SARS is thought to have jumped species in a poverty-stricken area of South East China where people live crowded together with their animals in conditions reminiscent of the Middle Ages. This is not unique to SARS but is at the origin of many of the most serious flu epidemics world wide.
Capitalism had brought this area, like the rest of the world, under the domination of its world market by the beginning of the 20th Century. In fact Britain, in its 19th century colonial heyday, fought a holy war for the right to trade freely in China selling opium. Yet capitalism in its decadence has been unable to develop industry or modernise farming in the area, since there are no new markets to absorb the increased produce that would result. And so the conditions for the development of new diseases such as SARS continue to exist. The success of the world market in decadence lies not in preventing the emergence of the disease, but in providing the means for its spread across the globe.
So far SARS has caused 280 deaths from about 4,500 cases worldwide, the majority of them in China (The Times 26 April). Modern air travel means that it has spread to every continent in a matter of weeks. With most of the old fever hospitals closed and demolished, whole hospitals have been quarantined and in China the May Day holiday cancelled to prevent travellers spreading the disease.
Capitalism's advanced decay has created the conditions both for the increase of old diseases, such as TB, and the emergence of new ones like AIDS. Whether through the perpetuation of avoidable poverty, through wars such as the one in Iraq which has disrupted the country's hospitals and water supply, or through increasing ecological disasters, this is a social system which has developed the scientific and technological means of eradicating epidemics, while at the same time producing and extending them faster than it can cure them. In this sense SARS is further evidence that capitalism is rotting on its feet. The campaign of panic
SARS is therefore a real danger, particularly when it hits impoverished populations who lack access to decent medical care. But the ruling class is always ready to use the symptoms of capitalist decomposition to its own advantage. And it has to be said that the bourgeois state and its media are deliberately creating a climate of panic and fear about the SARS virus.
For decades the ruling class has done all it can to eradicate all sense of working class solidarity, making everyone see himself as an atomised individual, dependent on the state. Since 1989 this has been intensified with many campaigns to encourage fear in the population, to make everyone feel that only the state can protect them from child criminals, paedophiles, 'bogus' asylum seekers - and now travellers entering the country who might be carrying SARS. Thus media has raised a 'debate' around the issue of whether or not everyone coming from certain areas of the world ought to be quarantined. This when in the whole of Western Europe there have been 29 cases, of whom 21 have recovered, and no deaths. As always our very 'anti-racist' state is quite happy to use xenophobia, in this case fear of Asian travellers.
The effect of this campaign of fear on working class consciousness cannot be assessed in isolation from the general effect of the whole series of similar campaigns. Nevertheless it has had its impact in small mean ways, such as the panic that broke out among guests at a Blackpool hotel when it was discovered that 15 children from a boarding school were being quarantined there, isolated in a separate wing. The children were subsequently moved to a secret location.
Like any new disease SARS poses the need for careful public health information and research work to bring it under control and prevent its spread. It is the ruling class of decomposing capitalism that needs the climate of fear and panic: to make us feel we rely on the state for protection, and to make us forget the much greater threats that we face today. In terms of disease, heart attacks, HIV, TB and others are likely to claim many more lives than SARS, even in China. But in any case, all these diseases are preventable because at root they are not a medical problem but a social problem. Capitalism in decay, with its train of economic crisis, war and chaos, is the real threat to human health, and the only surgery that can cure this problem is the proletarian revolution.