and the nursing homes. These are things we are certain to do and which depend on us.
Another question is the budget we will have for it, because I remind myself that health is under-funded by the Spanish [State], and that fact will take us into other debates. Because the Basque Country, thanks to its own taxing powers, has been able to put a billion euros on the table to deal with the situationii.
But this health emergency has also revealed good things...
It has allowed us to see that the health system has, despite everything, an extraordinary capacity to respond to demands for care delivery. Despite miscalculating the severity and seriousness of the infection, it immediately began to function with great intensity. Right now the priority is to deliver care at all levels, but especially to critical cases.
i The «historical communities» within the Spanish state are those that achieved a statute of autonomy during the Second Republic (1931-1939), namely Catalonia, the Basque Country (Euskadi) and Galicia.
ii Of the 17 Spanish autonomous communities, only the Basque Country and Navarra enjoy full right of taxation in their jurisdictions, meeting their own financing needs before passing on an agreed contribution to the central Spanish government.
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THE MEDICAL SUPPLY CRISIS
Communities are trying to import millions of masks to distribute to their caregivers and nursing homes. But one of these orders was stolen with dollars by the Americans
The episode says a lot about the face mask rush that the major powers are obsessed about these days. And about the aggressive practices being followed. It was reported on Tuesday evening [March 31], on the RT France channel, by Renaud Muselier, the president of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur (PACA) region and of the Association of Regions of France. Like other community presidents, he has ordered from a Chinese supplier several million hygienic masks, marked to supply the health establishments and nursing homes in his region.
"The order has been made and paid for, that is to say the masks have been manufactured and are waiting in China", the elected official affirmed. "The difficulty we face is delivery […] This morning on the tarmac, in China, a French order was bought with cash by the Americans, and the plane which was to come to France went straight to the United States. Faced with these problems, I am trying to insure the goods so that […] they are not seized or bought by others.”
At the cost of a delay of several days in delivery.
"Indeed, masks are becoming scarce, and Americans buy them everywhere they find them, no matter what the price", it was confirmed on condition of anonymity from one of the regions victims of the process. "They pay double in cash before they even see the goods. We cannot afford that, we don't pay anything in advance, we pay on delivery. Obviously, we have agreements signed with producers, but we are not in a normal situation ... In addition, in recent days, China itself has blocked a number of deliveries. It’s a race against the clock to find a producer that is reliable, and then a way to ship the order to us.”
For the Nouvelle Aquitaine region, what weighs most is another aspect of the American competition: “It is logistics chaos in China", a source reveals. "The Americans order two or three billion masks: with our five million, we always come behind. The delivery was supposed to arrive ten days ago, but Shenzhen airport was congested. Our importer put everything on a truck bound for Shanghai, but that was worse: the truck gets stuck on the road behind all the others who are waiting their turn. We have diverted it to Zhengzhou, where we think the situation is better. I call our importer twice a day to be certain of the situation, but we are wondering if we wouldn't be better off using the train or the ship... "
Sometimes critical of the government's handling of the case, many regions have placed their own orders for masks, most often in China. In total, around 60 million units have been ordered by the regions, with the central government having reduced the threshold beyond which it can requisition all or part of a delivery to five million units per legal entity per quarter.
"The regional presidents have all exchanged tips", reports a close relative of one of them. "Everyone goes to a mate of theirs who produces masks.” Bruno Retailleau, senator for The Republicans and former president of the Pays de la Loire region, recently got carried away in Libération: "Every day I get the contact details of companies ready to supply. It is driving me crazy! So I encourage my region, my départment, to order on their own account, without going through the prefect [representative of the central government]."
But this frenzy of ordering is also full of pitfalls and unpleasant surprises. “We often have to deal with small concerns, headquartered in the Cayman Islands and with banks with a bizarre name", they say in Nouvelle Aquitaine. "We share the info among ourselves, we ask the tax authorities if they have been subject to investigation, but in the end we have to take our risks." Another regional source confirms: "This game is full of con merchants. A so-called mask producer dangled the prospect of a shipment of millions of masks from over the Belgian border, making a point of promising delivery in a few hours. He approached everyone but turned out to be utterly untrustworthy."
Note: In a message published Wednesday evening [April 1] on Twitter, Renaud Muselier clarified these remarks, assuring that his region had not been directly affected by the process. He also confirmed to AFP that another large region, whose name he did not want to reveal, had been the victim.
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PANDEMIC CONTAINMENT ISSUES
Coronavirus and face masks: How countries have shifted their advice to the public
Having told their populations that wearing masks was all but useless against the coronavirus, several Western countries have performed dramatic U-turns in the last few days. The rapid rethink as the number of deaths has rocketed has stirred anger and confusion, with some accusing their leaders of lying to them
This week Germany's disease control agency, the Robert Koch Institute, also urged Germans to wear homemade masks as many people across Europe and North America turned to online DIY tutorials posted by medical experts.
In another major shift on Friday, the French Academy of Medicine said that masks should be made obligatory for everyone leaving their homes during the lockdown.
Its recommendation came after much online anger when television presenter Marina Carrere d'Encausse, herself a doctor, said that the French government line that masks were only useful for carers was a "lie (told) for a good cause".
The country's response to the epidemic has, like many others, been dogged by reports of shortages of masks and other protective equipment for nurses and doctors.
French health chiefs have repeatedly urged the French public not to wear masks unless they were health workers or suffering from symptoms themselves.
Director General of Health Jérôme Salomon has argued that those wearing masks often think they have enough protection from the virus and then forget more important basic hygiene requirements such as washing hands.
But asked on Friday about apparent mixed messages over the course of the crisis concerning whether people should wear sanitary masks, health chief Jérôme Salomon said they could help but gave no indication whether this would be obligatory.
"In France, as in Europe, we don't have the tradition of wearing the mask. There is a tradition in Asia."
"These masks allow you to protect yourself. If there is access to masks we encourage the public to wear masks if they desire," he said.
Masks are already compulsory in the Czech Republic and Slovenia and anyone going into a supermarket or food store in Austria has to wear one.
The most spectacular about-turn has been in the United States where President Donald Trump on Friday urged all Americans to wear a mask when they leave home.
With America accused of gazumping and even "piracy" by Berlin to procure masks, Trump later said he would probably not wear one himself -- although his wife Melania tweeted that everyone should.
While mask wearing has been widespread in Asia since the beginning of the epidemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) and numerous governments have insisted that they should only be worn by carers.
This stance was seen as way to protect the dwindling stocks of surgical and FFP2 masks -- which offer the most protection.
Seen from Asia, where wearing masks during the flu season is normal, Western reluctance seemed utterly baffling.
There is a "definite shift in the position of the US" towards wearing masks, Professor K.K. Cheng, a public health specialist at Birmingham University in Britain, told AFP.
The expert, a strong advocate of their use, said the WHO was reviewing its guidance.
"The big mistake in the US and Europe is that people aren't wearing masks," George Gao, the head of the China Centre for Disease Control, told the journal Science.
Experts agree that surgical masks are not a foolproof way to prevent coronavirus infection.
But people infected with the virus are advised to wear them to stop the spread to others, with evidence that transmission can happen before a person knows they are sick.
Another argument in their favour is the theory -- not yet scientifically proven -- that the virus can be transmitted through the air.
'Spread through speaking'
Dr Anthony Fauci, who is leading the US government's response, has backed research that found it can be suspended in ultrafine mist formed when people exhale.
Research indicates "the virus can actually be spread even when people just speak as opposed to coughing and sneezing," Fauci told Fox News.
If that is confirmed, it would explain why the virus so contagious.
Even before the White House recommended masks, Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, which has been badly hit by the epidemic, said residents should cover their faces when they got out.
"That could be a scarf or something you make yourself, a bandana," he said.
Germany's Koch Institute head Lothar Wieler said masks "could help to protect others, but they don't help protect the wearer themselves.
"That is very important to understand," he added.
"You wear a mask to reduce droplets from one's own respiratory tract. It only works if everyone wears them, and if everyone does, you only need a very basic mask.
"A piece of tissue can block it. It's not perfect, but it's much better than nothing," he told AFP.
In an updated entry dated April 1st, the RKI website states: "Some infected people do not become ill at all (asymptomatic infection), but could still pass it on to others.
"In these cases, the precautionary wearing of masks could help to reduce the risk of transmission.
"Therefore, the wearing of temporary masks by people entering public places where the safety distance cannot be maintained, e.g. public transport, grocery stores or even at the workplace, could help to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2."
Masks can 'reduce' virus
The WHO, however, is sticking by its initial advice, fearful that masks could give the public "a false sense of security" that would lead to people being more casual about social distancing and hand washing.
But its head Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus conceded on Wednesday that there "is an ongoing debate about the use of masks at community level".
"This is still a very new virus and we're learning all the time. As the pandemic evolves, so does the evidence and so does our advice," he added.
A study that appeared on Friday in the review Nature will give the WHO plenty to think about, however.
It concluded that masks reduce the quantity of coronavirus breathed out into the air by people carrying it. The research was done with other members of the coronavirus family rather than the SARS-CoV-2 strain responsible for the current pandemic.
"This new study presents strong and compelling evidence in favour of mask wearing," said infection expert Dr Rupert Beale of the Francis Crick Institute in London.
"Public health officials must immediately take note of this important new evidence. Mask wearing does not completely prevent transmission... but (it) should form part of the 'exit strategy' from lockdown," he added.
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POSITIONS OF NATIONAL GOVERNMENTS AND NATIONAL PARLIAMENTS
As the coronavirus pandemic has swept the planet, Sweden has stood out among Western democracies by pursuing a "low-scale" lockdown. Whether this approach speaks to a unique strength of Swedish society, as
opposed to bad judgment, can be determined by comparing Sweden's COVID-19 rate with its neighbours'.
STOCKHOLM – Does Sweden’s decision to spurn a national lockdown offer a distinct way to fight COVID-19 while maintaining an open society? The country’s unorthodox response to the coronavirus is popular at home and has won praise in some quarters abroad. But it also has contributed to one of the world’s highest COVID-19 death rates, exceeding that of the United States.
In Stockholm, bars and restaurants are filled with people enjoying the spring sun after a long, dark winter. Schools and gyms are open. Swedish officials have offered public-health advice but have imposed few sanctions. No official guidelines recommend that people wear masks.
During the pandemic’s early stages, the government and most commentators proudly embraced this “Swedish model,” claiming that it was built on Swedes’ uniquely high levels of “trust” in institutions and in one another. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven made a point of appealing to Swedes’ self-discipline, expecting them to act responsibly without requiring orders from authorities.
According to the World Values Survey, Swedes do tend to display a unique combination of trust in public institutions and extreme individualism. As sociologist Lars Trägårdh has put it, every Swede carries his own policeman on his shoulder.
But let’s not turn causality on its head. The government did not consciously design a Swedish model for confronting the pandemic based on trust in the population’s ingrained sense of civic responsibility. Rather, actions were shaped by bureaucrats and then defended after the fact as a testament to Swedish virtue.
In practice, the core task of managing the outbreak fell to a single man: state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell at the National Institute of Public Health. Tegnell approached the crisis with his own set of strong convictions about the virus, believing that it would not spread from China, and later, that it would be enough to trace individual cases coming from abroad. Hence, the thousands of Swedish families returning from late-February skiing in the Italian Alps were strongly advised to return to work and school if not visibly sick, even if family members were infected. Tegnell argued that there were no signs of community transmission in Sweden, and therefore no need for more general mitigation measures. Despite Italy’s experience, Swedish ski resorts remained open for vacationing and partying Stockholmers.
Between the lines, Tegnell indicated that eschewing draconian policies to stop the spread of the virus would enable Sweden gradually to achieve herd immunity. This strategy, he stressed, would be more sustainable for society.
Through it all, Sweden’s government remained passive. That partly reflects a unique feature of the country’s political system: a strong separation of powers between central government ministries and independent agencies. And, in “the fog of war,” it was also convenient for Löfven to let Tegnell’s agency take charge. Its seeming confidence in what it was doing enabled the government to offload responsibility during weeks of uncertainty. Moreover, Löfven likely wanted to demonstrate his trust in “science and facts,” by not – like US President Donald Trump – challenging his experts.
It should be noted, though, that the state epidemiologist’s policy choice has been strongly criticized by independent experts in Sweden. Some 22 of the country’s most prominent professors in infectious diseases and epidemiology published a commentary in Dagens Nyheter calling on Tegnell to resign and appealing to the government to take a different course of action.
By mid-March, and with wide community spread, Löfven was forced to take a more active role. Since then, the government has been playing catch-up. From March 29, it prohibited public gatherings of more than 50 people, down from 500, and added sanctions for noncompliance. Then, from April 1, it barred visits to nursing homes, after it had become clear that the virus had hit around half of Stockholm’s facilities for the elderly.
Sweden’s approach turned out to be misguided for at least three reasons. However virtuous Swedes may be, there will always be free riders in any society, and when it comes to a highly contagious disease, it doesn’t take many to cause major harm. Moreover, Swedish authorities only gradually became aware of the possibility of asymptomatic transmission, and that infected individuals are most contagious before they start showing symptoms. And, third, the composition of the Swedish population has changed.
After years of extremely high immigration from Africa and the Middle East, 25% of Sweden’s population – 2.6 million of a total population of 10.2 million – is of recent non-Swedish descent. The share is even higher in the Stockholm region. Immigrants from Somalia, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan are highly overrepresented among COVID-19 deaths. This has been attributed partly to a lack of information in immigrants’ languages. But a more important factor seems to be the housing density in some immigrant-heavy suburbs, enhanced by closer physical proximity between generations.
It is too soon for a full reckoning of the effects of the “Swedish model.” The COVID-19 death rate is nine times higher than in Finland, nearly five times higher than in Norway, and more than twice as high as in Denmark. To some degree, the numbers might reflect Sweden’s much larger immigrant population, but the stark disparities with its Nordic neighbors are nonetheless striking. Denmark, Norway, and Finland all imposed rigid lockdown policies early on, with strong, active political leadership.
Now that COVID-19 is running rampant through nursing homes and other communities, the Swedish government has had to backpedal. Others who may be tempted by the “Swedish model” should understand that a defining feature of it is a higher death toll.
Sweden: 'My concern is things are going too fast', professor says
Sweden is not doing enough to slow the spread of the coronavirus and its public health agency needs to be more open about the data informing its strategy, a diseases expert told Radio Sweden.
Cecilia Söderberg-Nauclér is a microbial pathogenesis professor at Stockholm's Karolinska Institute. She says Sweden was too slow to react when the virus first came into the country, and wants to see tougher measures similar to Norway to try and slow the spread of the disease.
She was also one of over 2,000 academics who signed an open letter to the Swedish government in March calling for tougher measures to try and ease the burden on the healthcare system caused by coronavirus.
Radio interview here
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POSITIONS OF EUROPEAN UNION BODIES AND THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT
MEPs discredit themselves with dull crisis-response proposals
The left will continue to sound the alarm on the need for a common response
Falling far short of proposing a suitable response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Parliament has turned its back on the people and countries enduring the worst of the current health emergency.
A resolution adopted today by a majority of MEPs fails to support significant measures such as debt mutualisation, and disregards the devastating impact of austerity and macro-economic conditionalities. It also fails to comply with necessary measures on climate and the Paris agreement.
While some helpful progressive elements are included in the position adopted by MEPs, notably on fundamental rights, social rights for the most vulnerable, reproductive rights, and migrants, GUE/NGL Co-Presidents Martin Schirdewan and Manon Aubry demand far more for people and planet.
“Today is a bad day for the European Parliament. While we welcome some of the proposals made today on social and fundamental rights, the failure to back a proper economic response to the current situation and support coronabonds is irresponsible.
“EU leaders meeting next week should have faced pressure from Parliament to show some solidarity. With this in mind, the Left will continue to sound the alarm on the need for a common response – the people and countries suffering the most cannot wait any longer.”
“In rejecting solidarity as a reaction to the ongoing crisis, the European Parliament has turned its back on citizens and failed to send a clear message to member states. Deliberately ignoring the elephant in the room on who will pay for the crisis, the parliament missed an opportunity to play a decisive role, making citizens pay the highest price.
“With willful amnesia and denial of the catastrophic impact of austerity measures on our public health systems, they are leading us down the same beaten path they forced us down after the financial crisis. The result will be disastrous for millions of Europeans if the question of sovereign debt is not urgently addressed.
“We will redouble our efforts to fight for a recovery with solidarity and climate justice at its core. Delaying the necessary in this time of crisis is an appalling disgrace.”
The Eurogroup (eurozone finance ministers) met for 16 hours on Tuesday, April 7 without reaching agreement. There are two main points of contention: the creation of a common debt instrument (coronabonds) and the use of the existing bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which has €410 billion.
The ESM is a fund that makes loans, conditional on “structural reforms” and harsh austerity à la the Troika bailouts. Eurobonds have long been proposed as a solution to eurozone divergence but were shot down by Germany and others during the sovereign debt crisis.
The basic concept of the Eurobond is that an EU instrument would pool the issuing of government debt by the members of the common currency. All of the debt would be rated equally, and would not be on the member states’ books. This would lower borrowing costs for the so-called periphery but reduce the privilege of the core.
Despite the common currency, the bond market has treated the bonds (debt) issued by different eurozone states as very different. During a crisis, capital flees the risky states and flows to the “safe” bonds, namely German bunds.
If the sovereign bond market doubts the ability of high-debt states to repay their debts, the market will “price” the debt higher with a risk premium – applying much higher interest rates to these governments and even denying them access to the market.
This is what happened during the eurozone debt crisis, causing the bankruptcies & Troika bailouts. An important note here: states that have their own currency do not need to consider such a problem because their currency will be backed up by their own central bank, and they cannot go bankrupt.
On March 25, leaders of nine member states – France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Luxembourg, Slovenia and Belgium wrote to Council president Charles Michel calling for a “common debt instrument issued by a European institution to raise funds on the market” – ie coronabonds.
This position is supported by the ECB, which (correctly) has stated that the monetary and fiscal response to the crisis need to be combined and coordinated. The ECB has said a fiscal intervention of €1.5 trillion will be needed in the EU in 2020 (likely an underestimation).
The Netherlands has strongly come out against coronabonds, backed by Germany, Austria and Finland, the so-called “Frugal Four”. The obnoxious Dutch position is making headlines but as always, the German position is key.
The best-case scenario for a coronabond is one issued by the European Investment Bank, unlimited and unconditional, guaranteed by the ECB. The ECB is the only institution with the power to back the spending necessary to deal with this crisis.
While the ECB is prohibited by the Treaty (Articles 123 and 125) from directly financing governments, it is permitted to make purchases from the EIB, a public bank.
But the benefits of a coronabond depend entirely on its design. It could be designed to allow governments to borrow at low costs and keep this debt off their balance sheets. Or it could be designed with the usual EU austerity conditions attached (and/or to be “securitised”).
The French compromise going into Tuesday’s Eurogroup meeting was for a new fund to “issue bonds with the joint and several guarantee of EU Member States”, to be operated by the Commission and guaranteed by a new resource such as a “solidarity tax”.
Germany and France have reportedly now agreed not to include this in the text. So, if media reports are correct, coronabonds are off the table and the debate is now only on the conditions to be attached to the use of the ESM (though France may lead the nine willing states in setting up a common bond between themselves).
Leaving aside the repugnant nature of the ESM in general, even from the EU leaders’ own criteria it is entirely unsuited to this situation. It was designed to provide conditional credit lines to member states facing an asymmetric shock, who can’t borrow in the markets.
The Commission’s ‘non-paper’ leaked before the Eurogroup meeting proposed two new ESM instruments, a Pandemic Crisis Support Enhanced Conditions Credit Line (ECCL) of up to 2% of a member state’s GDP and a Rapid Financing Instrument (a smaller fund of €80 billion).
Both ESM instruments have conditions attached, that they are only to be used for health & economic emergency spending, & states must adhere to the fiscal rules. See the proposal here.
The substantial credit line (ECCL) proposed conditions are ensuring “respect of EU fiscal rules and European Semester… with this commitment to be laid out in a “Memorandum of Understanding, which would be based on common terms for all Members”.
It’s similar wording for access to the rapid financing instrument. The generous gift of the northern states is to include a reference to “any flexibility applied by the competent EU institutions” to the EU fiscal rules (the Stability and Growth Pact rules have been temporarily suspended).
Remember, the SGP rules apply to annual deficits (to be kept below 3% of GDP) AND to accumulated debt (to be kept below 60% of GDP). When the rules apply again post-crisis, high-debt states will be in a permanent debtors’ prison, forced to implement the inevitable austerity the Commission will demand.
Reportedly, the key remaining sticking point is that Italy wants the reference to a Memorandum of Understanding to be removed and the Netherlands refuses.
The Dutch government also opposes including a reference to “innovative financial instruments”, a vague reference to the future possibility of coronabonds agreed on by most states.
At this stage it appears that France, Italy, Spain and the other signatories to the letter calling for coronabonds are prepared to give up on all of their demands in exchange for the removal of the term “memorandum of understanding”.
To summarise: The Eurogroup is right now in a vicious fight over a LOAN from the bailout fund that will add to government debt, increase borrowing costs on the market, need to be repaid, and inevitably have austerity conditions attached.
Bond markets appear relatively calm, assured by the ECB’s recent actions, though yields are spreading somewhat (the market is increasingly pricing Italian and Spanish debt as riskier).
The immediate fallout from this farce will be political. The southern states asked for solidarity in the midst of a horrific pandemic and had the door slammed in their faces by Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Finland.
The longer term implications will be both economic and political. It is no exaggeration to say this week is a defining one for the future of the common currency and for the EU. What’s the point of the euro and the EU?
It is crystal clear that direct monetary financing of government spending by the ECB is the answer. All of these limitations are ideological and self-imposed.
Governments should refuse to use the ESM, borrow what they need on the market in the expectation that the ECB will purchase their bonds, and demand that the suspension of the Stability and Growth Pact is permanent.
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WHAT SOCIAL SUPPORT PROGRAMS? FOR WHOM?
Good news about a country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is rare these days, but Portugal recently provided a bright spot. The government announced that during the pandemic, certain migrants and asylum-seekers in the country would be provided the same full access to public services that permanent residents receive. At a time when many countries, including the United States, are indulging nationalist impulses and even using the crisis to further exclude and marginalize immigrants, Portugal is exemplifying a smart, pragmatic policy that both respects the rights and dignity of all people and helps minimize spread of the virus.
The government order, which will remain in effect until at least July 1, ensures that all foreigners, including asylum-seekers, who have applied for immigration status will be treated as permanent residents. This means they can access the national health service, welfare benefits, bank accounts, and work and rental contracts. While it is unclear how many migrants this will cover, last year, nearly 600,000 migrants resided in Portugal—a significant number given Portugal’s entire population of 10.3 million people. A government spokeswoman said that the decision was made because “[p]eople should not be deprived of their rights to health and public service just because their application has not yet been processed.” The prime minister later declared that “democracy won’t be suspended” during the crisis.
Portugal’s decision reflects the reality that responses to the COVID-19 pandemic prioritizing unity and equity are not only more just but likely more effective as well. The new policy will help to ensure that vulnerable populations are not left behind in addressing the public health threats of the coronavirus outbreak. Suspending the need for migrants to register or complete paperwork during the outbreak will minimize exposure of border officials and applicants to the virus. Ensuring no one is denied access to care and treatment for the virus will help limit its spread. And by guaranteeing access to essential services such as financial assistance, migrants will feel less pressure to find work to pay for food or care. This in turn helps contain the spread of the disease and makes the national recovery easier.
Portugal’s approach stands in stark contrast to that of other governments. India’s decision to issue a nationwide lockdown left millions of migrant laborers stranded without jobs, food, or shelter, forcing them to crowd onto highways or public transportation to return home. Dozens have already died as a result, and millions have likely spread the outbreak further. In Greece, serious overcrowding and limited health care supplies have created disastrous situations for migrants in camps such as Lesbos. Neither the Greek government nor the European Union has taken steps to extend health care benefits to migrants amid the coronavirus crisis; migrants were removed from the Greek social security system last year and remain unprotected today.
In the United States, gaps in the public health infrastructure mean millions of immigrants face dire prospects. Migrants living without documentation or insurance will confront huge barriers to testing and care. Although the second coronavirus package passed by Congress gave states the option to cover the costs of COVID-19 testing to uninsured people, eligibility was limited to Medicaid-eligible populations, making the tests unavailable to undocumented immigrants, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, and most lawful permanent residents who have had their green cards for less than five years. Even after President Donald Trump promised to make testing available regardless of immigration status, Congress has not fulfilled his promise. The latest $2.2 trillion stimulus bill additionally leaves mixed-status families out of the direct stimulus checks, meaning that even if nearly everyone in a family has a Social Security number but one person files with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, that family will not receive payments. The bill also included $1.3 billion in funding for community health centers, which treat people regardless of immigration status; but many have already reported shortages in testing capabilities.
The Trump administration’s harsh policies also stoke fear within immigrant communities, discouraging people from going to hospitals out of concern it may damage their ability to become legal residents. Because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has thus far refused to adopt a policy of reducing detention facility populations, which would protect the health of detained people and staff, federal judges around the country are beginning to order ICE to release people from custody. Worse still, deportations have continued even as other domestic travel grinds to a halt. Although ICE has indicated it is doing some moderate screening of people before they are placed on removal flights, three individuals who were deported from the United States to Guatemala have tested positive for the virus and were hospitalized shortly after their arrival in the country.
Trump officials are even using coronavirus concerns as an excuse to quickly deport unaccompanied children and asylum-seekers who make it to the U.S. border, ignoring domestic and international legal obligations. This is particularly irresponsible given the magnitude of the virus’s spread within the United States, because continuing deportations will exacerbate the spread to other countries, many of which have poor health care systems.
Furthermore, because of the holes in the social safety net and the fact that immigrants disproportionately serve as frontline workers, migrants will be more likely to feel compelled to work outside of the home, raising their chances of contracting the virus. This puts health care workers, service workers, and farm laborers — industries that rely heavily on immigrants — and their families especially at risk at a time when they are filling a crucial need for all Americans.
A smarter policy for the United States, and other countries, would be to follow Portugal’s example and extend critical services to all residents, regardless of their status. Testing and treatment for COVID-19 should be made available to everyone, including undocumented immigrants and mixed-status families. These families will also need access to economic help; stimulus funds should be provided to everyone, not just those with Social Security numbers, because the purpose of these funds is ultimately to help save the U.S. economy. Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security should make significant changes to enforcement and detention policies and practices and exercise exceptional caution — in close consultation with receiving countries — before placing people on removal flights.
The coronavirus does not discriminate based on immigration status; neither should government responses. Only by treating and caring for everyone can we hope to defeat this pandemic.
Notes: Alexandra Schmitt is a policy analyst for human rights, democracy, and development on the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress. Elisa Massimino is a senior fellow at the Center. The authors would like to thank Tom Jawetz, Philip E. Wolgin, and Emily Gee for their contributions to this analysis and recommendations.
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ISSUES FACING WORKERS AND TRADE UNIONS
The entire world and its political-economic system has been turned upside down by the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.
Beliefs and ideologies preached as unchallenged gospel for decades are being exposed and ignored even by their most zealous adherents, such as the British Tories.
Tory Ideology Junked
Maggie Thatcher infamously declared “There’s no such thing as society”.
Now we see the monumental mobilisation of collective efforts to combat COVID-19, where selfish individualism and the greed incited by Thatcher and her successors is exposed to millions as utterly useless and morally repugnant in a crisis.
Theresa May mockingly rejected calls for investment in jobs, wages and services by announcing “There is no money tree.”
Mere months later, an entire orchard of them has cropped up, as the Tories are compelled to wield the power and resources of the state to fight this virus.
Just weeks ago, Home Secretary Priti Patel denounced millions as “unskilled” (and unwelcome in Britain!). Now millions of underpaid, undervalued workers in social care, cleaning, retail and the NHS are being begged to risk their lives to “save the nation.”
And contrary to decades of denial — not only by the Tories, but Blairite New Labour, and even some self-styled ‘socialists’ — we are being forcefully reminded that there’s such a thing as ‘the working class’!
Everyday life, indeed human survival, depends entirely on millions of workers, with multiple skills in multiple occupations, getting out of their beds and going to work. In contrast, some of the engorged fatcat company executives are so critical to civilisation that they are selfishly bolting the country in search of safe havens for themselves!
Wakeup call to millions
This whole, frightening crisis is a huge wake-up call about the continued, deep class divisions in society, and the utter inability of the capitalist ‘free’ market to protect the mass of humanity. And equally, it may open the eyes of millions to the advantages of human cooperation, solidarity and collective effort.
The criminal consequences of decades of globalisation and capitalist neoliberalism are wreaking havoc, literally slaughtering the innocent.
Millions are gripped by fear, and amidst this unprecedented crisis we see all that is best and worst about the world and the people we live amidst. The hedge fund speculators making £50m by betting that shares in the leisure industry will fall; the taxi drivers giving free lifts to NHS workers.
At the heart of this nightmare, the need for human solidarity, for cooperation and collaboration has never been more critically urgent, putting human need for millions first, second and always, as opposed to the inhuman greed of the handfuls who rule and ruin our societies.
Free market failure
Up until a matter of weeks ago, Boris Johnson and his class were adamant that the free market economy, with the drive for profit maximization as its kernel, is the one, the only, and the ideal way to organise society. The notion of state intervention was condemned as interfering socialist lunacy, totally inappropriate in ‘the modern world’.
BoJo’s government has inherited the legacy of his own party, his own government and his own parasitic class — in the form of privatised public services; decimation of the NHS; a crisis of staffing in hospitals and primary care; bed shortages; an epidemic of mental illness in a stressed-out, insecure population.
The would-be Churchillian national hero of the C-19 crisis helped create workplaces where health and safety standards have been mocked as red tape, to be scrapped by legislation, compromised as employers take shortcuts to higher profit margins, and where the unions have been savagely attacked, manacled and weakened in their efforts to defend workers’ rights and safety.
As the Coronavirus erupted in China, and scientists gave dire warnings, BoJo’s Tories paid no attention whatsoever to preparations for its spread here, being far too busy preparing even more repressive anti-union legislation, including a ban on all-out strikes.
The historic turn away from manufacturing useful commodities to manufacturing profit for the bankers and speculators, in devilishly obscure financial skulduggery in the casino economy, means there are not even the ready-made facilities to manufacture emergency supplies of Personal Protective Equipment for frontline workers fighting to save lives. Or ventilators and Intensive Care Units for our overstretched hospitals. Or even adequate supplies of basic hygiene equipment like hand sanitizers and clinical wipes.
From testing to herd immunity
For a brief spell, the government started testing, especially healthcare workers, only to abandon it — with a leaked National Health England document explaining “no more healthcare workers will be tested because laboratories couldn’t keep up with the significant demand”.
In a new turn, the callous, class-ridden inhumanity of Johnson, and the 1% that he seeks to further enrich, was revealed in his chilling declaration that “We have to be prepared that we will lose loved ones…”
He wheeled out government scientists to justify the notion of creating “herd immunity”, by acquiescing in the spread of the life-threatening virus. The scientists widely agree it requires 80% of the “herd” suffering infection to trigger any possible chance of creating immunity — with no certainty of success even, with this new and aggressive virus. And with a 1% or 2% fatality rate (it’s actually about 7% in Italy) that would lead to 500,000 to a million dead!
Tory columnist Jeremy Warner let the mask slip entirely, when he wrote (3/3/20):
“COVID-19 primarily kills the elderly. Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term, by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.”
Wash your hands and social distance
After the backlash against this social Darwinism, letting rip this barbaric expression of competition and the survival of the fittest, the Tory government did a massive U-turn, starting to belatedly intervene with advice designed to delay the spread — after squandering at least weeks, even months, of preparatory action.
Day-by-day they have escalated the advice to "wash your hands" and "keep your social distance" — all absolutely justified advice, according to the evidence.
That subsequently led to calls on people to stay at home, with specific instructions to self-isolate not only for those suffering symptoms of COVID-19, but also those on a government list of most vulnerable people — including those aged over 70, pregnant women, those with underlying health problems such as asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, etc. Again, absolutely appropriate advice — but delayed so long compared with many other countries that countless lives have probably already been put at unnecessary risk.
But a central contradiction screams out: we are told to keep our "social distance" — but to go to work!
And not just told to go to work, but for millions, compelled to go to work, as a result of rampant job insecurity, poverty pay, and the unliveable level of sick pay available — if any!
Hygiene equipment in workplaces
Furthermore, the conditions in vast numbers of workplaces make them breeding grounds for infection, endangering the lives of many workers and their families.
In the most obvious case, thousands of NHS workers are at their wit’s end in fear of infection, as they heroically strive to save the lives of others.
Contrary to the claims of the upper echelons of NHS bosses, PPE is not being adequately supplied to these frontline emergency service providers. Trade unionists on the shopfloor are inundated in their efforts to get proper provision of hand sanitizers in hospitals, or for ambulance workers, who do not have ready access to soap and water.
As a nurse, in her 50s, told the Guardian (20/3/20):
“I’ve just finished four 12-hour shifts over five days. There are no hazmat suits for this ward, even though we have six C-19 contacts in isolation. We get a pair of gloves, a paper mask with a plastic shield and plastic apron. It’s a fucking joke.
I’m working with a healthcare assistant who is 71 and a nurse who is 72. They should be at home, but they just say ‘who is going go do it otherwise?’
We nurses are not being tested.”
Crisis in the NHS
The same staff are trying to cope with an NHS starved of funds, staffing levels and equipment, for decades.
In Scotland alone, 6000 hospital beds — 25% of the total — have disappeared in the past 13 years of SNP governments failing to stand up for Scotland against Westminster Tory butchery.
And this has not been replaced by investment in social care; Scotland’s local authorities have been savaged by 7.4% cuts to funding by Holyrood, making proper, attentive home care services impossible.
Another chilling fact in the current crisis is that in Germany, there are 30 Intensive Care Units (ICU beds) for every 100,000 population, whereas in the UK it’s not 30, but 6.6.
The chronic staffing shortages in our hospitals are starkly highlighted by the current pleas by the government for retired medical and nursing staff to return to work, alongside students. And thousands have responded, proving the fundamental instinct for social solidarity that is a feature of humanity, given the right circumstances and the right vision.
Care workers, retail staff…
Lack of adequate hygiene measures in workplaces is not confined to the NHS.
Care workers--many of them on zero hours contracts or bogus self-employment--are expected to visit vulnerable people at home, or work in residential care, without an adequate supply of protective equipment.
The second-largest workforce in the country, retail, employs 3 million workers in the UK. Despite the sustained efforts of union reps, and promises from employers, the big majority of supermarkets and retail giants I have knowledge of have still (at time of writing) not provided basics like hand sanitizers, surgical wipes, or deep cleans of stores. At best, the measures are inconsistent, for instance with wipes for either checkouts or doors and surfaces, but not both.
That’s despite the fact those in logistics and delivery handle goods from across the globe; checkout staff handle goods touched by thousands of shoppers, and exchange cash and cards potentially contaminated.
And how are retail workers supposed to keep a safe social distance from shoppers, many of whom are in frantic panic buying mode, in far too many cases also frustrated at shortages and abusive to retail staff?
I know of several instances where Store managers have ordered hand gels several weeks ago, but where supplies have yet to appear.
Posties offer to be emergency service
The same applies to Royal Mail, where posties have still not been equipped with hand gels or surgical wipes to combat the potential contagion from parcels, letters, gates, doors and buzzers.
This is particularly insulting after the same posties, through the CWU union, suspended strike action despite a renewed 94.6% Yes vote, offering instead to become an additional emergency service.
They have rightly highlighted Royal Mail is the only service which connects every address in the UK, with the local postie a trusted figure in the community, and offered to carry out critical services such as delivery of food and medicine, and checking in on vulnerable people during the C-19 crisis. All provided proper protective measures are taken. Most of them still haven’t even had hand gels for the delivery rounds!
Strikes for safety
As in other countries, like Italy and the USA, there have been localised strikes by workers denied cleaning facilities and equipment.
Cleaners, members of the GMB, walked out on strike in Lewisham after cleaning contractors ISS failed to pay them their full wages for the second time in a month, and failed to provide protective equipment. They won.
In Glasgow, workers in the Polmadie bin depot recently staged a sit-in until proper washing facilities in the depot and hand gels for the bin wagons were provided.
This one health-threatening fact highlights the criminal nature of capitalist production for profit, with cut-throat competition between rival producers.
Belatedly, and with an eye to making money out of an urgent necessity, some Scottish whisky distilleries have switched to production of alcohol-based hand gels. In a sane, rational system, the state should be able to seize appropriate assets for emergency mass production of medical supplies, embracing the expertise of workers through their elected representatives in adapting skills and production — whether sanitisers, ICU beds or ventilators — even building brand new emergency hospitals, if necessary.
Working from home
In the last week or so, some employers have acted on belated government advice to let some staff work from home.
Aside from the stress of working from home alongside children off school, this option only applies to a minority of workers.
Those whose jobs can be done from home tend to be the higher paid. A survey of 2016–7 found that only 2.9% of workers in the lowest-paid decile (tenth) are in jobs that could be done from home, rising to 16.2% of those in the 7th decile, and 27% of the highest-paid tenth of staff.
Better-paid, senior managers can often work from the relative safety of their (relatively spacious) home; I find it difficult to drag a pallet truck up to my third-floor flat!
High risk workers
Unions have helped convince some employers to send workers home who are on the government’s high risk list. But whether it’s paid or unpaid varies greatly.
Gregg’s, which is unionised by Usdaw, has agreed full pay for their core workers. Wetherspoon’s (non-union) only offered the penury of Statutory Sick Pay, whilst Waterstone’s have told bookshop staff forced into self-isolation to use up holidays, including next year’s holiday allowances. That’s not only immoral, but illegal; workers are entitled to claim back holidays if they fall sick during them!
Virtually all employers have so far resisted union demands for workers living with other vulnerable people to be given leave on full pay, thus endangering elderly parents, partners or children with poor respiratory or immune systems with infection picked up at work. I’ve had members in tears at the dilemma they face.
Underlying this brutal contradiction between calls for social distance and the obligation to get up close and dangerous in the workplace, is the state of the labour market and lack of workers’ rights.
Household debts are at a record high, meaning millions of working people are a pay cheque away from destitution, potential eviction, house repossession.
Three out of four people aged under 24 have less than a month’s wages in savings; that’s also the case for 58% of the lowest-paid tenth of the working population. These millions are less than a month away from being literally penniless if they are laid off without pay.
They can’t afford to be unpaid, or even go on the sick.
Statutory sick pay: Demand the European average
Statutory Sick Pay is a miserly £94.25 a week. That’s a catastrophic 18% of the average weekly wage of £512.
It’s an appalling indictment of British capitalism in particular, as the average Statutory Sick Pay in Europe is £245 a week; 65% of average wages.
And in Norway, Luxembourg, Austria, Belgium, Malta and Croatia, workers off sick get 100% of their average pay!
In France, workers have a ‘right to withdraw’ clause where they can leave work, on full pay, if they feel their health and safety is at risk.
It gets worse; there are 2 million workers (on low hourly pay and short hours) who earn less than the £118-a-week Lower Earnings Threshold required to qualify for any SSP!
Alongside that abominable situation, most employers have been systematically slashing their company sick benefit schemes, and tightening the absence management procedures precisely at a time when staff cuts, job insecurity and overwork have produced an explosion of work-related mental ill-health.
That’s certainly the situation with several of the retail giants.
In the case of Wilko, any of their 21,000 workers with less than a year’s service get no sick pay, and Wilko are in the midst of plans to abolish company sick pay for anyone off more than once in the year.
So millions are dragging themselves into work, often unsure whether they may be carrying the virus themselves due to the appalling failure of the government to carry out tests and tracing in the manner many other governments have done.
Or nervous wrecks at the thought they could carry infection back into their family home. A survey by GMB union found “77% of low-paid workers say they are going in to work even though they feel unwell”. Because they can’t afford to be unpaid.
Protect frontline services workers
Of course, emergency frontline services require investment and boosted staffing levels. But this must be with accompanying emergency production and distribution of adequate Personal Protective Equipment.
Likewise, it’s welcome that after decades of being insulted as unskilled, the vast army of retail, production and delivery workers in food and pharmaceuticals have just been recognised by the government as "key workers" — with the offer of childcare as they go to work — in common with workers in healthcare, social care, Royal Mail and others.
But this recognition would mean a lot more if a series of urgent immediate steps were taken: emergency state production of hygiene equipment and other PPE; isolation on full average, normal pay (not just contract hours) for those in high risk health categories, or living with people who are, or in need of childcare with the schools lockdown.
Shut down non-essential retail
And to genuinely implement the scientists’ advice on social distancing, both in workplaces and on public transport, unions should join with those of us who have been calling for temporary shutdown, on full normal pay, of retail stores not selling or producing life’s daily necessities such as food, drink, household essentials, medicines, funeral-care, etc.
In times of mass danger of potentially fatal infection, getting the latest footwear, clothing and fashion accessory items, or home furnishings, are hardly the priority over human health!
Bailout for businesses
All the early measures by the Tories focused on bailouts for business, not for the workers who create those businesses’ wealth. The Tories were lobbied for ‘holidays’ from payment of business rates, VAT, sick pay contributions — by the likes of UK Hospitality.
The Blair-ite reptile Richard Branson told his 8,500 Virgin Atlantic staff to take 8 weeks’ unpaid leave, while he rattled the begging bowl in front of the UK government, asking for a £7.5billion handout from the public purse.
This sums up the class divide that remains, and has been further deepened, during the human catastrophe of C-19. Instead of seeking a public subsidy for his profits, Branson could pay every one of his workers £500 and still retain ‘net worth’ of £4.064biilion, a minuscule 0.88% shaving off his obscene personal fortune.
As sectors like aviation, hospitality, entertainment and retail collapsed, the Tories were petrified at the forecasts (for example, by Capital Economics) that the unemployment rate would double from 4% to 8%.
Certainly, under the hammer blows of mounting crisis, public unease and trade union lobbying, the (March 17) £350 billion rescue package was a radical rupture in the Tories’ previous policies and actions over previous decades.
No excuses left for redundancies
But behind the eye catching headlines, this measure is not quite the outbreak of ‘Tory socialism’ some have been duped into seeing.
Most of the £350bn is an offer of loans to businesses; repayable on the wing and prayer of economic revival after the coronavirus crisis has passed. Therefore, still not an attractive offer for whole chunks of the profiteers, who are still left with the power to decide whether to take up such short-term, repayable state largesse via the banks — or proceed with pay cuts, unpaid leave, or outright sackings for their beleaguered employees. Which is precisely what some of them have forged ahead with, only retreating from a slaughter of jobs and wages under protests from unions and public outrage — as with Stefan King’s G1 empire, or the brutal sackings and evictions of hotel staff from their accomodation by Britannia Hotels in Aviemore.
And as always, it’s the bigger businesses which are to the fore of the Tories’ concerns. Small and medium businesses have been offered grants of £10,000 and £25,000, which in many cases wouldn’t even pay a month’s wages bill. Plus as we write this, there is still utter confusion about what firms qualify for these loans, or how willing the banks are to oblige (despite government loan guarantees).
For 100% of average pay
Bombardment by the unions then won the further, very significant concession (March 20) of the government offering to pay 80% of wages of under-threat workers, up to £2,450 a month, for the next 3 months.
This came as a huge relief to millions of workers. It leaves businesses — certainly bigger ones — with absolutely no excuse for slashing hours, pay or jobs; they will be getting 100% of workers’ labour power for (at most) 20% of the wage bill.
But it still leaves huge gaping holes in the safety net for workers and their wages — even compared with other countries, let alone the socialist demand for no job losses and guarantees of 100% of normal, average pay.
In Denmark, for example, the government pays 75% of their wage directly to the worker, and insists the employer pays the other 25%, conditional on workers being kept in the job.
In the UK, the employers retain the power to decide what is done with this handout from the public purse, with no clear mechanism for guaranteeing every penny goes into the pockets of workers, rather than the bank balances of businesses. It’s open to corruption, such as falsification of payroll lists, or simply taking the 80% but refusing to top up the remaining 20% of workers’ wages.
Reinstate on full pay
Also, it does nothing to reinstate the thousands of workers in the likes of the car industry, aviation, cinemas, retail and hospitality who have already been chucked on the scrapheap of unemployment by unscrupulous, get-rich-quick employers who refused to dip into their accumulated profits — stashed away in bank accounts — to sustain the very workers who loyally produced their wealth in the first place.
The unions need to step up the demand for reinstatement of these newly-redundant workers. And the collective power of organised workers will need to be wielded to win reinstatement in most cases.
Five million fall through torn safety net
The biggest holes in the entire, torn safety-net on wages is the exclusion of the technically (or bogus) self-employed, casual and agency workers, freelancers and those on zero hours contracts. These millions are not included at all, despite there being 5 million classified as self-employed alone.
And contrary to the image some might have of them, these people are not some pampered elite. The average self-employed male only earns two-thirds the average wage of a male employee; for females, it’s only half the average female PAYE worker’s wage. It includes not just writers, journalists and artists, but care workers, plumbers, electricians, cleaners, shopkeepers…an army of 5 million so far not guaranteed anything except slightly easier access to benefits, about £4,800 a year maximum!
Protect the self-employed & insecure workers
There are plenty of simple devices to guarantee a decent income to these workers – and likewise the battalions of workers on zero hours contracts and in the gig economy.
One option is a Universal Basic Income for all during this COVID-19 crisis.
Another could be based on what’s been done in Denmark: government pay-outs based on the average income of the self-employed over the past three years. Denmark has made it 80% of the average; we should demand 100% of the average over 3 years, to guarantee all categories of workers full pay during the lockdown dictated by urgent, cataclysmic public health needs.
Mass testing: Reduce risks
There are many more issues confronting workers and their unions, in an extremely rapidly moving situation.
For instance, it’s right and urgent that unions like the Fire Brigades Union and STUC have increased the demand for testing and detection, starting with healthcare, social care, fire service, postal service and food retail workers.
Many absolutely essential workers are putting their own lives at risk for the common good. Others, including emergency service workers, may be unnecessarily self-isolating out of fear. Emergency measures should be enacted to produce test kits, to detect and contain as far as humanly possible, rather than just wait until people are seriously ill and hospitalised by the noxious virus.
Again, this issue shows up the continued class divide in society in stark relief. Private, elite clinics on London’s Harley Street have already sold home testing kits to the wealthy, at £375 each, which explains the mystery of why weeks ago MPs and several TV, sports and music celebrities declared they had tested positive, even though they had no symptoms whatsoever. A sharp contrast to the worry and life-threatening risks being forced upon millions of workers.
Seize private hospital assets
It’s right and proper that 8000 beds in private hospitals have been accessed by the NHS for this national emergency. But it’s absolutely repugnant that the profiteering owners of the private hospitals – who already earn 25% of their income from NHS contracts, well before the Coronavirus happened – are getting £300 a day for each bed. That’s £2.4m a day, robbed by these racketeers from the depleted NHS.
The whole crisis, and the course of action forced upon a Tory, anti-socialist government, throws up the case for systematic state ownership – but with democratic working class control and management – as the model for the future.
That arises from the need to prioritise production, distribution and exchange for the very survival of the mass of the people, and for direction of maximum effort into life-saving services like health, social care and food distribution.
For public ownership of retail giants
It’s welcome that the big supermarkets have indulged in some degree of cooperation to improve the delivery of food, but they still do so to maximise profits and dividends, with unscrupulous price increases all too common. The government has relaxed anti-cartel competition laws to allow cooperation between the supermarkets in improving food supply lines; they should impose price controls to protect the public from profiteering.
Share prices for the likes of Morrisons, Sainsburys, Ocado and Tesco have rocketed, in anticipation of juicy profits from this whole exercise. After shedding thousands of jobs, and slashing paid breaks and other benefits to staff, these outfits are hiring thousands of temporary workers to seize the market niche this human tragedy has created.
Instead of relying on the self-interest of these profiteering giants, why not merge them into a public sector retail company, with reversal of the job losses and cuts to terms and conditions, with permanent jobs and a guaranteed minimum 16-hour week for all workers who want it, and a £12-an-hour minimum wage for all at 16?
Planned production for need & human solidarity
The production and distribution of life’s vital necessities – including food, medicine, healthcare, education, transport, housing, medical research – are far too important to be left to the cruel anarchy of the market.
It makes the case for a democratically planned economy, with human collaboration for the common good, the foundations of socialism.
This crisis could reveal that profound truth to millions, as they struggle and collaborate to stay safe and survive.
[Richie Venton is the trade-union organiser for the Scottish Socialist Party. This article was first published on the author's blog site.]
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UK: It is time to make amends to the low-paid essential worker
“52 employers were instructed to put their house in order” says Green MP Evita Willaert, who requested the figures from PM Wilmès (Liberal). “One police report was drawn up and twenty businesses ordered to close.”
704 checks, two-thirds of the total carried out, were performed at a distance by using a questionnaire. In 328 cases inspectors attended company properties.
The Greens are calling for more staff and means to allow more workshop floor inspections.
“It seems important to us that more inspectors gain the opportunity to examine in the field whether measures are being complied with, that in addition to the questionnaire, which we also believe is a good initiative.”
The Green Party says offenders are spoiling matters for businesses that comply as they are putting back a speedy restart of business operations.
“People can only return to work when this can happen in safe conditions. These figures show a lot of work still needs to be done. We need to be careful sending people back to work. It’s important for the economy, but our health remains the priority. A restart is only possible when people can be safe at work.”
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THE THREAT TO DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS
Viktor Orbán’s unilateral power grab in Hungary this week marks not only a dramatic shift in the anti-democratic nature of his premiership, it also underscores how national governments around Europe, illiberal or otherwise, are using the COVID-19 crisis as an convenient excuse to row back on the fundamental rights of their citizens.
In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, many EU member states have adopted drastic measures – previously unimaginable during peace times – to protect public health .
A state of emergency has already been declared in numerous member states with decrees ordering citizens to stay at home unless absolutely necessary, or risk fines and imprisonment.
Meanwhile, Latvia, Romania and Estonia have activated Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), allowing them to deviate from obligations to guarantee certain rights and freedoms under the Convention. Such derogations can really only be activated at times of war or during public emergencies.
However, it is Hungary that has gone the furthest.
It first declared a state of emergency on 11th March, and any further extension would have required parliament’s approval. But the Justice Minister jumped the gun and submitted a draft bill as early as 20th March, urging opposition parties to prolong the emergency measure for as long as the government deems necessary.
The bill was adopted overwhelmingly by the parliament on 30th March, thanks to the ruling Fidesz party’s two-thirds majority, and provoked a firestorm of criticisms from rights campaigners and pro-democracy activists in Hungary and across Europe.
What the new law means is that the Hungarian government – which had long stifled opposition voices and exerted wide-ranging control over the judiciary and media – can now rule by decree until the end of this period of ‘danger’, with the parliament only needing to have be informed of any new decisions by Orbán.
In short, the Orbán regime has become a de facto dictatorship inside the European Union, with what was left of its checks and balances now swept aside.
Any law in Hungary could now be suspended or overridden as long as this emergency continues. No elections are allowed. Further, the bill also added two new crimes: anyone found to have publicised ‘false’ or ‘distorted’ facts that interfere with the ‘successful protection’ of the public are punishable by up to five years in prison. Also, anyone who interferes with the operation of a quarantine or isolation order could also face a prison sentence of up to five years.
Nowhere in the bill does it specify when this ‘state of danger’ ends. As things stand, it will only run out when the government says so, or until the parliament revokes the authorisation by a two-thirds majority. The latter is unlikely as the aforementioned Fidesz majority makes a mockery of the parliamentary system.
Desperate times may indeed call for desperate measures. But any emergency responses to the COVID-19 outbreak must be proportionate to the pursued objectives, necessary and non-discriminatory. Measures should be temporary and subject to parliamentary scrutiny.
Hungary’s ‘extraordinary measures’ are designed to limit the individual rights and liberties enshrined in constitutions, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and the European Convention on Human Rights.
The European Commission’s tepid response to one of its member state suspending the rule of law is not only pathetic, it sets an example to other member states that they have the carte blanche to do exactly the same.
Put bluntly, neither Commission president Ursula von der Leyen nor Commissioner for justice Didier Reynders felt compelled to call out Hungary for what it did, why even pretend to be angry at Orbán.
It’s no good for Reynders to regurgitate what EU rules require – Orbán knows what they are. But it is quite unacceptable for the EU to say they will only ‘monitor’ state of emergency laws enacted in all member states.
MEPs have already affirmed that the activation of Article 15 ECHR by certain member states is an extremely worrying development, as it can create a dangerous precedent for the future, and can be used by totalitarian regimes to suppress fundamental rights. The developments in Hungary will only add to those concerns.
Yes, there may be broad public support in Europe for draconian measures to be enacted during the COVID-19 crisis. But it is important to underline that EU citizens are entitled to fundamental rights protection even during an emergency.
Everyone has the right to health. Everyone, without exception, has the right to life-saving interventions and this responsibility lies with the member state government.
Emergency declarations based on the COVID-19 outbreak should never be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals.
Moreover, it should not function as a cover for repressive action under the pretext of protecting health
The scarcity of resources or insurance schemes should never justify discrimination against certain groups of patients, such as people with disabilities, the elderly, minority communities, the internally displaced and those living in extreme poverty, as well as people in detention, the homeless, refugees and other groups.
Likewise, governments need to take measures to protect women, such as ensuring that hotlines and services for all victims of domestic abuse are considered ‘essential services’ and are kept open and law enforcement is sensitised to the need to be responsive to calls from victims.
No arbitrary rights restrictions can be imposed without good reasons, and restrictions cannot be disproportionate to what is needed for halting the spread of the virus. If measures taken during the special legal order fail to comply with these criteria, they are unconstitutional and should be repealed.
Quote: Malin Björk (Vänsterpartiet, Sweden):
“Most of us agree that the drastic measures now being taken around the world are necessary to stop COVID-19. But this must never be used as a pretext for authoritarian leaders like Viktor Orbán to restrict our most fundamental freedoms and rights.
“I have long called for any member state that violates our fundamental rights to be stripped of EU funds. The gradual erosion of the rule of law and democracy by Hungary and Poland will only accelerate at times of crisis. We must therefore remain vigilant wherever democracy and our basic civil liberties are undermined.”
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THE POLITICS OF PANDEMIC
Germany: Angela Merkel's approval ratings up amid health crisis
Week-long curfews, the curtailing of civil liberties, shuttered shops and restaurants, apps that track peoples' movements, and unprecedented public debt are themes we might encounter in dystopian movies. But these days, with the German government imposing ever stricter measures to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, such flicks pale in comparison with reality.
Yet most Germans of voting age approve of the measures imposed, according to a survey commissioned by public broadcaster ARD and conducted by infratest dimap. Across the political spectrum, Germans deem the steps taken appropriate. Indeed, 72% of those surveyed said they are satisfied with the government's handling of the crisis. Only three out of ten are critical of the government.
A month ago, 25% of Germans said they feared they or their relatives could contract the novel coronavirus. Now, 51% worry this could happen. There is little variation between age groups in this context. While 53% of those over the age of 65 said they were worried about catching the virus, 45% of those under the age of 40 reported such concerns.
Germans support social distancing
A vast majority of Germans approve of the strict social distancing rules introduced across the country on March 23. Across the political spectrum, 93% believe they are appropriate.
According to the poll, about half of Germans would voluntarily install a smartphone app that tracks coronavirus infections and peoples' movements to warn users of a possible risk of contracting the pathogen. The other half rejects the app. Many cite data privacy issues.
Can German hospitals cope?
Two thirds of those polled said they have great or even overwhelming confidence that Germany's healthcare system and its doctors will manage to deal with the pandemic. Even so, four out of ten interviewees doubt Germany has sufficient resources to treat all patients. They are somewhat or even deeply concerned that not every patient will receive the medical treatment they need.
Civil liberties at risk?
Although there is broad support for the social distancing rules imposed across the country, four out of ten Germans worry civil liberties may not be restored after the pandemic has passed. Supporters of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Left party are most worried about this prospect. Also, 40% of those who identify as Christian Democratic Union (CDU) or Christian Social Union (CSU) voters share this fear.