Omicron, the Zero Covid fallacy, and the redivision of the world
Omicron is accelerating the construction of new borders and controls, between and within countries.
Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash
I was struck by an editorial in the Global Times (“a daily tabloid that is an arm of the People’s Daily”) last week, following the WHO’s announcement that the Omicron variant of SARS-Cov-2 was being placed on its “variants of concern” list. In typically bullish language, the unsigned leader argued that China’s lone commitment to Zero Covid was demonstrating the superiority of its social system over the West, and that “China's achievements in fighting the pandemic will eventually shine in human history.” Stripping away the tub-thumping, what stuck out was the core of the argument:
The war between humanity and the novel coronavirus is destined to be a marathon, and the virus will potentially shape human behaviour patterns more than climate change.
Now, “more than climate change” might be a stretch. But the underestimation of the behavioural impacts of covid has been one of the failings of governments (and economists) over the last 22 months or so. And fact that covid is a “marathon” rather than the over-by-Christmas sprint assorted Western governments have claimed is entirely correct: we aren’t getting out of this any time soon. China is, however, resolutely sticking to its guns on eradication.
I’ve argued in the past that a Zero Covid setting is exceptionally hard for any government to sustain over any period of time in a global capitalist economy. Because Zero Covid has a domestic cost – reduced short-run economic growth and the direct expenses of the surveillance and quarantine – it is hard for a country to commit to it over time. If other countries pursue Zero Covid, this is a gain for your own country since the prevalence of covid (with all the dangers of outbreaks, future mutations, and so on) are reduced as a result of someone else’s efforts. But that wipes out the incentive to push for Zero Covid, since every country can hope to free-ride on someone else’s eradication efforts. A world where all or even most countries pursue Zero Covid is, as result, highly unlikely. The tendency will be towards no countries pursuing Zero Covid policies.
There is a similar, but opposite problem with vaccination: vaccination is costly, but hands a competitive advantage to a country that can vaccinate its population. (Look, for instance, at the recent revision by the OECD to its forecasts for UK growth – a result, it says, of the speedy vaccination programme there). There is a universal public good in making vaccination as widespread as possible, but since the benefits of doing so accumulate to everyone, there are few incentives for countries to deliver vaccination beyond their own borders. As a result of these two co-ordination failures, eradication will not be sustained as a policy across the globe, and capitalism will undersupply vaccines globally, even as vaccine surpluses build up in richer countries.
Given the existence of capitalism, eradication of covid will not happen and vaccination will be inefficient. The epidemiological outcome is that covid will become universally prevalent in the human population – the chance to contain it, once the disease hit our global capitalist economy back in early 2020, is no longer there. We will end up with an endemic version of the virus, shaped by the society we have built and its various failures. If we had a different society, we would have ended up with a different outcome: capitalism has imposed irreversible costs on humanity’s future, and covid is one of them.
Events over the year since I had a go at this argument have borne it out depressingly quickly. The failure to vaccinate the globe’s population is a stain on humanity and one we may now be bearing the consequences of in the form of Omicron – and, of course, future, potentially worse, variants. (I say “may”: there is a short discussion here of possible origins of this variant, which also include immunocompromised individuals and contagion from an animal reservoir. The latter possibility – covid’s reverse zoonosis into animal populations, followed by zoonosis of new strains back to humans - strikes me as particularly unsettling for any future efforts to manage this disease.)
Meanwhile, the idea that an economy significantly smaller than that of the whole globe can sustain Zero Covid for any period of time is a fallacy. Events over the last year have borne this out: country after country that previously attempted to maintain a strict policy of local eradication have abandoned the attempt, including the poster-child of the argument, New Zealand.
With one, rather glaring exception. As other countries, as expected, gave up on local eradication plans, China has stuck to its guns. The economic cost is significant, with the smallest outbreaks of the disease resulting in massive disruption, as in the recent instance of some 34,000 people quarantined in Shangahi Disneyland after a single reported positive test. But the calculation by China’s government is that it can bear this cost.
There are likely to be two reasons for this. First, China is sufficiently large an economy that decisions taken by China’s government impact on the rest of the world, and, plausibly, its government decisions on most economic issues will affect the rest of the world. A decision by China to aim for eradication within its borders in fact encompasses almost one-fifth of the world’s population and so the free-rider problem smaller countries face is reduced. Second, China has the domestic capacity to carry the heavy domestic costs thanks to the political hegemony of the Communist Party. In theory, the US could, being a very large economy, also aim for Zero Covid; but the heavy domestic costs of doing so could not be borne by its fractious polity – as we have seen over the last two years.
This does suggest a nuance on the original model. Rather than ending up at a point where essentially no country follows eradication over the long run, it suggests a new division of the world – between China, following eradication alone, and then the rest of the world, which is not. But it then further suggests that, given the domestic benefits of vaccination, countries that can afford to produce and distribute vaccines will tend towards a local glut of those vaccines, whilst leaving the rest of the world without. So the medium- to longer-term prognosis is a world divided in three parts: China, pursuing eradication and leveraging its ability to do so; the rich world, largely vaccinated; the less developed world, left largely without vaccines.
New borders, fresh controls, old racism
This isn’t, needless to say, a greatly desirable vision of the future if you have any concern for equality. It implies a world of fences and controls, far more rigorous than already exist today: and given the immediate reaction of developed, mostly vaccinated countries to Omicron was to try to raise drawbridges – egged on in the UK, disastrously, by Labour’s new frontbench – we can see how every further twist of SARS-Cov-2’s RNA will ratchet up the demands for more policing, more surveillance, higher walls. The UN Secretary General has rightly condemned the “travel apartheid” of additional border controls, but perhaps worse – or at least more disturbingly novel – is the construction of new walls and barriers behind those existing national borders. Vaccine passports are one version of this; moves to coerce the unvaccinated are another, with Austria being first in Europe to place those without a vaccine under something close to house arrest and even suggesting compulsory vaccination for the new year.
The correct, egalitarian response to our situation is not to demand (which even some alleged socialists are now doing) fresh controls and restrictions on the unvaccinated holdouts in the vaccine-rich countries of the Global North. As the World Health Organisation has been (rather forlornly) pleading, further vaccinating populations that are already relatively highly vaccinated is of less benefit to humanity than delivering and administering vaccines to those countries that lag far behind, concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa.
The correct, egalitarian response is to demand the removal of intellectual property protections on vaccines, and the commitment of serious resources to their production and distribution across the less developed world. Our joint commitment should be to justice, and to freedom, both universally applied. The alternative to a universal and liberatory politics is neatly (and disgustingly) summarised by this Spanish cartoon.
Covid isn’t going away. These arguments are going to get much harder, and much nastier. They have the early look of becoming the sort of rows that fundamentally reshape the terrain on which politics is conducted. All those who hold to the historic values of the left should be prepared to fight for them.
Politics, Theory, Other, an essential component of the online left in the UK, interviews the brilliant Lea Ypi about her new book, Free: coming of age at the end of history, her memoir of the fall of Stalinism in Albania. Ypi’s critique – hard-won, it would seem – of both the bureaucratic tyranny and the “liberalism” that replaced it feels increasingly pertinent.
Richard Seymour picks up on the nature of the “sentinel state” under covid, flagging (as his conclusion) the potential of a “democratic biopolitics” referenced by Pangiotis Siriotis in his attack on Giorgio Agamben’s “vitalism” at Critical Legal Thinking. I think Agamben’s mysticism is toxic in the context of covid, providing a tacky intellectual gloss to the opportunists and conpsiracists of the “anti-vax” movement (elsewhere I notice the eco-nationalist Paul Kingsnorth trying to do something similar, in a literary register), but a “democratic biopolitics” is not an appropriate challenge to it. This is a discussion to come back to.
Finally, two from the brave new world of renewables: the New York Times’ lengthy report on cobalt-mining in Congo and, three thousand miles north, Balkan Green Energy News reports on the immense demonstrations against lithium mining in Serbia over the weekend, including road blockades at 60 sites across the country. Serbia’s deposits of lithium, crucial for batteries, have been identified by the European Union as the largest within easy reach of the EU’s borders, but the passing of a law to allow Rio Tinto Zinc access to the country’s mineral wealth has provoked weeks of protests – the biggest in the country for two decades.