To Defend Public Health, We Need More Than Lockdowns

Panagiotis Sotiris

Across Europe, lockdown measures have slowed the transmission of COVID-19, but the consequences for precarious workers and those in poor housing conditions have often been bleak. A socialist response has to go beyond telling us to stay at home — it has to challenge the deeper inequalities the pandemic has exposed.

Philosopher Panagiotis Sotiris argues that the lockdown strategy is a “do nothing” approach to the pandemic, in the sense that by simply reducing mobility this will hopefully reduce mortality. (@hedgehogdigitaluk / Unsplash)

Interview by
James Robertson

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, state-imposed lockdowns have become a widely accepted public health measure around the world. For many on the Left, these restrictions on business, travel, and public gatherings have appeared as a vital part of a socialist response to the pandemic — their necessity prompting demands for massive government investment in wage support or universal basic income programs. Lockdowns seemed to have, at least, the potential to precipitate a break with neoliberalism.

Yet despite widespread acceptance of the policy, critics of lockdowns have raised a number of concerns. These range from the economic devastation wrought by large-scale shutdowns to the long-term health problems caused by school closures and the spike in mental illness brought about by social isolation.

On the Left, one of the most vocal opponents of the lockdown strategy has been the Greek journalist and political philosopher, Panagiotis Sotiris. For Sotiris, the Left’s acceptance of lockdowns has been a serious miscalculation. Far from offering a break with neoliberalism, the policy has done quite the opposite; by freezing our current social structure in place, they have prevented us from addressing the larger problems that the pandemic has raised, such as housing, income disparities, and workplace safety. Rejecting both calls to further securitize public health and attempts to downplay the scale of the health crisis, Sotiris has set out a response to the pandemic that he calls a democratic biopolitics.

James Robertson spoke with him about his critique of lockdowns, the social and political implications of the dominant response to the pandemic, and how socialists might chart an alternative path out of the crisis.


JR

Some on the Left have begun to advocate for a “zero-COVID” approach to ending this pandemic. They argue that the strategy of lockdowns is not just essential to stopping the virus but also an opportunity to reverse the neoliberal retrenchment of the welfare state, for instance through government wage support programs to help people stay at home. You have been quite critical of this approach, however. What do you think this argument misses about the politics of lockdown?

PS

The lockdown strategy attempts to deal with the pandemic in terms of restrictive measures. The idea is that by reducing overall transmission of the virus we can drastically reduce mortality.

One of the aspects that proponents of a “zero-COVID” strategy do not sufficiently discuss is the extent to which many people cannot “stay at home” even during the strictest of lockdowns. These include people working in critical infrastructure (energy, telecommunications, water/sewage, transport), in the supply chain, in the health and care sectors, and, of course, people working in crucial aspects of the state apparatuses.

If we add to this the fact that various forms of human interaction will continue, then the possibility of completely suppressing transmission seems unrealistic.

All this can explain the seemingly contradictory coexistence of stringent measures and a new surge in cases (the “third wave”), which points to the limits of the lockdown strategy and the complexity of the pandemic.

Moreover, the measures invoked in support of a “zero-COVID” approach are not pertinent to the situation in many other countries. Aggressive track and trace systems or focused quarantines are, indeed, effective at the beginning of an epidemic when there is not yet widespread transmission, but that is not the case in many countries now.

Nor can we treat most European countries in the same way as island nations such as New Zealand, where the ability to isolate a population is easier. And here I am leaving aside the ethical and political problem for the Left of supporting any strategy of closed borders.

There is also a future cost in lives from the lockdown restrictions, even though there will be no daily bulletins about them. Here, I refer not only to deferred medical screenings and surgical interventions but also reduced school learning and of course economic depression, unemployment, social precariousness and insecurity, and the psychological and social burden of confinement and isolation. In the end these will also cost lives.

Finally, this erosion of sociality, and of course the extensive use of authoritarian measures that have also been used against forms of protest and political intervention is not something that we can accept. There is the danger of the normalization of a very authoritarian state of exception.

Although the Left rightly opposes privatizations in favor of public services, we should not be in favor of a paternalistic strong state regulating people’s lives. The socialist tradition is not about a “strong state”; it is about self-organization, initiative, and worker control.

One might say that here we can find the traits of what I have called a “democratic biopolitics” — one that stresses the need for democratic participation and mobilization instead of simply “following rules” and “trusting the experts.”

JR

Part of the criticism you are making here is of the Left’s failure to offer an alternative to the dominant strategy of lockdowns. What to your mind would such an alternative look like?

PS

When first discussed in the 2000s, planning for social distancing measures and restrictions was based on the likelihood of a flu pandemic that would attack the young and healthy. By now it is clear that we are not dealing with a virus that mainly hits these groups, but a pandemic in which severe disease and mortality are to a very large extent age-specific and related to underlying health conditions. These define the people we want to shield and protect, those who are vulnerable and susceptible.

But the lockdown strategy operates according to the “black box” logic of the market that we find in neoliberal economics. The hope is that by reducing transmission in general we also reduce the risk for the vulnerable and the susceptible. But this is not what has happened. In a certain way, lockdowns are a “do nothing” approach to the pandemic, in the sense that by simply suspending activities and reducing mobility this will hopefully reduce mortality.

However, we have seen that although reducing overall mobility does reduce transmission (a reduction that is spread unequally along class lines), it does not deal with the problem of transmission to the vulnerable, as is exemplified by the tragedy of nursing homes. Attributing all these deaths to the general transmission of the virus in the community overlooks the lack of measures and preparedness in implementing alternative, safer forms of hospitality, care, and support.

In contrast, a more focused approach to protecting the vulnerable and the susceptible offers a real chance of lowering mortality. This approach would require a profound reorganization of social life, both through state intervention and self-organization: finding alternative forms of hospitality and care for the elderly (including new forms to support their ability to live within the community); answering the challenge of the new housing question that has led to the problem of overcrowded multigenerational households; making sure that all those over a certain age or with underlying health conditions and who cannot work remotely are offered paid leave and are replaced by younger persons; organizing new forms of community-based care at home; redesigning school classes, university lectures, theaters, etc. in order to make them safer instead of simply closing them down.

The mass vaccinations that are under way (in a very unequal way that, of course, reflects the inequalities induced by neoliberal globalization) should also be part of a strategy to reduce the burden of the pandemic without the social (and health) costs of the lockdowns.

All of this is really “doing something.” It is a strategy rooted in the collective, solidarity-driven, energetic approach that comes from the socialist tradition.

JR

Clearly there are good reasons to be concerned about the damaging effects of lockdowns on society. But if demanding schools to reopen puts one at odds with demands from teachers — one of the most militant sections of the labor movement — how should socialist critics of lockdown negotiate this tension?

PS

Here, we are dealing with some of the worst consequences of lockdowns. Depriving children and adolescents of the formative experience of socialization that going to school induces is an irreparable loss and something that can have long-term effects. It means increasing educational and, consequently, social inequalities, which in the long run also have a negative health impact.

Our main concern should be the actual danger for students, and we know by now that their risk is considerably low. But, of course, the other aspect to consider is the danger for teachers. Here I think that the targeted approach I described above responds to this; namely, to make sure that those who are vulnerable or susceptible are not exposed to danger. We can also discuss measures such as hiring extra teachers in order to have less crowded schoolrooms. But I believe that distance learning has been a disastrous experience.

There is — at least in Europe — a real concern about multigenerational households and the danger that children will transmit the virus to high-risk, vulnerable people. This is an important concern, but the answer is not to close schools; it is to find ways to reorganize life, to find alternative housing solutions that deal with the actual problems of multigenerational households.

I fully support any union that demands safer conditions at the workplace. But in my view, this means reorganizing the workplace to make it safer and avoiding the suspension of crucial activities such as schooling. The idea, again, is to avoid the “do nothing” logic of the lockdown and to reorganize in a collective and participatory way a crucial social service in order to continue education in safer conditions.

JR

The elevated role of public health experts during the pandemic has reinforced a certain technocratic strand of thought within contemporary liberalism and, unfortunately, parts of the Left. This technocratic thinking poses a real challenge for mass democratic participation. As David Cayley has pointed out: “With science at the helm, the role of the citizen is to stand on the sidelines and cheer, as most have done during the present crisis.”

Do you see a guiding principle within the socialist tradition that helps orient us in a moment in which politics has become more technocratic?

PS

One of the most important aspects of the management of the pandemic has been the many ways that science and scientific work have been used to legitimize government decisions and strategies. Most tendencies on the Left have accepted that the lockdown strategy actually represents “the science” on the pandemic and accuse those that criticize it of having an anti-scientific position.

But the entire science of lockdowns is not founded on some incontestable scientific facts. From the infamous apocalyptic scenarios that were projected in the Imperial College models, to the way the idea of social distancing was elaborated in the preparedness plans for a potential influenza pandemic in the 2000s, to the way social conditions have been underestimated, it is obvious that we not dealing with “neutral” scientific theories and facts.

What is missing here is something that used to be one of the main traits of the radical left, namely, an insistence that science and technology are not neutral. It is as if an entire tradition of critical approaches to science and technology has been forgotten. Here I’m referring to a range of intellectual currents, from  the critique of positivist reason and technocracy in the context of Critical Theory, to the critique of the capitalist labor process and the capitalist organization of research and science that originated with the radicalism of the global moment of 1968, to more recent radical feminist, postcolonial, and ecological approaches to science and technology.

The same goes for other traditions that also stress the social conditioning of disease and the social production of vulnerability, from theoretical work on the social determinants of health, to research on the health effects of inequality, to  criticisms of the dominant model of medicine and the idea of medicine as the “repair of labor power.” Instead, these traditions emphasize the many ways that capitalism and social inequality kill, not just by underfunding health care systems, but also by increasing socioeconomic stress, insecurity, and inequalities in living conditions. They point to the beneficial health outcomes of equality, job security, and increased sociality. And they highlight the many ways commercialized capitalist medicine in its relation to Big Pharma has in fact increased vulnerabilities and inequalities in health.

These traditions also point toward the limits and pitfalls of the lockdown strategy and its entire securitization of pandemic preparedness.

We have to acknowledge that there is huge gap between a Left that has confidence in science and fights against all forms of irrationalism and one that subscribes to the logic that policy should be simply dictated by unelected specialists. A pandemic is, in the last instance, a social and political condition and there is a class aspect to the different responses, which are not neutral. This is especially important when the measures dictated or proposed by unelected specialists include the authoritarian suspension of basic democratic rights.

JR

The technocratic impulse that has taken root during the pandemic has at times led to some worrying authoritarian directions among both liberal and leftist observers. George Monbiot, for instance, has recently proposed that the British government empower a committee of experts to police misinformation about COVID-19 online and in the press. What should the Left’s response be to these tendencies?

PS

We cannot accept limitations on the free discussions of both political alternatives and scientific and theoretical positions. The very fact that censorship is being proposed exemplifies the problem. A pandemic is a complex phenomenon — and is both biological and social in character. The same goes for any strategy to deal with it.

A socialist perspective definitely attributes great importance to scientific knowledge, critical reasoning, and theory when discussing political choices. It also aims at the socialization of knowledge, of massively expanding access to it, and of organizing research in a much more collaborative and participatory manner.

So, we can rely on scientific knowledge, but not in a technocratic way, and at the same time actually have a democratic process about all major decisions, avoiding the authoritarian trait inscribed in the “trust the experts” attitude.

JR

Although many observers on the Left have portrayed anti-lockdown sentiment as being the field of the far right, the recent social struggles around lockdown policies in Europe have been much more open, contradictory formations.

What do you think socialists’ approach should be to anti-lockdown protests?

PS

There has been a tendency to group together all criticisms of the lockdown strategy under the common image of “COVID-deniers,” “conspiracy theorists,” and, alternatively, neoliberal/libertarians or part of the far right.

It is both true that the far right has attempted to take advantage of anti-lockdown sentiments and that there are many conspiracy theorists or actual COVID-deniers around. But if you look at discontent with the restrictions or protests against the social consequences of the measures taken, then the picture becomes more complex, and far from the image of an irrational mob of libertarians and the far right.

The protests in Italy in the autumn were expressions of actual discontent and were not dominated by the far right. Anger against the restrictions, discontent with endemic corruption and police brutality have led to an impressive series of demonstrations in Cyprus. The unrest in the Netherlands when the curfew was imposed was also not a classical far-right mobilization.

In Greece, a positive recent development has been the decision of most tendencies of the Left to defy the restrictions on gatherings and to organize mass rallies. We have seen large mobilizations against a new law that aims at introducing a form of university police in campuses and academic buildings and more recently an impressive series of mass protests against government authoritarianism and police brutality.

One can even point to recent research on the opinions of lockdown skeptics in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland where it is obvious how far we are from the stereotype of far-right, irrational, COVID-denying anti-vaxxers.

The same goes for the vast spectrum of people who are critical of lockdowns. You can see people coming from the Left, fully accepting that we are dealing with a very serious global health emergency but at the same time skeptical of the measures adopted or demanding a different approach.

JR

Unfortunately, though, the Left has not been able to make much headway in organizing people’s frustrations with lockdowns, correct?

PS

I believe that the problem is that the Left has so far not attempted to offer an alternative to or critique of the dominant lockdown strategy. Had it done so it could be able to organize a movement in favor of an alternative, and thus offer a perspective to the discontent that exists especially among working-class strata.

That would have been a movement against authoritarian measures, against the suspension of education, against the social cost and increased unemployment caused by shutting down economic activity, in favor of safer workplaces, public health, and protection of the vulnerable and susceptible; and in favor of finding ways to actually continue social life, culture, artistic production, and, of course, struggle.

So far, we have failed to take advantage of the opportunity to present the basic idea that there is indeed an alternative road, one that is not authoritarian, does not involve widespread suspension of economic and social life, and can be based upon solidarity, democratic participation, and self-organization. In sum, the essence of socialist politics.