By JAMES FORTIN
As the novel coronavirus continues to dominate the concerns of health officials around the globe, two truths about the contagion have remained unchallenged: Nations are ill prepared for the arrival of the virus and once it lands, cannot readily stop its spread despite herculean efforts in some cases to do so.
As we go to reporting deadline for this paper the coronavirus continues to ravage China and is spreading through the rest of the world, despite some thought that the rate of infection is slowing. The World Health Organization tabulates that more than 83,652 individuals in 25 countries, spread across all continents except South America, have contracted the disease. Over 2,858 have died in China to date.
Epicenter of the health crisis.
The epicenter of the viral contagion, the city of Wuhan in south Central China, has been the focus of ongoing urgent research by Chinese and international health authorities. At the onset of the epidemic in Wuhan, efforts by the Chinese to unlock the genome of the virus – the virus’ complete set of genetic instructions found in its DNA – were successful. In the spirit of international cooperation China provided their findings to the entire scientific world. This will ultimately allow for the development of a vaccine, a likelihood still 6 to 12 months away, however.
Many unanswered questions remain regarding the virus and its spread, however, and until experts have more answers the full potential of the evolving pandemic will not be known. Data so far supports an incubation period of 5 to 14 days before infected parties show symptoms – a major challenge to keeping the disease contained. The viral impact and its mortality are greatest among older adults, the obese, and those with underlying conditions such as diabetes, cancer or other diseases. To be determined yet will be the national and global extent and severity of the pandemic which is worsening daily.
After initial hesitation, the Chinese government began a mobilization of doctors, government workers, Communist Party members, and units of the Peoples Liberation Army and local police to carry out widespread screening of the population in the heavily impacted zones of Wuhan and its province, Hubei. Simultaneously, a quarantine of the town and province. If not all of China, has been implemented in an attempt to contain the virus’ spread.
A prioritized, unprecedented effort began to construct hospitals for quarantine and treatment purposes using prefabricated sections. A workforce approaching 10,000 has been mobilized to work 24 hours a day. In this effort the 1,000 bed Huoshenshan Hospital was constructed and made operational in just 10 days. At another site 25 miles distant the Leishenshan Hospital with 1600 beds was built in two weeks. Numerous additional hospitals ranging from 50 to 1,000 beds have been built or are under construction. Hundreds of other public spaces across China have been converted for quarantine purposes as well.
So exhaustive has been the response to keep the virus contained that the head of the World Health Organization has praised China for having “bought the world time” and that other nations should make the most of it.
Slanted coverage, revisited tropes, in mainline news and right-wing social media.
Despite the massive campaign by the Chinese government to stop the spread of the virus, now labeled COVID-19, its efforts have been met by the U.S. mainstream media with bias and derision. Day after day reporters for the New York Times and Washington Post find some point of criticism of the Chinese government’s efforts.
Along these lines two different articles on the quarantine housing appeared on the same date in the New York Times. Covering the quarantine effort in China, Times reporters characterized the effort as “rounding up the sick and warehousing them in enormous quarantine centers” or “with the sick being herded into what amount to makeshift internment camps.” The reporter went on to speculate that the quarantined would soon run out of food, providing no evidence of this happening.
While in Australia another Times reporter took a different tone regarding the placement of Australian evacuees. “Sure, the steel on the building’s façade is rusted in parts. Wi-Fi is shaky, especially at mealtimes when he [an evacuee] and others are trying to contact their families and friends. Dinner, at least on Tuesday, the first night he spent there, was uninspiring and mushy.” Going on the reporter notes: “ the travelers found dead cockroaches on the floors and spent much of their first night in the center cleaning. Mr. Huang [the evacuee] said he didn’t really mind.” The reporter, in his almost cheery account, neglected to identify the location of the quarantined Australians – an immigration lock-up and detention center on Christmas Island, an isolated speck of land in the Indian Ocean 870 miles off the western Australian coast.
Right-wing social media has been less polite, raging against the victims and their government with anti-Chinese and anti-Asian diatribes and invoking historical mischaracterizations of China as an incubator of infectious disease.
It might be well that these journalist-critics and others more appropriately reflect on the history of viral transmissions, the U.S. providing an unfortunate deadly example. “By October 1918, the United States had been an active participant in World War I for more than a year. And while the declared enemy was overseas, there was a killer working stateside as well,” as The EcoHealth Alliance summarizes. “Cities were gripped with fear: school was canceled; theaters, places of worship, and other places of “public amusement” had been shuttered. That month alone 195,000 Americans died, making it the deadliest month in American history; the killer was none other than influenza… perhaps the second deadliest disease outbreak in human history. Though the pandemic lasted just 15 months, 500 million people worldwide fell sick and it killed between 3-5% of the world’s population.” It is now suspected that the origin of the 1918 international pandemic was none other than the U.S. Army base at Fort Riley, Kansas.
Nature of the current virus
At this time (the science continually gets refined) the World Health Organization reports that the new coronavirus is a “close cousin” of viruses previously found in bats and likely transferred to small animals. The WHO thinks the current contagion in China possibly originated from people who came into contact with such animals being sold in a food market in Wuhan, and who in turn became transmitters of the virus to other humans. Still other evidence suggests that the earliest infections were in people not associated with the market and the viral jump from animals to humans occurred elsewhere.
This places the COVID-19 outbreak within the category of Zoonotic diseases–those that can be transmitted between animals and humans. Scientists estimate this class of disease represents three-quarters of the newly emerging diseases currently affecting people. As with the Avian Influenza, HIV/AIDS, SARS, and Influenza H1N1, the new coronavirus spreads rapidly in an era of globalization and its accompanying travel and trade.
World science does not yet fully grasp the underlying causes of virus formation. It is suggested that ongoing deforestation around the world including China has been the result of the expanding need of industrial agriculture to find sufficient lands to grow crops profitably in that mode of production. The deforestation in turn, combined with human encroachment, has altered the existing ecosystems and displaced numerous species. This greater interaction between animals and people is occurring and with it a more serious opportunity for disease transmission arises.
At the same time a connection is being made between the origin and spread of infectious diseases and an international agribusiness that has bent science to its quest for greater, faster profits. Millions of industrial animals – poultry and pigs, particularly — are being produced with altered genetics, cramped together in factory-like quarters, and then slaughtered and shipped long distances in ever-shorter periods of time. Accompanying these industrial farming practices of contemporary capitalist agriculture are the deadly pathogens that mutate and come out of the agri-factories. Today, science has already linked some of the most dangerous viral diseases in humans to modern day food systems, notwithstanding efforts by the U.S. government which rushed to conceal such evidence during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, shielding American agribusiness from charges of complicity.
Capitalist agribusiness has shown no interest in alternatives to its profitable production methods. It has been only small segments of modern-day farming to experiment with alternatives promoting safety firewalls around our food supply. These include integrated pathogen management, mixed crop-livestock environments, strategic re-wilding and other tactics intended to keep pathogens from developing in the first place.
And Big Pharma has no interest in participating in efforts to find a solution either, when antiviral vaccines provide a handsome profit in their own right with orders from captive buyers such as governments, hospitals, and drug store chains. Pharma does not have to advertise for customers as they do all sorts of other ailments identified on television. They can focus their dollars on multi-million dollar marketing campaigns to the U.S. public and medical communities where the profits for their drugs are even greater. Only a few governments in the world have devoted resources to this end provided that such efforts are not cancelled by rising autocratic, anti-science regimes such as the U.S.
Cuba sets the example and leads the way
Most noteworthy, Cuba, even with its resources severely constrained by the U.S. embargo, can claim the moral high ground for cooperation and solidarity with victims of the coronavirus. Several years ago Cuba entered into a joint Chinese-Cuban effort to produce antivirals, a class of drugs that fight a virus’s ability to replicate, while awaiting the development of actual vaccines. Sharing their technology with the Chinese a jointly operated facility was built and opened in China. One of the drugs, IFNrec, is now being employed by the Chinese National Health Commission to fight the coronavirus based on its effectiveness shown previously against viruses with characteristics similar to those of the COVID-19. Cuba’s biomedical technology and social goals, unlike so much of the pharmaceutical world, is focused on the need to help viral victims, not the drive to make a profit.
In a humane society a government institution such as a National Institute for Health would amass research scientists under its own roof. Funding would be public and the resulting solutions and vaccines common property operating to advance the general health of society. Free or inexpensive vaccines would be distributed thoroughly via hospitals and clinics, workplaces, schools, and community centers. Gone would be the televised advertising bombardment for high-priced drugs from the U.S. pharmaceutical cartel.
Cuba is the single standout in the entire world for a health system that most closely resembles this model and then goes even further. Cuban society has devoted decades to building a health care system on the island which is the envy of Latin America in terms of doctors per capita, low infant mortality, infectious disease preventive care and general wellbeing – all without a profit motive. Displaying a level of compassion for human beings not visible in the capitalist world, hundreds of doctors from Cuba have participated in U.N.-organized campaigns to battle the Ebola virus outbreaks of west Africa, putting their own lives on the line. Which other countries will rise to this level as the COVID-19 pandemic develops?
Lightning-speed spread of disease, continent to continent
Worrying many governments is the possibility of a coronavirus pandemic developing within their own countries if not around the world. In the modern era typified by global businesses, extensive international recreational travel, and military deployments of tens of thousands of troops by dozens of countries, the reality of extremely rapid international viral transmissions is present. While many countries including the U.S. already have barred entrance to their airports to Chinese nationals, sometimes on racist terms reminiscent of the “yellow peril” rationale of earlier decades, attempts to block a virus at any nation’s border is proving nearly impossible.
A case in point is an example documented by the New York Times in early February of a British businessman who attended a conference in Singapore where it is believed he contracted the coronavirus. From Asia the individual flew to Geneva, Switzerland, and then travelled on to a ski resort in France near the Swiss border. There he shared lodging with a group of fellow Britons over a 4-day period before he and the others returned to the U.K. In England eight cases of the coronavirus subsequently were traced to this sequence of events.
The generalized unpreparedness and fear of world capitalist nations of the spread of COVID-19 has been evidenced in assorted ways. Pakistan, for example, outright refused to allow their own nationals who were stranded in China from returning home. Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, and the U.S. territory of Guam all refused to permit a luxury liner that had visited Hong Kong from docking in their ports, even though there was no evidence at the time of an infestation on board. There apparently is no doubt in the thinking of health officials internationally that the example and impact of the viral infection in China could readily happen anywhere, particularly in their own countries.
In the United States warning flags are being raised as well as to the inadequate preparedness for a potential pandemic reaching American shores. Tom Inglesby, Director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and writing in Foreign Affairs, urged preparation for just such a large outbreak. His urgent call included global cooperation and financing of rapid vaccine development, manufacture and international distribution, mass production of test kits and a mobilization of labs that can accurately test for the virus as well as strengthening of hospital infection control procedures and re-training of health workers. Inglesby also included an immediate focus on establishing a reliable supply of masks, gowns, and gloves – items he acknowledges are present in woefully inadequate quantities.
Just as the United States is unprepared for a major outbreak, the entire international order of capitalist nations is as well. As revolutionary biologist Dr. Rob Wallace stated recently, if COVID-19 “is indeed the BIG BUG, and it is not clear yet if that’s the case, there is almost nothing to be done at this point. All we can do is batten down the public health hatches and hope the virus kills only a small part of the world’s population instead of 90%. Clearly, humanity shouldn’t start reacting to a pandemic when it’s already underway. It’s a total dereliction of any notion or forward-thinking theory or practice.”
Growing national and international economic impact
In addition to the human tragedy widely unfolding, the domestic economy of China is taking major hits. The quarantines and lockdowns across Hubei province are preventing business-related travel as well as the movement of goods and workers. Areas where there has been infection, or the possibility of exposures have kept people in their homes. Restaurants, amusements, shopping malls, transport providers and virtually most other establishments are experiencing a major negative impact.
In the international markets, the spread of the virus is generating an economic contagion as well. China is the world’s largest manufacturer, and because of this role the entire world supply chain is being impacted, often in complex ways. With the globalization of capitalism many international companies are doubly affected, first by reduction of products being made for them in China where wages are lower, and then by reduced sales of finished goods to the up-to-now bourgeoning Chinese domestic markets.
China’s exports range from parts and finished goods to the world’s electronics sector, to every sort of part for the global motor industry, including assembled BMWs, to household furnishings and medical supplies, deliveries for all of which have been largely suspended. Raw materials purchased overseas by China are being place on hold as well causing additional disruption. Machine tool and construction equipment orders are significantly lagging. Oceanic transport has been stifled and air travel to and from China has been severely curtailed, with flights canceled by Delta, United, Lufthansa and British Airways. Economists are increasingly pointing to possible Eurozone and Japanese recessions together with declining economies elsewhere as a result. The U.S. casino capitalist stock market has taken its greatest hit since the Great Depression of 2008.
Somehow seeing a silver lining in the overall dismal cloud of news, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross pontificated: “So I don’t want to talk about a victory lap over a very unfortunate, very malignant disease… But the fact is, it does give businesses yet another thing to consider when they go through their review of their supply chain… On top of all the other things, you had SARS, you had the African swine virus there, now you have this… It’s another risk factor that people need to take into account. So I think it will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America. Some to the U.S., probably some to Mexico as well.”
The unpredictable future
The proverbial chickens have come home to roost. The international capitalist system has registered only minimal efforts to solve the problem of infectious viral diseases. In this century alone the planet has encountered over two dozen new strains and “near nothing real was done about any of them,” quoting Dr. Rob Wallace once more. “Authorities spent a sigh of relief upon each’s reversal and immediately took the next roll of dice, risking snake eyes of maximum virulence and transmissibility.”
How long it will take to bring the current near pandemic to a halt is the major social, political and economic question being posed. It is doubtful that capitalism will amass and spend the resources to once and for all tame this terrible contagions. Indeed, the Trump administration cut funding for pandemics like COVID-19 to the tune of $15 billion! Regardless of cost the working classes of all countries expect their governments to muster necessary resources to solve the problem whenever it occurs. The right to be free from infectious diseases is a prime expectation of all humanity. When governments fail in this critical arena their excuses no longer find receptive ears. Anger, voiced rightful indignation, and civil outbursts begin to occur. How this pandemic will play out amidst the growing international radicalization is a question on the table for all of us.