The Covid-19 global health crisis is one that required a global response led by health workers but with the consensus of almost everyone. Instead we face a piecemeal response, often in the form of repressive policing solutions that are not even particularly effective and where the borders between the states have undermined collective action and allowed the virus to multiply in the gaps.
Fear has led many to wish for harder state clampdowns as if a policing apparatus had any hope for substituting for collective solidarity between neighbours. The very ideology of neoliberal capitalism and its mantra of everyone looking after themselves has cut into the sort of community solidarity essential to popular enforcement of physical distancing. Thankfully in Ireland we discovered this process was not complete and a sufficient sense of solidarity remained that almost everyone implemented physical distancing measures before the state backed that process.
This virus is not a threat at the distances of national borders but in the short space between us and our friends, neighbours and fellow workers. Rather than wishing for the state to get tougher policing that space, we need to think and act collectively to organise this ourselves by building a common consensus around what needs to be done.
This has already happened in some places where popular action was ahead of state action, in Hong Kong in the early days and in Ireland in March where against all stereotypes popular demands mobilised through social media saw just about every pub close its doors ahead of the St. Patrick’s Day weekend. We would presume there are many, many other examples yet to reach our ears, but stories of people self-organising seldom make it into the media.
None of this is to deny a potential need for draconian action in self defence. If the anarchist army of Ukraine could summarily execute those who spread anti-Semitic propaganda to prevent pogroms being triggered we are in no way uncomfortable measures to lockdown the virus.
While we would prefer to be in an anarchist society where these would be by popular consensus this is not yet the world we are living in so we are no more necessarily against justifiable state measures in this context than we are against laws requiring the observation of traffic lights or banning drunk driving. Our role thus is not some sort of absolutist opposition but rather to push for popular alternatives and limits on attempts to expand state power in anything but the most temporary and medically justified way.
On the other hand we don't see the state as a solution and this crisis illustrates that. States in general have made things worse by covering up and preventing action in several places. State imposed lockdowns have not been very successful where community consensus did not exist. How would you impose them between neighbours without either popular consensus or a cop in every household. And who then watches those cops.
Of course shut the border racists have tried to use the crisis for fascist propaganda but any reasonable analysis shows this distracted from the real long distance routes of transmission. The virus did not arrive in Ireland via the highly policed, slow and murderous routes refugees are forced to follow but via the fast jet travel of wealthier Irish citizens who were taking skiing holidays in northern Italy. Many of these were school kids, did those who saw closing the borders as a magic solution, were they seriously proposing leaving 10,000 school kids locked out of the country? It is clear that was an impossible ‘answer’ to long distance transmission - and distracted from what was needed and later introduced, a requirement that anyone arriving isolate themselves as far as possible for the subsequent two weeks.
Indeed in a general sense border racism has magnified the threat we all now face. Greece which has over the last couple of years created super concentrated unsanitary camps where refugees have been packed in and restricted. These camps are places where the people living there cannot self isolate or even regularly wash their hands. The people in these camps need to be allowed to disperse immediately and hotels and ferries provided so they can reach ‘own door’ shelter where those who become infected can self-isolate. This is not only essential for their survival but also for ours.
On a local level the long standing acceptance of racist structures has left us more rather than less vulnerable as a collective. In particular the cruelty of Direct Provision has created overcrowded conditions where self isolation is impossible but out of which a section of the capitalist class has made huge profits from such suffering. The halting sites where many Travellers live are over crowded and underfunded, and thus an example where our unique Irish acceptable racism has now magnified the risk we collectively face. Neoliberal Capitalism and increasing rents have created conditions where we have over 10,000 people in emergency accomodation, and increasing numbers of people who are homeless in our republic. In such conditions Covid 19 will rip through the most marginalised and discriminated people in our society.
Profits & rents
A minority making huge profits from rent & low wages has meant many of our often migrant hospitality workers have been forced into living 4-6 to a room and afraid to call in sick when as a collective we need them to be able to. Again a situation that many of us have simply tolerated as it has worsened over the last decade.
Chronic underfunding of the health service will mean many many more deaths and it's not just ICU shortages, it becomes clear that the HSE had no stocks and no realistic plans for acquiring PPE equipment in the context of a pandemic. Rather than levelling with health workers, and telling them the truth as the facts emerged they sought to silence them while lying to the public. Another example of where in this war we need to dispense with spin and communications gurus and be transparent and honest with the workers and the public. The current hope is that all volunteer crews of Aer Lingus workers will save the day by flying multiple flights to China to collect essential PPE supplies while having to live aboard their planes.
What can and should anarchists do? A lot of us are already doing it. Help organise community solidarity, build the power of health and other frontline workers, guard against state attempts at power grabs that go beyond immediate threat, expose dangerous racist lies that obscure what needs to be done to halt the virus.
The Direct Provision and overcrowding crisis means that vacant apartments, particularly REIT ones kept empty to evade rent controls must be put into use to provide homes that small groups can self isolate in. Hotels may be used to allow the population in homeless shelters to disperse to their own door rather than shared rooms.
Workers and activists in those sectors will have a much better sense of what should be demanded and routes of implementation but clearly we can say no one should be in unsafe overcrowding while potential homes lie empty to protect profit. National Traveller organisations are already trying to ensure provisions are made for Travellers in this pandemic.
We can support actions where workers self-protect - eg in Finland bus workers and elsewhere transport workers refuse to collect fares and ask that people access & leave the bus by the middle or back doors and not the front door which is beside them. Workers on construction sites and sanitation workers are still expected to work without it seems even basic steps like the provision of PPE, staggered lunch breaks & shift starting times to avoid overcrowding and the end of work that cannot be done safely because of the need to maintain physical distances.
Our only power is collective
What the Covid-19 virus does not do is discriminate. All humans can be infected, regardless of wealth, class, where you live, what you do, or how you think. Therefore, it will not be defeated by us acting as individuals, it will only be defeated by us acting collectively. As anarchists, we have always maintained that power resides in the collective, and in these conditions, given what we know about this, we the people are doing the right things, to prevent the virus spreading. This is done from a basis of self-defence, but it also resides on the foundation of solidarity. Together we are stronger. There is an Irish - saying that goes ‘Ní neart go cur le Chéile’ - There is no strength without unity. That goes back to the 12th century long before Capitalism, but not before plagues like the black death which wiped out half of all Europeans in the 14th century. Now, in the 21st we face this enemy again, and we know that it is only by facing it as a collective that we will prevail.
Above all else though we need to prepare for the time after the virus. A lot of things like eviction bans that our rulers insisted were impossible have suddenly turned out to be almost instantly achievable. The health crisis has laid bare the unequal nature of our society and the way that inequality puts us all in danger. Authoritarian politicians turned out to be incapable of acting rationally and fast, organic grassroots responses were swifter and more effective. A lot of people have noticed these things and with all those people we need to draw everyone into a conversation about what sort of society we want to live in, one that no longer treats the economy as a separate sphere best left to find its own way. The strength that we will draw on as a collective in this time will be brought to bear on this system which is proving, at this time of greatest need, to be unfit for purpose.