Editorial published on Workers World, March 16, 2020
In this pandemic, people in the U.S. should be questioning why the current capitalist health care system seems unable to combat the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19. We should be demanding why U.S. officials — from the Trump administration to state and local health care departments — have let this crisis reach a point where governmental intervention may be too little, too late.
Thirty million people in the U.S. lack health insurance. Access for millions more is limited by high copays and deductibles. In the wealthiest capitalist country in the world, health care is another commodity, available only to those with the means to pay.
COVID-19 exposes the reality that even when one has the means to pay, there is not enough health care to go around. Lack of centralization also means the U.S. health system has no institutional way to analyze data, relying instead on sporadic reports from state health departments.
Globally, tests for COVID-19 have been available since late January 2020. In late February, the World Health Organization shipped tests to 60 countries, but the U.S. rejected the tests.
The xenophobic and profit-driven Trump administration wanted “Made in America” stamped on test labels. It ordered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to design its own tests. Now social media journalists are raising the possibility that President Trump may have investments in companies producing those tests. (tinyurl.com/sf8tguw)
The early CDC tests were defective, further delaying vital testing when COVID-19 cases began to appear in Washington state in late February. Now in mid-March, as more people report COVID-19 symptoms, testing remains criminally limited.
Other countries report testing upwards of 20,000 people a day. In the U.S., fewer than 20,000 tests have been performed in total as of mid-March.
We demand that the data be centralized and that tests be free, available and accessible to everyone. That some municipalities are only providing “drive-through” testing stations shamefully excludes people without access to cars.
The sick system of capitalist health care
But focusing on the numbers of known COVID-19 cases conceals the underlying crisis: How many intensive care beds do U.S. hospitals have? How many ventilators, doctors, nurses and other staff trained to use ventilators are available? How many seriously ill people can be treated at any given time in U.S. hospitals?
Addressing these questions strips away the façade that the U.S. has the “best health care system” in the world. The reality is that the health care system here is seriously inadequate and about to be challenged way beyond its limits.
Even before the COVID-19 crisis, millions of urban and rural communities faced a critical lack of access to treatment facilities. By 2018, U.S. hospitals were closing at the rate of about 30 a year, according to the American Hospital Association.
Currently U.S. hospitals in total have fewer than 70,000 available adult intensive care beds, of which three-quarters are already occupied. The lowest estimate of adults who may need intensive care due to COVID-19 over the coming months is between 200,000 and 300,000. Other studies put estimates in the millions.
The number of accessible ventilators is more alarming. In February, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, an independent, nonprofit organization in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated that the U.S. has a total of 160,000 ventilators readily available, with an additional 8,900 in national stockpiles. Even if more ventilators can be produced, there are not enough trained staff to use them.
The great irony now is that the U.S. for-profit health care system, which relies on often unnecessary medical tests for diagnosis, is failing to provide the basic testing and health care critical to stem this pandemic. This despite the fact that the U.S. spends two times more per capita for health care than any other country.
But how much of that spending goes to Big Pharma and Big Insurance profit?
China shows socialized planning works
Is it possible to combat this disease? Yes — and China has proved that. Once the extent of contagion became evident, China quickly quarantined the most susceptible communities. As an extreme patient load became evident, Chinese workers built new hospitals in 10 days. Empty sports arenas were converted into makeshift centers to treat less serious cases.
Volunteers were given safety equipment so they could deliver food and medicines to patients. Medical workers were sent to viral hotspots to lessen the load on overtaxed local medical personnel. Impacted workers were paid wages so they could stay home.
As a result, close to 80 percent of 80,000 infected patients in China have recovered as of March 13. Now the Chinese government is volunteering assistance to other countries around the globe that are currently struggling against the pandemic. This is all possible because China has a planned, centralized economy that is not motivated by putting profits first.
As for the U.S., based on the CDC’s own scenarios, between 160 to 214 million people here could be infected during the epidemic that could last months or even over a year. Of those, more than 21 million people could require hospitalization, with who knows how many dying in a capitalist health care system completely unprepared for the crisis.
In the warzone of the pandemic, it is more clear than ever that socialism is the future.