Extended editorial from the upcoming issue of The Socialist
The beginning of a new year is once again being dominated by an unprecedented, sharp spike in Covid cases. Both here in Ireland and globally, this new wave of the pandemic fuelled by the Omicron variant is resulting in rising hospitalisations and major disruptions to the lives of working-class people. For many, the continuation of this pandemic, even after the mass vaccination rollout, is undoubtedly a real source of dismay.
An absence of funding for a proper testing system in the Irish state means we do not know the true number of current Covid cases; some estimates put the figure as high as 60,000 per day. Incredibly, one quarter of all recorded cases in the last twelve months have occurred since Christmas Day.
The nature of the variant, combined with the high levels of vaccination (94% of the adult population have been fully vaccinated) thankfully mean that the number of deaths and those in ICU remains relatively low so far, although this may change in the weeks ahead. Some experts have argued that the milder symptoms associated with the Omicron variant shows that the virus may be evolving into a relatively benign one, something less destructive. It is too early to say if this is true, and it is also possible that new more potent variants may develop in the coming months. Regardless, the rapid spread of Omicron throughout the population will certainly cause completely avoidable illness and death and puts the health service at risk of collapse.
Vaccine inequality fuels the crisis
‘No one is safe from this virus until everyone is safe’ is a message that has been consistently stressed by the World Health Organisation as it underlines the necessity of universal vaccination. Global vaccine apartheid, with large swathes of the population of the Global South remaining unvaccinated, means that Covid-19 remains a threat to us all, two years on from the outbreak.
Pitifully low vaccination rates in African countries such as Mali (1.9%), South Sudan (1.4%), Chad (0.5%) have, and will, ensure that new variants will develop as the virus is enabled to circulate and mutate further. In South Africa, where Omicron was discovered, little more than a quarter of the population are vaccinated. All of which is a damning indictment of the major pharmaceutical companies and the capitalist states that represent their interests, the EU being a major culprit in blocking waivers of vaccine patents. The potential to end or drastically mitigate the scale of this Covid crisis is there, but private profiteering through patents, and the irrational nature of the capitalist system generally, has dictated otherwise.
We need urgent action to reverse this grotesque inequality: patents must be abolished, profiteering in vaccine production must be ended, and the resources of big pharma must be seized and brought into democratic public ownership.
Irish government shifts to herd immunity policy
The Irish government, which has consistently failed to prepare for and respond to new dynamics in the battle with Covid, is to blame for this new surge and the damage it is causing.
– It has failed repeatedly to put the necessary resources into our health service to deal with a rise in cases. This is once again putting enormous strain on the service and its staff. It also has a knock-on effect, with a further suspension or cancellation of elective surgery in the state.
– It has recklessly proceeded with reopening schools, sending one million children and teenagers and 100,000 teachers, SNAs and other school staff to work in overcrowded, poorly ventilated buildings, with inadequate filtration systems. It has refused to reverse its decision not to put a proper test and tracing system in place for schools.
– It failed to maintain the testing infrastructure in the state, which has been overwhelmed by the new surge and remains so. Everyone should have immediate access to free, quality antigen tests and PCR testing should be significantly ramped up.
– It has done nothing to safeguard workers’ health and safety in the context of this spike. At the behest of the bosses, it is seriously considering lowering the number of days people who test positive for Covid but don’t have symptoms must self-isolate. Similar measures have been introduced in the United States, after pressure from big business — not for the first time workers are forced to work in treacherous conditions in the interests of private profit.
– Despite another rise in the numbers of people who will be out of work, it has done nothing to put support measures in place, such as reversing the reduction in the PUP from €350, which should be reinstated at a minimum.
In allowing case numbers to soar, with no meaningful measures put in place to stop this, the government has essentially adopted a policy of herd immunity — allowing the virus to spread throughout the population regardless of the effects — which has had disastrous impacts elsewhere. It has displayed a shameful indifference to the health, both physical and mental, of key frontline workers, particularly those in the health service.
What we need:
– Ramp up the testing system. PCR and antigen tests must be made freely and readily available for all those who need it.
– Nationalise the private hospitals and their resources without compensation, and keep them in public ownership as part of a one–tier health service.
– Immediate and major investment in a free, publicly owned health service to cope with a surge in cases and tackle the backlog of elective surgeries. Tax the super-rich and big business to fund this.
– Workers should decide when it is safe to work, and have the right to work at home if possible. These decisions cannot be left in the hands of profit-hungry bosses. With the full backing of the trade union movement, workers must assert their right to democratically decide on all health and safety measures.
– Defend health and safety in schools. All schools should have HEPA filters and ventilation systems. Free antigen tests and FPP2 masks at the reception of all school buildings. Fast track the construction of new school buildings and the retrofitting of old buildings for improved ventilation and functionality, so that class sizes can be cut. No school should be open until it has been made safe.
– Defend our living standards. Restore the PUP to €350. Ban all evictions and slash rents to affordable levels. For a €15 an hour minimum wage.
– No one is safe until everyone is safe. End global vaccine apartheid. Abolish patents. Bring big pharma into democratic public ownership, end the rule of the profiteers.
– Fight for a democratic socialist alternative. To defend our health, living standards and planet we must break with the capitalist market system. Take the key sections of the economy into public ownership, with the working class, which produces the wealth in society and makes it function, at the heart of its management.