You are here

Coronavirus disease 2019 and a Case for Environmental Socialism

Writing about the politics of public health whilst we are the midst of a major global pandemic is a peculiar combination of churlishness and critical necessity. At the time of writing, there are 425,000 confirmed cases, and 19,000 deaths, and in a few days that number will double, and then double again, and then double again. It is worth remembering that the first 100,000 diagnoses took from December to March, the second from March 5 to 17, and the third from March 18 to 21, and the fourth from March 22 to 24. It is the single greatest health risk of this century, in part due to the relatively high rate of fatalities (approximately 4.1% of diagnosed cases), and significantly due to the relative ease of transmission. Most of all, however, the greatest risk is the effects of the ease of transmission and fatality rate combined, that is, how it overwhelms our health-care systems, which are woefully unprepared for an event such as this.

But it is not as if that the knowledge was not there. There have been plenty of warning signs, such the previous outbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in late 2002 to mid-2003, which is related to COVID-19, to the extent that academics warned of SARS as "an agent of emerging and reemerging infection". SARS had a fatality rate of 9.6% across 17 countries, with approximately 8,000 people infected. SARS was also highly infectious (R0 value of 2-4), but was successfully contained. Then in 2009, there was the Pandemic H1N1/09 virus ("swine flu"), which had a higher infection rate than seasonal influenza, and a similar fatality rate. In comparison Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), also a coronavirus, has a high fatality rate (36%) but a low transmission rate (R0 value of 0.3 to 0.8).

Recognising these rather impressive precursors, certain individuals also have tried to raise concerns. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, argued in 2005 that "Time is running out to prepare for the next pandemic. We must act now with decisiveness and purpose", and in 2017 had his book, "Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs" published. Virologist and flu expert Robert G. Webster warned of an upcoming 'flu pandemic, “Flu Hunter: Unlocking the secrets of a virus" late last year. The US Intelligence Team has warned about the possibility of a pandemic for years. Dr. Luciana Borio, once a member of the White House National Security Council (NSC) team responsible for pandemics, warned of pandemic threats; the team was disbanded under the Trump administration. Famously, Bill Gates argued in a TED talk in 2015, that we simply were not prepared.

Public Health

We are not prepared because certain political leaders have actively worked against the funding and research of the public health care profession, of health-care academics, and the need for a public response. The Trump administration fired the U.S. pandemic response team in 2018. Now the virus has hit, Trump started by claiming it was "under control", to "we've pretty much shut it down", then claiming that it will go away with warm weather. He dithered and denied for months, whilst Pence helpfully tells us to get off the Internet and pray. For months the UK operated with a "do nothing" policy under the idea that "some kind of herd immunity" would solve the problem; which is absolutely true, but not without a flattening of infection rates. Now they have taken a dramatic U-turn, months later, putting itself in a position worse that Italy's whose strongest response didn't occur until after eight hundred people had died. Australia too has been faced with a national leadership which has dithered for months, failing to act on medical advice, and is still not engaging on the actions needed on a national level. But none reach the height of irresponsibility to that of Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro. who is claiming that the "little 'flu" is a "media trick".

Before anyone accuses that the selection of such facts is politically partisan, consider the countries that have dealt well with the virus, as well as one can under the circumstances. The Republic of Korea (South Korea), learning from their MERS experience serves as a good example, with rapid and extensive testing of the public but also through co-ordination of private institutions to produce the test kits and carry out the tests themselves, along with the collection of epidemiological data. It an a rare example of a successful public-private partnership based on contractual methods for Schumpeterian rents. Singapore is another example, which was also sensible enough to invest in public health care after the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003. But that's not all. Not only did Singapore have public hospital beds, but they also kept those who were positive in hospital, engaged in extensive testing, travel restrictions, and kept up with community engagement and transparency.

Transparency

The People's Republic of China serves as an interesting case. Following the first identification of the disease in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, some weeks passed before the Chinese authorities admitted there was a problem, a costly decision as the virus spread to every province by the end of January. This is reminiscent of the failure of the People's Republic to provide transparency during the outbreak of SARS in 2002, initially restricting any information to within Guangdong province, where the disease is believed to have originated and preventing a WHO team from visiting Guangdong province for several weeks. After this, they engaged in a rapid lockdown of key locations, including all cities in Hubei. The actions witnessed rapid and successful results, to the extent that imported cases now exceed local infections. In other words, to the degree that China engaged in a massive public health programme, they have been successful. To the degree that they attempted to restrict information, it helped initiate a global disaster, even to an extent that their international altruism is considered by some to be a form of shifting the spotlight. Either way, it serves as an enormously important reminder from the 1918 influenza pandemic, 'tell the damn truth'.

Unfortunately well-paid lackeys of the chattering class in private media have been provided a platform to those who promoting outright falsehoods in the time of the greatest crisis. Whilst people are entitled to their own opinion, it is the height of irresponsibility to engage in sensationalism just because it might sell a few more copies of some tragic rag. Peter Hitchens, writing in The Daily Mail, argues that because things like the foot-and-mouth outbreak weren't as bad as the could have been, then we shouldn't shut down British pubs; conveniently overlooking the importance of preventative action. Australia's Alan Jones, always ready to say something remarkably idiotic, claimed there was no longer a problem citing old figures of 84,314 cases. Fox News hosted Jerry Fawell Jnr of Liberty University who claimed that the virus was the result of deliberate action by the People's Republic of China and North Korea. Not to be outdone, at least 80 media attempts from Russia have been identified to spread misinformation. Add this to religious reactionaries who claim that the virus cannot infect the implements of communion or that they have a cure, and one sees a full range of deadly advice that has been empowered by the institutions that allow them to preach dangerous nonsense.

The Environment

One matter that is often overlooked in this entire affair is the relationship between human activity on the environment and the rise of deadly diseases. At this stage is seems that the virus is thought to be an example of zoonosis, with initial cases linked to Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, with close association with coronaviruses in bats and pangolins, along with SARS-CoV. One can add recent outbreaks of zootonic illnesses such as H1N1 ("swine flu"), MERS ("camel flu"), the highly pathogenic HPAI A(H5N1) (bird flu), and Ebola virus disease. Infectious disease outbreaks are on the rise, and it has a cause; poorly managed human activity in the environment, and that includes COVID-19. Viewed with this concern a certain clarity is achieved; humans are the most successful species in the history of the planet in terms of our ability to intervene into the wilderness; we cut paths from the icy cold, through forests, to jungle, to desert, and even the ocean. At the same time, we have a terribly unequal society, with the affluent living in luxury and the desperately poor in the developing world seeking protein nutrients from dubious "wet markets" with little concern for animal welfare. Unsurprisingly, we see exposure to new pathogens who show an impressive lack of concern for species boundaries - any host will do. The situations is getting worse for deadly global pandemics, not better.

The System Kills

It is the system that is killing us. Yes, the direct cause is from a deadly infectious disease and part of that is, of course, the potential rate of transmission from a world that is a smaller place. But that could be managed with proper environmental considerations and animal welfare regulations in place. They are not in place because of the terrible levels of global inequality, the lack of social infrastructure in developing countries, and most of all because they would cost money. Our political economy is geared towards providing a race to the bottom in terms of value, and a race to the top for monopoly profits, which inevitably must be shared among fewer and fewer. Add to this either sensationalist private media which concerns itself more with shock value for sales rather than accuracy, and totalitarian media systems which have the facts at hand, but refuse to release them as to retain their social order, or engage in disruption through misinformation directed to more liberal societies. Managing the entire rotten edifice is the worst sort of political leaders whose concern for public welfare is demonstrably lacking in favour of their quest for perpetual power, manipulation of public opinion, and fulfilling their mission of their true masters. The irrational quest for the accumulation of power and wealth, at a cost of the lives of human and non-human animals, has reached the insanity that we witness today. The next pandemic, however, will be worse if these causes are not addressed; public health, media transparency, and the environment will not occur without smashing these accumulations in favour of more egalitarian power structures and a greater commonwealth. The warning has been given by this virus; and if the system does not show itself capable of reform, then revolution will be inevitable.

Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on May 25, 2020.