COVID-19 Pandemic: A Socialist View on the Capitalist Crisis

What Marxist thought teaches us about responses to a global healthcare emergency

Influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 where women workers wear masks
Influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 where women workers wear masks. | Photo: National Archives

Note: The following remarks are excerpted from the Detroit Marxism Class held via teleconference on Saturday May 9, 2020. The course was sponsored by the Communist Workers League (CWL).

By Abayomi Azikiwe

At present the United States and other leading capitalist and imperialist states are experiencing an infectious disease outbreak on a scale not witnessed in over a century.

There have been numerous epidemics and pandemics since the 1918-1920 influenza disaster, where pervasive viral illnesses and deaths created conditions for national and international efforts aimed at containing the prevalence of sickness and mortality.

Considering the advances in scientific research and medical practice along with economic development, general assumptions by those who live in the Western capitalist states has been that these types of rapidly contagious and pervasive illnesses were a phenomenon of the past.

Events of the last two months in the U.S., Britain, Italy, Spain, France, Germany, etc., reveals that the potential for widespread healthcare emergencies have social, political and cultural implications which could render countries and geo-political regions into severe recessions and long-term financial depression.

The capitalist system in the U.S. has been thrown into profound uncertainty in just a matter of weeks stemming from the incapacity of the healthcare institutions and social safety nets to adequately address the magnitude of the existing job losses and inevitable destabilization of people through evictions and other forms of dislocation. These developments will create additional threats to public health among hundreds of millions of residents of the U.S. and other industrialized countries.

How will this crisis be brought to a satisfactory resolution? Can the existing system of capitalist relations of production provide solutions to the contemporary situation and the possibility of future pandemics which could be less severe or even more pervasive?

These questions can only be answered through the utilization of historical materialist methodology where examinations of the actual events and the class forces in operation at a given time period are fully taken into consideration. This undoubtedly represents a stark contrast to the way in which the existing crisis has been approached by the ruling class and the state in the present period in the U.S.

Karl Marx in his essay entitled “The German Ideology”, published in 1845 at the dawn of the ascendancy of industrial capitalism in Western Europe, noted:

“The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way. The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man [humanity], or into the natural conditions in which man [humanity] finds himself [itself]– geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men [humanity]. Men [human beings] can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence men [human beings] are indirectly producing their actual material life.”

Therefore, in order to place the current conjuncture within an historical context it is important to point out that epidemics and pandemics have occurred in feudal and capitalist societies at least since the 14th century. The Plague (Black Death) which struck Europe during the 14th century killed, some estimated, half of the population of the continent.

Black Death pandemic during the 14th Century an artistic depiction
Black Death pandemic during the 14th Century an artistic depiction. | Image: 14th century Beligum manuscript

The recrudescent outbreaks of the same pandemic also took place in England in the 17th century. These rapid spreads of infectious disease often with fatal consequences did much to transform the character of human society, the relationships between peoples domestically and internationally, as well as the organization of production and distribution.

The Housing Question and Pandemics in Early Capitalist Society

Frederick Engels, a close collaborator with Karl Marx, wrote extensively on the social conditions prevailing among working people in England from the mid-1840s to the 1870s. Although these observations and analyses were carried out over 100 years ago, they still contain relevance to the current crisis within capitalist society in the 21st century.

As it specifically relates to the Housing Question, which has been a focus of activists in Detroit and other major urban areas, these concerns will become even more pronounced as tens of millions of workers are faced with the loss of jobs and the inability to pay rents and mortgages. Although the federal government claimed in March that there is a moratorium on U.S.-secured housing purchases, these measures are not indefinite and it has not been clearly articulated that these policies will be extended to halt all foreclosures and evictions until the economic conditions improve.

The instability generated by the COVID-19 pandemic in all likelihood will not be re-corrected within a matter of weeks and months. The degree to which the virus has penetrated broad sections of the population in the U.S. means that the potential for ongoing waves of outbreaks remains a serious threat.

Engels wrote in 1872 how the bourgeoisie addressed the housing question, that:

“In the section on the Proudhonist solution of the housing question it was shown how greatly the petty bourgeoisie is directly interested in this question. However, the big bourgeoisie also is very much interested in it, if indirectly. Modern natural science has proved that the so-called ‘poor districts’ in which the workers are crowded together are the breeding places of all those epidemics which from time to time afflict our towns. Cholera, typhus, typhoid fever, small-pox and other ravaging diseases spread their germs in the pestilential air and the poisoned water of these working-class quarters. In these districts, the germs hardly ever die out completely, and as soon as circumstances permit it they develop into epidemics and then spread beyond their breeding places also into the more airy and healthy parts of the town inhabited by the capitalists. Capitalist rule cannot allow itself the pleasure of creating epidemic diseases among the working class with impunity; the consequences fall back on it and the angel of death rages in its ranks as ruthlessly as in the ranks of the workers.”

Today the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the production centers of U.S. capitalism in the automotive and food industries.

Workers are being sickened while deaths are on the incline. Although U.S. President Donald Trump evoked the Defense Production Act usually associated with war time situations, the utilization of this executive authority was to only compel the workers within the meat processing sectors to return to work amid an increasingly critical medical situation.

In areas of the South and Midwest, meat production plants have been closed due to illnesses and deaths. Nonetheless, the White House backed by the capitalist ruling class, can see no other solution to the depression-like financial collapse other than to force those still employed back to work under imperiled conditions.

Workers are resisting these efforts by the ruling class and the capitalist state. Nevertheless, without a revolutionary working class organization the character of the responses to these outrageous policies on the part of the capitalists and the state, are proving inadequate. There cannot be a lasting solution to pandemics and the response to them by the majority of people within modern society under capitalism.

Cuban healthcare workers arriving in South Africa
Cuban healthcare workers arriving in South Africa | Photo: Elmond Jiyane / GCIS / AFP

Socialist Responses to the Pandemic: Cuba and China

The Republic of Cuba has provided a sterling example of how to address the current situation. Havana has deployed over twenty brigades to assist other nations facing the spread of COVID-19 resulting in social and economic difficulties.

Domestically, Cuba has utilized its socialist medical system to reach out to the broad population of the Caribbean island-nation while locking down areas where there have been outbreaks of the virus. In Cuba everyone is guaranteed quality healthcare posing a direct ideological and social challenge to U.S. imperialism, where the bulk of medical systems are owned and administered by private-for-profit interests.

President Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez delivered an address to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) forum on the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cuban leader stressed the need for international cooperation in the fight against the spread of the virus.

During the speech given by the socialist leader he emphasized:

“The pandemic is worsening the pressing problems in a planet riddled with deep inequalities and where 600 million people are living in dire poverty and nearly half of the population have no access to basic health services, whose management is defined by the market and not by the noble goal of saving lives. In the meantime, global military expenditures are over 1.9 trillion dollars, of which more than 38%, or 732 billion, were appropriated in the United States in 2020.  I wish to share with you this quotation from the Commander-in-Chief of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro Ruz: ‘Instead of spending so much in the development of increasingly sophisticated weapons, those having resources for that should promote medical research and put the results of science at the service of humanity, thus creating tools for health and life and not for death.’ Let us call, together with the Secretary General of the United Nations, for the end of wars, including non-conventional ones, so as to safeguard the right to peace.”

Cuba has worked closely with China in exchanging information on the pandemic as well as in the research designed to develop an effective treatment along with a vaccine. On May 6, a shipment of medical supplies including personal protective equipment (PPE) from China arrived in Havana.

The Chinese ambassador to Cuba, Chen Xi, revealed that the cooperation between the two socialist states is based on their shared worldview which emphasizes international solidarity in the battle to defeat the pandemic. Xi said that:

“This new coronavirus knows no borders or nationalities. Only with mutual support can we protect each other. This is why Cuba and China both reject politicization and stigmatization of the pandemic, which has already claimed so many lives. Our nation is gradually defeating COVID-19 and we are counting on Cuba to do the same, thanks to the government’s actions and the people’s discipline.”

Cuban and Chinese solidarity with Africa is also a manifestation of the commitment by socialist countries to provide needed assistance to all peoples of the world. China and Cuba have a similar history of colonial and imperial domination from Europe which makes the relations with the African continent a natural outcome of proletarian internationalism.

A team of 217 Cuban healthcare workers were deployed to the Republic of South Africa on April 27. Cuba has delegations of medical experts in at least four African countries where they are specifically assigned to work with the governments in various mitigation programs aimed at halting the spread of COVID-19. On a broader level, there are 1,450 Cuban healthcare workers operating in 22 different countries in pursuit of solutions to the current pandemic.

Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla said the Cuban medical personnel were motivated by a deep concern for the welfare of humanity. The Foreign Minister stressed:

“Homeland is Humanity. Under this maxim of Martí’s, our health professionals defend medical care, the welfare of the people and life in different corners of the world.”

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