Covid-19 and socialist organising: update 2 April 2020

Submitted by martin on 3 April, 2020 - 4:52 Author: Martin Thomas

Expanded write-up from the introduction to our regular Thursday "Covid-19 and socialist organising" Zoom meeting of 2 April 2020.

In the Thursday 8pm "clapping for the NHS" on 2 April 2020, many people chanted "Test! Test! Test! PPE!"

Health workers are pressing the government on its failure to meet its promises to expand testing hugely, to make PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] available to all, and to agree adequate PPE guidelines for health workers.

So, even, are NHS bosses. NHS Providers, a confederation of NHS hospital, mental health, community, and ambulance trusts, said on 3 April: "There are still trusts that are unable to begin testing, and lack of swabs, reagents and test kits is a continuing concern".

They welcomed upgraded PPE guidance, but said: "There are still parts of the health service lacking in the right kit".

The government has been evasive about why it has failed to meet its own promises and targets on testing and PPE.

Since the government feels sufficiently under pressure to deploy vast amounts of money in other directions - not only £350 billion for businesses, which of course came first for the Tories, but also pay subsidies for furloughed workers and an increase in Universal Credit - it seems unlikely that the reason is just penny-pinching.

It looks more like bureaucratic inertia. One factor cited by academics is the government's failure to mobilise university and research-institute facilities onto the task of processing tests.

Even the Trump administration in the USA has felt obliged to use a law from the Korean war, the Defence Production Act, to force General Motors into producing ventilators for the USA without dilly-dallying and haggling over terms, just as Spain and Ireland have nationalised their private hospitals.

The labour movement should demand that testing facilities and industries producing tests, PPE, and ventilators and their inputs be requisitioned (i.e. taken under emergency public ownership and control).

We should demand also workers' control: health workers' and production workers' unions, with the assistance of experts, should be able to check and scrutinise the plans to increase supply, and blow whistles when they see obstacles.

Germany and Australia have both tested about one in a hundred of their populations, and South Korea about one in 120. (And in Germany, Lothar Weiler of the official public agency, the Robert Koch Institute, says that the testing is insufficient and he fears bottlenecks with increasing it further).

The UK, as of 3 April, has tested one in 380, less than one-third of South Korea's level.

Yet the UK still has comparatively big chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries. It has the biggest biotech industry in Europe. It has five out of the top eight universities outside the USA for biological sciences.

The UK has the advantage of a single centralised organisation for health supplies, while in the USA, according to New York state governor Andrew Cuomo, states compete with each other "on eBay" to get medical supplies at a price, and hospitals have only just got round to making emergency barter arrangements to exchange resources.

The NHS has been run for years on the basis of stretching constantly cash-starved resources to meet immediate and visible "market demands", a pattern which leaves little scope for building up spare capacity and reserves to cover the unpredicted, and a pattern also which probably makes it difficult to switch into emergency-expansion mode.

But with the advantages to hand, UK industry could be, should be, must be mobilised to produce enough tests, PPE, and ventilators to serve this country, plus, on top of that, a large surplus to be exported to countries which don't have the existing industrial base for emergency production.

As of 3 April 2020, both Covid-19 case numbers and death numbers, worldwide and in the UK, continue to rise exponentially. Worldwide they double about every week. In the UK cases double about every four or five days, deaths double about every three days.

The apparent neatness is probably a coincidence, since both case numbers and death numbers are calculated on different criteria in different countries, and sometimes unreliably. There are some slight signs of easing in the growth both worldwide and in the UK, but too slight to build anything on. Things will get worse, much worse, for a bit yet.

There are two hopeful signs. The countries which seemed to have successfully contained the virus - South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, China - still seem to be containing it. South Korea's daily numbers of new cases have been declining or stable since early March.

The "advantages" of those countries seem to be that their public health systems were jolted into stronger epidemic planning by their experiences with SARS and MERS, and that their governments have a high level of surveillance exerted over and largely accepted by the population.

The virus has not yet gone into freewheeling explosive spread in poorer countries. Iran, which saw early rapid growth, has reported stable or declining daily numbers of new cases since 28 March, and stable or declining daily numbers of death since 19 March.

One factor there may be a younger population. In Iran, 4% of the population is over 70, and thus at special risk from Covid-19. In Italy, it's 16% (and in the UK, 11%).

So far the highest death rates in proportion to population are in Italy and Spain (between 210 and 220 per million). Then follow Belgium, the Netherlands, and France (between 87 and 62 per million).

Even hard-hit Iran is on a lower level, at 38 per million. Deaths have been doubling about every three days in the USA since 3 March, but across the whole USA are still proportionately lower, at 15 per million. (New York state: 146 per million).

Brazil, despite the loudmouth irresponsibility of its Trump-like president, Jair Bolsonaro, is, on its official figures at least, still at 1 per million.

If an explosive impact of the epidemic can be delayed sufficiently that, by the time it comes, masses of spare medical equipment can be shipped from richer countries which are then past their pandemic peaks, or conceivably even vaccines or partial treatments are available, then millions of lives will be saved.

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