A new coronavirus called “SARS-CoV-2” — known colloquially by the name of the disease it causes called “coronavirus disease 2019” or “COVID-19” — is wreaking havoc around the world. In Italy, the death toll has risen to 366 today and the country just extended its quarantine measures nationwide. In China, production has shut down at factories across the country. According to the WHO, over 100,000 cases have been confirmed in over 100 countries and the death toll is now up to 3,809 as of this writing. The stock market in the U.S. fell by 7% today and we may be headed towards another 2008-like recession.
Reports range from 200-400 (213 per WHO and 434 per NBC News) confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., but there are likely many many more that have not been detected, as health facilities still do not have a readily available rapid test for diagnosis. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) botched a first response, sending out faulty testing kits that required a recall. At this point in the U.S. the CDC is refusing to report how many have been tested, but we know the number tested in the US is extremely low largely due to the immense hurdles government officials have put in place. The FDA recently announced over 2 million tests should be shipped to labs by Monday with an additional 4 million by the end of the week. This could lead to a great increase in confirmed cases around the country. We are also seeing reproduction of racist, xenophobic tropes and attacks as fear of the epidemic grows.
The spread of the coronavirus is exposing all of the contradictions of capitalism. It shows why socialism is urgent.
Coronavirus in Capitalism
It is only going to get worse. The spread of the virus is impossible to stop — and this is due to social reasons more than biological ones. While doctors recommend that people stay home when they are feeling sick in order to reduce the possibility of spreading the virus, working-class people just can’t afford to stay home at the first sight of a cough.
Contrary to Donald Trump’s recent suggestions that many with COVID-19 should “even go to work,” the CDC recommends that those who are infected by the virus should be quarantined. This poses a problem under capitalism for members of the working class who cannot afford to simply take off work unannounced. New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio recently suggested avoiding crowded subway cars or working from home if possible, but many rely on public transit. Suggestions from government leaders show their disconnect from the working class. 58% Americans have less than $1,000 in their savings and around 40% of Americans could not afford an unexpected bill of $400. So for many, staying home or not using public transit is simply not an option.
Even more people avoid the doctor when we get sick. With or without insurance, a trip to the hospital means racking up massive medical bills. The Guardian reports that 25% of Americans say they or a family member have delayed medical treatment due to the costs of care. In May 2019, The American Cancer Society found that 56% of adults report having at least one medical financial hardship. Medical debt remains the number one cause of bankruptcy in the country. One third of all donations on the fundraising site GoFundMe go to covering healthcare costs. That is the healthcare system of the wealthiest country in the world: GoFundMe.
Clearly, this is a very dangerous scenario. Already, people are being saddled with massive bills if they seek tests for the coronavirus. The Miami Herald wrote a story about Osmel Martinez Azcue who went to the hospital for flu-like symptoms after a work trip to China. While luckily it was found that he had the flu, the hospital visit cost $3,270, according to a notice from his insurance company. Business Insider made a chart of the possible costs associated with going to the hospital for COVID-19:
Of course, these costs will be no problem for some. The three richest Americans own more wealth than the bottom 50% of Americans. The concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer capitalists is part of capitalism’s DNA. But as Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkson highlight extensively in their book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, people in more equal societies are healthier. They live longer, have lower infant mortality, and have high self-ratings of health. Inequality leads to poorer overall health.
So how does this relate to COVID-19? The main theory for these outcomes is that inequality of wealth and power in a society leads to a state of chronic stress. This wreaks havoc on bodily systems such as the cardiovascular system and the immune system, leaving individuals more susceptible to health problems. This means as societies become more and more unequal, we will see individuals more and more susceptible to infection. Capitalism’s inequality puts us all at greater risk as COVID-19 spreads.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) In Socialism
COVID-19 highlights the need for socialism to face epidemics like these. And by socialism, we don’t mean Medicare for All or New Deal liberalism. Medicare for All is not enough to face pandemics like the coronavirus. We mean a society in which human needs govern production, not the drive for profit. It’s a society without capitalists, where production and reproduction is democratically planned by the working class and oppressed. In this kind of society, we would be able to respond to the COVID-19 infinitely better than in capitalism.
In a socialist society, both prevention and responses to outbreaks of illness would change drastically. Supplies such as hand soap, hand sanitizer, and surface sanitizing wipes or sprays are in extremely high demand at this time. We are already seeing shortages of key supplies around the world. The need for profit maximization under capitalism has led companies to drastically raise their prices in this time of high demand. For example, the Washington Post has reported drastic increases in prices of products such as Purell Hand Sanitizer. Under capitalism, scarcity leads to greater profit.
Capitalism has led to a globalized system of production containing industries at disparate ends of the globe that truly depend on each other to function. This allows for a capitalist’s exploitation of a worker in a factory in China producing iPhones that goes unnoticed by an Apple customer here in the U.S.. It also allows corporations to drive down costs in one area of the world that may have weaker protections for workers. While this is beneficial for capitalists, outbreaks of illnesses such as COVID-19 highlight clear weaknesses in this system. A large portion of the basic materials used to make new medicines come from China. Since industry is so affected by viral spread, production of supplies has been drastically cut. This delays the ability for a rapid response in other countries such as the U.S..
A central aspect of socialism is a democratically run planned economy: an economy in which all resources are allocated according to need, instead of ability to pay. Need is decided democratically by both producers and consumersWith the means of production under workers’ control, we would be able to quickly increase production of these products in an emergency.
Furthermore, with the elimination of the barriers between intellectual and manual labor, increasing numbers of workers would be familiarized with the entire production process and ready to jump in where needed. In worker cooperatives within capitalism like MadyGraf in Argentina and Mondragon in Spain, workers already learn all aspects of production. This allows workers to shift to areas where extra effort is needed.
Socialism cannot exist in only one country, so a global planned economy would be key in these moments. If one country is experiencing a shortage, others would have to make up for it. This is key for reigning in global epidemics like the coronavirus: it will only be stopped if we stop it everywhere. In a global planned economy, this would be a much easier task.
If one does get sick, making a decision to protect oneself and others by taking time off should never lead them to have to worry about losing their job, paying their rent, putting food on the table, or being able to provide for their children. Under capitalism services such as housing and healthcare are reduced to commodities. This often presents people with the ultimatum: work while sick and potentially expose others, or stay home and risk losing your job.
Under socialism, the increased mechanization of production and the elimination of unnecessary jobs — goodbye advertising industry! goodbye health insurance industry! — would already drastically reduce the number of hours that we would need to work. We would be spending vast hours of the day making art or hanging out with friends and family.
During disease outbreaks, we would be able to stay home at the first sign of a cold, in addition to getting tested right away. In a planned economy, we could allocate resources where they are most needed, and take into account a decrease in the workforce due to illness.
Where Are the Coronavirus Therapies?
Currently, multiple for-profit companies are attempting to test (sometimes new, sometimes previously rejected and now recycled) therapies to see if they can treat or prevent COVID-19. While there are attempts to produce a COVID-19 vaccine, this vaccine would not be ready for testing in human trials for a few months according to Peter Marks, the director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. Yet even last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar refused to guarantee a newly developed coronavirus vaccine would be affordable to all stating, “we can’t control that price because we need the private sector to invest.” The statement is ironic to say the least coming from the former top lobbyist to Eli Lilly who served at a time when the company’s drug prices went up significantly.
Companies such as Gilead Sciences, Moderna Therapeutics, and GlaxoSmithKline all have various therapies in development. Each company’s interest in maximizing profits around their particular COVID-19 therapy has kept them from being able to pool their resources and data to develop therapies in the most expeditious manner possible. The state of COVID-19 research exposes the lies about capitalism “stimulating innovation.”
It is also important to note that much of the drug development deemed “corporate innovation” could not have been possible without taxpayer-funded government research. Bills such as the Bayh-Dole Act allow for corporations to purchase patents on molecules or substances that have been developed at publicly funded institutions such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), then jack up the prices to maximize profits. A study conducted by the Center for Integration of Science and Industry (CISI) analyzed the relationship between government funded research and every new drug approved by the FDA between 2010 and 2016. Researchers found “each of the 210 medicines approved for market came out of research supported by the NIH.”
Expropriation of the capitalists would mean the public would no longer have to subsidize private corporate profits. The nationalization of the pharmaceutical industry would allow for both intellectual and financial resources to be pooled to tackle the globe’s challenges, instead of focussing on blockbuster drugs that benefit only a few. In the case of COVID-19, we would see a mass mobilization and coordination of the world’s greatest minds to pool resources and more quickly develop effective therapies. In fact, there would likely be more doctors and scientists as people who want to study these fields are no longer confronted with insurmountable debt
Health Care in Socialism
Under socialism, the entire healthcare industry would be run democratically by doctors, nurses, employees, and patients. This would be drastically different from the current system in which wealthy capitalists make the major decisions in hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturing firms, and insurance companies (the key players that make up the “medical industrial complex”). In the case of the COVID-19, health care would be a human right, and not a means to make money. This would allow for every individual concerned to obtain testing and treatment without fear of economic ruin. If hospitalization or quarantine was needed, a patient and family would be able to focus on what was best for their health instead of worrying whether a hospital bill would destroy them economically.
The purview of what is considered “health care” would also need to expand. An individual’s overall living situation and social environment would be key to addressing their health. This would mean a health system under socialism would address issues such as pending climate collapse. While a connection between COVID-19 and climate change has yet to be established, rising global temperatures — largely driven by 100 largest corporations and the military-industrial complex — will increase the emergence of new disease agents in the future. Shorter winters, changes in water cycles, and migration of wildlife closer to humans all increase the risk of new disease exposure.
Capitalism created the conditions of the epidemic. Capitalist “solutions” are insufficient and exacerbate the crisis, meaning more sickness and more death. Capitalism has been an incubator for the continual spread of the coronavirus. Health care under this system will always be woefully inadequate in addressing epidemics. The coronavirus highlights the fact that we must move to a more social analysis of health and well-being. We are all connected to each other, to nature, and to the environment around us. Socialism will restructure society based on those relationships.
At the same time, socialism is not a utopia. There will likely be epidemics or pandemics in socialism as well. However, a socialist society — one in which all production is organized in a planned economy under workers’ control — would best be able to allocate resources and put the creative and scientific energy of people to the task.