New Covid surge — Government inaction on health means major investment needed

Editorial from the Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party 

Recent weeks have seen an alarming rise in the number of Covid cases in the state. In turn there has been a spike in the number of hospital admissions and patients in ICU. At the time of writing, the 7-day moving average of cases is 2,043; three weeks ago this same figure stood at 1,138. NPHET has warned that Covid cases may reach daily figures as high as 5,000.

This is despite the fact that over 92% of the adult population has been fully vaccinated. Throughout the pandemic working-class people had made enormous sacrifices to suppress the virus, the results of which were undermined by the premature re-opening of the economy in the summer and again in December last year.

Safety in schools

There are several factors which are fuelling this new surge. It is not a coincidence that the largest age group currently with Covid are children aged between 5-12. Insufficient measures have been taken to ensure adequate protection for pupils and staff in schools, in the form of PPE and ventilation, and more broadly the lack of investment in reducing class numbers by hiring more teachers and SNAs.

There needs to be investment to ensure that there are high-quality masks, FFP2, supplied to the Department of Education and provided to all children over five, with exemptions for medical reasons. There needs to be an emphasis on clean air and every classroom should have a filter and CO2 monitor. The Government must implement the INTO’s demand for a proper test and tracking system for schools. More teachers and SNAs should be hired to reduce class sizes.This will hugely benefit students who’ve lost out, particularly in working-class communities. All children under the age of 12 should be vaccinated when a vaccine for this age cohort is approved. 

Vaccination remains crucial 

The fact that 8% of adults remain unvaccinated is not insignificant, particularly given the nature of the Delta variant. Notwithstanding this relatively low figure, 60% of those currently in ICU are unvaccinated. A campaign needs to be launched to convince as many eligible people as possible to get vaccinated, particularly those most vulnerable, such as pregnant people

The trade unions should use their resources to promote the benefits of the vaccine. Many of those who are unvaccinated have a suspicion towards the capitalist establishment and government, and the organisations of the workers in this country should use their influence in society to tackle anti-vax arguments. On top of this, attempts on the part of the government TDs to scapegoat the unvaccinated must be opposed. Ultimately, it is they who are to blame for this crisis, particularly in their failure to provide the necessary funding for our health service and schools to tackle this crisis. 

The Government introduced vaccine passes as a measure until October, but in the context of the current dangerous surge it clearly wants to keep them in place for the winter. Whether it tries to establish vaccine passes as a semi-permanent policy must be monitored, as that could have significant implications for civil liberties. 

Unions representing health workers and other frontline workers would have a particular ability to  make the case for people to get vaccinated. This could be linked to the demand that real recognition is given to workers for the sacrifices they’ve made during the pandemic, rather than the paltry, insulting and tokenistic gesture of a once-off bank holiday in January. Such recognition would, for example, involve the implementation of a €15 an hour minimum wage, with no exemptions, and an end to poverty pay. 

Of course, it is important to note that high levels of vaccination in any one country will not protect it from the virus. This is a global pandemic and the shameful existence of vaccine apartheid, where the poorest countries of the Global South have been deprived of adequate quantities of vaccines, will mean that new variants of the virus will develop. There is no national solution to this crisis. Hence the urgent necessity to abolish patents, bring big pharma into democratic public ownership and produce cheap generic vaccines. Given the number of pharmaceutical companies based in Ireland, the Government could take a lead on this issue and begin to provide such vaccines to countries in the neo-colonial world. This should not contradict providing booster vaccinations for people in Ireland, both are critical to suppressing the virus. 

Underfunded health service

A crucial factor that represents a significant danger through this new wave of the pandemic is our under-resourced health service. Shamefully, the government has refused to provide the necessary resources to deal with any potential surges in cases — the number of ICU beds remains woefully inadequate.

Prior to the Covid crisis, the number of ICU beds stood at five beds per 100,000 people, 255 beds at most, less than half of the European average of 11.5 beds per 100,000. Despite promises to raise the number of beds to 446 critical care beds late last year, still falling short of what is necessary, the Government only committed to raise the number of beds to 340 in the latest budget. This is despite the glaring possibility of a surge of cases.

The crisis is already putting enormous strain and stress on health care staff, who have endured enormous hardship since March 2020. Added to this is further delays in operations, particularly for those who cannot afford private healthcare and rely on the public system. There are currently 10,393 public patients waiting on orthopaedic surgery, such as hip and knee surgery, and 9,797 needing urology care.

Urgent investment 

We need immediate investment to tackle the surge in cases and the impact this will have on our public health service. Workers in health and education must be prioritised with booster vaccines, given that these are hotspots for the virus. More generally, workers should assert their democratic right to control health and safety in the workplace, with workers having the right to withdraw their labour if they feel they are working in an unsafe environment. 

Private hospitals should be taken into public ownership, with no compensation for their billionaire owners, including the Catholic Church, so that their resources can be used to tackle the perennial crisis in our health service. They should be integrated into a world-class, fully funded, one-tier, national public health service that is free at the point of use and funded through progressive taxation on the super-rich and big business.

Tackling and ending this pandemic means prioritising the needs and health of the majority not the interests of the super-rich. The government has failed to do this and in turn has repeatedly exacerbated the scale of cases and casualties.