It is becoming clear that elites are going too far with a narrow medical response to the pandemic, and that we are not going far enough with a citizen-based response.
An essay on how any #PlanB against Covid-19 needs to support, not suppress, both staff and community solidarity, which is neither pro-vax or anti-vax for Covid-19, but realistic about where we are at. A discussion that is relevant to Deep Adaptation to societal disruption as Covid-19 appears here to stay and future pandemics are far more likely due to environmental degradation: what we do and what we become through this situation matters.
The Need for a Real #PlanB
Covid-related cases, hospitalisations and deaths of people fully vaccinated for Covid-19 are rising in many parts of the world, especially those countries where vaccine roll outs were the earliest, such as Israel, Singapore and the UK. A recent article in the Guardian that reports on October’s rise in cases in the UK explains that experts “have suggested that the UK may also be feeling the effects of its fast early vaccine rollout, since a larger proportion of adults than in western Europe have now reached the point, five or six months on, where vaccine effectiveness starts to fade.” They therefore report: “doctors are asking: what’s plan B?” ()
It is not only doctors who are asking, given how the pandemic and associated policies have been damaging for so many people. It is time for more of us to have a reasonable dialogue about a Plan B, that escapes the virtue-signalling and vitriol about vaccines that has typified public discussion during 2021. I think that any Plan B must be far more collaborative and citizen-based than the current approach, which has been shaped by the medical establishment and the products of the pharmaceutical industry. To develop that Plan B, the traditional Left of the political spectrum, and the spirit of solidarity with and between people who have little power in our society, will need urgent resuscitation from its pandemic-induced slumber.
Back in March 2020, I signed a public letter with many academics and the Lancet editor that called for the UK to follow other European countries and impose restrictions on movement and business. () That was when we did not know what we were dealing with and when people were going into crowded working environments because they did not have permission to stay away or work from home. The delay in the UK’s initial ‘lockdown’ was one of many issues identified in a recent critical report on UK government handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. I recall that back then, someone close to me with a chronic health condition, told me that he had to go to work at the University and interact with many students and staff in enclosed spaces. With some fruity language I suggested he stay home – but he said that would threaten his job. Another friend was told by her manager to take off her mask and gloves at work because other staff did not have the same gear and he didn’t want her to frighten them or their clients. In both cases their lack of employment security meant they did not do what they would otherwise choose to do to protect themselves and others. It is a problem that remains to this day and is undermining our capacity to respond effectively to this pandemic or the next. It is why we need to look again at what would be a more citizen-based response.
As a Professor in a business school, I am professionally interested in how organisations behave, and the relationship between management and employees. With this background, I conclude that central to any Plan B on Covid-19 must be the employment relationship. As a sociologist, I am naturally inclined to look at power relations, and how incumbent power can shape our conversations in ways that suit such power – to the detriment of the rest of us. I consider that currently the discussion about Covid-19 and the workplace has been stuck on our relationship to vaccines, and whether forcing people accept a medical procedure to keep their job is either effective and necessary, or ineffective and unethical (even illegal). Such a debate is about authorities and employers imposing on staff and service-providers, rather than looking at how best to empower them to make wise choices. A real Plan B needs to start with the latter. That will pose more challenges for employers, and their favoured politicians, but must be addressed if we are serious that public health is the priority.
We all have some intense personal experiences from this pandemic. Fear of sickness, grief, loneliness, missing loved ones, financial insecurity, frustration, arguments with friends, and an unfolding horror at erratic policies, amongst others. One of the recurring themes for me was how sensible behaviours were being undermined by the servitude of staff to their employers. Throughout 2021, I visited businesses where their waiters, assistants, and specialists had various symptoms, like a dry cough or sniffy nose. On a number of occasions, I have asked to see the management and encouraged them to support their staff to stay home when sick. I probably contracted Covid-19 myself from one such situation. I only met one person over a weekend other than a sports masseuse, who had a dry cough. I became ill on the Monday evening, and tested positive for Covid-19 later that week. I latter heard the masseuse also had Covid. But if she had not come in for work that day, she would not have been paid.
Many people are in the same situation as that masseuse who accidentally gave me Covid-19. Because of flexible work contracts, many people in the world will not get paid if they are not at work. In the UK the flexibilization of the workforce through zero-hour contracts and the gig economy that don’t guarantee any pay unless you are at work, has meant far more people are in very precarious work situations. They cannot miss a day off work without serious repercussions. Even people with guaranteed work contracts face potentially serious consequences for their employment if they are off work sick. Back in March 2020 that was identified by one trade union as an unacceptable situation (), just as we did in our letter of March 14th when we recommended that the UK government: “Create emergency sick-pay for those on zero-hours contracts etc, so that sick people are not tempted to carry on working.” Since then, little has been discussed by unions or policy makers on the matter of precarious work and how to remove impediments to responsible behaviour by staff with symptoms.
It is not only an unacceptable situation for the individuals involved, but also for public health during a pandemic. Because it is simple logic that the numbers of people with symptoms that commute to work in enclosed spaces, to work in jobs where they meet lots of people, will be a factor in the infection rate of the pandemic. This is not my specialist area, so I looked for modelling of such data, but it appears that such matters are still not being analysed properly. I find that frustrating, as it seems so relevant to the pandemic response. All I could find were a few studies on precarious work, sick days taken, and sick pay levels across different countries. That gives some initial support to the idea that there is a serious issue to explore here. Both the UK and USA are highly urban societies in temperate climates which have a larger percentage of precarious work situations within their workforces than other economically advanced countries (). And they have been hit relatively hard by Covid-19, in comparison to European countries. My aim here is not to argue there is a definite correlation, but to plea for more attention to what is, logically, a very obvious potential factor in spreading infections.
As the Covid-19 vaccines might be failing to do their job, which is something I will return to in a moment, some countries are now considering further lockdowns. The collateral damage of lockdowns on people’s health, livelihoods and government finances are already well known. Their impact on curbing the pandemic is also a matter of lively scientific discussion. They aren’t a Plan B. As lockdowns were not distinguishing between people with symptoms and those without, they were not about empowering responsible decision-making by staff and management – which is what I am looking at here.
Removing Obstacles to Being Responsible
So what might policies involve that could help empower staff and management to make wise choices? I am not an expert on occupational health and safety, but here are some simple ideas. Governments could supply a free thermometer to all staff who are working in the gig economy, on zero hour contracts and/or have high interaction with members of the public. They could create a fund for government to reimburse employers for when staff self-certify that they have a temperature or other key symptoms. They could work with employers to help there be spare staffing capacity to cover for workers being off sick. They could encourage employees and managers to encourage colleagues to go home if expressing symptoms – and advertise that procedure to customers. These measures would be in addition to the various measures some businesses have taken, such as thermometers at the entrance of premises, enhanced ventilation, occupancy limits, perspex screens and suchlike. Although there would be a cost involved, and some auditing overhead to check for any abuses of the system, it would be a lot cheaper than the blanket payments from the state to employees and self-employed persons during a full-scale lockdown – policies which have now saddled low income tax-payers with a long-term bill for subsidizing the lives of people with high incomes during 2020.
If I can come up with these ideas off the top of my head, I am sure that experts could recommend far more, discount those that won’t work, and then design studies to identify which ideas are most effective. Ultimately, we need better regulations to address the increasing imbalance between employer and employee, and between the corporation and their self-employed service providers. We also need to improve working cultures. Because I have worked in many offices where turning up sick to work was normal. Who could blame us when for decades we have seen adverts for pills that show us how we can ‘soldier on’ at work when we have a cold or flu, and where time off work for ill health is recorded and considered problematic? I remember one occasion feeling embarrassed to tell a colleague that I shared an office with that I would prefer if they had not come in to work, both for my health and theirs. Most times I just kept quiet. The existence of Covid-19 has changed that reticence for many people, but it could be helped by clear communications on personal responsibility, backed by employment and income protection. But is also means some latency is required in human resources, so that people can cover for each other when necessary.
Where’s the Worker Solidarity from Leftwing Media?
So why has this matter been so badly ignored? Despite it being quite possible that flexible contracts and poor labour rights help spread diseases, including Covid-19, it has not been central to policy discussions by those politicians who are meant to represent worker interests, or the media outlets that claim that they are not serving the agendas of the capitalists and establishment. To illustrate, let’s consider one article in The Observer newspaper in the UK – a publication which was previously considered a bit ‘left-of-centre’. The article discussed implications of a symptomatic sick teacher spreading Covid-19. It did not explore why that teacher went to work when sick, what obstacles there may have been for her to avoid work (perhaps absence of cover for class, peer pressure or contract insecurity), why she was not told to go home by management or colleagues (or even students, if properly trained and supported to express that), and what implications there are for policies and support for wise decisions by teachers in future. Instead, a negative attitude towards staff and their ability to respond well is conveyed in the article ().
If we look at the outputs of self-declared Leftwing media outlets like Jacobin Magazine, they have been deferent to the corporate-shaped narrative on what to do about the Covid-19. () Their efforts to be more responsible than the centrists or right-wingers ends up with them calling for more curbs on citizen freedoms, rather than solidarity and a less-corporate shaped approach to the pandemic. To call for more restrictions on worker and citizen freedoms rather than removing barriers to people naturally doing the right thing, casts doubt on whether some pundits have forgotten the way capitalism can be oppressive. We might imagine self-declared socialists tapping out pro-Pharma stories on their laptops while munching on food delivered by people without labour rights who are now required by global corporations to get vaccinated. The ironies of late capitalism in 2021 are extreme.
My past work included being a Labour Party communications strategist and speechwriter during the 2017 General Election, which witnessed a massive upwelling for a left-wing policy agenda that almost delivered a radical government. () I am therefore saddened by how many commentators and administrators within the Left appear to have abandoned the interests of the ‘precariat’ since the beginning of the pandemic. Many people who have always been against mandatory identification, constant surveillance, and discrimination on biological grounds, are now supporting all of those measures to promote vaccines which we now know do not work well after just a few months (see below). Perhaps the new appetite for authoritarian policies is a response to unprocessed feelings of insignificance, given the setbacks in truly left-wing politics in recent years. But some socialist activists claim it is because the relatively cosseted middle classes are the people who staff the media and bureaucracies, run organisations and advise politicians. () Therefore, whatever their espoused politics, they do not experience on a daily basis the reality of working people in precarious employment and/or income situations. As such a lot of the concern voiced for solidarity, fairness, equality and suchlike might be deteriorating into mere virtue-signalling between the middles classes themselves. That doesn’t mean that most of left-leaning people do not share a sense of solidarity, but the people shaping our discussions have been socially distanced from the experience of today’s income poor. ()
Perhaps things are not so bad amongst the left-wing pundits, and there is just extreme confusion, arising from medical misinformation? Before I present some data on that issue, I want to take a moment to note how emotionally ‘triggering’ discussion of pandemic science has become. It is natural for us to assess scientific information with some attention to the politics and intention of the messenger. But what is unusual in the past couple of years is how that has become a barrier to open questioning, and where even basic data that doesn’t fit our currently preferred worldview can trigger anger. I have learned that any anger I feel towards someone, or an opinion, actually hides a fear – not only a fear about what might be real danger, but a deeper fear related to my own self-acceptance. You probably have some of the same scripts involved in your own self-acceptance. Such as: I am a good person because I have the correct and relevant information and make a positive effect on those around me. With such scripts running unconsciously within us, it means that when we read stuff about Covid-19, our inner fears can cloud our ability to consider new information, think again, and potentially pivot from our previous views.
Confusing Focus on Asymptomatic Transmission
One assumption that needs reconsidering so we can better live in solidarity with each other concerns the matter of “asymptomatic transmission” of Covid-19. In the early days of the pandemic, we were being told that asymptomatic transmission was a significant factor and so we couldn’t simply avoid people if we had symptoms, or if they did. Because if asymptomatic transmission exists to a degree that is significant to the spread of the pandemic, then we can’t just rely on staff being empowered to take the right decisions based on noticeable symptoms. However, we now know that the scientific basis for significant asymptomatic transmission is extremely weak. The largest-scale study on Covid-19 transmission, involving nearly 10 million people, found that asymptomatic transmission did not occur: “There were no positive tests amongst 1,174 close contacts of asymptomatic cases.” () Despite that, other studies with lower population sizes have found some such transmission – but very low. A review of the published scientific literature on asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19, found that it is either non-existent, or around 1 in 30 amongst close contacts. That review also explained how self-defined ‘fact-checking’ articles claimed asymptomatic transmission is important while making the simple and obvious mistake of mixing up asymptomatic infection and asymptomatic transmission – often speculating that the former means that the latter must exist. ()
Therefore, the focus on asymptomatic transmission would be a weak excuse for not centring the empowerment of staff to make wise choices based on their symptoms as a key pandemic response. Even if there is some asymptomatic transmission, for instance via prolonged proximity in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation, then it would not undermine the importance of how to help symptomatic people make wise choices. Instead of enabling this freedom to care for ourselves and each other, a different and toxic paradigm has been promoted even by those who claim to believe in solidarity with the working class. That paradigm treats each other as a threat and passive recipient of instructions from authority and technology.
Let’s Chill and Consider the Data on Vaccine Effectiveness
The last two years has produced the most bizarre and rapid demonizing of normal scientific discussion that I have ever witnessed. Because we care about public health we should want to talk about the theories, options, impacts and then keep reassessing. That’s normal, and anything less than that would mean we care less about public health than other things, such as, if I may hazard a guess – not taxing our brains too much, while feeling good about ourselves, and letting off some steam by being angry at other people. That context means I risk experiencing aggression from strangers, friends and colleagues by even mentioning some of the research on asymptomatic transmission, or the most recent data on declining vaccine effectiveness, as I will do now. As people who care about human life, we must consider that science and immediately explore the implications for a real Plan B. So let’s look at the evidence on declining vaccine effectiveness.
Israel has led the way in rapid mass vaccination, so the latest news from there is relevant. Studies since August 2021 have shown a rapid rise in hospitalizations and death of fully vaccinated people; whereas those rates might have been higher without vaccinations, it demonstrates that the vaccines rapidly decline in effectiveness. () That has led to more scientific scrutiny of the original and seemingly misleading claims of pharmaceutical companies and regulators that some of the vaccines delivered over 95 percent effectiveness. () New research on the comprehensiveness and likely long-lasting natural immunity to Covid-19 () adds weight to an emerging view that the initial range of Covid-19 vaccines are not very good at doing their job. In future, new vaccines might be better, and we can hope for that, although the rapid mutation of the coronavirus had always put that in doubt.
Given that information, it would be both illogical and irresponsible to rely only on vaccines and lockdowns for the future of policies against the pandemic. But there are even more reasons that that to think again. The main one is that in the coming months it might become evident that mass vaccination makes the pandemic worse in the long run for the most vulnerable in our society. That idea sounded really odd when I first heard it, but then I learned that it is a basic scientific theory within immunology, and why vaccines often take years to be licensed. The theory is that sometimes mass vaccinations can increase the evolutionary pressure on the virus such that mutations lead to variants that evade the vaccine and therefore lead to higher mortality rates. () Because less than a year has passed since the mass roll-out of Covid-19 vaccinations began, there are varying opinions about the potential for vaccines to drive that kind of harmful evolution of the virus. The UK scientific advisory group SAGE, has stated that it is a concern: ‘The combination of high prevalence and high levels of vaccination creates the conditions in which an immune escape variant is most likely to emerge’. () One does not need to fully agree with them to adopt the precautionary principle of it being a real possibility and thus making contingencies.
Restoring Our Freedom to Care
As vaccinated people can spread the infection (), what must be focused on is enabling reduction of symptomatic spread in ways that do not create harmful side effects to public health and our way of life, including human rights. Recognising the reality of ‘leaky’ vaccines which aren’t delivering on the initial promises of manufacturers and regulators, and the unacceptable human collateral damage from lockdowns, many more people are realizing we need a smarter response to the pandemic. But currently we are not getting that. What’s worse, a failing strategy seems to be ramping up. That includes forcing people to get vaccinated in order to work or live normally, imagining a future of never-ending ‘booster’ jabs, installing permanent mass surveillance, and vaccinating children prior to completion of Stage 3 safety trials for a disease that poses them an extremely low threat, while encouraging #BigTech to suppress information on complementary measures like improved nutrition, proven herbs and other medicines.
What should we think of governments that claim they are acting from a commitment to public health when they force (or allow companies to force) vaccinations on people for them to keep their job, without simultaneous efforts to empower workers to made wise choices when they are symptomatic? Misinformed? Incompetent? Captured? Opportunistic? Whatever the reason, many governments appear to be going too far with a failing strategy that is based on a too narrow medical analysis. The risk is that confused governments and their medical advisors, perhaps too proud or nervous to admit mistakes, might end up flogging a vaccine dead horse, while ignoring the ways we could share the burden of mutual protection by removing barriers to us looking after each other. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” as Albert Einstein didn’t say (more interestingly, the quote came from a meeting on addiction). () I know the impact of the pandemic and related policies has led to a mental health crisis (), but still, you would think someone within governments would be able to bring some sanity to the discussions of what to do next.
I am not holding my breath for a rapid change of tack from governments. We will need to see more articulation of the contours of a real #PlanB from various experts, pundits and heads of institutions across society. I dub this new approach a citizen-based response, that focuses on how we can better look after each other, rather than mistakenly relying on technological fixes or draconian polices to punish non-conformists. I call it a citizen-based response, because it stems not only from respecting the rights of individuals but affirms how we all have the capabilities to look after each other, when not prevented from doing so, and so do not need to be ordered around for our own good, like children. Not only would a more citizen-based approach address the matter of employment practices, it would also involve support for community health measures, including traditional knowledge, complementary medicines, attention to nutrition, and emotional wellbeing. The current pandemic approach has been extremely an narrow medical one, which even the World Health Organisation (WHO) now recognizes can be unhelpful when it denigrates the ways that communities know how to look after themselves. () For instance, in some countries traditional herbs have been found in clinical trials to help reduce severity of Covid-19. () Any knee-jerk dismissal of such information would indicate nothing about someone’s commitment to human life and wellbeing, and more about their personal prejudices that align with narrow corporate interests. Shockingly in our new era of Bigtech hegemony, just a mention of a herb used effectively in hospitals in Thailand could lead to a #Bigtech warning and suppression of an essay like this.
That example from Thailand is a reminder to people in the high-income countries to think twice about their ideas about how to help the rest of the world in response to Covid-19. In this essay I have focused on the situation in UK. But there are implications for the whole world, given that so many people work in the informal economy and insecure employment. Many rely on a daily income for their ability to afford the basics of life. That is why the lockdowns and disruptions from pandemic policy responses have been putting millions of people into poverty and malnutrition. () As I type that out, it feels like such a dry sentence. But what we talking about is people who can’t eat properly because of policies based on bad medical advice. The Left in the West has also been largely silent on this matter. Instead, progressives have argued that we need more efforts to get Covid-19 vaccines to poor countries. That somewhat downplays how China has already provided billions of jabs for the global South, and some countries in the global South already have vaccination rates higher than in the West. Given the latest data on vaccine ineffectiveness, don’t you think it unwise to try to export to the global South a strategy which is already failing to deliver on its promises in the richer parts of the world? Instead, people in low-income countries could benefit from efforts at improving labour rights and a collaborative approach with community health groups. That takes commitment and time – and it doesn’t generate any income for the pharmaceutical industry. But I hope it emerges more strongly after the vaccine-access advocates let themselves realise the now redundant assumptions at the base of their efforts.
In this essay I am getting at the need to restore our freedom to care for ourselves and each other. To do that we must challenge politicians, government spokespersons and media of any kind, when they undermine the capacity for scientific dialogue and the scrutiny of health policies (which they do promoting slanging matches about personal identity or politics). That also means we have to communicate with our colleagues, professions, and political movements, to encourage a shift into a more deliberative and imaginative approach to this global disruption – and the many to come.
In the last few years I have been studying psychology. I discovered that psychology research finds how some people respond to a conscious and subconscious sense of confusion and vulnerability by reaching for the stories of safety offered by stricter authority. () This pandemic is just one of many storms coming our way as environmental breakdown increasingly disrupts lives around the world. People’s sense of confusion and vulnerability will increase. As more storms gather for humanity, fair-weather friends of rights and justice will be no friends at all. However, it is not inevitable that we will all crumble into slaves and persecutors. Some of us will reject patriarchal myths about achieving safety, and instead recommit to express our better selves, where we recognise each other’s pain, think critically, resist the fear of shame and seek to act in solidarity with people from all walks life, especially those whose power to look after themselves is being removed.
Want to stay in touch or do something more on this? Due to other projects, I am not leading on this topic. If you want to learn or share more, I recommend subscribing to the blog https://leftlockdownsceptics.com/ and if in the UK then considering the Together Declaration
Want to discuss this topic in relation to how to reduce harm as we anticipate or experience societal disruption and collapse? I recommend the Deep Adaptation Leadership group on LinkedIn.
Annoyed or disheartened at the ideas in this essay? I recommend you read this paper, which draws on scientific studies in ways that go far further that what I have covered in this essay. Then consider whether it’s really so objectionable to conclude that an agenda has gone too far, and it’s time for a different approach.
 14th March, 2020. OPEN LETTER TO UK GOVERNMENT from the editor of the Lancet, Chris Packham, George Monbiot, Peter Tatchell, Gail Bradbrook et al:
 COVID-19 – UK lagging well behind European neighbours on self-isolation and sick pay rights | Bectu https://bectu.org.uk/news/covid-19-uk-lagging-well-behind-european-neighbours-on-self-isolation-and-sick-pay-rights/
 For instance see these articles:
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/uk-paid-leave-holiday-entitlement-compares-eu-countries-europe-charts-a6881456.html // https://www.vouchercloud.com/resources/sick-leave-across-europe // https://fmpglobal.com/blog/countries-with-the-best-sick-leave/
 For instance see:
Which is based on major scientific mistakes, as explained here:
 Gazit, et al (2021) Comparing SARS-CoV-2 natural immunity to vaccine-induced immunity: reinfections versus breakthrough infections https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.08.24.21262415v1.full.pdf
 Longitudinal analysis shows durable and broad immune memory after SARS-CoV-2 infection with persisting antibody responses and memory B and T cells – PubMed (nih.gov) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33948610/
 SAGE 93 minutes: Coronavirus (COVID-19) response, 7 July 2021 – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sage-93-minutes-coronavirus-covid-19-response-7-july-2021/sage-93-minutes-coronavirus-covid-19-response-7-july-2021