Chris Lovejoy asks: what lessons can be learned from Kerala's handling of the coronavirus pandemic?
Over 10% of the globe’s population lives in India. Considering internal travel restrictions didn’t exist in India (or in the USA or the EU) before the lockdowns, an epidemic easily could have spread across the country. Yet, for the 1.3 billion people in India, the different COVID outcomes appear to be primarily a consequence of delegating health care to local governments (although other influential factors include wealth differentials, a variety of cultures, religions and the political systems within local governments).
The BBC reported India had 266,598 confirmed virus cases on 10th June and, Mumbai had 51,000 cases, yet one Indian state claims to have avoided the pandemic. If this claim is correct, could another COVID pandemic and a surge in infections after the lockdown ends be avoided?
One Indian state, Kerala, has had only 524 cases of COVID-19 and four deaths. The state has a population of about 35 million and a GDP per capita of only £2,200, which suggests an effective disease containment policy is possible in a democracy that isn’t wealthy. By contrast, the UK (double the population with a GDP per capita of £33,100) reported more than 40,000 deaths, while the US (10 times the population with a GDP per capita of £51,100) reported more than 100,000 deaths, as well as rapid transmissions of the virus in their counties, resulting in strict lockdowns being enforced.
Such an amazing outcome requires an explanation. The Guardian, fortunately, has provided a detailed explanation of how this was achieved in Kerala.
Laura Spinney wrote the health minister, KK Shailaja, had phoned one of her medically trained deputies on 20th January. She had read online about a dangerous new virus spreading in China. “Will it come to us?” she asked. “Definitely, Madam,” he replied.
And she began her preparations.
Three days after reading about the new virus in China, and before Kerala had its first case of COVID-19, Shailaja held a meeting of her rapid response team. The next day, 24th January, the team set up a control room and instructed the medical officers in Kerala’s 14 districts to do the same at their level. The state adopted the World Health Organization’s protocol of test, trace, isolate and support. (N.B. tracing people requires finding every person contacted by an infected person in order to stop the spread of the virus.)
On 27th January, one week after her first phone call, the first cases were identified when passengers filed off the Chinese flight from Wuhan and had their temperatures checked. Three were found to be running a fever and were isolated in a nearby hospital. The remaining passengers were placed in home quarantine – sent there with information pamphlets about COVID-19 that had already been printed in the local language, Malayalam. The hospitalised patients tested positive for COVID-19, but the disease had been contained. “The first part was a victory,” says Shailaja. “But the virus continued to spread beyond China and soon it was everywhere.”
In late February, encountering one of Shailaja’s surveillance teams at the airport, a Malayali family returning from Venice were evasive about their travel history and went home without submitting to the now-standard controls. By the time medical personnel detected a case of COVID-19 and traced it back to them, their contacts were in the hundreds. Contact tracers tracked them all down, with the help of advertisements and social media, and they were placed in quarantine. Six developed COVID-19.
Another cluster had been contained, but by now large numbers of overseas workers were heading home to Kerala from infected Gulf states, some of them carrying the virus. By 23rd March, all flights into the state’s four international airports were stopped. Two days later, India entered a nationwide lockdown.
At the height of the virus in Kerala, 170,000 people were quarantined and placed under strict surveillance by visiting health workers, with those who lacked an inside bathroom housed in improvised isolation units at the state government’s expense.
That number has shrunk to 21,000.
“We have also been accommodating and feeding 150,000 migrant workers from neighbouring states who were trapped here by the lockdown,” she says. “We fed them properly – three meals a day for six weeks.” Those workers are now being sent home on charter trains.
Shailaja was a celebrity in India before COVID-19 due to her proactive response to an outbreak of an even deadlier viral disease, Nipah, in 2018. She visited the village at the centre of the outbreak. The villagers were terrified and ready to flee because they did not understand how the disease was spreading. “I rushed there with my doctors, we organised a meeting in the panchayat [village council] office and I explained that there was no need to leave because the virus could only spread through direct contact,” she says. “If you kept at least a metre from a coughing person, it couldn’t travel. When we explained that, they became calm – and stayed.”
Nipah prepared Shailaja for COVID-19, she says, because it taught her that a highly contagious disease for which there is no treatment or vaccine should be taken seriously.
Every village has a primary health centre and there were hospitals at each level of its administration, as well as 10 medical colleges. This occurred in other states, too, says MP Cariappa, a public health expert based in Pune, Maharashtra, but nowhere else was so much invested in their primary health system. Kerala enjoys the highest life expectancy and the lowest infant mortality of any state in India; it is also the most literate state. “With widespread access to education, there is a definite understanding of health being important to the wellbeing of people,” says Cariappa.
Although emergency measures such as the lockdown are the preserve of the national government, each Indian state sets its own health policy. In 2016, Kerala undertook a modernisation programme. One pre-pandemic innovation was to create clinics and a registry for respiratory disease – a big problem in India. “That meant we could spot conversion to COVID-19 and look out for community transmission,” Shailaja says. “It helped us very much” and – according to Shailaja – no community transmission subsequently occurred during the COVID epidemic.
Each district was asked to dedicate two hospitals to COVID-19, while each medical college set aside 500 beds. Separate entrances and exits were designated. Diagnostic tests were in short supply, especially after the disease reached wealthier western countries, so they were reserved for patients with symptoms and their close contacts, as well as for random sampling of asymptomatic people and those in the most exposed groups: health workers, police and volunteers.
Shailaja says a test in Kerala produced a result within 48 hours. “In the Gulf, as in the US and UK – all technologically fit countries – they are having to wait seven days,” she asks, “what is happening there?”
“I think testing is very important – also quarantining and hospital surveillance – and people in those countries are not getting that.” She strongly believes “Proper planning” is essential.
Places of worship were closed under the rules of lockdown but resistance has been noticeably absent in Kerala – in part, perhaps, because its chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, consulted with local faith leaders about the closures. Shailaja says Kerala’s high literacy level is another factor: “People understand why they must stay at home. You can explain it to them.”
The Indian government plans to lift the lockdown on 17th May (the date has been extended twice). After that, she predicts, there will be a huge influx of Malayalis to Kerala from the heavily infected Gulf region. “It will be a great challenge, but we are preparing for it,” she says. There are plans A, B and C, with plan C – the worst-case scenario – involving the requisitioning of hotels, hostels and conference centres to provide 165,000 beds. If they need more than 5,000 ventilators, they will struggle – although more are on order – but the real limiting factor will be manpower, especially when it comes to contact tracing. “We are training up schoolteachers,” Shailaja says.
Once the second wave has passed – if, indeed, there is a second wave – these teachers will return to schools. She hopes to do the same, eventually, because her ministerial term will finish with the state elections a year from now.
Laura Spinney's article demonstrates an effective disease containment policy is possible in a democracy that isn’t wealthy, emphasising the importance of forward planning, engaging with the community and using resources that are available.
Julia Hollingsworth and Manveena Suri reported on the outbreak of the Nipah virus, which killed 18 people within a couple of weeks and had a fatality rate of between 40% to 75% — a great deal higher than COVID-19. They reported that the most vital issue was contact tracing and claimed: “If we trace the call correctly, we can isolate the human being from other folks and we can crack the chain and flatten the curve of the epidemic”. Oommen Kurian, a senior fellow at the Observer Exploration Basis, stated that Kerala “reacted as if it’s a really fatal disease from the start when folks were truly doubtful across the earth about the deadliness of the virus.”
Their report contrasted the differences between Kerala and the worst affected area in India, Maharashtra. This state includes Mumbai, one of the world’s biggest cities with huge slums in it, slums which are extremely difficult to control during an epidemic. Kerala has the oldest populace in India (13% of Kerala’s population are aged 60+ while 9.1% of in Maharashtra’s population are 60+), meaning they have a higher vulnerable demographic than anywhere else. Kurian considered Maharashtra did not act as promptly as Kerala and “was reactive”, rather than proactive because it hadn’t recently dealt with a viral outbreak. Kurian believes Maharashtra cannot benefit from tracing after more than 23,000 cases had been confirmed (as each infected person is very likely to have been in contact with a large number of people) and stated: “The thing about making contact with tracing is that it is really easy to get overwhelmed if you go above a threshold”.
In the 2011 census, Kurian observed 94% of Kerala’s population were literate when the national average was 73% (and this made it easier for the state to communicate with its citizens). Kurian also said Kerala experienced a per capita GDP in 2017-2018 of 184,000 Indian rupees, compared to the national average of 114,958 rupees. While the Central Bank of India stated Indian citizens employed around the world sent $69 billion to India and 19% of these remittances went to Kerala.
Consequently, although significant differences exist between the two states, the critical difference was the speed, and manner, in which they responded to the crisis.
Although Kerala has flattened the curve, the crisis might easily return. “We are bracing ourselves for the third wave,” Isaac, Kerala’s state’s finance minister, tweeted. Kerala’s chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, believes that until people undergoing treatment have fully recovered and their quarantine periods are completed “we can’t let our guard down a single little bit.”
Yet the risks are huge as India’s lockdown is set to be lifted later this month. India also has started repatriation flights for Indians stranded abroad or have lost their jobs (and Kerala has many citizens working and residing overseas). Kurian warns this is really not the time to be complacent. “The true fight is just coming. As soon as the international tourists come again and the migrants appear back again and the area economic system commences operating once more, that is when the future wave will hit Kerala, and if they are caught napping, it will look a whole lot like Mumbai.”
Significantly the BBC reported on 10th June a surge of infections in India (with 266,598 confirmed cases and 90,000 of them in Mumbai and, in Delhi, the authorities expect more than half a million cases by the end of July) (see https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52989452?intlink_from_url=https://www.bbc.com/news/world&link_location=live-reporting-story). The surge coincides with India's decision to relax restrictions after a stringent lockdown lasted three months. Shopping malls, places of worship and offices were allowed to reopen on 8th June and, earlier, shops, market places and transport services had been allowed to open. The BBC reported experts had said there was no other option but to lift the lockdown. It was causing a massive economic toll on the country, millions had lost their jobs and livelihoods, businesses were shutting down, and the fear of hunger drove masses of daily-wage migrant workers to flee cities - mostly on foot because public transport was halted - and many died from exhaustion and starvation. The government lifted the lockdown hoping most of India's undetected infections would not require hospitalisation. But although states used the lockdown period to ramp up health facilities, hospitals in major cities are being overwhelmed and many patients with COVID-like symptoms are being turned away.
It is very difficult to quantify the risk of being infected by the coronavirus. We don’t know if after recovering from the virus, patients can infect third parties, nor if they can gain immunity (on either a temporary or permanent basis). Nevertheless, the WHO stated on 17th July that there were about 8 million confirmed coronavirus cases and only 83,000 were in China. Therefore, for each case in China, there were about 1,000 cases outside China. This understates how infectious the coronavirus is because most cases in China couldn’t have infected people outside China, as China’s lockdown prevented most Chinese people leaving China.
When a lockdown ends, the virus must not be allowed to return and cause the country to revert to the situation it was in before the government enforced its lockdown. To minimise the risk of another lockdown, governments must learn lessons from across the globe.
What can we learn from Kerala's success?
Ross Orchard questions why three years on from Grenfell, we're still awaiting answers to the same questions.
June 14th 2020 marked the third anniversary of Britain’s largest domestic fire since World War II.
The Grenfell Tower blaze that killed 72 people has since sparked a long and arguably directionless response from the government that has seen multiple disruptions into the fires inquiry, lacklustre attempts towards preventing similar disasters and most importantly, highlighted the failures in the governing party’s strategy to provide adequate aftercare for survivors of the inferno regarding re-housing. The culmination of these failings equates to an apparent perversion in the course of justice for the victims of Grenfell, and as we now find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic and a civil rights movement, the time for solidarity is now.
Social distancing laws have prevented the continuation of the monthly Grenfell silent walk but let us take this opportunity to remember those we have lost and to consider whether the establishment has truly learned from its mistakes.
News of the inquiry’s closure in March due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic came off the back of widespread outrage among Grenfell survivors, as the preceding events left victims justifiably angry. Benita Mehra, one of two panellists appointed by the government to advise the inquiry, was found to head an organization which was receiving grants from one of the companies tasked with the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower. This significant disruption into the inquiry raises some serious questions into the government’s commitment to provide an adequate and just conclusion for the victims of Grenfell.
How was the conflict of interest not uncovered before Ms Mehra’s appointment?
Why did Ms Mehra initially resist calls for her to step down?
Have these events raised the possibility that the companies heading the refurbishment of Grenfell may be delaying the process?
These events highlight the need for continued and heightened support for these victims and stands as a significant wake-up call for the public to realise the Tory party do not prioritise justice. Support for Grenfell victims from anti-racist protestors taking part in the ongoing civil rights movement has shown just how important the matter still is, three years on, and that community solidarity is the key to achieving justice. As the inquiry is set to resume in July we must stand together and use the momentum gained over these past few weeks to push for answers.
Going forward, evidence suggests that the Tory party have not heeded the warnings of Grenfell and fears of a repeat disaster are very much real. The infamous cladding that allowed the fire to engulf the entire building in just 25 minutes is still present on over 2,000 buildings nationwide. The Housing Communities and Local Government (HCLG) committee have published a report rightly calling on the government to “make an absolute commitment” to making all buildings with cladding safe by December 2020. HCLG has stated that the government’s pledge of £1bn to this cause will only cover a third of the refurbishment costs and, coupled with a short application window, means that many will not be able to access the funds. This leaves thousands of residents still living in at-risk buildings three years on from the harrowing disaster.
The moral compass of the current government is evidently severely disrupted and there is a clear need to hold those who have caused, and in some cases refused to rectify, accountable. Chairman of the committee, Clive Betts MP, has pushed for the government to take legal action in cases where private building owners have failed to begin remedial work by December 2020. These failings and the blatant disinterest in providing safe and adequate living conditions for thousands of citizens demonstrates the government’s willingness to gamble with the lives of its people three years on from one of the most fatal blazes in British history. This is simply an unacceptable approach to governing and managing a crisis and has resulted in significant, and in some cases irreversible, damage, both financially and mentally, for the victims of Grenfell. For those still having to live in evidently unsafe conditions, 94% of residents in affected buildings have reported feelings of anxiety and 1 in 5 have had suicidal thoughts.
200 homes were lost in the blaze in 2017 and three years on you would think it impossible that any of these victims would still be searching for a new permanent residency. Unfortunately, this is indeed the case with seven households still living in temporary accommodation and a further ten households who have since requested to be rehoused after being placed in accommodation deemed to be unsuitable. The stem of this issue is rooted in the government’s inability to provide adequate social housing. The lack of investment in social housing over time has led to a shortage in suitable housing options, especially for those with particular needs. Evidence of this reality is outlined by Spike Western, housing paralegal at North Kensington Law Centre, who stated that:
“The households who have still to be rehoused permanently following Grenfell are the most vulnerable survivors. They represent either those with particular housing needs, such as those arising from a disability, or those on whom moving permanently is something that cannot be rushed and must only be done when the survivor is ready.”
Unfortunately, the current state of the Grenfell response highlights the Tory party’s utter disregard for the wellbeing of the victims and shows a dysfunctional and poorly developed housing system that is unable to cater for those most in need. With warnings from victims and housing experts alike that another Grenfell-like disaster could be looming on the horizon, the government's disjointed approach to crisis management worrying to say the least.
As COVID-19 has further prolonged the pursuit of justice for the victims of Grenfell, it is imperative that we do not let this tragedy and its lingering consequences slip into the background. The abhorrent neglection and disproportionate prioritisation of response tactics from the Tory party highlights their inability to cope with such disasters. Realising the very real risk of a repeat catastrophe is reason enough to call on the public to express their solidarity with the victims of Grenfell and to extend these grievances to wider and very relevant causes such as the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement.
It is worth reiterating that solidarity is key in achieving justice in what can only be described as a broken system. Only when we all stand together can we truly achieve the answers, justice and results that we as a community are still hoping to see.
John Bates, Renew member and councillor for Morecambe, explains why doing nothing is not an option.
The current upsurge in the Black Lives Matter campaign, triggered by the death of George Floyd in America, has once again brought to the fore the disparate treatment of Black people in society. At the same time, as with any major campaign, there has been a rise to prominence of counter-protests. It is my view that the instigators of the counter-protest are probably white supremacists. But it cannot be ignored that they bring along with them many otherwise, ordinary, run of the mill people who, under any other circumstances, would support, or at least not oppose, cries for equality in less fractious circumstances. These otherwise decent people share posts on Facebook, which, while ostensibly upholding traditional values of respect and patriotism, serve only to move the subject away from the important one of much-needed reform, onto the easier platforms of Law and Order, Vandalism and respect for National Freedoms and traditions.
It is a successful tactic. Once the mind is diverted from the fundamental injustice it becomes easier to brand the original campaigners as vandals or thugs or malcontents. The justice of the cause is lost in a welter of condemnation of direct action without any real consideration being given to the fundamental injustice or inequalities which lead to the protests in the first place.
So, on Facebook, we read claims that George Floyd was no angel, that he was a serial offender. These posts go on to question the appropriateness of the elaborate funeral arrangements, implying that all this "fuss" or "celebrity" treatment is undeserved. The sinister yet unspoken implication behind this post is, of course, that George Floyd's life, let alone death, are not worth such commemoration. Our attention is thus diverted from the appalling facts of his death, away from the fact that in a civilised society, everyone should be treated with respect under the law, particularly from those whose job it is to uphold that law.
Our Prime Minister in Name Only decries the defacing of statues and memorials in the name of protest, and in doing so, immediately ascribes more importance to those artefacts than to the underlying inequalities which give rise to the protests. Once again, the ground for debate is shifted.
On Facebook again we see the fatuous slogan "All Lives Matter." All manner of meaning can be read into that statement, but for many, it is seen as diminishing the "Black Lives Matter" slogan. Black Lives Matter campaigners are thus painted as only having a narrow and selfish interest, rather than compassion for society as a whole. At a stroke, the real message, that Black Lives are all too often, demonstrably and institutionally, worth-less in the eyes of society, is deleted and the argument is shifted onto safer, but essentially, meaningless ground.
Our Prime Minister in Name Only declares the formation of a far-reaching (world-beating?) inquiry into racial inequalities and leaves the arrangements for it in the hands of a person who has already made known her scepticism about institutional racism.
Will that inquiry give any consideration to the manifestly institutionally racist Windrush scandal?
How will that inquiry improve on previous inquiries whose non-implemented findings shout just as loudly about institutional and chronic, racial bias?
Is there any chance at all that the inquiry will even address the notion that an upsurge in campaigning and direct action is the inevitable result of generation after generation suffering inequality and indignation with no redress and little or no understanding of their long-held and justifiable grievances being shown?
It is difficult to see this inquiry as anything other than an institutional fig leaf, poorly designed to cover this Government's shame.
And on Facebook, we read:
"History is not to be erased just because you may not like it!"
"It is time to recognise that the past is over. It is time to look to the future and not the past!"
Or other such shallow twaddle.
There can be dozens if not hundreds of replies to such statements. Henry Ford told us that history is bunk. Many others have told us that history is written by the victors. Whatever answer you choose, there can be little doubt that our history as a nation, whose wealth was built on the proceeds of slave trading and the appropriations of Empire, never fully includes or dwells on the evil of those times. I have never met anyone who seriously wants to rewrite or erase history, but I know there are those who think the time is long overdue to examine its truths. I have no doubt that the ramifications of slave trading and empire are only understood by a few when they should be made clear to all. I also know that the deep and burning injustice felt by the descendants of those oppressed by the slave trade and the imposition of empire are only imperfectly appreciated by those who have never felt that oppression. The removal of deeply offensive statuary is not an erasure of history, it is a much-needed acknowledgement of evil.
Change is long overdue. I doubt that such change will come easily and almost certainly not as a result of yet another inquiry, even if well-meant, and I detect no honest intent in this latest sop to the BLM campaign. It seems to me that something much more profound is required. At the cessation of Apartheid in South Africa, the more immediate and vicious inequalities of that policy could have led to widespread and violent conflict. That the pent-up resentments and anger of that time of repression and cruelty did not lead to wholesale slaughter is, in large part, due to the wisdom, foresight and generosity of Nelson Mandela and his institution of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That action enabled opposing sides to face unpleasant truths and to achieve understanding, remorse and forgiveness in ways that no public enquiry formed by a cynical and sceptical government could do. Generations of world-wide domination and exploitation can only ever embed a deep-seated sense of superiority on the one hand and equally profound resentment on the other. In the worst of us, that attitude of superiority has led to an ingrained and xenophobic hatred, and, in the victims, a justifiable rejection of a system and polity which has consistently refused to acknowledge the need for change.
What is needed is something akin to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A forum where each side can learn from the other. Of course, the learning will be greater on the part of those who do not at present understand the legacy of the slave trade and of empire, but equally essential is that the Black community can see and be a part of the processes which are implemented to address the centuries-long injustices for which reparation has never truly been made.
The Prime Minister in Name Only will tell you that he is not racist and cannot see that his "letterbox" and "watermelon smile" remarks are pure racism drawing, as they do, on race memory and ridicule of the non-white, non-Christian Other. Such a man will never address the problem if only because he does not believe there is a problem. And there are many others like him in the country. I am not referring here to the white supremacists, who I hope are mercifully few, and who simply represent a combination of ignorance and all the worst human traits. I refer to those whose understanding is subtly blunted and led away from proper understanding by the dishonest social media posts and all the years of sustained misinformation from a partial tabloid press, designed only to mislead and subvert honest people away from the inherent decency which directs most of us. If government will not do it perhaps others can. If enough of us begin the process surely we could make a difference. It might only take a few good people to raise the standard of decency so that others might flock to it.
Of one thing I am sure: doing nothing is not an option.
Renew supporter Zach Mayford argues for the removal of the statues of slave traders.
As the coronavirus pandemic stretches on and “the new normal” grows older ever day, another pandemic is stirring hearts and minds across the globe: racism. George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police department sparked a monumental movement of anti-police-brutality and anti-racism protests. These erupted not just in the States, but around the world, from South Africa, to France, to the British Isles.
The movement has struck a deep and reverberating chord across the UK in individuals and institutions alike. Every major city has a protest movement, with networks of activists campaigning for socio-political change. It’s stirring to see such demonstrations, many masked and socially distanced, echoing Floyd’s last words: “I can’t breathe”. Some of the most evocating protests involve crowds kneeling out of respect, like the American athlete and equality activist Colin Kaepernick. Similarly, some protestors lay on the ground for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the exact amount of time Minneapolis officer Chauvin fatally knelt on George Floyd’s neck.
Such crowds, and such evocative demonstrations, are already forcing words from the mouths of British politicians. Boris Johnson originally echoed Donald Trump’s condemnation of the activists as “thugs”, and even progressive figures like Nicola Sturgeon urged protestors to find alternatives to physical demonstrations. Many mainstream publications have paired Britain’s abysmal struggle to combat COVID with the BLM crowds, alleging their responsibility for public jeopardy. The truth is, the same publications and politicians were uncritical to the point of jubilance when presenting the white faces packing out sunny beaches or celebrating VE day. BLM activists are bracing themselves for the inevitable branding of brown and black faces with the blame for Britain’s failures. We must think critically about which groups are the root causes of Britain’s inability to compete with other countries in this crisis. In reality, the UK government has systematically failed to provide enough PPE, testing, or even coherent advice to combat the pandemic effectively.
Yes, large, compact, and unprotected crowds spread coronavirus, but that’s not what BLM are advocating for. Activists and organisers are telling protestors to wear masks, to bring hand sanitiser and to physically distance at rallies. They are saying it with far more unity, clarity, and consistency than the UK government ever has. By contrast, police tactics like kettling and mass detainment pose serious concerns for infection and transmission, as do the discriminatory over-policing and violently physical arrests that sparked the protests in the first place.
It may seem far removed that British protestors, and other international activists, are marching about injustice thousands of miles away in America. However, racism is not just an American issue. Many, including prominent journalist and scholar Afua Hirsch, have eloquently argued that American racism was created and exported from right here in Britain. Black Brits are five times more likely to die in police custody than their white counterparts, and while only three per cent of the British population is Black, twelve per cent of the prison population is Black, due to over-policing, harsher sentencing, and disparity of economic opportunities.
Such disparity stems from Britain’s racist past, and the whitewashing, if not glorification, of the empire’s crimes. Protestors are turning to this legacy and tearing down the physical remnants of the slave-trading past, focusing their anger on statues. In Bristol, anti-racist activists tore down an effigy of the prolific slave trader Edward Colston and launched it into the marina. How poetic that the statue of a man who profited from transporting nearly 100,000 people across the Atlantic, killing almost a quarter in the process and tossing them into the sea, met its own demise in the same way, rejected, underwater. Immediately, Sir Keir Starmer, supposed saviour of the Left in Britain, labelled the activism as “absolutely wrong”, showing how out of touch both sides of the political establishment are with the country’s current climate.
As many are pointing out online, the act of removing such statues is teaching people more about British history than they ever did upright. Major cities across the nation, initially Manchester and London, are launching huge enquiries into all their statues and their links to slavery and white supremacy. As of the 9th of June, the Canal and Rivers Trust in London has already removed its statue of the slaver Robert Mulligan from the docklands. If anything, it was lucky to escape the waters of the canals and rivers which the Trust administers. A statue of the mass murderer and colonial overlord King Leopold II has already fallen in Belgium and the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College Oxford looks like its next on the list. Some call it the destruction of history. Other, with good reason, call it the production of a new, more balanced history. Whilst only symbols, these statues put slave trading and white supremacy on a literal pedestal. The debates around these statues, and their lasting presence in the 21st century, are already promoting vitally representative education and positive socio-political shifts.
With each protest, things change incrementally around the world. Cases are being reopened across the states, with activists successful demanding accountability for needless black deaths. Apart from the marches and the falling statues, the movement is provoking important introspection on this side of the pond too. Social media is ripe with educational posts and constructive reading lists. Attention builds around the case of Belly Mujinga, a black railway worker who was spat on and died of coronavirus. The CPS are now reviewing the case “in light of public interest”.
So what is next, and what can you do?
First and foremost, be an activist, and/or be an ally. If it’s safe, protest in a socially distanced way. If not, donate to urgent causes, share information, and sign petitions, particularly concerning the fair and representative historical curriculum of British history. Renew your politics, and be creative as you push for a kinder, fairer, and better society.
Renew's Brogan Meaney explains her frustrations with the shift in government messaging and asks: when will we feel safe again?
The PM’s pre-recorded address to the nation on Sunday was meant to update us on the next stage of lockdown; instead, in what we’ve come to learn as classic Boris Behaviour, his vague, meandering rhetoric raised more questions than it answered. This was followed by a cacophony of conflicting messaging from various government ministers as they desperately attempted to explain a standpoint that they — in quite a distinctively separate level of clarity — did not understand either.
Of course, in the wise words of Boris Johnson, to make sense of the government “guidelines”, we simply need to use our “good solid British common sense”.
Needless to say, we shouldn’t have to rely on our “common sense” — which will greatly differ on an individual level due to our varied life experiences and perspectives — to establish how best to protect ourselves from an invisible virus.
What we all want to know, is when will we be able to hug our friends again, when will be able to kiss our grandparents, our grandchildren? And, the sad reality is, at least in my immediate echo chamber, that months of inadequate protection and guidance from this virus by the government has instilled a fear in the public that will prove hard to squash. Especially when attempts use methods of inexplainable maths equations such as “COVID alert level = R + number of infections” and wishy-washy messaging points like “stay alert” and "control the virus”. The government is trying to move away from the “stay home” messaging. But “stay home” is a clear instruction; the success of which ensures a polarising impact for any variation.
Throughout the pandemic, the government have continued to treat us like uninterested, badly behaved school-children. They’re following “the science”, science that, obviously, would be so incomprehensible to us that instead we’re presented with pretty, colourful graphs, censored reports, and short, unclear yet irritably catchy messaging. We are expected to blindly follow their rules — rules which remain unspecific and indistinguishable, even for the government ministers who have been prepped for the press by those creating these rules.
The change in government messaging, from the comprehensive “stay home” to the equivocal “stay alert”, does not signal an ease of lockdown restrictions; instead, it marks a change in narrative, and a shift in blame and accountability, from the government and the state to the rest of us. This, and Boris Johnson's talk of PPE shortages and the care home epidemic as though he hasn’t been the one in charge of these things, demonstrate the governments’ washing their hands (for at least 20 seconds) from the burden of responsibility.
And so, we’re turning on one another, blaming ourselves for the failings of the government who are meant to protect us. We’re blaming the couple out doing their food shopping, the group playing frisbee in the park, the mother with the stroller who passes us on the pavement within touching distance, the commuters piling on the tube during rush hour. It’s not inadequate PPE, it’s not the lack of testing, it’s not the mixed messaging and unreliable sources that lead to headlines across all mainstream newspapers just before a sunny bank holiday weekend such as “Hurrah! Lockdown freedom beckons”. No. We must “stay alert”, the government says. But stay alert for what, for who? Because how can one “stay alert” to an invisible respiratory virus, an infection from which many of us will be asymptomatic? The only interpretation (we should not have to discuss “interpretations” of government guidelines for an exit strategy from a lockdown caused by the spread of a global pandemic) of: “stay alert” I can think of, is: “stay alert to others around you”. It appears the only clarity in the governments enigmatic messaging is to distrust those around us.
In a nation already so divided and distrusting of others we share a land with, laws with, a national identity with, what will this further distrust do to us? This virus has reaped havoc on our globalised world — travel bans, suspicion and contempt for labels reading “made in China”, comparisons and critiques of other nations and their death tolls, the continuous global competition for protective equipment and tests. And, on top of this, Nigel Farage has attempted to reignite his soggy, stale, discriminating debate on illegal immigration, travelling to the coast of Dover to demonise the most vulnerable of all, at a time when our daily death toll was rising exponentially.
Keir Starmer stated in the HoC on Monday: “what the country needs is clarity and reassurance. And at the moment both are in short supply.” But what he left out was responsibility.
The government refuses to acknowledge the devastating effect years of austerity has had on our public services, our economy, our livelihoods, the inequalities it has stretched and stretched and stretched. There are many factors to blame for the UK’s huge, regrettable death toll, and the majority of fingers point at the government. Yet, onwards, they continue, with this strategy of deniability.
But there will be no “going back to normal” until the public feels safe. And, I for one, find little interpretation within “stay alert” that makes me feel safe.
Deputy Leader James Clarke reflects on Renew's roots as we look towards the future.
Rather than talk about the current political situation, perhaps we can talk a bit about how we got here, then to the future and what we can do to help shape it.
We started Renew as a vehicle for those politically disenchanted people and groups (like us) who were no longer prepared to support failed parties in a failing system and who wanted to get involved and participate in politics more actively. We wanted to bring in fresh faces, fresh blood and harness the skills of those with real experience outside of the standard, politically ambitious classes and tribes.
But, as we know, the best political plans tend to be knocked off-course by, (in the likely apocryphal words of Harold Macmillan) "Events, dear boy, events."
Whilst Macmillan had to contend with the 'Profumo affair' (such a beautifully understated use of the word 'affair'), Renew (and the rest of the UK) had to contend with Brexzilla, as it ran rampant, transforming from a merely terrible political idea to an all-consuming national identity crisis.
Somewhere along the way, our goal of growing a challenger, start-up, grassroots political movement got swept up in the tornado, even at the same time as all our potential goodwill, publicity, donors and voters were dragged back from the centre to the extremes, as the Brexit stakes and the country's temperature got higher and higher.
At a time when faith in the two main political parties was at an all-time low, 82.3% voted for them in 2017 (and 75.7% did in 2019); politics became a game of attrition. We contested election after election where people on the doors loved and respected what we stood for and what we set out to achieve, but simply had to vote Conservative to keep that awful man Corbyn out, or vote Labour to stop those unconscionable Tories (even in seats which were not remotely marginal): "Next time, we'll vote for you.", we heard, over and again.
And then came...
The TIGgers, who came, saw and scarpered.
The Lib Dems, who got lit up then extinguished like a crap firework.
GE2019, which loomed like a dark portent and then left like a bad smell.
And now, the virus.
Half of the country on lockdown and the other half frantically working to save lives and the economy.
Events, dear boy.
So what happens next?
There has been a great deal of talk about tectonic shifts socially, a new normal, a quiet revolution, downsizing, a new capitalism (or socialism), UBI, homeworking, even a climate breakthrough. In the UK, the Government has veered from crowing about their Withdrawal Agreement and announcing lavish spending on new Tory-voting constituencies to underwriting the biggest social and financial bailout in UK history. Labour have elected a credible leader that their bitterly divided party doesn't deserve and the Lib Dems are stowed away in witness protection.
As for Renew, we must now refocus on our identity and return to our core values and our raison d'etre. As I often say, the fundamentals have not changed; the system remains broken, the parties are dysfunctional and the legions of disenchanted voters (and non-voters) haven't gone away. We need to go back to the reasons why we started a party called 'Renew' and did not simply join a campaign group or form a single issue anti-Brexit party.
We need to differentiate ourselves from both the mainstream parties and the smaller ones.
Renew was, and is, about Reform, Renewal, Inclusion, Civic Participation, Systemic Change, Electoral Reform, Modernising, Fresh Faces, Supporting Political Activity, Openness, Harnessing Technology, Transparency, Fairness, Competence and Doing Things Differently.
Renew is about Something New.
To this end, we need to talk less about policies, elections, constituencies, leaders, left, right and (forgive me) 'centrist politics' and all the terminological traps of a political game rigged to reward the incumbents, and present ourselves as what we are, a welcome place for people who want to get involved in politics without all the repellent, fusty, childish paraphernalia associated with the reds, blues, yellows, greens and other exclusive, tribal clubs.
We need to give a voice to those who have no medium, to those on the periphery, to those turned off by the politics of colours, people from all walks of life. We need to be the vehicle for those who want to get involved and Get Heard.
This is going to mean a lot of things. It will mean reaching out to like-minded groups, especially those involved in Electoral Reform, it will mean Renew people participating in local community and action groups, building credibility, giving Renewers a good reputation. It will likely mean offering our support to those who wish to stand as Independents. It will mean not giving up regardless of the odds. And it will mean developing good habits that start here, at home.
As someone once said, 'there is no us and them, there's only us'.
This is a series of personal stories and experiences shared by friends of Renew during this pandemic. Carla Burns is an NHS worker, and she tells us what it's been like supporting those working on the front-lines.
The last few weeks have been very strange.
As news emerged from China about a new respiratory illness, our infectious diseases colleagues began to get twitchy. I work in an NHS trust that has a specialist unit for infectious diseases and we are used to dealing with high-risk illnesses, including monkeypox and other terrible things, so when these specialists say they are worried you know to pay attention.
For years NHS trusts have struggled to prepare for major incidents due to chronic underfunding and shortages of staff. There was little time to ensure systems and processes were in place. Planning for a global pandemic should have always been coordinated and funded from the centre. But, of course, this did not happen.
The focus of my work has been to coordinate the provision of mental health support for staff who will be facing the inevitable horrors over the coming weeks. On top of the huge increase in extremely unwell patients, the NHS will also have to limit the availability of all but immediate life-preserving treatment whilst facing high-levels of staff sickness and self-isolation. The lack of early available testing has placed huge limitations on the planning phase of the pandemic, even before the patient numbers began to increase. On top of this staff are anxious about the conflicting and shifting guidance around Personal Protective Equipment, with NHS guidance currently not reflective of that advocated by the WHO. News of the first deaths of healthcare workers from COVID-19 is hitting them hard.
To attempt to mitigate some of the potential impact on staff, work has been taking place with a team of in-house psychologists whose day job is working with cancer and pain patients. Together with them, we have developed a training programme to upskill as many staff as possible to be able to provide Psychological First Aid to their colleagues, which is a model of mental health support used by the WHO in war and disaster zones. Along with this we have partnered with a local university to provide training in the prevention of PTSD – which we hope will have a positive impact. In addition to this, staff can access counselling and specialist support via a temporary service.
Many support offers have been made available to staff from all places - apps, guidance, advice etc. and we have been attempting to pull them together into a coherent offer so staff are not overwhelmed. Alongside this staff are being provided accommodation if they wish to keep away from their families to reduce the possibility of bringing the virus home. The majority of our staff are female and have caring responsibilities and this is hitting them particularly hard. All we can do now is support the front-line, rotate the staff between the more and less stressful areas and keep them rested and fed/hydrated and with adequate PPS - their physical needs are inextricably linked to their ongoing mental health.
And when this is over we will pick up the pieces as best we can.
The silver lining to this has been to witness teams of people being assembled and addressing tricky and complex issues in new and innovative ways. People working off-site are finding technology to enable this to happen when it was previously believed to be impossible. What cross organisational work with reduced boundaries and a shared common goal can achieve.
All of these things remind me why I work for the NHS - passion, determination and for some, a willingness to pay the ultimate price.
It has been a truly humbling few weeks.
In the second of our series of stories and experiences from this unprecedented period of infection and isolation, Renew member Julie Alexander-Cooper shares how she's been coping with the social and business restrictions imposed upon us all by COVID-19.
Goodness, what a week. I have hardly slept over the last 12 days. Not great for a Sleep, Health and Wellbeing Specialist!!
I am involved in the running of two businesses, and during the last two weeks we have been busy focusing on adapting quickly to stay afloat and move forward. I had begun replacing my old website with a new, more modern-looking offering, and this was already taking up much time. So, when the announcement occurred last Monday, the businesses had to evolve quickly, fortunately in similar ways.
With regards to the Sleep, Health and Wellbeing Clinic, all private consultations and group programmes went online. This change might sound simple, however, it wasn’t. Extra to the usual consultation times, each client was allocated a session time to learn how to use and access the platform, to iron out any glitches. Much time was spent on assisting those less computer/tech savvy to become confident about what to do.
The second business, construction, involved an equal number of complexities. It was unclear whether or not construction would continue or cease during this time of social distancing and lockdown. As with the Sleep, Health and Wellbeing Clinic, the face-to-face meetings shifted online. However, everyone had a different “favoured” platform, so this involved a steep learning curve for all. As construction workers are now on the key worker category, much work is anticipated. Consideration of the health and safety of staff being key, each area of operation has been analysed to find the best practice to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
Sleepless nights were understandable.
There may have been stresses, however, there was much laughter too.
The interesting experience of online communication, visits from the family dog or child. The family domestic happening in the background of my Zoom meeting, heard by all because I forgot to press the mute button! With our limited downtime we have exercised, practiced yoga and painted the garden fence — all very positive. We socialised online with our friends and joined the Virtual Pub Quiz too. I also became a volunteer for Kenilworth COVID-19, a local initiative set up to help and support residents in isolation. I delivered lots of leaflets for the community venture too, trickier than I expected, as there are some scary dogs! On Mothering Sunday, we FaceTimed our sons, who live in London. We chatted, laughed, drank wine and played online games, not too different from “normal times”. As we go forward we do not know how much longer this will continue or what will happen.
I wish everyone all the very best of health in this difficult time!