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Covid-19: capitalism is sick

John Bell

March 7, 2020

The threat of the Covid-19 coronavirus to public health reveals, on many levels, how sick the capitalist system is.

Origins: research has shown that Covid-19 originates in China and is rooted in contact between humans and livestock. This is not an issue of Asian culture or cleanliness, as racists in the West contend. Rather it is because China has become home to massive factory farms that breed, beside pigs and chickens, viruses.

Pandemic: capitalism is a global system where decisions are made, not on the basis of what is good for people or the planet, but to maximize profit. The skies are full of empty international flights, because airlines will lose their landing rights due to “use it or lose it” clauses if they cancel.

So cod caught in the Atlantic off Newfoundland’s shores are flown to China for processing (by cheap labour) and then shipped back to stores in Canada. 

The movement of goods around the globe is paralleled by a movement of people. In 2018 alone, 150 million Chinese citizens booked international trips for business or tourism. A virus that passes through human contact, and takes weeks to exhibit symptoms, will always spread. Shutting borders and travel bans, as Trump has boasted about in his wretched response to Covid-19, is useless at best, and deliberately racist at worst.

Profit, stupidity and greed: if closing the barn door after the virus has left doesn’t work, what does?

Public health experts agree that good, readily available medical attention, improved hygiene, and isolating cases of infection are keys to stopping the spread. But governments–from Jason Kenney’s Alberta, to Doug Ford’s Ontario, to Donald Trump’s USA, and beyond–have been slashing public health budgets in order to give tax cuts to the rich and corporations.

There is even a section of the capitalist ruling class who look at the crisis and see only an opportunity to make more profit. US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told his friends at Fox: “I think it will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America.” 

His remark drew criticism from economists, not for its mercenary inhumanity but because it wasn’t mercenary enough. Simon Baptist of the Economist responded: “Companies are not going to make serious and long-term investment decisions on the basis of an outbreak of a disease that might last three to six months.”

Then there is the profit to be made from developing a vaccine. Testifying before Congress, US Health Secretary Dr. Alex Azar said that, not only would a vaccine not be free, but government could not promise to make it “affordable”: “We would want to ensure that we work to make it affordable, but we can't control that price, because we need the private sector to invest. Price controls won't get us there.”

CNBC economic pundit Rick Santelli is far more worried about stock prices dropping than people. “But maybe we’d be just better off if we gave it to everybody, and then in a month it would be over because the mortality rate of this probably isn’t going to be any different if we did it that way than the long-term picture, but the difference is we’re wreaking havoc on global and domestic economies.”

He neglected to mention that, at the present rate of mortality, that adds up to about 11 million dead. Or maybe like so many economists he just can’t do the math. 

Trump has wavered between crowing about what a brilliant job he has done to contain the threat, and dismissing it as a Democratic “hoax”. The lack of public healthcare in the US is already a big issue in the US election campaign; as the pandemic grows so will the debate, and Trump is already in panic mode. So he has handed responsibility to VP Mike Pence, a fundamentalist Christian who literally believes in Biblical prophesy and is no friend of science

Trump openly rambled about whether he would allow hundreds of Americans quarantined on a mega-cruise ship to return to US soil – if he did that would bump up the official infection rate and that would make him look bad. He has lied about availability of tests, and actually told American workers the virus was so mild that they should continue to go to work.

Austerity makes us sick: the US has no monopoly on shortsighted policies. Governments everywhere are imposing austerity budgets, transferring wealth from public services to corporate tax cuts and subsidies. 

What were some of the first moves of Doug Ford’s Tory government? First he clawed back sick-day benefits from Ontario’s minimum wage workers; then he moved to slash funding for public health

When asked about his government’s response to Covid-19, Ontario premier Doug Ford tried to use the pandemic threat as a way to slam teachers fighting his education cuts: “You wonder why we're passionate about making sure we're respect tax dollars with the teachers’ contracts and other contracts. As I always say, the rainy day fund.” 

Not to be outdone in partisan stupidity, federal Tory leader Andrew Scheer rose in parliament to demand the creation of a government department to deal with the crisis. Nobody bothered to tell him about Public Health Canada, already on the case.

As long as governments attack public services and move to privatize health care, viruses will go viral. As long as workers cannot afford to miss work, viruses will spread. As long as medicine is in the hands of people whose first thought is about how much they can make from the misery of others capitalism will continue to make us sick.


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