The panicked response to the COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed social and economic chaos. A global economy that was teetering on the brink of recession is being pushed over the edge. Medical and social services are overwhelmed, entire populations are thrown into distress, and anxious hoarding is making basic necessities scarce.
Even before the virus hit, 59 percent of adult Americans were living paycheck to paycheck, 44 percent were carrying credit card debt, and only 38 percent had any kind of emergency fund. Any loss in pay or a loss of job would upend their lives. When you stand on shaky ground, it doesn’t take much to tip you over.
Is panic justified?
COVID-19 does not appear to be more lethal than seasonal influenza, with about 80 percent of infections being minor. In South Korea, a robust public health system, prior preparation, and early aggressive testing reduced the fatality rate to under 1 percent, similar to seasonal ‘flu. The CDC estimates that between 9 and 45 million people are infected with seasonal ‘flu, and between 12,000 and 61,000 die.
However, unlike seasonal ‘flu, COVID-19 can spread much more rapidly, with up to 40 percent of infected people becoming contagious before they feel ill. When very large numbers of people are infected, even a tiny fatality rate can translate into many more patients needing treatment than can be helped by unprepared, underfunded medical systems. The result is a dramatic increase in preventable deaths.
To make matters worse, the lack of national and international cooperation make it difficult to obtain and share accurate information, to coordinate disease-fighting measures, and to ensure that personnel and supplies are sent where they are needed.
Some nations are taking measured actions to protect the most vulnerable and preserve their economies. Others are imposing mass quarantine and forcing the closure of large segments of their economies, causing unprecedented job loss. The human cost of tearing such giant holes in the social fabric is incalculable.
This crisis has exposed hidden truths about capitalism that raise the need for fundamental social change.
Diseases flow across political borders. Despite persistent efforts to divide humanity, the global spread of COVID-19 reminds us that we truly live in one world.
A global challenge demands international cooperation. The capitalist class have proved to be too distrustful, too ambitious, and too competitive to cooperate at the level required.
Science does not guide public policy. Epidemics emerge on a regular basis, most recently SARS in 2002-2004 and H1N1 in 2009. After each pandemic, authorities pledge to prepare for the next one. It’s just talk.
The current epidemic was predicted back in 2015, and detailed strategies to reduce its impact were developed. Nevertheless, the 2019 Global Health Security Index found that no country in the world is fully prepared to handle an epidemic or pandemic. Prevention costs money, and there is no profit in it. When epidemics emerge, both cash-strapped public medical systems and for-profit ones are reluctant to invest in widespread testing and treatment.
When COVID-19 first appeared, American officials did nothing for almost two months. They rejected an early test kit developed by the World Health Organization in order to privilege American providers who failed to produce an accurate test quickly enough and in sufficient numbers. The result is a colossal system failure and tremendous unnecessary suffering.
When epidemics escape containment, there are two options. One is to allow the infection to spread until herd immunity is achieved. This strategy can be effective when medical systems have the capacity to identify, track, and treat all cases and their contacts. When medical capacity is inadequate, failing to contain the epidemic in its early stages will drive up fatality rates, as increasing numbers of sick people overwhelm the medical system.
Modern medical systems are designed for maximum cost-efficiency (lean production) so they have no margin to manage periodic surges in demand. Under such conditions, the only option is to impose mass quarantine, or social distancing. Such measures do not reduce the total number of infections and may not reduce the number of deaths. However, they do slow the speed of transmission, easing the demand on medical systems, enabling more people to be treated, and buying time to develop a vaccine. However, when the number of seriously ill is exceeds the number of available ICU beds and ventilators, then people who could otherwise survive the illness will die for lack of treatment.
Social crises reveal the extent of social inequality and also deepen it. Travel bans target some nations and not others. While some industries are forced to close, others continue to operate. Some workers are protected, and many more are not. The public are ordered to maintain social distance, yet inmates trapped in overcrowded prisons do not have access to soap and hand sanitizers. Virtual classrooms benefit the few, leaving the rest even further behind. And where testing and treatment cost money, those who are most likely to get sick are least able to pay.
Worker safety is not prioritized. Epidemics place unbearable pressure on front-line workers, and a planned shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) puts them in danger. Yet these workers have no say in how public services are funded, equipped, staffed, or organized.
While sick workers should isolate themselves to protect others, 24 percent of all American workers and 69 percent of low-paid ones (making less than $10.80 an hour) have no paid sick leave, and recent US legislation will not help them. Without sick benefits, workers will stay on the job because being broke is worse than being sick.
The ruling class panic when disease threatens them or their bottom line. Nevertheless, they refuse to eliminate the environmental degradation and impoverished conditions that breed disease.
Globally, more than 2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, 4.5 billion lack basic sanitation services, and close to a billion people do not get enough food. Deadly yet treatable diseases such as TB and HIV/AIDs continue to spread. In 2017, 1.7 million people were newly infected with HIV and 770,000 died from AIDS-related illnesses. When the means exist for everyone to be well, the acceptance of poverty-bred disease can only be understood as a means for eugenically reducing the numbers of destitute people.
The capitalist class respond to every crisis as if it were a war they must fight with weapons of social control. Ordinary people are not treated as valued problem-solvers, but as victims needing saving or as potential troublemakers who must be isolated, kept fearful, and coerced into obedience.
Is it possible to prevent epidemics? What is the best way to contain them? What must we do differently?
COVID-19 has caused enough panic to put seemingly radical reforms on the agenda, including: universal access to medical care; fully funded social services; sick leave benefits for all workers; housing the homeless; and ensuring that everyone is well nourished. Such measures would require a massive transfer of wealth from the capitalist class to the working class. However, the purpose of capitalism is to transfer wealth in the opposite direction, from the many to the few. This is why billions of people are exposed to preventable distress, disease, disability, and premature death, why capitalists fail to act responsibly in response to crises, and why they exploit every crisis as an opportunity to increase their wealth and tighten their grip on society.
The only way that anyone can be truly safe is if everyone is safe. That can happen only when the majority step up and organize themselves to make it so.
Unions around the world are pushing for more effective measures to contain the epidemic and to protect front-line workers. However, the capitalist class resist implementing such measures. That leaves two options: mount enough public pressure to compel authorities to do the right thing (reform); or remove the capitalist class from power so the rest of us can do what needs to be done (revolution). What might that second, revolutionary, option look like?
Where the capitalists stoke fear of others as a source of contagion, we would mobilize the well to care for the unwell.
With the working class in power, we could open the banks and release enough money to massively expand medical and social services. People could organize themselves in every workplace, school, and neighborhood, forming democratic councils to share information, conduct free testing, and ensure free treatment for all who fall ill, financial support for the sick, social support for the quarantined, food for the hungry, and housing for the homeless.
We would give full amnesty to all undocumented persons so they can be tested and treated and join the collective effort to test and treat others.
Overcrowded, unsanitary conditions breed disease, so we would immediately release all immigrants in detention, along with all prisoners being held for non-violent offenses. Once their medical and social needs are met, they could join the social mobilization.
We would eliminate all political borders in order to coordinate local, regional, and global efforts and to enable personnel and equipment to travel where needed.
Wars breed disease and devastation. Ending them would enable us to vastly improve the health of the planet and everyone on it.
In short, we would completely transform our relationships with each other, from divided consumers to united producers. We would also change our relationship with the non-human world, nurturing it so that it can nurture us in return.
If you think such measures are impossible, pie in the sky, a pipe dream, consider this: When all ‘reasonable’ solutions have proved inadequate to the task, then the only road left, however improbable, is the one we must travel.