Worldwide, “serious and critical cases” of Covid in hospitals stand at 105,000 and increasing, only just below the all-time high of 114,000 on 29 August.
The counted death rate per day has decreased a bit in recent days, and is now 50% below its peak in January 2021, but is still higher than at any time before mid-November 2020.
The real figures are worse than the counts. More of the deaths and serious cases recently have been in poorer countries which have looser counts and where severe cases are less likely to reach hospitals. In India, the death rate is now falling, but scientists reckon that the real toll there may be ten times the official figure of 440,000 deaths so far.
We are moving towards winter in the Northern hemisphere, with its 87% of the world’s population. Because of viruses’s seasonal patterns, not yet understood, and because of more people being indoors in crowded spaces, Covid cases are likely to rise.
New variants will emerge. The latest is Mu. It may evade existing immunities (from infections or vaccines) better than others, though we don’t yet know if it will out-compete Delta.
We are far from being “post-Covid”. That is true even in the richer and better-vaccinated countries. But the better-vaccinated are vastly better protected. The first priority is to vaccinate the world.
Since May, world vaccination rates have been jogging along at about 0.4 or 0.5 jabs per 100 people per day. About 28% of the world’s population is vaccinated. At that rate it will be well into Northern hemisphere spring 2022 before we get an average of the 70% or 80% vaccination rates achieved or aimed at by richer countries.
Poorer countries can vaccinate fast. Cambodia has been vaccinating at over one jab per 100 people per day for the last month, while the fastest the UK ever went was 0.6 to 0.8.
But they have to have the vaccines. As yet Africa has achieved only eight jabs per 100, growing at a rate of only 0.1 per day, which would mean four years to reach full vaccination. India has only 11% fully vaccinated.
Pfizer gets a 80% profit margin on each dose, at $39 a shot. Moderna is coining huge profits. Astra-Zeneca is cheaper (Oxford scientists forced its hand by sending technical info to India before doing a deal with the firm), but overall supply is being pre-empted by rich countries buying it up in advance.
The South Korean government has called on the US government to press Big Pharma to share technology to new vaccine factories in South Korea. No response.
Labour movements must fight for Big Pharma to be taken under public ownership and democratic control, to enable emergency vaccine production and distribution worldwide. And for rich governments to donate more vaccines than the token amounts given already to the World Health Organization’s Covax scheme.
Leaving the virus to rage unchecked in vast areas of the world will kill further millions and generate new variants likely to bite back at the relatively well-vaccinated countries.
Israel, the USA, and the UK are seeing Covid surges, as relatively well-vaccinated Chile and Seychelles did before us. In Chile and Seychelles, a possible factor is lower effectiveness from one of the Chinese vaccines used there. In Israel, the USA, and the UK, though, the evidence from the Covid surges - which probably come from scrapping even lax restrictions, and wide mixing through holiday travel - confirms the effectiveness of vaccines.
The vaccines aim to stop severe symptoms. They do that well, though, like all other vaccines, not 100%. They limit post-Covid sufferings. They also limit slight-symptom or no-symptom infection, and consequent transmission, but less so. With a highly-transmissible variant like Delta, vaccines will always have difficulty stopping surges rather than making them milder.
In the UK, the case fatality rate from Covid is only one-tenth what it was in February, and now in the same league as flu. In Israel, deaths among the fully-vaccinated have remained rare and stable during the current surge of infections. The rise in deaths and severe hospitalisations is concentrated in the unvaccinated minority.
The USA has a much higher case fatality rate, about one-third of its peak level. That comes partly from undercounting of cases (the USA does less testing than the UK or Israel), and partly from vaccination rates being much lower in some areas of the USA (Trump-enthusiast areas, mostly) than in others. The current Covid death rates in the USA vary from 1.56 in Florida, 1.25 in Mississippi, 1.07 in Lousiana, down to 0.16 or less in the north-east.
The Delta surge in Europe over recent months has been milder (bar exceptions like low-vaccination Bulgaria) than we might fear from observation of India and the UK. The Netherlands, for example, scrapped all Covid restrictions in June, saw a Delta surge, reintroduced light restrictions (something like England between 17 May and 19 July), and has seen cases drop and remain low since then.
Yet in well-vaccinated France, a study released on 6 September estimates a peak of hospitalisations over the winter (unless restrictions curb the spread) far higher than in early 2020 or early 2021, even though concentrated in the unvaccinated minority.
As in the USA, a factor here is not lack of vaccines, but “vaccine hesitancy”. The percentage of adults saying that they would refuse a vaccine if offered has decreased in most countries - in France, from 44% in January 2021 to 24% today, despite high-profile anti-vax protests there - but has increased in Britain, from 18% in December 2020 to 22% today. There aren’t that many adults left in Britain eligible for a vaccine and willing to take it.
Many governments have responded by instituting “vaccine passes” or vaccine requirements for particular jobs. Some, like France and all 50 states of the USA, already (unlike the UK) make childhood vaccinations compulsory. As yet Britain proposes a vaccine mandate only for care workers.
Unions have generally opposed these mandates while also urging their members to get vaccinated. An exception is the school teachers’ unions in the USA, who back a mandate.
Vaccination could surely be increased in other ways. For a start, by mandating paid time off for all workers (including zero-hours) to get vaccinated and recover from the side-effects if any.
The government’s scientific advisory committee on vaccines, the JCVI, has reported that for 12-15 year olds the small risks of serious vaccine side-effects look less than the (also small) risks of those unvaccinated getting severe Covid, but the health margin is not enough to warrant a vaccine roll-out to that age group. Possibly, they say, the educational benefits of a vaccine roll-out (fewer infections, so fewer periods of self-isolation out of school) swing the balance. We can’t judge, but in the immediate it is hard to see how the marginal benefits for 12-15 year olds can outweigh the gains from redirecting vaccines to vaccine-deprived countries.
Activists in the labour movement should focus our efforts on the social measures which will know will limit the Covid toll. Worldwide, the factor most correlated with low Covid tolls is lower social inequality.
• Full isolation pay for all (including for Test Centre workers, many still lacking it despite government promises extracted by the Safe and Equal campaign and Labour MP Emily Thornberry)
• Pay the NHS workers their 15% wage demand and tax the rich to re-expand NHS budgets
• Make social care a public service, available free, publicly owned, and with workers on NHS-level pay and conditions
• Workers’ control of workplace safety.