“Given that the rest of the world had several weeks’ advance notice of the impending crisis, countries (particularly wealthy countries like Britain) should have started taking precautionary measures by late January.”Carlos Martinez
Experience in East Asia since January has shown the world very clearly that it is possible to contain COVID-19. As the site of the first outbreak, Wuhan had a tougher challenge than elsewhere, because it faced an epidemic of an unknown virus with no warning. China was, as Martin Jacques says, the guinea pig.
In the absence of a vaccine or cure, the only way to defeat a viral epidemic is to drastically reduce contagion, and this is achieved through widespread testing, contact tracing, isolation of patients, and social distancing for the wider population. Once it understood the nature and scope of the crisis, China took swift and decisive action. A total lockdown was imposed in Wuhan on 23 January. Tens of millions of people were required to stay indoors. Schools and workplaces were closed, and sporting and cultural events were cancelled. In the words of Bruce Aylward, epidemiologist and senior advisor to the Director General of WHO, “old-fashioned public health tools” were deployed “with a rigour and innovation of approach on a scale that we’ve never seen in history.”
It was announced that testing and treatment would be available to all, at no cost. Various measures were quickly announced to mitigate the effect on people’s daily lives, for example pausing mortgage and credit card payments, and providing subsidies to ensure continued payment of wages). Food shopping moved completely online, and provincial authorities coordinated with neighbourhood committees to ensure every home received food packages and that people on medication received their prescriptions.
More than 30,000 doctors and nurses were sent to Wuhan from across China. Forty-five hospitals were designated as COVID-19 treatment centres, 12 temporary hospitals were converted from exhibition centres and similar buildings, and two brand new hospitals (with a capacity of 1,000 and 1,300 beds) were constructed from the ground up in a matter of days.
At the time of writing, the outbreak appears to be under control in China. Lockdown measures are being eased and people are starting to return to normal life. Similarly in South Korea and Japan, the number of new cases per day is now much lower than it was, as their governments moved determinedly and quickly to introduce testing, tracing, treatment, isolation and social distancing. In Vietnam there have been very few cases, as the state introduced pre-emptive containment measures, along with a powerful public health campaign. So we know it can be done.
Given that the rest of the world had several weeks’ advance notice of the impending crisis, countries (particularly wealthy countries like Britain) should have started taking precautionary measures by late January. They should have ensured they had a sufficient supply of test kits, ventilators, masks and protective clothing; they should have added human and physical capacity to their healthcare systems; they should have launched public health campaigns; they should have given advice and support for older and immunocompromised people, as well as those with underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to the disease; and they should have put contingency plans in place for closing schools, workplaces and public spaces and for ensuring the steady supply of basic goods in the event of a lockdown.
In Europe and North America, this unfortunately didn’t happen. Western Europe is now the epicentre of the pandemic, with Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Denmark experiencing serious outbreaks that haven’t as yet come under control. All these countries have imposed lockdowns and are responding in a reasonably aggressive way, but the trajectory of the case numbers indicates that the response has been “too little, too late”.
The British government barely commented on COVID-19 until the second week of March, by which time there had already been several hundred confirmed cases (and almost certainly tens of thousands of unconfirmed cases). In open defiance of WHO recommendations, Britain’s chief medical adviser Chris Whitty stated that it wasn’t necessary to do widespread testing: “we will move from having testing mainly done in homes and outpatients and walk-in centres, to a situation where people who are remaining at home do not need testing”. Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested that perhaps the country needed to “just take it on the chin”, let everyone get ill and accept that large numbers of people will die. This is an idea that seems to have resonated on the other side of the Atlantic.
A couple of days later, this policy of criminal negligence was dressed up in scientific clothing by calling it ‘herd immunity’, a hypothesis that was quickly, comprehensively and unceremoniously debunked. Herd immunity “would require a significant proportion of the population to be infected and recover from COVID-19. Achieving herd immunity would require well over 47 million people to be infected in the UK.” This could well result in over a million deaths and several more million hospitalisations.
Under intense popular pressure, the British government finally closed schools, public spaces, restaurants, cafes, clubs and pubs on 20 March. A rescue package has been announced to compensate businesses and workers for loss of income (although at the time of writing this doesn’t extend to the millions of casual, temporary and self-employed workers). However, the measures fall far short of what was introduced and proven to work in China at a much earlier stage in the virus’s progression. In the absence of a universal compensation package that covers all workers, people will still need to go to work in order to pay their rent and bills, and in the process they’ll spread the virus.
If the current trajectory continues, the government’s top advisers have said that 20,000 deaths from COVID-19 would be a best-case scenario, and analysis by researchers at UCL and Cambridge indicates that the current strategy is likely to cause between 35,000 and 70,000 excess deaths. This means Britain’s likely death rate for COVID-19 is in the order of 300 times higher than China’s. And rather than adding the vast capacity needed by the NHS to provide adequate testing and treatment (not to mention the personal protective equipment needed by health workers), the government is apparently more focussed on constructing temporary morgues.
It’s all too obvious that the reluctance to adequately deal with the crisis at hand is based on economic concerns. Indeed the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, was reported as saying “protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.” GDP growth in Britain is practically zero, and crashing out of the EU without a deal – as seems inevitable – will only make matters worse. A period of COVID-19 lockdown will of course significantly reduce economic activity and therefore affect profits, and it’s precisely this factor that explains the shamefully lackadaisical response of the British government in the face of a pandemic.
As far as ordinary people are concerned, human life must come before profits. To get the spread of COVID-19 under control, a full lockdown will be needed, and for that to be successful, people will need to stay home rather than going to work. The most effective (and ultimately cheapest) way to facilitate this would be to immediately roll out a universal basic income, paid directly into people’s bank accounts, sufficient to cover basic living costs, for the duration of the lockdown. If this doesn’t happen, and if it isn’t combined with extensive testing and tracing, the current half-hearted containment measures will fail to control the outbreak and the government will likely return to ‘herd immunity’. Working class and oppressed communities in Britain cannot allow this experiment in Social Darwinism to continue.