The campaign to beat the pandemic

A cozy, slightly out of focus picture of a zoom call.

Comment For Covid-safe trade union and Labour meetings!

05 February 2023 / Joan Twelves

We are being propagandised at an industrial, global scale, to believe that Covid is over. Even our unions and Labour party events do not take – or are resistant to – necessary mitigation measures. Covid Action steering committee member Joan Twelves explains why things do not have to be this way, and shares some options for what we can do to bring about change.

Sign our open letters:

For months now the Tory UK government has been gaslighting us into believing the Covid pandemic is over, even though most people’s experience is that they or someone they know is or has just been sick. Nearly one million UK residents had Covid last week, with over 7,000 hospitalised – their care and the need for barrier nursing and infection control adding further stress to the overstretched NHS.
And more than 130 people are dying every day. The figures have gone down from their tragic heights earlier in the pandemic, largely thanks to vaccination, but no avoidable death can possibly be acceptable.
And nor should we accept preventable infection and reinfection from a virus which can cause not just immediate unpleasant sickness but long-term damage to our health. A million workers off sick with Covid, added to the 2 million with Long Covid, is one of the unreported reasons why so many industries and services – especially the NHS – are short-staffed and unable to deliver to acceptable standards. For thousands, sick pay is non-existent; for those who are entitled, it is inadequate. But let’s not mention Covid (or Brexit, for that matter) when we can blame strikers!

The Kraken is coming…
Sadly, many of our friends and comrades have accepted being gaslighted into shrugging off all protections and mitigations and, in so doing, putting their own and others’ health and lives at risk.
An airborne virus like Covid spreads when people inhale its minuscule aerosols. Transmission of the highly infectious Omicron (or the even more infectious Kraken subvariant, which is now spreading fast) is undetectable. Good ventilation and the installation of CO2 monitors and HEPA filters is crucial, especially in public buildings and workplaces. Where ventilation is poor, or the room crowded, masks are our protection.

My mask protects you! Your liberty infects me!
So why have so many intelligent, caring socialists accepted the line that wearing a mask is an infringement on their liberty? No, it’s not. It’s an infringement of mine. When I wear a mask, I am protecting you from any infection I may have. When you don’t wear one, I am the person who could get infected. At the height of the pandemic, most people seemed to understand that. How short their memories have become!

Those of us whose vulnerability to Covid has not much diminished, and those who keep adding to our numbers as they are diagnosed with cancer, auto-immune diseases, diabetes or other disabling illnesses, as well as those who live with us, are finding ourselves increasingly isolated, just as thousands of disabled people have been for generations. In the past becoming housebound by age, disability or infirmity meant an end to political involvement. Technological advances in recent decades mean that mobile phones, social media, emails, texting and messaging have become standard tools for any activist, so now online video calls are enabling participation in democratic discussion and decision making for those who previously were excluded. But just as there are still holdouts against mobile phones, we are now encountering unwarranted opposition to hybrid meetings. It’s as though those of us who are housebound are determined to take away comrades’ right to meet in person before going to the pub, rather than tentatively asking to be allowed to join in the non-pub part.

The arguments against hybrid can be gob smacking – we can only do hybrid with hi-tech systems; I spend all day at work on zoom so refuse to do it after 5pm; we can’t do hybrid because hiring halls with the facilities may cost us; we could alternate zoom and in person meetings (would anyone suggest women or black comrades could only come to 50% of meetings?). Disability is a protected characteristic under the Equalities Act, yet discrimination against us is rife and goes unchallenged. (Yes, I know many reading this will have had to put up with it for all, or large chunks of their lives, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable.) Covid Action activists are sick of being the only person wearing a mask at a labour movement meeting, sick of arguing to be allowed to join via zoom, sick of explaining that meeting in a room with no ventilation is dangerous.

There are so many bigger battles to be fought in respect of Covid – against the closure of the vaccination programme for under 50s; the fight for airborne pathogens to be included in clean air legislation; for improved sick pay; for Long Covid research and care; for the need for continued funding for research and surveys; against the Tories’ refusal to properly fund the public sector, not just the NHS but local authorities, civil servants and the care sector, so that in the event of the almost inevitable next pandemic we won’t be faced with the same inadequate preparations as we were in 2020. And then there’s the Independent Inquiry reminding us of the venality and negligence of the Tory government’s handling of the pandemic.

Covid has not gone away. At the very least the labour movement should be demanding the most basic of health and safety measures and inclusivity in its own workplaces and at its own meetings, rallies and conferences by encouraging mask wearing and facilitating hybrid meetings. Sign our open letters to Unite and the Labour Party. And why not put a motion to your branch calling for support for these safety measures?

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

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