After this crisis we need a new type of society otherwise our sacrifices will have been in vain

Posted By: April 04, 2020

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, April 4, 2020

Those who claim that we are fighting a war against Covid-19 have yet to suggest what sort of war it might be.

In terms of scale, unpreparedness and an initial ignorance on how to conduct the war, we appear to be fighting the medical equivalent of World War I.

A century ago, British soldiers were told to walk towards the German guns. Today health workers, untested for the virus, are told to work without personal protective equipment. The soldiers were described as lions led by donkeys. Today we have new lions and new donkeys.

In the first two months of World War I (WWI), half a million Britons volunteered for the army, supporting a war which they were promised would be over by Christmas. In the first two weeks after recognizing the seriousness of the coronavirus, half a million people volunteered to support the depleted NHS army, for a war which we were initially assured would last only weeks.

So who got us into this appalling war, how do we get out of it and what must we do to prevent similar human crises in the future?

World economics triggered the present war and a lack of leadership, particularly in Europe and the US, fuelled it. China’s economic transformation has led to industrial-scale agriculture, mainly in chickens and pigs, with significant investment in both from an American bank, Goldman Sachs.

This forced peasant smallholders out of livestock farming and, through geographical re-location, into hunting wild species (complete with viruses) for luxury food items. Some viruses transferred to humans. There have been several other viruses in China in recent years (as well as in other regions of the world) and more are likely.

Most Asian countries were familiar with viral infections and knew how to handle Covid-19. But Britain and Ireland, for example, were not, particularly since both states (and Stormont) had overseen the decline in public health services for many years.

There was no money for investment in health because companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google, avoid paying an estimated £500 billion a year taxes, by shifting their profits from places like the UK to low-tax countries like Ireland and Luxembourg. (Ireland is still refusing to accept €13 billion in taxes from Apple, despite an EU ruling.)

Meanwhile, volunteers here are making face masks and scrubs for health workers. This crisis shows that there is a better way to run a society.

Investment in the NHS must be accompanied by significant state-sponsored medical research to offset the private sector’s profit-seeking role. In a 2018 report, Goldman Sachs (the bank which invested in China) asked: “Is curing patients a sustainable business model?”

It concluded that it wasn’t, because a company which developed a treatment for hepatitis C initially made huge profits, which could not be sustained because the numbers requiring treatment declined.

The report stated that conditions such as cancer have a more stable pool of patients and are therefore less risky for business. So whose side are investment banks on in this war? If, as this evidence suggests, capitalism is not programmed for the public good, the state must not be a mere spectator of society until a crisis develops.

After WWI, soldiers returned, expecting “homes fit for heroes.” They were greeted with poverty, deprivation and in many cases starvation. Despite (or maybe because of) their deep patriotic fervor, nothing had changed. It took another world war before the NHS was introduced.

When this war against Covid-19 is finally won, nothing will have changed either, unless we shape a new type of society, with new values and beliefs. That requires a new type of politics, which abandons right-wing austerity in Britain and Ireland and rejects Stormont’s sectarianism.

If we emerge with anything less than a new type of society, the sacrifices, the suffering and the deaths in this war will all have been in vain. Unlike in 1918, we should not need a second war to make us realize what is important in life.