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Brid Smith: 'We need to take on the market forces that are profiteering from this pandemic'

People Before Profit TD Brid Smith says we need to consider moving beyond the restricted ‘market’ in this time of crisis.

Brid Smith People Before Profit TD

IT BEGGARS BELIEF that in 2020 we are witnessing a severe shortage of very basic equipment to assist health workers in the war against Covid-19. 

Distressing emails, phone calls, images and social media posts from frontline health workers begging to be listened to, begging to be properly protected while they battle this virus are commonplace. The lack of testing for frontline workers is becoming a real concern.

There are shortages on every continent. Shortages of masks, of gowns, of gloves, of ventilators, of testing kits that are contributing to the already extreme pressure on healthcare workers dealing with Covid-19.

The so-called ‘market’ is hot with competition between the public health services of countries, within countries and within the private health sector. Costs of basic materials like hand sanitisers and gloves are soaring as companies across the globe compete with each other to make money out of products needed to save lives.

This is absolutely preventable

Eighty years ago in the middle of World War II and in much less advanced economies than we have today, the USA and Great Britain marshalled all industry, workers, technology, power and finance. They were harnassed to mass-produce at a phenomenal rate, guns, bombs, aircraft, tanks, artillery and protective equipment for armed forces.

The US produced 60,000 aircraft in 1942, 125,000 in 1943, plus 120,000 tanks and 55,000 anti-aircraft guns in the same period – and trained a vast force to use them.

Industries were not ‘asked’ or ‘urged’ to meet these targets, but directly instructed by governments to immediately switch production to the needs of the war machine. When faced with war and a threat to the very existence of their states, these countries didn’t look to the free market to produce what was needed but took direct control over what was produced and how it was distributed.

Why the reluctance?

In today’s war to save lives, governments are reluctant to interfere in ‘the market’. This limited intervention in the private sector is not enough. In the last few days, the news that over 20% of imported Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is unsuitable for healthcare has frightened and dismayed healthcare workers on the frontline of this battle.

The question is not just whether the next batch will work or not but what are governments doing now to save the lives of our most vulnerable and health workers themselves?

They are NOT instructing industry to switch on masse to manufacturing the ventilators, the masks, the gloves, the protective clothing, the testing kits and whatever else is required.

If they did that we absolutely could have a comprehensive, high-quality, home-based production system to fight this pandemic. We could have it here and across the world.

Instead of countries competing for orders of the most basic equipment required we could learn from the experience of economies in World War II and repeat history for the common good instead of for mass destruction.

It’s on our doorstep

Ireland is covered with medical manufacturing industries – a whopping 50% of all ventilators made globally are made here – we are the second largest exporter of medical devices in Europe, second only to Germany.

Almost 30,000 workers are employed in the industry here, most are continuing to work through this crisis. They have the skills and ability to know what we need to do and how to do it. The problem is the owners, CEOs and shareholders of these companies are still operating as private concerns, they are still exporting life-saving machines to the highest bidder or selling testing kits online to private buyers.

Some stories have surfaced of massive levels of price gouging for essential goods. We hear the key reagent needed for testing is in short supply and governed by intellectual property rights. That’s how a free market operates, profit is king. That needs to stop. 

Time for public ownership

Why does Leo Varadkar and his caretaker government not initiate a public takeover of these industries to control production over what is urgently needed and to oversee its distribution?

The state should move immediately to stop all sales of testing kits, ventilators and the like to private interests; only public health policy both nationally and internationally should be the criteria for what is distributed; not the size of anyone’s pocket.

We need to see the possibilities of moving beyond the ‘market’. Instead of directing what private industry does, we are told “We are having a conversation with them. They are doing their bit, it’s a challenging market”. If that had been the response of western powers during World War II the Allies would have lost hands down.

We cannot afford to lose this war against Covid-19, we urgently need to equip our health workers and protect our population.

International companies based in Ireland can mass-produce testing kits and ventilators. Dozens of factories across the country can produce gowns, gloves and masks if ordered to re-purpose their manufacturing. This is not particular to Ireland. It can and should be done in every country, on every continent.

The Government needs to intervene in the chaotic market that is costing us the lives of our loved ones and our committed health workers.

Like many TDs I have received calls from people offering to help in this crisis, groups are springing up offering time, expertise and skills to start making PPEs, for example. They need real state support and direction.

We are asking people to make huge sacrifices in the fight against this virus, we are placing limits on personal liberties and demanding restrictions on individuals. We should not hesitate about imposing the same restrictions on the liberties and rights of companies and businesses whose actions now can affect the lives of thousands around the globe.

There is no point applauding front line workers in the Dáil unless we urgently and relentlessly speak up for them. We need to make the case for re-purposing industry and taking on the market forces that are profiteering vastly from this most frightening pandemic. 

Bríd Smith is a People Before Profit TD for Dublin South Central.

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Brid Smith  / People Before Profit TD

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