Coronavirus and the Meltdown of the Construction Industry: Bloated, Socially Oppressive and Environmentally Ruinous

Part of the massive development site at Nine Elms in Vauxhall, photographed on April 16, 2020 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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Just for a while there, it was bliss. The roads were almost entirely empty, the air was clean, birds could be heard singing in central London, and, most crucially, the din of huge construction sites was almost entirely silenced. Construction sites not only generate vast amounts of noise and pollution; they also choke the roads with hundreds of lorries carrying material to them, or carrying away the rubble from buildings that, in general, should have been retrofitted rather than destroyed.

This is because the environmental cost of destroying buildings is immense, and we are supposed to have woken up to the environmental implications of our activities over the last few years, because, in 2018, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned us that we only had 12 years to avoid catastrophic climate change unless we started arranging to cut our carbon emissions to zero, and, in response, the activism of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion helped to persuade central governments and local governments to piously declare “climate emergencies”, and to promise to change their behaviour.

Little has been seen in terms of major changes since these “climate emergencies” were declared last year — until, that is, the coronavirus hit. Since then, global pollution levels have dropped significantly — 17% on average worldwide, by early April, compared with 2019 levels, with a 31% decline recorded in the UK.

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Landlords: The Front Line of Coronavirus Greed

End rent now: a protestor in Los Angeles.

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As the coronavirus continues to cripple the economy, it is clear to anyone paying attention — a situation not encouraged by either our political leaders or the mainstream media — that its disastrous effects are extremely unevenly distributed.

While some people are working from home on 100% pay, others — the essential workers of the NHS, pharmacists, those in the food industry, postal workers and other delivery people, public transport workers, and many others — have continued to work, often at severe risk to their health, because of the government’s inability to provide proper PPE or a coherent testing system. Other workers, meanwhile, have been furloughed on 80% of pay (up to £2,500 a month), while another huge group of former workers have been summarily laid off, and have been required to apply for Universal Credit, a humiliating process that also involves the requirement to try to survive on less than £100 a week.

While those on Universal Credit receive support in paying their rent, and one of the government’s first moves, when the lockdown began, was to secure mortgage holidays for homeowners, no such support exists elsewhere in the economy for those who are renting. This is a disaster both for businesses and for those living in properties owned by landlords and not receiving housing benefit, as there has been no suggestion from the government, at any time over the last seven weeks, that landlords should share everyone else’s pain.

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Celebrating Eight Years of My Photo-Journalism Project, ‘The State of London’

Andy Worthington’s most recent photos of London under lockdown, as part of his photo-journalism project ‘The State of London.’

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Check out all the photos here!

Exactly eight years ago, on May 11, 2012, I set out on my bike, from my home in Brockley, in the London Borough of Lewisham, in south east London, to begin a project of photographing the whole of London — the 120 postcodes that make up what is known as the London postal district or the London postal area (those beginning WC, EC, E, SE, SW, W, NW and W). These postcodes cover 241 square miles, although I’ve also made some forays into the outlying areas that make up Greater London’s larger total of 607 square miles.

I’ve been a cyclist since about the age of four, and I’d started taking photographs when I was teenager, but my cycling had become sporadic, and I hadn’t had a camera for several years until my wife bought me a little Canon — an Ixus 115 HS — for Christmas 2011. That had renewed my interest in photography, and tying that in with cycling seemed like a good idea because I’d been hospitalised in March 2011 after I developed a rare blood disease that manifested itself in two of my toes turning black, and after I’d had my toes saved by wonderful NHS doctors, I’d started piling on the pounds sitting at a computer all day long, continuing the relentless Guantánamo work I’d been undertaking for the previous five years, which, perhaps, had contributed to me getting ill in the first place.

As I started the project, I had no idea really what I was letting myself in for — how massive London is, for example, so that even visiting all 120 of its postcodes would take me over two years, or how completely I would become enthralled by the capital that has been my home since 1985, but that was unknown to me beyond familiar haunts (the West End, obviously, parts of the City, and areas like Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, which I’ve always been drawn to), and places I’d lived (primarily, Brixton, Hammersmith, briefly, Forest Hill, Peckham and, for the last 20 years, Brockley).

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Radio: I Discuss the Coronavirus Changing the World Irrevocably, Plus Guantánamo and WikiLeaks, with Chris Cook on Gorilla Radio

Andy Worthington calling for the closure of Guantánamo outside the White House on January 11, 2020, the 18th anniversary of the prison’s opening (Photo: Witness Against Torture).

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Last Tuesday, I was delighted to speak to Chris Cook, for his radio show Gorilla Radio, beaming out to the world from Vancouver Island, in western Canada. Our full interview — an hour in total — can be found on Chris’s website. It’s also available here as an MP3, and I hope you have time to listen to it. A shorter version — about 25 minutes in total — will be broadcast in a few weeks’ time.

Chris began by playing an excerpt from the new release by my band The Four Fathers, ‘This Time We Win’, an eco-anthem inspired by the campaigning work of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion.

We then discussed my most recent articles about Guantánamo, A Coronavirus Lament by Guantánamo Prisoner Asadullah Haroon Gul and Asadullah Haroon Gul, a “No-Value Detainee,” and One of the Last Two Afghans in Guantánamo, Asks to Be Freed, both dealing with one of the many insignificant prisoners still held at Guantánamo, out of the 40 men still held — Asadullah Haroon Gul, whose lawyers are trying to secure his repatriation as part of the Afghan peace process.

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The Four Fathers Release New Eco-Anthem, ‘This Time We Win’, Recorded with Charlie Hart

The cover for ‘This Time We Win‘, the new single by The Four Fathers. Designed by Brendan Horstead.

On Earth Day (April 22), The Four Fathers released ‘This Time We Win’, a new online single on Bandcamp, produced by Charlie Hart, who also plays Wurlitzer piano on it.

This Time We Win’ is an eco-anthem that I wrote last year in response to the unfolding, man-made, global environmental catastrophe that we all face, and the powerful efforts to highlight it that have been made by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and her Fridays For Future movement of striking schoolchildren, and the campaigning group Extinction Rebellion, who occupied central London a year ago.

We were planning to release it this spring, to coincide with what we anticipated would be renewed environmental activism, but what we couldn’t have foreseen was the arrival of the highly infectious novel coronavirus, COVID-19, and the complete shutdown of all significant gatherings of people, including political protests, to try and stop its spread.

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In the Midst of the Coronavirus Lockdown, Environmental Lessons from Extinction Rebellion, One Year On

Extinction Rebellion’s ‘Tell the Truth’ boat in Oxford Circus on April 18, 2019, during a week-long occupation of sites in central London to raise awareness of the environmental catastrophe that is already underway, and the need for urgent change to combat it (Photo: Andy Worthington)..

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As we all continue to try to make sense of — and live with — the extraordinarily changed world in which we find ourselves, I’m reminded of what a different place we were in a year ago, and also how some of our insights from that time so desperately need to be remembered today.

One year ago, we were five days into Extinction Rebellion’s occupation of four sites in central London (Parliament Square, Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus and Marble Arch), which largely brought the traffic to a halt for a week, and enabled anyone paying attention to directly appreciate what a city not dominated by the choking fumes and noise of relentless traffic felt like, and what that, in turn, said about so many of capitalism’s priorities in a major capital city.

It was, to be blunt, something of revelation, as I explained in an article at the time, Extinction Rebellion’s Urgent Environmental Protest Breaks New Ground While Drawing on the Occupy, Anti-Globalisation and Road Protest Movements, in which I also related XR’s efforts to those of earlier protest movements, and noted how we had, it seemed, all become so accustomed to how loud and dirty London was, with its relentless traffic, the incessant din of its numerous building sites, and the lorries servicing those sites, which were the most unpleasant of all the vehicles incessantly filing our streets — other huge lorries, buses, taxis, white vans, and an inexplicable number of cars — that the sudden silence and clean air was astonishing.

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The Coronavirus Lockdown, Hidden Suffering, and Delusions of a Rosy Future

London under the coronavirus lockdown, March 30, 2020 (Photo by Andy Worthington from his photo-journalism project The State of London).

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Nearly a month since the coronavirus lockdown began in the UK, it seems clear that the intentions behind shutting most retail outlets and workplaces, and encouraging everyone to stay at home as much as possible — to keep the death toll to manageable levels, preventing the NHS and the burial industry from being overwhelmed — are working, although no one should be under any illusions that Boris Johnson’s government has managed the crisis well. Nearly 13,000 people have died so far in hospitals in the UK, a figure that seriously underestimates the true death toll, because it cynically ignores those dying in care homes.

However, frontline NHS staff are also dying, and this is because they are still deprived of necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), which is an absolute and unmitigated disgrace, showing how far our current elected officials are from the wartime spirit of the plucky British that they are so intent on selling to the public to cover up their failings.

If they really were who they claim to be, they would have pulled out all the stops to get factories manufacturing PPE in as short a time as possible, but they’re not who they claim to be: they’re incompetent disciples of a neo-liberal project that is interested only in elected officials handing out contracts — and all profit-making ability — to private companies, and that is determined to destroy the state provision of services, something that the Tories have been gleefully doing, not least to the NHS, since they first returned to power almost ten long and dreadful years ago.

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Health Not Wealth: The World-Changing Lessons of the Coronavirus

A composite image of a doctor and the City of London, photographed by Andy Worthington during the coronavirus lockdown, on April 2, 2020.

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Yesterday marked 100 days since the coronavirus (COVID-19, or SARS-CoV-2) was first reported by the Chinese authorities, and, as now seems to be becoming clear, this highly infectious disease, which, in just three months, has reached almost every country on earth, and has so far killed nearly 100,000 people, is changing our lives — and our world — forever.

To put it simply, we have discovered that health is more important than wealth, and in a world dominated by the profit motive of capitalism, this is a profound lesson to learn, and one with consequences that will affect every aspect of our lives from now on.

Just a few weeks ago, we still raised up, and were obsessed by, the pin-ups of the celebrity world, one of capitalism’s many fronts for its almost complete domination of our lives, with its vacuous models, pop stars, footballers and film stars — all obscenely overpaid, and all dutifully obeying the requirement that, for fame and money, they had to allow themselves to be put on pedestals, to dazzle us into subservience.

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A Coronavirus Lament by Guantánamo Prisoner Asadullah Haroon Gul

Guantánamo prisoner Asadullah Haroon Gul, known to the US authorities as Haroon al-Afghani, who has been held at the prison without charge or trial since 2007.

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I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

Last week, on my own website, I published an article looking at the threat posed to the prisoners at Guantánamo by the coronavirus, following up on the alarming news that a US sailor had been diagnosed with the virus, and was in isolation. My article also included a cross-post of a related article written for Just Security by Scott Roehm, the Washington Director of the Center for Victims of Torture.

Roehm pointed out that a number of the prisoners have serious underlying health problems, including Guantánamo’s oldest prisoner, Saifullah Paracha, and Sharqawi Al-Hajj, who tried to commit suicide last year, both of whom we have written about (see here and here).

Roehm also called for a number of appropriate responses from the Trump administration, beginning with letting the prisoners and their lawyers know what policies are in place to deal with the virus, and also including a call for Congress to allow prisoners to be transferred to the US mainland if they need urgent medical care.

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The Coronavirus and Guantánamo’s Extraordinarily Vulnerable Prison Population

A collage of Guantánamo and the coronavirus.

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Ever since the coronavirus began its alarming global spread, those who work with, and on behalf of prisoners have been aware of the threat that it poses to those who are incarcerated. This applies, as commentators have noted, whilst urging urgent action, to the many million of prisoners worldwide who are imprisoned after being tried and convicted of crimes, as well as, in some countries, political prisoners.

In the UK, lawyers urged the government, to no avail, to release Julian Assange, who is held in Belmarsh maximum security prison in London, fighting efforts by the British government to extradite him to the US to face entirely inappropriate espionage charges relating to his work with WikiLeaks, and in the US, as well as highlighting the dangers faced by the country’s 2.2 million domestic prisoners — the largest prison population per capita in the world — some activists have also been highlighting the dangers the virus poses to the 40 men still held in the prison at Guantánamo Bay, all held for between 12 and 18 years, and almost all held indefinitely without charge or trial.

The plight of the Guantánamo prisoners was particularly highlighted eight days ago, on March 24, when the US Navy announced in a press release that a sailor stationed at the base had “tested positive for COVID-19” and was “currently undergoing evaluation and treatment.” The Navy’s press release added that the Department of Defense had “notified public health authorities of the positive test” and had “taken prudent precautions” to ensure that the service member was “receiving the appropriate care.” It was also noted that the sailor was “currently isolated at their home and restricted in movement in accordance with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Guidelines,” and that efforts were underway to trace recent contacts made by the sailor.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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