Back in March, when the spread of the coronavirus pandemic was accelerating globally, the Socialist newspaper explained that “a newly-spreading virus is a danger that can befall any society. The question facing the world today, however, is what kind of society can best meet such a challenge.”
Five months on, just as we warned, the inability of global capitalism to respond to such a crisis has been sharply exposed. Its failure to protect both lives and living standards will have a lasting effect on workers’ consciousness and influence the struggles that are to come.
According to official statistics, over 700,000 people have died worldwide as a result of Covid-19, although the real figure could be much higher. Workers’ trust in the ability of their governments to even count death tolls accurately has been another casualty in the crisis.
Globally, the pandemic is still accelerating. It is now taking a heavy toll in the neocolonial world, where capitalism’s ongoing failure to provide health facilities, housing, food, and incomes now leaves millions highly vulnerable to the virus.
But capitalism’s failures are also graphically exposed by the fact that the three countries with the highest official death totals at the end of July – the US, Brazil, and the UK – should all have had the economic resources to deal with the crisis. Instead, many thousands have died needlessly thanks to the inept leadership provided by the right-wing Trump, Bolsonaro, and Johnson.
Instead of following the advice of medical experts to urgently introduce widespread testing and contact tracing alongside measures to prevent transmission, these representatives of the most short-sighted capitalists resisted taking steps that might threaten profit-making.
In doing so, they have ended up making matters worse even for their own wealthy backers. Their delay has only worsened the damage that has been done to the already-vulnerable global economy.
While countries like China that still retain elements of state ownership were better able to direct resources in a planned manner, a privatised economy like Britain’s was unable to respond quickly enough.
It immediately became clear that there was a critical shortage of PPE for health and care workers. But Public Health England’s solution to the problem was to fit its advice to the availability of equipment, revising its guidance downwards, advising that less-stringent protection was required.
Years of health cuts had left the NHS without the capacity to carry out mass testing. At first, the Tories ignored this vital need.
A catastrophic consequence was the discharge of thousands of elderly patients into care homes without any prior testing for Covid-19. Over 19,000 Covid-19 related deaths have since been registered for care home residents in England alone.
Ministers then decided to open their coffers – but not to fund NHS laboratories. No; instead contracts were awarded to private companies like AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, even though both had no proven track record in diagnostic testing.
Instead of a medical professional, the Tories decided to put one of their own – the Conservative peer and previous CEO of TalkTalk, Dido Harding – in charge of the test-and-trace programme. As a board member of the Jockey Club that had been so keen on the Cheltenham Festival going ahead at the end of March, she was clearly well-qualified in viral spread!
But under Harding’s ‘leadership’, the promised NHS contact-tracing phone app has had to be scrapped. There is still no date for an alternative.
Now the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health have warned that the current NHS testing and tracing programme is too ineffective to prevent a second wave if schools reopen full-time in September. The study estimates that too few infectious individuals are being detected by testing and too few of their contacts are then being traced and isolated.
Moreover, the government had pledged to test all care home residents and staff by July – now that has been postponed to September. Yet another failure to deliver.
As well as the elderly and more clinically vulnerable, those working on throughout ‘lockdown’ without sufficient protection have been left at risk. Official figures for England and Wales listing the occupations where most deaths have occurred include not only nurses and care workers, but also security guards, factory and construction workers, taxi and bus drivers, chefs, and sales assistants.
Shielding is now ending – at the worst possible time. As a possible second wave gathers, there must be no compulsion to return to the workplace, or ending of support, for those most at risk.
The recent outbreaks – first in Leicester and Luton, then much of the northwest of England – expose how the lack of a working test-and-trace system is costing further lives. In response, the British Medical Journal has demanded testing and tracing be integrated back into NHS and local authority control.
Private v planned
In short, privatisation is costing lives. Tackling the virus requires democratic control and planning – and hence public ownership.
If that’s true on a local scale, it’s even more the case on a global scale – particularly in the urgent work needed to try to develop vaccines against Covid-19. Under capitalism, the profit to be made from developing a viable vaccine before your competitors prevent the global sharing of research that would guarantee its quickest development.
In the absence of a vaccine, the pandemic remains an ongoing threat. But the likes of Johnson hoped they could get away with opening up the economy without a serious strategy to control the virus.
More serious establishment scientists, like those in ‘Independent Sage’ that split from the official government Sage group in May, warned that what they describe as a “fingers crossed through reopening” strategy was unlikely to be good enough.
The controversy over quarantining holidaymakers returning from Spain revealed the growing concern that, as lockdown measures ease, cases would again start to rise. That’s certainly the case in countries like Israel, Japan, and Australia. Now case numbers seem to be rising in Britain too.
Workers and their trade unions have to sound the alarm – and refuse to buckle under the pressure from big business to rush into an unsafe opening of workplaces, shops, and schools. Instead of short-sighted capitalist profiteering, socialists demand a serious strategy to eliminate the virus. That needs to include:
A fully resourced, community-based testing and tracing system – run through the public sector, not private profiteers
Protection, support and full income for all those at greatest risk, needing to isolate, or hit by the economic crisis
Democratic trade union and workers’ control over workplace safety
As the school year came to an end, official opinion was increasingly of the view that schools would be able to open fully again in September with only very limited safety measures in place. We were told that case numbers would continue to fall over the holidays and that, in any case, it seemed likely that schools and schoolchildren didn’t play much of a role in virus transmission. Those of us who warned this might be mistaken would have loved to have been proved wrong. Unfortunately, as each day passes, it seems official opinion has, sadly, been over-optimistic.
The controversy over quarantine on returning from European holidays has revealed the concern that remains across Europe about infection rates increasing once lockdown measures are relaxed. That’s also a pattern that’s revealing itself globally, notably in Israel, Australia and Japan. There are now also the first signs that case numbers are starting to rise again in the UK too.
Yet, when SAGE, the official scientific advisory group to the UK Government, released its latest analysis about reopening schools on 24 July, in their view, “given the low risk of transmission between children”, there was no need to recommend facemask use and no suggestion that the previous limits on class sizes, to enable greater physical distancing, needed to be maintained.
A closer look at SAGE’s appendices, however, shows only a limited research basis on which to draw such a significant conclusion. They pointed to a Dutch contact tracing analysis that suggested most adults were infected by other adults, not children. However, other Dutch epidemiologists had already criticised their methodology. SAGE also pointed to a study of a school in a Paris suburb that a found no evidence of onward transmission from children. However, they failed to mention another study in the same area that concluded that high school children COULD transmit the virus.
Yet one of the contact tracing studies cited in ‘Annex A’ – but not referred to in SAGE’s full Report – should have already started to set doubts in SAGE’s minds (if, of course, these were objective minds and not ones trying to find evidence to back up the Government’s economic imperative to make sure schools were fully open to provide full-time child-care). This is an Israeli study from June 2020 taken across over 600 households that showed that, yes, children had a lower relative infectivity than adults but not at any significantly lower level – perhaps 85%.
In the last few weeks, the global research basis has been growing – and the evidence that children, and schools, contribute to viral transmission is growing rapidly. For example:
Research from Germany continues to show that there is little difference in “viral load” between children and adults.
In Israel, where infection rates have been rising sharply since lockdown measures were relaxed, a report on a recent outbreak shows widespread transmission took place within the school. The highest infection rates were amongst 13-15 year old students.
In Victoria, Australia, where infection rates are also now rising, an outbreak in a school was linked to substantial transmission amongst senior students after they returned to face-to-face learning
A study from Chicago, USA finding that children younger than 5 with mild to moderate COVID-19 have higher amounts of SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA in their nasopharynx than older children and adults
Of course, the science is still developing and research and reports are open to debate and review. But, the weight of evidence is now mounting up. Given the health risks of infection, surely advice should at least be based on the “precautionary principle” that minimises risks as much as possible? That’s exactly the approach recommended by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in its advice on reopening schools in the US.
The advice from Harvard is in sharp contrast to the inadequate guidance issued by the DfE in the UK. They conclude that “It is reasonable and prudent to assume that COVID-19 transmission may occur between children and from children to adults in reopened US schools”. They recommend that students wear face masks and that staff wear masks for close work and face shields when at front of class. They also make other recommendations that echo those of the NEU’s “5 tests” including the reduction of class sizes in order to maintain physical distancing, stressing the importance of diagnostic viral testing and official advice on closure, cleaning and contact tracing if there is a case in a school.
The Harvard advice also calls for authorities to “provide necessary supplies and support systems to continue remote education for students staying home” and to “advocate for high-risk students and staff to have access to effective remote learning or work”.
Of course the situation in the UK is not exactly identical to the US, but the risks from the virus are the same across the globe.
What all of this research confirms is that the DfE guidance – recommending that schools open with full classes, no effective physical distancing and no PPE – is looking increasingly reckless. Trade unions and parents must urgently demand that advice is withdrawn and replaced with a strategy that recognises – and properly mitigates against – the real risks that schools could spread infection within school communities.