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SARS and a sick system
THE MEDIA coverage of SARS has exaggerated its threat to health (so far 300 people worldwide have died compared to 30,000 influenza deaths each year in the US) and largely ignored the mass killer (and preventable) epidemics such as TB and malaria. Moreover, as the HIV/AIDS epidemic has shown, any drug treatment for SARS developed by profit-hungry drugs companies is likely to exceed the ability to pay of poor people, especially in the neo-colonial world.
"NO OTHER disease in recent years has posed such an immediate threat to the global economy."(New Scientist - 26/4/03).
SARS has already badly hit the economies of south-east Asia and China. Travel, tourism and the hotel industries are all suffering from the fall-out from the epidemic.
But capitalist investors also fear that SARS will hit workers in China's huge manufacturing sector, lowering output and capacity and hitting profits. (Nike, for example, is considering relocating to Latin America)
Concerns over the economic impact of SARS on top of fears over war, terrorism and oil prices, has led the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) to cut its forecast for world economic growth this year from 2.2% to 1.9% - a rate considered to be a global recession by some economists.
ALTHOUGH PRESENT infection rates and deaths from the SARS virus is thankfully low, there is no way that this 'genie' can be put back into its bottle. Once out in the world's population it will spread until it is stamped out by a vaccine.
Producing a vaccine in quick time looks possible. However, it will require the resources of a large pharmaceutical giant. Clearly such a profit-driven corporation will demand a top price for its product, putting it beyond the reach of the poor countries, much like the treatment of AIDS.
But as New Scientist points out (26/4/03) "Even if the rich are safely vaccinated, so long as the poor are not the rich will not be safe. As more people succumb, the virus will evolve and the vaccine will fail. SARS anywhere is dangerous for people everywhere."
Capitalism as a system that produces for profit not to satisfy human need, it therefore cannot be relied upon to combat epidemics like SARS. The SARS epidemic, like HIV/AIDS and diseases such as malaria, underline the need to nationalise the drugs companies and to fight for workers' governments.
Malaria - an ignored killer
SARS IS making the headlines but malaria is a major killer disease, especially in Africa where 1 million people die from it every year, including up to 3,000 children every day.
Cheap drugs which are used to treat Malaria (eg chloroquin, costing about ten US cents), are losing their efficacy. But new drugs such as ACT, which can reduce hospital deaths from malaria by up to 80% and cost up to $3, are beyond the pockets of most people in Africa.
New drugs and insecticide protected nets could reduce malaria transmission by up to 60% and death rates by around one-fifth. Such a worldwide campaign would cost $1 billion every year (a fraction of the cost spent by the US and Britain to wage war on Iraq) but the United Nations has so far only raised $200 million.
If there was an international socialist plan of production based on satisfying human need instead of the current anarchy of the capitalist 'free market' then millions of lives could be saved.
Toronto - Health Cuts Costs Lives
TORONTO HAS seen the most severe outbreak of Sudden Acute Respiratory Disorder (SARS) outside of East Asia. As of 28 April, 21 people had died from SARS in the Toronto area, there had been 263 "probable and suspected" cases of the disease. At the peak of the crisis over 1,500 people were in quarantine either because they had the disease or had come into contact with a someone with the disease.
Robert Messing, Socialist Alternative (Toronto, Canada)
On 23 April, the World Health Organisation issued an advisory against visiting Toronto. The declaration unleashed a torrent of criticism from business leaders and politicians, more concerned about the effect of lost tourism on the economy than the need to prevent the disease from spreading.
Given less notice is the almost complete collapse of the region's hospital system in the face of the crisis. Almost all of Toronto's SARS cases have been spread in hospital with most of the victims being health care workers, patients and their families.
The city's hospitals are now reopening after having been largely closed to the public for weeks forcing the cancellation of thousands of operations. At least three patients with liver disease have died as a result of cancelled surgeries and the full toll of indirect victims of SARS may not be known for months.
Meanwhile, in Vancouver, British Columbia, a single case of SARS has been managed without a similar spread in the disease. This could be because Ontario, where Toronto is situated has suffered eight years of assaults on its health care system by a neo-liberal government, while the right has only been in power in British Columbia for one year.
Since 1995, the Tory government in Ontario, looking for ways to pay for tax cuts for the rich, has taken $1 billion dollars out of the health care system, closed dozens of hospitals and emergency rooms, cut thousands of beds and fired thousands of nurses under a "restructuring" scheme. This has resulted in emergency wards filled to overcapacity, nurses working 12 hour shifts because of understaffing - a perpetual crisis that has become the norm and which has made Ontario's health care system incapable of dealing with a major health emergency such as SARS.
Neo-liberal policies in health care do not create diseases such as SARS, but they have a murderous effect by compromising the ability to combat disease in the name of cost savings and corporate greed.
Corporate Greed - The Most Lethal Global Epidemic
MAY DAY is increasingly seen as a day of protest against capitalism. For anyone watching Dying for Drugs (Channel 4, 27 April), by True Vision Production, there will be no question about the need for a transformation of society.
The production company, Channel 4 and all the organisations mentioned say they have been inundated with calls from people wanting to get involved in the struggle to force the multinationals and world economic organisations, like the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to change their policy. The 90 minute programme detailed the greed and inhumanity of the multinational drugs companies.
It was a hard-hitting report on how cheaply the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry values life in the face of massive profits. Jairo, a 10-year-old Aids victim whose family couldn't afford even basic treatment, was one of four stories highlighting the control big drug companies have over life and death.
One story featured a scientist and medical researcher whose career was threatened if she blew the whistle on the dangerous side-effects she had discovered in the livers of her patients.
Another told of Pfizer (said to make $1m every hour of every single day) using a meningitis epidemic in Nigeria as an opportunity to test a new drug without permission and with crippling side-effects.
Leukaemia sufferers in South Korea were filmed protesting against Novartis, a company that had developed medicine that could hugely improve their lives. The protesters had acted as guinea pigs for the new drug only to be told that once it had received its patent the cost of the medicine would be $55,000 a year, a price far out of the reach of the vast majority of the world's population.
The wealth of the global pharmaceutical industry was estimated at $406 billion in 2002. 14 million people die every year from preventable diseases.
Of the 11 top 20 pharmaceutical companies who responded to an MSF survey, eight spent nothing in 2001 on research and development for some of the diseases which most threaten life in the poorest countries; sleeping sickness which afflicts up to 500,000 people and threatens another 60 million in Africa, Chagas disease which threatens a quarter of the population of Latin America and leishmaniasis.
While governments and the WTO fight to defend the profits of these companies, for whom life is cheap, there will be no significant change in the way drugs companies operate.
The drugs companies must be taken into the democratic ownership of ordinary workers to be run on the basis of need not profit.
In The Socialist 3 May 2003: