Editorial from issue 12 of Socialist Alternative, the Marxist journal of the Socialist Party (ISA Ireland).
Stepping back to assess the damage of the first year of the coronavirus pandemic is sobering. As of March 2021, there have been 123 million confirmed cases and a staggering 2.7 million deaths worldwide. That’s equivalent to the entire population of Chicago city or Manchester being wiped out in the space of a year. If there was any doubt about the ferocity of Covid-19 as a disease, these figures, which are undoubtedly an underestimation and in any case only a snapshot in a rapidly escalating total, speak to its real, unabating threat.
We should be clear, however, that what’s now summed up as the ‘Covid crisis’ — encompassing the health, economic, political and social chaos being experienced — is a distinctively capitalist crisis. That is to say that such calamitous and tragic consequences are not the inevitable effects of a pandemic, it didn’t have to be this way. The policies adopted by governments, overwhelmingly made up of right-wing parties whose overriding concern is for the interests of businesses and not public health, are to blame for the exceptional severity of this crisis.
What’s been demonstrated by the varying responses to the pandemic is that policies that impinged on the natural functioning of the capitalist market prevented deaths, and vice versa — proving again that the ‘free market’ doesn’t provide for human needs. In that sense, capitalist ideology is arguably the real danger in this public health emergency. While plain incompetence and sociopathic indifference played their part in some cases (most notably in the U.S. and Brazil), the primary factor in bad policy making decisions everywhere was fear about the effect it would have on the economy, and especially on the profits of big business. This very point was articulated in an editorial in none other than the British Medical Journal in February. “Murder is an emotive word”, wrote Dr. Kamran Abbasi:
“How could ‘murder’ apply to failures of a pandemic response? Perhaps it can’t, and never will, but it is worth considering. When politicians and experts say that they are willing to allow tens of thousands of premature deaths for the sake of population immunity or in the hope of propping up the economy, is that not premeditated and reckless indifference to human life? If policy failures lead to recurrent and mistimed lockdowns, who is responsible for the resulting non-covid excess deaths? When politicians wilfully neglect scientific advice, international and historical experience, and their own alarming statistics and modelling because to act goes against their political strategy or ideology, is that lawful? Is inaction, action?”(1)
Dr. Abbasi went on to evoke Friedrich Engels and his use of the term “social murder” to describe the premature and unnatural deaths of the poor due to abject working and housing conditions — the result of policies that served the capitalist class in 19th century England. “The ‘social murder’ of populations is more than a relic of a bygone age”, he said. “It is very real today, exposed and magnified by covid-19… State failures that led us to two million deaths are ‘actions’ and ‘inactions’ that should shame us all.”
From its outset, Covid-19 exposed, aggravated and deepened the myriad of systemic inequalities on which capitalism is based. The economic effects illustrate this point. In 2020, working hours lost to the economic impact of the pandemic amounted to 255 million full-time jobs, four times greater than during the global financial crisis in 2009.(2) Of course lower-paid workers, women and young people were worst affected. The cumulative loss in earnings for workers globally has amounted to $3.7 trillion.(3) At the same time, and not at all unrelated, the billionaires of the world increased their wealth by $3.9 trillion dollars,(4) approaching a record total of $12 trillion — more than the combined GDPs of Britain, Germany, France and Spain.(5)
The rollout of the vaccination programme is the latest major example of this inequality. As various vaccines were being developed the states of the advanced capitalist world rushed to corner their share of the market, invariably doing so at the expense of countries of the Global South. As early as September 2020, Oxfam reported that wealthy states accounting for 13% of the planet’s population had secured 50% of the vaccines.(6) In many cases the amounts are far in excess of their respective populations. The EU ordered 1.6 billion vaccines despite having an adult population of 375 million. Likewise the U.K. with an adult population of 54 million ordered 219 million vaccines. This meant that by the end of February, 75% of the world’s vaccinations had taken place in ten of the richest countries.
These obscene disparities are indicative of the structural division that lies between the imperialist nations that dominate the global economy and those that are exploited, and in turn underdeveloped, by these powers. For the most part countries of the Global South don’t have the technology or industry needed to develop and produce vaccines themselves, or even when they do, such as in India, the output goes to those with contracts with the manufacturuers, which again is mainly those wealthy states. It is grotesque that countries in Africa, South America and much of Asia are at the mercy of those that exploit and impoverish them to receive vaccines. The COVAX programme organised by the World Health Organisation to give vaccines to poorer regions will only cover 20% of the countries that are part of the scheme. In South America, where deaths now exceed 500,000 (mostly in Brazil), less than 5% of the population has been vaccinated. In Africa, less than 1% of the population has received a dose.
Ultimately, the lives of the masses of the neo-colonial world are dispensable as far as the capitalist and imperialist elite are concerned. A general contempt for the poor and oppressed, and not a little racism, typifies their collective outlook. But as well as being morally reprehensible, vaccine hoarding is utterly counterproductive, even from their self-interested point of view. While a vaccine apartheid may exist, an equivalent in terms of the virus obviously does not. The longer the globe’s population goes unvaccinated the greater the number of mutations and strains of Covid that can emerge. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Michael T. Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, made this point well:
“Vaccine nationalism — the understandable desire to tend to one’s own citizens first before worrying about others — won’t save wealthy countries if new variants of the disease prolong suffering and disruption elsewhere. Collective action to immunize the world from COVID-19 may sound idealistic, but it is a practical necessity.”(7)
The capitalist system, however, is not one based on rational operating, but rather on ruthless competition. The pandemic emerged against the backdrop of deepening tensions between various capitalist states, most clearly exemplified by the developing Cold War between a rising China and a declining United States. This has been accompanied by a jingoism propagated by their respective capitalist establishments — most obnoxiously by Donald Trump who consistently referred to Covid-19 as the “China virus”. In the United States itself this has contributed to anti-Asian racism which (combined with misogyny) was likley a factor in the horrific murder of six Asian-American women (and two men) in Atlanta, Georgia on 18 March.
Now this capitalist rivalry has manifested itself in states seeking to weaponize their store of vaccines to bolster their influence and prestige on the world stage. This is particularly true of the emerging imperialist powers. For example, the Chinese state plans to give 463 million doses of its Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines to countries in South America, Africa and Europe. This has elicited a response from the Indian government, worried about China’s growing influence in south and south-east Asia. India is now sending its ‘excess’ vaccines to Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal, despite the fact that its own population is one of the worst affected in terms of cases and deaths, and is currently dealing with a significant second wave.(8)
Representatives of Western capitalist powers are likewise sensitive to the need to offset China’s growing influence. This was shown by the comments of Emmanuel Macron in February, who called upon Europe and the United States to give their excess vaccines to poorer states. Macron is particularly worried about a threat to the influence of French imperialism in Africa.
The use of vaccines as a “soft power” has manifested itself in Europe too, where many countries are falling short of supplies. Tensions between the E.U. and U.K. have been mounting over production and distribution agreements for the AstraZeneca vaccine. And at the beginning of March, Italy, backed by France, blocked the export of 250,000 AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia.
In precisely this context of disarray, Russia has supplied Hungary with its Sputnik IV vaccine and China has sent one million of its Sinopharm vaccine to Serbia.(9) The latter is in turn using its excess vaccines to supply neighbouring countries, namely North Macedonia and other states it hopes to influence such as Montenegro and Republika Srpska — the autonomous Bosnian Serb Republic that is part of the Bosnian State. Clearly the Serbian ruling class is seeking to enhance its position within the Balkans.
The most cynical exercise in what has been dubbed “vaccine diplomacy” has been implemented by the Israeli government. It has engaged in much self-adulation about the success of its vaccination programme, which has seen half of its population receive at least one dose. The corrupt and beleaguered regime of Benjamin Netanyahu was determined to use this success to win the recent elections in Israel. At the same time it is criminally rationing out meagre doses of vaccines to Palestinians living under the horrendous occupation, where latest data shows that there have been more than 251,600 confirmed cases and more than 2,670 deaths among Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, which are now in the throes of a third, most severe wave to date. Despite this the Israeli regime is actually exporting vaccines to countries such as the Czech Republic and Honduras. The quid pro quo of this arrangement is that states give recognition to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, thus giving legitimacy to its annexation of East Jerusalem.(10)
The system can’t deliver
A critical barrier to the rollout of the vaccines is the dominant role of big pharmaceutical companies. Having been enormously subsidised through public expenditure by states, several of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies were able to develop effective vaccines. The development of a new vaccine from lab to market typically takes 10 to 15 years, and the fastest ever, the mumps vaccine in the 1960s, took four years. That multiple vaccines for Covid-19 were developed in less than a year is a testament to the incredible potential for new scientific breakthroughs when the funding and resources are made available.
A corollary of this is how much potential is never achieved because of the perpetual under-funding of scientific research under capitalism. In 2018, the year before Covid-19 emerged, for example, funding for research into coronaviruses was a mere $36 million.(11) By contrast, big pharma spends over $30 billion on marketing each year in the U.S. alone.(12) Hence the madness of the profit system, which is also undermining the vaccination progress in many ways. The pharmaceutical companies are motivated not by a desire to cure diseases, but overwhelmingly, to maximise profit. Pfizer alone expects to garner $15 billion in revenue this year from its vaccine, and this figure may rise as the company signs new contracts.
The patenting of vaccines is key to their business plans. Patents act as legal protection for big pharma, and allow them to make super-profits by blocking competition from other companies, be they publicly or privately owned, and the production of cheaper, generic variants of their vaccines or drugs. Hence, we can have no confidence in these companies, nor the political establishment they influence directly through lobbying and indirectly through their immense economic power, to resolve this crisis – certainly not in a timely or equitable way.
Working class must take control
Real cooperation to tackle Covid-19 and vaccinate the bulk of humanity in a speedy and efficient manner could only come by taking these companies out of the hands of profiteers and into democratic public ownership. The obscenity of patents and profiting from a pandemic should be eradicated, allowing for the mass production of the most effective vaccines by any labs and facilities with the capacity to do so. This means requisitioning, and bringing into public ownership the major resources, plants and technology of big pharma globally.
We can’t rely on capitalist governments or institutions to manage these vaccination programmes. Doing so is sure to result in unnecessary sickness and deaths. Rather they should be democratically controlled and managed by committees of workers from the health sector, and from the broader working class, with the trade union movement facilitating international coordination. On top of that, working-class organisations and social movements must organise to demand free, quality, public healthcare.
More fundamentally, the problems in the vaccine rollout are symptomatic of the overarching problem of the economic and social system that dominates the world. The stunning contrast between the enormous technological and scientific advancements of recent decades, and the poverty and deprivation still faced by billions of people is damning. In many ways, capitalism, with its business practices damaging ecosystems, is responsible for unleashing this virus, and in even more ways it’s responsible for the scale of the destruction it’s caused. To stop further suffering from this pandemic, and prevent new outbreaks, capitalism has to go.
1. Kamran Abbasi, 4 Feb 2021, ‘Covid-19: Social murder, they wrote—elected, unaccountable, and unrepentant’, BMJ, www.bmj.com
2. ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work. Seventh edition, www.ilo.org
3. Juliana Kaplan, 25 Jan 2021, ‘Workers lost $3.7 trillion in earnings during the pandemic. Women and Gen Z saw the biggest losses’, www.businessinsider.com
4. Juliana Kaplan, 26 Jan 2021, ‘Billionaires made $3.9 trillion during the pandemic — enough to pay for everyone’s vaccine’, www.businessinsider.com
5. BBC News, 25 Jan 2021, ‘Wealth increase of 10 men during pandemic could buy vaccines for all’, www.bbc.com
6. Oxfam, 17 Sept 2020, ‘Small group of rich nations have bought up more than half the future supply of leading COVID-19 vaccine contenders’, www.oxfam.org
7. Michael T. Osterholm & Mark Olshaker, 8 Mar 2021, ‘The Pandemic That Won’t End’, Foreign Affairs, www.foreignaffairs.com
8. Mint, 8 Mar 2021, ‘India plans to ramp up vaccine production to counter China’s vaccine diplomacy, www.livemint.com
9. Michael Safi , 19 Feb 2021, ‘Vaccine diplomacy: west falling behind in race for influence’, The Guardian, www.theguardian.com
10. Patrick Kingsley, 23 Feb 2021, ‘Israel Gives Vaccine to Far-Off Allies, as Palestinians Wait’, The New York Times, www.nytimes.com
11. Jessica Davis Plüss, “With no prospects for profits, big pharma neglects new infectious diseases”, 6 Mar, 2020, www.swissinfo.ch
12. Lisa M. Schwartz & Steven Woloshin, “Medical Marketing in the United States, 1997-2016”, 8 Jan 2019, www.jamanetwork.com