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How should we respond to virus epidemics – a working class perspective

Written by: Ross Gwyther on 2 May 2020


We are currently in the midst of a worldwide health crisis, with millions of people infected with COVID-19, and hundreds of thousands of deaths. This has focussed the attention of everyday people on what causes such worldwide epidemics of infectious diseases, and what should be done to prevent them

Those scientists who study epidemics – the “epidemiologists” – have been warning for decades that just such a world-wide pandemic would strike sooner rather than later.

The twentieth century saw some truly terrible epidemics. For example, the so-called “Spanish Flu” in 1918, with more than 50 million deaths, and the 1980s HIV/AIDS epidemic with more than 30 million deaths.

Over the past 30 years an increasing number of deadly viral epidemics have occurred, infecting millions of people and sometimes with extremely high mortality rates – Ebola (2014) in West Africa, SARS (2003) infection in South East Asia, Zika virus (2015) in Central and South America, Avian Flu (1960 and again in 2005), BSE – Mad Cow Disease (1990) in UK, Henra virus (1994) in Queensland, as well as seasonal influenza epidemics each year.

Of these infectious disease outbreaks, more than 70% are viruses which have spread from animals to humans – so-called “zoonotic” disease.

The more common original hosts of the diseases have been vertebrate animals such as cats, birds, bats, and the viruses are often quite harmless to their host animals. The life cycle of the viruses is such that they reproduce very rapidly, and can also mutate rapidly as well. Once spread by means of ticks, mosquitoes, rats, mice etc, the viruses can have devastating impacts on humans.

Evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace has written extensively on the origins of these infectious epidemics amongst human populations. He points out that the pathogens have always been present in wild animal populations, particularly in the wilderness regions of the tropics and sub-tropics where there are a multitude of animal species present. What has changed, then, over the past decades?

Emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases: red represents newly emerging diseases;
blue, re-emerging/resurging diseases; black, a ‘deliberately emerging’ disease

Capitalism’s relation to nature

In the past 50 years there has been a drastic change in agricultural practices in the “developing world”. Capital accumulation has faced a crisis since the 1970s, with gradually falling profits and excess production, and the responses of the owners of capital have been not only to reverse gains made by the working class in social democratic states, but also to search for new sources of capital turnover and accumulation.

In his book Big Farms make Big Flu, published in 2016, Wallace pointed out that one of these new sources of capital accumulation has been agricultural and animal food production in the developing world. This has entailed large scale deforestation, wide scale planting of commodity crops such as palm oil, and factory farming of animal such as pigs, cattle and chickens. These practices have all led to a greatly increased connection between wild animals (and the viruses they “host”), and both human and domestic animal populations.

These impacts are made much worse by two other changes during this current crisis of capitalism.

Health and profit

Firstly, public health facilities have been significantly downgraded and dismantled in most western countries. This has been part of the neo-liberal assault on working class gains from the previous social-democratic era of the 1960s. Public hospital beds, widespread training of public health doctors and nurses, adequate numbers of beds available to working people have been gradually degraded. The widespread use of “just-in-time” production techniques have ensured that there are never adequate supplies of medical equipment when real social emergencies – like the current COVID-19 crisis- occur. Globalised production chains and international travel have ensured that viral outbreaks spread rapidly.

Secondly, there are four pharmaceutical companies which together are the monopoly producers of most drugs used internationally – GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Pasteur, Merck, and Pfizer. The treatments for viral diseases are vaccines, and require much research effort, and long lead times to develop. These monopoly corporations are focussed on profit making and are an actual impediment to a real international effort to develop vaccines quickly that produce immunity from these emerging viral diseases.

Nobel laureate and immunologist Professor Peter Doherty said the world needs to change its funding model for vaccine development.  “There is just not enough profit margin in it for pharma companies," he said. "They live by profits and the rules of capitalism. And capitalism has no interest in human beings other than as consumers.”

How can the working class respond to the increasing likelihood of disease epidemics, in the light of these factors?

A system to serve the people, not profit

This discussion has touched very briefly on the underlying forces behind the continued occurrence of epidemics and their disastrous impacts on working peoples’ lives in all parts of the world. In the near future we need a much more thorough going analysis of the role of epidemics worldwide, their causes and health implications, and ways in which socialism can ensure that disease outbreaks do not have such drastic impacts.

However in the immediate term we can highlight some of the aims which working people’s organisations can campaign around – building a genuine public health system to serve the people; ensuring that pharmaceutical research is carried out in the interests of everyday people rather than in the interests of capital accumulation; developing sustainable agricultural and food industries which do not displace the livelihoods of farming communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic crisis has provided an ideal opportunity for a renewed working class movement to campaign for health and food systems designed for people not for profit.


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