The Socialist 3 December 2014 |
Join the Socialist
| PDF | ebook
World health crises show: Capitalism kills!
Doctor and Socialist Party member Jon Dale updates on the latest situation in the Ebola crisis.
Since 9/11, military and civilian biohazard teams have been developed in the USA and elsewhere. Since 2006 the US Department of Defense's Transformational Medical Technologies programme has spent $1.5 billion researching new treatments against biological attacks. Ebola virus was identified at the start of the programme as a possible threat.
Four US drug companies received grants under this programme in 2010. Defense Industry Daily pointed out: "the hemorrhagic fever virus market ... (is) a small, $300 million total estimated market segment. Compare this to multi-billion markets like cardiovascular diseases, Hepatitis-C, and flu. Without targeted government funding to tip the scales, it's clear that a small biotech firm will be pushed hard by investors to pursue larger markets instead."
So the champions of the 'free market' brushed aside objections to public subsidies! Taxpayers had to stump up, as profits weren't big enough for private 'enterprise'.
Big pharmaceutical companies refused to invest in vaccine research for tropical illnesses. "Because Ebola has historically been confined to poor African nations, the incentive is virtually non-existent," Dr. Margaret Chan, director of the World Health Organisation said.
But now that Ebola threatens to cross continents, causing economic and social instability, the stakes have suddenly got higher. Public money is pouring into vaccine and drug treatment research and the big companies are racing to get a slice of the action.
Defenders of capitalism say it's competition between rival companies that pushes forward scientific and technical advance. According to capitalist rules, the race to get effective treatments should be driven by the profit motive. But the dire situation shows this has failed utterly.
The West African Ebola crisis developed following capitalist destruction of the natural environment, together with poverty, hopelessly inadequate local health services and lack of basic services like clean water and electricity.
It has exposed the incapacity of privately owned big business to develop preventative vaccines or effective treatments. It shows the need for socialist planning, democratically controlling the resources of publicly owned pharmaceutical companies and research laboratories.
And the virus has also shown the need for publicly funded healthcare available to all. People too poor to pay for healthcare can pass infectious diseases to others. Everyone needs good quality healthcare. Big business can't be left to run it for private profit.
The three poverty-stricken West African countries at the centre of the Ebola crisis now face the threat of famine.
Fear among farmers has led to farms being abandoned and harvests uncollected. A shortage of labour threatens staple crops such as rice and maize. Over a million people need food aid, according to a United Nations (UN) spokesperson.
Food shortages will make people move, which could spread Ebola into new areas. Treatment of common illnesses like TB, malaria and dysentery has been hit as health services near collapse, with doctors and nurses falling victim to Ebola.
Despite this, governments of wealthy countries are still dragging their feet in tackling the epidemic. Although significant resources are now being deployed, they remain a fraction of what is required.
Dr Jennifer Liu, president of the charity Médecins Sans Frontières, described the international response as like "airstrikes without boots on the ground... The military are the only body that can be deployed in the numbers needed now and that can organise things fast... You need to send people, not stuff, and get hands on, not try to do this remotely... Local doctors have been extremely brave, but we are running out of staff and that is why we are asking for a major workforce to deploy."
Military forces should not be used to strengthen the economic and strategic influence of imperialist governments. These have drained huge wealth from this region for over a century. Nor should they be used to prop up corrupt governments in the affected countries.
Instead, their trained personnel and logistical resources should be controlled by locally elected committees who know what is needed in their areas. Servicemen and women need trade union rights and their own elected committees.
This year's World Aids Day was marked by the release of a report from a cross-party committee of the UK parliament. It highlights the continued devastating effect of HIV/Aids on the health of millions across the world.
The report shows that the impact of the virus is made much worse by profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies and by the lack of a serious and organised response by world governments. In fact the report says: "international funding for the Aids response has stalled".
There are estimated to be 13.6 million people taking antiretroviral drugs to stem the progress of the disease. But shockingly this suggests that two thirds of those infected around the world are going without treatment.
Ben Simms, director of the charity StopAids said: "We are failing to reach key population groups, witnessing a building crisis in middle income countries around pricing and resources, seeing trade deals threaten global access to medicines, and persisting with an approach to medical innovation that excludes billions of the world's poor."
Women and children
Only 24% of children with the disease are being treated. This is particularly worrying as Aids-related illnesses are the leading cause of death among young people aged ten to 19 in Africa.
Internationally it is also the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age. The report highlights the slow progress on women's and gay rights as big barriers.
The report should be welcomed in terms of highlighting the problems. But this concern is of little consequence without real and urgent action.
We need full, scientific programmes of sex and relationships education available in all schools. We need investment in public services and infrastructure, which would limit the spread and help with the battle against the virus.
Ultimately our health is not safe in their hands - we need a democratic, socialist society. The nationalisation of the big pharmaceutical companies would smash profit as a barrier to access to antiretroviral drugs.
Investment in research and technology based on need not profit could open up the possibility of better, cheaper treatments and even a cure.