Review: Reading ‘Capitalism in the Web of Life’ by Jason W. Moore after COVID19

A glass sand timer stands on the left of the image against a stark black background, resting on a white table. Inside the top half of the glass is a miniature tree in sandy soil. Underneath is the skyline of a modern city. The image evokes an impending collapse of the web of life by capitalism.
Entwined and destructive, capitalism undermines the web of life.

A few weeks into the current lockdown, as fatalities and reported cases of COVID19 were continuing to rise, news from the frontlines of Ireland’s food production and agri-sector began to arrive, casting an unsettling light on the many – and now overtly dangerous – levels of exploitation on which this cornerstone of the national economy is based.

First, in April, the public learned that Keelings had flown in (and lodged in shared accommodation) almost 200 casually contracted workers to shift the bulk of the coming season’s fruit for market: a decision that seemed deliberately to ignore the health and safety guidelines specified by the HSE’s emergency Coronavirus taskforce. Such a course of action was justified by Keelings on the basis of keeping domestic and global supply chains open, with little comment made as to the risks posed to the fruit-pickers themselves, their families, and, indeed, anyone in contact with them, as a result of company policy.

This reckless managerial focus – on meeting previously projected revenue margins, at workers’ expense and during a global pandemic – reared its head again in a similar, if even more disturbing, case of industrial recalcitrance in May, when an outbreak of the potentially lethal virus was recorded in a number of Irish meat factories. The sub-heading to The Guardian newspaper’s coverage of the scandal was appropriately ominous: ‘Workers share COVID19 fears over lack of social distancing, crowded accommodation and being forced to buy their own PPE [Personal Protective Equipment]’.

Viewed from high up on a gantry, white-coated workers are working on production lines of slabs of meat. An Irish meat plant: where despite the outbreak of COVID19 clusters, workers and animals were subject to 'business as usual' practices.
Irish meat plant: where despite the outbreak of COVID19 clusters, workers and animals were subject to ‘business as usual’ practices.

The story makes for difficult reading, exposing a culture of normalised exploitation and industrial slaughter, in which low-paid, poorly contracted migrant workers ‘feel intimidated and vulnerable’, unsure of their legal rights, and fearing for their medical safety, with one whistleblower also expressing his combined horror and sadness at the cruelty with which, even in normal circumstances, Irish cattle are butchered and turned into meat. In such a scenario, COVID19 posed an immediate threat to the life and health of factory employees; and yet the overall impression the interviews conveyed was that, from the point of view of both the workers and the animals they were dealing with, business as usual was a systematically ruthless and dehumanising affair.

Although occurring five years after the publication of Jason W. Moore’s book, both incidents could be cited as living (if also quite morbid) proof of the validity of his central argument: that ‘Capitalism is not an economic system; it is not a social system; it is a way of organizing nature.’ Cheap labour, migrant and working-class bodies, brutalised animals, rigorously schematised seasonal cycles, are all – equally and as a whole – fodder for the relentless pillage, the forever-primary drive for profit, that is capitalism’s life-in-the-world.

Capitalism in the Web of Life is a critique and revision of environmental concepts and approaches, rather than a miscellany of insights into present environmental struggles (as in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, for example). Such a focus, however, is not necessarily negative: what Moore’s analysis lacks in activist-oriented urgency it arguably makes up for in the expansiveness of its critical scope. Moore’s writing is that of a sincere, discerning and formidable critic of ecological and political arrogance, both capitalistic and leftist; and crucially (against that most insidious of critical bugbears) he is methodical and convincing in suggesting an alternative series of attitudes and understandings.

The book cover of Capitalism in the Web of Life, by Jason W Moore. The book is facing a little to the right, so the spine can be seen and the V for Verso logo of the publisher. It is a simple cover with white writing on a black background. The only art is a white twisting column that suggests smoke rising from a fire.
Capitalism in the Web of Life, Jason W. Moore

As implied by the title, Moore sets out to dismantle the distinction between humanity and nature, industrial civilization and the environment, as binary, separate forces, and instead proposes a long-view and multi-faceted perspective: one that recognises how dependent human activities and power dynamics are on natural seasons, cycles, and ecosystems. We change them, Moore argues, and they change us, continuously: and it is on such a ‘world-ecology’ that the success of future efforts to disband and replace neoliberal civilization with radical and sustainable communities-in-process will depend. ‘A capitalist looks at a forest and sees dollar signs,’ Moore observes,

an environmentalist sees trees and birds and soils; a world-ecologist sees how humans and other species have co-produced the forest, and how that “bundled” forest simultaneously conditions and constrains capital today.

At first glance, the significance of such an argument may seem somewhat remote: an example of the kind of linguistic and theoretical tinkering that only an academic Marxist could afford to spend their time discussing or disputing. But as Moore’s analysis unfolds, its pertinence to contemporary anti-capitalist struggles is clear to see. ‘Yes, diseases make history,’ Moore notes, but only insofar as they (and the conditions that intensify their effects) are understood as ‘bound to commerce and empire’.

So today, as historian Mike Davis and others have also argued, the COVID19 pandemic itself may be viewed as having its origin in – its capacity to wreak so much damage stems from – the networks of relentless intervention and attempted control (over bodies both human and ‘natural’) that sustain the capitalist project globally. Broadly speaking, the same may be said of the climactic and civilisational dangers that accompany continued carbon emissions, or global warming. In Moore’s terminology, capitalism’s ‘way of organising nature’ is inherently destructive of the ‘web of life’ on which its own existence (along with everything else) depends. Or as Karl Marx observed:

All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility […] Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth: the soil and the labourer.

To his immense credit, Moore treats the latter perception less as an aphorism to be glibly quoted than as a key to a palpable, dialectical conflict in which we are, collectively, enmeshed. Likewise, recalling Marx’s earlier recognition of ‘the merciless vandalism’ with which land usage in both England and Germany had been standardised by way of ‘the expropriation of the great mass of the people from the soil’, Moore surveys the twenty-first-century vista of global, market-driven, genetically modified industrial agriculture as a field of combined ecological and material violence. He concludes:

We can say with some confidence that food – not just land – has become a central site of the world class struggle in a way that is entirely unprecedented, and unthinkable even three decades ago….. As neoliberalism’s [manufactured] definition of food has rolled out – shifting from the Green Revolution’s caloric metric to the ‘edible food-like substances’ that now line our supermarket shelves – it seems to have made food, and by extension nature, much more fundamental to the Old Left questions of liberté, égalité, fraternité than ever before. The class struggle of the twenty-first century will turn, in no small measure, upon how one answers the questions: What is food? What is nature? What is valuable?

So it is, Moore suggests, that campaigns for food justice, for ethical and non-industrialised farming, for environmental sustainability, for ecological restoration, all drive to the heart of the toxic, earth-spanning, wage-devouring monster that is the modern capitalistic world-order (or disorder). At the same time, these seemingly specialised movements challenge activists to sharpen our understanding of what we mean by – how we envision and situate ourselves, our resources and our relationships within – that horizon of political emancipation that draws us forward.

Moore’s critical perspective is illuminating, his meticulous dissection of capitalist accumulation most incisive when he relates his analysis to the tensions and contradictions of our present moment. Moore is refreshingly and emphatically opposed, for example, to the likes of Sir David Attenborough, for instance, who in an interview with the so-called Duke of Cambridge at the World Economic Forum at Davos last year stated that ‘the Anthropocene, or age of humans’ was effectively to blame for climate change.

William Windsor and David Attenborough seated at the World Economic forum. Attenborough is on the right and is making a point with raised hands in an animated gesture. Windsor looks like he is trying to contain a smirk. There is a backdrop of some large brown animals and a foreground of the tops of the heads of the audience.
David Attenborough and some inexpert but well-suited male at the World Economic Forum 2019.

‘The Anthropocene makes for an easy story’, Moore writes,

Easy, because it does not challenge the naturalized inequalities, alienation, and violence inscribed in modernity’s strategic relations of power and production. It is an easy story to tell because it does not ask us to think about these relations at all. The mosaic of human activity in the web of life is reduced to an abstract Humanity: a homogeneous acting unit. Inequality, commodification, imperialism, patriarchy, racial formations, and much more, have been largely removed from consideration. At best, these relations are acknowledged, but as after-the-fact supplements to the framing of the problem.

Such skepticism of ‘The Anthropocene’ and its eloquently embedded public advocates in the Euro-American climate movement is well-founded, as even a cursory examination reveals: of Attenborough himself, who previously has posited famine as an acceptable natural check to the supposed ‘disaster’ of ‘overpopulation’ in the global South, or a figure like Michael Moore, whose most recent film gives credence to the same Malthusian and racist world-view.

By contrast, Moore’s work correctly pins the blame for impending climate collapse on the the globe’s expropriators-in-chief and the systematised practices that serve them, insisting that the fight for an ecologically sustainable society and future is by nature a struggle against ‘[i]nequality, commodification, imperialism, patriarchy, racial formations, and much more’. Moore’s sober, but clear-eyed discovery is a valuable one: that we are both riven and empowered by our own interconnectedness; that with so much at stake, so much already lost and gone, disfigured and deranged, we still, together, have a world to win.

Ireland after COVID19: Unite the Union’s ‘Hope or Austerity’ road map

Nine workers, dressed in black, at least two metres apart, wearing masks are facing the camera outside of a Debenhams shop, beneath the store's sign, which is white writing on a black background.
Debenhams’s workers (members of Mandate) protest at shop closures and layoffs 21 April 2020

To date 3.6 million people worldwide have been infected by Covid-19, with over a quarter of a million (258,000) dying from the respiratory illness that attacks the lungs and airways. From December 2019 the virus travelled from its original source in southern China to all of Asia, Europe and the rest of the world in the space of two months, resulting in the World Health Organisation (WHO) declaring a global pandemic at the end of January. The pandemic has forced governments the world over to close their economies and lockdown their societies.

With more than four fifths of workers globally living in countries affected by full or partial lockdowns, a global public health crisis is leading to a global economic recession, with the International Labour Organisation stating that 6.7% of working hours globally have been wiped out in the second quarter of this year alone – equivalent to 195 million jobs worldwide. The global economy is in recession and may yet head into an economic depression.

Here in Ireland, north and south, there have been 22,248 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 1,375 deaths (6 May 2020). In the south we have spent the past five weeks effectively living in lockdown, instructed by state authorities to stay indoors, to go no further than a radius of 2km (now 5km as of 5 May) for our daily exercise and only engage in essential consumption – our weekly grocery shop.

The Irish economy has been deliberately shut down by the government: 598,000 people have lost their jobs, with another 427,000 people having their wages paid via a state subsidy; tax revenues are projected to shrink by 14 billion this year, and in their spring forecast the European Commission predicts that the Irish economy will shrink by 8% this year. It took more than two years during the last national crisis – the financial crisis of 2008 – for such numbers to develop, this time round it has happened in a little over two months.

The world has been rocked by the coronavirus, peoples’ lives have been turned upside down; shock, grief, fear and anxiety caused by pandemic and its economic consequences have left millions people reeling, with many feeling vulnerable and isolated. Ideal circumstances for the ruling class, the multinational corporations and their local political allies to take advantage and pursue a shock doctrine response to this global pandemic: to force the cost of the crisis onto the backs of the working class worldwide, to push more privatisation and deregulation, to further increase their wealth, power and influence.

We refuse to repeat the sacrifices of 2008

So whilst we have to remain physically distant we must remain socially close and politically critical. Some would want us to suspend not only our parliamentary democracy (with caretaker Fine Gael ministers last month bemoaning the convening of Dáil Éireann), but our critical faculties also. The old trick from the last crisis, the call to ‘don the green jersey’ in ‘the national interest’ as ‘we’re all in this together’ as a way to stifle criticism and suppress political debate has been used again during this crisis but this time it is not working.

People have lived with the consequences of the political decisions taken during the financial crisis of 2008 for more than a decade now, indeed the decade of austerity and the massive transfer of wealth from the working class to the rich resulted in the state being ill-prepared for the outbreak of such a pandemic and will likely mean that our societal and economic lockdown will last longer than many other countries.

The ease with which the cost of the financial crisis of 2008, resultant bank bailout and decade of austerity was foisted upon the people was in large part due to the lack of real opposition from the trade union movement. Insofar as there was opposition, small and sporadic though it was, it arose through the efforts of the small radical left parties. This was not effective in stopping the austerity. It was not until an alliance of trade unions, community groups and left parties formed to fight the water charges that a movement of critical size and power emerged to oppose one item on the austerity agenda.

This cannot be allowed to happen again. The trade union movement has to become the dominant force that shapes the response to the Covid-19 crisis to ensure that workers, families and communities throughout Ireland are not forced to pay for yet another crisis not our their making .

Unite the Union’s response to Ireland’s post COVID-19 economy

To that end, the Unite trade union recently commissioned the left-wing economist, writer and activist Conor McCabe to produce an analysis of what has happened to date and to sketch a socially just, economic fair and environmentally transformative pathway forward out of the economic and societal crisis we are currently living through, a document intended by the author to be ‘a tool to feed into the conversations we are having and the strategies and tactics we will pursue’ so that the Left does not ‘allow the right-wing and neoliberal voices in Ireland to dominate and shape the pathway out of the current crisis’.

You can read the Hope or Austerity document here.

Independent Left commends Unite for taking the initiative in commissioning the document Hope or Austerity as too often the Left is reactive rather than proactive. Indeed as the author notes ‘we cannot build the future we need unless we plan and fight for it’. In times of crisis we need clear thinking, critical analysis and robust debate, which this document provides.

Of course the crisis is evolving and as the author himself stated during a Unite May Day lecture it is a working document, written to feed into an on-going process of critical discussion and debate. There are parts that need expansion, like childcare and home care, and others that need to challenged, like the normalisation of the regressive and dysfunctional Local Property Tax.

Independent Left recommends a close reading of the document, welcomes the opening of discussion and aims to be a part of the comradely yet critical debates ahead as together we debate the best tactics and strategies to purse as we struggle for a better world.

Debenhams Workers in Ireland on Strike

A battle between Debenhams management and workers is a key one for all workers, at it is likely to shape the wider issues of who will pay for the impact of the COVID19 crisis on the economy.

On 9 April 2020, Debenhams Retail Ireland told 1,500 workers their jobs were gone as all 11 of its stores were closed. The company offered no redundancy.

The workforce is represented by Mandate, who have pointed out that the shops still have stock worth an estimated €25m and this should be sold to provide redundancy payments to the workers.

Mandate is demanding that more than a million items of stock currently in Debenham’s 11 closed Irish stores should be sold and the proceeds, estimated at €25m, distributed to former workers as part of a redundancy deal.

Even though it is extremely difficult to organise at a time of social distancing and closed stores, the workers voted to strike and deserve the support of all Irish workers.

Below is an interview with Councillor John Lyons and Debenhams’ strikers at the Henry Street Store, recorded 23 June 2020. The Debenhams workers are asking people to boycott the online sales of the company until the dispute is resolved.

There are two worlds

A grey sky with a rainbow, which touches the roof of the Mater hospital, Dublin.
A rainbow over the Mater hospital ICU

There are two worlds.

In one, people try to occupy themselves at home, maybe spend time in the garden where the birds are so lively just now, or watch TV or – although I found my concentration levels weren’t up to it – do something creative.

The other is darker and consists of those with COVID19.

Having crossed the invisible barrier into the latter, I had an intense realisation of these two worlds as I walked my partner to the emergency tent at the Mater hospital. It was sunny, probably, and there were so many normal people around: a group of builders, smoking and chatting, united by their day-glo jackets; two hospital staff, ID badges swaying, smiling; a large man just standing there on the corner of the road and – evidently unconcerned by our masks and her being in a dressing gown – not inclined to move. We skirted him.

I squeezed her hand one last time and watched from the entrance as the two staff members took her details then brought her further in. It occurred to me that this might be my last ever sight of her, but I told myself not to be alarmed, that she was much safer in their ‘yellow’ ward than at home. That she was lucky, in fact, because perhaps soon they would be turning away people who need monitoring for lack of staff.

And then I went back to the car and the waiting kids, along a street with the other world all around me.

One in which the sun was probably shining.

Dawn, Easter Saturday and she’s home. I’m lying on a mattress outside her door, like Cú Chulainn at the threshold of his king, my namesake. Outside, a pigeon is asking over and over, ‘look, can we, tee de?’ When it stops, the far sweeter chirp of a robin takes its place, but so rapid is the robin’s voice that even Democritus would have struggled to understand him.

Ever since we hung out a bird feeder, we have had a pair of robins in our back yard. I’m sure they are nesting in the thick, thorny bush that I was supposed to trim. I’m glad I never got around to that task, because our neighbour has a very attentive cat, who likes to walk on the top of the wall. He cannot get past the overgrown bush, no matter how carefully he tries to place his paw.

Heart irregularity, high blood pressure. In need of several days of bed rest. But her lungs are fine. Well, pneumonia to be sure, but mild. So long as she can rest in quiet solitude, she should get through this. Quiet solitude. That’s why I sleep at the door, for while the elven-year-old and the eight-year-old understand and respect the rules, we have a three-year-old who does not understand boundaries.

She’s awake already and after considering my unexpected presence says, ‘I don’t want you there.’ When I fail to disappear, she begins crying. Like the dawn birds, there is a cycle to the cry. ‘I want my mummy’, over and over. Not too much of a shriek, more an unhappy insistence. Every five chants I offer an explanation that I know won’t be accepted, but perhaps my gentle tone of voice does some good because she settles.

It helps that the eight-year-old, having woken, announces that there are eighteen hours and seventeen minutes until Easter. He started that timer three days ago.

Delighted with the prospect of chocolate and understanding that it is imminent my three-year-old is immediately cheerful. And it makes me realise there is a power in her refusal to see boundaries. I just have to follow her and I will find the way back.

A path between trees, in the foreground it is light, in the distance it is dark. A little child is holding the hand of an adult at the boundary.

Coronavirus in Ireland: challenging misinformation and offering solutions

Ireland and the cornavirus feature illustrated with an electron microscope image of a virus. About a dozen large orange balls float in a deep green sea. They are coated all over with what looks like green pins.
The coronavirus outbreak has reached Ireland and is far more dangerous than it should be due to business pressures on the caretaker government

The spread of a new coronavirus – 2019-nCoV – has to be of concern to everyone. Efforts to keep the virus out of Ireland have failed and any attempt to shrug off the dangers posed by the situation by saying, for example, that many more people will die of the flu this year, are seriously misplaced. Unlike the flu, as of March 2020 there is no vaccine for the coronavirus. Nor is there a method for ensuring the survival of those who contract it.

True, some four out of five people who become sick from the coronavirus will not suffer greatly but about 3.4% of those who contract the virus will die. Those who are old, those with underlying conditions, and those who smoke or who previously smoked are most at risk of death, which typically comes from respiratory failure.

The virus enters the lungs and penetrates deep into the tissue there, creating pneumonia and becoming life threatening for older people, particularly if the person already has hypertension or diabetes. Men (5%) are more likely to be killed by the virus than women (3%).

At the time of writing (1 March 2020), there are 88,382 officially confirmed cases; there have been 2,996 deaths; and – more positively – 42,769 people who have recovered. You can see the latest, up-to-date, live data for the spread of COVID-19 here.

Live data on COVID-19 cases provided by Johns Hopkins CSSE. A dark map of the world has red circles across it, especially in Asia but also Europe. A few numbers stand out including in red, the figure of 88, 382 confirmed cases.
Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by Johns Hopkins CSSE

Ireland’s first confirmed case was announced on 1 March 2020 and within hours, Scoil Chaitríona, Mobhi Road, was closed for two weeks. Shockingly, and this is something I’ll return to below, only for the fact that the information was shared by parents on social media were the public informed of this important news.

Letter sent by the HSE on 1 March 2020 to parents of children at Scoil Chaitríona informing them of the closure of the school after a student was diagnosed as having been infected by the coronavirus COVID-19. Header in  red with the HSE logo top right. Begins Dear Parent and has subheadings: what is coronavirus; what is my risk; what happens next; what are the symptoms of COVID-19.
Letter sent by the HSE on 1 March 2020 to parents of children at Scoil Chaitríona informing them of the closure of the school after a student was diagnosed as having been infected by the coronavirus COVID-19

The official HSE website failed to explain that the case was that of a student who had returned from Italy or give a timeline or location for the report that someone had tested positive for the virus.

What are the causes of the coronavirus COVID-19?

Flu-like viruses have intermittently troubled humanity throughout our existence. Recent outbreaks include the SARS virus of 2002 – 4 and the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. The latest, 2019-nCoV, is said to have started at the massive Wuhan market in China; Wuhan, capital of the Hubei province, has over 11 million people. There is some evidence for transference of the virus from livestock in the Wuhan market, with early clusters of cases associated with activity there.

At the same time, a certain amount of what is frankly, racism, has obscured the origins of the virus. Some accounts of the appearance of coronavirus have expressed in mocking and hostile terms the belief that it has arisen from the wide variety of animals eaten in China, including those that do not feature in the Western diet.

Yet only a minority of the infections arose in people who had been in the Wuhan market streets near wildlife. A quarter of those originally infected had never been to the market and the earliest case of the coronavirus had arisen before anyone from Wuhan market was infected. One research team has speculated that the local hog population was the source of the new virus, based on the fact that this livestock species has similar physiology to humans in critical respects.

The increase in factory farming in China is likely to have been a contributor to the appearance of the coronavirus. In the past, new viruses often failed to spread beyond a small, local area because their means of transmission to large human populations was disrupted. In the twenty-first century, the speed of transmission is completely different to even the twentieth. A Chinese farmer can bring poultry, say, to the urban market very quickly with modern industrial methods and an infection can be shipped to a major city very quickly.

And as the environmental scientist and socialist, Rob Wallace, has written, the connectedness of the entire planet means the unprecedentedly swift spread of new viruses.

H1N1 (2009) crossed the Pacific Ocean in nine days, superseding predictions by the most sophisticated models of the global travel network by months. Airline data show a tenfold increase in travel in China just since the SARS epidemic.

Why is there so much misinformation about the coronavirus?

Unfortunately, in 2020 there exist vested interests that mean instead of a unified, planetary response to the coronavirus, one where everyone is accurately informed about the necessary steps to halt the increase in cases and deaths, there exist people who have a reason to put out misinformation.

For a start, there are those who have the incentive of making money to drive them to create confusion around the virus. There are websites selling cures and medical equipment that professes to be the answer to the virus, but isn’t. Iran, in particular, has had some wild nonsense passed around via websites and social media, suggesting mint, vinegar, saffron, rosewater and turmeric, among other substances, can act to prevent the virus. More criminally, worldwide but with a focus on Japan, there are email scams which seem official and to be containing important information about coronavirus, but when you open them, they install trojans into your computer and search for valuable personal information.

Politicians have misinformed their constituents about the coronavirus

From the very beginning of this outbreak, politicians in authority have had a dangerous, irresponsible approach to dealing with the virus. A tragic example is that provided by Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan. At the end of 2019, he posted on a chat group for doctors that there might be a new SARs-type virus as there were seven patients showing symptoms at his hospital. He advised medics to wear protective clothing. For this, he was visited by the police, brought to the Public Security Bureau and made to sign a document acknowledging that he would be brought to justice if he persisted in stubborn, impertinent and illegal activity. On 10 January 2020, Dr Li started coughing, he had caught coronavirus from one of his patients. On 30 January the diagnosis was confirmed and he died at the start of February.

Li Wenliang who tried to alert his colleagues to the danger of a new coronavirus but was punished by the Chinese authorities. Pictured in a green mask, white gown, he is 34 years old and wears glasses.
Li Wenliang tried to alert his colleagues to the danger of a new coronavirus but was punished by the Chinese authorities

Long after the evidence was overwhelming for the coronavirus outbreak, Chinese officials were still underreporting it and discouraging an effective response. Yet the West is little better.

Donald Trump, for example, has twice explained to the world that the threat of coronavirus will ‘go away’ in April with warmer weather. He’s said that life will return to normal after the spike and that the media have been exaggerating how dangerous the virus is.

And in their own way, the caretaker Irish government have been failing us. Their theme is ‘don’t panic’. Well, yes, panic wouldn’t help the situation. But is it panicking to want to know where the virus has been present and what measures are being taken to prevent it spreading? As the case of the student from Scoil Chaitríona shows, Fine Gael have a strategy of keeping detailed information out of the public domain as much as possible and assuring us that no special measures are needed.

This approach is creating panic rather than ending it. The less we know, the more we speculate and rumours (not without foundation in respect to the Mater hospital, but made up in other instances) of other possible cases fly around social media. Crucially, too, lives will be lost if the message goes out – as it did this morning on RTÉ’s panel discussion – that public concern about the coronavirus was massively exaggerated and we should carry on as normal. We shouldn’t even cancel travel plans to centres of infection like northern Italy.

By repeating the idea that more people will die of ordinary flu and failing to have someone on the panel with genuine expertise in pandemics, RTÉ ensured a complacent message came across, one that was exactly in tune with the ‘don’t panic’ theme of government communication. Yet the comparison with annual flu is utterly misleading. Not only is coronavirus far more likely to kill someone, we are still at the very early stages of its spread. If coronavirus is anything like H1N1 from 2009, which it seems to be, the final figures will be grim. According to the Lancet, probably some 284,000 people were killed in one year as a result of that last virus.

Business interests are preventing the necessary measures to stop the coronavirus

What unites the Chinese authorities, Donald Trump and Fine Gael is the terrifying prospect of massive losses to business if they take strong measures to stop coronavirus: measures such as closing airports, schools and factories. In the last week, even at the thought that such measures might prove necessary, stock markets lost nearly six trillion dollars in value.

The world economy had been picking up slightly in the wake of the resolution of the US-Chinese trade war but now it will plunge downwards. Already, indicators are showing we are heading for a dip comparable to 2008 and this is likely to worsen.

There is a clash of interest between many businesses and the needs of public health. In insurance, for example, companies only have to pay out to passengers who cancel their trips, if the government has placed official advice not to travel to the region of the planned trip. There is pressure, therefore, on the government from this industry not to introduce notices advising against travel or to limit the regions covered by the notices.

Or, to take the example of large sporting events such as the 2020 Olympics. So much vested interest and wealth is tied up in the Olympics that authorities have been extremely reluctant to announce its cancellation, when it is an obvious precautionary step to take to do so. On a much smaller scale, despite the advice of Ireland’s chief medical officer, there was considerable delay before Ireland’s rugby international with Italy was postponed.

Yes, people will lose fortunes over this outbreak. But lives lost can never be regained and nor will they be compensated for, in the way that some businesses will escape the full hit of the impact of the cancellation of events and the temporary closure of factories.

Ireland is not ready for the impact of coronavirus COVID-19

We have a particular problem in Ireland when it comes to coping with an outbreak of the coronavirus: we are already starting from a situation where there is a huge shortage of hospital beds. Years of neglect of the public health system, both in terms of staff and facilities, means there is already a crisis, even before the spread of the coronavirus. Every major hospital, the HSE tells us, has identified an isolation room to which a COVID-19 patient will be taken. In other words, with the exception of the Mater hospital, which does have an isolation unit already functioning, these are hypothetical spaces.

And of course, as soon as the outbreak hits hard, the theoretical preparations are going to prove pathetic, inadequate and dangerous to hospital patients and staff. Coronavirus patients are going to need intensive care to survive, particularly in regard to equipment to assist their breathing. Yet, as Dr Michael O’Dwyer of St Vincent’s Hospital told the press the use of intensive care beds was at ‘a hundred and ten percent capacity’. There has not been a free intensive care bed at St Vincent’s since Christmas.

It would only take around a hundred coronavirus cases and the consequent five or so patients who need life-saving interventions would strain the system, with knock-on effects in other areas. Instead of identifying rooms, ‘in case’, the government should prepare for a worst-case scenario and immediately recruit the extra staff and actually set up the extra intensive care rooms that have been identified. To do this, however, would be a complete reversal of Fine Gael’s approach to health, where there has been an unofficial embargo on recruitment for months.

Another failure of the government in Ireland with regard to the coronavirus is that they have not insisted that all large workplaces and public transport hubs provide facilities for the hygiene measures needed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Where are the hand sanitizers at all the LUAS, Dart and railway stations? At the major colleges? At the libraries? Theatres? Big workplaces? Some have them, most don’t.

I gave a lecture at Trinity College Dublin two days ago on another threat to humanity, that posed by geo-engineering. The hand sanitizers I passed were empty. Whether that was a failure by the college or government or both, it was symbolic of a deep complacency and resistance to spending money to avert a crisis.

Will workers in Ireland be paid if the coronavirus means that their workplace closes?

If the virus spreads through Ireland, there will be more closures like that of Scoil Chaitríona. The situation for entire workplace closures seems to be that while the employer might request workers do what they can from home, failure to pay staff who are available for work would probably be a breach of contract. For individual workers, however, there is likely to be something of a battle between unions and management.

HR information to staff at Trinity College Dublin that does not encourage self-isolation and only increases the likelihood of the spread of COVID-19.
On 5 March, HR at Trinity College issued this guide to staff, suggesting we take Annual Leave, Parental Leave or Unpaid leave if self-isolating.
HR information to staff at Trinity College Dublin concerning the situation if a creche or school is closed as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Staff are put under pressure to take Annual Leave, Parental Leave or Unpaid Leave.
Directions from HR, such as that at TCD, to take Annual Leave, Parental Leave or Unpaid Leave only increases the likelihood of the spread of COVID-19.

In theory, if you are advised by the HSE to self-isolate, your employer is not obliged to pay for your absence. Or if you have to leave work to care for a child sent home from a school closed because of coronavirus, you might be told this has to be paid leave, that the situation is not one of force majure. In the examples above, which were issued by TCD HR on 5 March, pressure is put on staff to take annual leave, parental leave or unpaid leave. Obviously, in the interests of public health, the government should insist that all workers who are being responsible and self-isolating must be paid. Ditto the parent who cares for a child in isolation. But again, this is not Fine Gael’s approach. They are, along with Fianna Fail, the friends of the employers and have issued no such guideline. It will be up to the unions to establish this policy or workers themselves, taking industrial action in support of their member who has protected everyone by not coming in to work.

From the UK comes a warning on this issue, where Wetherspoons, who also have businesses in Ireland, have refused to pay workers for their absence, other than the statutory payments under the sick pay regulations and that means nothing for the first four days then only £94.25 a week. Not only is this a moral disgrace, financial hardship might well will lead to people with the virus coming to work instead of self-isolating. In other words, a tough line by the employers is a disastrous one for the public.

There is a petition in support of workers rights in Ireland here, demanding that the government insist that workers who are self-isolating should be paid.

Will workers be paid while self-isolating? In Finland, France, Netherlands, Sweden and Spain they will be paid if self-isolating after advice from the employer or relevant authority. A black and white chart with the details in writing.
Most European countries say that employees should not be deducted pay if they are self-isolating on advice. Ireland and the UK are yet to act in this way.

The free market is not the way to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus

Another way in which competition between businesses is making the the coronavirus far more dangerous than it should be is in regard to developing anti-viral solutions. Those pharmaceutical companies involved in the development of vaccines are doing so for the potential to profit from the crisis. Shares in Moderna for example, rose by eleven percent in one day in January when the company said it had US health funding for research on a vaccine. Clearly, investors calculated there was money to be made for the company, after fulfilling its obligations to the US state.

This private company solution to the development of a vaccine means we must be concerned about its cost and that inability to pay might lead to a divide between the rich and poor, in terms of who is protected from the virus. This is happening all the time in medicine and the Irish government should have no hesitation in breaking a private monopoly over a vaccine should one arise. Again, this is not a step that the Fine Gael caretakers would endorse.

The market has already failed us in regard to a vaccine for the coronavirus: as Professor Peter Hoetz explained to the Guardian, the tragedy is that after SARs a vaccine could have been stockpiled and made ready to go. But ‘the investor enthusiasm for a Sars vaccine was zero.’ No global health organisation or government stepped in and we are now racing against time to develop a vaccine. The issue is not so much the creation of a vaccine, there are several promising approaches, but the necessary delays in testing, to make sure there are no unforeseen and dangerous consequences.

The US provides a clear case what happens when the right to make a profit and the free-market are seen as essential to health care.

The Miami Herald reported how it works there. Osmel Martinez Azcue, acting responsibly, reported to hospital for a check after returning from China. The subsequent bill to his insurance company was $3,270. In a country with 27.5 million people without health insurance and more than a third of the workforce are not entitled to sick leave, the private system of medicine clearly doesn’t make sense in the face of a public health care challenge like an epidemic.

A socialist society would be a lot less vulnerable to coronavirus-type outbreaks. Agriculture would be less likely to create the conditions in which viruses develop among animals and cross over to humans; our representatives would not be under pressure from businesses to delay the necessary measures to halt the spread of the epidemic; we’d have much more investment in hospitals and staff to treat patients, and we’d share knowledge about the epidemic and possible vaccines and cures globally, for free.

FAQs about the coronavirus based on information provided by the World Health Organisation.

What are the symptoms of the new coronavirus, COVID-19?

Like a bad flu, the symptoms of COVID-19 are fever and tiredness. Also a dry cough. Some people report aches and pains, nasal congestion, a runny nose or diarrhoea. The symptoms usually begin gradually. If you have a temperature, cough and difficulty breathing, look for medical help.

What should I do if I think I have coronavirus?

Isolate yourself, including from your family e.g. occupy a room for yourself only. Seek medical advice promptly from your GP or the HSE helpline (below). Call before leaving for care to help prevent the spread of the virus and also to be directed to the appropriate place.

What should I do to limit my exposure to the coronavirus?

Firstly, everyone in Ireland now needs to take the risk of infection seriously. The virus can spread when an infected person sneezes or coughs. Try to maintain at least 1 metre distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing. As it can probably survive on a surface for days, regularly and thoroughly wash your hands after being in public places.

How can I minimize the risk of becoming infected?

Regularly and thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub (at least 60% alcohol and let the santizer dry on the hand). Don’t bring your fingers to your eyes, nose and mouth (entry points to your body for the virus).

Is there a vaccine for COVID-19?

Not at present.

Who should I call in Ireland for more information about the coronavirus?

The HSELive helpline on 1850 24 1850.