Feb 9, 2020
The toll from the new coronavirus continues to mount, with the number of reported deaths hitting 400, then 600, then 800... and so on. All the news reports make us focus on China, where this latest deadly disease seems to have started.
China may be the origin of this particular epidemic. But the U.S. has its own home-grown epidemic—a disease that infects 20, 30 even 54 million people in a single year, one that killed over 61,000 people in this country last year alone. That epidemic is the flu.
Yet, the flu should be relatively easy to combat. And this county has the means to deal with it. Medical science knows a great deal about the DNA of various flu strains. It knows how vaccines work to prevent it or lessen its impact.
Even if people do contract the flu, the remedy is simple, repeated by public health officials every year: “Stay Home, Rest, Drink Plenty of Fluids.” This is the single most helpful thing anyone can do to get better—and to avoid spreading the flu to others.
And yet, 61,000 people died from the flu last flu season—often because these simple precautions weren’t observed.
Yes, it’s true, vaccines aren’t fully effective. Of course not. Research to improve them is not a drug-company priority. In fact, the research is done by public universities and publicly funded institutes—and public funding for such research has been cut. Even when a vaccine is developed, handed over to them, few drug companies bother to make it. They operate for profit, and flu vaccines, which change every year, aren’t profitable enough. So drug companies don’t make enough, and not in time.
Some people don’t bother to get the vaccine. Many fear that vaccines are worse than the disease. No wonder. This profit-driven medical system has fostered distrust in itself.
Lurking behind these problems, is an even more basic question: when people develop flu-like symptoms, why don’t they stay home from work long enough to recover?
Why do they go to work, send their sick children to day care or school? Why do they put all the people they come in contact with at risk? That’s how the flu spreads and becomes an epidemic.
We all know why this happens. Many of us don’t have paid sick time. Many more have bosses who write us up when we take off sick with flu-like symptoms.
The question is not just working-age adults. The most vulnerable to the flu are children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.
But how many bosses discipline us if we take time off to care for sick children? How few bosses give us the needed paid time off to help elderly relatives or even neighbors recover?
The profit-driven motive of capitalist society runs counter to the most basic requirements for preventing an epidemic.
In a rational society—that is, one organized collectively to deal with the problems that affect each of us—medical research would be a priority. No one would be under pressure to work when they have symptoms of a contagious disease. Society would organize ways for the most vulnerable to be taken care of—children, the elderly, those with weakened immune systems. Older people would not be thrown away as soon as profit can’t be made off of them.
Reactionaries want us to worry about China. Forget it! Our biggest problems are here at home: the wealth, science and technology that does exist is not organized collectively to serve the common good, the needs of the whole population.
This is the problem we must deal with.