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Woman wearing a face mask

Woman wearing a face mask. Photo: Pixabay

Dominic Sorrell analyses the continuing pandemic amid a new wave of cases and the demands the left should be making on a government that is telling us to simply "live with it"

Beaches packed on hot summer days, festivals back in full swing, people celebrating after a torrid couple of years; one could be forgiven for thinking the Covid-19 pandemic was over, but the reality is quite different.

The government’s latest strategy of “living with Covid” is to, more or less, ignore it. Gone are the daily bulletins of cases from Downing Street and the mainstream media. Gone are the restrictions on masks and social distancing. To many this comes as a welcome return to normal life, but there are still those who are acutely vulnerable to the disease, and an ever-present threat of new variants.

Where we are now

According to one of the latest statements from the WHO, coronavirus is still considered a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”. The committee highlighted four main reasons for this classification:

1An increase in the growth rate across many regions around the world

2The continuing evolution of a disease that is highly unpredictable

3Policies aimed at reducing infections are not in proportion with current transmission

4A disconnect between the scientific community, politicians and the general public as to the risks

In England, cases rose by just under 140,000 in the seven days up to 6 July, with 11,028 hospitalisations and 454 deaths. There is a continuing upward trend in Covid patients being admitted to hospital since the beginning of June, but relatively low numbers are being put on ventilation machines. However, as of May 2022, critical care beds for adults were at 75.7% capacity in England, so even a comparably small wave of new infections could put the NHS under huge strain once again.

A similar story is seen across the world, with global cases rising for the fourth week in a row (although weekly deaths have decreased). Interestingly, Europe accounts for just over half of these new cases. It is important to keep in mind, however, that confirmed cases are not exactly equal to actual cases, and much will depend on the sophistication of testing programmes in each region. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the coronavirus is still very much present, despite being largely forgotten about amongst major world developments in recent months.

There is reason to be cautiously optimistic about the future though. The vaccination programme has been successful in weakening (but not entirely breaking) the link between infections and serious illness. This has been driven by the tireless efforts of healthcare services around the world, including our own NHS who were, despite what Boris and the Tories say, principally in charge of the logistics of the rollout. Vaccines still seem to be robust against the latest variant, Omicron, but their effectiveness has been slightly reduced.

“No one is safe until everyone is safe” was a phrase we once heard often in regards to global vaccinations. The UK currently has 93.2% of its population aged 12+ with one dose, certainly an impressive achievement, but surely highlights the massive inequality present when the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, has only 3.4% of its population with at least one dose. As support from across the international community pours in for Ukraine’s war against Russia, and Nato scrambles to supply more weapons, the country still has only 34.1% of its population fully vaccinated.

The latest sub-variants of the now dominant Omicron strain, BA.4 and BA.5, are principally driving new cases of Covid. They have similar mutations in the spike region as other variants, which is what allows the virus to penetrate host cells in the body, thus reproducing and spreading. This is important as the vaccines work by recognising these spike proteins and helping us create antibodies to fight the infection. It is possible that any significant variation in the spike protein could seriously undermine current vaccines, most likely requiring us to have a booster shot of a modified jab.

What is clear is that we still need to keep up surveillance, which many governments are not doing. The director-general of the WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has advised that “[g]overnments should... work to reverse the reduction in surveillance, testing and sequencing, and share anti-virals effectively”, whilst also stressing that they should “regularly review and adjust their Covid-19 response plans based on the current epidemiology and also the potential for new variants to appear.” In other words, acting like the pandemic is over, does not make it over.

The silent pandemic

One of the distressing impacts of the coronavirus is its ability to linger on in some people, long after the initial infection has passed. “Long Covid” is a set of symptoms that are present several weeks after infection. Most people with Long Covid complain of fatigue and musculoskeletal pain, but one American study from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that those aged between 18-64 with Long Covid are just over twice as likely to suffer from an acute pulmonary embolism, a blocked blood vessel in the lungs which can be lethal if not treated urgently. That same study also stated, alarmingly, that around 1 in 5 of adults aged 18+ have a condition that could be related to their previous Covid-19 infection.

More than £50 million has been invested into research via the National Institute for Health and Care Research (backed by the Department of Health and Social Care), but their latest report concludes that there are still many questions about the condition that remain unanswered. What we do know is how it can affect people. As one report in the Lancet put it: “Survivors of Covid-19 experienced long-term symptoms, new disability, increased breathlessness, and reduced quality of life.” Disturbingly, the article also says that these symptoms, despite what we may have first thought, are prevalent “in young, previously healthy working age adults, and were most common in younger females.” To date, there is still no cure for Long Covid, and some have been suffering from it for over two years. With an estimated 1.8 million people in the UK affected, this silent pandemic must be challenged by the left.

How should socialists respond?

Viruses are one of the sad realities of life. How we deal with them, however, is not. The government has chosen not to act on the virus, insisting we just “live with” it. To this end they have stopped regular testing in the population. In the seven days to 12 July, positive cases among people that have tested were up 24.6% and Covid deaths are up 32.6%, yet the number of tests conducted were down 0.6% and a further 10.2% down in the following week – less than a third of tests conducted on 31 March, the last day of free universal testing. We don’t know the real extent of Covid transmission because of the low level of testing. One immediate demand the left should be making is to bring back free PCR testing.

The first two waves of the pandemic brought an already-falling apart NHS to the brink. The NHS is now in a significantly worse place than it was before the pandemic. Many critical care nurses and doctors are suffering from PTSD, with 27,000 resignations from July to September last year. No doubt this has been driven by increased workloads with insulting pay rises proffered by government. Earlier this month, the government revoked Covid sick leave for health workers reverting to statutory arrangements. Hospital admissions from Covid are now already back to half of what they were at their peak in January 2021. Even a modest increase in admissions could be unmanageable for the NHS, let alone dealing with the massive backlog of non-Covid injuries and illnesses.

The Tory leadership contenders vying to be the next Prime Minister are unanimous in their lack of concern for properly funding the NHS. The left should be encouraging and supporting health care workers in unions organising industrially for pay rises and more funding as well as building the People’s Assembly and health campaigns to fight for these demands on the streets.

We must also be arguing for a return to mandated mask-wearing, air filtration systems and regulations for workplaces and schools, and some level of social distancing while cases are rising. As we know, despite the success of the vaccine in minimising the danger of extreme symptoms and which remains the best protection from the virus, the unabated transmission of the virus remains a risk for vulnerable people, reinfection increases the chances of Long Covid among a greater number of people and inevitably results in higher rates of hospital admissions and burden on the NHS.

Finally, the longer the virus is allowed to spread, the greater the likelihood of more mutation and new variants and subvariants. The virus doesn’t stop at borders and if developing countries continue to be denied fair access to the vaccine, the pandemic will not end. We must demand the patents on Covid vaccines are dropped immediately and rich countries stop hoarding doses.

Covid, a global health crisis, is inseparable from the deepening economic, climate and other crises. They are rooted in the same system that prioritises profits over the welfare of the majority of people on the planet. We need a united political fight back that confronts the roots of the pandemic and other crises we face.

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