Roll call of shame
Huge numbers have died unnecessarily, writes Eddie Ford, yet still we have the rightwing ideology of Covid denial
Call it karma if you like: Jair Bolsonaro last week tested positive for Covid-19 after feeling unwell. Previously the far-right strongman of Brazil had dismissed coronavirus as the “little flu” and made a show of himself hugging people and shaking hands, whilst not wearing a mask. Stupidly, he is taking the anti-malaria hydroxychloroquine - championed by Donald Trump - and azithromycin, an antibiotic, even though neither has proven to be remotely effective against the virus.
Then again, president Bolsonaro - just like his friend in the White House - has a history of saying stupid things. Back in April he said that in the unlikely event of getting infected with coronavirus, he would “not have to worry”, as he “wouldn’t feel anything” thanks to his “athlete’s background”. A month earlier he declared that because Brazil has a tropical climate “we’ve almost reached the end” of the pandemic - or it might even be “already over” - as “the virus doesn’t spread as fast in warm climates like ours”. He opposed “overblown” and “panic-inducing” efforts by Brazilian governors and mayors to slow the spread of the virus through lockdowns and social-distancing rules, complaining that some “dictatorial” authorities “even forbade people from going to the beach”. Protecting the economy comes first.
When questioned about violating his own health ministry’s advice by going on a non-essential trip to buy doughnuts, he replied: “No-one will hinder my right to come and go” - rules do not apply to El Presidente. Bolsonaro has sacked two health ministers who had the audacity to challenge his seeming indifference to the pandemic. But now he has joined the 1.9 million Brazilians who have contracted the virus, with over 74,000 dying.
Like his counterpart in Brazil, Donald Trump has now been pictured wearing a face mask for the first time, as he walked through the corridors of the Walter Reed military hospital outside Washington to meet with wounded veterans. But it was quite a battle to get to get him to wear one. Whether at political rallies, media briefings or anywhere else, the US president studiously avoided wearing a mask - even after staffers at the White House tested positive and as more aides, including lunatic vice-president Mike Pence, took to wearing one. Various reports say that Trump told his advisors that wearing a mask would make him look weak and he could not stomach the idea of letting the media photograph him in one. In May he made fun of “sleepy” Joe Biden, the Democrat presidential candidate, when the latter started wearing a mask in public. Eventually, officials in the administration were practically begging the president to wear a mask in public, as coronavirus cases soared in some states and Trump was trailing badly behind in the polls ahead of the November elections (assuming they happen on schedule). Even now, Trump does not sound like someone who has finally embraced the idea of donning a mask regularly as an important health protection measure - just something you wear in a hospital, where “it’s a great thing”. Otherwise it is still a bit unAmerican, a bit effete.
As demonstrated by both Trump and Bolsonaro, a Covid denial ideology has developed - something overwhelmingly associated with the right. They either deny that the virus has any significant health implications at all, or argue that saving the economy takes priority over tackling the pandemic, as more people will die if the economy is allowed to close down than from the original viral outbreak. Essentially, this is a variant of the herd immunity idea. But the problem, of course, is that to achieve herd immunity you need an infection rate in the general population of about 60%. However, if you do not impose lockdowns or any serious restrictions on people, then the health service gets overwhelmed and people die who ought not to - meaning unnecessary deaths on a large scale.
In Brazil we have not only the president going down with Covid-19, but also the country standing at number two in the league table of failure. Needless to say, right at the top is the United States - now with nearly 3.5 million cases and approaching 140,000 fatalities. As for the UK, it has 291,373 infections with almost 45,000 official deaths - though, of course, the real number will turn out to be much higher.
Obviously, you need to be careful with such league tables, as they do not tell the whole story. The US, for example, has a very large population of just under 330,000 million and Brazil now has 210,000 million. Either way, once you start talking about the actual death rate - as opposed to the number of fatalities - it is actually Britain that stands near the top of the table, just below Belgium. The reason for Belgium’s unfortunate position appears to be related to how that country records deaths, including not only those that are confirmed to be virus-related - but even those suspected of being linked, whether the victim was tested or not. Or, to put it another way, other countries have been undercounting fatalities attributable to the virus. Having said that, on July 14 Belgium reported zero new coronavirus deaths for the first time since March - whilst the total number reported by the national public health institute, Sciensano, remained at 9,788.1
Anyhow, on any criteria you care to choose the UK is consistently towards the very upper end, when it comes to death rates - an appalling situation for an advanced capitalist country. Initially, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a not entirely unreasonable tendency to pick out China as particularly guilty for its wet markets and delay in actually admitting the outbreak of the pandemic. Yet such criticisms were always tinged with hypocrisy, whatever the nature of the Beijing regime. The worst performing countries by a country mile are not desperately poor and have considerable resources at their disposal, or should have - ie, the UK, Italy, France and the US. The roll call of shame. All because the leaders of these countries pooh-poohed the significance of the coronavirus. But frankly, when it comes to criminal incompetence and disregard for life, you have to mark out the Boris Johnson regime for special opprobrium - it did just about everything wrong in a long series of baffling and irrational policy decisions that were frequently thrown into sudden reverse or mysteriously dropped (eg, contact tracing). It was all laced through with laughable self-delusion and ridiculous target setting. Remember the 100,000 tests a day, the “game-changing” antibody testing programme and the “world-beating” app?
On the other hand, we have those who have done very well overall - like New Zealand, Germany, South Korea, Vietnam, Australia and … China. Considering it was the first to be hit by the virus, with huge concentrations of people in crowded urban environments and still a generally low standard of living - especially when it comes to housing - it was a remarkable achievement that Beijing managed to contain and suppress the virus in such a relatively short time. Clearly, you are bound to get further outbreaks and spikes - 100% safety can only be found in the grave. Now, China is imposing various local lockdowns, but life carries on as normal in the vast bulk of the country.
What are the lessons of the pandemic? Lock down early and then move quickly to suppress the virus in order to prevent it spreading - at least until we get a vaccine, if one ever emerges. Worryingly, a recent longitudinal study by Kings College London - the first of its kind - analysed the immune response of more than 90 patients and healthcare workers and found the level of antibodies able to destroy the virus peaked about three weeks after the onset of symptoms, then swiftly declined.2 Hence blood tests revealed that, while 60% of people marshalled a “potent” antibody response at the height of their battle with the virus, only 17% retained the same potency three months later. Antibody levels fell as much as 23-fold over the period. In some cases, they became undetectable.
This has obvious implications for the development of an effective vaccine. It is certainly quite conceivable, unfortunately, that coronavirus could come and go seasonally like the common cold, with only a partial or limited immunity - requiring the use of annual boosting immunisations, particularly for the most vulnerable, alongside the annual flu jab. Just something you have to learn to live with.
Perhaps more alarmingly still, it is perfectly possible that we could have another serious coronavirus outbreak in the winter, rather than local outbreaks like in Leicester and now Blackburn. According to healthcare experts, the UK must start “intense preparations” for a second wave of Covid-19 that has the potential to kill as many as 120,000 hospital patients.3 This is a “reasonable worst-case scenario”, not a prediction, if infections are allowed to surge and little is done to prepare the NHS and social care services - assuming that the R value (the number of contacts someone testing positive goes on to infect, which the government does not talk about any more) roughly doubles from around 0.9 today to 1.7 across the UK by September.
It is obvious that fewer and fewer people are maintaining any sort of social distancing and only a minority are wearing face masks - which Boris Johnson has been dithering over for ages. Maybe due to a US-style individualistic culture, Britons have been among the slowest in Europe to embrace mass mask-wearing.
Of course, this will change from July 24 onwards, when a face covering will become mandatory in shops (though not in offices) - with Wales and Northern Ireland both weighing up similar policies. This British lack of vigilance when it comes to public health is only to be expected, given the constant mixed messages from the government - stay at home, go back to work, shop till you drop or ‘stay alert’? It is impossible to predict what the government will say next week, let alone in any long-term health plans.
Meanwhile, serving as another warning that we are not yet anywhere near the end of the pandemic, the World Health Organisation has reported that over the last six weeks the number of cases globally has doubled. In the words of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director general, “too many countries are headed in the wrong direction”, even though the virus remains “public enemy number one”. If the basics are not followed, he added, the pandemic is “going to get worse and worse and worse”. There will be no return to the old normal for the foreseeable future, if ever.