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Capitalism, class and Covid. Part 1: The issues at stake for working people.

In announcing the lockdown during the first wave of the Covid pandemic, the UK Government and public health bodies forecast a possible death toll of 20,000. At the time, even that number felt brutally shocking. Then ,as we witnessed the spiralling fatalities in Spain and Italy coupled with the grim scenes of improvised mortuaries, there was a slight

sigh of relief, albeit tempered still with a sense of dread.

Less than one year later with deaths growing well over the 100,000 mark, the UK shares top spot alongside Brazil for the world’s highest death rate. At the end of Janauary 2021, we had the highest rate of infection in the whole of Europe. Whilst the vaccine offers some hope of a return to normality, it is far too late for those who have died and the thousands more still to forfeit their lives.

Welcome to the UK-PLC, the 5th richest nation in the world …….and the poorest at protecting its people against this killer virus.

In response to this abject failure, the government has launched a publicity campaign exhorting us to search our conscience to prevent more deaths. The message is clear, the government is doing its best but is frustrated by a minority of individuals hellbent on not complying with the lockdown regulations.

Despite a virtual media blackout, this false narrative is wearing thin as it becomes steadily more apparent that the pandemic is fundamentally a social crisis in which public health is taking back seat to private profit. It is this which explains why the strategic and tactical response of the government has been flawed from the outset.

This was apparent even before we were struck by the full force of the first wave:

  • Supplies of vital testing and protective materials were woefully inadequate and systems of distribution were haphazard.

  • Care homes were neglected and as the pandemic spread in the months of March and April, thousands of doctors, nurses, careworkers and other frontline staff were denied essential PPE.

  • Testing was rolled out at a snail’s pace and the public information broadcasts consistently downplayed the value of face coverings.

These were not “mistakes” but features of a health service starved of an essential bank of resources to deal precisely with a crisis such as this. Add to this the large scale privatisation of care homes for the elderly and the almost skeletal features of primary health care provision, and all the ingredients were there for an impending catastrophe.

Profits come first

In both the timing and scope of the both lockdowns (including international travel especially) Westminster has consistently bowed to the interests of big capital. This is evidenced, amongst other things, by the fact that from the first lockdown to the current one, both construction and manufacturing businesses were excluded from the stay-at-home regulations. Unbelievably, despite the evident risks, it is really only hospitality, tourism and some retail sectors of the UK economy which are being closed mandatorily.

In addition to health and social care, all others – financial services, manufacturing, IT and communication services, transport, construction, distribution and, importantly, the fulfillment centres at the heart of online sales – are exempt from lockdown restrictions. Millions of people, approximating well over half of the working population, are still working and travelling to work, with the majority using public transport to do so.

The exact number of people going to work is difficult to calculate, partly because it generally excludes those who are on furlough.

As of mid December last year, this amounted to more than 9 million workers. However, when economists at the universities of Oxford, Zurich, and Cambridge conducted a combined investigation into the UK furlough program, they discovered that only 37% of furloughed workers reported doing no work at all for their employers during the peak pandemic months of April and May. This was despite the fact that the scheme at that time specifically prohibited them from doing so.

“In some sectors”, according to their report, “the imperative to work definitely came from employers. In the sector termed “computer and mathematical,” 44% of those surveyed said they had been asked to work despite being furloughed.

“The average furloughed worker reported putting in 15 hours”, the report added,”…even when effectively being paid not to do it.”

According to Professor Stephen Reicher in the 27 January edition of The Guardian newspaper, as the pandemic registered ever higher rates of infection and fatalities, the current lockdown remained “softer” than the first one:

footfall in shops fell to less than 20% of regular activity last March, and now it is around 35%; the number of cars on the road went down to approximately 30% of normal levels in the first lockdown and is currently hovering around or above 50%

The Swansea debacle

But it is at work where Downing Street’s unabashed laissez faire abandonment of workers health protection reveals itself. The starkest single demonstration of this was a massive Covid outbreak at the government’s own building, the vehicle licensing authority in Swansea (DVLA) .

As of September, more than 500 cases of Covid were recorded there. The fact that there was such a large outbreak in a government building, which should set the highest standards of safety and protection, was in itself quite disturbing.

In defiance of all the public messaging, the DVLA management badgered workers with Covid symptoms to return to work at the same time as denying vulnerable workers’ requests to work from home. Some workers also reported being asked to turn off their test and tracing app notiifications on the grounds that it caused a distraction. As of Jan 24, around 1800 workers were still being asked to attend work to process licence applications.

This cavalier disregard for workers’ safety in Swansea is no exception. Between 6 and 14 January this year alone, there were 945 complaints to the government's Health and Safety Executive {H&SE) about workplace safety issues. No action was taken.

Overall, just 0.1% of the nearly 97,000 Covid safety cases dealt with by this agency during the pandemic appear to have resulted in an improvement or prohibition safety notice, with not a single company prosecuted for Covid-related breaches of safety laws. As workplace inspections by the H&SE have declined, the TUC has reported an all-time high in the number of workplace Covid infections upto the week ending 21 January.

Essential production, non-essential lives

Driven by the need for constant “growth” I e, more profit opportunities, capitalist economics has never been noted for an ability to differentiate between essential or non-essential production. This is patently obvious in the field of food production where vast amounts of unnecessary and unhealthy products – drinks, snacks, confectionery and all their associated plastic wrappings and containers – are surplus to our actual requirements.

However, let’s accept that as a general category, food production, distribution and sales is an “essential” occupation and that every chocolate manufacturer, crisp and fizzy drink producer are performing an indispensable role during the pandemic. You would expect at least that health and safety should be a primary concern in this sector as it continues to work overtime during the pandemic.

In actual fact, this is another area where Covid faces few boundaries.

According to a recent Wellcome research project, Covid-19 outbreaks were identified in food processing factories in mulitiple countries, in some instances recording more than 500 cases from a single workplace. Besides the cold termperature and the need for workers to shout over the noise of machines, the common factor seems to be the close proximity of workers for prolonged periods..

The same pattern can be seen be seen across a range of blue collar occupations in the UK:

Among elementary occupations - the major occupational group with the highest rate of death involving COVID-19,” reported the Office for National Statistics (ONS), “ – those who worked in process plants had the highest rate of death involving COVID-19, with 143.2 deaths per 100,000 male”

Amongst this layer of workers the report highlighted,

“… plant workers [who] clean metal goods, machinery and premises, operate printing machines and reprographic equipment, wrap, fill, label and seal containers and perform a variety of other manual tasks”

All of these areas are excluded from the lockdown regulations and, of course, from the option to work from home.

The Poverty of Non-Compliance

In a recent study carried out at Kings College London, only 18% of people self-isolate after developing symptoms, with an even smaller number (11%) going into quarantine following a test and trace notification of contact with a confirmed case. In the words of the report,one major factor in this non-compliance was belonging to a “lower socio-economic grade”, and consequently suffering “greater hardship during the pandemic”.

By its very nature, capitalism creates this “lower socio-economic grade” with large numbers subject to an extremely precarious existence, pandemic or no pandemic. However, Covid has exposed just how vulnerable these workers are. Besides those who only qualify for a measly £96 Statutory Sick Pay, some of the lowest-paid workers in the least-secure forms of employment are entitled to nothing at all. Even amongst the paltry one-in-eight workers eligible for a discretionary £500 lump sum if told to self-isolate, some are unaware of it and many do not know if they will receive it.

Faced with a dreadful choice between health protection or paying their bills, many workers opt for the latter, with Westminster happily turning a blind eye. As of early January, 2020 when death and infection rates were soaring, once again not a single employer has been issued with an enforcement notice despite the H$SE receiving thousands of complaints.

Besides low pay and greater exposure in manual occupations, there is another more general class feature of the higher infection and death rates. This was highlighted in an October 2020 Parliamentary report:

In England, 74% of COVID-19 related deaths in male elementary workers (those working in routine tasks such as security, cleaning and construction) were in those who lived in deprived neighbourhoods. The death rate was three times higher than average for those that lived in the most deprived quartile.”

It is in this class framework that we can properly appreciate why the BAME community is far more susceptible to infection and death. This has nothing to do with race or a genetic predisposition to catching the virus. It has everything to do with forming a disproportionate part of the working class suffering from low wages, poor health and overcrowded housing.

Rheka’s story

There are no shantytowns in the UK, nothing equivalent to the huge slum dwellings of Mumbai, Dakhar or Dehli. Nearly all residential areas enjoy acces to water, gas and electricity. The UK is a developed country. But a map of “England’s green and pleasant land” is neverthertheless hugely discoloured by swathes of overcrowded and substandard housing populated by millions living in fuel poverty.

One such area is the London borough of Tower Hamlets in east London which houses the country’s largest Bangladeshi population. Home to the towering steel and glass edifices of international finance capital it is also one of the most densely populated residential areas suffering from extreme overcrowding. The chasm between rich (mostly white) and the poor (mostly Asian) is nowhere near as wide as in the metropolis of the Indian sub-continent, but it is there, and visibly so.

Tower Hamlets is, at the same time, one of the richest and one of the poorest parts of Britain. It has the highest rate of child poverty in the country and yet the average salary of those who work in the borough is £58,000, the second highest in the UK after the City of London. This is a place where the rich live 11 years longer than the poor and where many kids sleep six to a room. Yet the borough has an economy worth more than £6bn a year, higher than places such as Malta or Monaco.

Behind this portrait of glaring inequality are the lives of ordinary working people – the cleaners, the drivers, the shopworkers, nursing assistants, the machinists and many, many more – who keep society ticking over but are frequently hidden from view.

One such person is Rehka Begum, a disabled mother of four sharing a 2 bedroom flat with her, daughters aged 20 and her three sons aged 18,14 and 6. Her story was recently told by the online media magazine Buzzfeed:

The government say we have to stay indoors,” she said. “Our house is [a] more unsafe place actually, more than outside, because in the house, me and my children [are] living in a… very tiny two-bedroom flat. We can smell each other’s breath.”

Begum sleeps on the living room sofa with her youngest daughter, while the 3 others share the two bedrooms. The flat has no balcony, garden or play area for the kids. Begum’s daughter is also a professional personal carer, so besides looking after her mum she is also out working amongst vulnerable people.

Housing wealth and deprivation

Begum’s story could be told by countless others in Tower Hamlets which itself is listed as the 10th most deprived area in England and the third most deprived in London. Besides overcrowding and ill-health, it is a borough where half of all older people in live in “income deprived “ households.

When you examine the map charting the highest rates of infection and mortality you can see a direct relation to poverty, overcrowded housing and underlying health problems, all of which are inextricably interlinked. Such is the case with the neighbouring London borough of Newham which has the second-highest death rate in the country. [Note: the data used in this article refers mostly to England]

A comparison of official data on COVID-19 age-related mortality rates and housing overcrowding shows that of the 20 local authority areas where COVID-19 has claimed most lives per 100,000 people, 14 also have the highest percentage of households in homes with fewer bedrooms than they need.

This is blindingly obvious in huge swathes of the country such as those covering Greater Manchester, east Lancashire, and West Yorkshire where, after years of neglect by Labour administrations, Covid hotspots map onto areas with a long history of substandard and overcrowded housing.

But whether it is in the working class communities of northern England or those of east London, the story is the same: capitalism and housing poverty are constant bedfellows.

New housing for the rich

It is not as if there are no house building programmes in major cities. In both Manchester and London for example there are thousands of new homes being built every year. This, however, is driven by a combination of corporate real estate merchants, city investors and private building companies, with a limited provision of so-called social or affordable housing. Even where old council estates are torn down, the new build is frequently out of reach of the former tenants.

The term "affordable" equates to around 80% of the prevailing rental or purchase value established by the market. For most working people paying 80% of a £400,000 two bedroom flat is simply a dream impossible to realise in their lifetime. However, even that option is limited by the tiny portion of new build classified as affordable. A recent report by the by the GLA (Greater London Authority) found that just 0.4% of new builds between 2013 and 2019 were deemed “affordable”

Meanwhile, large sectors of the construction industry continue to make huge profits. According to their latest set of accounts for 2019 the total aggregate turnover recorded by the UK's Top 100 construction firms was £75.5bn. That's a 2.7% year-on-year increase. Overall, 70 of the Top 100 companies saw turnover increase in the past year. The biggest of them all, Balfour Beatty, recorded a pre-tax profit of £138 million representing an annual increase of over 12%. During the peak period of the first Covid wave , this construction colossus still rcarried on with most of its business:

In Construction, the majority of Balfour Beatty’s projects have remained operational throughout the period with the trend now improving week to week. In April, 78% of the Group’s sites, across the UK and US, were open. In May,83% of sites were open and 17% were closed.”

At the peak of the pandemic in April 2020, it was reported that private rents had skyrocketed to an all-time average high of £700 per month in England, and £1,425 in London, making the 80% figure even less attainable. And whilst evictions have been temporarily suspended, the rising unemployment rates, particularly in London, is bound to contribute further to overcrowding and homelessness.

And the band plays on

Barnsley in South Yorkshire is a former mining town ravaged by Thatcher’s pit closure programme. It is also the place which furnishes a terrible but perfect synthesis of how poor housing, low wages, unemployment and class exploitation combine to provide a prime example of the social nature of this crisis.

Barnsley currently has the third highest cummulative Covid-19 death rate in the UK, and is ranked 20th out of 326 areas in England suffering from health deprivation. Levels of unemployment and economic inactivity are higher than the national average. Life expectancy is lower than the England average and winter death rates from flu and respiratory disease are higher than average.

Within this grim social landscape lies Grimethorpe, a once thriving pit village made famous by its colliery band featured in the film Brassed Off. It is no coincidence that the star of the film played by Pete Postlethwaite, also dies of respiratory failure.

With the pit gone, Grimesthorpe is now home to the international fashion giant ASOS, another of those companies that manages to fall within the remit of “essential” production. ASOS is an online company but it is serviced by a workforce of some 2,000 people at its Grimesthorpe warehouse. According to one industry analyst, ASOS has actually used the pandemic to gain greater leverage against its competitors, particularly those traditionally reliant on high street sales.

The firm’s main priority,” observed Julie Palmer, “is their business strategy to utilise the conditions created by the pandemic to dominate the British and international fashion markets”.

Confirmation of this was provided in the company’s August 2020 annual accounts which recorded a 19% increased turnover to £3.26bn with pre-tax profits vaulting by an incredible 350% to £142.1m. As part of this relentless drive to accumulate an even greater share of the market, ASOS is now beginning to build a new £90 million fulfillment centre in Staffordshire. Alongside other vultures circling over the dying high street stores, the company has just announced the acquisition of a range of stock and brand names from the faiing Arcadia group leaving some 13,000 actual shopworkers in the lurch.

Whilst gorging themselves on these new pickings, the company has played fast and loose with the health and safety of its existing workforce. According to the GMB trades union, a recent poll of almost 500 workers at the Grimethorpe site found 98% felt unsafe at work amid the Coronavirus crisis.

Following reports of a Covid outbreak at the plant, Barnsley East MP Stephanie Peacock has highlighted some of the conditions faced by workers there:

“I have been informed that on an average day approximately 600 staff are on shift, with three shifts over 24 hours, totalling nearly 2,000 members of staff coming into contact with one another.

“Pickers, returns and ‘putaway’ staff work in fear of becoming infected as their jobs take place in narrow warehouse alleys where it is impossible to keep a safe distance.

“Workers have let me know that the ‘hand sanitiser’ provided at various points within the building is alcohol free, which does not sufficiently protect them from Covid-19.

“And co-workers dread sharing tools, from tape-guns to knives, due to a lack of cleaning processes.

“I’m currently in isolation as I live with someone who is high risk,” said one ASOS worker. However, because I have been told I am not sick myself I will not be entitled to sick pay. So I’m currently off work unpaid.”

While warehouse workers risk their lives keeping the supply line running 24/7, their bosses are stacking their profits ever higher in a relentless drive to acquire new business and landed property.

Covid: a bonanza for big capital

ASOS’ biggest shareholder is Anders Povlsen. In addition to being the richest man in Denmark with his £4.7 billion in declared wealth he is also the CEO and sole owner of the international clothes retailer Bestseller, which he inherited from his parents. It is said that the billionaire has a big heart, so much so that when he fell in love with Sootland he decided to buy most of it. Currently, he is Scotland’s biggest private landowner, owning huge swathes of the Scottish countryside amounting to some 220,000 acres across 12 estates.

Whilst millions of small businesses go to the wall during the crisis, many huge corporations and fat cat owners like the Danish billionaire are having a field day.

The US economy provides a prime overall example of this. As it heads into a second more deadly wave of Covid infections and mass unemployment, the wealth of the country's 650 billionaires has increased by a staggering $1 trillion since mid-March 2020 when the lockdown began. One of those was Amazon’s Jeff Bezos whose wealth increased by $70 billion during the same period when an estimated 20,000 of his low paid workforce became infected with Covid.

The UK supermarkets are also doing rather nicely. Without exception the average earnings of their shop floor staff are little more than the statutory minimum wage and less than voluntary living wage of £9.50. This is despite the fact that the two high street giants – Tesco and Sainsbury – have logged massive increases in turnover and a profit hit exceeding £500 million each since the pandemic began.

Keen to get in on the act, two UK billionaires, Mohsin and Zuber Issa, have just acquired ASDA for the knockdown price of under £800 million in what amounts to a £6.5 billion leveraged takeover.

Bad health, big money

In July, the Treasury forecast its annual bill for PPE would hit £15bn. By November the National Audit Office reported that £17.3bn in pandemic contracts were awarded without competitive tender. Included within this was the princely sum of £155m awarded to a company called Ayanda Capital who “specialise in currency trading, offshore property, private equity and trade financing”. It was subeequently revealed that Ayanda supplied 50 million masks deemed unsuitable for NHS use.

Much has been made of the AstraZenaca vaccine being produced at cost, as if to suggest that the pharmaceutical industry will not profit from the pandemic. This is not true. The not-for-profit guarrantee is for a limited time only and could end as early as July this year. In this instance, AstraZeneca could then charge the NHS and other health systems around the world high prices for a vaccine that has received around £1 billion of public money for its development. This latter amount is an addition to the £84 million Westminster provided for the vaccine's research at Oxford University and Imperial College in London.

Given the need for continued use of the Covid vaccine including booster shots to deal with new variants, the investment in this represents a potential goldmine for the company and its shareholders for years to come. Investors are already licking their lips in anticipation as the stock market registers a surge in the global giant’s share prices.

The Pfizer/ BionTech vaccine represents a more clear cut case of pandemic profiteering. When these company’s share prices rose by more that 7%, it reflected a predicted output of at least 1.3 billion doses per year by 2022. As the research wing of the partnership, BioNTech received £330 million in public funding from the German government and a further £90 million in loans from the European Investment Bank. The companies have priced the vaccine in the US at about $19.50 a dose for a two-dose course .It is estimated the shot could generate about $3.5 billion in the next year alone. With its existing annual revenues close to $52 billion, Pfizer is already the world’s second largest pharmaceutical giant.

As for making these vaccines universally available, particulary for poorer countries, none of the pharmaceutical giants are prepared to share the vaccines’ underlying formula which might lead to globally affordable protection on a year-by-year basis.

Workers' resistance

There are many such instances of companies seeking to benefit from the crisis. One example of this is British Airways who in the midst of the pandemic launched a massive “fire and rehire” offensive against both ground staff and cabin crew. The latter was halted in September but only after some 7,200 cabin staff had taken “voluntary” redundancy and the remainder accepted pay cuts of upto 15 per cent on existing contracts.

In the case of the ground staff a BA was forced onto the backfoot after workers took 9 days of strike action over the Christmas and New Year period. A further 9 days of strikes planned for January were cancelled when the UNITE union leadership reached a deal to retain existing contracts “with amendments”

Like the Danish billionaire owner of ASOS, BA boss William Walsh made millions during his tenure as CEO of its parent company IAG. When he “retired” last year at the age of 58, he was awarded a bonus of £833,000 that took his total earnings for 2019 to £3.2m. Having spent years slashing jobs and increasing workloads, this brought his earnings since 2011 to a grand total of over £30 million.

This then is the reality of our class divided society. The Covid crisis has not only laid bare these basic fault lines but has shown that the fault lines themselves are at the heart of the pandemic’s devasting impact on working people’s lives. And this social chasm will only get worse as the “long Covid” translates into mass unemployment, greater homelessness and increased poverty levels within the working class.

Fighting this is not easy. However, as the workers at Heathrow airport demonstrated, we can begin to use our combined strength in the unions to defend ourselves. That at least is a starting point in a longer term struggle to radically transform society into one that is based on human need and not private profit.

In Part 2 of this article, I will to sketch a way forward along that path and in particular to draw upon the example set by the Cuban revolution.


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