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Pathfinders: Bird Flu: how capitalism could make it worse

Nature can sometimes do worse things than capitalism. An earthquake kills 40,000 in a few minutes. A tsunami wipes out 200,000 in hours. And now the Department of Health contingency plan for bird flu in Britain is contemplating a ‘not impossible’ 750,000 deaths if the H5N1 virus goes pandemic. The government is buying up 14m doses of Tamiflu, a general-purpose antiviral and probably not very effective prophylaxis against a virus strain that hasn’t evolved yet, which in any case won’t be available until April next year and is only enough to treat 25% of the UK population. Meanwhile the United Nations is facing wildly varying estimates of the death toll, from 150m from its own advisors to a paltry 7.4m from the WHO, while newspapers range from tabloid ‘We’re all doomed’ sensationalism to an ‘It’ll be alright on the night’ conservatism from the better informed but possibly more complacent qualities.

 

A pandemic may well be on the way. The government Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, has announced his estimate of 50,000 ‘excess’ deaths (over and above the average annual death rate of 12,000 each flu season), stating: “We can't make this pandemic go away, because it is a natural phenomenon, it will come.” However, other scientists dismiss the figure of 50,000 as a complete guess. “It could be worse, it could be better. I think initially it could be worse than that”, says Dr Martin Wiselka, consultant in infectious diseases at Leicester Royal Infirmary.

(BBC News Online, Oct 16).

 

The problem is that everybody is guessing, and governments are not willing to spend money on hunches. Currently H5N1 has an exceptionally high mortality rate of 50%, but is very hard to transmit, especially from one human to another, which is why only 60 people worldwide have so far died. The current guess is that the most likely threat is from H5N1 recombining with ordinary flu during the annual winter flu season. This is known to have happened during the Spanish flu outbreaks of 1957 and 1968, when the hybrid strain was much less deadly but spread very rapidly and thus killed more people. On the basis of this guess, a best-case scenario, the government plans to rely on its standard seasonal vaccination programme for at-risk groups including children, old people and asthmatics, with the additional purchase of the Tamiflu antiviral drug just in case. However, new research is showing that the 1918 pandemic, the deadliest ever recorded, which killed between 20 and 40 million people, was a pure bird flu, not a hybrid, and that H5N1 is evolving in ominously similar ways. The 1918 virus infected almost everyone on the planet within a year of its appearance, and without the aid of modern transport and cheap mobility. (New Scientist, October 8). Donaldson dismisses comparison with the 1918 pandemic because antiviral drugs and other advanced medical practices were not available then, yet many scientists are worried that the pandemic could spread so rapidly that it will outrun any attempt to contain it, and the government in any case has rejected plans to curtail population movement as largely pointless.

 

Capitalism is no more to blame for bird flu than for the recent earthquake in Kashmir, however it can be criticized for its way of dealing with natural disasters and threats. In capitalism, whatever the urgency, nothing can happen until agreement has been reached over money. As one example, the EU is currently unable to spend any money on purchasing vaccines and antiviral drugs because, according to officials, Britain is blocking agreement on the overall EU budget for 2007 to 2013 (Guardian, Oct 15). In another less publicized example, scientists have expressed horror that the team which has recreated the 1918 virus, ‘one of the deadliest viruses of all time’ have been testing it in live mice at only the second highest level of containment, and without wearing protective suits. The obvious question, when it is known that Soviet scientists in the 70’s accidentally released a mild member of the 1918 family of viruses into the environment, is: why not the highest level of containment? The answer can only be cost. If there is a chance to keep cost down, even if it involves a risk, capitalism will exert pressure to take that chance. It would be an incredible irony if H5N1 turned out to be a case of mild sniffles but we all died anyway from an artificially recreated laboratory virus because somebody tried to save a few quid from their research budget.

 

It could also be argued that capitalism’s peculiar and illogical ways of working can conspire to make a deadly pandemic more rather than less likely. The secrecy of the Chinese state-capitalist regime has already held back study on H5N1 as, like the SARS epidemic before it, China has refused to allow researchers access to samples or to reveal actual mortality statistics. Then there is the incentive for poultry farmers to allow isolated cases of flu to go unreported rather than see their entire stocks destroyed, as has happened in South East Asia, where billions of birds have been culled. The manufacture of an effective antiviral drug, once the infectious strain has been identified, would be enormously accelerated if the drug company making it were to provide the details to other drug companies, but in view of the money to be made by not doing so, we may not be able to rely on such public spirited cooperation. And if the worst happens, and governments give out the useless advice to stay indoors and not travel, how are workers supposed to make a living? Will bosses look kindly on any worker who takes a day off sick every time she sneezes or her kids have a temperature? Will banks look kindly on businesses that curtail activity because of staff absences? Will capitalism look favourably on anyone who falters in their perpetual and relentless pursuit of money because of an altruistic concern for social health and welfare, or will it instead reward those who have no such concerns?

Capitalist governments are gambling that H5N1 won’t mutate to humans, or that if it does mutate to humans, it won’t be deadly, or that if it is deadly, it won’t spread fast, or that if it spreads fast, it will be treatable with an antiviral, or that if no antiviral can be developed in time, that it won’t kill anyone rich or important. Workers, as so often in wartime, appear in this calculation in the section at the end, under the heading ‘expendable assets’. We’re just not worth spending too much money on, provided some of us survive to keep working. Diseases among social animals are common, and since the agricultural revolution brought humans into close and sustained contact with other social or herd animals, we have acquired many of their diseases,(over sixty from dogs for instance). Many of these now harmless childhood diseases started life as epidemics that brought empires to their knees and destroyed civilizations. A new virus strain unleashed on a virgin population is a more terrible event than any volcano, any earthquake or any tsunami, and yet capitalism is content to gamble that it won’t happen, just as it did over the tsunami, or that it won’t be that serious, just as it’s doing over global warming. Capitalism is always gambling with our lives in this way, without giving us any say at all. If the gamble comes off, the rich win. If it doesn’t, we die.

Nature can sometimes do worse things than capitalism. But to fight them and protect ourselves, we need something better than capitalism.

Nature can sometimes do worse things than capitalism. An earthquake kills 40,000 in a few minutes. A tsunami wipes out 200,000 in hours. And now the Department of Health contingency plan for bird flu in Britain is contemplating a ‘not impossible’ 750,000 deaths if the H5N1 virus goes pandemic. The government is buying up 14m doses of Tamiflu, a general-purpose antiviral and probably not very effective prophylaxis against a virus strain that hasn’t evolved yet, which in any case won’t be available until April next year and is only enough to treat 25% of the UK population. Meanwhile the United Nations is facing wildly varying estimates of the death toll, from 150m from its own advisors to a paltry 7.4m from the WHO, while newspapers range from tabloid ‘We’re all doomed’ sensationalism to an ‘It’ll be alright on the night’ conservatism from the better informed but possibly more complacent qualities.

 

A pandemic may well be on the way. The government Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, has announced his estimate of 50,000 ‘excess’ deaths (over and above the average annual death rate of 12,000 each flu season), stating: “We can't make this pandemic go away, because it is a natural phenomenon, it will come.” However, other scientists dismiss the figure of 50,000 as a complete guess. “It could be worse, it could be better. I think initially it could be worse than that”, says Dr Martin Wiselka, consultant in infectious diseases at Leicester Royal Infirmary.

(BBC News Online, Oct 16).

 

The problem is that everybody is guessing, and governments are not willing to spend money on hunches. Currently H5N1 has an exceptionally high mortality rate of 50%, but is very hard to transmit, especially from one human to another, which is why only 60 people worldwide have so far died. The current guess is that the most likely threat is from H5N1 recombining with ordinary flu during the annual winter flu season. This is known to have happened during the Spanish flu outbreaks of 1957 and 1968, when the hybrid strain was much less deadly but spread very rapidly and thus killed more people. On the basis of this guess, a best-case scenario, the government plans to rely on its standard seasonal vaccination programme for at-risk groups including children, old people and asthmatics, with the additional purchase of the Tamiflu antiviral drug just in case. However, new research is showing that the 1918 pandemic, the deadliest ever recorded, which killed between 20 and 40 million people, was a pure bird flu, not a hybrid, and that H5N1 is evolving in ominously similar ways. The 1918 virus infected almost everyone on the planet within a year of its appearance, and without the aid of modern transport and cheap mobility. (New Scientist, October 8). Donaldson dismisses comparison with the 1918 pandemic because antiviral drugs and other advanced medical practices were not available then, yet many scientists are worried that the pandemic could spread so rapidly that it will outrun any attempt to contain it, and the government in any case has rejected plans to curtail population movement as largely pointless.

 

Capitalism is no more to blame for bird flu than for the recent earthquake in Kashmir, however it can be criticized for its way of dealing with natural disasters and threats. In capitalism, whatever the urgency, nothing can happen until agreement has been reached over money. As one example, the EU is currently unable to spend any money on purchasing vaccines and antiviral drugs because, according to officials, Britain is blocking agreement on the overall EU budget for 2007 to 2013 (Guardian, Oct 15). In another less publicized example, scientists have expressed horror that the team which has recreated the 1918 virus, ‘one of the deadliest viruses of all time’ have been testing it in live mice at only the second highest level of containment, and without wearing protective suits. The obvious question, when it is known that Soviet scientists in the 70’s accidentally released a mild member of the 1918 family of viruses into the environment, is: why not the highest level of containment? The answer can only be cost. If there is a chance to keep cost down, even if it involves a risk, capitalism will exert pressure to take that chance. It would be an incredible irony if H5N1 turned out to be a case of mild sniffles but we all died anyway from an artificially recreated laboratory virus because somebody tried to save a few quid from their research budget.

 

It could also be argued that capitalism’s peculiar and illogical ways of working can conspire to make a deadly pandemic more rather than less likely. The secrecy of the Chinese state-capitalist regime has already held back study on H5N1 as, like the SARS epidemic before it, China has refused to allow researchers access to samples or to reveal actual mortality statistics. Then there is the incentive for poultry farmers to allow isolated cases of flu to go unreported rather than see their entire stocks destroyed, as has happened in South East Asia, where billions of birds have been culled. The manufacture of an effective antiviral drug, once the infectious strain has been identified, would be enormously accelerated if the drug company making it were to provide the details to other drug companies, but in view of the money to be made by not doing so, we may not be able to rely on such public spirited cooperation. And if the worst happens, and governments give out the useless advice to stay indoors and not travel, how are workers supposed to make a living? Will bosses look kindly on any worker who takes a day off sick every time she sneezes or her kids have a temperature? Will banks look kindly on businesses that curtail activity because of staff absences? Will capitalism look favourably on anyone who falters in their perpetual and relentless pursuit of money because of an altruistic concern for social health and welfare, or will it instead reward those who have no such concerns?

Capitalist governments are gambling that H5N1 won’t mutate to humans, or that if it does mutate to humans, it won’t be deadly, or that if it is deadly, it won’t spread fast, or that if it spreads fast, it will be treatable with an antiviral, or that if no antiviral can be developed in time, that it won’t kill anyone rich or important. Workers, as so often in wartime, appear in this calculation in the section at the end, under the heading ‘expendable assets’. We’re just not worth spending too much money on, provided some of us survive to keep working. Diseases among social animals are common, and since the agricultural revolution brought humans into close and sustained contact with other social or herd animals, we have acquired many of their diseases,(over sixty from dogs for instance). Many of these now harmless childhood diseases started life as epidemics that brought empires to their knees and destroyed civilizations. A new virus strain unleashed on a virgin population is a more terrible event than any volcano, any earthquake or any tsunami, and yet capitalism is content to gamble that it won’t happen, just as it did over the tsunami, or that it won’t be that serious, just as it’s doing over global warming. Capitalism is always gambling with our lives in this way, without giving us any say at all. If the gamble comes off, the rich win. If it doesn’t, we die. 

Nature can sometimes do worse things than capitalism. But to fight them and protect ourselves, we need something better than capitalism.