By Naciye Suman
Coronaviruses, are viruses and named for their crown like spikes that protrude from its surface with the name COVID-19 given to this particular virus by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which derived from the first letters of the words ‘coronavirus’, ‘virus’ and ‘disease’ with the number 19 representing the year (2019). This virus (COVID-19) has symptoms (which take approximately 14 days to appear) that ranges from mild, and similar to a common cold, to being extreme with a cough, fever, fatigue, respiratory difficulties with laboured breathing, and diarrhoea, potentially leading to pneumonia and possibly causing organ failure in extreme cases.
Those with underlying health conditions and the elderly are at high risk with a mortality rate varying between 1% to 3% with unidentified cases factored in. The 6% of fatalities recorded in Italy was taken in relation to confirmed cases and with a high elderly population, despite having the second-best healthcare system ranking in the world, provided an explanation why the mortality rate is so high when comparing to elsewhere.
How did it start?
It is suspected that COVID-19 originated in the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, the provincial capital of the Hubei region of China, a market that had both live and freshly slaughtered animals for sale. The virus was first seen to have infected people who were either working or who had shopped at the market, suggesting that the pathogen had crossed over from an animal host to humans. However, the Lancet does report that the first person and 13 others out of the initial 41 cases identified as having the virus had no connection at all to the market in Wuhan.
The virus, which was first officially reported on 31st December 2019, and by 7th January 2020 had been identified. It is confusing experts who are trying to determine its exact source and as the virus is considered novel (a type of virus that has never been encountered before), there is an opinion that the virus may have originated in bats which then spread to humans via a snake or pangolin. There is a study that supports this theory published in the Lancet which can be accessed here:
Other pathogenic coronaviruses have crossed over from an animal host; Ebola, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and Middle East Acute Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are recent examples, both of which have very high mortality rates; 50% and 36% respectively. However, the speed at which this virus has spread and the unpreparedness of governments in how to respond has caught everyone by surprise. This resulted in the announcement by the WHO on 11th March 2020 that it had become a global pandemic after it had spread beyond China and having seen an increase in cases of coronavirus illness, 118,000 cases in over 110 countries and territories around the world with the sustained risk of further global spread.
It seems to spread very easily from person to person, particularly in closed environments such as homes and hospitals. In less than two months it has spread on a global scale over several continents. The pathogen can travel through the air, enveloped in tiny respiratory droplets that are produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. Testing has been available since 13th January 2020 but availability to testing in the UK has only been reserved to those admitted into hospital. Today it has been announced that self-testing kits developed by a British company will be available to the public from next week.
China has shown the world what happens if it is slow or doesn’t react and what can also be achieved with co-ordinated state intervention. In late December the Chinese doctor, Li Wenliang, who worked in Wuhan Central City Hospital, posted a warning on social media about a cluster of cases of a flu-like disease that had been treated at his hospital. Seven patients were in quarantine with disease symptoms that reminded him of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and on 30th December 2019, he sent a message to fellow doctors in a chat group warning them about the outbreak and advising they wear protective clothing to avoid infection. He was reportedly reprimanded for spreading false information and instructed not to put out any further posts. Li Wenliang, 34, died on 7th February 2020 after operating on a patient who unknowingly had been infected with the coronavirus.
The Chinese state, despite what seems to be the suppression of initial reports by local authorities, then took decisive action building two new hospitals in as many weeks as the outbreak unfolded. The first 60,000 sqm hospital built in Wuhan has space for 1,000 beds and 30 intensive care wards, all modular construction was built in just under 10 days, the second hospital was built 25 miles away and opened days afterwards. The government also mass mobilised medical teams to the affected areas in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus.
This is a testament to state intervention and would never have been built so quickly by relying on the private sector with its need for profit. At the time of writing (14th March 2020) the spread of infection has slowed down considerably in China and it now shows that aggressive intervention has worked, with only 11 new cases reported today, in a country that is home to a population of 1.42 billion people. However, the total number of identified cases 80,824, has resulted in 3,189 deaths: a mortality rate of 3.95% of reported cases. The real time figures globally can be seen here:
The spread of the virus
Globally 154,279 cases have been reported with 5,798 deaths, resulting in a 3.79% mortality rate. According to the WHO, the new epicentre for the disease has now been transferred to Europe, with the crisis now being concentrated in Italy which has reported 3,497 new cases, bringing a total of 21,157 nationally. Italy, the worst hit country after China, initially locked down 16 million of its citizens in the northern region of Lombardy and its 14 neighbouring provinces to try to combat the spread of the coronavirus. However, this was short-lived and had to be rolled out nationwide after people panicked with thousands attempted to move south.
Today Spain announced that it is introducing similar measures to contain the outbreak. The Spanish government is poised to declare a 15-day national lockdown from Monday 16th March 2020 to battle the disease. This would allow people to be allowed out only for emergencies, to buy food, or for work. With 191 deaths and 6,043 infections, Spain is the worst-hit country in Europe after Italy. China, which has already sent medical assistance to Iran and Iraq and only last week confirmed that it is sending medical specialists and equipment to help the beleaguered Italians.
The official Sichuan Daily reported that a seven-member team including an expert from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and two respiratory disease specialists from Sichuan University’s West China Hospital will be travelling to Italy. For all the accusations against the Chinese government, the Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, praised President Xi Jinping and other senior Chinese officials for their commitment to transparency after their meeting in Beijing.
Meanwhile Boris Johnson’s and the British government’s response has been woeful. Johnson has completely shown himself lacking, his disappearance during the flooding in parts of the country in recent weeks has shown the absolute contempt that he harbours for the general public of this country. During his interview on ‘This Morning’ on 5th March, he spoke about efforts to delay the spread of the virus, which he said that one of the theories is that the disease should be allowed to spread without taking “as many draconian measures” such as cancelling public events or closing schools. He previously in the interview referred to stopping public gatherings as “quite draconian” before suggesting that one theory was to allow the disease to spread through the population and “take it on the chin”.
This strategy of working towards ‘herd immunity’ conflicts with the advice being provided by the World Health Organisation and its policy against the virus, with the WHO questioning the British government’s approach. Anthony Costello, a paediatrician and former World Health Organisation Director, wrote that ‘it’s not even clear yet that catching the coronavirus will result in immunity’. Costello urged the UK to change course, asking: “Is it ethical to adopt a policy that threatens immediate casualties on the basis of an uncertain future benefit?” For this strategy to work, 60%-70% of the population would have needed to be exposed and to have built up immunity to the virus, which works in conjunction with vaccination.
At present there are no known vaccinations for COVID-19. Dozens of teams of scientists around the world are frantically attempting to develop a vaccine, with British scientists ready to test on humans after successful trials on mice. With the prediction that 80% of the UK population will potentially become infected, a conservative 1% mortality rate will result min just over 500,000 deaths. The UK government are playing with fire, late today at the time of producing this article, 322 UK scientists and 33 international signatories have written an open letter challenging the British government’s approach, which can be read here:
Worryingly the government seems to be surrounded by lunatics, and not only those that are kept in the public spotlight such as Dominic Cummings. Dr David Halpern, a psychologist and Director of the Behavioural Insights Team in what are part of the government’s ‘nudge’ unit, said during an interview the on BBC News: “There’s going to be a point, assuming the epidemic flows and grows, as we think it probably will do, where you’ll want to cocoon, you’ll want to protect those at-risk groups so that they basically don’t catch the disease and by the time they come out of their cocooning, herd immunity’s been achieved in the rest of the population.”
The Behavioural Insights Team’s own web site has a blog that claims there is a strong contender for word of the year; ‘Misinfodemic’ (noun): the spread of a particular health outcome or disease facilitated by viral misinformation. This is how it claims to tackle to Coronavirus outbreak: “The emerging epidemic of the novel coronavirus, now christened ‘Covid-19’, has brought into sharp focus how the spread of misinformation can propagate confusion, potentially undermining containment efforts. As this New York Times article explains, the dramatic way that the outbreak is being reported, focusing on fatalities and city-wide lockdowns in China, means that the most severe outcomes of coronavirus are being overrepresented in our minds. The resulting anxiety is potentially harmful if it leads to an increase in racist incidents and ‘super-worriers’ filling hospital waiting rooms.”
Dr David Halpern has been closely associated with the Tory government, having been chief analyst in David Cameron’s Strategy Unit (2001–2007). According to his organisation’s web site, he…. “led numerous reviews, including the UK government’s strategic audits and recent policy reviews; set up the Social Exclusion Task Force and drafted its action plan; and authored many of the Strategy Unit’s most influential papers, such as those on life satisfaction, personal responsibility and behaviour change.” His work has already been questioned in 2013, when the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) came under investigation by a health watchdog for administering “sham” psychometric tests to the unemployed and threatening to withdraw their benefits if they did not complete them.
We have a Prime Minster, who just like Trump in America, are both clearly out of their depth and have become bystanders while events unfold around them. It seems that psychology and the manipulation of the population and not medical health and the intervention of the state became priority, until the science caught up with them. It has been left to companies and organisations themselves, such as the premier league, to cancel football matches, other large gatherings like the London Marathon, and for businesses to implement their own social distances policies and instruct their workforce to work from home.
The British media today report that the Johnson’s government will bring in sweeping emergency powers to be given to the Police, which would allow them to detain people with the virus, reduce elderly care and force schools and nurseries to stay open if they are ‘deemed to have closed unnecessarily’. The Daily Mirror newspaper claims to have seen the proposed legislation, which will remain in effect for two years. The government are blatantly only interested in protecting capital with discussions on insulating the damage to the economy and not protecting UK citizens.
Responding to COVID-19
At the time of writing this article, the death rate in the UK from the virus almost doubled in one day to 21 deaths. Implementations need to be put into place quickly to prevent large gatherings and as such schools need to be closed. While children are at an age group that are likely to show the most resilience to the virus, schools are also likely to be ideal hubs for transmission. The argument provided by the government is that many healthcare workers and workers of other essential services would be prevented from working, having to remain at home to look after their children.
This is where the state needs to intervene and prioritise, schools could remain open as a crèche for the children of essential service workers only, which would reduce the risks associated with large gatherings. Instead the government are more interested in the economy, which is already under stress, and seemingly not concerned with the health and well being of its citizens. Boris Johnson announced on national TV that many people will “lose loved ones”, which came on the back of a government warning that the Police will not be able to deal with low level crime and that hospitals will not have enough beds; situations that already exist prior to this outbreak.
The government are softening people up for the inevitable hurricane that is about to arrive. The British bourgeois state neither has the capability, resources, or the inclination to deal with the emergency which can be perfectly summarised in its response when posed with a question of how it would cope with the shortage of 100,000 NHS staff…. simple was the response, it would consider bringing out people that had retired from the NHS, until the government had to be reminded that it was these very people from the age group that are at highest risk. Ten years of savage cuts by the Tories with its ideologically driven austerity programme has left this country and its population in bad shape to combat this virus.
The NHS has 17,000 fewer beds than at 2010. With an overcrowded and understaffed prison system, and healthcare homes with their elderly residents, these environments are at high risk from the viral infection. Many of these homes are being kept afloat with stressed out and poorly paid staff, most of which would find it economically difficult to take time from work to self-isolate. These care workers, NHS and other public sector staff will find themselves on the front line battling this disease. According to Shelter, over 320,00 people are declared as homeless in the UK, with someone dying on the streets every 19 hours. An estimated 14.2 million UK citizens are living in poverty, in what is considered to be the fifth richest country in the world, these people are at severe risk from this disease.
What this outbreak has shown is that how interconnected globally we all are, whether economically, politically or socially. The protectionist policies and the closure of borders have been compromised; disease cannot be shut out. However, this will not prevent the reactionary ruling class from attempting to mitigate the financial collapse and defend themselves. We already see travel bans, and we already see the attempts in blaming the economic situation, which has still not recovered from the financial crash of 2008, on the spread of the virus. This is a public health crisis that has been used as a smokescreen to cover over the economic crisis.
The capitalist system is built on foundations made of nothing more than sand, sand which is shifting rapidly. The stock market has already dived with £trillions wiped off the values of stocks and shares, and we now see Russia and Saudi Arabia disagreeing over oil production and pricing, which has resulted in 30% drop in oil prices. Governments are now scrambling around to ensure economic survival by propping up the system, to protect the capitalist system from an event that was not the cause of the financial instability, but one that has rather exposed its weakness.
As often is the case, the working classes, the poor, the homeless, the sick and the elderly will be the ones to bear the brunt of this epidemic. Hospital care will be limited, healthcare professionals will have difficult choices to make, which beds and ventilators are available, and which patients will be prioritised or denied medical care to be treated like a dispensable commodity. The rich will be insulated to an extent, today the Queen announced that she would flee London and retreat to her home in Windsor Castle. The majority do not have the luxury to retreat to a country home, or even to self-isolate. Panic buying has resulted in those with poorer incomes being left behind, many people live hand to mouth and cannot afford to purchase in bulk in advance, and with empty shelves in supermarkets will find themselves at a stressful disadvantage.
This situation has the potential to cause severe economic hardship and cause social unrest. While many on the left could not see street protests developing due to atomisation of the working class, low trade union membership, low number of strikes and organised workers struggles taking place in the workplace; this could crystalize into working class action. During this crisis we must ensure that the workers are protected from losing their homes, whether through suspension of mortgage and private rent payments; unlimited sick pay for any workers who may find themselves having contracted the virus; empty buildings commandeered and made into field hospitals; ensure that the elderly and those that are homeless, or those that are living in poverty are protected; industries finding themselves facing bankruptcy need to be nationalised and small businesses protected from going under.
The state needs to come up with a contingency plan for the wellbeing of all and not one that will protect just the capitalist class. Realistically these things could only take place under a socialist government and having a workers’ state with a worker controlled planned economy producing for need and not for profit. To achieve this, we need a truly revolutionary workers’ party, a party that acts as a tribune of the masses. The coming months may well define the future of this country.