January 23, 2022

The world is currently experiencing a new and very intense wave of the coronavirus pandemic caused by the Omicron variant, with an infection rate that already clearly exceeds the most acute peaks of previous waves.

By Alejandro Iturbe

Article originally published in Spanish here

Translated to English by Dolores Underwood

Let’s look at the data. In the USA, between January 18 and 19, 1,178,403 cases were reported (against 75,883 on that date in December), of which 152,427 were hospitalizations and 2,990 deaths [1]. In India, 317,532 cases were reported on January 19 (compared to 22,775 the previous month) [2]. On that same day in Argentina, 128,321 cases were reported while in December there had been 5,648 (almost 23 times more!). The vast majority of countries in the world show exponential growth in the number of infections.

This explosion of cases has provoked a developing debate in the journalistic and scientific media. Some affirm that the pandemic is now approaching its end or, better said, is on its way to becoming an “endemic” (a chronic disease with sequential waves, but “tolerable” in terms of the impact it has on people’s lives and daily activities, like the classic flu). Others, on the contrary, maintain that this end is far off and that it is too hasty to make any such predictions.

Pedro Hallal, epidemiologist and former rector of the Federal University of Pelotas (Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil) has taken the first of these positions and expressed “moderate optimism” because “it has been proven that the Omicron variant is more contagious but less aggressive and may represent the first step for Covid-19 to move from a pandemic state (i.e. globally uncontrolled levels) to an endemic one” [3].

It is true that medical studies of confirmed cases indicate that this strain is less aggressive on the human body than previous variants, especially Delta, because it remains in the airways and tends not to descend into the lungs. However, this analysis leaves aside what has been called “long covid” or “post covid”. That is, the long-term negative effects that the infection leaves in the organism. Something that, in the case of this wave of Omicron, will only be known with certainty in the coming months.

Another important omission is that this analysis places the evolution of the disease in the field of virus mutations and leaves aside the effect that vaccination has had. Medical studies show that the new strain of the virus is more contagious to the unvaccinated and, at the same time, that the unvaccinated tend to develop more severe cases. For example, in Argentina, the Undersecretary of Health of the province of Buenos Aires, Alexia Navarro, based on case studies in that territory, stated that “people who have not been vaccinated are 36 times more likely to be in intensive care” [4].

Late last year, the head of the WHO (World Health Organization), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, shared this optimism (albeit with an emphasis on vaccination) and issued a hopeful note on how to beat the pandemic in 2022. In a New Year’s Eve message, he said that ‘the world had the tools to end this calamity,’ even with new daily cases of Covid reaching new records. In a message on New Year’s Eve, he said that ‘the world had the tools to end this calamity,’ even with new daily cases of Covid reaching new records [5].”

Less than three weeks later, he set aside this hope and declared that “the coronavirus pandemic is far from over” and ruled out that “the Omicron variant…is benign…it is causing hospitalizations and deaths, and even less severe cases are overflowing health centers.” Finally, he warned that “new variants are likely to emerge” [6].

It is the same fear expressed in the aforementioned Boston Globe newsletter, after reporting the current numbers and even positing that this wave may ebb and flow like the previous ones: What will happen, will another variant come and will there be a new round of infections and deaths? [7].

This dynamic of new strains is already present. In the same period in which Omicron was spreading, a Deltacron variant was reported in Belo Horizonte (Brazil), which emerged from the combination of both strains in the organism of a doubly infected person. Similar cases have occurred in other parts of the world. Other specialists consider that such a strain does not exist and that this diagnosis would have been caused by “a laboratory error” in which “both samples would have been contaminated” [8]. Only future medical studies will tell us what the reality is. What has been proven is the emergence of Flurona, a double contagion of covid-19 and the influenza virus which was discovered in Israel, but which is already beginning to appear in other countries and which would have a high possibility of contagion [9].

The parable of being a “little flu”

The national bourgeoisies and their governments, integral actors in imperialist capitalism, cling tightly to the “hope” that the pandemic will become endemic and that one of the most dangerous diseases humanity has ever known will naturally regress to the level of a flu. Thus closes a sinister parable of the profound degradation of capitalism and its consequences. At the beginning of the pandemic, almost two years ago, Donald Trump’s and Jair Bolsonaro’s statements that it was just a “little flu” and that nothing should be stopped or shut down because of it (i.e., economic activities) were widely criticized. Today, they all cling to and spread the perspective that the catastrophe affecting us will end in a flu.

This serves them, on the one hand, to justify the criminal policy of the “new normal” at the service of maintaining their profits and the usual levels of exploitation of the working class [10]. On the other hand, to try to hide their responsibility in the pandemic’s emergence pandemic, in its development and in their absolute inability to seriously combat and defeat it.

We do not have the elements to make our own prognosis. In that sense, we must appeal to the studies and considerations of scientific specialists to form our own opinion. But we do have the right, on the one hand, to be deeply suspicious of this new announcement of the “end of the pandemic.” On the other hand, we accuse capitalism of being responsible for its emergence, its development and impact, and its persistence.

Capitalism is responsible because it has created conditions increasingly conducive to the emergence of zoonoses (diseases transmitted from animals to humans) that spread rapidly by the current dynamics of movement of people and goods [11]. Bourgeois governments faced the fight against COVID with public health systems weakened by years of attacks, encouraging private business in this area, and without making the necessary public investments to reverse this deterioration. Faced with the recession of the first half of 2020, without having defeated the pandemic, they imposed criminal policy of the “new normality” began, which multiplied the possibilities of contagion.

The year of the vaccine

At the beginning of 2021, the “year of vaccination” was announced and, with it, the triumph over the pandemic. But this breakthrough was also managed according to the criteria of imperialist capitalism. In the first place, a vaccine against COVID could already have existed many years ago because in 2002-2003 there was a strong outbreak, focused in Asia, generated by a similar virus. But the big private pharmaceutical conglomerates did not develop it because, at that time, it did not represent a significant profit for them.

Secondly, the “race for vaccines” was carried out without a cooperative and internationally centralized development plan, but in a fierce competition between large private laboratories and safeguarding their profits through “patent rights” [12]. Vaccines were expensive and the imperialist countries bought and hoarded gigantic quantities of doses for their population. At the other extreme, the poorest countries only had limited access or no possibility of buying vaccines and, even today, they still have lower or very low vaccination rates.

This contradiction was acutely expressed in India, which on the one hand is the main manufacturer of vaccines in the world (in laboratories owned by imperialist conglomerates) and, on the other hand, was not able to buy them massively for its population. In this country a very strong second wave of the pandemic developed, originating the very dangerous Delta variant, which ended up returning like a boomerang on the imperialist countries and the rest of the world [13].

The now-famous Omicron strain was first identified in South Africa, one of the non-imperialist countries that could manufacture Covid-19 vaccines yet does not because the imperialist laboratories do not allow it. The South African government (like that of India) does not ruffle feathers. At the time this variant originated, the vaccination rate was less than 30% [14]. Here, again, the image of the boomerang applies.

The profound inequality in vaccination levels, coupled with the criminal policy of the “new normal”, is the root cause of the persistence of the pandemic, of the emergence and spread of new strains of the virus, and even the efficacy of vaccines already applied. Even the head of the WHO denounced the lack of equity in vaccines and said that nearly half of the world’s population is still not vaccinated [15].

Capitalism proves incapable of developing a true international solidarity campaign to vaccinate the world’s population. For this reason, it only advances along very partial paths. This is the case of Covax (the name of the Global Access Fund for Covid-19 Vaccines) promoted by public and private sectors to supply Covid vaccines to countries in conditions of poverty.

In a recent statement, Covax reported that it needed $5.2 billion in three months to fund vaccine doses by 2022.[16] This figure leads us to consider the following. At the beginning of 2022, the world population was estimated at 7.8 billion people [17]. The average cost of a Covid-19 vaccine can be estimated at about $10 [18]. In other words, two doses for half of the world’s unvaccinated population would require an investment of 78 billion dollars.

To this base, we should add the costs of transportation and vaccination operations.  We are talking about, then, a total cost of between 100 and 120 billion dollars. This is a high but very accessible figure if we compare it with the profits obtained by the ten richest men in the world in 2021 alone: together they accumulated profits of more than 608 billion dollars [19]. For their part, the big pharmaceutical companies accumulated, in October last year, an increase in their capital of 270 billion dollars [20]. For the bourgeois governments that uphold capitalism, the defense of private property, patent rights, and profits are more important than the health of the workers and the world population.

In a future article we will address the issue of anti-vaccine movements, particularly places with a strong presence where mobilizations have taken place, like in countries in Europe and in the USA. In addition to the conceptual debate with these movements and their foundations, this phenomenon is used by various governments, on the one hand, to justify the persistence of the pandemic and hide the real underlying reasons for its spread; and, on the other hand, to attack and attempt to divide the working class.

“Everyone back to work!”

Without substantive evidence that Omicron is a more “benign” strain, the bourgeoisies and their governments are beginning to act with the criterion that this wave is just a “little flu.” For example, the Argentine government of Alberto Fernández and Cristina Kirchner (which tries to present itself as “popular and progressive”) recently issued a resolution of the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security which defines that “a person who has Covid or is a close contact of a confirmed case can return to his place of work in person… without the need to present a negative test result or discharge certificate [21].”

Among other factors, this decision reflects the collapse of the public testing system in Argentina. In the context of negotiations with the IMF on the refinancing of the fraudulent foreign debt, the Fernández government has just announced its budget plan for 2022 with a budget cut of about 2 billion dollars, with a special impact on the education, health and social sectors [22]. Without going to such extremes, other “emerging countries” such as Mexico or Thailand are beginning to do the same. In Brazil, the Bolsonaro government no longer even publishes official figures on the pandemic and its Minister of Health has reduced the time available for returning to work [23]. All this, at a time when it is beginning to be proven that the period of infection of Omicron is longer than previously thought [24].

This example is spreading: Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez became the first leader of a major European country to call for the European Union to discuss the possibility of treating covid-19 as an endemic disease, like influenza [25].

The UK government claims that “Omicron is on the retreat” and its health minister, Sajid Javid, said that the time is right to remove restrictive measures. Meanwhile, the French government will begin lifting restrictions in February [26].

What to do?

We have said that we cannot make a mathematically accurate prognosis on the dynamics of the current pandemic. However, unfortunately, there is an almost certain perspective: even in the event that it becomes a “controllable” endemic, as long as imperialist capitalism continues, it is very possible that new pandemics will occur. This conclusion is drawn by scientists who specialize in these kinds of diseases: Sarah Gilbert, one of the creators of AstraZeneca, warned in a recent conference that the “next pandemic could be more lethal than Covid[27].

Bill Gates, one of the richest men in the world, is undoubtedly an intelligent person. In recent years he has taken the attitude of predicting future dynamics of the world and acting as a kind of “advisor” to the world bourgeoisie. In 2015, he even warned about the risk of “a pandemic caused by a highly infectious virus that would spread rapidly around the world and against which we would not be ready to fight [28].”

Now, like Sarah Gilbert, he warns of a future pandemic more deadly than the current one [29]. What does he propose in the face of this prospect? Gates asked major countries to contribute money to prepare for the next pandemic. As a first step, the foundation he has with his ex-wife has donated 300 million to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), one of the participants in the Covax program. The first goal is to raise 3.5 billion with the aim of reducing the time needed to develop a new vaccine to just 100 days. The second is to invest larger amounts in scientific development, mass testing, a global pandemic alert system and the creation of an international “infectious disease first responders” team [30].

Gates raises two real issues: the prospect of new and even more dangerous pandemics and the need to prepare internationally to prevent and combat them. However, both his approach and his proposal are those of a big bourgeois imperialist. On the one hand, he analyzes that “When it comes to spending billions to save billions in economic damage…, I’d say that’s a pretty good insurance policy.” On the other hand, he avoids attacking the causes that generate pandemics: capitalism’s overexploitation of natural resources and the deterioration of public health systems. Instead of proposing the strengthening and financing of these systems, he proposes the creation of an elitist foundation that resembles the project aimed at saving the big bourgeoisie and the leaders of imperialist countries shown in the recent film Don’t Look Up.

Worst of all, he does not even refer to the fight against the current pandemic, which continues to impact the health and living conditions of the workers and the masses in the world. We have already seen the pettiness of these governments and big bourgeoisie on the issue of the inequality of vaccination in the world.

Faced with this panorama, we claim as correct the LIT-CI’s demands of vaccines for all, breaking the patent rights of the laboratories that manufacture them and the need for an international plan of massive and free vaccination, extended to all countries of the world, as well as the reconstruction and strengthening of public health systems.

Reality has shown that mass vaccination helped to attenuate the most serious effects of contagion in people and that it was the global inequality in this vaccination that generated new strains and waves. It also shows that it is the public health systems that have been bearing the brunt of the fight against the pandemic, with high risk for their doctors and nurses. Therefore, we maintain that this is the only true way (in this sense, the only realistic way) to advance in this fight and we must continue to fight for these points.

The other factor that influences the persistence of the pandemic is the criminal idea of the “new normal”, which is now expressed in the policy of many governments to treat the current wave of the Omicron strain as a “little flu.” Therefore, we must add, as an immediate necessity, the fight against this policy and its measures. It is the health and lives of the workers that are at stake.

Notes:

[1] Data taken from a report by Teresa Anafin, published in the online version of the Boston Globe (1/20/2022)

[2] https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/pt/countries-and-territories/india/

[3] https://forbes.com.br/forbessaude/2022/01/entenda-por-que-omicron-pode-indicar-que-a-pandemia-de-covid-19-esta-no-fim/ (original in Portuguese)

[4] https://www.cronica.com.ar/sociedad/Coronavirus-las-personas-no-vacunadas-tienen-36-veces-mas-riego-de-entrar-en-terapia-intensiva-20220121-0030.html

[5] https://www.cnnbrasil.com.br/internacional/chefe-da-oms-2022-pode-marcar-o-fim-da-pandemia/ (original in Portuguese)

[6] https://www.dw.com/es/pandemia-de-coronavirus-est%C3%A1-lejos-de-haber-terminado-advierte-la-oms/a-60467575 (original in Spanish)

[7] See note 1

[8] https://pebmed.com.br/deltacron-uma-nova-variante-do-coronavirus-ou-erro-de-laboratorio/

(original in Portuguese)

[9] https://www.cronista.com/informacion-gral/que-es-la-flurona-la-nueva-variante-del-coronavirus-que-ya-llego-a-la-argentina/ (original in Spanish)

[10] https://litci.org/en/2021-the-year-the-pandemic-did-not-end-and-the-economic-crisis-neither/

[11] https://litci.org/en/imperialism-failed-to-fight-the-pandemic/

[12] https://litci.org/en/imperialism-has-created-a-vaccine-apartheid/

[13] https://litci.org/en/death-toll-india/

[14] https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-59466211

[15] https://www.estrategiaynegocios.net/lasclavesdeldia/1509776-330/covax-necesita-us5200-millones-para-financiar-vacunas-en-2022

[16] Ibid.

[17] https://www.wfla.com/tampa-hoy/mundo/poblacion-mundial-crecio-en-74-millones-en-el-ultimo-ano/

[18] https://www.goal.com/es/noticias/cuanto-cuesta-vacuna-covid-19/1d0ngem2skf521hey98yr7shru

[19] https://mvsnoticias.com/noticias/economia/los-hombres-mas-ricos-del-mundo-cuanto-ganan-en-un-ano/

[20] https://www.jornada.com.mx/notas/2021/10/18/economia/farmaceuticas-han-ganado-270-mil-mdd-por-la-pandemia/

[21] https://www.lanacion.com.ar/politica/tengo-covid-o-soy-contacto-estrecho-el-gobierno-comunico-las-fechas-para-regresar-al-trabajo-segun-nid19012022/

[22] https://www.resumenlatinoamericano.org/2022/01/17/argentina-guino-al-fmi-el-gobierno-recorta-225-mil-millones-en-salud-educacion-y-partidas-sociales/

[23] https://exame.com/ciencia/emergentes-abandonam-estrategia-de-covid-zero-na-onda-da-omicron/

[24] https://www.clarin.com/internacional/sorpresa-expertos-japon-dicen-omicron-pico-eliminacion-tardio_0_j0FP2mb5gK.html

[25] Ibid.

[26] https://www.infobae.com/america/mundo/2022/01/20/en-reino-unido-aseguran-que-omicron-se-esta-retirando-y-francia-empezara-a-levantar-las-restricciones-en-febrero/

[27] https://www.bbc.com/news/health-59542211

[28] https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-31956344

[29] https://www.ft.com/content/c1ab6cee-4f84-4a85-9c53-9f5f444359d4

[30] https://www.forbes.com/sites/rachelsandler/2021/01/27/bill-gates-future-pandemics-must-be-taken-as-seriously-as-the-threat-of-war/?sh=769c5c133871