19 August 2023

The Left, Covid, and the Roads not Taken.

By Mike Haynes

Mike Haynes is a former Professor of International Political Economy who has written widely on the social history of death and disease. Accused by some of being a lockdown sceptic (he supported the first UK lockdown), he would describe himself as an evidence-based covid centrist. He blogs as theJobbing Leftie Historian:


By any sensible epidemiological measure, the covid pandemic is over. The disease is now endemic. So, did the organised left and its leading radical thinkers have a good pandemic? I think the answer is no. Insofar as history notices us at all, it will not be kind. Nor should it be. Most of the left suspended critical analysis and, collectively, we became largely irrelevant.

One exception was Panagiotis Sotiris,whose autumn 2020 critique of lockdowns in Historical Materialism I still look back on with enormous admiration.[1] There were things in his article that I do not share. Not being a philosopher, I would not have gone with his big framing of the arguments. I have doubts too about the left’s obsession with neoliberalism. I do not think that the writings of people like Mike Davis or Rob Wallace showed any special insight that cannot be found in the many papers about the threat of pandemic disease produced by the thousands of people who work in the huge global disease surveillance networks.

But Sotiris was right that the apocalyptic scenarios were overblown. The precise numbers who died directly of covid remains unknown, but maybe around 10% of the total number who died globally in 2020-2022. Proportionately, the covid pandemic was larger than the influenza pandemics of 1957-58 and 1968-69, but closer to them than the 1918 pandemic. Indeed, it is not even clear that covid was the top global cause of death in 2020-22. The infection fatality rate (which also varies over time and place and not just due to vaccination) was high for the old with comorbidities but low for the under 60s.[2] The excess mortality rate captures both the effects of covid itself and the impact of the measures to deal with it. It is often considered a better guide, but it varied enormously by country and over time. Most obviously in the case of Sweden, it did not fit with the narrative that state-driven lockdowns were the only rational response. Sotiris was right, too, that we needed to embrace complexity rather than simplicity; that lockdown had more to do with ‘security’ rather than ‘public health’. But, above all, in terms of dealing with the pandemic I agreed then, and I agree now, – the choice was never ‘between simply doing nothing … and coercive and authoritarian restrictions and lockdowns.’ The experience of the pandemic clearly showed that lockdown stringency did not mean lower fatality rates.

Yet it was at almost exactly at the point when Sotiris published his argument for a different left response that many others on the left were going down the rabbit hole of elimination and the fantasy of zero covid. It was typical that an early response to Sotiris should effectively say there are only two positions – good and evil, that of the lockdown strategy associated with the zero covid campaigns or support for the Koch Foundation and the Great Barrington Declaration.[3] It was easy for such left commentators to admit, in the abstract, that lockdowns might be a problem. The trouble was that, in practice, so much of the left then took the view that there was not a state lockdown measure that should not have been started earlier, applied more widely and pursued longer. To doubt this was to be on the wrong side of history. What are you? Saint or a sinner? And there is no virtue like that of the saint faced with a room full of sinners.

Smallpox is the only human disease that has been completely eradicated. But it was never a model for covid. Smallpox is easily identifiable from afar, it does not mutate its form, there are no animal reservoirs, a vaccination gives lifetime protection (albeit with some slight decline).

Covid endemicity was inevitable. Covid is a respiratory disease. It transmits asymptomatically. It has a high reproduction rate. It constantly mutates. These things are intrinsic to the numerous coronaviruses and many other diseases too. This is why Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England and Wales said in April 2020 ‘COVID-19 is a long way from finished and eradication is technically impossible’.[4] It is why Professor Francois Balloux described zero covid as ’epidemiologically idiotic’.[5]

They were right. You say that there is a strategy to supress covid in every country in the world? Then, in 2023, three years later, it is endemic in every country in the world. It is difficult to imagine a more spectacular refutation of an argument. Yet, even now, those on the left who made these arguments are reluctant to think about how they got it so wrong. Nor are they willing to confront the trade-offs that they downplayed or to raise the questions of alternatives which might have allowed a better and more democratic management of the process to endemicity – trying to reduce the costs of covid itself but also dealing with those inevitable trade-offs which the measures used to control covid would involve.

Here, I just want to briefly consider four things – the role of society and politics; the role of science; the transfer of risk and, finally, the need for alternatives. The perspective reflects my position in the UK but most of the points apply more widely.

First, despite a rhetoric of social struggle versus covid, not only was the ‘class struggle’ abandoned but so was so much human interaction. It is difficult to imagine a scale of human estrangement in human history comparable to that of the countries which locked down. ‘People were afraid – of the virus,’ the disaster planner, Lucy Easthope says, ‘but worse – of each other’.[6] While some breezed through lockdown, others were less fortunate. People could not meet beyond their household to sing together. They could not dance, use parks, meet to kiss, to have sex. Children could not play outside together. Mothers had to give birth alone, couples marry alone, people die alone. The abused were locked in with their abusers, the depressed with their depression, the lonely with their loneliness, the vulnerable with their vulnerabilities.

Independent forms of voluntary and collective action all but disappeared in the UK. For two years, strikes were effectively zero. UK strike statistics ceased to be collected. Left demonstrations and street protests were abandoned. The climate change movement also suspended street actions. Instead, the alienation of Zoom meetings and protests were lauded by those working from ‘home’ – wherever that might be. It was as if the left had never had anything to say about how workplace or wider forms of solidarity were forged by people coming together physically. We lived vicariously off a few protests of Black Lives Matter or the women’s movement, in which, organisationally, we played no serious role. We ridiculed anti-lockdown protests from afar and then complained that they were dominated by the right.

Did human rights not matter for us? It seemed not. We even struggled to have an engagement with the inevitably repressive nature of the policing of lockdowns and the way it fell most heavily on the usual suspects. Nor did the left, except at the level of a few individuals, have any real engagement with the very limited networks of social solidarity that survived.[7] It was not the left but more traditional groups that created most of the social support networks that did develop.

And the irony is that, reading the high-level political exchanges that have come out about covid policy in the UK, it would seem that, so far from seeing the left as a threat, the government of the day was happy for people to argue for more rather than less extreme measures.

So, what of science? It is true that politics plays an inescapable role in science. But that does not mean that science can be read off from politics. The left’s understanding of medicine and epidemiology was woeful. Covid suppressors and eliminators claimed, for example, to be vaccine enthusiasts. I am too. But I saw not a single one reflect on the fact that it was impossible to develop vaccines in conditions of suppression and elimination.[8] That is right – you need a significant pool of infection to test your vaccines. Without a minimum number of infections, you cannot do the trials necessary to test effectiveness and safety. You therefore have to shift the risk onto others. How could this elementary point be missed by so many? Who did they expect to do the testing on?

And should not those on the left who demanded vaccine mandates now be ashamed of their inability to make the elementary distinction between a vaccine that reduces the virulence of an infection and one that stops transmission?

More generally, the left showed no understanding of the principles of evidence-based medicine and why all interventions need real world trials of their efficacy. The crassest confounded observational studies were shared. The idea of randomised trials was rarely mentioned and then only perhaps to be rubbished. If any initiative was proposed that might work, then the left too often assumed it would definitely work and any doubts were down to bad politics.

The examples are endless, but I will take test and trace in the UK. Even today, someone like Devi Sridhar can still be found arguing that ‘mass testing was the best early path to avoid lockdown and supress Covid-19…’[9] Since mass testing did not enable any country to suppress Covid, to make this claim in 2023 seems extraordinary. Perhaps it is designed to deflect attention from the way Sridhar also argued for seemingly indefinite external and internal border closures. But let us leave that to one side…

People with infections were told to stay home. All the attempts to finesse a policy beyond this, based on test and trace systems, were failures. The system in the UK was possibly the most expensive failure in the world. It cost some £37 billion and, in some months, made up an astonishing 1% of UK GDP.[10] It was poorly managed, ineffective, and beset by questionable contracts. All this is politically important. But, in terms of the management of the pandemic, a test and trace system could never – even under the best of circumstances – have significantly moderated the pandemic. The reason is that the higher the reproduction rate, the more difficult it is to contain a pandemic by contact tracing. This is why, in the past, test and trace systems were only seen as useful in the very early stages. Once the cases run into a few thousands, test and trace systems quickly become pointless because they necessarily ‘leak’. Let us take the stages.

First, we knew early on that there was likely to be asymptomatic transmission. Second, there was also pre-symptomatic transmission. If a symptomatic person then submitted themselves to a test and trace system, it would not be clear when they had started transmitting and therefore how far back to take their contacts. From the contacts they submitted, a smaller number might then be traced and asked to isolate. But not all the people contacted would choose to isolate and report any symptoms of their own. The left claimed this was because people could not afford to do so. This might be true of some – even many. But what of the others who might not isolate simply because they thought ‘the rules did not apply to them.’ My own left social media links show behaviour which attests to this. The problems that all this created in practice are well explored invarious studies of actual systems.[11] That they could not work was also evident from attempts to model better test and trace systems allowing for different levels of leakage.[12] These studies showed how imperfect a tool contact tracing is in a mass respiratory epidemic (compared, say, with a sexually transmitted disease one). They also showed how the lack of population adherence further undermined the test and trace efforts.

But, as with so much else, the calls for early, better, and more intensive test and trace systems simply played into the politics of distraction preventing the development of more reflective approaches. The critics of the society of the spectacle became the cheerleaders of pandemic policy as spectacle.

So, to risk transfer. One of the most stupid left slogans of the pandemic was that it was it was ‘lives versus the economy’. Insofar as this meant that governments would choose the economy rather than lockdown, what is surely remarkable is that they did not. Lockdowns were extensive in so many countries – even in the poor world where the effects were much more disastrous than in advanced countries. You cannot lock down a slum and trying can only have very bad outcomes.[13]

Beyond this, all our lives are embedded in the economy. Lives versus profits at least makes some sense. But people seemed to prefer the nonsensensical slogan of “lives versus the economy”. Any society will collapse almost immediately if all material production and supply ceases. Ships need unloading, food harvesting, cows milking, power stations operating, machines working, warehouses filling and emptying. The list is endless. The real choice was always some lives versusother lives and perhapssome lives now at the expense ofsome other lives later.

In these terms, lockdown policies can be argued to have involved a huge social transfer of risk. In the advanced world, some had to stay at home because they had been made unemployed or because their jobs had been furloughed. But much of the white-collar workforce (where the left now finds its base) was protected by being encouraged to work from home on full pay. Others, the vast majority across the world and indeed the majority in all countries, save perhaps for a short time in a few rich countries, had to go out to work.

The result was a systematic risk transfer. Some were protected while others were left exposed. Indeed, some others could be argued to have been exposed more. This is evident from the pattern of the covid pandemic itself. To use the technical language of epidemiology, transmission was heterogenous – not homogenous. Transmission was determined by networks rooted in society and work.[14] How ironic that, in the UK (and elsewhere?), one of the groups with the lowest levels of covid-related occupational mortality should be university lecturers! University support staff had a worse time. In schools, too, fewer teachers died on an age standardised basis than support staff. It was those at the bottom, the many essential workers, often with comorbidities and living in poor social conditions, who died most, as they kept the rest of society going.[15]

Now you can, if you want, make an argument that this was necessary, and more lives were saved this way. I doubt this. As Stefan Baral, an epidemiologist and doctor who worked on the frontline with the homeless on Toronto put it, trickle-down epidemiology is just as big a myth as trickle-down economics.[16] But it is an argument. What you cannot do is ignore the risk transfer involved and whose lives were saved and whose lives lost.

But the other inequalities of lockdowns, and those inequalities that are coming after it, go far beyond the disease itself. The evidence for this is everywhere. Where countries and national governments deployed significant programmes of income support income inequalities did diminish. But, onalmost every other measurable indicator, inequality increased – access and treatment of other health conditions, mental health, obesity, education, apprenticeship, employment.[17] The list goes on.

Some aspects of inequality rose because conditions for some worsened. But inequality also rose across other dimensions because those who were protected at home gained absolutely as well as improving their relative position. This is evident in the wealth statistics not just of the billionaires and millionaires but a whole section of the middle class that was protected and able to work from home – including me and most others on the left.[18]

Were there alternatives? Of course there were. There were and are lots of different positions, loads of serious arguments to be had about lockdowns. Why were NO non-pharmaceutical interventions trialled in the rich world, where abundant resources existed to test whether they work. How bizarre is it that the major trial on masks should have been done in Bangladesh? What was its point?

It was perfectly possible to support some lockdowns or aspects of lockdowns and not others. Even if you want to argue that a form of lockdown was the answer, then we need to ask why one form of lockdown rather than other? But who, on the lockdown left, even posed this question?

The most obvious alternative was to explore more or less extensive forms of focused protection of the most vulnerable. Forms of focused protection have been a standard response to infectious disease outbreaks for generations. They were at the core of earlier UK planning. But this planning was marginalised prior to the outbreak. This was partly because the government of the day chose to do this. It was also because new technologies seemed to create new opportunities to try things ‘on the hoof’. What was left of the older plans crumbled in the first days as policies flipped.

It was generalised lockdowns that were the new and untried thing. And what was surely then remarkable is how little they changed. Lockdowns were lifted only to be re-imposed with little evidence of learning between them. Lockdowns became the excuse not to do other things – they were the black box which would mysteriously prove more effective than the better planned and rehearsed measures of the past.

Take care homes. These bring together large numbers of old people for end-of-life care including degenerative conditions like dementia. Privatised care homes are big business, but their underlying economics are weak. But there are other complexities too. The buildings used are often poor for infection control, but maximising infection control at the expense of sociability has serious costs for those isolated and especially people at the end of their lives. The mental toll of isolation is huge for anyone, but especially for those near the end of their lives.

But the bigger issue is staffing and external access of those who came in as part of their daily work. No attempt was made to deal with this. The left seemed to have no sense of the scale of the problem. The adult social care sector in the UK employs over 1.5 million people. But there were many more university students. If you wanted to go down the road of lockdowns, then I often wondered why they were not completely closed. Students and academic staff could have been mobilised as a care army to help out in homes and peoples’ houses. Of course, that was never going to happen because, while some things were thinkable, others, it seems, were not.

The result was that, while families were prevented from entering homes to see their relatives even to the point of death, those in the homes faced a constant turnover of ‘staff’. The bitterness this created for those excluded is well captured in this interview with a daughter – ‘when I Skype my mum … I’ve counted 20 different carers sitting with her and you think well I can do that if 20 carers can sit there but me, who doesn’t go anywhere or doesn’t do anything … I’m not allowed to go in to see my own mother and the same thing, it just doesn’t make any sense’.[19]

This is but one example of things never confronted. Maybe lockdown supporters could have made a plea for a focussed programme additional to general lockdown, but general lockdown was presented as a sufficient solution or the only available solution when it was no solution at all for those in care homes and their relatives outside.

Wherever you look the picture then is not pretty. How many supporters of the left descended into epidemiological Stalinism? Zero covid in one country; lock out the world; with the right politics anything could be achieved! There were, it seemed, no covid fortresses that could not be stormed! But who suffered least? Certainly, the super-rich, but the left academic readers of HM in the rich countries didn’t do badly either. That is why I am writing this and you are reading it.

But there are things that cannot be done by will. We should have understood this. We should have been willing to learn. We should have argued for alternatives built on good foundations. We should have recognised that science and policy is built both on uncertainty and complexity. We should not have been so arrogant as to believe that reading the Communist Manifesto and theGuardian or theFinancial Times gives us a deeper understanding of science than people who spend their lives doing the real science. We should have been prepared to listen more and learn more.

And we should have reflected, too, a little more on our own position and how some of us were more protected than others. But, even now, as the pandemic fades, we are not doing that. We have moved on – it seems – to other things. But, if we do not evaluate how the left reacted, we can be sure that we will make as big a hash of the problems today and tomorrow as we did those of 2020-22.

[1]Panagiotis Sotiris, “Thinking Beyond the Lockdown: On the Possibility of a Democratic Biopolitics,” Historical Materialism, vol 28, no.3, pp. 3–38. Available at: See also Alberto Toscano, “Beyond the Plague State”,

[2]Angelo Pezzullo et al. “Age-stratified infection fatality rate of COVID-19 in the non-elderly population.” Environmental Research216 (2023): 114655.

[3]Gareth Dale, “Lockdown Politics: A Response to Panagiotis Sotiris,” Historical Materialism Blog,3rd Dec, 2020 and…

[4]Dr. Chris Whitty, “Covid 19”, Gresham College Lecture, 30 April 2020.


[6]Lucy Easthope, When the Dust Settles, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2022.


[8]George S Heriot and Euzebiusz Jamrozik. “Not in my backyard: COVID-19 vaccine development requires someone to be infected somewhere.” Medical Journal of Australia 214.4 (2021): 150-152.

[9]Devi Sridar, ‘What do Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages show?’, Guardian 1 March 2023

[10]National Audit Office, The government’s approach to test and trace in England – interim report, December 2020.

[11]E.L.Davis, T.C.D. Lucas, A. Borlase et al. “Contact tracing is an imperfect tool

 for controlling COVID-19 transmission and relies on population

 adherence” Nature Communications, 12, 5412 (2021).

[12]M. Fyles et al., “Using a household-structured branching process to analyse contact tracing in the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic,” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. May 2021, B3762020026720200267

[13]Alex Broadbent and Pieter Streicher, “Can you lock down in a slum? And

 who would benefit if you tried? Difficult questions about epidemiology’s

 commitment to global health inequalities during Covid-19.” Global

 Epidemiology4 (2022): 100074.

[14]Muge Cevik and Stefan D. Baral. “Networks of SARS-Cov-2 transmission.” Science373.6551 (2021): 162-163.

[15]ONS, Coronavirus (COVID-19) related deaths by occupation, England and Wales, 25 January 2021.


[17]Richard Blundell, et al. “Inequality and the COVID-19 Crisis in the United Kingdom.” Annual Review of Economics14 (2022): 607-636.

[18]ONS, ‘Economic modelling of forced saving during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic’, 6 June 2022.

[19]Clarissa, Giebel et al. “Guilt, tears and burnout—Impact of UK care home restrictions on the mental wellbeing of staff, families and residents.” Journal of Advanced Nursing78.7 (2022): 2191-2202.