Socialist Worker

Covid-19 - a virus that exposes the system’s failures

The coronavirus, like all serious epidemics, reveals capitalism’s priorities and shows us why it cannot protect us. Socialist and scientist John Parrington talked to Socialist Worker about the current crisis

Issue No. 2695

How bad is the virus compared to seasonal flu and other recent pandemic flus?

Compared to any seasonal flu epidemic this strain of the coronavirus is definitely worse. Covid-19 is also worse than any pandemic flu in recent decades.

There are two major coronaviruses that have spread from animals to humans in that time—the Sars epidemic of 2003 and the Mers epidemic of 2012. More than a third of people infected with Mers died. That’s a much higher rate than the current virus, but it meant the disease died out quite quickly.

What limited both Sars and Mers was their inability to substantially break out of the regions they developed in.

The difference with Covid-19 is that it is spreading faster than any animal-transmitted coronavirus we’ve seen before.

Is it more difficult to find a cure for this virus than others?

Coronaviruses are RNA viruses, unlike hepatitis or small pox for example. In those infections you can develop a vaccine, and it will tend to carry on working for a long time.

RNA viruses generally mutate a lot faster. That means by the time you’ve got your vaccine ready, the infection has already changed and may not respond to treatment.

Is the response from the state adequate?

It’s very important not to spread panic needlessly, so the talk about washing your hands regularly and other basic hygiene steps are appropriate.

Having said that, the messages from government about the ability of the NHS to cope with a major viral epidemic seem dangerously complacent. This week England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said elderly people, and those with pre-existing medical conditions shouldn’t worry as 90 percent of them will survive catching the virus.

But that suggests up to 10 percent of them could be expected to die. I find the way that this is presented really frightening.

Earlier in the month, it was reported that only eight out of 1,600 doctors polled believed the NHS was ready to deal with a major outbreak.

And we can see the same problem with the question of sick pay. There are limited concessions made towards paying people earlier. Yet nothing is being done about the millions of people whose pay is too small to qualify for it.

This is not a marginal question where I work at Oxford university. I was on a picket line recently with people on zero hours contracts—around 80 percent of staff here are on temporary contracts with quite a proportion in precarious circumstances. How can they afford to be off sick or quarantined?

And if they come to work when they shouldn’t, what of the risks of spreading illness?

I question whether the government is really serious about taking measures to contain this threat.

Is the medical establishment doing enough to find a cure?

The Medical Research Council in Britain last month announced £20 million of funding for “rapid research” into Covid-19. That’s welcome, but still a drop in the ocean in terms of research. However, there are now many different groups working on the virus, and some argue that having them compete will find us a cure quicker. But that ignores the fact that vaccines are not deemed profitable so there’s far too little money being put into that area of research.

If governments across the world were to start throwing major funds at this, the attitude of the big pharmaceutical companies would probably change quite quickly.

You could argue that’s the reason why there is no vaccine ready now. Sars and Mers were a warning, and we should have been thinking about this years ago.

Can the system co-ordinate its efforts to come up with a cure quickly?

The virus is affecting the economy, and clearly that’s not in the interests of those who control the system. They want to develop a means of stopping the spread of the virus and find a cure.

But whether they can do that within the confines of the system is another question.

The World Bank has committed nearly £10 billion to emergency aid to developing countries grappling with Covid-19. That’s a sign that some co-ordination is going on.

But capitalism is driven by profit and when big drugs firms don’t see a way of making money, they don’t see an incentive to get involved.

Do lockdowns and assembly bans help slow the virus?

The evidence we have on this question is coming mainly from China, and it’s quite difficult to assess. Can we trust the data when we know that the state first of all denied the existence of the virus?

There are questions to ask about the lockdown strategy.

In Wuhan, which was the first Chinese city to be quarantined, many people heard the measure was coming in and did their best to escape. So you have to consider the additional risks posed.

But if it is really true that the number of new cases in China is dropping then the strategy may have been effective. There are scenarios where it makes sense to isolate an outbreak.

What I find amazing is that government ministers are talking about measures such as these, which are panic inducing, but they are not addressing the fundamentals. These are that we need far greater resources for the NHS and sick pay for everyone.

These are basic ways to stop disease from spreading.

Will this epidemic drive people apart?

Most people do want to do the right thing when it comes to protecting themselves, and to help others. But the breakdown in social provision in Britain over decades cuts against that feeling.

The atomisation of society is a real danger. But the experience of a society in the midst of disease can make people question the way things are organised and what is being prioritised. The NHS, public medicine and scientific research have been cut to the bone.

But maybe now the cracks showing are so big, people will feel something has to be done.

Dr John Parrington is associate professor in pharmacology at Oxford university

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