The United States has recorded a record level of new infections of Covid-19, while cases are also skyrocketing in several European countries. The Omicron variant is already predominant and the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of a “tsunami” of new cases.
How did some of the world’s governments react to this new reality? They have chosen to minimize the seriousness of the situation, ignore the fact that health systems could be overwhelmed, and reduce the length of the isolation period before workers can return to their jobs, thus prioritizing corporate profits over people’s health.
The average number of cases for the last week in the United States reached a record 267,000 on Tuesday, December 28, according to the New York Times.
WHO officials warned that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus could still weaken and ultimately collapse health systems despite preliminary studies suggesting that it causes milder cases of Covid-19 than other variants. In response to this “tsunami” of new cases, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for stringent social measures to curb contagion.
The record number of infections, already approaching a million cases per day, “will continue to put immense pressure on exhausted health workers, and health systems on the brink of collapse.”
The WHO director-general also stressed that in the face of Omicron’s rapid advance, attention must be focused not only on the vaccination campaign, but also on other public health measures to avoid overwhelming health networks. Nevertheless, several countries are beginning to suggest reducing the length of isolation, while keeping non-essential activities and schools open.
The United States provides the most emblematic case. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially decided to shorten the isolation period from 10 to five days for infected people and not to require a negative test for people with asymptomatic cases, who will be allowed to exit quarantine as long as they wear a mask for five more days.
The decision came after pressure from employers anxious to avoid shutting down economic activity. They want their workers to return quickly to their jobs, regardless of their health status or the possibility of infecting their colleagues. The strong push from the bosses was evidenced by the publication of a letter from the CEO of Delta Air Lines to the U.S. government proposing precisely what the CDC approved.
The CDC decision came at the same time as hospitalizations in New York State increased by 647 cases, the largest one-day increase since April 2020. A number of scientists have criticized the CDC’s new guidelines.
As for Europe, Greece has already taken the same measure of reducing isolation to five days “so as not to “slow down the economy.” Other European countries are considering doing the same.
Faced with the sheer amount of testing being undertaken due to the record number of cases, most governments have shifted responsibility to individuals as a way to avoid having to take charge of contact tracing and follow-up. The result is a focus on privatized self-testing rather than centralization and mass testing guaranteed by governments, coupled with a variety of coercive measures — states of emergency, militarization, and specific health passes for workers, the latter translating into mandatory vaccination or possibly being fired from one’s job.
In the past, these governments dismissed the seriousness of the virus, and are now repeating that by reducing the length of isolation. They are the governments behind the so-called “vaccine war” and its propaganda in favor of some laboratories while discrediting others. They are the governments with colonial pasts that are inflicting fear on entire populations through abusive and non-consensual medical and vaccination campaigns — as has been going on across Africa, and which has been happening with the Black and Native minorities within the United States itself. They are also the governments that over the past two years have put the economy first, over the health of workers — beginning with the so-called essential workers who were forced to stay on the job despite unsafe conditions, traveling to work on overcrowded public transport and facing high chances of becoming infected.
All of these actions explain the resistance of part of the population to be vaccinated. Rather than mounting information campaigns, establishing permanent vaccination centers in public places, and ensuring vaccinations for the entire population, these governments opt for coercive measures while opening up the economy more widely. Such steps can be explained only as more of the capitalist irrationality that has prevailed since the pandemic began.
Finally, and despite the WHO’s calls for expanding vaccinations, something else lies behind the appearance of new variants: the refusal of the main imperialist countries and their international organizations to lift the patents on vaccines so that they can be manufactured in every available facility around the world, on a massive scale, and at low cost. This explains the emergence of the Delta variant in India and Omicron in South Africa. The latest government policies, which flirt with the idea of “herd immunity” (i.e., that mass infection will eventually mitigate the effects of the virus), combined with low vaccination rates in entire countries, not only in many African countries but also in India, where only 42 percent of the 1.3 billion inhabitants have received the two doses, may result in the appearance of new variants or even a new strain with unpredictable consequences.
Faced with a veritable “tsunami” of infections, the management of the pandemic guided by capitalist irrationality is becoming increasingly dangerous for the entire world population.
First published in Spanish on December 29 in La Izquierda Diario.
Translation by Scott Cooper