All over the world, lockdowns are being lifted. Amidst the biggest economic and social crisis in living memory, the ruling class is pushing a “return to normality” – before it is safe, while preparing new attacks on the working class. This pandemic is continuing to bring the rottenness and cynicism in capitalist society to the surface.
As of July, over 13 million people around the world have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and over 500,000 have died, according to research by Johns Hopkins University. This doesn’t account for people who have died prematurely from other illnesses due to lack of access to treatment (e.g. cancer patients and people with chronic diseases), not to mention the thousands of un-recorded COVID-19 infections and deaths.
The ruling class is desperate to restart the economy and start producing profits again. The risk to workers is a secondary concern. While some social distancing measures have been put in place in workplaces, businesses and on public transport in the advanced capitalist countries, the full lockdowns are ending: but not because the danger has passed.
Many countries that initially saw low rates of infection have seen surges in recent weeks. Australia, for example, recorded 428 new cases on 17 July. A vaccine probably won’t be available until next year at the earliest, and there is mounting evidence that ‘herd immunity’ (aside from causing a huge number of unnecessary deaths), might not even be feasible. The complacency of the ruling class is potentially deadly.
On top of that, massive new attacks on the working class are being prepared to pay for measures taken during lockdown. While millions are being forced back to work, unemployment is at a record high. This is not to mention the spectre of spiralling poverty and starvation in the poorest parts of the world, where the pandemic has only just gotten started.
Vaccines, private property and the nation state
There are only two ways of ending a pandemic. One is reaching herd immunity, in which between 70 and 90 percent of the population develop resistance to the virus. Aside from being inhumane, a recent Spanish study on 60,000 people found only about 5 percent of people in the country (where there have been 260,000 cases) have developed immunity. This suggests herd immunity is a long way off in most countries, and might not even be possible through natural means, as it is uncertain for how long people’s immune systems continue producing antibodies.
The other way is a safe, effective vaccine along with a massive, free vaccination programme. But we are still (at best) months away from a cure, and a proper rollout will probably never come in most of the world. The profiteering of the pharmaceutical capitalists and irrationality of capitalist production are continually being exposed by this public health crisis.
The US biotech firm Moderna is trying to rush its candidate vaccine (mRNA-1273) to market. While human trials have been promising so far, Moderna has clashed with US government scientists due to the fast-tracked approval the company is seeking from the FDA – as part of the White House’s Operation Warp Speed initiative to accelerate vaccine production. Allegedly, Moderna described monitoring trial participants' oxygen levels (an indicator of dangerous side effects) as a “hassle” that could slow down development. The details of the disagreements are sketchy, but phase three of human trials have now been delayed. A COVID-19 vaccine is the Holy Grail for the pharmaceutical industry, with massive profits to be made, and competition is fierce, but this unprecedented turnaround has implicit risks.
The Trump administration is also eager to secure a patent so that US capitalism can benefit at the expense of its competitors. It has invested half a billion dollars in Moderna so far. President Trump recently bought up the world’s supply of remdesivir (an antiviral to help with recovery from COVID-19 symptoms) for three months. This is a harbinger of things to come. If a working vaccine is produced, the most powerful capitalist countries will rush to hoard it for themselves, each seeking to turn a profit and return to normal production.
The private interests of Big Pharma firms are also impeding the hunt for a cure, though not on safety grounds. They own the means of production and patents on the manufacturing processes required to mass produce a vaccine. So even if Moderna’s drug is viable, the company will need to strike a deal with these big companies, who will demand a cut of the profits, which will increase the price of this high-demand vaccine. To give some idea, remdesivir costs around $3,200 for a treatment of six doses. Even if a vaccine makes it to market, it might be too expensive for millions of people to benefit.
Far from expediting the end of this public health crisis, international bodies like the World Health Organisation (WHO) have been impotent. A letter signed by over 200 scientists was recently published warning that the WHO has overlooked evidence that SARS-COV-2 might be transmitted through the air, in addition to through physical contact on surfaces. This has serious implications for people returning to work in poorly ventilated offices, factories and warehouses etc., even with social distancing measures in place.
The WHO has downplayed these concerns. It might genuinely be its scientific opinion that there is a low probability of airborne transmission. However, if true, this discovery would clash with the current push to restart production, which might explain the WHO’s reluctance to entertain the possibility and investigate it fully. Ultimately, the WHO is just a functionary of the capitalist system, not a neutral scientific authority.
It seems that a commercial vaccine will not be arriving any sooner than 2021. By which time, hundreds of thousands people will have died needlessly. A recent controversy, in which the Tory government in Britain accused Russia of “stealing” data about a vaccine being researched by Oxford and Imperial College London Universities (ChAdOx1 nCoV-19) only highlights the madness of this situation.
Surely, given the scale of this disaster and its impact on the economy, all research on a vaccine should be public domain and shared freely by the countries of the world, so that all of their resources can be pooled together? However, capitalism doesn’t care about public health. It cares about protecting its patents, profits and political interests. The result is not a coordinated effort by the world’s leading scientists, but a secretive scramble to strike gold.
Market driven production also creates a great deal of waste. For example, the British government just secured a deal for 90 million doses of two different candidate vaccines made by two private companies (BioNTech and Pfizer), in addition to the 100 million doses it has already secured of the vaccine being researched by Oxford University, with state funding. It is effectively hedging its bets on several different drugs, with very different chemistry, at different stages of testing, at great expense to the public purse. Under a planned economy, all expertise and resources could be directed towards producing an effective cure as efficiently as possible. But private property and the nation state are obstacles in the way of a safe, free vaccine.
A brewing catastrophe
The infection rate for COVID-19 is highest in the advanced capitalist countries. However, the pandemic is just getting started in poorer countries, who aren’t equipped to cope with major outbreaks thanks to having their health and social infrastructures destroyed by bloodsucking imperialism; in addition to the self interest and incompetence of their local bourgeoisie.
India has reported a million coronavirus cases so far and the official death toll has risen above 21,000, but the real figure is doubtlessly much higher, considering the low rate of testing, the dire state of India’s healthcare system and the quack medicines promoted by the BJP. The case of the 67-year-old Lakhjeet Singh gained national attention after he was turned away from hospital due to a lack of beds, and later died of COVID-19. The previous month, Karnataka state admitted it had reserved 100 “deluxe” beds for MPs, local politicians and senior bureaucrats, in a naked show of cronyism and class privilege that enraged the local population. As ever, class privilege is being thrown into sharp relief by this crisis.
Despite this, Modi ended his lockdown as abruptly as he started it, putting hundreds of millions of people at risk by forcing them back to work while the rate of infection was still rising. The impact of the lockdown has thrown hundreds of millions of people into poverty and unemployment. Meanwhile, the government is trying to divert blame by whipping up religious hatred, blaming COVID-19 on Muslim pilgrims; in addition to carrying out a raft of attacks on workers’ rights under the cover of the pandemic.
At the same time, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had said it “envisaged” a vaccine will be launched by 15 August (India's Independence Day): clearly intended as a propaganda boon for the Modi government. A letter written by ICMR chief Balram Bhargava to 12 institutes selected for conducting human trials for a candidate vaccine (Covaxin) was shared widely on social media. The recipients were ordered to expedite human trials so that the vaccine could be launched on schedule by fast-tracking all necessary approvals. The letter warned that non-compliance would be treated “very seriously”.
This ludicrous deadline was later denied, but again, this is evidence of the capitalists’ willingness to trample regulations to get a vaccine over the line. An ineffective or dangerous vaccine could be worse than the coronavirus itself. The callous cynicism of the regime could turn a public health crisis into a catastrophe, which is already hitting the poorest hardest.
After a slow start, the coronavirus is also spreading rapidly in Africa. It took nearly 100 days for Africa to reach 100,000 cases, but only 18 days for that to double to 200,000. It doubled again to 400,000 cases over the next 20 days. And on 8 July, total cases passed 500,000. Dr Matshidiso Moeti, (WHO) director for Africa commented: “With more than a third of countries in Africa doubling their cases over the past month, the threat of COVID-19 overwhelming fragile health systems is escalating.”
South Africa and Egypt accounted for over 60 percent of all the new cases reported in late June, with the latter reporting nearly 9,000 new cases. 1.5 million graves are being prepared in the country. Despite imposing one of the world's strictest lockdowns in late March, infections rose after this was relaxed in early May.
There is much variation in testing rates across the continent. On 4 July, South Africa was doing 30 tests per 1,000 people, compared with 72 in the UK and 105 in the US. Meanwhile, Ghana is doing 10 per 1,000, Kenya 3 and Nigeria 0.7 tests. As a result of this patchy data, we don't know exactly how bad things are. If the virus really takes hold in poorest African countries – with their limited medical resources, lack of sanitation and poor-quality housing – the results will be tragic.
The WHO has now warned that Africa could become the next epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak; and the UN predicts COVID-19 will kill at least 300,000 people, and push 30 million into poverty. The vulnerability of these countries is the legacy of centuries of imperialist exploitation, which has held them in a state of perpetual backwardness. These abysmal conditions have been intensified by the coronavirus pandemic.
Chaos and corruption in Latin America
South America already has a very high rate of infection, and the peak could still be weeks away. 130,000 have been confirmed dead so far across the continent, with 30,000 in Mexico, 11,000 in Peru, 7,000 in Chile and 6,000 in Ecuador. The situation in Brazil is especially bad, with 1.7 million confirmed cases and 65,000 deaths. This could reach 125,000 by August, and the very low testing rate means even this is an underestimation.
This is in no small part due to the recklessness of the degenerate, reactionary Bolsonaro administration, which spent months arguing the virus was a hoax and refusing to take it seriously. The president was recently forced to admit dangers of a disease whose existence he previously denied when he tested positive for a second time, providing further evidence that ‘herd immunity’ will not be attained by letting the virus run its course.
Aside from the direct human impact of deaths and infections, exacerbated by poverty, incompetent leadership, and creaking health infrastructure, the coronavirus is aggravating all the other symptoms of the diseased capitalist system in Latin America. For example, dozens of politicians and high-profile bureaucrats have exploited their positions to siphon public funds intended to tackle the pandemic. The governors of three states in Brazil (Amazonas, Pará and Rio de Janeiro) have been implicated in corruption investigations. Wilson Witzel, the reactionary governor of Rio, is facing impeachment after he was accused of embezzling money through field hospitals, which overcharged for essential supplies.
Meanwhile, Abdalá Bucaram, (Ecuador’s former president who was booted out by mass protests against his government in 1997), was arrested as part of an investigation into corruption following the purchase of medical supplies in the port city of Guayaquil, which has been hit very badly by the virus. Additionally, Bolivia’s new health minister (appointed following the right-wing coup against Evo Morales) was detained after it turned out that the new government paid grossly inflated prices for ventilators that weren’t even suitable for use in intensive care units.
Cronyism and corruption are commonplace in Latin America’s decrepit capitalist system, but this public health emergency has brought the total self-interest and cruelty of the establishment to the surface. While workers and the poor suffer and die, parasites from the ruling class are neither able nor willing to resolve this disaster, but are nevertheless eager to exploit it for personal gain. Needless to say, any cosmetic changes to the ruling cliques of these countries through impeachment or the like will not affect any positive change for ordinary people.
Trump and the Tories put lives in the balance
All 50 states in the USA have lowered their lockdown measures to some degree, with many businesses able to operate basically as normal. Even Disneyland reopened its doors to delighted crowds on 17 July. But the USA is easily the worst-affected country on earth, with 3.5 million total cases (nearly one in every 100 people) and over 130,000 confirmed deaths. The most vulnerable are suffering the sharp edge of the crisis, which is far from over. An analysis by the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity found that 45 percent of US COVID-19 deaths came from nursing homes: a group that makes up just 0.6 percent of the US population.
President Trump (who, like Bolsonaro, consistently downplayed the risk of the virus) is determined to restart the economy as soon as possible. In the process, he has whipped up his reactionary, petty-bourgeois base with incendiary attacks on the WHO and state officials on social media, condemning lockdown and social distancing measures.
This has led to a number of (fairly small) ‘anti-lockdown protests’, involving far-right and fascist elements, and defiance of social distancing measures in a number of states, creating a huge risk of further infections. For example, Oklahoma, which never issued a stay-at-home order, has seen an 85 percent uptick in cases in the last two weeks. State governor Kevin Stitt, a vocal Trump supporter who refused to wear a mask in public appearances, confirmed on 15 July that he has the virus.
Trump is also pushing to reopen schools across the country as a step towards resuming normal production, even threatening to hold back federal money if school districts do not bring their students back in the autumn. And he has continued to demagogically blame China for the coronavirus, calling it 'kung flu' at a recent rally. Showing brilliant medical acumen, the US president then told supporters that he had asked his officials to slow down COVID-19 testing across the country, because more tests mean… a higher number of confirmed cases!
Trump is an apt expression of capitalism in its state of senile decay: crude, selfish, greedy and reckless. He is obviously looking to the next election, and is keen for an economic recovery, irrespective of the risks. He is also deflecting as much blame as possible from his own administration’s failure to contain the virus. His disgusting cynicism merely demonstrates the rottenness of the US ruling class.
In Britain, the Tories have ditched their 'Stay at Home' message and are now encouraging people to go back to work, and spend, spend, spend! As ever, their messages have been confusing and contradictory. Despite spending a fortnight or so encouraging people to return to work and hit the highstreets at will, the Tories have now announced that face coverings will be mandatory in all shops. Meanwhile, Health Minister Matt Hancock has ended up in hot water over allowing 250,000 people to attend the swanky Cheltenham Festival in March, after netting £350,000 in political donations from wealthy figures in horse racing.
In order to jump-start the economy, Chancellor Rishi Sunak promised to suspend stamp duty in England – which will only help the well-off. At the same time, his new “flexible furlough” scheme is a step towards ending furlough pay altogether in October, which will spell disaster for thousands of working-class families. Given all this turmoil and uncertainty, Sunak’s plan to help the hospitality sector by offering a £10 discount for people to eat out at restaurants will be of scant comfort, especially if it contributes to a second wave of infections!
Sunak’s stimulus measures to save the wider economy total a paltry £30bn of investment, to be paid for with spending, and paid back with austerity. His promise to give 900,000 public sector workers a ‘pay rise’ won’t come close to covering years of wage cuts, and the funds are taken from existing budgets regardless. Meanwhile, 3.8 million could be unemployed in Britain by the winter: 15 percent of the working population. Already, those claiming benefits rose by 500,000 in May to 2.8 million. Sectors like service and hospitality, retail, aerospace and automotives have been wrecked and there are few or no plans to save them. Neither is there any plan to “sustainably” support the NHS, even without a second wave; nor to provide sufficient resources for a new round of infections – though the Tories did vote against protecting the health service from being cannibalised by foreign investors in post-Brexit trade deals (supporting ex-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s warnings last year). The government is basically closing its eyes, crossing its fingers and hoping for the best.
The Labour movement leaders are being useless. General secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Frances O'Grady, passively “called on the government” to protect jobs, when she should be mobilising workers to defend them! Meanwhile, the Keir Starmer-led Labour Party continues to “forensically” sit on its hands. In a recent television interview, Labour frontbencher Rachel Reeves underlined Labour’s “constructive opposition” (i.e. none whatsoever), and refused to even commit to taxing the rich to pay for the cost of lockdown measures. Taxing the rich is not a sufficient demand, they should be expropriated and their wealth democratically managed, but this pathetic display nevertheless shows the right-wing are signalling to the establishment that they will not rock the boat.
All this emphasises the need for rank-and-file labour movement activists to organise a fightback against inevitable attacks despite their capitulating leaders, because the impending crisis will be extreme. Even if a second wave of COVID-19 can be avoided, the UK’s unemployment rate is likely to rise to 11.7 percent by the end of the year: the highest level since 1984. And that’s a big if. Experts warn that a winter resurgence could lead to 120,000 additional deaths.
This situation is replicated across the EU, with a predicted 9 percent average unemployment rate, compared to around 7 percent in September 2019. Particularly bad cases include Spain, whose unemployment rate is projected to reach 20 percent by the end of 2020, Greece (19 percent) and Italy (12 percent). All of this is assuming some sort of lasting recovery, which is not guaranteed.
In the case of Italy, where the coronavirus took a major toll early on, a particularly disgusting phenomenon has emerged where corrupt local politicians and hospital managers are colluding with the Mafia to force families to effectively sell the corpses of their loved ones to funeral companies run by the mob. Criminal elements and 'legitimate' capitalist pirates are all working together to accrue as much wealth as possible off the back of this pandemic, while workers accumulate misery. All this shows the utter barbarism of the system.
Prepare for battle
The coronavirus is exacerbating the weaknesses of the capitalist system in crisis: poverty, exploitation, profiteering, corruption and unemployment are all on the rise. While the ruling class tells us “things are getting back to normal”, a second wave is very likely in many countries – especially in the winter.
The danger depends partly on how different countries have dealt with the virus thus far, particularly with regards to implementing effective contact tracing in combination with lockdowns. As the Wall Street Journal reports:
“The lesson here, epidemiologists say, is that lockdowns work. Timing is important, too: infections are rising quickly in countries that lifted their lockdowns too soon. But most important is what countries do during those lockdowns.
“‘A lot of what you see in the shape of infection curves is how well countries used the time of their lockdowns,’ says Solomon Hsiang, director of the Global Policy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. European countries that suppressed the first wave and have so far reopened with only limited upticks in infections ‘used the time to set up systems for testing and contact-tracing that can bear the weight after lockdowns.’”
Countries like the USA, Mexico, Britain and India that have not built up robust contact tracing procedures are at greatest risk. But even countries that successfully contain the virus will not escape the economic fallout from the pandemic. The WSJ continues:
“New data from Europe and Asia suggest the recovery could take longer than hoped... The U.K. economy expanded just 1.8 percent in May from April, following a record plunge in April. Singapore, which has been lauded for its containment of the pandemic, nevertheless saw second-quarter gross domestic product shrink by an annualized 41.2 percent.”
The depth of this crisis means that, even if there is a second wave of infections, the capitalists will fight tooth and nail to avoid a second lockdown. Not because it doesn't work, but because it will hamper economic recovery. We are likely to see many governments accepting thousands of deaths as reasonable collateral to keep the system going.
In France, for example, the ruling class is not even bothering to lie about keeping workers safe. In a TV interview, the new Prime Minister Jean Castex said, “My aim is to prepare France for a possible second wave while preserving our daily life, our economic and social life… But we're not going to impose a lockdown like the one we did last March, because we've learned... that the economic and human consequences from a total lockdown are disastrous.”
Of course, the economic and human consequences of a massive second wave of infections and deaths would also be disastrous, but the short-termism and cruelty of bourgeoisie is nevertheless laid bare by these comments. Boris Johnson similarly described further lockdowns as a “nuclear option” that he would avoid at all costs.
A backlash from the masses is inevitable. The Black Lives Matter movement, despite its focus on racism and state violence, was also an expression of a general, seething anger in society. If workers sicken en masse and watch their loved ones die because lockdowns ended prematurely – combined with a tsunami of austerity, poverty and unemployment – the results could be explosive. A full-blown depression could suppress the workers’ will to struggle for a time, but sooner or later, something will have to give. One way or another, revolutionary developments are on the horizon.
The organised labour movement should be gathering its forces now. We need a battle plan. Strikes should be organised if workers are forced to risk their health, or face lay offs, and these struggles should be linked up for a general counter-offensive against the bosses and their political cronies. We cannot allow this degenerate system, which is revealing all its ugliness, to sacrifice lives to save profits. The choice is stark: socialism or barbarism!