Half a million, and counting | The Triangle
Opinion

Half a million, and counting

The official American death toll from COVID-19 has now passed 500,000, with the last 100,000 in the past month. That is, by an unchallengeable margin, the largest loss of life to the virus of any country in the world. And we are still only 4 percent of the world’s population.

Congratulations, America. Who says we’re not still the world’s leader?

It once seemed unthinkable but is now very likely that we will surpass the estimated toll of the 1918 flu pandemic: 675,000 lives. There was no vaccine for the flu then. We have two for COVID, with a third in the works and a fourth widely distributed in Europe. China has its own vaccine. As does Russia. And India. They all work, and they all work off the same medical technology, stimulating antibodies without injecting the activating components of the virus.

This doesn’t mean that you should try to make your own homebrew. But it does mean that many other large laboratories—those of Eli Lilly, for example, or of Merck, or of the federal government itself—could be producing already approved vaccines in quantity, thus eliminating the artificial shortages that have repeatedly shut down vaccination sites across the country, so that at present only 5.5 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated. As thousands die.

Pray ask, why?

Welcome to American medicine.

Capitalist medicine is the largest and most profitable sector of the American economy. Your tax money, as well as what is left as your own, pays for it. Sure, it delivers a service, one that ranks us (the last time I looked) in a tie for 37th place with Slovenia for health outcomes. And leaves us with no competitor anywhere for cost.

Medicine now runs not on prevention and care, but drugs and vaccines. We manufacture the diseases we suffer from, and then the cures for what we’ve created. We created the COVID pandemic, of course not purposely but as a consequence of habitat destruction and poor health protocols. Now there’s a killing to be made off it, thanks to patents. A patent is a government-issued monopoly for new inventions, whose ostensible function is to encourage such inventions and the investments they typically require. They are thus a guarantee of profit.

Not all inventions, even if successful, are profitable. That’s where marketing comes in. And the medical industry, particularly its pharmaceutical branch, is remarkably ruthless and successful at promoting its products and nostrums. Think, please, of the opioid pandemic, still very much with us. Some useful but addictive medicines for severe pain were sold as quick hits for minor discomforts. Doctors were partly bribed and partly pressured into prescribing them. The result was not only death but major social breakdown, even to the ruin of whole communities. But it made a lot of dough for a long time.

Pfizer and Moderna, the companies that produced the COVID vaccines used by us, have already profited handsomely. That is particularly the case with Moderna, a relatively small company that had never produced an FDA-approved product before. The Trump administration capitalized it to the tune of $400 million, and it came through—or rather, the scientists who worked for it did. It risked nothing but a non-existent reputation. It rakes in pure profit.

Now, I’m not begrudging Moderna the reasonable rewards of its success. But its product belongs to the public because we paid for it, and in the midst of a pandemic, its production and distribution, as rapidly as possible, is the only arguable concern. The federal government has the authority to compel this. The Trump administration did not do so. The Biden administration has not. Pfizer declined government funding for its vaccine but was guaranteed government purchase of it, so that we are refunding its costs and insuring its profits. It, too, can be compelled to share production and distribution with others.

To put the matter simply: If there are a dozen roads out of hell, why should we be limited to two? Of course, production is no better than its distribution. That, in a country of 330 million people with thousands of jurisdictions, was going to be the far more complicated task. The Trump administration gave little (if any) discernible thought to it, since no question existed for Trump beyond Election Day. The result was that, as in the case of all dealing with the pandemic, the 50 states were left to face all problems arising from vaccine distribution. Once again, the Biden administration has been unconscionably slow to act.

What could have been done, and what should now be done? The federal government should, from the beginning, have asserted and enforced binding protocols for masking and testing. Such protocols should have extended to the order and priorities of vaccination, based on health agency advisements and in consultation with the states.

There was general agreement that the most vulnerable sectors of the population ought to be first vaccinated, namely those in (largely unregulated) nursing homes and those designated as essential workers, a category generally if vaguely understood to include those performing vital economic and medical services that brought them unavoidably into contact with others. After that, vaccinations were to extend downward chronologically to senior citizens and then to the general population.

That, lacking the necessary oversight, control and funding, has been a colossal mess. Who gets the vaccine first is one question; how and where is another. Since supplies are erratic and drastically insufficient, there is no predictable delivery. Since there is no mandate about how to serve particular areas, there is no way of knowing from day to day what is available and to which sites. Hospitals? Clinics? Pharmacies? Large halls and convention centers? Sports stadiums? Back alleys? How do you reach the housebound? What do you do with counties that have no hospitals or stadiums? Who is a qualified, supervised distributor?

As we know, Drexel has made its own minor contribution to the chaos.  Perhaps it will be a footnote, someday, in the history of Philadelphia. As for the story of COVID-19, when it is finally told, it will be one of many small and largely anonymous acts of dedication and sacrifice, and one very large one of lives lost for nothing except for incompetence, irresponsibility and greed.