As Boris Johnson announced his schedule for relaxation of the lockdown accompanied by a promise to fully reopen the economy by early summer, the maintream parties and media establishment hailed it as a triumph. With Johnson himself describing it as “a one way journey to freedom” and others proclaiming a final return to “normality”, there was a sense of euphoria somewhat akin to a post-war celebration but without the street parties.
Finally, children can return to school, people can plan holidays, there is the simple but alluring prospect of at least some outdoor socialising and entertainment. It seems at last that the sacrifices made by a people starved of social, cultural, recreational and educational opportunities, will finally prove to have been worthwhile. With the elderly, infirm and vulnerable sections of society now being offered some long- overdue protection, lockdown weariness and fatigue is giving way to a feeling of relief and hope, not so much for a bright future but for a less dismal one at least.
This,however, is a war which is far from over and some of its deepest trenches remain in place. Ending the lockdown will not end the crisis.
Whilst infection and fatality rates are declining, few, if any, of the other underlying symptoms of the crisis are being addressed. Even within the framework of Johnson’s roadmap, there are glaring loopholes which continue to leave millions of workers exposed to the virus. In addition to teachers who have yet to be vaccinated, there are workers in the retail, transport, construction and manufacturing industries who face a daily risk of infection. Many of these are low paid, Black and Asian workers amongst whom more women face a precarious existence. Johnson himself admitted that, as the death toll moves relentlessly towards the 150,000 mark, more people will die. In their eyes, a thousand or two more deaths are acceptable casualties of a system that thirsts for its lost profits.
At a global level, where the pandemic still remains unchecked, the situation is even worse.
Vaccine capitalism: their health and ours.
With most people heaving a huge sigh of relief at the pace of the vaccine programme in Britain, the unseemly dispute between the EU and the UK governments over distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine tainted this breathtaking development with a distinctly foul odour.
In the first article of this series I noted the huge profiteering involved in vaccine research and development, with pharma share prices rocketing at the prospect of endless years of vaccine dependency. Hence AstraZeneca’s “generosity” of initial production on a not-for-profit basis. “So what?”, you might say, “Why not stop carping and applaud its astonishing pace and spread? We are safe now, let them have their superprofits.”
In actual fact a vaccine for this virus could have been produced earlier and with vastly greater global distribution were it not for capitalism prioritising private profit over human need.
When the Covid monster first walked through our doors it did so freely in the knowledge that capitalism had blatantly disinvested in any serious infrastructure to protect people against a pandemic, The doors and windows had been left wide open allowing similar monsters such as Ebola, SARS and Avian Bird Flu, to stalk the globe not long beforehand. Leaving aside the absence of primary care and the provision of PPE and testing, which were so evidently lacking at the beginning of the first wave, the major casualty of this disinvestment was in vaccine development.
In the USA for example, it was reported that 15 out of the 18 largest pharmaceutical companies had totally abandoned the field. Heart medicines, cancer therapies, addictive tranquilizers and treatments for male impotence had become profit leaders, Defenses against hospital infections, emergent diseases, and traditional tropical killers took backseat at best. There was no planning for this pandemic because there was no profit in it. Hence, whilst boasting the advantages of the NHS, public health in effect became a private matter.
This abdication of public health responsibility is even more apparent in the UK with the pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Alongside Pfizer and Merck, the UK based pharma giant dominated the international market in vaccines for flue, HPV and shingles. Despite possessing the expertise and a ready-made infrastructure for development and testing, they decided it was not profitable enough to invest in the first phase of the mRNA type vaccine. It was as if a group of people in a small rowing boat were batttling through a raging storm with a professional weight-lifter in the back refusing to take the oar.
In Merck’s case, the rationale was crystal clear. According to Soren Christiansen, Merck’s former head of vaccine development,
“It’s all about decision-making and do we want to take the risk on allocating resources and money and people to do something like Covid-19?”
The same applies to the big hitters of finance capital. In an article headlined, Venture Capitalists Shun Unprofitable Yet World-Saving Vaccines, the Bloomberg technology website reported that, out of the $42 billion of private capital invested in drug development companies in the USA over the past 3 years, only $2.2 billion was staked on companies targetting infectious diseases.
“Either the disease wanes and there is no market, or the disease exists and there is pressure to reduce the price,” said David Ridley, a business professor at Duke University who directs the school’s Health Sector Management program.
Jonathan Norris, a managing director at Silicon Valley Bank put it even more succinctly:
“The question remains how do investors extract venture value from these investments,”
Clearly the market is changing with the “smaller” companies having already registered huge gains against the incumbent giants. Since the start of 2020 share prices for the biotech company Novavax have rocketed more than 6,400 per cent, Moderna is up over 850 per cent and BioNTech more than 190 per cent. In contrast, GSK, Merck and Sanofi shares have fallen between 13 and 30 per cent.
Now that Covid and its various mutations appear be around for the long term, there is the potential for more government funding to attract venture capital investment in medium to large-size biotech companies. And so it is with the pharma giants such as GSK who are now researching follow-up vaccines as a lucrative market for the future. The sharks have been around for a long time but it is only now that they are beginning to circle this particular feeding ground.
“It hopes to be a “fast follower”, said. Thomas Breuer, chief medical officer of GSK vaccines. “At the start of the pandemic, mRNA was unproven and GSK’s own mRNA platform was not as prepared as some of the specialist players to move immediately, When variants started to emerge and it became clearer that existing vaccine efficacy declined for some variants, we felt GSK could play a leading role in the development of next generation vaccines.”
Capitalism’s failure to wage a concerted, all-hands-on-deck response to the pandemic is even more glaring when viewed on the international stage. Despite formal adherence to the WHO’s view that vaccine provision must be universally available, the advanced capitalist countries are in fact monopolising both the technology and its availability as a public health tool. This stark, harsh reality of monopoly capitalism was laid bare in a recent article in the British Medical Journal:
“At least 90% of people in 67 low income countries stand little chance of getting vaccinated against covid-19 in 2021 because wealthy nations have reserved more than they need and developers will not share their intellectual property, Unless something changes dramatically, billions of people around the world will not receive a safe and effective vaccine for covid-19 for years to come,”
Rich countries with only 14% of the world’s population have bought up 53% of the eight most promising vaccines, including all of the Moderna vaccine doses expected to be produced over the next year and 96% of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doses. As a result, many people in low-income countries might have to wait until 2023 or 2024 for vaccination.
The British based AstraZenaca has pledged to distribute 64% of its vaccine in underdeveloped nations, but at best this will reach only 18% of the world’s population next year.
Some people have described this as vaccine imperialism, others as a type of vaccine apartheid. Either way, the implications are beyond disastrous. Some officials of the WHO have classified it as a “catastrophic moral failure” which indeed it is. Meanwhile, the WHO’s own vaccine distribution is a victim of this failure too. Its distribution facility known as COVAX, has only just begun its rollout but the quantity of doses is terrifyingly inadequate. Latin America for example has been allocated 35 million doses which represents less than 4% of what experts estimate is needed to control the pandemic. Public Citizen, a US based consumer advocacy organisation expressed it this way:
“We are in the midst of a global vaccine apartheid. Billions of people in developing countries may wait years for access to a vaccine and a path out of the pandemic. In that time, millions will die needlessly and tens of millions will be pushed into poverty. The consequences will be felt in the daily lives of many, perhaps most people worldwide for a generation”
Nothing reveals Westminster’s sheer hypocrisy and fake claims about its roadmap more than this vaccine debacle. Their road to freedom is freedom for the rich to exploit the poor, freedom for the multinationals to grab a greater share of global profits and, above all, freedom from any real commitment to public health.
A genuine roadmap would be completely different. Beginning with the social and health needs of working people the world over, the most pressing and immediate demands must be for:
· the nationalisation of the pharmaceutical industry in its entirety
· an end to intellectual property in biotech and health products
· an unconditional commitment to share the mNRA vaccine technology with every country that needs it.
Anything that falls short of these three essential measures to protect public health should deservedly be dismissed for what it truly is, mere bluster.
Union power and workers control
As I mentioned in my first article, large online retailers such as ASOS have been amongst the chief pandemic profiteers who have violated Covid regulations. A similar outfit calling itself Boohoo, is another such profiteer, in this case benefiting from backstreet suppliers in the Leicester rag trade.
Most factories in Leicester are small workshops, often housed in dilapidated buildings with little investment in building safety and modern ventilation. It is inconceivable that such factories would be able to operate at full capacity whilst ensuring social distancing and adequate Covid protection measures. Yet that is precisely what happened and it was these factoriies, frequently paying less than the minimum wage, which helped the 2020 surge in Boohoo’s UK superprofits amounting to £183 million.
This enabled it – in the same year - to buy out a 34% stake in the company Pretty Little Thing for an initial £269.8m, potentially rising to £323.8m Like its competitor ASOS, this outfit was quick to sniff an advantage in the collapse of different High Street retailers. After acquiring both the Oasis and Warehouse brands, it witnessed a further surge in profits of some 25% over the next two quarters - testifying once again to monopoly capital’s happy disposition throughout the pandemic.
Boohoo is a global operation with a market value of some £4.5 billion and it sources around 60-70% of its production in Leicester. With an average pay of £3.00 per hour recorded in 2015 it is little wonder that the rate of profit is so high and that the company’s CEO, John Lyttle, has been promised a potential £50 million share award if he succeeds in increasing Boohoo’s market capital. These high stakes for the bosses and the low pay for the workers are what drives the garment trade in Leicester to ignore the lockdown and put workers lives at risk. It is the same driving force which has underpinned Westminster’s failure to confront the pandemic from its earliest days. In short the crisis of Covid is at the same time a social crisis inherent in the capitalist system, Any road map which does not confront that stark reality is destined to failure.
For working people, the crisis is an immediate one and the solution to it has to start now, commencing with what we do about it, not by begging for more crumbs from the rich who feast upon our labour.
From the outset this involves workers and their organisations fighting for health and safety in their workplaces today. In every overcrowded factory, construction site or office space where workers are facing unsafe conditions, especially with regards to Covid infection, we need workers’ committees to carry out safety audits and veto all production schedules or programmes that do not conform to rigorous health and safety protocols. Naturally, this will involve a conflict of interests entailing varying degrees of industrial action, but must proceed from the standpoint of defending workers livliehoods by any means necessary.
This would also tackle the issue of the number of hours spent at their place of work. Clearly, working 24/7 and 7 days a week cannot be tolerated. Not only is it a regime of superexploitation but it also optimises contagion. The first demand therefore should be for work sharing and a shorter working week with no loss of pay resulting in shorter shifts and smaller numbers per shift without losing a single job.
Workers’ control of production should not be confused at this stage with workers’ self- management or any other participation schemes which might imply some sense of shared responsibility for the fortunes of a given enterprise. Control begins and ends with veto power exercised by the democratic will and power of the producers, regardless of the company’s balance sheet. However, it can and should entail the demand to open the company books, not for the sake of some abstract notion of transparency but for the workers committees to inspect all aspects of the company’s accounts regarding salaries, conditions, speed-ups and investment plans. Exercising this control would also contribute to raising workers’ class consciousness regarding the bosses board room wheeling and dealing.
Some baby steps in this direction have already been taken by some of the teachers unions in the UK and USA faced with an unnegotiated return to work during the pandemic. Most significant of all has been the struggle of the Chicago teachers against the city Mayor’s attempt to impose an immediate and full scale return to work that clearly jeapordised the health and safety of the workforce as well as the pupils. In this case the teachers demanded innoculation of all teachers as well as a robust regime of testing as a precondition for returning.
As the miltiant mass struggles of the Bangladeshi textile workers have demonstrated, workers committees can often become the catalyst for mass organisation of the workers in militant and democratic trades unions. In China until last year, we witnessed a similar phenomenon where many strikes involving tens of thousands of workers have led to ad hoc or spontaneous collective bargaining in which workers elected their own representatives and devised strategies to force management to come to the negotiating table.
Where unions have already been established, such incipient workers committees sometimes exist in the form of shop stewards’ committees. Given the threat to workers health and livelihoods during the pandemic, it is only natural that the remit of these committees be extended to ensure more rank and file workers control over production.
It is along this path, that a truly trailblazing activity can begin. This does not preclude making demands on the government, including perhaps specific taxation measures for immediate relief against unemployment and destitution. However, the destination of this road map is not one of “tilting the playing field”, improving taxation, increasing stakeholder participation or other such cockamamie schemes aimed at improving the system. Rather it proceeds from the need to mobilise and organise people power in a genuine social revolution against capitalism and all its attendant ills.
Such an insurgent labour movement cannot be concocted at will and least of all by reliance on “progressive” union officials or labour fakers such as Len McCluskey and Jeremy Corbyn. It is not the product of either fantasy, but rather the only course of action that corresponds to the material reality of a systemic and catastrophic failure of the capitalist system.
History abounds with examples of this, particularly during the great sit-down strikes and the rise of mass factory committees in France, Italy, Spain and the USA in the 1920s and 1930s. In a similar if not identical fashion, the impending depression conditions and resurgence of fascist movements in post-Covid Europe and the USA will invevitably jolt millions of workers to take action along this path.
Foretelling these conditions, Boris Johnson’s former homelessness advisor, Louise Casey, warned us last year that,
“By March, there will be 6 million people on Universal Credit. Almost 4 million are furloughed, and those still working are on less income. Unemployment has doubled and will keep rising.”
Rishi Sunak’s latest budget does little to address this crisis other than using the wilting fig leaf of a miniscule increase in corporation tax to cover the system’s dysfunctionality.
Squeeze the rich?
Even sections of the Britiish ruling class are beginning to recognise this and are calling for more far reaching reforms modelled along the lines of the post-war creation of the welfare state or a type of UK version of the 1930s New Deal. They know that the road ahead is far more complicated to negotiate than Johnson’s simplistic signposts of recovery and they are sounding the alarm bells.
This was reflected in a recent Channel 4 podcast entitled “Rich, richer, richest: the pandemic billionaires”. After pointing out that the world’s billionaires had increased their grotesque fortunes to a record high of $10.2 trillion during the pandemic, the channel’s chief economist Helen Ibrahimi, bemoans the emergence of such extremes of wealth developing during a crisis in which we are supposedly all in it together. For her and some others within the establishment this is the unacceptable face of capitalism which needs a bit of a makeover.
Hand-in-glove with this Covid profiteering is the news that the number of British households living in destitution more than doubled during the pandemic, from 197,400 to 421,500. Destitution, a condition of extreme poverty, is defined as a two-adult household living on less than £100 a week and a single-adult household on less than £70 a week after housing costs. With unemployment rising and food banks becoming an almost acceptable feature of everyday life for so many people, these numbers are bound to increase even further.
Some say it’s simply not cricket. They either wring their hands in despair or bleat about creating a “level playing field” - as if the working class was even on the same pitch. Others, such as Mariana Mazzucato of the Financial Times, go a step further. In a December feature entitled “Covid Exposes Capitalism’s Flaws” she argues,
“in the coming year, we need to design policy in terms not of levelling but tilting the playing field — in the direction of equitable, green and sustainable growth that favours all stakeholders and solves our greatest societal challenges”
Bailing out capitalism during a crisis isn’t enough she argues:
“we must learn from the mistakes made after the financial crisis when companies were bailed out only to see their profits soar later. In bad times their risks were socialised, in good times they were privatised. One way is to impose strict conditionalities on government assistance, so that it protects the public interest.”
Not to be undone, The Guardian newspaper, weighed in with a 26 January feature by Simon Jenkins headlined:
“COVID HAS MADE INEQUALITY WORSE. THE ONLY ANSWER: SQUEEZE THE SUPER RICH”
The landscape of inequality which these liberals refer to has undoubtedly deteriorted even further during the pandemic. According to the ONS, in the financial year ending 2020, the income of the richest 20% of people was over six times higher than the poorest 20%, while the richest 10% received 50% more income than the poorest 40%. Even these statistics do not reveal the full picture of capitalism’s inherent class divisions particularly when it comes to measuring wealth that is hoarded in assets such as land, housing and stock.
Wealth in Great Britain is even more unequally divided than income. In 2016, the ONS calculated that the richest 10% of households hold 44% of all wealth. The poorest 50%, by contrast, own just 9%.
This widening social inequality is caused by neither tax fraud nor tax evasion. It has never been nor ever will be bridged by tax reform, no matter how progressive that may be. On the surface, taxation appears to be a fair method of solving unequal income distribution. The poor pay a much lower rate and the rich pay more. At one stage, when there was indeed a far more progressive tax system in the UK, this argument might have held some water.
For example, during WW2, the top rate of income tax was 99.25%. It was then slightly reduced and remained around 90% through the 1950s and 60s. Conceivably this was the time when it might have been said we were “all in it together”.
Since then there has been a progressive and steep decline so that the highest rate of income tax is now 45%. A similar steep decline in corporation tax from 50% to the current 19% was registered from the 1950s until today,demonstrating once again that what the Lord giveth the Lord can also take away. The Labour Party has gleefully presided over this decline and even now is hesitant to support the marginal increase in corporation tax to 25% phased in over 2 years for higher end profits.
In looking for interim solutions to the pressing needs of funding health services, public housing and unemployment benefits, we should make the demand for an immediate lowering of the tax -free income band coupled with a substantial increase in the highest rate of taxation on both income and coroporation tax. The primary purpose of this is not to shift the burden of taxation onto the rich, although that seems eminently fairer. This is not about fairness but is a demand coupled with funding an emergency programme of poverty relief and job creation.
Such a demand has nothing in common with desiging a fiscal policy aimed at reforming the system or “tilting the playing field”. Revenue from taxation is merely the tip of the economic iceberg, but even within any taxation system under capitalism there are always loopholes and accountancy firms such as Price WaterhouseCoopers with deft hands at shuffling numbers and columns and fattening their own accounts in the process. One recent example of this was the case of the mega rich football club Manchester United which, for the 6 years between 2006 and 2012, paid £4.1 million to PriceWaterhouseCoopers whilst paying just £3.5 million in tax.
History is littered with examples of fiscal reforms that always fall within the framework stimulating and protecting big business.This was made crystal clear by the bailout of the big banks following the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent decade of austerity. It was a salient demonstration that behind the façade of tax justice is a system which drives inequality based upon the constant, private appropriation of surplus value created by the labour of ordinary people. And it is this wealth that remains largely untouched by taxation.
When liberal pundits complain that “it’s not right that the world’s 10 richest people have amassed £400bn since the start of the pandemic while billions struggle”, the same might be said of every global corporation, every venture capitalist and every financial institution which profits from the normal workings of the capitalist system on a daily basis.
Environmental roots of the pandemic
Hand in hand with this exploitation of labour is the incessant, remorseless exploitation of the land, In the name of constant growth – which under capitalism is merely a byword for constant accumulation of capital – huge swathes of the earth’s forest land are being absorbed by the expansion of both industrial production and agribusiness.
Whether it be Ebola in West Africa, Zika in Brazil or SARS in China, the underlying factor in the emergence of most new killer viruses has been the leap from from one species to another, or what they call zoonotics. The common factor in this cross-species infections from animals to humans is not just intensive meat and poultry farming. Side by side with this is the production of cash crops such as palm oil and timber and the concomitant destruction of local ecosystems which formerly acted as natural barriers against the spread of animal viruses. The example of Ebola clearly illustrates how it is these factors which account for the majority of new human pathogens.
All the evidence suggests that several species of bats native to West and Central Africa were Ebola’s original hosts. Whilst the bats themselves were unaffected they acted as carriers to other wild mammals which did suffer rapid and high rate fatalities. In his article, Neoliberal Ebola: the Agroeconomic Origins of the Ebola Outbreak, Rob Wallace explains the process thus:
“The disease is often presented as if it were something like a natural disaster—at best random, at worst blamed on the “unclean” cultural practices of the forest-dwelling poor. But the timing of these two major outbreaks (2013-2016 in West Africa and 2018 -present in the DRC – Democratic Republic of the Congo BL) is not a coincidence. Both have occurred precisely when the expansion of primary industries has been further displacing forest-dwelling peoples and disrupting local ecosystems”
It is ths incessant capitalist exploitation of the land, especially in the 3rd World where international capital operates with virtual impunity, which provides a perfect pressure cooker accelerating the production of increasingly devastating plagues.
International regulation and subsidies aimed at halting, far less reversing, deforestation have proved less than useless. In the case of Brazil and Indonesia, for example, the amount spent by their governments on subsidising agribusiness is more than 100 times higher than the international funding provided to those countries for forest conservation.
Ending this ecological disaster cannot be accomplished through multilateral negotiations or by placing demands on international institutions such as UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) or the UN Food & Agricultural Organisation, both of which accept and operate within the framework of global capitalism.
The task is an urgent one, all the more so for the workers and farmers in the regions and countries most affected. However, it is only they who can begin to put an end to this disaster by taking economic and political power out of the hands their rulers and charting an entirely different course.
Example of the Cuban revolution
Despite living under siege conditions and struggling against terrible privations, the Cuban revolution is a beacon for the road ahead out of the crisis. The government and the people’s response to the pandemic is part of a legacy of radicalism in virtually every sphere of social and political organisation, and above all in the field of health care.
Despite its economic crisis, Cuba is successfully protecting its people from the Covid pandemic: as of 23 January, there’s been 1.7 covid deaths per 100,000 Cubans, compared to 89 deaths per 100,000 across Latin America and 145 deaths per 100,000 in Britain.
In order to achieve this, Cuba had to cut its economic lifeline, namely tourism. The hotels, beaches and restaurants which would normally be flooded with tourists were closed as part of a stringent lockdown which also witnessed curfews and strict limits on movements between and within different cities. The economic wellbeing of the country already blockaded by Washington took back seat to the care of the people’s health.
Primary health care
However, at the heart of Cuba’s success is a health care system second to none, with primary care representing its unshakeable foundation. This is represented by community based GPs and nurses who live with the people they care for. More importantly however is that the majority of Cuban physicians are GPs based in the remotest rural and mountain areas as well as in the poorest parts of the towns and cities. With a GP-patient ratio of 1 per 330, they are the cornerstones of an extensive system of primary care comprising some 500 local polyclinics with a catchment area of between 30,000 and 60,000 people.
In the UK the GP-patient ratio is around 1 per 2100, a figure which in itself makes it impossible for doctors to even identify far less know their patients. To accommodate such large numbers even prior to the pandemic, it was becoming increasingly difficult to arrange person-to-person appointments, with many practices conducting phone consultations and substituting IT systems for holistic care. As for home visits, with most GPs not living locally, these are almost non-existent.
The remoteness of UK primary care institutions is accelerating as part of a process of mergers and acquisitions by big business. One example of this is the recent takeover by the US insurance company Centene of AT Medics, a primary care provider responsible for 49 GP surgeries and more than 370,000 patients in the Greater London area. According to campaign group WeOwnIt:
“With a total of 70 GP surgeries and practices, Centene is almost certainly the largest single provider of NHS primary care in England.”
The higher ratio of doctors per capita in Cuba is party due to its free education system. With doctor education and training taking as long as 10 years in the UK, students can fork out as much as £220,000 depending on university subsidies. In the USA, after taking into acount the heavy interest rates on loans, some trainee doctors can end up with a bill of over $500,000. It is a career industry and in place of becoming GPs, many opt to specialise in particular fields where the salaries are much more lucrative. This can have catastrophic effects on primary care as revealed by Dr. Thomas Bodenheimer in the New England Journal of Medicine, who reported that “between 1997 and 2005, the number of U.S. graduates entering family practice residencies dropped by 50 percent”
A similar process is at work in the UK where the most recent official figures show that the number of fully-qualified, full-time-equivalent GPs working in England has dropped by 651 from June 2019 to June 2020.
Cuba’s human capital
Even the New York Times was forced to concede the superiority of Cuba’s response to the pandemic when it commented that
“The backbone of Cuba’s universal public health system is also the backbone of its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Primary health care…….. These health professionals are embedded in the neighborhood, the doctor living above a modest office, exam room and waiting area. Family nurses often come from the neighborhoods they serve.”
This placed Cuba in a unique position to tackle the pandemic from the outset and was supplemented by a comprehensive testing and tracing regime involving medical students carrrying out daily door-to-door interviewing, testing and quarrantining where necessary. Unlike in the UK, mask wearing was mandatory at an early stage with fines imposed for non-compliance.
The prevention and control plan which was drawn up as early as January 2020 also reflected Cuba’s deep reservoir of experience of fighting epidemics abroad, particularly in Africa where Cuban field hospitals and medical personnel were at the heart of the fight against Ebola. And as health care systems reached collapsing point in Europe, once again Cuba’s expertise and humanity rose to the challenge.
Italy called, Cuba answered
And so it happened with Lombardy in the north of Italy which saw the earliest peak in infection, hospitalisation and deaths, particularly in the city of Crema which witnessed more than 14,000 deaths.
And so it happened with Lombardy in the north of Italy which saw the earliest peak in infection, hospitalisation and deaths, particularly in the city of Crema which witnessed more than 14,000 deaths.
It was 21 March, 2020 when a 53-strong Cuban medical brigade arrived there to assist local healthcare authorities. The doctors and nurses were members of Cuba’s Henry Reeve Contingent, which received a World Health Organisation (WHO) Public Health Prize in 2017 in recognition of its provision of free emergency medical aid. In addition to Italy, Cuba has also sent medical specialists to treat Covid-19 cases in 14 of the 59 countries in which their healthcare workers were already operating. Since their arrival in Crema, Cuban doctors held over five thousand consultations and discharged 210 Covid-19 patients.
In a rare tribute to this effort the May 6 edition of The Guardian reported how grateful the Italians were for this.
“In Lombardy … everyone is grateful for their professionalism and their humbleness and availability to a country they hardly know,” said Marco Grimaldi, a politician from north-west Italy who helped to negotiate the arrival of a group of 39 Cuban healthcare workers with diplomats from Havana. “Imagine if Europe could manage to do the same.”
Cuba’s remarkable story does not end there either. Since the early days of the revolution, the government invested huge sums in education, research and development of a biotech industry capable of producing the medicines it needed for its own people. Since the 1980s in particular, over $1 billion US dollars has been invested into biotechnology programs. As a result, Cuba registered major breakthroughs and now has 569 domestically manufactured therapies, out of a total 857 medicines approved for use in the country. And they are willing to share them with other countries.
Such is the case for example with the drug Interferon Alpha 2B which is widely used today in the treatment of many types of cancers, and as an antiviral therapy. Once the treatment was established, Cuba released the exact method needed for production to the world. As a result, China now produces huge amounts of the drug and is currently using it as a treatment for Covid.
In even more spectacular fashion, Cuba’s biotech industry has now reached phase three clinical trials of two of its own Covid vaccines and expects to produce 100 million doses, more than enough to vaccinate it’s entire population before the end of the year and to share with other Third World countries.
Cuba’s position in the frontline of health care generally, and in the global battle against Covid, is exceptional – all the more so given the siege conditions imposed by the US blockade. It is an exception that proves one simple rule: namely, that international capitalism and universal health care are fundamentally incompatible. In this regard, Cuban health care should not be considered as a paradigm for remodelling health care systems in Europe, the USA or anywhere else for that matter. Rather, it is a product of a profound social revolution in which working people took the reigns of political power to reconstruct society in the interests of the majority.
When planning how to move forward against Covid, this is the only road map worthy of consideration. We have learned during the pandemic that this disease can have long term effects. What they call “long Covid” applies also to the long term crippling crisis of capitalism. Attempts at rehabiliation may provide some temporary relief and assuage some of the most chronic symptoms. However, as we emerge out of the lockdown, it will become even more apparent that these are symptoms of a system that is in its death agony.
As the unfolding catastrophe in the Yemen clearly illustrates, working people face an increasingly stark choice of either socialism or barbarism. The Cuban revolution shows that the former is both possible and necessary and is the only worthy destination of any roadmap out of the crisis.