Boris Johnson delivers public briefing about Coronavirus, 12th March 2020. Photo: NHS vis youtube Boris Johnson delivers public briefing about Coronavirus, 12th March 2020. Photo: NHS vis youtube

Government response is a key factor in how the virus is affecting populations and we will all pay for the inertia of our own, argues Kevin Potter

It can seem as if one of the few things that matches the infection rate of Covid 19 is the proliferation of statistics and advice in relation to it. There are a bewildering range of opinions and statistical analyses. However, there are common themes and correlations. Studies of the virus and its spread/impact in areas where it is now established indicate that the timely action of governments makes a huge difference to transmission rates. This in turn has a huge impact upon the ability of health services to cope and, by extension, the regional mortality rate of the virus which seems to fluctuate from between around 1% to 4% (although with an uneven demographic impact, adversely affecting older people and those with existing health problems). The state of a region’s health care provision is also a major determinant of outcomes, and the NHS is ill-prepared.

Sadly we are not one of those nations taking early and necessary action, and we have been criticised by the WHO for it. Schools and venues remain open and public events go ahead, subject to individual response. Indeed at present, despite a Cobra meeting, the response remains little more than appealing to the public to wash their hands. Other nations took measures after their first identified case by closing schools, cancelling public events, and introducing mass testing.

Our media have sensationalised rather than informed in many cases and have downplayed the need for a robust response from the government and society through misplaced stoicism. A prideful ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude is exactly the wrong response in this case. Stay calm, yes, but as a nation we should surely take action? Indeed the origins of that phrase in WWII were within a country that had transformed its entire economy overnight, introduced rationing and adapted to the Blitz, not one that had tried to ignore reality.

Government inaction is sadly now the norm when it comes to the public realm, just like in the response to the recent flooding. This is because the Tory’s first question is always ‘how will this impact big business and private profit?’ In flooded rural communities their conclusion was, it won’t, so no need to act (and to hell with the impact upon local economies). In the case of Corona they are terrified and frozen like a rabbit in headlights because they cannot insulate the wealthy from its effects, or avoid disruption to business.

In being too afraid to take action which would impact commercial economic activity, the ultimate outcome may ironically be worse for the economy and the big business interests the Tories represent. We need only look to Italy to see the results of a late and inadequate response. Shops, workplaces, public spaces, and services are all on lockdown and their economy is teetering and in need of bailout funds. Such measures are likely inevitable, but their depth and severity will be much worse if taken too late. More importantly the public health crisis we will experience will be far worse than it needed to be and more people will die.

Compounding the lack of action is years of under-funding of public health provision and the logic of the market economy. The United States’ privatised health care system presents perhaps the starkest example of the inability of markets to prepare for crises. Not only has testing for Corona been shamefully inadequate, at around 5 persons in every million (compare that to South Korea who managed around 3000 per million), but they don’t even have the means to undertake testing because they don’t have the testing kits. This is because there is no market logic to producing a product to stockpile for an emergency, as it cannot be turned into a profit. In a profit-driven healthcare system this means it isn’t produced. Whilst in Britain we, for now, retain vestiges of a health service that is there to serve public need, market logic has been imposed, creating an incoherent internal market of ‘providers’ that cannot respond rapidly to a crisis. The under-funding of health and social care leaves the NHS overstretched every winter, the phrase ‘winter crisis’ now an understood part of our vocabulary. How on earth will it manage under the impact of Corona?

Imagine the difference in probable outcome had we a government that said to big business; you will have to pay staff their salary while caring for their kids during school closure, to pay wages while your employees self-isolate; that guaranteed the salary of employees of small businesses who can’t afford it rather than paltry statutory sick pay; that maintained a health care system with built in surplus capacity and resources; that took public health as its starting point. Instead we get Boris Johnson’s chilling phrase ‘herd immunity’, which reads very much like saying, let the old and the weak die.

Tagged under: