When epidemiologists began tracking the number of new Coronavirus deaths in early March there was a lot of talk about the “long tail of the pandemic.” Although often used to describe how symptoms of the virus can sometimes persist in patients for weeks or even months after infection, the term was initially used to describe the typical statistical curve of the spread of the disease within a community over time. In most communities that curve looked like a snail with a large bell-shaped shell (capturing the rise and peak of the initial outbreak) and a very long tail (showing the much slower but steady decline of the virus among the affected population). In the United States, however, that curve now looks less like a snail and more like the distant view of a Coney Island roller coaster.
While most countries — with some notable exceptions such as Brazil and India — managed to slowly and steadily bring down and keep down the number of deaths and new cases after the initial outbreak, the U.S. instead went from bad to worse, and as of today, more than 200,000 Americans have died and almost 7 million have been infected. Meanwhile more than 40,000 new cases and close to a thousand new deaths are being reported every day. The United States, in fact, has seen more total cases and deaths from Coronavirus than any other single country in the world and ranks in the top 8 for deaths per million.
It would be comforting to report that such a tragedy was inconceivable, that there was no way we could have predicted this, or that there was nothing we could have done to stop it, but this is simply not true. These “worst case scenario” numbers were predicted by the CDC months ago and in many states the steps needed to control the virus have been largely ignored or brazenly rejected by governors and legislators. In other words, this was an avoidable disaster, one made worse by the incompetent malfeasance of the Trump administration, the right wing war on science, the structural problems that predated the pandemic, and the insatiable drive for profit that dominates U.S. politics. As the Coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on the economy and ravage the most vulnerable populations of the country, particularly, the elderly and working people of color, it is worth considering how we got here, and where we are going.
The Long Slow Dance of Death
After so many months of death and disruption, 200,000 may feel like just another number. After all, there are several diseases that kill hundreds of thousands every year globally. However, this figure is more than just a milestone; it represents an abject failure of the ruling class to provide even the most basic protections for working people, and reveals yet again the priorities of a system built on profit and exploitation. To put it bluntly, despite numerous warnings, the United States was not even remotely prepared for such an outbreak. Although there has been much talk about President Obama’s concern about an epidemic in the United States, he did little to really prepare for one. Under the Bush and Obama administrations, for instance, the government spent 100 times as much on counter-terrorism as they did on pandemic preparedness. Further, decades of health and education cuts almost ensured that hospitals would be overwhelmed in a pandemic and that the disease would spread quickly through nursing homes and schools. This was only exacerbated by the failure of leadership demonstrated by the Trump administration.
Before the pandemic swept across the country, Donald Trump repeatedly downplayed the actual threat of the virus, comparing it to the flu, and arguing that one day the virus would disappear “like a miracle.” He claimed that the virus would go away as the weather warmed (it didn’t); he predicted that a vaccine would be available by the end of the year (it isn’t); and he said that anyone who wanted a test could get one (they can’t — but even those who can often have to wait weeks for their results, completely defeating the purpose of the test). Not only were these claims not grounded in any scientific fact, they were intentional falsehoods, meant to downplay the threat of the virus in order to avoid taking the steps — including an early and sustained national quarantine and massive nationwide testing and contact tracing — that would have been necessary to avoid the worst of the pandemic. As his interviews with Bob Woodward made clear, Trump and the capitalists he represents knew all along that the virus was worse than they were letting on, and after the initial outbreak they moved quickly to pressure governors in states that had gone into quarantine to re-open long before they were ready, despite the continued threat of a second wave of outbreaks. Trump claimed that these steps were necessary to revive the economy and return to normal, but there is no going back to normal. The Trump administration, alongside both local and national Democratic politicians, intentionally chose the economy over the lives of working people, and the results speak for themselves. Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of lives were traded for an economy that is still staggering under the weight of mammoth unemployment.
As bad as these numbers are, however, they represent only those deaths and cases that have been confirmed. The overall number of deaths and new cases is likely much higher, but basically unknowable. For instance, according to the New York Times, the 200,000 mark may have actually been passed more than a month ago, meaning we could already be looking at close to a quarter of a million deaths. Worse, these numbers are likely just the beginning of what is almost assuredly going to be a much bigger tragedy. After several weeks of slow but steady decline, the trend line for new cases nationwide is actually starting to go up again. Just last week more than 5,400 people died of Covid-19 in the U.S. and more than 264,000 were infected, and there is no reason to believe that these numbers are going back down any time soon. As schools and colleges continue to reopen, new outbreaks are being reported across the country almost daily, and many experts are predicting an autumn resurgence of cases as the weather cools and people begin to spend more time indoors, where the virus spreads most effectively.
Racial Disparities and Complications
Of course the number of deaths from Covid-19 only tells a small part of the picture of the enormous toll that the virus has taken upon the most vulnerable people in the country. A report issued on Thursday, for instance, confirmed that a disproportionate number of the deaths of children from Covid 19 were among communities of color. The report, issued by the Centers for Disease Control, shows that of the 121 deaths of people below the age of 21 through July, 78 percent were Black Latinx, or Native American. Meanwhile an earlier report published in August showed that Covid -19 related death rates for Black and Native American populations are twice that of white populations. Earlier reports showed that death rates were as high as three times that of the white population. These numbers reveal the stark reality of racial and social inequality in the U.S., where those who do the vast majority of work and are least able to seek care (working families and the poor) are also the ones most exposed to the virus.
Focusing solely on the death toll also hides another ongoing tragedy. For every death caused by Covid there are several, if not dozens, of people who face serious long-term health complications as a result of the illness. Although there is still a lot of uncertainty about just how common such complications are, there is mounting evidence that the virus can have serious and debilitating long term health effects on brain, heart, and lung function. The long term effects of these complications are still unknown, but they may already be leading to increased death rates from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory diseases, and even Alzheimer’s.
This means that, in addition to the 200,000 who have died from the disease, there are likely hundreds of thousands of Americans whose health has been significantly reduced because of Covid-19 and many thousands who have died from undiagnosed complications from having had the virus. The toll this will take on the already overburdened U.S. healthcare system is also unknown.
Capitalism is a Death Cult
As the global data clearly shows, this was an avoidable disaster, one that many countries managed to control far better than the United States. In many countries the virus has been almost entirely contained thanks in part to a combination of a centralized response, strong health precautions, and a safety net that allowed many working people to remain home instead of being forced to work. Germany’s large, robust, and well-funded health care system, for instance, was essential to containing the initial outbreak. In South Korea, a nationalized health care system and aggressive contact tracing, along with generous economic relief for most workers, allowed the country to avoid a major outbreak with less than 12,000 cases and only 500 deaths nationwide. Likewise, Canada’s public health care system and strong social safety net allowed it to avoid a second outbreak and they are currently experiencing less than 10 deaths a day. As a consequence these countries also managed to avoid much of the additional covid-related chaos that continues to plague the U.S. economy. While the U.S. government allowed the virus to spread for weeks before announcing quarantines, many other states implemented strict quarantines early on. And while the U.S. provided little beyond a one-time $1,200 infusion of cash and enhanced temporary unemployment benefits, other states provided working people with enough income to remain home, even when remote work was not possible.
Nonetheless, in countries where the virus is, for the time being at least, under control, the death toll still has been much greater than it should have been. Even in states with strong universal health insurance coverage, the marketization of healthcare necessarily limits access and incentivizes cost cutting measures, especially in times of economic crisis. Further, the lack of any substantive and well funded centralized healthcare system controlled by and for working people meant that it sometimes took weeks to get contact tracing off the ground and to produce and distribute even basic protective equipment to frontline healthcare workers, not to mention other essential workers. Because of this most states were unprepared to respond quickly and adequately to the spread of the virus and to deal with the huge number of infected and sick. Globally almost one million people have died from the Coronavirus and more than 31 million have been infected. And the responsibility for these deaths lies squarely on the shoulders of global capitalism and imperialism, which has destroyed social safety nets, health care systems, and economies across the globe, including in places like India and Brazil, which is now behind only the U.S. for the total number of deaths in any single country.
A truly socialist economy and social system would have been able to respond to the outbreak much more efficiently and in a way that would have meant far less economic, emotional, and psychological suffering for working people, and ultimately far less disruption of the economy and production. Instead of forcing working people back to prop up an already failing economy grounded in exploitation, states would have been prepared and able to keep the vast majority of people at home comfortably for the duration of a global quarantine that potentially could have eliminated the virus completely, or at the very least contained it sufficiently that most states could continue with normal life until a vaccine was produced. Such counterfactuals are, of course, cold comfort on a planet in which capitalism remains the hegemonic norm, but it is in times of such crisis that the true imperative of a socialist world is most clear. In this respect the Coronavirus pandemic should be understood as just another episode in the ongoing organic crisis of capitalism and one more nail in the coffin of its legitimacy.