Coronavirus: capitalism fails the test

The global coronavirus pandemic is now truly underway and will get more severe over the next weeks and months. As of midnight on 27 March, over 593,000 people had been infected and more than 27,000 had died in 199 countries and territories around the world.* This pandemic is both a consequence and a sign of the crisis of the capitalist system. Charles Chinweizu reports.

Although the coronavirus outbreak originated in China, where more than 3,200 people (two per million of the population) died after about 81,000 were infected, Europe is now the epicentre of the pandemic, with cases multiplying exponentially on a daily basis. Italy, the worst affected country, had over 86,000 confirmed cases of infection by 27 March, and more than 9,000 deaths (151 per million of the population). In Spain, fatalities have also surpassed China, soaring to over 5,000 by the end of March; the authorities have had to turn an ice rink in the capital into a mass morgue. The United States now has over 100,000 confirmed cases, the highest level of any country in the world. Iran, with 32,000 cases and more than 2,000 deaths, has been hampered in its ability to fight the virus due to US and European Union (EU) sanctions, a form of medical terrorism. However, despite their proximity to China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan have all kept case numbers and deaths relatively low. South Korea, one of the earliest countries affected and where infections appear to have peaked in early March, has just 9,000 confirmed cases and 139 deaths.

The US’s and Britain’s bogus statistics on infection cannot be believed while they fail to implement mass testing for the virus. In the US only 70,000 tests have been conducted in a country of 327m people; by 22 March, in Britain, only 78,000 or so people had been tested. Testing allows people to know if they are infected, helping them receive the care they need if it’s available, and taking measures to reduce the probability of infecting others. People who don’t know they are infected risk infecting others. Testing is crucial for an appropriate response to the pandemic.

State monopoly capitalist countries around the world which have implemented strong counter-measures, such as mass testing, have begun to reduce the number of positive cases and have been effective in bringing the epidemic under control. The free market neoliberal capitalist states whose first priorities were always protecting the stock market and corporate profits, are now seeing a calamitous death toll. European states have struggled even to maintain social distancing measures or population lockdowns to control the virus after weeks of characterising Covid-19 as an Asian problem.

In addition, the drive by the imperialist states to control and monopolise land and global food production through expanding, industrial, input-intensive agriculture has led to the emergence and spread of new and deadly pathogens for which we have no biological defence or preventative health measures.

Covid-19

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) outbreak a global pandemic. This novel coronavirus was 96% identical to that found in the horseshoe bat, and the illness it caused was called Covid-19. The first SARS epidemic reported in China in 2002 infected 8,437 people, killing 813 people in 27 countries. Covid-19 is virulent, highly infectious and, although around 80% of cases are mild, 15-20% of those infected require hospitalisation and breathing support.

China

In December 2019, a series of viral SARS-like pneumonia cases emerged in China’s Hubei region and its provincial capital, Wuhan, a city of 11 million people. On 26 December 2019, the first four cases were detected at Wuhan’s major hospitals. They were reported next day to district-level Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Three more cases were discovered on 28 and 29 December. On 30 December, active case finding in Wuhan began and the national CDC was alerted. On 31 December, the WHO was notified, and the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market shut down on New Year’s Day. Between 31 December and 5 January 2020 there were 59 cases of the hitherto unknown disease, and the first death occurred on 11 January. At this stage the causal agent was unknown, as was the possibility of human to human transmission, which was only confirmed on 20 January.

Whilst some local officials tried to downplay the seriousness of these cases, attending a Spring Festival performance on 21 January, this time there was no ‘cover-up’ or delay by the Chinese government itself. In 2003, after the 2002 SARS outbreak, China faced heavy criticism for delays in reporting the disease, which had allowed it to spread. In response it built an online system that connected hospitals around the country with the China CDC, to allow faster reporting of outbreaks, including ‘pneumonia of unknown etiology’ (PUE). On 30 December, a copy of a directive urging Wuhan hospitals to report cases of PUE leaked onto Chinese social media networks such as WeChat and Weibo, from whence so-called whistleblowers seized on the information to claim SARS was back. They were rightly reprimanded for potentially inducing panic by spreading rumours. By 12 January, the virus’s genetic code was uploaded by Chinese scientists into a global open-access database, something the WHO described as a ‘remarkable achievement’ and critical for public health authorities to understand the illness and develop a vaccine. Had the outbreak happened in the imperialist countries, this genetic information would have remained the private property of the biopharmaceutical industry protected by intellectual property law. The pharmaceutical industry has jumped on the information and is scrambling to be the first to bring a lucrative Covid-19 vaccine to market. Trump tried to get German firm CureVac to develop and produce a Covid-19 vaccine just for the US, prompting the EU to step in with an extra $85m funding to keep CureVac in Europe.

Wuhan’s prominent location in central China on the Yangtze River makes it a major transport hub. Before Wuhan was locked down on 23 January, some five million people had left the city for the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday on 25 January. On 24 January another surrounding 15 cities in Hubei province were locked down. The corporate media, led in Britain by The Guardian, chose to focus on what it described as China’s ‘brutal’ lockdown of Hubei, which is home to 60m people. However, these mass quarantine measures were not the most effective nor the most necessary. The WHO has said China’s most effective measures were ‘extremely proactive surveillance’ to detect cases, extensive testing and the immediate isolation of patients, rigorous tracking and quarantine of close contacts and an ‘exceptionally high degree of population understanding and acceptance’ of such measures. Almost 690,000 close contacts were tracked.

China had 79,824 cases by the end of February 2020, a figure that would have been 67 times higher without interventions such as early detection, isolation and travel restrictions. Had these measures been brought in one, two or three weeks later than they were, the number of cases could have rocketed three, seven and 18-fold respectively. Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea also adopted screening, testing and contact tracing programmes, as well as bringing in early social distancing. South Korea opted against localised lockdowns, concentrating instead on testing large numbers of people (317,000 by late March) in order to identify infection hotspots, as well as encouraging social distancing. The government resisted calls to ban travel from all of China, restricting entry only to travellers from Hubei. They isolated and treated patients with mild symptoms and no symptoms at all, with tests and hospital fees free for all patients – including non-nationals – who displayed symptoms or tested positive, thanks to South Korea’s universal health care system.

Italy

Between 2011-2018, the European Commission made 63 separate demands of individual EU member states to cut health care spending and/or outsource or privatise health services (EmmaClancy.com). Medical staff have reported that northern Italy’s health system, one of Europe’s best resourced, is approaching breaking point. By 25 March, 1,545 patients were in intensive care. The entire country is in lockdown. A significant percentage of patients are under 30, confirming how crucial this age group is in transmitting the virus.

Italy is chronically short of health care workers. On 9 March the government announced a plan to recruit 20,000 new doctors, nurses and other hospital staff to meet demand. Retired doctors, as well as medical students who have completed their degree and are in the final year of specialist training could be drafted in.

Following the initial lockdown just in the worst affected northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto, up to 40,000 people fled south. Southern Italy, which is poorer and has fewer health facilities, is bracing for a catastrophe. 43,000 people have been charged for violating the lockdown, after police stopped and ‘checked’ 700,000 people between 11-17 March. A version of the coronavirus in Lombardy has matched an outbreak in Germany, meaning that while the Italian authorities were closing air routes from China, the virus could have already arrived from Germany. Unfortunately the virus was circulating undetected for four weeks while authorities focused on two Chinese tourists with Covid-19 in Rome, before the outbreak in the northern town of Codogno, the site of the country’s first mass outbreak.

Reports from Wuhan and northern Italy suggest patients in respiratory distress are more likely to survive with intensive care treatment including a ventilator, in special rooms that can isolate people with contagious diseases, known as negative pressure rooms. In 2012, Italy had only 12.5 Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds per 100,000 of its inhabitants. As a result, only patients with the best chance of survival, mostly younger patients, are being treated in ICU. Medics have also had to work without gloves or masks as they had run out. At least 14 medics have died and over 3,560 have been infected. Yet it was not until 22 March – weeks after the severity of the coronavirus in Italy became clear – that the EU lifted a finger to help in the form of a €50m loan or grant to private companies to begin to produce essential medical equipment. In the meantime, it is Cuba and China that have stepped up. China sent two medical teams, nine doctors and 39 tons of equipment to Rome on 13 March, and 37 more five days later to Lombardy, with 20 tons of medical equipment including 1,000 ventilators, defibrillators, monitors and test kits, sharing valuable experiences on Covid-19 prevention. Socialist Cuba sent a team of 52 doctors and nurses at the request of Lombardy.

Britain

The government of Boris Johnson wasted eight weeks sneering at China’s ‘authoritarianism’ and doubting whether its ‘dubious figures’ could be trusted. Britain failed to learn any lessons from China and Italy, and when it finally did act, it was too little too late. It has been forced bit by bit to implement the social distancing measures shown to work in China and South Korea weeks after it should have. Even when restaurants and bars were ordered to close, takeaways were exempted. Studies have shown that isolation of the infected and social distancing, such as cancelling large public events, working from home and closing schools, have a much greater impact on containing the virus than travel restrictions. Yet Britain’s first act was to close the border to Chinese arrivals, against WHO advice.

The WHO urged countries to slow the spread of coronavirus with ‘robust containment and control activities’, to immediately ‘find, isolate, test and treat every case and trace every contact; ready your hospitals; and protect and train your health workers’, pointedly adding that ‘allowing uncontrolled spread should not be a choice of any government’. This is exactly the choice the British government had made. Astonishingly, Britain’s initial strategy had been to only test people sick in hospital with pneumonia, or people who had come into contact with a recent positive case, or had recently travelled from hotspots like China. It was then relaxed further to only test those in critical care with pneumonia, those coming into hospital with pneumonia or clusters/outbreaks in care homes etc. They are still not testing every case, not even health workers, many of whom have no protective equipment. If you don’t know where the virus is, how can you fight it? Britain’s strategy was to let the virus rip through communities in order to build a kind of ‘herd immunity’ by getting 60% of the population infected. With a case fatality rate of 1%, this would have led to about 400,000 deaths, which would quickly overwhelm the NHS. This callous strategy, led by Boris Johnson and rubber stamped by the Labour Party, shows nothing but contempt for British people. Celebrities, pop stars and footballers are able to get tested for Covid-19, but not ordinary working class people. With only 6.6 ICU beds per 100,000 of the population, patient admission to ICUs is severely limited for the very elderly and patients perceived to have little chance of survival. Many are already denied intensive care due to a lack of beds, and discharged from the ICU prematurely. The NHS already struggles each winter to provide adequate care during routine flu seasons.

The response of socialist Cuba

Before a single case of Covid-19 was detected in Cuba, local family doctors, tourism and custom officials had already been trained to monitor travellers at ports and airports, screen patients with respiratory symptoms, set up specialised care facilities and generate public service announcements and daily updates through a new app covid-19-InfoCu on Infomed, the country’s public health internet platform, which links all health care institutions and thousands of medics. Cuban health workers returning from solidarity brigades abroad are also monitored, receiving visits by their neighbourhood family doctors during the first 14 days after arrival. Cuba did not impose travel restrictions until 23 March as case numbers started to climb. All travellers arriving from high-risk countries or those with flu-like symptoms were monitored for 14 days.

The Cuban medical brigade sent to Italy is the country’s sixth such recent mission. In has also sent Covid-19 medical teams to Jamaica, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Suriname and Grenada. 59 countries are currently receiving medical assistance from Cuba. Cuba allowed the British cruise ship MS Braemar, with dozens of infected passengers, to dock at Mariel Port after it was turned away by the US and several Caribbean countries. The country has also developed an anti-viral drug, Interferon Alfa 2b, which boosts the immune system and appears to have some effect in treating coronavirus (see p6). Its Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology has also developed a vaccine for Covid-19 that is currently undergoing clinical trials. Cuban socialism is an example for the whole world.

Where are all these viruses coming from?

It is completely racist to describe the coronavirus as a ‘Chinese virus’ as Trump has done, and wrong to blame people for eating certain animals. The majority of these emerging infectious diseases affecting humans come from animals, ie are zoonotic. Deforestation, hunting, eating and selling of wild or ‘exotic’ animals, the destruction of and encroachment onto natural habitats, is an opportunity for a new pathogen to take root in a new continent, increasing interactions between humans and animals, and the odds that viruses will find new populations to infect. Global efforts to reduce the impact of these new diseases are mainly focused on outbreak control, quarantines, drug, and vaccine development, etc. This amounts to closing the stable after the horse has bolted. Any delay in detection or response to these new viruses, combined with increased global urbanisation and connectivity through travel, leads to large loss of life across national boundaries and huge economic damage as we are now seeing with Covid-19.

66% of the first 41 patients in China had been exposed to the Huanan Seafood Market; such markets pose a heightened risk of viruses making the leap from animals to humans because hygiene standards are difficult to maintain, and animals that don’t normally live together in the wild are confined in unsanitary conditions, creating a dangerous potential pool of virus combinations and mutations as viruses jump from host to host. China’s wildlife trade and breeding industry was valued at 520bn yuan ($74bn) in 2016.

There are an estimated 1.5m unknown viruses, of which 600-800,000 are zoonotic. 70% of disease-causing pathogens discovered in the past 50 years come from animals. SARS-CoV-2 is only the latest zoonotic virus after Swine Flu and Avian Flu (1997-2016), SARS-CoV (2002), MERS-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, 2012), HIV (1981), Ebola (1975), Zika (1964) etc to have made this host jump.

A 2016 study by EcoHealth Alliance, published in Nature Communications, showed that new pathogen/disease emergence is ‘linked directly to human-induced drivers like land-use change and interactions between humans and wildlife in highly biodiverse regions of the world, such as Asia, West and Central Africa, and Latin America’. Although rare, it is conditions like these that create high potential for disease to spill from wildlife populations into humans. In particular, Bangladesh, India, and China were highlighted as having the highest risk potential for disease spillover to humans, due to being densely populated (Bangladesh), or heavily forested (India and China). These forests are being razed by agribusiness – industrialised farming – to expand production or extend urban centres. The agrochemical industry, worth $223.7bn in 2018, is dominated by Syngenta (owned by ChemChina), BayerMonsanto, BASF, DowDupont, Sumitomo, FMC and Nufarm. These companies are targeting the Asia Pacific region, and India in particular, as the next area for growth of their markets, expected to reach $308.4bn by 2025.

The agricultural industry uses pesticides to optimise food production and crop yields, ostensibly to feed a growing human population, but in reality to boost the profits of agribusiness. As FRFI has already reported, global food production has increased faster than global population growth, and the world already produces enough food for twice the global population (FRFI 271). 12% of global land (1.6bn hectares) is used for cultivation of agricultural crops, and 0.54bn hectares is used for just three crops – maize, rice and wheat. This genetically and environmentally homogeneous monoculture, different from that found in natural ecosystems, favours the emergence of new host-specialised pathogens, more virulent than their wild ancestors. This homogeneity makes pathogen transmission easier, increases pathogen genetic diversity and increases pathogen mutation – which in turn increases the likelihood of multi-infections of the same plant by different strains of the same pathogen. This then favours the development of even higher virulence. Use of pesticides over time simply kills off the less virulent strains.

A 2017 study has shown increasing prevalence of fungicide-resistant strains in the environment and in clinical settings as a direct result of the widespread use of fungicides by the agricultural industry globally, through the contamination of groundwater, inhalation of resistant spores in air or ingestion of fungicide-contaminated food. This has serious consequences for human health, as fungal infections become resistant to therapy. A 2019 study of probiotics, so-called good bacteria, usually added to yoghurts or taken as food supplements, showed that approximately one-third were contaminated with life-threatening pathogens, including Klebsiella pneumoniae. These bacteria, which account for an increasing proportion of hospital-acquired infections like MRSA, are shed into the environment by farm animals, facilitating spillover to humans.

Finally, the global trade in agricultural products then accelerates the movements of these virulent pathogens around the world, leading to rapid global spread of novel, highly virulent crop pathogens. Agribusinesses want to expand by bringing another 1.4bn hectares into use for crop production by 2050. This means introducing existing crops into natural ecosystems, providing another mechanism for pathogen emergence through host jumps. The pursuit of profit means any concerns about human health come a distant second to maintaining healthy investment returns annually. Perhaps we should call the coronavirus the agribusiness virus.

Governments tool up

Reactionary governments across the world have used the pandemic as an excuse to undermine civil liberties and democratic rights. In the US, Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act, a Korean War law, with sweeping powers – with no opposition from Congressional Democrats. In Britain, with the meek acquiescence of the Labour ‘opposition’, the Johnson government has introduced draconian emergency legislation (see p16) as well as putting 10,000 military personnel on ‘standby’ – ostensibly to help the elderly with their shopping and to drive oxygen cylinders to hospitals. The announcement on 13 March that local elections in England and Wales would be postponed for a year passed without a murmur. Meanwhile, in France and Spain police have been stopping and checking anyone out on the streets and fining them if they are not in possession of the correct permissions. In France, this has included homeless people. Older residents in the Spanish capital, Madrid, have compared the new conditions as reminiscent of living under the Franco dictatorship. Bolivia’s fascist unelected government has taken the opportunity to cancel May’s elections, Hungary’s far-right President Orban is putting before parliament a bill that if passed would allow him to rule by decree for an unspecified period, while the Zionist Israeli state is using counter-terrorism surveillance technology to track the contacts of anyone found to be infected, as well as taking the opportunity to further crack down on the rights and movement of Palestinians (p13). In its briefing on 25 March, the WHO said a lockdown was effective only to provide a respite in which countries could train medical staff, test as many people as possible, and focus on isolating those infected. It is clear that, instead, the ruling class across Europe and beyond are ensuring they have the powers they need to deal with the inevitable upsurge of working class anger they will face at their utter failure to adequately confront this global health crisis.

*https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries. Figures used are from 27 March 2020.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 275, March/April 2020