New Year: Same Old Healthcare Crisis

At the start of January, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) reported that there were 931 patients waiting on trolleys in Ireland’s hospitals. A consultant in Emergency Medicine for Beaumont Hospital Dublin Dr Peadar Gilligan stated we would need an extra 5,000 beds in hospitals to cope with the Emergency Department crisis. Unfortunately, even if the government were to provide 5,000 new beds, there would be a shortage of staff to manage them. In fact, in 2019, a year before the onset of the Covid Pandemic, nurses went on strike to highlight staff retention issues and their concerns over patient safety. This winter, with the mixture of viral infections such as Covid, RSV in children, and the rising numbers of Influenza A cases, the Irish health system is faced with what is being called a ‘perfect storm’.

However this storm was not unexpected. The mutation of the Covid virus into less lethal – although not less infectious – variants means the virus is still rampant in society and while we are thankfully not seeing a rise in fatalities, we are seeing the knock on effect of increased sick leave in workplaces, especially in the health care sector. People are being asked to stay away from Emergency Departments and to instead seek help from their GPs. But doctors are not immune to viral infections and with a shortage of locum doctors to cover GP practises while doctors are ill, people are facing long waiting lists to see their GP – if indeed they are fortunate enough to actually have a GP. The RSV virus in children, accompanied by a rise in Strep A infections has seen a huge demand for antibiotics, leading to a global supply shortage and soaring prices for what are life-saving drugs, proving once again that one person’s crisis is another’s opportunity to profit.

All of this and it is still only the middle of January. Children have returned to school after the Christmas break, and no one knows what the next few weeks are going to bring. Already people are being asked to keep their children home if they are showing symptoms but that is easier said than done. The majority of parents are struggling with the ongoing cost of living crisis and with the bills for Christmas, not to mention the energy bills which would have spiked during the pre-Christmas cold snap yet to arrive, most parents will find it difficult financially to take time off work to care for sick children. The only other alternative will be for grandparents to step into the breach, which would mean an even more vulnerable layer of the community being exposed to viral infections leading to more pressure on GP and hospital services.

In a couple of months we will see the ‘winter’ crisis in healthcare become the ‘spring’ Crisis in healthcare, shortly followed by the ‘summer’ and ‘autumn’ crises, with hospitals barely having time to prepare for next winter’s onslaught and onwards and onwards.

The current hospital crisis is just one of many crises affecting Ireland today: the cost of living crisis, the housing crisis, the education crisis, the emerging climate crisis, amongst many others; in reality though, these are merely symptoms of the ongoing global crisis of capitalism.

It would be easy to point to socialism as the answer to this and leave it at that, but the question can be fairly posed: what would a socialist society do differently?

For one thing, the profit motive would play no role in the provision of healthcare. Currently medical products are produced for profit, meaning many of them are extremely expensive, with some products monopolised by major multinational companies that hold the intellectual property rights for these goods. A good example is the news that the pharmaceutical company Moderna has raised the price of its COVID vaccine that will see them make a profit 4000% times more than it costs to make the vaccine.

In a socialist society, with major companies run under democratic workers’ control, would see an end to price gouging, like Moderna’s, and a ramping up of production of the goods needed by society as a whole, with surplus income paid to the workers and not shareholders or investors. Pharmaceutical research and development would be for the benefit of those in need and not concentrated on the more profitable illnesses.

There would be a National Health Service free at the point of use and paid for by progressive taxation with health professionals paid an appropriate remuneration for their work. People would not have to pay exorbitant premiums to health insurance companies for ‘peace of mind’ nor would they need to worry about accessing GP, dental, mental Health, or other care.

However none of this can only be achieved without mass movement of the working class. Pressure coming from below in trade unions and in the community at large, can put pressure on the capitalist class, and the forceful intervention of the working class can effect a fundamental change in society.

The Irish public health system is in permanent crisis. The NHS in Britain is entering into a deep crisis as well. The capitalist system is one of deep inequality. One of its cornerstones is the idea that some people must do without, even without healthcare, in order to protect profits and wealth. Healthcare systems will remain in crisis while capitalism remains the dominant economic system. Only the transformation to a socialist system can ensure fair healthcare for all.