The Covid massacre this November is not a product of “personal irresponsibility” it is a result of political priorities

1 December, 2020

The newspaper front pages no longer provide the number of people killed by Covid. The Spanish president no longer broadcasts messages to the country about the sanitary situation on public television. All messages are reassuring: the death rate is declining, the next holidays on December 6th we will be able to visit family and friends in some places, we will be able to celebrate a family dinner on Christmas Eve although not in great numbers… The slaughter and the sequels of the disease in tens of thousands of people are left aside and instead the headlines focus on people suffering from eating disorders, the importance of good nutrition in hospitals and a thousand other secondary topics.

The outcome of the media messages is to foster the belief that things ain’t that bad, that some personal safeguards are enough to avoid contagion and to avoid getting infected and that if there is a third wave it will be our own fault, due to our irresponsibility. The expansion of the pandemic, presented as a natural disaster, would not be the result of the success or failure, of the sufficiency or insufficiency of the public measures and the social conditions created by them, but of the individual behavior of the victims themselves.

Is it really no big deal?

PeriodTimeDeaths
Terrorist murders2000-201818 years268
Deaths in occupational accidents20191 year394
victims of ETA 1968-201142 years864
Women and children killed by partners and ex-partners2003-202017 years and 11 months1.073
Deaths in traffic accidents20181 year1.896
Suicides20181 year3.539
Covid (direct deaths)November 20201 month9. 200
Covid (excess mortality)July-November5 months22.400

Individual decisions or social conditions?

This is how the subway was operating in Madrid during August.

By now we all know what incidence measures: the percentage of the population that was infected during the last X days in a location. 15 days is usually taken as a reference. Therefore, it allows us to approximate the percentage of the population that is suffering from the disease -even if they are unaware of it- and that can infect others. An incidence of 500 per cent as the one existing today in the provinces of Granada or Burgos tells us that at least 1 out of every 2,000 people -perhaps even ourselves- is able to infect others.

In an average subway trip to our workplace during rush hour we coincide in a short period of time and in a closed space with more than 2,000 people. Personal protective measures (mask, regular hand washing, avoiding touching face and mucous membranes, keeping a distance when possible from people we talk to, etc.) lowers the likelihood that an encounter in those terms with an infected person will become contagious for us. But the odds are still there: an unconscious lowering of our guard, an accidental rubbing or an undue feeling of safety can trigger what we want to avoid.

More importantly, large numbers of infections will inevitably occur. Because what defines social life, what differentiates it from community and family life, is that it is made up of large numbers and an uncontrollable multitude of personal interactions, most of them unconscious.

Therefore, personal protection measures are not enough. They are useful to reduce the likelihood of contagion in a given social situation, but the determining factor is the social situation itself: the number, form, and diversity of interpersonal interactions. In other words, the result of political decisions.

Two ways to stop spread and death

Mass tests in Qingdao

That is why, until vaccines are readily available, there are only two ways to effectively fight the pandemic:

1 All active cases are located and isolated. All of them. This is what we have seen in China: to an outbreak of a dozen cases in a city of nine million inhabitants, the response is eleven million tests in five days. This way, the outbreak is nipped in the bud and social activity does not have to be constrained.

2 The number of social interactions is abruptly restricted so that those infected – an unknown number of them – can only infect their direct environment. This means drastically reducing mobility, closing down commercial spaces, non-essential workplaces, etc. It takes longer, it is inevitably more costly for businesses and investments, and it has its limits. But it works and deaths and the number of sick people can be stopped or reduced dramatically making it possible to move on to the first alternative. This is what China itself, Italy or Spain did in the first wave. And, although it was limited to a minimum in times of real confinement – including workplaces – and used a fuzzy definition of essential enterprises, it worked.

What “went wrong” between the first and second wave?

Dividends distributed by the companies listed on the Spanish Stock Exchange. The 2020 downturn is at the center of political concerns, which prioritize “saving the economy” over the effectiveness of public health policies…

A hurried reopening and a back-to-school operation aimed at sending everyone back to work as soon as possible but which did not offer the minimum safety requirements since it was not even possible to perform the necessary mass tests to isolate all the new Covid cases.

That is, the Spanish governments, starting with the national government, renounced the first strategy and limited the second to a minimum in order to avoid damaging the economy that is, in order not to reduce the profitability of the capital invested in companies.

The November massacre is the product of a series of political decisions that, from the outset, have prioritized saving investment returns over saving lives. Now as in April, as well as in in September, the only alternative to the slaughter is effective containment and closure of non-essential work activity until the infection rates drop sufficiently to make permanent mass testing and immediate isolation of the newly infected feasible.

But, as it happened back then, the fundamental priority of the governments is to save the economy, that is to say, profits and their accumulation… and to do it in the short term and at low budgetary cost. Doing so requires subjecting ourselves to one wave after another while new worsened working conditions are imposed on us, and placing responsibility for the spread of infection on our individual behaviors. As we have seen, each flattening of the curve was simply instrumental: in summer to save tourism, now to save retail and the Christmas campaign. So every respite in mass contagion has been and is only the prelude to a new wave of the pandemic.

We cannot expect the bourgeoisie to become enlightened. Nor can we wait for insufficient measures that take months in reducing the daily death toll in each wave… and end just at the right time for another sales campaign. As things stand, with the state focused on recovering the accounts of big business and an increasingly desperate and denialist petty bourgeoisie due to the bankruptcy of their businesses, the only ones really and unconditionally interested in stopping the virus and saving lives are the workers. We have to assert this because no other class or social group is going to do it for us.