Over the past year the powers that be have succeeded in reducing any and all political debate about the government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic to the single issue of vaccines. In doing so they have pitted workers against one another, in their time-honoured tactic, and distracted attention from the real, structural issues that have determined the events of the past eighteen months
It is vital that we put radical, positive solutions back on the table and avoid falling into the trap of curtain-twitching paranoia and infighting set for us by the bourgeois class.
There are many on the left who have lost the ability to think clearly, if they ever possessed it. The lack of a grounding analysis, born out of theory, practice, and historical study, has left many self-described leftists flailing in the breeze, their convictions easily swayed and prone to manipulation by those in power.
For example, note how the uptake of vaccination in what are euphemistically deemed “marginalised cohorts”—i.e. working-class communities, Travellers, refugees and asylum-seekers, undocumented migrants, etc.—is lower, even dramatically lower in some cases, than in the middle or upper-class strata of society.¹ And yet there are those “on the left” who welcome vaccine mandates and the restriction of civil liberties based on vaccination status, despite the fact that these will disproportionately affect those who are already exploited and excluded from society.²
To this end, two scientific facts need to be emphasised. Being vaccinated against covid-19
- does not stop you catching the virus, and
- does not stop you transmitting the virus to others.³
The current infection figures for the virus—far in excess of those of this time last year—are a testament to this. And yet, rather than a comprehensive system of testing people for the virus to admit entry into bars, clubs, restaurants, etc., the powers that be have instead chosen to exclude, based on vaccination status—a dangerous decision, ensuring that the virus continues to spread through society at a high rate but, more importantly, providing a strong impetus to coerce people to get vaccinated.
All of which is most agreeable to Pfizer/Biontech, which appears to have been ordained as the producers of the one acceptable vaccine, as it prepares to report profits of $33.5 billion in 2021,⁴ while of course being indemnified by national governments against any legal proceedings that might arise from negative side-effects of their product.⁵
To be clear, vaccination against preventable illness, including covid-19, is unequivocally something that should be encouraged. However, it is not a panacea, and dividing society along vaccinated v. unvaccinated lines is a mendacious tactic that serves only to turn people against one another while doing nothing to slow the pandemic. Those in power are more than happy to set up an “enemy under the bed” for us to lose sleep over while distracting us from their own malicious deeds.
Anyone familiar with “vax v. anti-vax” discourse over the past ten years, before covid, will be aware of how insidious this propaganda effort has been, with the death of unvaccinated children used as a punchline for those keen to differentiate themselves from the unwashed “anti-vaxer” cohort of society. Bizarre phrases such as “ratlicker” or the more mainstream “pandemic of the unvaccinated”—in spite of the fact that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people are contracting and spreading the virus—have gained popularity in the discourse on covid-19 vaccines. It has become a so-called “wedge issue,” part of the culture wars so beloved of reactionaries for their ability to pit the working class against itself while distracting attention from those in power and ultimately accomplishing nothing.
For want of a material understanding of the world around them, the covid-19 pandemic has led many on the left to align themselves in practical terms with the capitalist class and their representatives in political power. Rather than concentrating on increasing hospital bed-spaces and staff numbers, investment in the health service, building and modifying social infrastructure to prevent the spread of the virus, the production of generic vaccines, and, crucially, making access to a free, quality health service a universal right—in other words, measures that might have a transformative impact on this pandemic and, sad though it may be to say it, the next pandemic—many leftists have instead fallen into the trap of arguing for an exaggerated version of the existing failed, short-termist government policy, i.e. “let the vaccines take care of it!”
Regrettably, in many instances over the past eighteen months it has been leftists, even self-described anarchists, cheering the loudest for restrictions of personal freedoms, closed borders, and mandatory vaccination. The reality of border policies in western states—in so many words, an open door for our EU-aligned and US-aligned allies, no matter how many covid cases, while poorer countries need not apply—shows that these measures have nothing to do with the spread of the virus and everything to do with geopolitical solidarity among white, imperialist states.⁶
Much of this is based on a knee-jerk misunderstanding of all criticism of government policy as it pertains to covid-19 as the stuff of “far-right anti-vaxers,” in part because the left, such as it is, has for all practical purposes entirely vacated that space.
Pfizer/Biontech have been contracted to produce 1.8 billion doses of their vaccine for the EU up to 2023, on top of the 600 million already ordered this year so far, at a cost of €19.50 per shot.⁷ Where is the clamour for unrestricting the vaccine so that generic versions can be produced? The privatisation of life-saving vaccines should be regarded in any sane society as a crime against humanity, one that, among other things, prolongs the life-span of the pandemic.
And yet in 2021 to even question the business practices of these corporate entities, whose actions have left developing countries almost entirely deprived of vaccines while wealthy countries reach 80 and 90 per cent of their populations, or to call into question whether we need these companies at all, is considered “anti-vax” agitation. The vaccine has become an identity issue, a cultural issue, shutting down discussion and debate at precisely the moment when radical intervention is most needed for the health of the planet.
As communists, we need to emphasise unequivocally that workers, vaccinated or unvaccinated, are not enemies but comrades. We stand united against the common enemy, the ruling class and their political clerks, who have used the pandemic as a means of enriching themselves amidst death, poverty, unemployment, homelessness and grief for the global working class. Now they are telling us to fit the bill for the pandemic, to continue in the perverse capitalist system that has caused so much fear and suffering, while enjoying the spoils of their thievery.
A more radical solution is needed. Their finances, properties, land and assets should be seized and put at the disposal of the people as we find solutions together to the destruction wreaked these past eighteen months.
- “Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy among ethnic minority groups” (editorial), British Medical Journal, February 2021 (tinyurl.com/b3w3cvkx).
- Branko Marcetic, “We need a nationwide vaccine mandate,” Jacobin, August 2021 (tinyurl.com/3d5rrmcz).
- Health Service Executive, “Immunity” (tinyurl.com/uxxat6ju).
- Julia Kollewe, “Covid-19 vaccines: The contracts, prices and profits,” Guardian, (London), 11 August 2021 (tinyurl.com/38k8hs).
- Sarah Fulham-McQuillan, “Who pays if you suffer side-effects from Covid-19 vaccine?” Irish Times, 19 April 2021 (tinyurl.com/ycnuxe3c).
- Matiangai Sirleaf, “Entry denied: Covid-19, race, migration, and global health,” Frontiers in Human Dynamics, 15 December 2020 (tinyurl.com/6yat7sdf).
- Julia Kollewe, “Covid-19 vaccines: The contracts, prices and profits,” Guardian (London), 11 August 2021 (tinyurl.com/3t7rudfc)