A virus is haunting Europe - the vector is capitalism

The decision to defend capital has led to governments taking too little action too late to stop the spread of novel coronavirus.

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The novel coronavirus is infectious, deadly and invisible to the naked eye. It spreads exponentially, has traversed the globe and today poses a threat to the very foundations of modern civilisation. All these properties it shares with capitalism.

David Harvey: Anti-Capitalist Politics in an Age of Covid-19

There are three primary ways in which capitalism has escalated the current coronavirus crisis: the transmission of the virus to humans, the spread of the virus globally, and the failure of governments and deregulated markets to contain the spread of infections.

The transfer of this coronavirus from animals to humans, the subsequent infection of populations in almost every country and the collapse of health services would not have been possible without the specific circumstances brought about by our current economic system. Covid-19 is the name we have given the disease. SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus. The vector is capitalism.

Infections

Scientists in China - the world’s second largest economy - are currently focussing their resources on containing the spread of the virus and finding treatments and vaccinations for its victims. But some information has already been established about the most likely beginnings of novel coronavirus.

The current most likely hypothesis is that Covid-19 or its predecessor originated in the bat population - which is known to carry a virus with a 96 percent match. The bat population was also believed to be the starting place for the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2003. Covid-19 was then likely transferred to human beings through the sale of wild animals, perhaps slaughtered on site at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, in Hubei province, China.

The act of killing animals in the presence of the customer is not some uniquely Chinese practice, nor is “traditional” in the sense of being a custom that has been practiced for a long time. In fact, eating wild animals bought at a wet market is the product of a specific historic moment, related to the transfer of responsibility for meat production from the Chinese state to a new private sphere in the 1970s. It has now been made illegal in China. 

The Chinese government claims to be Communist, celebrating Marx, Lenin and Mao, and in the United States and Europe this is broadly accepted and also understood to mean that the state with a population reaching 1.5 billion is non-capitalist. The state in China has throughout its current incarnation had a greater level of control over the production, distribution and sale of goods.

However, China has never been communist. There is some debate as to whether the Chinese revolution was a genuine attempt to create a communist state, but even assuming this was the direction of travel - the leadership never got there. China is state-capitalist. It is - like many countries - a mixed economy with some aspects of the production and sale of goods and services controlled by the government and some by privately owned companies and individuals. On this scale it has significantly more on the side of government control than the US or the EU.

Control 

However, the level of state control has varied significantly both across time and space. There were decades where almost every aspect of economic life was controlled by the leadership, and provinces where this was tightly administered. But there have also been hot spots where a highly liberalised, deregulated market capitalism has predominated.

The Huanan Seafood Market is such a hot spot. The Chinese regime in the 1970s faced a fundamental crisis. Agricultural production was failing, the population faced famine, and unrest - perhaps leading to revolution - haunted the ruling regime.

As a result the Chinese government transferred the production of meat from state-owned enterprises to private individuals. It handed out land, changed the law and actively encouraged private companies to farm animals - the most popular at that time being chicken and pork - in a desperate attempt to drive up production.

The introduction of a kind of capitalism into the state run economy had some predictable results, predictable to those in China who had read and understood the communist political economist Karl Marx. The more profitable farmers began to dominate the market, benefiting from economies of scale and the division of labour. Farms and agricultural companies grew in size, forming cartels and monopolies.

The small independent farmers were soon driven out of the chicken and pork markets, exactly as they have been in the United States, and to a lesser extent Europe. These farmers needed new ways to survive. They began poaching, and then breeding wild or more “exotic” meats because these could be sold to wealthy customers on the luxury market for a significantly higher price.

Farming

The state was quick to observe and record this change of practice, but condoned and at times supported the new market in wild animals because it resulted in paid employment and money moving out into rural communities. The large urban markets where chicken and pork - and other mainstream meat products - began to host stalls selling a wide variety of animals. This practice was not universal or consistent across China, some wild meats found in the south were never found in Beijing.

The practice of selling wild animals grew, and farmers began to breed the animals in captivity. The conditions were often unhygienic and cruel. A parallel illegal market in banned animals evolved. At the same time, stall holders in the urban markets started slaughtering and butchering these smaller wild animals at the point of sale. This again commanded a higher price as it was popular with wealthier customers in the luxury market. The meat was considered healthier and fresher if the animal had been kept alive.

As the coronavirus crisis took hold in the UK, the reactionary newspapers like the Daily Mail sensationalised the practices in China that seemed so different to our own. This is dog whistle racism. It is also an attempt to blame ‘oriental’ and ‘foreign’ customs and practices for the current crisis, and in the process protect the common practice of consumer-driven capitalism of both China and ‘the West’.

The practice of selling live crabs and lobster is common in the UK. There are “wet markets” - a term used to differentiate butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers from hardware stalls selling mops and toys - in every town and city. We eat exotic foods from far away places. Butchers chop meat from sheep, cows, chicken, rabbit and other animals on the same block. We eat intelligent animals like squid from tins. 

I have seen some British dairy and chicken farms up close. The animals were in pain and distressed; they were chained, kept in dark sheds on hot summer days; the cows limped and slid on concrete hidden under a dense layer of their own “slurry”. The UK practice of having mega farms of more than 1,000 cows creating reservoirs of stinking waste, and slaughtering all these animals in a few centralised abattoirs poses extreme health risks, albeit of a different specificity to those in China. The prolific use of antibiotics on US farms - alongside pesticides, hormones, bleach - is a global economic crisis in waiting.

Conditions 

The novel coronavirus crisis is not the result of novel or unusual practices in China, it is the result of the capitalism that operates all over the world. The farmers and the market stall holders were “protecting jobs” and “responding to customer demand”. They were serving wealthy and high status Chinese customers. 

Many of the earliest victims of coronavirus attended the Huanan market. In time we will find out if these were the staff working for wealthy households. 

The fact that we could see unhygienic and cruel conditions in these markets may be a result of the fact the ultimate customer and consumer never visited these places, just as we can buy cellophane covered cuts of beef with no conception of conditions in the abattoir. 

The conditions of the transfer of coronavirus from bat to human being were not “communist” nor uniquely Chinese. They were distinctly capitalist. They were specifically the outcomes from the decisions of the Chinese state to have less control, to liberalise the farming and agricultural industries and to let the “market” decide what meats were produced and under which conditions.

Spread

The response of western governments to coronavirus has been to defend and protect capitalism, at whatever cost. 

This has been most pronounced in the UK. Boris Johnson and his relatively new Tory government successively attempted to protect capital in two ways. Firstly, the government tried to simply ignore the problem so that capitalism could continue to whirr and splutter. Johnson suggested one approach to the virus outbreak was to “take it on the chin” and do next to nothing.

We would develop “herd immunity”. What this meant is that we would continue to go to work, and the old and vulnerable would be shut into their homes and left to die

When the evidence from Italy and then Spain was that this approach would lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths - and the scientists concurred - Johnson must have suddenly realised that his government would not survive. 

This approach would have led to civil unrest. He performed an historic u-turn.

Response

Yesterday (17 March 2020), the British state pivoted to borrowing £350 billion and pouring it into the bank accounts of businesses large and small while suspending some taxes: capital would be saved, and workers would keep enough of their jobs to prevent a political earthquake. But the majority of the funding did not appear to go to the NHS, or directly to renters and those on benefits. 

In the United States the Federal Reserve had already promised a $700 billion stimulus and rates cut to support the markets. These two countries alone had found $1 trillion to protect capital from coronavirus. But the initial response in both the US and the UK was to ignore the crisis, pretend it was not real, and just hope it goes away. People might suffer, but for business it would be business as usual.

To see clearly how the governments are protecting capital and not the people, it is worth contrasting how China - a capitalist economy with an interventionist state - compares to the EU and US. It seems at this stage that the primary reason Covid-19 was not contained within China was the fact the virus was not detected early enough, and that the authorities did not act quickly and decisively enough. But when the scale of the crisis became known and acknowledged, the Chinese state shifted billions of resources, and within a few weeks contained and slowed the virus.

This contrasts with how European capitalist democratic states responded to the crisis. These governments sought to protect the markets first, their populations second, and as a direct result the virus was able to spread to almost every country on the planet. The failure of “developed” states such as the United States and the UK to protect their citizens and subjects from the worst, deadly, impacts of the disease is also a direct result of capitalist economics.

The Chinese authorities alerted the World Health Organisation on 31 December 2019 that there has been a handful of causes of pneumonia which doctors were reporting as being unusual, in the port city of Wuhan. It was quickly established that some of those infected worked on food stalls at the Huanan. The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market was shut down, sealed off and sanitised the next day. There were around 40 known infections at that time.

Emergency

A week later - on 7 January 2020 - scientists in China identified the cause of the pneumonia - a new virus that was named 2019-vCoV. A few days later - on 11 January 2012 - the first person died from contracting the disease. A 61-year-old man who had been a customer of the seafood market died of heart failure. 

Just two days later the first case was reported in Thailand, and traced back to Wuhan. In less than a week cases had been reported in Japan, the United States, Nepal, France, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan. There were still fewer than 200 reported infections in China.

The seriousness of the novel coronavirus infection became all too apparent on 22 January when reported deaths leapt to 17 and the number of known infections had doubled to 400. The Chinese state acted quickly and decisively and initiated the effective quarantine of Wuhan on 23 January 2020, closing airports and train stations. The same measures were enforced at Xiantao and Chibi, in Hubei province. The Lunar New Year - due to start in two days - was cancelled. 

The World Health Organisation declared a state of global emergency on 30 January as China reported 170 deaths and 7,711 cases. It was clear that this virus was spreading exponentially through the human population. A month after the seafood market was closed, the UK along with Spain and Sweden had confirmed its first case of novel coronavirus. The following day Australia, Canada, Germany, the US, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam had all reported new cases.

There were 16 days between 7 January, when scientists in China first confirmed that a new virus was the cause of the disease outbreak, and 23 January, when the entire city of Wuhan - with a population of 11 million people - was closed down. The time that will elapse between the first case in the UK - on 31 January  and the ending of overseas flights is yet to be established as the major airlines continue at least some services. So far it has been 47 days. 

As Paul Mason has pointed out, Johnson’s government did not hold its first COBRA meeting until 3 March and still then, “Britain did nothing”.

Preventable 

The response in China to the virus was slow at first - but then decisive. As the US publication Business Insider reported, “extreme measures” were implemented rapidly. Trains no longer stopped at Wuhan; suspected victims could attend specialist fever clinics; tests were widely available and free; China built two new dedicated hospitals with more than 1,000 beds, the first in a week the second in two; whole wards and hospital entrances were made coronavirus only; all relevant technology was used in an attempt to trace every case; food was delivered to people’s homes; 40,000 medical workers were moved to the centre of the crisis. There were also some terrifying events, with critics of the government going missing

On 7 March the New York Times was reporting that there were no new cases in Hubei outside its capital, and that the number of new cases had fallen from 2,000 to 99 in a day. The graphs all show that coronavirus is no longer spreading exponentially in China. It has for now been suppressed and contained. 

New cases are from Chinese people returning home from the US, the EU and elsewhere, and not contracted in-country. Dr Gauden Galea, the China representative of the World Health Organisation, has stated: “[T]he natural course of the outbreak does not need to be a very high peak that overwhelms health services. This lesson in containment, therefore, is a lesson that other countries can learn from...” Western capitalist democracies are not learning these lessons. 

The situation in the UK, the US and most of the rest of the world could not be more different. The UK has up until today refused to close schools despite the fact children are super-spreaders. Health experts expressed incredulity at the lack of government action. 

Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of the highly respected, peer reviewed Lancet medical journal evidenced the fact the government ignored warnings from scientists. “This crisis was entirely preventable”.

Capital 

Even as China was warning that the virus could spread exponentially and overwhelm health provision, countries in the West failed to act. The planes still today continue to take off, major racing events in the UK took place, theatres and pubs have not yet been ordered to close because the government is managing the crisis on behalf of finance capital, and not the elderly and vulnerable.

The response from Donald Trump as US president has been alarming. Jeff Tiedrich summed it up on Twitter: “Trump’s pandemic response, a partial list: lied; called it a hoax; blamed Obama; praised himself; muzzled the experts; snuggled up to CEOs; whined about bad press; told the sick ‘go to work’; tried to bribe German pharma co.; said it would disappear ‘like a miracle’.” We cannot dismiss Trump as a madman, he is US capital’s chosen representative on earth.  

Grassroots organisations such as Protect the People sprung up demanding the government take serious action, such as closing schools and providing funding for the NHS. Johnson’s policy of allowing “herd immunity” and then forcing older people into months of “self isolation” have caused fury. The policy is an outlier - but not by far. 

Italy allowed the virus to rage through its population before taking action. A large majority of EU countries have closed schools, shut down public venues and events, and closed borders. In every case, action was taken after the virus had infected populations and begun its inevitable exponential growth.

Bail out 

The response to the coronavirus outbreak globally has not been dictated by public health - it has been hampered by concerns for the global market - for capitalism. As the reality of the coronavirus crisis became clear, stock markets around the world started to slide and collapse.

The prospect of millions of workers in each national economy taking leave - some estimates are that as many as 20 percent - has destroyed billions in value on the markets. The coronavirus has revealed the truth that entrepreneurs may dominate the narrative about the success of capitalism, but capitalism depends entirely on hundreds of millions of people turning up to work. The markets have crashed. As early as February, the US stock markets were reporting some of the largest falls since the 2008 economic crisis. 

The United States has since announced a $700bn stimulus programme and its Federal Reserve cut interest rates to almost zero in a bid to keep dollars in circulation. Despite this, Donald Trump, the US president, admitted we are on the edge of recession, sending the markets into a second death spiral, with the Dow Jones losing 12.9 percent of its value in a single day.

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor in the UK, last night announced an unprecedented £330 billion in cash to save British capitalism. The money will be poured into companies large and small, as loans and gifts. The state - as Johnson has made clear in his speech - has after a decade of responsibility discovered the principle of collectivity. “We must act like any wartime government and do whatever it takes to support our economy.”

The airline industry is in absolute crisis. In the UK there has been calls for a £7.5 billion rescue package. This is an industry that has fiercely resisted government policy on climate change by citing the logic of free market capitalism. It has globally avoided trillions of dollars in taxes because these companies threaten to refuel in low tax countries. It has told staff to take unpaid leave to subsidise its survival. And it wants the state to intervene in the market to save its billionaire owners and investors.

Crisis

The government money should be used by companies to pay their rents and wages to their staff - which in turn will ensure they can pay their own rents. The landowning class - the people Adam Smith dismissively called the rentier class - has been isolated from the economic crisis. 

The banks have been persuaded to offer those with mortgages a three month holiday, ensuring the value of those loans is not undermined by defaults and missed payments. The government is also using this crisis as an opportunity to slash business taxes. 

But what about those most in need? The Conservatives could not find a single magic money tree during the 2015 general election. Now we are lost in the forest. Magic money trees around the world are being felled to save capitalism from itself. 

The Tories now realise they can borrow at extremely low rates and pass the cash directly to its own citizens. This comes after we have watched for a decade as the benefits regime has been sadistic, homelessness has more than doubled, schools are falling apart, hospitals cannot afford staff, and more and more old people die in cold impoverished loneliness.

The electorate just didn’t believe Labour could fund its manifesto - but look at all the cash now available as soon as capitalism itself is made vulnerable. Yet the chancellor appeared to ignore people who have to pay rent and the poorest in yesterday’s bailout.

Vaccine

Capitalism has been revealed to be red in tooth and claw during this crisis. Trump’s reported attempt to buy the patent of a potential new vaccine being developed in Germany was the unacceptable - but true - face of modern capitalism. 

Global Justice Now has warned that pharmaceutical companies are looking to profit from the crisis. 

Professor Robert Reich, the economist and former US Labour secretary, reported on Twitter: “Big Pharma got language in the coronavirus bill preventing government from limiting their profits on any future vaccines, even though many of the same drug companies are receiving funding from the government to combat the pandemic. Even in a national emergency, Big Parma wins.”

The novel coronavirus kills those who are already suffering from poor health. But the current crisis is going to be much worse because a virus-like malaise has already attacked our individual and social defences against sickness: and that sickness is capitalism itself.

The contagion has taken hold because our countries - our national governments, our public services, our emergency response capacity was also sick, and in some places dying. The United States, the richest country in the world, does not have a functioning public health service. There are 27.5 million Americans - 8.5 percent of the population - who do not have health insurance and cannot afford to access any health services. There are also millions of undocumented workers who are also denied access to life saving care. 

Rights

A teacher who reported with coronavirus symptoms at a US hospital was given a $10,000 bill - despite not actually being tested for coronavirus during her ER treatment. 

American working class people are scared to go anywhere near a hospital in case it bankrupts them. This can be fatal for the individuals, and too many Americans who get sick are financially ruined as a result. But as coronavirus now shows, it is also fatal for society. 

The rich and famous in the United States can hide in their private health clinics, and we are beginning to get a sense of quite how many are able to access coronavirus tests and treatment which is completely lacking for working class families. 

Bernie Sanders, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, was just weeks ago the only US presidential candidate to argue that health care is a human right, and that the US should not be spending twice as much as any other rich nation to support a health industry that accumulates unprecedented profits, but does not provide basic life saving support for the population.

The crisis of capitalism in 2008 was resolved by a historic transfer of trillions of dollars from the public sector to private individuals and companies in the private sector - the very people who caused the collapse by their reckless gambling on the housing market, subprime mortgages and complex (as in fraudulent) and novel financial products. 

Austerity 

Health services globally have been bled to death by unprecedented cuts in funding. In the UK this programme of defunding was given the chintzy name “austerity”. 

George Osborne, the then treasurer, gleefully argued that “we are all in it together” and we needed to “tighten our belts” as local services were decimated, hospitals slashed budgets, local councils closed departments. 

In the UK the NHS had received an annual increase in funding of 3.7 percent since it was founded. This was slashed to 1.4 percent on average after the crash (adjusted for inflation). “The rate of growth slowed during the period of austerity that followed the 2008 economic crash”, according to The King’s Fund. While the new NHS funding deal will ease current pressures, it is not enough.” 

The amount spent on social care has also fallen, during a period when need has increased. The UK spent £21.3 billion in the year to 2018 - less than a decade earlier. During the same period councils had seen budgets cut by 21 percent. Wages for the overwhelming majority have stagnated, while capital and capitalists continued to accumulate wealth and increase profits

The UK government stress tested the health service to see how it would cope with a pandemic flu crisis. Exercise Cygnus took place back in October 2016 to see how the country could cope. It established there was a chronic shortage of equipment, including “inadequate ventilation”, or a lack of ventilation machines for those who would have found it difficult to breath. 

Without austerity, with proper funding, we could have been prepared. The same is true across Europe. The Italian health services could have had hundreds more ventilators and beds, and doctors would not have had to choose who would die from this new flu.

Precariousness 

If the UK government had found £330 billion to fund public services during the last decade - and if other neoliberal, free market political parties had done the same across the EU and beyond - our economies would not have been sick to paralysis when faced with this public health emergency. 

The global economy is now in an extremely precarious state. Johnson has bet his career on an assurance to the public that we can “bounce back” from coronavirus because the economy was otherwise sound. This is not true. 

As Paul Mason has set out, world debt now stands at $250 trillion which is “three and a half times global GDP”. He states: “Growth is stagnant and will now collapse, albeit temporarily. And the long-term sources of growth are, as even mainstream economists now accept, meagre. This was bad news even before the coronavirus shock but is worse by an order of magnitude now.” 

Capitalism - in the form of unregulated food production in China - was the primary condition for novel coronavirus infecting the human population. The decision to defend capital led to governments to take too little action too late to stop its spread. And when they did act, they acted to protect the markets, and not public health services. 

Capitalism - the lurch to small state neoliberalism, the crash in 2008 and the decision to implement austerity - is why are are in no fit state to deal with the crisis.

Projections

These are just three of the reasons why the extreme public health crisis that the UK is about to experience is not down to Chinese shoppers, or to an inevitable and natural spread of a virus from the natural environment to the human population. 

It is a direct result of the capitalist economic system which now dominates almost all aspects of our societies worldwide. 

There are hundreds of other ways that the orientation towards profit making and returns on investment over the wellbeing and protections of populations has contributed to the crisis and made it much worse. Zarah Sultana, the new Labour MP, has argued that coronavirus has exposed “the worse features of a rotten system.

Indeed, capitalism itself is a deadly virus. It is a living organism - a system that processes energy and exergy to continue in existence. It is self making - demonstrating autopoiesis - which has been identified by scientists and the primary property of the living in contrast to the non-living. It survives in host organisms. It is highly contagious. And over time it kills its host. 

We will begin to come to terms with the coronavirus. The infection will become part of everyday lives. Thousands around the world will likely die, as they do because of poverty, disease and the lack of basic sanitation. The crisis will fade into the background. 

Revival 

As it does, we will be told we must revive capitalism. Even more of society’s combined wealth will be diverted away from the majority of the population in suppressed wages and the public sector through cuts, and towards the pockets of a few hyper-wealthy investors and company owners. 

We will be told that the state should further subsidies those companies that could not in fact survive actually existing capitalism. The politicians in the US funded by the fossil fuel industries - and let us include aviation - will sign away trillions of dollars.

But we simply cannot let that happen. We cannot continue to play host to the virus of capitalism. This is an economic system that makes the people who feed it sick, and destitute. It is taking its host - our planet and its biosphere - to the very brink of collapse. The coronavirus is just one of the crises of capitalism - alongside climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and the destruction of our global farmlands.

James Meadway, a former advisor to Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnall, has argued at Novara Media that “coronavirus will require us to completely reshape the economy”. He warns that a recession is now inevitable. More than that, Covid-19 will produce an even bigger crisis than 2008 because “it threatens the most fundamental institution of all in capitalism: the labour market itself.” We have seen that the prospect of workers staying at home has destroyed the value on the world’s stock markets.

Workers need to defend themselves against the economic crisis. Trade unions and activists must fight for better sick pay, protection against redundancy, a fair benefits system at the very least and better still a universal basic income. We need a functioning National Health Service, we need to nationalise those useful corporations and industries that would otherwise go to the wall. 

In the US, Sanders has called for $2,000 monthly payments for US households to deal with this crisis. Every one of these measures represents a return to health of the body politic, and the fighting back against the capitalist infection. 

The solutions we need today are profoundly non-capitalist, perhaps the seeds of post capitalism. The solution is community activism. The primary example is the hundreds of mutual aid groups that arose simultaneously. A nation of volunteers organised through mutual aid groups are preparing to support neighbours - often strangers - during the hardest of times. There has also been a rapid political grassroots response to the crisis. And the climate movement continues, albeit online. 

But we do have to go even further. Capitalism is the vector for coronavirus, but has itself become sick. But we need to kill it. If capitalism does survive, if it can revive, it will once again again drive climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse, the devastation of our croplands. 

This Author 

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist. 
 

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