Covid-19: The Endgame?

By Daniel Tarade

As the worst pandemic of the past century continues into another calendar year, I reflect on the lessons I learned. I previously highlighted how the profit motive not only fostered the conditions for new pandemic strains to jump into humans but also for cruise ships to sail and planes to take off and stores to remain open while hospitals overflow with the sick and dying. I realized that the austerity endemic in capitalist society gutted our publicly-funded health care system and outsourced manufacturing capacity, leaving us ill-prepared to respond to any healthcare emergency, let alone a pandemic. In our capitalist societies, corporations commodify even the basic necessities, like shelter, which resulted in the tragedy of mass evictions during a pandemic. The priorities of profit-driven society can be easily gleaned by any person viewing the news, where our politicians urge working-class people to not see their friends and family while refusing to acknowledge that the biggest threat we face in our day-to-day lives is going to work. But for all the sacrifice and isolation and illness and death burdened on the shoulders of the working class, we now begin mass immunization. From the very beginning, whether affronted by the conflicting #flattenthecurve or #herdimmunity messaging, vaccination remained coveted as the beginning of the end of the pandemic. So we made it. The endgame. Although hard-working scientists achieved the impossible by successfully designing and testing multiple vaccine formulations in under a year, class relations in our society continue to threaten mass immiseration and death. The prioritization of profit means a deadly second wave, botched vaccine distribution, and new variants of Sars-CoV-2 that threaten to undermine the all-eggs-in-one-basket vaccination approach.

The first tragedy is that while longterm care workers and residents, nurses and doctors begin getting vaccinated, the Canadian working class suffers a second wave even deadlier than the first. The deadliest day of the pandemic in Ontario occurred not in March, April, or May of 2020 but January 7, 2021, when officials announce eighty-nine more deaths along with 3519 new cases. As of Jan 13, 1674 are hospitalized with Covid-19, which is nearly 600 more than the peak of the 1st wave. Covid-19 patients now occupy a quarter of ICU beds in the province. Seventy-three Tendercare residents, a private longterm care facility in Scarborough, died since December. Morgues in Windsor and London, Ontario are full-up. So to is Windsor Regional Hospital, where up to twenty patients will be transferred to Chatham and Sarnia in the weeks ahead. By February, Covid-19 might just overtake all other diseases as top killer in Ontario.

If the conservative Ford government was simply unprepared in March, what is their excuse now?

Despite bringing cases down to only a handful during the summer, the Ontario provincial government ignored public health officials and epidemiologists by allowing schools, malls, gyms, bars, and restaurants to re-open. As cases began increasing, slowly at first, they remained content to react rather than act proactively. The foresight of public health officials appears spot on in hindsight. In Manitoba, provincial data shows that workplaces and retail stores drove community transmission during the beginning of the second wave.

Even now, despite more cases, more hospitalized, more ventilated, more dead than at any prior point, Ontario remains committed to the ‘lockdown-light’ approach. It took until Jan 14 for a second state of emergency to be put in place, but the “stay-at-home order” remains weak. Case in point, non-essential research labs, like those where I work, closed for four months in Spring 2020. Despite the current dire situation, I continue to hop on the subway and go to work. Hell, small businesses and big-box stores still sell non-essential goods, while regulations definitely favour the larger corporations. Our government officials and corporate leaders are not doing enough. The priority is business-as-usual and continued profit accumulation.

Despite scientists designing and testing vaccines in record time, the neoliberal governments of the world remain paralyzed. As Dr. Andrew Boozary tweeted, “we developed a vaccine for COVID19 before governments could ensure paid sick leave in a pandemic.” We see in real time the failure to meaningfully intervene in this crisis and prevent needless death. Instead, governmental officials are reduced to simply pleading with people to cutoff contact with friends and family while expected to still work and consume. Why? Because the most effective approach to dealing with a pandemic, shutting down all non-essential production and consumption, is off-limits. And even though our public health officials now possess the coveted vaccine tool, class relations threaten its effective use. As UK PM Boris Johnson stated so eloquently, it’s “a race against time” to vaccinate people.

We see the privileged capitalists and petty bourgeoisie shuttled to the front the vaccine line. At the Stanford Medical Center, medical residents protested being passed over in the vaccine line by executives and senior doctors, who do not work directly with patients. In Ontario, University Health Network employees, including those who do not see patients, were eligible for vaccination despite many frontline workers not being afforded the same opportunity. Members of Congress in the United States received the vaccine despite some intentionally misleading the public and claiming the pandemic was a hoax. In Canada, Conservative Party leader O’Toole and Premier Ford demagogue against the vaccination of vulnerable prisoners, who are actually human beings deserving of compassion, despite claims to the contrary.

Unfortunately, Canada cannot currently immunize all of its vulnerable people. It is necessary to explore why Canada lacks vaccine-production capacity. Mirroring an issue faced during the beginning of the pandemic, where we suffered a paucity of manufacturing capacity to produce sufficient masks and other PPE, we working-class people rely on our government to outbid other capitalist nations for essential supplies. Even if a Canadian company developed its own vaccine, it would be impossible to scale up. Even if a Canadian company developed a vaccine, we would still need to purchase vaccines from them at an inflated price. Despite scientists employed by Quebec-based Medicago working hard to produce a vaccine, the vast majority of the revenue would instead line the pockets of parasitic shareholders. Because that is exactly what happened in the US. American taxpayers funded the Moderna vaccine, which was co-developed by the National Institutes of Health, while top executives cashed in over $100 million in stocks. Analysts predict that Pfizer and Moderna shareholders will make billions in profit just from vaccine sales. The same systems enriching a handful of people also keeps frontline workers from receiving a vaccine.

There is an alternative. The University of Toronto used to operate the Connaught labs and manufactured vaccines and insulin for the public good. In the case of insulin, scientists sold the patent to U of T for $1 so that the life-saving medicine would be affordable for all diabetics. Further, the Connaught labs contributed greatly to the creation of a polio vaccine. But Brian Mulroney and the Progressive Conservatives sold the Connaught labs to Sanofi in the 1980s. Infectious disease expert Dr. Earl Brown recently blamed the privatization on “a poor business model…of not making so much profit.” This is just silly and highlights the reactionary nature of academia. Would we complain that our hospitals do not make enough profit (maybe I shouldn’t give Ford any ideas)? The Connaught labs existed to manufacture and distribute essential medicines, not to make a few shareholders wealthy. But privatization yielded a windfall for the government that in turn cut taxes for the capitalist class.

Today, despite the federal government providing one billion in medical research funding every year, our universities have no choice but to license any innovation to private pharmaceutical companies, who profit immensely and act as gatekeepers of what ought to be collective human knowledge.

But for all the working-class exploitation within Canada, imperial and colonial relationships abroad also need careful analysis. Within days of Pfizer announcing the successful results of its vaccine clinical trial, the wealthiest nations in the world outbid poor countries such that 85% of the most destitute people in the world have no access. But Ottawa is not content to simply outbid poorer nations. Led by South Africa and India, one-hundred low- and middle-income countries challenged an international agreement that protects the patents on essential medicines. If the World Trade Organization permits countries to manufacture their own generic Covid-19 vaccine, billions more people could be vaccinated. But Canada along with USA, Norway, and EU countries oppose such a measure while collectively hoarding the vast majority of available vaccine for themselves. Not only is this egregious action fundamentally colonial in nature, it is incredibly short-sited from an epidemiological perspective. Viruses do not respect national borders. 70% of Canadians can be vaccinated but a pandemic will rage globally if billions of people from the poorest countries remain vulnerable.

Another example of wanton colonialism, Israel refuses to provide vaccines for Palestinian healthcare workers despite pleas from the WHO. Their reasoning? They lack enough vaccines for their own citizens.

Under capitalism, our governments allow a pandemic to rage in order to allow continued exploitation of the working class. They accept that many will die in the short-term and simply hope that a vaccine will allow for a meaningful public health intervention before hospitals completely collapse; or the working class radicalizes too much and organizes.

Will the fingers-crossed approach work?

In the last several months, scientists identified several variants of Sars-Cov-2 that threaten to unravel the capitalist plan. If new variants can evade the immunity conferred by existing vaccines, we will be no closer to the resolution of this pandemic than we were at the beginning of 2020. Ironically, new strains emerge more rapidly under conditions of uncontrolled spread. Business-as-usual, under the auspices of building herd immunity, threatens to prolong the pandemic, a contradiction in keeping with the rule that short-term profits trump long-term losses. The capitalist class gambled on a vaccine and resultantly stacked the deck in the virus’ favour.

Let’s count off the three four variants. There is the mink variant, the UK variant, the South African variant, and the Japanese variant. They all contain mutations in the spike protein, found on the exterior of the virus. The spike protein plays a crucial role during both cellular infection and immune recognition. Thus, mutations in the spike protein may modulate infectivity and the efficacy of vaccines. While the mink variant appears to be contained, although at the cost of culling all seventeen-million mink in Denmark, the UK and South African variants not only remain in circulation but also spread more readily. The new variant whirling around the UK doubles every ten days rather than the more usual forty days. They now face their deadliest moments as hospital occupancy swells clear past that of the last wave. Yet the South African variant is most worrying. Not only is it more easily transmitted, but one of the mutations in the spike protein reasonably stands to impact the effectiveness of the vaccines currently available. Despite arriving at an end-game situation, the following months will reveal how close we truly are to a resolution.

It does not have to be like this. Some countries succeeded in stopping the spread of the virus. Life in the epicentre of Wuhan now resembles pre-Covid days. There is no secret to containment. All non-essential production must shut down while simultaneously providing for the needs of workers: provide full pay or otherwise cancel rent and utility payments while also providing food, shelter, and medicine. Essential workers need to be outfitted with proper PPE and deserve hazard pay. Socialist Action joins the call demanding ten paid sick days in Ontario. Manufacturing needs to be converted to making what is essential. We need mass testing, contact tracing, and vaccine research and production under workers control. Healthcare workers and vulnerable populations the world over ought be vaccinated first. No jumping the vaccine queue. This response is not possible under capitalism, which exists for the generation of profit and shareholder greed. Only a centrally-planned economy under democratic worker’s control can respond to the needs of humans. It is a distinct contradiction of capitalism that workers must sacrifice personal relations and freedoms while profit accumulation continues unabated. We cannot visit friends and family, the government places us under curfew, we risk our lives at work while corporate elites make record profits and vacation in the Caribbean. No longer! Those who make society run ought to run society! Workers of the world unite.