COVID-19 and the Crisis of Capitalism
Within several bewildering weeks, the novel coronavirus has profoundly disrupted the lives of millions in the United States. We now find ourselves on the brink of contagion as well as economic collapse. The response to this outbreak by both the US government and the capitalist class has been woefully inept. The US registered its first case in January, but instead of containing the virus and mitigating its damage, our ruling elites turned a blind eye, allowing the virus to spread from Patient Zero to all fifty states and at least three territories. The United States now stands as the epicenter of this deadly disease to which humans have no immunity.
Our only chance at defeating this virus is a strict regime of physical distancing until we develop a testing and tracing strategy and eventually a vaccine. If we fail at this effort, we could lose millions of Americans in the next year. And it’s not just older people and those with pre-existing health conditions who succumb to this disease; anyone, even a young, seemingly healthy person, can become sick and die.
An outbreak like this one, as terrifying as it may seem, is not inherently a crisis. The gravity of this biological event is made devastating by the socio-political institutions on which we depend—the market and the oligarchic state. Our current conditions of production and distribution, organized around profit rather than human need, aggravate the virus’s effects, rendering them more lethal, more catastrophic. This is a crisis because of capitalism.
The Pandemic’s Toll: Worse for the 99%
This crisis exposes more than ever the contradictions in a system of private property, where our most sacred public goods—healthcare, housing, transportation, and education—are privately owned and operated to generate profits for the 1%.
How can we implement a regime of physical distancing when over 550,000 Americans have no home in which to shelter in place; when over 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated in state and federal prisons whose quarters are cramped and unsanitary? How can we disperse crowds by shutting down schools, libraries, restaurants, and bars without providing for the people who work in these places and depend on income from their jobs to survive? How can we move education online when 15% of American households with children don’t have internet at home? How can we keep essential services like grocery and convenience stores open when their workers don’t earn a living wage and lack health insurance to protect them if they fall sick? How can we expect healthcare workers to treat infected patients without adequate protective gear?
Rolling out a successful testing and tracing strategy, which could save millions of lives, will require people to monitor and report their symptoms—an impossible feat as long as 27.5 million Americans lack health insurance and another 11 million are undocumented, living in conditions so precarious they are forced to risk illness and death rather than seek medical attention. Uninsured Americans have received bills for over $30,000 to cover their treatment for COVID-19. A teenager in Los Angeles County died from COVID-19 after he was denied treatment at an urgent care center because he did not have insurance.
Even those with employer-based insurance aren’t safe. They could end up paying $1,300 or more in out-of-pocket costs if they’re hospitalized with a severe case of the disease. While the federal government has mandated free testing for the virus—when testing is available—it hasn’t required health insurance companies to waive treatment fees.
Although members of the ruling elite aren’t invulnerable to this virus, it’s working people who are suffering the most. Without the benefits of private space, working from home, personal savings, and access to technology and healthcare, the pandemic is hitting working Americans hard. The forced shut-down, while necessary for public health, has left millions of working people unemployed. In the past week we saw the biggest jump in new jobless claims in history. Over 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, and more will file in the weeks and months ahead.
The True Hoarders
On a gut level, working Americans know there’s no one looking out for us. We’ve seen a run on the stores, an emptying of shelves, a stocking-up of essential supplies. With the evisceration of our social safety net, we’ve learned it’s up to each of us to stay healthy so we can keep working, caring for our families, and paying our bills.
The cases of extreme hoarding by everyday Americans, while few and far between, have been sensationalized by mainstream media outlets in order to obscure the capitalist class’s responsibility for this crisis. Earlier this month The New York Times used its pages to expose a small-scale merchant in Tennessee who stockpiled hand sanitizer to mark up and sell on Amazon. The Times rightfully accused the man of price-gouging but failed to denounce the real price-gougers, the big pharmaceutical companies, who are competing to make billions from this pandemic by gaining ownership over a vaccine and treatment that all of us will need. Where is the call from The Times and other editorial boards to place the vaccine in the public domain and disallow a patent monopoly so the vaccine can be sold as a cheap generic? Corporate media would rather shame ordinary people into donating their modest stockpiles than insist their powerful sponsors forgo excessive profits for the sake of public health.
It’s not only Big Pharma that stands to win from this pandemic. As we’re required to spend more time at home, we grow more dependent on the products and services of Big Tech. It’s frightening to think large tech companies could emerge from this crisis with even greater power, yet the forced shut-down of so many sectors of our economy and the movement of so much economic activity online enables a company like Amazon to expand its monopolistic reach. During this crisis, Amazon continues exploiting warehouse and delivery workers by failing to provide them a living wage, healthcare, and protective gear, despite the fact they risk exposure to the virus every moment they’re on the job.
Even the billionaires who tout themselves as philanthropists have little more than hand-wringing to offer. Confronted with perilous supply shortages at hospitals, both Bill Gates and Mike Bloomberg say it’s the government’s job, not the private sector’s, to make sure the American healthcare system has the equipment it needs. The money billionaires have donated to fight the virus amounts to a tiny fraction of their net worth. On the other hand, workers forced to cope with lost wages and unemployment have contributed a disproportionate share of their time and money toward mutual aid efforts and fundraising drives, donating supplies as well as millions of dollars to fight the coronavirus.
Billionaires Won’t Save Us, but Solidarity Will!
The only way we reclaim our government and our economy from the capitalist class is through solidarity. We are not the stock market. We are bodies, families, and communities who labor for survival, and we demand the surplus we produce to be distributed back to the grassroots in order to meet human needs. Crisis is in the nature of capitalism. It’s an erratic system of production and distribution that benefits an ever-smaller segment of society. Despite the fear and confusion we feel in this moment, we shouldn’t lose sight of this opportunity to broaden our movement. More people are growing disillusioned with our two-party political system and its inability to address basic needs. They’re seeing the dysfunction of our private healthcare system as it fails to respond to this outbreak. They’re watching our government spend taxpayer money to support large corporations that refuse to pay their fair share in taxes and contribute to the public good.
Despite the challenges physical distancing places on grassroots organizing, we should keep in mind that a little over a month ago we celebrated victory when Bernie Sanders’ grassroots campaign swept the Nevada caucuses. Sanders’ presidential bid has invigorated the cause of democratic socialism, assembling a diverse coalition of workers, immigrants, young people, and people of color who recognize that capitalism is on its last legs. As the COVID-19 outbreak ravages our country and further reveals the barbarity of capitalism, we need to build momentum around our demands for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and other universal programs. Now is the time to come together and fight for the better world we know is possible. Now is the time for solidarity.
Deepa Bhandaru is a Seattle DSA member and a political science instructor at South Seattle College.