Pete Cannell looks at the failures of governments across the world to defend us from Covid, and argues that it remains a major threat to public health, and a key issue for trades unionists and socialists.
The latest wave of Covid appears to have peaked and started to decline across the UK. That said, the rate of infection driven by the BA.4/BA.5 Omicron variants has been astonishingly high. Three weeks ago in mid-July, data from the Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) snapshot of case numbers recorded around three and a half million people infected.
A public health disaster
In July the total number of deaths from Covid passed two hundred thousand – a grim counterpoint to Boris Johnson’s repeated boast that dealing with Covid was one of the great successes of his premiership. It should be remembered that in March 2020 UK chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, suggested that if deaths could be kept to twenty thousand it would be a good outcome.
In truth the Tories’ record before, and during, the pandemic has been a public health disaster. In the years before Covid they ignored the scientific journals, virologists, epidemiologists, and others who warned of the threat of global pandemics. Rather than strengthen plans to deal with the inevitable they ran down and trashed public health infrastructure. And when Covid struck, public testing facilities and local expertise were largely ignored in favour of a ramping up of private sector involvement.
The Tory response was a bonanza for their business friends and cronies who raked in billions from contracts, which frequently failed to deliver the intended services or equipment. Shamefully Johnson and his friends have been held to account for ‘partygate’ but not for their criminal misuse of public money or the disastrous decisions that led, amongst other things, to the horrendous death toll in care homes.
Solidarity and self interest
At the start of the pandemic the government was forced to institute a lockdown in the face of spiralling mortality, but long-term their response has been characterised by naked self-interest and an emphasis on herd immunity. In the first year this contrasted sharply with mutual solidarity, self-organisation, adherence to social distancing and huge respect for health workers and carers from most working people.
The Tories hated this grass roots social solidarity, and their public messaging has sought to undermine it by playing on the desire to return to ‘normal’, overstating the impact of vaccines, and eliding freedom with ‘living with the virus’. To a degree they have been successful, but for how long?
High levels of infection and the impact on the NHS
We now know much more about Covid than we did two years ago. The virus has mutated rapidly, and each successful mutation has been more infectious than the last. It’s estimated that the BA.4/BA.5 variants are eighteen times as infectious as the version that caused the initial outbreak in Wuhan. So a virus that from the outset was marked by high infectivity has evolved to become even more effective at spreading.
Thankfully the death rate has fallen to a level that’s probably lower than seasonal flu and hospital admissions are much lower than they were, but because the number of cases is so high, deaths from Covid are still at an unacceptable level and the impact on NHS services is huge. NHS workers have struggled through intolerable workloads for more than two years. The huge majorities for industrial action across all the NHS unions in Scotland who have been balloting in the last two months is a measure of the level of anger in the workforce.
We now know that the impact of Covid is not just the infectious phase. Two million people now have Long Covid, and with each successive wave more people, of all ages, are added to this total. So, for example, in one week in July when three and a half million were infected a further 140,000 will have fallen victim to Long Covid. The proportion of people in the population with long-term health conditions is rising rapidly. This has received very little coverage in the mainstream media, even though the Bank of England estimates that Long Covid is a major reason for people dropping out of the workforce and for disruption in supply chains.
Only a limited number of wealthy countries have been able to offer vaccinations to most of their population. While the vaccines in current use have been mainly developed in public institutions, patents, production, and distribution have been kept firmly in hands of the big pharmaceutical companies. Institutions which claim to be at the cutting edge of science but, in fact, spend more on marketing than on research. The high infectivity, rapid rate of mutation and long-lasting side effects of Covid 19 make comparisons with seasonal flu invidious, not least when it comes to the development of vaccines.
The flu virus mutates much more slowly than Covid and an annual cycle of development enables vaccines to be modified to deal with the latest variant. In effect vaccines tail the virus, but the lag is generally not too great. The biggest threat comes from the possibility of avian flu skipping across the species barrier to infect humans. With Covid we have a virus that has been left free to thrive, mutate and develop on a global scale. It is mutating so fast that the effectiveness of new vaccines will be limited because by the time they are available the virus will have had time to evolve in new ways.
The next wave
Quite naturally as each wave subsides many people – or at least those free from Long Covid – feel that perhaps this is when things go back to ‘normal’. Everything we know about Covid suggests that while this is understandable, ‘normal’ is not on the agenda. New variants are already driving new waves of infection around the world and it’s close to certain that one of them will dominate and drive an autumn 2022 outbreak.
It’s likely that the new wave will be at least as infective as BA.4/BA.5, so the numbers infected will be high again. We can’t know how severe the effects of the new variant will be – it’s not inevitable that new mutations are less dangerous. We do know that the next wave, like all previous ones, will add to the numbers in the population suffering from Long Covid.
What is to be done
In 2005 socialist author and activist Mike Davis published The Monster at Our Door, which warned of the likelihood of a global pandemic caused by a variant of the avian flu virus. The book explored the social, political, and environmental factors that made, and still make, the threat of a devastating flu pandemic a reality. Pandemics in the twenty-first century, whether influenza, Covid, monkeypox or some other virus, are a result of the ways in which capitalism is wrecking the environment and forcing us to produce and live in ways that allow viruses to cross species barriers and spread into large concentrations of hosts that are linked around the globe. Davis concluded that ‘the creation of a truly global public-health infrastructure has to become a project of literally life and death urgency for the rich countries as well as the poor’. Covid shows very clearly why this is the case.
Recent research shows that where ‘Zero Covid’ policies have been adopted – policies aimed at elimination rather than living with the virus – the physical and mental health of the local population and levels of economic activity are higher than in countries where systematic mitigations aimed at stopping the virus have not been applied. Vaccination has had a significant effect but while vaccination campaigns and Zero Covid policies are applied locally the virus thrives and mutates globally. Hence the need for a global response.
After decades of neo-liberalism global public-health infrastructure may seem like an unattainable goal. In truth it has been needed for a long time – the high levels of long-term illness that are becoming established in the populations of industrialised nations like the UK has been the reality for the global south for a long time. If malaria, for example, had been endemic in Europe, we can be sure that vastly greater resources would have been devoted to its elimination.
So we need an international fight for public health – and the aims must be global – an end to the power of big Pharma, and an end to a patent system that privatises public knowledge. But the roots of a successful campaign need to be built in every workplace and community. We need to fight for safe environments – good ventilation, HEPA air filters, free provision of FFP2 masks and free access to lateral flow and PCR tests. The Covid 19 safety pledge from Independent Sage is a good starting point. But we also need to fight for and with all those who suffer from Long Covid and ensure that they have working conditions that provide support and flexibility.
The cost-of-living crisis has sparked a long overdue wave of worker militancy with large majorities voting to strike across the public sector and outbreaks of unofficial action too. Mass collective action on pay has the potential to inspire the confidence to take on wider issues of workplace conditions. At the same time standing up to employers on these conditions can build the collective strength required to win strike ballots. Covid is an issue for trade unions, for the workers movement internationally and socialists should take the lead in ensuring that this is the case.