Coronavirus exposes the gross stupidity of the capitalist system~ 14 min

By Francisco Norega

With more than 182 thousand cases and 7 thousand deaths in less than 3 months, the coronavirus made evident the weakness of a public health system under the pressure of neoliberalism and placed the world economy on the brink of the biggest crisis since 2008. The massive closing of industries, the suppression of endless air routes and a sharp decline in activities connected to tourism – things generally looked on favourably by the adepts of Degrowth and considered unthinkable by any bureaucrat, capitalist or fan of a world in eternal and impossible economic growth – have become, by force of circumstance, a reality. In contrast to the panic in the markets and of those who, at the end of the month, count their profits by the millions or billions, the planet is certainly rejoicing and ecosystems must feel relieved for being freed (even if momentarily) from the pressure of “progress”.

At the human level, there is little to celebrate. Even if we could feel a certain schadenfreude for the fact that all our dear political elites are catching the virus as part of their important international meetings and their fate-deciding handshakes, such is sparse consolation. Once again, class will dictate who will suffer the most from the political decisions of those that thought it would be a great idea to extirpate public health systems for the benefit of capital invested in private systems and insurance companies. They have all suddenly discovered that “society” does indeed exist, unlike what Thatcher said. Or they would discover, if they weren’t all running towards their bunkers to wait out until all the poor people finish dying.

It will be the workers who can’t run away from the labor of cleaning, feeding and producing for the rest of the world, for whom there is no escape nor the will to abandon their equals, who are most exposed to the danger of coronavirus. We are the ones who live in houses with poor conditions, full of humidity and mold (this is an especially dramatic reality in Portugal, which has one of Europe’s highest rates of pneumonia), expelled from healthy housing at affordable prices by AirBnB speculators, they who will now beg the government to save them.

It’s also the workers who will have no choice than to become the last recourse of the most vulnerable members of their families, the sick and the elderly. We are the ones that will lose our jobs because the fools that run the world economy preferred evading paying taxes to making sure that we have strong social systems, and now coronavirus is pushing their precious economy towards another depression. And guess who will pay for that too?

Containment measures in comparison

Coronavirus probably isn’t a reason for a complete panic, but it shouldn’t be underestimated either. Although it is too early to reach definitive conclusions, the mortality rate estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) is of 3,4%. Given that the coronavirus is deadlier to elderly people, the mortality rate in the EU is expected to be different from that of countries with younger populations. These figures are well above the mortality rate for normal flu, which is way under 1% (around 0,1% in countries with good health systems). For comparison, the mortality of the 1918 flu pandemic is estimated to have been under 5%, but 17 to 50 million people lost their lives (between 1% and 3% of the world population at that time) due to widespread transmission.

The draconian measures imposed in Wuhan and Hubei province, as dramatic and shocking as they may seem, were probably crucial to prevent the uncontrolled spreading of the virus  throughout all of China, which could have cost the lives of millions of people. China’s highly centralized and bureaucratic state apparatus had contradicting consequences on the unfolding of the epidemic.

On the one hand, its repressive character led to the censoring of the first doctors who called attention to this new virus and delayed the response to the epidemic. On the other hand, the control over the economy by the state allowed not only for the closing of public services and spaces, but also all non-essential economic activities when the quarantine was declared. Public health was put before profit and the well being of the stock exchanges, and even the huge industries which are the driving force of Chinese exports were halted for more than a month. This led to an unprecedented decrease in the pollution levels not only in Hubei but in all of China. And the same seems to be happening in Iran.

Comparison of pollution levels in Hubei in January and February of 2020 with those of the previous year. Via NASA.

Meanwhile in Europe, the story is unfolding in quite a different way. The slow reaction to the outbreaks in Iran and China was heavily criticized by the West. However, when the epidemic arrived here in full force, it can’t be said  that authorities reacted in the quick and aggressive way that was demanded from those evil regimes and recommended by the WHO itself.

The first outbreak in Italy was identified on February 21st in the village of Codogno, in Lombardy, with dozens of cases confirmed during the following days in the surrounding villages and in one other village in Veneto. The isolation of those villages was not enough to stop the spreading of the virus, which found its way to all Italian regions during the next two weeks. Hundreds of cases started to appear in almost all European countries, most of them connected to people who had returned from Milan, Venice or other parts of Italy. By not enforcing more aggressive measures, around 28 thousand people are infected in Italy and another 38 thousand in the rest of Europe.

During that period, throughout Europe , schools and universities where cases were confirmed were closed, as well as some public facilities in the worst affected areas, and events which gather a large number of people were cancelled. Yet only 16 days after the beginning of the outbreak in Codogno, were more aggressive measures announced in the north of Italy, where the “heart” of the Italian economy and also the biggest European outbreak of the epidemic are. The next week, these measures were extended to all of Italy. The closing and isolation of this country is a difficult decision that will have an enormous impact on the lives of the 60 million people that live there. However, it was the right decision to make.

The announced measures include: travel in and out of the area, as well as within the area, is restricted to “duly verified professional requirements, emergency situations, or health reasons”; the closing of all schools, universities, museums, cultural centers, cinemas, theaters, bars, casinos, nightclubs, ski resorts, swimming pools and sports halls; the suspension of all cultural, religious and festive events; and the prohibition of baptisms and weddings.

Even so, there are some important differences to the measures enforced in Wuhan, inherently connected to the Western social and economic model. Regarding, for instance, shopping centers and department stores, they must only remain closed on public holidays and the days preceding them. Restaurants and bars are also allowed to open, even if only from 8am to 6pm, as long as they can guarantee a minimum safe distance of one meter between customers.

Regarding other commercial and industrial facilities, there seem to be no special instructions. It is important for bosses and industrialists to keep having the masses at their disposal, so that their businesses can function and the economy keeps going. The seriousness of the situation has led to the shutdown of several fundamental pillars of our society – institutions of thought formatting (whether religious or academic) and facilities of alienation and distraction of the masses -, but there are two things that remain practically untouchable: production and consumption. Even in a situation of public health emergency.

Realizing that even these measures were not having enough impact to stop the virus, the Italian government announced more measures during the week: the closing of all shops (except supermarkets and pharmacies) and all restaurants in which it was not possible for customers to keep the “safety distance” between themselves. It almost gave one hope that public health was finally being placed ahead of holy production. But it wasn’t. All companies were advised to close all their departments except, guess what, those essential… to production. Factories could also stay open, as well as banks.

Regarding institutional “solidarity” mechanisms, an interesting phenomenon occurred as well. China responded to the outbreak in Italy by sending more than one thousand lung ventilators, two million masks, a team of doctors, the plasma of cured patients and tons of health equipment. Cuba also sent a team of doctors to support local health professionals. In the meantime, Italy is still waiting for an answer to its request of activation of the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism, made on February 27th.

In the meantime, when France, Spain, and Germany already registered more than two thousand cases each, very few serious measures had yet to be announced, making it almost impossible to contain the spread of the virus. Only in the last few days, when there were already close to 30 thousand cases in all of Europe, were more aggressive measures announced in several countries. However, the situation is the same – in Spain, for example, everyone is forbidden from going out to the streets unless they are going there to buy food, to the pharmacy or… to work.

The US response has also been very slow, due to its privatized healthcare system and the denialism of its politicians, intent on protecting said system. The real number of cases is probably quite higher than that of the official numbers – many of the confirmed cases have no history of traveling to affected areas nor any relation with other cases, which means that community-wide transmission is happening and can be quite large. From January until this Friday, only around 11 thousand tests were conducted throughout the US, roughly the same number of tests South Korea was conducting daily during its peak. Once again, it’s the most vulnerable sectors of society that will pay for the stupidity of the authorities: elderly people, people who have no access to health care, the homeless and prisoners.

The prison population is one of the most vulnerable in our societies, for reasons that are more than obvious. That’s even truer in countries in which the prison system is private or semi-private, as is the case of the US and France. Outbreaks in prisons could have tragic consequences and preventive measures are therefore absolutely necessary. Visits to prisoners were reduced or even completely forbidden in several European countries with the purpose of protecting these people. Yet, does it really make sense to completely isolate those who are already so deprived of freedom? After the riots of the last few days in Italian prisons, in which at least 6 people died, it has become urgent to find solutions suitable to the exceptional situation we are living in.

During the riot, prisoners managed to climb to the roof of San Vittore prison, in Milan. Photo via AFP.

A different strategy was chosen by Iran, that “evil” regime, which decided to free 70 thousand prisoners (almost a third of the total) in an effort to contain the outbreak. Would the virtuous Western democracies be capable of following the same path? They’re probably more worried about not going against US policy and its strategy of criminal sanctions against Iran, Venezuela and other “evil” regimes, sanctions that include medical products and will only contribute to exacerbate the problem and worsen the global pandemic.

Revolt against authority or collective responsibility?

It’s important to always remain vigilant of authoritarian policies built around fabricated dangers or enemies, feeding on prejudices and irrational fears. We will always resist any arbitrary limitation on individual freedoms.

Unfortunately, in this case, there is no arbitrariness and the enemy is quite real. The whole of our individual actions will determine what will be the outcome of this story. 

The apparent lack of concern with which hundreds of people washed over the beaches of Cascais on Wednesday and the breaking of the quarantine by several people in the municipality of Felgueiras are two examples of how irresponsibility can contribute to aggravate the situation. 

The question is if we are momentarily adapting our way of life to try and reach a less tragic outcome for this epidemic or if we want to continue our lives as usual. If we choose the later, we are putting in danger the most vulnerable sectors of our society, we are risking a collapse of health systems already weakened by over a decade of cuts, and we are opening the doors for this virus to find its way to societies much more vulnerable than ours, such as those of the South American and African continents.

The African continent is one of the world’s most vulnerable regions, where shortages in the healthcare systems threaten catastrophic consequences in the event of serious outbreaks. It would therefore be of the utmost importance that all “respectable” tourists and businessmen rethink their travels to those exotic destinations. An example of how the selfishness and stupidity of just one individual can have dramatic consequences comes to us from Senegal: out of the 24 confirmed cases in the country, at least 16 were infected by the same man who had traveled from Italy.

Coronavirus, a champion in the struggle against climate change?

The only positive thing in this epidemic seems to be the drastic reduction in the activities that contribute the most to climate change. In the two biggest outbreaks in the Asian continent, in China and Iran, the political decisions led to the closing of endless industries and to an unprecedented reduction in pollution levels. To a lesser extent, the pollution levels are also falling in the north of Italy

In the West, most of the progress in the struggle against climate change is not occurring due to political decisions to address the public health emergency, but from fluctuations in supply and demand. Most of the factories affected are so due to a lack of raw materials and products usually supplied by China. The lack of demand is also leading a large number of air companies to cancel routes or, at least, reduce its frequency. A British air company, FlyBe, went bankrupt last week, and others might follow. All over Europe, hotels and other lodgings have seen their reservations drop abruptly and tourism related activities are registering enormous losses.

In just two months, an epidemic has done more for the environment than the fancy international conferences where hundreds of politicians gather every year. It is showing that a reduction in industrial activities is not only possible, but can have visible and positive consequences in a short time frame. That we don’t need the absurd amount of airplanes flying around our skies everyday. That the peoples of the European Union shouldn’t have to sustain hundreds of bureaucrats in continuous travels, hotel stays and lavish meals in order to participate in the meetings of the European Council of Ministers, the European Commission and the remaining panoply of institutions, now that it was discovered that video-conferences are an equally functional alternative.

It’s obvious that the working class is the one that will suffer the consequences of the slowdown of all of these economic activities, even those harmful to the environment. The millions lost by managers and shareholders will tally with the millions of people thrown into unemployment or having their wages cut. It’s in times like this when it is most urgent to strengthen the relations of solidarity and mutual aid and to demand healthcare systems and effective mechanisms of social protection which are not hostage to private interests.

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