On Thursday 12 March, British prime minister Boris Johnson held a press conference at his 10 Downing Street residence, flanked by two scientists, chief medical adviser Professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, at which he announced soberly to the nation that we should all be prepared to “lose loved ones before their time” over the coming weeks and months as the Covid-19 coronavirus spreads through the population and takes its toll of the most vulnerable amongst us – the elderly, those with underlying health conditions and the immunocompromised.
The presence of the scientists on the podium was meant to convey to the British public that the decisions that the government is (or isn’t) taking are based firmly in the scientific evidence – and much of the media has been keen to reassure us that this is indeed so.
But if that is the case, why was China’s response so different? Or south Korea’s? Or Italy’s? Or Spain’s?
China mobilises the nation to protect its people
In China’s Wuhan city, capital of the central Hubei province, where Covid-19 was first identified as a new and highly infectious disease of unknown origin* back in January, the government moved quickly and decisively to lock down the city as soon as it realised the potential gravity of the situation.
This speedy detection was in itself a modern medical feat. The genome of the virus was sequenced and published to enable the world’s medical and scientific community to contribute to testing for and treating the newly identified disease.
Testing was perfected and then rolled out on a mass scale, allowing some 1.8 million citizens and patients to be tested weekly. Infection control measures were rapidly developed that made treatment of patients possible without jeopardising their medical staff. Novel antiviral treatments were tested and trials of effective agents were rapidly put in place.
Travel into and out of the city was banned, and as many people as possible were instructed to stay at home. China’s strong pre-existing social infrastructure (eg, residents’ committees in every apartment block or street) was mobilised to make sure everyone had what they needed (medicines, fresh food, and so on), essential services were kept going, and essential shops (food stores, pharmacies) stayed open.
Factories around the country were quickly repurposed so that production of protective clothing, especially facemasks, could be rapidly expanded. Two new hospitals were constructed in Wuhan in just 10 days so that the large numbers of patients requiring specialised respiratory care could be taken care of, and ICU equipment and doctors were flown in from all over the country to help take up the strain on hard-pressed local medics.
Incredibly rigorous contact tracing and isolation of all Covid-19-positive patients (detected in the mass testing programme) was put in place. China’s entire medical, social and economic infrastructure was mobilised to serve the interests of the Chinese people, and defeat the spread of the novel ‘Sars-2’ coronavirus.
A social movement was born, and its slogan became: ‘Stay strong Wuhan! Stay strong China!’
Just two months after these measures were taken, China had the virus beaten. Of the 81,000 Chinese who had been infected, 73,000 had recovered, some 5,000 were still ill and 3,270 had died at the time of writing. (China coronavirus cases, Worldometer, looked up 23 March 2020)
Overall, just half of one hundredth of one percent of China’s 1.4 billion people (0.0057 percent) have been infected, and the death rate has progressively lowered as social measures have taken effect and treatment, testing, contact tracing and specialised bed capacity has increased where needed.
Of the trickle of new cases identified in China since 19 March, all have been travellers returning from abroad; none were from Wuhan. Meanwhile, hundreds of recovered patients are being discharged daily: all sixteen temporary hospitals in Wuhan had closed their doors by 10 March as the last patients left.
The price of delay
In Italy, conversely, where lock-down measures were taken much later, the number of critical patients in the northern Lombardy region quickly overwhelmed the area’s ICU capacity, leaving doctors forced to decide who should get life-saving treatment and who would have to be left to die.
At the time of writing, around 6,000 new cases were being identified every day, while twenty percent of Italian GPs have been infected and several have died. As of 18 March, 2,600 health workers, 8 percent of the total, had been infected in Italy – more than twice the percentage rate of China.
As a result, Italy has so far had the highest number of coronavirus deaths in the world (5,476 as of 23 March), despite having a population that is only a fraction of China’s, and the death toll is set to keep rising sharply as new cases are detected. Of the 46,000 cases presently recorded, 3,000 (6 percent) are in a critical condition.
In desperation, the Italians appealed to the European Union for help. The silence was deafening. The response they got instead was to be slapped with a large fine for breaching EU competition laws.
“The European court of justice (ECJ), which enforces EU law, ruled on Thursday to levy a €7.5m fine on the virus-stricken nation. The fine was administered for Italy’s apparently ‘illegal’ use of state-aid funds for the struggling hotel industry in Sardinia. To add insult to injury, Italy will need to pay an additional €80,000 for every day that the fine remains unpaid.” (The EU is treating Italians with contempt by Milja Kljajic, Spiked, 17 March 2020)
Help came instead from the Chinese Red Cross, which sent a planeload of fans, respiratory equipment, electrocardiographs, facemasks and more.
The nine experts who accompanied the supplies included Chinese Red Cross vice-president Yang Huichuan and leading cardiopulmonary resuscitation professor Liang Zongan. All nine are specialists with frontline experience in managing the coronavirus emergency. (Coronavirus, a plane with aid from the Chinese Red Cross in Fiumicino, La Repubblica, 13 March 2020)
Taking it ‘on the chin’
When this disease appeared to be a Chinese problem, our media in the main were focused on creating as much hysterical anti-China propaganda out of the situation as possible.
All kinds of wild and false claims were made, and consequently a lot of scepticism was bred amongst workers regarding the need to take the virus seriously at all. The wildly fluctuating statements about Covid-19’s death rate in this context could not but appear extremely suspicious.
But it is becoming clearer by the day that the death rate for Covid-19 is, in fact, immensely variable. The Italian experience suggests that as many as 5 percent of people infected will need specialised ICU ventilator treatment in hospital to allow them to survive.
From all the available evidence, it now appears that several factors must combine to keep death rates low. The first of these is stopping the spread, which is dependent on testing, contact tracing and isolation.
The second is supplying enough beds for patients needing oxygen treatment, preferably in specialised hospitals away from other patients to stop them spreading the virus among the general hospital population.
The third is developing an antiviral treatment protocol (both Cuba and China have developed antiviral medical treatments that are proving successful in this regard).
And, finally, there is the need to give timely and adequate ICU care, which means having enough ventilators for all who need them and trained staff to man them.
Added to all this is the need for sufficient supplies of proper personal protective equipment (PPE: gowns, gloves, masks, etc) for all healthcare staff.
Given the very low numbers of specialised ICU beds per head of the population in Britain, why was our government’s response so muted for so long?
For the simple reason that our rulers initially took an economic (not scientific) decision to allow the virus to spread through the British population and let the epidemic run its course. In the words of Boris Johnson, we were to “take it on the chin”.
The government clearly wanted to avoid paying the price of instructing people (as opposed to ‘advising’ them) that they must all go into quarantine (as opposed to ‘self-isolate’). Because if it has immediately ordered a lock-down, it would have made itself liable to cover the costs – for the hundreds of thousands of Britons who have no right to sick or holiday pay, for the hundreds of thousands of small (and large) businesses that are unable to survive without takings for a few weeks or even months.
What other reason could there have been for keeping the schools open so long (since we all know from experience that schools are the main spreaders of coughs, colds and flu in our society) than to avoid having to arrange childcare provision for all those essential workers who need to carry on and don’t have anyone at home who can look after their kids? It’s either that or our rulers actively want the disease to spread through the population.
This suspicion in only reinforced by the debate about ‘herd immunity’ that Boris and co attempted to foist onto the British public when cases began to rise sharply in Britain. Thankfully, this Malthusian anti-worker concept was debunked by enough scientists and commentators that pressure mounted and the government was forced to back down, but the delay will certainly have cost many lives.
We are now told by Sir Patrick Vallance that a “good outcome” would be if the UK death toll from Covid-19 stays below 20,000. Yet China, with its 1.4 billion population, has kept deaths below 5,000!
And even after the government had finally been forced under pressure to concede that schools should close, small businesses such as cafes, pubs, hairdressers and so on were still being left to ‘decide’ for themselves – caught between not wanting to spread the virus and not being able to take the hit of voluntarily closing down for the duration – a policy that seems to have more to do with the needs of the insurance industry than the health of the workers.
For as long as it is left to each of us individually to decide what to do (as opposed to following a nationally worked-out plan), then the financial and logistic ramifications of any ‘decision’ we make about closing down a small business, staying at home from work or keeping our kids out of school remain our problem to solve as best we can. And if we’re not able to take the decision we want to take (or have been ‘advised’ to) for financial reasons, then so be it.
In other words, Mr Johnson announced a cull of our elderly and infirm relatives, because as far as the ruling class is concerned, they are entirely expendable – and certainly far less important than the money that it would cost to take serious measures to protect them.
Indeed, the callous, contemptuous mindset of the ruling class towards workers was revealed by the undercurrent in much of the initial media coverage, where plenty of commentators were to be found hinting that Britain might be ‘fitter and leaner’ as a result of losing a million or so of its ‘economically inactive’ members.
The mentality that caused Winston Churchill to write in a departmental paper in 1910: “I propose that 100,000 degenerate Britons should be forcibly sterilised and others put in labour camps to halt the decline of the British race,” has clearly not gone away.
This is truth about how our rulers view us. And this is the difference between the socialist system and the capitalist one. As George Galloway put it at a meeting of the Workers party in Liverpool on Saturday 14 March: “After 250 years, it’s not much of an achievement for capitalism that we’re only two pay checks away from absolute poverty or one virus away from the total breakdown of our society.”
And not much of an achievement, either, if after all that time, our ‘mature’ (read decrepit) capitalist system views people at the end of their lives – who have more than earned a little rest and respect after decades of hard work, and who embody priceless experience and wisdom – as nothing more than rubbish to be disposed of, of no real interest because they can no longer be exploited for profit.
It is precisely this attitude that has led to our much talked-about but permanently unaddressed social care crisis – the profit-driven view that the elderly are a burden, rather than workers who deserve a dignified retirement having made their valuable contribution to society; that the mentally and physically ill and disabled are likewise an unwelcome burden rather than human beings who deserve to be treated as such whether or not they are able to work.
In a socialist society, everyone who is physically able must work, and society has a duty to find meaningful and fulfilling work for all.
But those who are too old, too ill or otherwise unable to work must be taken care of in the most dignified and appropriate way – with every support to keep them in the community where this is possible, or in high-quality, specialised, caring institutions where it is not.
The Covid-19 crisis is sharpening the contradictions and revealing the flaws inherent in the capitalist system and proving once again that it is long past its sell-by date, having nothing useful to offer to workers. If we take one lesson from what is happening to the world today, it is that only a planned socialist economy is capable of putting people first and solving any problems that arise in a timely and humane way.
* Despite all the black propaganda to the contrary, the source of the Covid-19 virus has not yet been identified, although there has been a huge amount of sinophobic speculation in the west over whether Chinese food hygiene or eating practices are to blame.
Some in China have postulated the theory that the virus may actually have originated in the USA, and have been imported to China (intentionally or accidentally) at the time of the international military games that were held in Wuhan in October 2019. The games were attended by a delegation of 300 US military personnel. (China locked in hybrid war with US by Pepe Escobar, Global Research, 17 March 2020)