Pathfinders: Two fingers to the virus and Big Bang in Beirut

The continuing spikes in Covid cases around the world, in places where it was deemed vanquished or at least in retreat, starts to resemble the physical appearance of the virus itself, with little trumpets erupting everywhere from its spherical surface. But what’s also erupting is the trumpet fanfares of success as countries like India and Russia announce the mass production of vaccines they have supposedly developed for their home markets. How have Modi and Putin succeeded in leaving the rest of the world straggling behind them? Do they have better scientists than anyone else? Did they just get lucky?

In the case of India, it’s just political spin from the nation’s prime administer. “Not one, not two, as many as three coronavirus vaccines are being tested in India,” Modi announced with a flourish in Delhi in August, as if announcing the breakthrough of the century. But you can describe anything as a vaccine and announce tests on it. “Along with mass-production, the roadmap for distribution of vaccine to every single Indian in the least possible time is also ready,” he added with grandiose pomp but again without really saying anything.

Russia’s president Putin went further, however, by announcing that a Covid vaccine had been medically approved and would go into mass production by October. They’ve called it Sputnik V, as a two-finger reminder to the western world that Russia was first into space in 1957 with the Sputnik satellite. Ignoring calls for a global combined effort, the Russian Health Ministry has released no details of the Phase 1 and 2 clinical trials it ran last month. As for Phase 3 trials, apparently they didn’t run one.

Vaccine trials go in three distinct phases to check three distinct things: 1) will it kill or damage anyone (small test only), 2) does it do anything useful in any way at all (medium sample), and 3) does it do what we actually need it to do (big sample)? Paracetamol would pass the first two phases of clinical trials for the coronavirus. So would a gin and tonic. Almost anything would, apart from Trump’s bleach. Phase 3 is the one that matters. Without that, you’ve basically got nothing. Or you’ve got worse than nothing, because you could make Covid stronger (New Scientist, 12 August – Diseases and drugs vie in a constant arms race. If you attack a disease with a drug that’s meant to kill it, and the disease wins, it’s like Popeye getting a dose of spinach.

Vaccines are already under attack in social media, with anti-vaxxer messages outnumbering pro-vaccine posts on average by five to one, and a recent survey suggesting that, even if a vaccine is produced in the UK, up to 50 percent of the population might refuse to take it (New Scientist, 12 August – Let the idiots die, you might think, the world has enough fools, but their anti-vaxxer idiocy could kill others if it prevents society vaccinating its way to the long-hoped-for herd immunity. And any vaccine toted as effective which turns out to be the opposite will only strengthen the antivaxxer lobby and risk extending the pandemic.

Of course the Russians might be right about their vaccine, though the lack of transparency is not encouraging. Even by capitalist standards, Putin is not a team player. He will certainly be hoping the vaccine works, so he can use it as an armlock on the West, just as he did with gas supplies to Ukraine. Things in Belarus have been kicking off lately, with the repulsive and patriarchal troll Lukashenko stage-managing yet another 80 percent election ‘victory’ despite only scoring 3 percent support in polls, and calling on Moscow for support in the face of the gigantic social protests that followed. A working vaccine would be just the leverage (Ras)Putin needs if he’s considering an empire-building intervention into Belarus, as seemed a possibility when this went to press.

Big Bang in Beirut

The August warehouse fire in Beirut had already attracted a lot of media attention. As the smoke plumed up over the dock area, volunteer firefighters and a paramedic went in on the ground. On a balcony blocks away, a French architect live-streamed the fire to his Facebook friends, a bit of excitement on an otherwise dull day. Little flashes in the smoke suggested fireworks going off, which added spice to the event. Then a stupendous explosion, and a shockwave flashed outwards, ringed by a fat white condensation cloud that was eerily redolent of a small nuclear detonation. Cladding and glass flew like autumn leaves off apartment blocks across the city. The fire team was killed instantly. The architect, who thought he was at a safe distance, was also killed, and two hundred or so other people besides. The docks were obliterated, three hospitals destroyed, ships flipped, sunk or flung in pieces onto the land. The blast measured 3.3 on the Richter scale despite the force going mostly upwards. It was heard 160 miles away. It has been listed as the fifth most powerful, artificial, non-nuclear explosion in history.

Sympathetic city halls across the world draped themselves in the Lebanese flag, including Tel Aviv, though Israel and Lebanon are technically at war. As the fire burned out over the blast area, the recriminations started. How could nearly 3,000 tonnes of explosive ammonium nitrate have been kept for six years in a port warehouse without proper safety precautions, despite numerous warnings and six letters to judges, and without residents knowing about it? The conspiracy vultures descended to feast, but the simple answer was that people fucked up. The Lebanese cabinet resigned. The country’s food supply, in a pandemic, had been virtually destroyed.

Ammonium nitrate is quite like potassium nitrate, or saltpetre, and is popular because it’s cheap to make, good for fertilisers and, if you mix it with fuel oil, excellent for making bombs. Terrorists love it for this reason, which is why capitalist states are keen to phase it out. It’s not supposed to explode by itself but if you don’t store it right it will do, and has done repeatedly, killing thousands. Of the ten biggest explosions mentioned above, it was responsible for four.

We can’t say people in socialism wouldn’t use ammonium nitrate. We don’t know. But we can pretty much guarantee that they wouldn’t stuff thousands of tonnes of it next to flammable material in a forgotten warehouse for six years just because of a legal dispute over who should pay the port fees after the original shipowner went bankrupt. There are bound to be accidents in socialism too, but they wouldn’t be because of arguments between jobsworths about who owed money to whom.


Socialist Standard September 2020

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