The deadly new coronavirus is rapidly becoming a serious global health crisis. Its appearance only confirms what scientists have been saying for years now: that our health systems and even more so our governments are ill prepared or even unwilling either to prevent the outbreak of such diseases or to deal with them effectively when they appear. Responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of people – potentially thousands if the virus continues to spread – lies squarely at the door of a system that puts the interests of the wealthy and the big corporations above those of the poor and the sick.
As of Sunday, 2 February, at least 360 people have died and more than 17,000 cases of infection have been confirmed. Although all but one of the deaths has occurred in China, there are now more than 130 cases of infection in two dozen countries, including a dozen in Australia. No one can say with any certainty how far the virus will spread or when it will burn out, but the current signs are worrying.
According to most accounts we are still in the early days of this epidemic, and the rate of increase in infection exceeds other mass epidemics in the last couple of decades, MERs in 2012 and SARS in 2002. Each person carrying the virus is potentially capable of passing it on to another two or three people, meaning that any health campaign must stop up to three quarters of cases to reverse the outbreak.
We can expect many more to be infected in coming days and weeks, both because the virus is easily transmitted from human to human through coughs and sneezes and because those infected may not display symptoms for days, making isolation too late to prevent infection of others. And, with no herd immunity and no vaccine available, the chance that coronavirus will spread quickly is increased.
Fears among public health professionals about the spread of the virus are heightened by the fact that the whole global economy is more integrated than during past outbreaks. In the early 20th century, it could take weeks, even months, for viruses to skip from one country to another. Today, with 1.5 billion passengers catching international flights each year, contagious diseases can cross borders in hours. All this uncertainty is making the crisis of great concern. Urgent action is needed to combat the spread of coronavirus before the death toll rises into the thousands.
It is impossible to see the outbreak of coronavirus outside the string of deadly virus outbreaks in the past two decades. As biologist Rob Wallace wrote in MR Online on 29 January, two dozen virulent fevers and diseases have appeared or reappeared in this century, some of which became household names by virtue of the number of people or livestock killed. These include ebola (now running rampant again in central Africa), foot and mouth disease, hepatitis E, listeria, salmonella, Zika virus and a range of new variants of the flu.
And yet, Wallace writes, “near nothing real was done about any of them. Authorities spent a sigh of relief upon each’s reversal and immediately took the next roll of the epidemiological dice”. Governments and businesses have refused to take the structural measures necessary to prevent the emergence of more such diseases or to treat the next one more effectively.
These structural causes, according to Wallace, involve deforestation and intensive agriculture, which limit nature’s ability to regenerate. Commodification and industrialisation of food production in poorer countries are driving the search for food sources deeper into previously untouched areas, while the expansion of the urban population is bringing big human settlements cheek by jowl alongside wild animal populations in uncertain combinations.
Structural adjustment programs foisted on African countries by international banks promote unsustainable agricultural policies that sacrifice careful land management and thus food production. They also destroy the ability of poorer countries to provide supplies of free vaccines and antivirals to all in the areas affected by diseases. Patent laws passed to protect the profits of Western pharmaceutical companies mean that poor people die for lack of medication – there’s no money to be made from poor people. Competition, rather than cooperation, between corporate-funded research teams looking for medical solutions only holds back the breakthroughs we need. Cuts to public health care make it unavailable or unaffordable to millions.
While health facilities in some countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America are ill equipped to deal with sick patients and thus limit the spread of infectious and dangerous diseases, this also applies to the United States, where access to decent health care is restricted to the well off. The Trump administration has banned entry to the United States of foreign nationals travelling from or via China to reduce the risk of Americans picking up the coronavirus. But the US health care system, focused more on the profits of the health insurance industry and private health care providers than on the health of the population, is unprepared to deal with any outbreak. Hospitals in the US would very quickly be overwhelmed if an epidemic struck in big cities. And the US is hardly alone among the developed countries in this respect.
Managing diseases has been made more difficult by Trump’s proposed cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services, to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention – whose budget could soon be 40 percent smaller than in 2010 – and to the Medicaid program. Meanwhile, the generals and admirals never need to beg for funds: there’s always money for war.
The failure to provide the kind of health infrastructure that could both prevent and respond to aggressive new diseases in the poorer countries as well as the rich is structurally built into capitalism. Even though such diseases have serious economic effects, the capitalists always try to cut corners to save costs rather than spend money to prevent problems from occurring. That’s the nature of capitalism, a competitive system in which the bosses always try to cut costs to stay in the game and make more money. Just look at the building and construction industry. Capitalists always try to shave off a dollar here, a dollar there, rather than pay for safety on site. Mostly they’re confident that nothing will happen. But if it does, the bosses are not the ones who will be injured or worse.
The capitalists and the governments have the same attitude to global warming and deadly pandemics. Why spend money taking steps to minimise the risk? Better to try to patch things up and fix the problem afterwards if things turn bad than take preventive steps now for something that may never eventuate. Government austerity makes this kind of irresponsible behaviour more likely. Even the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has declared the coronavirus a global health emergency, is not exempt from this logic. Despite the potential for WHO to play an important role in combating international health threats, it has become a victim of neoliberalism, suffering acute funding shortages for years. Its current funding of $5 billion is equivalent to just one large hospital in the US.
Having been battered for weeks by public scorn for its incompetent and callous response to the bushfire crisis, the Morrison government is using the coronavirus outbreak as an opportunity to take attention away from the fires and deflect anger at its mismanagement of the bushfire emergency. The prime minister’s decision, tagging along behind Trump, to ban all except Australians and other close family members travelling from or via China from entering Australia is motivated in part by his government’s desire to appear strong and decisive after weeks of stumbling over the fires.
And the government’s decision to airlift Australians from Wuhan to Christmas Island for processing and treatment rather than the mainland just betrays its punitive approach. It wants to seize on this opportunity to justify the tens of millions of dollars we are paying for this expensive showcase for the country’s internationally notorious “border protection” policy.
Christmas Island cannot be justified on the grounds of cost: the government will be spending millions of dollars to ship medical professionals and medical equipment to the island. It is pure bloody-minded politics, in which the needs of the vulnerable are sacrificed to Morrison and Dutton’s desire to throw red meat to their racist base. And it was only following a public outcry that the government withdrew its initial demand that those being airlifted from Wuhan pay $1,000 for the privilege of being transported to the Indian Ocean concentration camp.
The government has already demonstrated that it doesn’t care about working class victims of national disasters. It threw only crumbs to those workers who lost their jobs or homes during the bushfires. Many of them will be unemployed for months and facing big bills to relocate or rebuild their homes.
The same is true with the coronavirus. The government has so far made no provision to help the many thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of Australian workers who will be laid off in coming weeks as a result of the shutdowns of trade, industry and commerce and the lockdown of entire provinces in China. These shutdowns will both cut demand in China for Australian goods and also drag down a world economy which is barely crawling along. The bosses will be looking for ways to make workers pay for slowing business orders.
The government’s ban on people travelling from China will only make things worse. The shutdown of the Chinese tourist trade for two weeks, maybe much longer, will cause a big shock to hotels, restaurants, casinos, internal tourism operators and air and land transport companies. How many staff working in these sectors will be told there is no work for them in the next few weeks? If the travel ban extends into late February and March, we can also expect staff lay-offs at the universities and other higher education providers, which last year enrolled 150,000 Chinese students.
If the bushfires are anything to go by, the Morrison government may well offer financial assistance to the business owners, but it’ll be scraps for the workers.
The health crisis has given the Murdoch press another opportunity to stir up racism against Chinese people. The Herald Sun carried the words “Chinese virus panda-monium” across its front page. The right has done its best to suggest that the virus is the result of something peculiar to China and the Chinese: Chinese food and eating habits or poor hygiene. The Australian newspaper ran an article in which a right wing academic put the blame for coronavirus on China’s “Communist” government, whose lack of accountability to the Chinese people has made the outbreak so deadly and difficult to manage. But we only have to note the effect of Western agribusiness on global food safety to see the hypocrisy of such claims.
When it comes to the political system, there’s no denying that local authorities in Hubei province tried to hush up the outbreak in December. Chinese people suffer from their corrupt political leaders. But is the US any better? Look at how the United States under the Reagan administration allowed HIV-AIDS to grow enormously in the 1980s without taking any action to slow its spread or help those living with the disease. More than 30 million people have now died from this disease around the world thanks in part to Reagan’s inaction. The case of HIV-AIDS is clear evidence that the Chinese state is not alone in jeopardising the health of its citizens for its own political interests.
What of Australia? Despite dozens of inquiries into bushfires over the past three decades, state and federal governments were utterly under-prepared for the fires that have blazed their way across the eastern seaboard, eastern Gippsland and the ACT over the past three months. Volunteer firefighters have been left to do their best with inadequate equipment and people in fire-affected towns have had to take things into their own hands to fight fires and to flee to safety. Tourists having to shelter in the ocean in Mallacoota might have a few things to say about the accountability of Australia’s political authorities and their responsiveness to a crisis threatening the safety of the country’s citizens.
Just as we can be sure that bushfire crises will return, we know that this won’t be the last public health emergency brought about by a deadly virus. The way that capitalism is organised all but guarantees that these will be regular features of life in coming years. The priorities of the system in which profits are put above human lives will ensure growing crossovers between environmental breakdown and breakdown in our ability to feed ourselves and maintain good public health. In order to reverse the spiral towards barbarism, we need an urgent reordering of the system.