The following article was written by a doctor, who works in the city of São Paulo. COVID-19 precipitated and exacerbated the conditions of an ongoing social and economic crisis in Brazil, and internationally. The bourgeoisie is confused and divided in the face of a problem that it cannot bear, but it also cannot solve.
The governments’ first response was to obscure or minimize the potential severity of the pandemic, even after information about the lethality and the speed of transmission was already available. It was already known and recognized that the obstacles to control an epidemic (even in a national context), and reducing the number of victims, increase every day if the response is weak or delayed. However, considerations of this type and any measure that may interfere with the “free movement of goods” are subordinate to the fragmented perspective of the profitability of individual capital. The pandemic is beyond those limits.
Coronavirus, economic crisis and class struggle
The magnitude of the emergency trampled political calculations, economic logic, and the narrow mentality of the bourgeois world. For the bourgeoisie, the virus could not be more inconvenient, given the huge public and private debt, inflated by previous crises; an evolving commercial war; and the sky of financial speculation threatening to collapse again. The data on declining retail sales and unemployment are alarming.
On the eve of a new global economic crisis, a microscopic monster appears, from the entrails of an Asiatic mammal, and forces the bourgeois state to save capitalism from the social precipice, to interrupt the usual course of business, to recommend and even force a large part of the workers to stay at home, to distribute money to avoid the revolt of the unemployed and informally employed, to alleviate the almost-complete paralysis of the market, and to distinguish between essential or superfluous production, even directly intervening in a few factories and even nationalizing hospitals as occurred in Spain. To a certain extent (horror of horrors for capital), the bourgeois state is forced to subordinate exchange value to the use value of goods: partially inverting the logic of capitalism.
But let us have no doubts about the willingness of the bourgeoisie to extract extraordinary profits from this unexpected “war economy against the invisible enemy”, at the same time that it is already counting its losses in order to wrench every cent from the workers, as Engels said, “while there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to exploit”. The virus is not the “cause” of this social, political, and economic crisis, but it is making the vicious circle of the contradictions of capitalism spin faster and more visibly.
Even in the advanced countries, the enormous concentration of income is more evident, and within a few weeks of quarantine, millions of workers were without money for their usual expenses, including food. The lion’s share of the trillions of dollars that the governments distributed for bailouts goes to big capital, but with the chronic crisis of overproduction of capital, and in the context of a pandemic, that money does not generate investments. And, hypocritically, the bourgeois want “flexibility” for the already limited capitalist quarantine, arguing that “the economy is also life.”
Powerless to deter the development of the pandemic, the bourgeoisie will be forced to declare war on the visible enemy it most fears: the working class.
Proletarians and the petit-bourgeois, including those who are still trying to cover their eyes and maintain their old prejudices, including those who still believe in the fairytales of the union of “everyone” against the common enemy, will all be forced to open their eyes and put aside their illusions about the nature of bourgeois society.
Capitalism’s inability to solve the crisis
A pandemic, by definition, is an event that goes beyond national borders, and from this perspective, the initial window of opportunity was also lost due to the complete lack of coordination between nation-states (see the striking example of the member nations of the European Union). The World Health Organization (WHO) issues warnings and recommendations and implements specific actions, but it cannot do anything more than that. Economic power on the world market is controlled by large corporations in advanced countries, so that international relations are necessarily conditioned by a combination of antagonism and subordination. At the same time, the pandemic ignores national borders, and no country can disconnect its economy from the interdependence of productive forces on a global scale.
The issue of the “collapse of the healthcare system” is also a natural consequence of capital, which is exacerbated on a grand scale by its organic crisis. In Europe, one of the richest regions on the planet, the scandalous decline in hospital beds (including ICU beds) in recent decades is clearly a direct consequence of austerity policies imposed to throw the cost of this organic crisis on the backs of the working class.
The bourgeois state is incapable of organizing the collective effort necessary to defeat the new virus, which requires a rigorous quarantine and consequently a general reduction of consumption and production of “non-essential” goods and services.
Quarantine is a condition not only to reduce contagion, but also to carry out the actions that make it possible to eliminate the virus, instead of waiting passively for so-called “herd immunity”, at the cost of millions of unnecessary deaths. There are sufficient material resources, science and technology to overcome this pandemic, even if an effective vaccine or medicine is not discovered. It is possible to verify this, as we will see later, by analyzing what has occurred so far, in the first months of the pandemic.
Globally, even in the United States, in Europe, and also in East Asia, COVID-19 is just getting started. In any country or region, if the virus is not eliminated, the pandemic persists, with or without the fluctuations determined by quarantines of partial effectiveness, until the infection and the consequent natural immunity (or “herd immunity”) reaches at least 70-90 percent of the population. It is the rate of transmission, but not the mortality, that decreases as the proportion of infected people approaches this threshold.
In the United States, where the disease has already caused 95,000 deaths, in the most optimistic of estimates, only 7 percent of the population has already been infected. There, herd immunity could cost more than 800,000 lives. In Italy, the percentage of the population that already has natural immunity should be around 10 percent, in Brazil it is below 3 percent (this is taking into account the enormous under-reporting of deaths). In China it did not reach 0.5 percent (in the Hubei province it may have reached 2 percent). In the world, it is no more than 1.5 percent.
Therefore, even in those countries that affirm that the “peak” of the disease is said to be behind them, the pandemic is a problem that is far from being “naturally” solved. The pandemic develops in successive waves, and as we see in Europe, it can be more difficult to exit the “lockdown”, without triggering a new wave, than to enter it.
Preliminary estimates, which are based on official national data, and also on studies conducted in some cities—both in China, Europe, and the United States— calculate a real mortality rate, that on average, is close to 0.7 percent in the social context of these estimates. Mortality is largely influenced by the proportion of elderly in the population, which is generally lower in less-developed countries, but the highest proportion of informal work, precarious housing, chronic infectious diseases (AIDS, tuberculosis, etc) and the weakest healthcare systems, tend to increase the mortality in these countries.
The pandemic has already entered a more accelerated stage also in countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Peru. The “denialist” politics of the Bolsonaro government in Brazil is only a radical manifestation of the weakness of the national bourgeoisie in the backward countries, where the precariousness of living conditions further accentuates the anarchic character of any capitalist quarantine. Shortly after the lockdown was declared in India, close to 120 million informal workers left the cities, returning to their villages of origin, simply because they did not have a home where they could be “isolated.”
What data from some Asian nations reveal
As of now, a notable fact is that more than 80 percent of all the deaths are concentrated in Europe and the United States, in contrast to the countries of East Asia, where this proportion is less than 3 percent and the population is a lot larger. The main reason was the earlier start and also a greater intensity of containment measures in East Asia. This is partly the fruits of harsh experience: the SARS coronavirus pandemic in 2003, which had serious economic consequences and mainly affected China (87 percent of cases), but also Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, and to a lesser extent in other countries.
The first public announcement of an outbreak of pneumonia, of unknown cause, was made on 31 December by a hospital in Wuhan (capital of China’s Hubei province, where the first cases arose). The new coronavirus was not identified in a laboratory until 7 January in China, where the first confirmed death with a positive test happened on 11 January. On 5 January, all travelers originating from Hubei were already being monitored at the ports and airports of Taiwan, and shortly after in other countries in the region, including Japan.
On 23 January, when China only had 571 reported cases and 17 dead, a lockdown, considered unprecedented in history, was implemented in Hubei (57 million inhabitants), disrupting almost all public transport and most industrial production. In Wuhan, nearly 50,000 people worked to carry out diagnostic tests to detect as many asymptomatic carriers as possible, and to ensure that they remained isolated. In China as a whole, the mobilization of resources to control the pandemic has been and continues to be much more extensive than in any other country.
The development of the pandemic is not a biological inevitability, and the only reason it continues continue, with disastrous consequences for humanity, is the inability of the ruling class to organize an effective quarantine without mass unemployment and misery. The capitalist quarantine, even when the bourgeois state is forced to declare it to avoid social chaos, is constantly sabotaged by the bourgeoisie itself. Precisely to clearly expose this crucial issue, it is necessary to understand the specific difference of the Chinese capitalist quarantine.
The great difficulty in controlling and eliminating the new coronavirus is not its biological aggressiveness, but its transmission by asymptomatic people which, however, can be detected by massive and intelligent use of diagnostic tests (the greater aggressiveness of the virus, and the almost non-existence of asymptomatic patients, made controlling SARS much easier in 2003). The combination of the use of tests with other methods, especially an educational campaign with clear and simple information; the inspection of the isolation of cases that tested positive; and the widespread use of masks, can increase the relative efficiency of the quarantine.
Combinations of these methods with a relatively small number of tests is what characterizes, as a first example, the events in Taiwan (440 cases, 7 deaths), and in Vietnam (314 cases, no deaths), countries that were able to detect the first imported cases, and their contacts, and prevent the spread before it began an exponential rise. As a second example, in Germany and Portugal, the combination of the massive use of tests with these methods explains the relatively greater efficiency of quarantine in these countries. South Korea, and to a lesser extent Japan, are intermediate instances of these two examples.
On a much larger scale, China has accomplished and to a large extent still maintains a combination of these two examples, the second in Hubei and the first in all other provinces, so far with an unparalleled result. The specific difference that makes this possible, in a capitalist country, is that the national Chinese bourgeoisie is attached—not just in the sense of being protected, but also in the sense of being subordinate—to the bureaucracy of the state apparatus. This highly centralized bonapartist political regime, maintaining a strict repressive control over the working class, and at the same time, capable of imposing a relatively rigid discipline over the national bourgeoisie, has peculiar historical roots.
The 1949 Revolution eliminated private ownership of land and factories, established a planned economy of limited scope by its own bureaucratic character and by the weakness of its industry, but which nevertheless produced huge social victories. The return to capitalism happened under the command of the state bureaucracy, which saw this as a safer way to maintain its national prerogatives and privileges on this path.
The Chinese government announced a few days ago that it is preparing conditions to test the entire population, several times if necessary, with the intention of completely suspending the quarantine after eliminating the virus within its own borders. It will not be easy, but it is clearly possible, as long as a very rigorous sanitary control keeps the virus outside its borders, until the “herd immunity”, with millions of unnecessary deaths, ends the pandemic in the rest of the world. How long it would take to do so, no one knows, but this indicates that the virus can be eliminated.
And it could be eliminated in all countries if international relations were not conditioned by the antagonism and subordination between them, inevitable until capitalism is overthrown. The working class, including in China, is learning a lot from this bitter experience. Humanity needs socialism, without a privileged bureaucracy, in all countries.
Socialism against barbarism
This crisis has revealed the global inability of capitalism to organize a rational and effective response with extant scientific resources and technology. The mortality and velocity of the spread of the disease on a global scale are exacerbated by urban settlements and by the international interdependence of the productive forces. In other words, the development of the productive forces inevitably produces new needs, which are repressed and distorted to an increasing degree in decaying capitalism. A more developed relations between production and social needs has passed the point where the lack of a planned economy has even become a health problem, a matter of physical survival for humanity.
Capitalism with “Chinese characteristics” cannot overcome the antagonism and subordination of international relations, and maintains the submission of human society as a whole to the private interests of capital. In a planned economy, on a national and international scale, it would be perfectly possible to implement the necessary actions to eliminate the pandemic worldwide. Under socialism, coronavirus would not be a frightening microscopic monster, but a natural event to be faced rationally with the weapons of science and technology, and based on true human fraternity.