Of the many omissions by the elites in governments of all political persuasions during the Covid19 Pandemic, two in particular are becoming the intellectual equivalents of elephants in the room. First, is the lack of any form of apology from governments for the lack of preparation, personal protection and testing equipment to key people and health services of their respective countries. Second, is the lack of any discussion or even hint of thinking about preventing future Pandemics.
Of all the government elites which had the opportunity to be prepared in advance for a pandemic coming from anywhere, clearly those in the USA and the UK were the most advantaged. Take for example, the USA. Its National Security Strategy of 1999 stated;
“..epidemics, such as polio, tuberculosis and AIDS, can destroy human life on a scale as great as any war or terrorist act we have seen, and the resulting burden on health systems can undermine hard-won advances in economic and social development.”
Of course there were later outbreaks such as SARS; HPN1 (avian); H1N1 (swine); MERS; H7N9 (avian); so there can be very little excuse in the USA for the lack of pre-outbreak preparation. And of course the UK government was also acquainted with the possible dangers of a further epidemic becoming fully global. The UK National Security Strategy, in 2008 noted that;
“Experts agree that there is a high probability of a pandemic occurring – and that, as the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak showed, the speed at which it could spread has increased with globalisation”.
Other countries had their own versions of prior ‘be ready’ health warnings or those provided by the World Health Organisation via their briefings. So it would seem that common decency should initiate an apology from anyone in government or high office – in any country – who despite such warnings failed to make adequate preparations. Indeed, you would think that the failure to have sufficient stocks of basic personal protection, equipment and testing kits for front line staff and ancillary workers would warrant resignation by anyone with an ounce of integrity.
But despite many more deaths than would have occurred with good preparations, not even a hint of an apology has surfaced in government briefings or statements nationally or internationally. Even the irony and embarrassment of the UK having to order low tech items like face masks and plastic gowns from sources such as China (the source of Covid19) and Turkey (!) seems not to have pricked a conscience or two among any elites.
Yet it was the neo-liberal elites who over decades in power have reduced health service funding and stripped countries in the west of their own manufacturing capability so that easily produced items such as masks, gowns and swabs could be made as cheaply as possible at the end of an air – miles polluting supply chain. ‘Just in time’ deliveries have become – ‘much too late’ possibilities – and no apologies for this either. What sort of people can’t say sorry for major mistakes?
It is obvious that serious epidemics need a constant supply of protective gear. Shipments from far off countries with delays and internal supply needs is no substitute for local manufacture. Another result of neo-liberal capitalist practice is with regard to prevention.
It has long been noted that those who invest in production for profit do so without regard to problems ‘external’ to production processes. Problems are only addressed when too large to ignore. Industrial pollution, ecological destruction, climate change, work related injuries and occupational diseases are all preventable, but that would reduced profits. Therefore, capitalists have to be compelled to address these, not by their conscience, but by legislation. It is this mentality which is focused on a cure for viral epidemics rather than prevention.
Hence, the current research for a vaccine, which can be sold to governments and make profits for pharmaceutical establishments. But there is an obvious snag. Vaccines are difficult to manufacture, test, certify and universally apply. Rushed out too soon they can do harm. Even the best vaccines can have serious side effects. Furthermore, Viruses mutate and evolve, some – rapidly. Hence vaccines can be effective only as long as the virus has not sufficiently changed. That approach is a biological arms race and continual vaccine development, like weapons development, is also a source of continuous profit.
However, from a humanist perspective it is much more sensible to also put most resources into preventing viruses, particularly the Zoonotic viruses, which cross from animals to humans. But effective prevention would require quite different relationships between humans and nature, including its many animal species. Mass producing meats and fish for profit has seen the routine use of antibiotic and steroid infused feeding strategies as well as animals packed unnaturally close together so that virus mutation, contamination and spread to humanity is not just regular – but inevitable! Prevention would mean ending such practices.
There is already a division in society between those who recognise that the present mode of production must radically change if humanity is to have a safe future. Moreover, the Covid19 Pandemic has highlighted the degenerate nature of the capitalist system and the inept abilities of the ‘no apology‘ and ‘no prevention‘ elites and supporters. Their future status, profits, high salaries and investment portfolios is as yet more concern to them than the future of the rest of us humans.
To all those who during this Pandemic have come to a pro-humanist realisation, I suggest putting aside any religious and political dogmas and become part of a broad movement arguing for a radical change. After this Covid19 wake-up-call, 2020 and beyond, is surely the period to begin a new campaign for radical change. A revolutionary transformation of the remaining capitalist enterprises and their replacement by egalitarian, cooperative public services is clearly needed.
Is there really not an urgent need for a society tailored to meet fundamental human needs – for everybody – and also designed to be ecologically sustainable?
Roy Ratcliffe (April 2020)