Is socialism only possible when the forces of production stop growing? – KMAC part 33*

The growth of the capitalist system involves the development of new needs – we did not need the mobile phone until it was invented and many didn’t consider getting one until it got small enough in size and price.  This will be true of the new needs we are currently unaware of, that will also arise from the capitalist development of the forces of production.

The productive forces that create these new needs are primarily “the accumulation of the skill and knowledge (scientific power) of the workers themselves . . . and infinitely more important than the accumulation – which goes hand in hand with it and merely represents it – of the existing objective conditions of this accumulated activity.  These objective conditions [machinery, equipment, infrastructure etc.] are only nominally accumulated and must be constantly produced anew and consumed anew.” (Marx, Theories of Surplus Value Vol 3)

This process is a fundamental feature of capitalism and thus to the development within it of the conditions for its supersession. It evolves through antagonisms, and in the 1859 Preface to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ Marx states that ‘at a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production.’ At this point there ‘begins an era of social revolution.’

For Marx the creation of these conditions, the promise of a new non-exploitative and non-oppressive society, can no more avoid the antagonisms of capitalism, and all its ills, than humanity could avoid belief that the world it inhabits is the creation of a divine being.

“An oppressed class is the vital condition for every society founded on the antagonism of classes. The emancipation of the oppressed class thus implies necessarily the creation of a new society. For the oppressed class to be able to emancipate itself, it is necessary that the productive powers already acquired and the existing social relations should no longer be capable of existing side by side. Of all the instruments of production, the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself. The organization of revolutionary elements as a class supposes the existence of all the productive forces which could be engendered in the bosom of the old society.”  (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847)

This was written early in Marx’s career and, if the last sentence is to be understood strictly, implies that the organisation of the working class supposes that the productive forces have grown to such extent that they cannot grow further within capitalism.  While some Marxists believe this stagnation or absolute retardation of capitalist development is the case, or rather repeatedly declare that this must be the case, or is impending, this is very hard, in fact impossible, to defend.  The working class continues to grow massively across the world and could not do so, by definition, if the productive forces of the capitalist system were not also growing.

Marx may be thought to repeat this understanding twelve years later in the 1859 Preface to ‘The Critique of Political Economy’ quoted above, and which we looked at over a number of posts in this series as a succinct published summary of his views on these decisive questions.

Here he says that:

“No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”

G A Cohen in his celebrated book ‘Karl Marx’s Theory of History, A Defence’, rewords the first part of the sentence to read “No economic structure (set of production relations) ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed. . .”

We will leave aside his replacement of ‘social order’ by the narrower ‘economic structure (set of production relations)’ and we will come back to his translation of ‘sufficient’ as ‘for which there is room’.

Cohen is right to note that this does not say that once all the productive resources have been developed an economic structure (or social order) perishes; it may ‘fossilise’, or decline or end in ‘ruination’ as Marx once alluded to in ‘The Communist Manifesto’.  The second part also does not mean that if the material conditions sufficient for a new society have developed within the old one this new society will emerge.  It may not, and this will depend on concrete historical circumstances.  Marxists have good grounds for believing that the material conditions for a new socialist society that develop within capitalism will engender its emergence.

These grounds include the earlier statement, noted above, that

“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

These grounds are verified not only by an understanding of the dynamics of capitalism, which have been verified empirically (repeated economic and political crises caused by the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production within it) but also by the history of class struggle, confirmed by the continued existence of that struggle.

What is ‘up for grabs’ is that these changes “lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”  Given the perennial optimism of many Marxists, which unfortunately (?) I don’t share, I consider this might now better be rephrased by taking out the words ‘sooner or’; although given the relative brevity of mature capitalism’s existence this might only be a reflection of a perspective from a human lifespan that is nearer departures than arrivals.

For Marxists, as opposed to analytical philosophers like Cohen, the real issue here is that the productive forces continue to be developed by capitalism and that this might imply two things.  First, that the idea that previous attempts at socialist revolution could have been successful is mistaken, and second, that current ideas that socialist revolution is on the agenda (in some historical as opposed to immediate sense) are mistaken for the same reason.

As we have seen, it will not do to avoid this potential difficulty by claiming that capitalism is not developing the productive forces.  There are political organisations which have repeated the idea that capitalism has been in crisis more or less the whole period of their own existence but, as I have already noted, the working class has grown enormously in the last period, which means the growth of wage labour, exploitation and the creation of masses of new surplus value upon which capitalist accumulation takes place.

I said I would return to Cohen’s translation of “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed” into “No economic structure (set of production relations) ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed. . .”

This passage has been translated in a number of ways but it is undoubtedly better that it be understood to mean that the social order of capitalism is insufficient for the development of the productive forces rather than the stage must be reached where there is simply lack of room for these forces to develop.

That latter suggests an absolute barrier which, when reached, will mean that the productive forces will cease to develop.  Since we have not, and do not, appear to be approaching such a stage, this would seem to argue that the destruction of capitalism is not on the historical agenda and certainly has not been in the century in which Marx lived or in the twentieth century either.  The idea that capitalism could have been overthrown at any point during this time would have been illusory – capitalism had the potential to develop the forces of production massively.  It certainly ‘had room’ for them.

The possibility of the overthrow of capitalism rests not on the existence of some absolute obstacle which ceases to provide room for its development but from the contradictions it contains that make capitalism insufficient for the development of the forces of production within it.  This is expressed in crises of overproduction, in which the relations of production impose on these forces the necessity for an expansion based on the realisation of massively increased amounts of surplus value.  In other words, the expansion of these forces is continually thrown into crisis because the need for this to involve a suitable expansion of profit.

When this doesn’t happen crises of overproduction lead to interruptions in the development of these forces through the typical symptoms of crisis – unemployed labour and instruments of production, and unsold commodities that cannot satisfy the consumption needs of workers or of capitalists for continued and expanded production.  The development of capitalism means that this contradiction increases and the capitalist mode of production becomes more and more insufficient for this development.

Each crisis trends towards a greater mass of capital unable to contribute to its own expansion, whether it is expressed in larger and larger numbers of workers unemployed, greater means of production unused or devalued through bankruptcies and reduced capacity utilisation, and a greater number of commodities unsold or sold at reduced prices.

It is not that each crisis must register a successively greater percentage of unemployment or fall in levels of production.  We should not seek confirmation of Marx’s analysis through expecting every crisis of overproduction to be worse in these relative respects, as if industrial production must fall more, and unemployment must always be higher, than the Great Depression of the 1930s etc.

It is that capitalism means the accumulation of greater and greater amounts of capital, and the crises that its contradictions create thus tend to throw back, and tend to the destruction of, absolutely greater amounts of capital.  The grounds for socialism do not arise from only one pole of this contradiction but also from the development of the forces of production that precede crises and subsequently follow them.

This is what demonstrates the fettering of the forces of production by the relations of production.  These relations imply unceasing competition between different capitals and the states they both support and rely upon.  This means economic crises become political conflicts, not just involving suppression of subordinate classes but also war between rival capitals and states.

The bloody history of capitalism, especially in the first half of the twentieth century shows the absolute devastation that the contradictions of capitalism can inflict, as the international development of the forces of production runs up against capitalist relations of production centred on national states and Empires.  Rival capitalists stand behind these states as they seek through alliances and opposition to advance at the expense of others.

*KMAC: Karl Marx’s Alternative to Capitalism

Back to part 32

People before Profit’s ‘Zero Covid-19’ Strategy

This week the Dáil debated a motion tabled by opposition parties calling for a ‘zero-covid’ strategy.  It was supported by People before Profit and repeated a number of measures published in their strategy document.  Their approach has been supported by much of the Left in Ireland and in Britain. What can we make of it?

A number of questions are immediately raised that the strategy would have to answer. How long would lockdown have to last to achieve its objective; how much would this cost not only financially but also in the well-known drastic effects of lockdown, and what lives and health would be preserved by the strategy compared to the costs?  Is it demonstrated that the costs will not exceed the benefits?

You will search in vain for answers to any of these questions in the PbP document.

Government strategy is based on a balance of restrictive measures and permission to do certain things that have previously been taken for granted. It is accepted that this involves costs but also benefits that justify the costs, while some costs it refuses to accept.  The financial cost to the state in 2020 is estimated to have been €20 billion and Leo Varadkar has speculated that the final cost may be €50 billion.

The ‘zero-covid’ strategy means the balance is wrong but doesn’t say what the financial cost is of drastically shifting it (or the other non-financial costs e.g. deterioration in mental health, rise in domestic abuse and restriction of basic civil rights etc.).  The People before Profit (PbP) document calls for the ‘closure of all non-essential workplaces’ but doesn’t say what they are: how many more would be closed compared to the current lockdown?  Would the difference be significant?  What work is currently not essential and what would be the impact on the economy and the workers in the closed sectors?

PbP say that profits are being put before health but since we live in a capitalist society production is both for profit and to meet needs.  Socialists object that the former is an obstacle to satisfaction of the latter but they don’t claim that under capitalism needs can be met by closing down production for profit.  Even their organisation’s name seems an unconscious acceptance of this (and you could write a whole post on how incoherent that name is).

PbP says that Governments only care about people working and spending, but working class people care about these things as well, for quite obvious reasons, although this seems to escape those seeking to drastically reduce both.  Socialists of the Marxist variety also don’t believe that pieces of paper, or electronic data in bank computers, are a substitute for the actual production of the goods and services people use and consume.  The pieces of paper that capitalism presents as the universal equivalent of real wealth is useless without the production of that which really embodies the potential satisfaction of needs.

Their demand for economic security as a fundamental requirement of public health is equated with state welfare that has always been a permanent source of insecurity, as well as a more or less inadequate safety net.  Welfare systems are not meant to provide economic security for working class people and it fundamentally miseducates them to say they can.

So, the ‘zero-covid’ strategy doesn’t answer basic problems or objections.  To make big claims requires big arguments and big evidence but even obvious questions are ignored.

A second problem concerns the idea of the strategy itself.  It is called ‘zero-covid’ but appears to accept that you can’t get to a situation of absolutely zero.  Having reduced the number of cases to a low level it still envisages periodic eruptions of cases.  It does not mean ‘eradication’ but repeats that it does mean ‘elimination’, which means that control measures will still be required.  The problem is that for a zero-covid strategy these measures mean punishing lockdowns.

So, the ‘zero-covid’ strategy actually involves severe lockdown of indeterminate duration to reduce cases to very low numbers whereupon lockdown is relaxed, cases will again increase, which will require further lockdowns.  Its advocates think these lockdowns can be achieved by testing, tracking and isolation but widespread asymptomatic infection, incentives not to report, ineradicable errors in testing, more transmissible viral mutations, and drastic quarantine measures to impose isolation all point to something much more sweeping.

It should not be forgotten that cases reduced dramatically during the summer to something close to what I assume ‘zero-covid’ supporters would aim at, but was then replaced by an increasing number of cases giving rise to new lockdowns that the same supporters called to be more drastic.  Rather than the strategy looking like an alternative to repeated lockdowns it looks like a mutant variant of it, following what currently appears to be seasonal eruptions of infection.

The analogy used to describe the strategy provides something of an understanding of what is intended but analogies have a habit of leading to misunderstanding.  The example is put forward of a forest fire that requires maximum effort to put out, while recognising that embers may still remain that require to be put out when they again spark new localised fires.

The analogy fails because while forest fires destroy everything in their path the Covid-19 pandemic does not, and while new local fires can be quickly identified and ring-fenced new outbreaks of covid-19 are often without symptoms and can quickly become far from localised.

This brings us to a third failure of the strategy, which is really incredible but says a lot for its affinity to the current approach and its even worse failure to identify what the danger of the pandemic is.  While noting the importance of targeting Covid hotspots and ensuring the safety of vulnerable groups, it mentions in this category workers in meat plants, those in direct provision and migrant detention centres, and travellers and homeless people.  It fails to say anything at all about the vulnerable most at risk of dying.  Neither does the Dáil motion, which mentions that women are disproportionately bearing the burden of the pandemic.

Nothing is said about the median age of those dying being in their eighties or about over 90 per cent of fatalities having an underlying condition. Nothing is said about the scandalous multiple deaths in residential care homes, where older people should have been made safe.  Nothing about the failure of the state to secure them in its dedicated facilities or of the general failure of health services to protect them.  Nothing about the infection of older people by the heath service either in hospital or through then discharging them into homes.  Instead, infection rates in healthcare staff are put down to lack of money, as if infection control should not be a standing requirement.  The actions of the Health Service Executive has on the contrary demonstrated that this has not been seen as an absolute priority.

To say any of this would undermine the zero-covid approach advocated by PbP, including its reliance on the state and its determined refusal to accept the very limited risks posed to all but the identified vulnerable groups.  To do so might be seen to rob the situation of the sense of extreme crisis so necessary to its attempt to talk up the murderous policy of putting profit before people, and the hope that workers will wake up and smell the coffee.

What we therefore have is a strategy, not unlike the current one, that has ignored the real pandemic that has taken place, and has bought into the idea that it is a threat to everyone equally when patently it is not.  The priority given by the virus in killing people is ignored by a strategy that wants zero cases for everyone, and in doing so has ignored the priority of those whose lives are threatened by it.

The health bureaucracy has moulded its response in its own image to put itself in charge.  The left has moulded its response in the image of its own misguided political conceptions, including the potential benevolence of the capitalist state, despite that state’s obvious failure.  Which brings us to a last major failing of the strategy.

Again and again the state, especially in the form of a national health service, is held up as the answer when a quick look across the border will show that the NHS in the North has failed, has ceased to become a health service and become instead a covid-19 service.  The cost of this in future illness and death has not been a first concern.  Long waiting lists have become even longer while the latter is blamed on the former and previous failure becomes the excuse for its extension.

The PbP strategy is replete with references to the recruitment of new healthcare staff ‘to dramatically increase capacity’.  It wants ‘more public health specialists’ and to ‘recruit extra nurses and doctors’ but there are definite limits to how much can be done quickly.  Really significant increases cannot be created in months but only over years.  As an answer to the pandemic today it is a wish list that can only promise salvation sometime in the future.

It says the problem with the health services is ‘structural’ but then contradicts itself by saying it arises from lack of funding and ‘neoliberal’ management, and further contradicts itself by calling for the ‘nationalisation of private hospitals’, imposing the same structural model that has failed.

Because PbP believes that state ownership is socialist, and they think they’re socialists, then the solution is state ownership when the ‘structural’ problem is precisely this form of ownership and control.  An ownership and control beset by bureaucracy and bedevilled by narrow professional hierarchies and egos.

The problem is not a style of management but that health services are bureaucracies that privilege themselves, with the most powerful within them being best able to do so, including medical consultants who prioritise private work, although this is only one feature of the state capitalist service.  The policy of Governments to portray health service workers as heroes beyond all reproach is resisted by some staff but is pursued in order, not to protect the interests of these staff, but to protect the bureaucrats and politicians who govern the system.  The blinkered approach to the health system leads to mistakes such as the widespread responsibility for infection by hospitals and care homes being either ignored, downplayed or excused.

The absence of answers to key questions posed by the strategy; the inadequate understanding of what it would actually mean in Ireland; the failure to even identify the main threat from the pandemic, and the call for measures that cannot be implemented quickly enough to make the difference its authors say is needed; all this points to an underlying impotent political programme summed up at the end of the strategy document:

“. . . most of all, we will need to clearly articulate a vision for an alternative to the destructive instability of capitalism – in Ireland we can play our part by popularising the call for a Transformative Left Government that would reorganise the economy under democratic control, as part of an ambitious Just Transition. .  .  . A left government supported by people power and workers organised in fighting trade unions can deliver real change . . .”

Capitalism will not be changed by a ‘Left Government’, by a group of politicians seeking to transform society through wielding the power of a state that exists to defend it.  Neither can the economy be ‘reorganised’ top-down by such a Government that will in some way, somehow, then be subject to democratic control.  If anyone in PbP still subscribes to any of the fundamental ideas of Marxism they will know all this is false, and being false it is dishonest to sell such a strategy, which is why it is so threadbare.

It is not in any sense a socialist strategy either at the level of transforming society or in dealing with Covid-19, as ritual references to emulating New Zealand, Australia and Asian countries demonstrates. In what way are any of these socialist?  In what way are they safe from future infection, if it at any point they cease to separate themselves from the rest of the world in a way simply impossible for Ireland?  Australia itself provides evidence that there is no such thing as one big final lockdown that breaks the back of infection.  Numerous mutations in many countries belie the idea that these are necessarily foreign and can be avoided by border controls over any extended period.

The great advantage of the zero-covid strategy is that it presents an ideal outcome that compares brilliantly with any other potential approach; the more so since no cost is admitted and no account taken of any problems arising from, or consequences of, its practical implementation, even were such implementation possible in any relevant timescale.

That is why it is also ideal, unreal and hollow.  Not so much transformative as transcendental.

A year of Covid-19 (4) – a tragedy to be forgiven?

It’s almost as if someone has been reading these posts on the course of Covid-19 in Ireland.  Fintan O’Toole’s latest column (paywall) in ‘The Irish Times’ also notes some of the mistakes made in its early management and, while he treats the Irish approach as one of ad-libbing and improvisation, he lends a sympathetic ear to the early performance.  To what extent is this justified?

Well, let’s start with the scope afforded by this forgiveness: “when it’s all trial and error, no one should be tried for making an error – even when, as in the case of nursing homes and residential institutions – the flaws were fatal.”  But consider if we change the tense of the sentence – ‘even when . . . the flaws are fatal’.

‘Error’ he goes on to say ‘is moreover built into the structure of science . . . but science isn’t a set of certainties . . . to follow science is to follow evidence and with a new disease the evidence has been constantly evolving.’

Well, yes and no.  The important link between the worst effects of the virus and a person’s underlying conditions has been more and more understood.  On the other hand, as I noted at the end of the previous post – ‘one aspect . . . has appeared stubbornly consistent, the median age of those dying was reported in mid-January to be 82.’  Most recently, of over 1,500 deaths in care homes 369 were in January alone, a five-fold increase from December to January.

The Health Service Executive (HSE) noted on 21 January that the 27th of the month would be the anniversary of the first meeting of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), the crisis management team for the pandemic.  It was noted in April that no mention of nursing homes had been made in its first 11 meetings, with the HSE claiming that the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) that attended the meetings were supposed to represent the interests of older people.

While boasting of the support given to care homes the HSE officials were at this time unable to provide up-to-date figures of deaths within them or a breakdown between state and private providers.  Neither did they answer as to whether any of the deaths could have been avoided.

Around the same time that NPHET was being set up a number of important academic papers were just being published on the effects of the new disease (here and here), including evidence of the effect of the pandemic in China.  The notable paper from Imperial College in London included further disclosure of the much greater threat to older people posed by the virus.  While the infection fatality rate was 0.002% for children aged 0 – 9, the rate for those 80+ was 9.3%, 4,650 times higher.  While these absolute figures were too high the relative differences remained.

Clearly avoiding infection was many multiples more important for older people than for the very young. Even between the age groups 40 – 49 and 60 – 69 the relative fatality rate was nearly 15 times higher for the latter group.  So protecting the older age groups was vital, which involved isolating them from potential infection.  How could these most vulnerable people be effectively separated?

Fortunately, many of these people were already relatively isolated in social care facilities, while identification of those in the community would be relatively straightforward.  Unfortunately, this relative isolation was not a protection.

While the health regulator was supposed to represent the interests of older people the HSE was there to protect the health of the whole population.  It became apparent however that the facilities they managed, controlled and regulated had become prime sites of infection, all while the NPHET engaged in interminable debate about opening or closing shops, hospitality, schools and workplaces etc.

When it wasn’t about the various levels of lockdown that were never applied at the levels specified, it was about testing and tracing, which didn’t identify where the virus was coming from and was later no longer advised for close contacts of confirmed cases.  So, what had been the point of it?

At the beginning of this year ‘senior sources’ were reporting the exhaustion of their approach, admitting that there was “not much else that can be done”, which didn’t stop the debate of vanishing returns continuing.  Today it revolves around rules for entry from outside the state, which is almost a moot point given the levels of domestic infection.  More honestly, it is being reported that ‘Ministers and senior officials’ view it as ‘more about politics than public health.’

Yet the places where around half of the deaths have occurred – residential homes and hospitals – are spared the outrage they properly deserve.  On 26 January it was reported that the level of infections among staff and patients in health care settings had never been higher.  And three days later the Chief Medical Officer was explaining that there was an “exceptionally elevated” infection rate among those aged over 85; that 55 recent deaths were associated with hospitals and 140 with nursing homes; and that we could “expect a large number of additional deaths in the coming weeks.”  Not much had changed over the year despite the ‘trial and error’ of ‘following the science.’

The state has incurred increased debt of around €20 billion in 2020 through various lockdowns but it is still unable to target resources effectively at the greatest problem: the daily death toll for Tuesday was the highest of the pandemic and the median age is still 80+.

It cannot be that a targeted prevention strategy would cost too much or that resources could not be prioritised – €2 billion would go a long way towards protecting older people never mind €20bn.  If even half the current death toll had been avoided and it was now around 1,750 who had died, would this justify the lockdown of society along with its enormous cost?  Would it not have been possible to identify those with the underlying conditions that make them vulnerable apart from advanced years, accounting for well over 90% of deaths? And would it then not have been possible to recognise the difference between those dying with Covid-19 and those from Covid-19?

But why would new problems be adequately addressed by the Irish health system when forever problems have not? When it turns out that the new problems are really the old ones?  As was pointed out by one TD early on, the Health Regulator – supposed to represent the interests of older people – had already reported that in care homes the compliance rates for risk assessment and infection control had fallen from 27 per cent to 23 per cent between 2017 and 2018.

Repeated problems identified have never been adequately addressed, with the HIQA complaining in November that nursing home residents were picking up the infection in hospitals and then being returned to their homes, while care home staff were being lost to contact tracing teams and agency staff were not being included in testing.

As Prof Sam McConkey, an infectious disease specialist with the Royal College of Surgeons, put it “nursing homes have been chronically under-staffed for several years.  They are going to have to start cherishing their staff as the most important thing they have.”  If staff were paid adequately they wouldn’t have to take second jobs, which might for example go some way to addressing the problem that staff weren’t turning up for testing and some were showing up for work while showing symptoms.

Some care homes were simply too small with too few resources. In some residential facilities for people with disabilities derogations were given to staff to continue working though they were identified as having possible close contact with infection.  They had not been tested and it was not clear when they would.

Yet, repeatedly bizarre statements have been issued by those in charge, including that NPHET was proposing setting up an infection-control team – in mid-December!  As if infection control was not a standard and routine hospital requirement. Or that there were difficulties in approving employment of nurses for care homes from India, Philippines and other countries outside Europe, reported in January, when many problems were the result of shortages of staff.

All this was occurring at the same time as repeated statements were made by the NPHET, which we noted in the previous post, that “there was simply no way of protecting nursing homes or any other institutional setting if we don’t control the spread of this infection in the community.” Then saying that vulnerable groups in care settings were a priority although also saying that it was “not realistic to think we could keep it out of homes.”

Unfortunately, seeking to prevent community infection through a generalised lockdown makes all talk of prioritisation a nonsense.  A general lockdown is precisely not to prioritise, and the actions and non-actions of the state are convincing evidence of this lack of ordering of risk.  To talk then, as O’Toole does, of inevitable mistakes is itself to fall into the error of identifying policy as simply mistakes.   Even in the case of vaccination, the representative body of private nursing homes has complained that just 10 per cent of the initial 77,000 vaccinations administered by mid-January were within nursing homes.

The identification, right from the start, that Covid-19 represented a specific threat should have been met with targeted and focused measures to protect those most vulnerable.  The ramshackle and incoherent attempt to lock everybody up, that cannot be sustained, has diverted attention away from this task.

That diversion continues with a false debate over a ‘Zero-Covid’ strategy, which is simply a variant of the current approach.  Like the existing approach, it targets what measures are required to support closing society instead of what measures are needed to keep it open.  It again ignores experience of just who is threatened and how specific measures might be implemented to protect them.

Both the current approach and its extension into a ‘Zero-Covid’ one can’t tell us how long we would have to be locked up for and how we could be sure that whatever metric of success is decided upon could be achieved on a sustainable basis.  What ‘Zero-Covid’ would gain in reducing deaths associated with Covid-19 would be more than offset by the costs of an intensified and indefinite lockdown, which if the advocates of it had been followed, would have been in place since March. Both ultimately can only be sold to an increasingly weary population by promising something that they can’t deliver: the development of the pandemic has had more to do with the weather than lockdown measures, and the end-point of immunity through vaccination may be illusory if new variants are impervious to the vaccines just developed.

In this case, and it may be the situation anyway, living with Covid-19 will be required and immunity through infection become the outcome, if not the objective.  In any case and in the meantime, the policy should be directed to protection of the most vulnerable.  In relation to the assessment of O’Toole, the prerequisites for forgiveness do not exist.

Back to part 3

A year of Covid-19 (3) – the Irish experience of following ‘the science’

Following ‘the science’ and its scientists that we looked at in the two previous posts does not look well in hindsight, as a short review of the course of the pandemic in the Irish State demonstrates.  In the early days these were forecasting 20,000 deaths, six times the current figure which is just over 3,300, and an even greater over-estimate than the influential Imperial College paper that forecast a possible 500,000 deaths in the UK.

At the start, what characterised the response, just like Britain, was complacency.  On 4 March the Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan of the HSE stated that “as things stand” there was no reason why the St Patricks day festival could not go ahead, and he did not believe that it was proportionate to prevent Italian rugby fans from visiting Dublin for a cancelled match.  The attendance of thousands of Irish racegoers at the Cheltenham festival also went ahead.  From the point of view of the generalised lockdown that was later to be implemented this was a catalogue of mistakes.

The State supposedly had a policy of test and trace, in which all cases could be identified and followed up to ensure isolation.  The system and its resources were quickly shown to be inadequate, with it only subsequently being admitted that test and trace did not identify where infections came from.  Prof. Philip Nolan from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) stated that “we would like to go back and find out where people are getting the virus, but we don’t have the time or resources to pursue this academic exercise”.  In any case, in October researchers from Beaumont reported that up to two out of every three infections could be missed through poor technique when people are being swabbed.

At this early stage the policy on testing was confused: so to be tested before March 12 a person had to be symptomatic or either in close contact with a confirmed case or have travelled from an affected area. Then having one symptom was required, then the list of symptoms changed, and if this threshold was passed the person needed to be in a priority category.

These early mis-steps have led many to see the issue as being one of weak or incomplete implementation of policy rather than the policy being misconceived in the first place.  The record suggests the latter.

The island of Ireland could not isolate itself from the rest of the world so could not avoid importing the infection.  Having imported it, it was always going to be impossible to identify all cases since most were asymptomatic.  Social distancing and isolation of suspected cases was considered to be the equivalent of the mass quarantine implemented elsewhere but was not.  The measures adopted simply slowed the spread of the infection, justified to protect the health service, but with the by-product that doing so gave it time to mutate, as it did.

Much bigger ‘mis-steps’ were made at this time, again flowing not from failure to adequately implement policy but as a result of its conception. On March 6 the representative organisation of private nursing homes, Nursing Homes Ireland, (NHI) banned all visitors to its homes.  Four days later Tony Holohan of the NPHET questioned the closures “before they are really necessary” while the Department of Health only eventually gave approval to the action ten days after NHI had introduced the restrictions.

In early March Holohan was claiming that ‘we had reacted very early and with significant action compared to other countries’, although the performance of these other countries seemed to be held up as some sort of exculpation rather than a pointer to a failing common approach. For the Chief Medical Officer their response “in the first instance had to focus on dealing with community transmission of this virus.  There was simply no way of protecting nursing homes or any other institutional setting if we don’t control the spread of this infection in the community.”

NPHET later claimed that it was not until late March that research pointed to the threat of asymptomatic transmission in care homes although by the end of May Paul Reid, chief executive of the Health Service Executive (HSE), was acknowledging that “there are obvious gaps in clarity and responsibility in the overall governance and oversight of private nursing homes.”

By mid-April Holohan was stating that vulnerable groups in care settings were a priority, but by that time there were 330 outbreaks in residential cares facilities, with concern expressed about under-reporting.  While boasting of the “unprecedented level of support” given to homes the HSE was unable to provide up-to-date figures for deaths.

Not much later Holohan was stating that it was “not realistic to think we could keep it out of homes”, while by the end of April it was reported that 735 people had died in residential community settings.  By early May the mortality rate in nursing homes was three times that among the rest of population, accounting for 61 per cent of deaths (including those in other residential facilities).

By the end of May the Department of Health had been warned by the health regulator of more than 200 “high risk” nursing homes, while receiving “just an acknowledgement” and “no response”.  NHI had quickly raised concerns around PPE and hospital discharges, but by late March 88 per cent of homes had bought either their own PPE or used home-made. Almost half of nursing homes said that they had to wait 10 days for test results to come back, and publication of cases in particular homes was not provided (unlike for hospitals).

By June it was apparent that nursing and other residential facilities were not the only health and social care facilities where infections were occurring.  At the start of the month, it was reported that more than 200 people had contracted coronavirus while in hospital in 102 outbreaks. By the end of August, it was also reported that about 90 per cent of all cases among over-65s were of nursing home residents (between March and end of June), amounting to almost 6,000 cases resulting in 968 deaths (56% of the total at that point).

By the beginning of the following month concern was again being expressed at the rise in cases among older people.  In early October a NPHET letter noted a ‘sustained increase’ in cases, with home residents accounting for more than half of the 1,810 virus-related deaths, but with Holohan again asserting that it was not possible to document all patterns of infection and that measures directed to the whole population were needed.

The Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) expressed concern that there was no “consistency of approach” on whether nursing home residents should be tested where staff had tested positive. The HSE chief clinical advisor claimed that older people could not be “siphoned off safely” but the chief inspector of HIQA stated later that “not all centres where staff have tested positive have undertaken a programme of resident testing.”

In November, NPHET priorities, according to Holohan, were protection of the most vulnerable, continued resumption of non-Covid health and social care services and education of children; but by mid-November it was reported that in the week up to Oct 31 there were 56 outbreaks of infection in nursing homes and 33 associated with hospitals.

Lockdown however appeared to be getting some results, even if this was little more than postponement rather than eradication. This was now success, as was the perceived protection of a health system unable to adequately do its own job of protection.

By the beginning of December the Irish state was hailed, especially by itself, as the best performing in Europe measured by the average number of new cases.  Unfortunately, even in success the most significant threat remained, with Holohan expressing concern at the level of infections in nursing homes despite the highest Level 5 lockdown.  Hospitals also remained a problem, and on 13 November it was reported that pre-admission tests for Covid that had been recommended for hospitals were not being practised by all.  Anne O’Connor, the chief operations officer of HSE, stated that guidance had been changed in the previous two weeks.

By December the problem with hospital acquired infection was continuing, with over 200 confirmed cases in the four weeks up to 13 December and more than 400 picking it up in hospital in two weeks in January.  By the new year the Irish State had gone from the being the best in Europe to being the worst in the world in terms of growth in cases.  The State went from 80,000 cases in nine months to doubling this total in three weeks.

Since there had been a partial opening before Christmas this was held up for blame but there remained no evidence that cafes, hairdressers or clothes’ shops were a problem; it was a question of a seasonal infection flourishing in its best environment with any human interaction facilitating spread.

Doing away with the latter altogether was the only logical extension of the existing policy and all the variations on the different social distancing rules were the proverbial number of angels dancing on the head of a pin.  Very few wanted to go there, and those who might would face the difficulty that closing down sites of infection might have to start with hospitals and nursing homes, with 100 outbreaks in the former from July to mid-December and 93 in the latter.  A study in mid-January reported that the rate of infection among hospital staff in Galway and Dublin was six times that of the local community.

Despite the months of restrictions and despite the worst-in-the-world figures there did not appear to be excess deaths.  The prevailing narrative appeared to tell a story that did not add up.  One aspect however appeared stubbornly consistent, the median age of those dying was reported in mid-January to be 82.  This outcome was consistent with the North despite its apparent different path, with people aged 75 and over accounted for 77.7 per cent of ‘coronavirus-related’ deaths and with 91.5 per cent having some pre-existing condition, Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease being the most common.

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