Source: CDC Global, Jim Goodson, M.P.H., Public domain/
Wikimedia Commons

Measles are back, thanks to capitalism. The extremely contagious airborne disease, which had been declared eliminated in many countries through widespread vaccination, has returned to Europe and North America. The profits system is dragging humanity backward in every way possible. Measles outbreaks are just the latest product of an insane system rotting from the inside, led by a parasitic class that no longer has any right to rule.

In January, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced 2023 saw 42,200 cases of measles in Europe, a more than 40-fold increase over the previous year. In Canada, at least 31 cases have already been reported so far this year as of March 17—more than in all of 2023. Montreal Public Health reported 14 lab-confirmed measles cases since February. Infectious-disease experts warn those numbers could “exponentially explode.”

Measles is one of the most contagious viruses known. An infected person will infect nine out of 10 unvaccinated people they share a living space with. One in five people infected will need to be hospitalized, and nearly one in 300 infected children will die. The disease weakens the immune system and can result in long-term complications including pneumonia and blindness. In pregnant people, measles are a major risk factor for birth defects, stillbirths and miscarriages. About 128,000 people died of measles in 2021, mostly children under the age of five.

Due to high childhood vaccination rates, measles was considered eliminated in Canada in 1998. While occasional cases were still reported, these primarily arose in unvaccinated people travelling to countries where measles was endemic. In such cases, public health officials typically responded with testing and contact tracing to stop transmission. The latest wave, however, is different.

“This time, we’re seeing community transmission, meaning that somebody got measles and we can’t trace where they got it from,” McMaster University immunologist Dawn Bowdish told Maclean’s magazine. If Canada sees a rise in community transmission, she warned, “we could reasonably expect” measles outbreaks in pediatric cancer centres and “really problematic infections in pregnant people.”

How did we get here?

Public-health officials have cited increased vaccine hesitancy, “vaccine fatigue” and lack of vaccine access as major factors in the resurgence of measles. We cannot discount the impact of the anti-vax movement. Right-wing politicians such as Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre continue to stoke the anti-vax fires for political gain. Liberals have also played a role; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ended mandatory vaccinations as part of a generalized abandonment of all COVID-related public-health measures. Recent polls from the Angus Reid Institute found a rise in opposition in Canada to mandatory childhood vaccinations. Where 25 per cent of respondents in 2019 said “vaccinations should be the parent’s choice”, by 2024 that number had risen to 38 per cent, or nearly two in five.

To focus purely on vaccines, however, would be to take a one-sided view. The measles resurgence takes place against a wider backdrop of collapsing health-care infrastructure. Decades of attacks on public health by capitalist governments—including their criminal mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic—have led to a crumbling health-care system and overburdened, underpaid health workers, many of whom are leaving the profession in droves. Provincial governments such as those in Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta have starved public health care and attacked workers as a gateway to privatization. These conditions have further reduced childhood vaccination rates and crippled the ability of public health agencies to stop transmission through tracing.

Canada’s doctor shortage is a perfect example of the crisis of health care under capitalism. Millions of Canadians do not have a family doctor, to the point where hundreds of people recently lined up in Kingston, Ont. in a desperate bid for a family doctor after a clinic announced it was accepting new patients. As Bowdish noted: “Most people get their childhood vaccines from a family doctor, and many Canadians don’t have a family doctor right now.” She cites a perfect storm of factors plaguing the health-care system: “the family-doctor crisis, the vaccine-misinformation crisis, funding issues and our over-extended public health officials who are still dealing with COVID and pandemic-related things.” The multiple, interwoven crises Bowdish describes are a microcosm of the generalized crisis of capitalism.

The fight for public health is a fight for communism

To tackle measles outbreaks in the short term, Bowdish said, would require catch-up clinics to inoculate the unvaccinated against measles. These clinics could be set up at schools or in areas that are known to have low vaccination rates. The immunologist also cited the need for more data to determine who the most vulnerable are. To put it another way: the solution is to identify needs and build our public-health response around those needs. But therein lies the problem.

Capitalism is not a system built around the satisfaction of social needs, but rather the accumulation of private profit. This extends even to services such as public health care, which it should be remembered only exist because workers fought for them. In a state controlled by the capitalists, public health care is always chronically underfunded. That’s why capitalist governments abandoned all public-health measures to stop the spread of COVID, which they saw as interfering with the maximization of profit. And it’s why capitalist politicians refuse to take the basic steps needed to stop transmission of diseases like measles and to prevent future outbreaks.

Under communism, a massively expanded, fully funded public health-care system as part of a socialist plan could reduce the likelihood of disease outbreaks, stop transmission in its tracks, and ensure the best possible quality of health care for all. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, capitalism is incapable of dealing with serious public health crises. Only through communist revolution can workers win the truly universal public health-care system we need.