The Capitalist Roots of the Pandemic Crisis

Video of our semester kickoff event, “Capitalism Causes COVID”


What do we mean by “capitalism causes COVID”?

A few things. First, COVID is just the latest in a series of viruses caused by capitalism’s destruction of the environment.

Second, capitalists are those who own the factories, the slaughterhouses, the tech companies. Because of their relentless drive to profit or die, they need to keep their system humming, keep workers working, lives be damned.

And third, just as capitalism is based on competition between companies, it is also based on competition between nations. We call this imperialism. Nations have used their economic might to ensure their populations received vaccines, and even boosters, first. It created massive gaps in vaccinations around the world, space for new variants like Delta and Omicron to develop and spread.

Capitalism is incapable of solving this crisis on terms in our collective interest. We need an alternative, socialism.

Environmental Destruction and “Zoonotic Spillover”

But wait, didn’t COVID start in China? A socialist country?

China is anything but socialist.

In 2020, the number of billionaires in China grew to 878. They added $1.5 trillion to their fortunes, which now total $4 trillion. Now let’s look at the US. US billionaires have seen their wealth grow $2.1 trillion since the start of the pandemic. Their wealth now totals $5 trillion spread among 745 people.

At the same time, Chinese iPhone contractor Foxconn works their workers literally to death — so much that their factories put up anti-suicide nets around their roofs. The US, similarly, has sent and continues to send workers to an early grave. Pre-COVID, 100,000 people died every year in this country from death, injury and disease just from their jobs. China is the furthest thing from real socialism. The US is the furthest thing from real democracy.

Just like capitalism everywhere else, China’s development and wealth hinge on workers’ exploitation. And just like capitalism everywhere else, it depends on the exploitation and destruction of nature too.

Some 20 percent of the remaining forested areas in the world stand within 100 yards of a forest edge. 70 percent of those areas are within a half mile of an edge.

Haiti, which I know the most about, went from 80% forest cover in 1804 to just 1.25% forest cover in 2015.

As capitalism encroaches on the last of the wilderness, it encounters new diseases. These then spillover, often onto other species used in agribusiness like pigs, chickens, or in a particular wild meat market in Wuhan, pangolins.

Then, as the disease festers among commodity-animals packed in the thousands and millions, they hop over to humans. This is what scientists call “zoonotic spillover.”

COVID is far from the first. In 1997, in China, bird flu jumped to humans from the some 700 million chickens and ducks raised in factory farms there. In 2002, SARS jumped from bats to civets to humans. In 2009, swine flu supercharged by spreading among factory hog farms in North Carolina then jumped to humans. In 2012 the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) lept from bats to camels to humans.

Though a lot of this zoonotic spillover has happened in factory pig and poultry farms, giving up meat and going veg is no solution either. Soybeans and palm oil are THE #2 and #3 commodities most responsible for 40 percent of global deforestation between 2000 and 2011. In Brazil, today, universities like Harvard and the investment company that manages your own professors’ pension fund, TIAA, are investing in clearcutting the biorich cerrado and Amazon rainforest… What are they growing on that land? Soy.

With capital encroaching ever-more on the frontiers, with industrial ag removing the immune firebreaks of genetic diversity, with the web of production and exchange now more globalized than ever… it was inevitable that a virus like COVID would emerge that could spread faster and do more damage than SARS, MERS, and bird flu before it.

Capitalism has created COVID and allowed it to spread. But can it provide any serious solutions — whether from the Trumps, Bidens, or Xi Jinpings of the world?

The Situation Now

As of 21 January, the World Health Organisation reports that there have been just over 340 million reported cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with the United States making up nearly 70 million of these cases: over one-fifth of that total.  

Millions of Americans are being infected with the virus each day, and thousands more are dying from it at the same rate. How can it be that this so-called world power has gotten itself into such a dire predicament? 

The answer is quite simple: since the start of this pandemic, the United States, steeped in the bitter avarice and indifference of capitalism, has not cared whether or not it should take steps to eradicate, or even simply to attempt to prevent, the spread of COVID-19 among its own population or among that of the world. The United States has only cared about one thing throughout this pandemic, and that is to continue making profit. 

It is also important to keep in mind that, even before the onset of COVID-19, the United States did not care about human life. In recent decades leading up to the pandemic, it has decidedly and systematically bled out its already-limited public health institutions.

In consequence, there has been a grotesque mismanagement of coronavirus response by the U.S. Government, which has birthed and fueled not only the immense suffering we have experienced for the past three years, but also the very conditions for a prolonged pandemic.

The Capitalism’s Failed Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic

It is true that in the initial uncertainty of our first year of the pandemic, some efforts were made by the government to provide social support to the people. 

Two stimulus checks were issued to eligible families (the first promising $1.200 per adult and $500 per child under seventeen, the second promising $600 for each), evictions were halted from September through December, and extended benefits were provided to the unemployed.

It is important for us not to equate these protective measures with the idea that the Trump administration which signed them into law did so out of genuine concern or care, however. They came about, as epidemiologist Rob Wallace has expressed, due largely to the uncertainty as to how long the pandemic would last, and as to who would be infected. 

Furthermore, Trump is notorious not only for his late start to implementing any such measures, but also for spreading anti-mask and anti-vaccine rhetoric to a vulnerable population being ravaged by disease, despite having been vaccinated himself. 

Nevertheless, the few protective measures that were implemented were certainly appreciated by many (how could they not be when they were all we could rely on?). That is, until Biden took office in January 2021 and worked to reverse them. 

I am certain that everyone here can remember some of the statements made by Biden during his campaign for the presidency. He promised to handle the pandemic differently than his predecessor, swearing such things that, if he should become the next leader of the country, he would increase testing, provide Americans with the protective resources (masks and vaccines) needed to remain healthy, and work towards maintaining public safety. 

What became of these promises? Well, you can see for yourselves.

In May, Biden told the country that vaccinated individuals no longer needed to wear masks in public spaces, despite warnings from medical experts and the rise of the new Delta variant, and gave his approval for the halving of social distancing in public schools (going from distancing by six feet to three), buildings known to be COVID superspreaders. 

In June, Biden got rid of OSHA requirements on masking for non-healthcare workers, caving to business pressure

In October, scientists told Biden to provide Americans with free, at-home testing for the holidays. This offer was, of course, rejected, and Biden made no significant effort to warn against holiday gatherings in the upcoming months.

More recently, in January of this year, Biden made an announcement that there is “no federal solution to COVID,” while supporting the CDC in its new policy to halve isolation time for sick individuals from ten days to five. This decision was made at the behest of none other than the CEO of Delta Airlines, in order that we may get people back to work faster and “keep the economy going.” 

Because profit for the rich is more important than the safety of the people, right?

Vaccine Imperialism, the Long Pandemic, and the Rise of New Variants

Yet we are still harassed with the story that this is “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Biden insists on indoctrinating us with the idea that this pandemic has only gotten to this point due to the negligence of those who have not received the vaccine.

In a December White House press release, Biden even went so far as to tell unvaccinated that they are “looking at a winter of severe illness and death,” while assuring those who have been vaccinated – who are still getting sick, mind you – that they have “done the right thing” and “will get through this.” 

Why, truly, does the pandemic rage on? Answer: the patenting of vaccines by the capitalists of the West.

Because it “is not profitable” for the Western pharmaceutical bourgeois to share vaccines with the rest of the world, they do not. They place patents on them while sitting back, getting richer, and claiming that such a measure is for the common good of humanity.

In reality, this practice has led to a dangerous lack of vaccines in the global south, infinitely more death and human suffering, and the conditions for the birth of new variants such as Omicron, which always, inevitably, make their way to the West, to our homes and to the very homes of the capitalist patenters whose greed permitted their existence in the first place.

And, despite promises to the contrary, the Biden administration continues to block patent waivers on an international level.

Attacks on Public Health Set the Stage

As if all this were not enough, there is yet another way in which the United States government has failed to protect public health.

In recent decades, its decision to systematically bleed out its already-limited public health institutions has caused not only a terrible scarcity in hospital resources, but has also forced us to fend for ourselves during the pandemic: we have to buy our own masks, our own tests, and our own protection while the government, the very institution meant to protect us, has left us to die if we cannot afford what they should be providing to us in the first place.

Relatedly, hospitals themselves have become scarce, with many small medical centres having been forced to close after being bought up by exploitative investment firms. In the past two decades in New York City alone, nearly twenty-thousand hospital beds have been lost to such circumstances with the support of the Democrat ex-governor Cuomo, and in the last ten years, Massachusetts hospitals in both North Adams and Lynn have been forced to close, as well.

Such incidents can be seen as part of the larger neoliberal order in this country that has been abusing the working class for the past four decades (an order which has made unconcealed efforts to bust unions, incarcerate the innocent, and, now, destroy healthcare).

The Pandemic Runs on the Grooves of Capitalist Inequality

I will conclude by restating the overarching reality of our situation: capitalism, and most significantly, American capitalism, has created and prolonged the crisis of COVID-19.

We must, however, acknowledge the fact that COVID, and all of the death and suffering it has caused, has under no circumstances affected everyone equally. Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Pacific Islander people have died at twice the rate of the entire population. The CDC’s indecorous celebration that those who are most likely to die are those with “underlying conditions” and comorbidities refers specifically to those with disabilities. And infection rates in poorer communities are increasingly abysmal; the rate of infection in Lawrence, for example, is more than double than that of the entire state of Massachusetts. 

This virus, like all the inevitable violence and crises of the current system, runs along the grooves of race, gender, ability, and class…grooves of inequality that have been carved into capitalism from its very beginning. If we wish to address this crisis in terms that will promote our – the working class’s – collective interests, we must topple the system that has exploited and killed us in the name of profit.

The Revolutionary Socialist Answer to COVID

So what is Revolutionary Socialism? And what’s our solution to COVID?

If you get nothing else from this talk, get this. Socialism is not the government running things. It’s people power.

Capitalism, if we take the root of the word, is the rule of capital, the capitalist class. Those who own the factories, the Amazons, the Apples run the world. Socialism is the rule of the working class. Those who work, who do the “essential stuff” like nursing, teaching, driving trucks, caring or being cared for, for the first time under socialism, are put in the driver’s seat of history.

There have been other oppressed and exploited classes in history. The peasants of feudal Europe. The slaves of Greece and Rome. But there are two things about workers in this society, that are different from the peasants or the slaves. A) we produce way more than what was ever possible before. Getting everyone’s needs met is finally on the table. B) We can only work by working together. You can’t break up a grocery store and have each worker own an aisle. You can’t make an iPhone without an entire assembly line working together, connected to the truck drivers and store clerks bringing it to market.

So when we talk about socialism or communism, it’s about social or communal rule. Again, socialism is not the government running things. It’s us, the workers, the students, those now-oppressed, having real control of our lives for the first time.

We talk a lot about democracy in the US. But the Founding Fathers had no interest in real democracy. They were slaveholders and money men. They operated on elitism, perfectly expressed in the words of the first Supreme Court Justice John Jay: “those who own the country ought to govern it.”

The same is true in China. They claim the mantle of communism, but they deeply fear strikes of actual workers and the oppressed. That’s why they have jailed labor activists. Why they’ve cracked down on protesters in Hong Kong and Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Even now they are addressing COVID because they fear the anger and instability if they didn’t.

So what would we implement?

There are some pretty common sense things revolutionary socialists would do. Get rid of the vaccine patents, get the whole world vaccinated, and stop the rise of new variants. Provide free housing, free food, enough money so people aren’t forced to go to work and spread the virus. Students and teachers, nurses and doctors, restaurant and Amazon workers, should decide when it’s safe to work, how many ICU beds they need, and what kind of protection they’re given. We’d end the uncontrolled destruction of nature, and get in right relationship with Mother Earth.

But as revolutionaries we know the present government won’t do this on its own. It acts in the interests of the rich. Just look at Biden and Fauci caving to the Delta Airlines CEO to drop the quarantine time from 10 to 5 days.

We can’t vote for a better Democrat to come save us. No, instead we look to a different power to get what we want… We see it in disability activists saying My Disabled Life Is Worthy, against the CDC’s cheer that only “people with underlying conditions are dying”. We see it in the student walkouts and teachers’ strikes against going back to school during Omicron. We see it in Black Lives Matter rebellions and Starbucks union drives. People power. That’s where our power lies to stop COVID. And that’s the potential we see for building a new kind of world.

A Call to Action

But is it possible? We have seen rebellions and even revolutions break out around the world in the last ten years. Right now, as we speak tonight, in Sudan, in Kazakhstan, workers are in the streets fighting.

Even in this country, we’ve seen a major growth of radicalism. Our own rebellions. Two years ago we saw Minneapolis and Kenosha rise up. Even now, the “anti-work” sentiment — the mass ghostings, saucy texts to bosses, and now union organizing — reflects a real class anger… a desire for an alternative.

But, like the rebellions of two years ago, that sentiment remains unorganized. We’re like electricity crackling without wires to channel our energy. We can suddenly arc out like lightning, but we need to channel ourselves to power a new world.

There are things we can fight for right now. Let’s take away the vaccine patents so every country has the vaccines they need. Let’s make sure everyone has the support they need to stay home, to work or study remotely if they can… let’s talk about free housing, free food, free abortion, free mental health support. Let’s demand cafeteria workers, students, faculty and staff on this campus aren’t overworked — and let’s get money back on housing while you’re still remote. Most importantly, let’s not settle for any appeal to trust in a system that continues to fail us.

We need demands, but for those demands to be made real we need to exert material force. Without struggle there is no progress. But without organization there is no struggle — or not a successful one at any rate.

We need writers, speakers, graphic designers, social media specialists, techies, researchers… whether you have these skills already or just want to learn. We need students as well as workers. We need a multiracial, multi-gender, multi-abled group of radicals. And we need all of us working together — no matter who we are or what our skills — in a common organization.

There’s a whole hidden history of socialist and communist organizations stretching back 150 years in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of revolutionaries in this country used to be part of the struggle for socialism, through both exciting battles and difficult times.

The Boston Revolutionary Socialists are making a contribution to rebuilding that movement… We are working with others nationwide in hopes of launching a new party in the next few years. And we need your help, starting with building local groups where we are, starting with Salem State.

So let’s talk about COVID, let’s talk about capitalism, but let’s also talk about building a movement. Let’s get started.