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The Pandemic (Still) Isn’t Over

An overview of recent Covid-19 news and global capitalism’s role in creating the current situation.

Olivia Wood

June 19, 2021
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In early May, Left Voice published a piece about President Biden’s joint address to Congress under the headline “The Pandemic Isn’t Over.” While Biden claimed that “America is ready for takeoff” and bragged about jobs, reductions in child poverty, and the United States’ vaccination rate, he also explicitly endorsed vaccine nationalism (i.e., prioritizing one nation’s vaccination program over the needs of all others) and glossed over the fact that the federal definition of poverty is so strict that children don’t have to be “living in poverty” to still lack reliable access to basic resources. Furthermore, Biden’s “America first” approach to the global pandemic — not so different from Trump’s — ignores the rising cases and limited access to vaccinations around the world. 

Here, we take a look at some recent Covid-19 news. Last month, we reported that over 28 percent of all countries were experiencing a rise in coronavirus cases. This month, that number has risen to 37.5 percent, or 75 out of the 200 countries tracked by Worldometers.

The Delta Variant

The potential for deadly outbreaks of new diseases is fueled by capitalist production, such as the avian and swine flus that emerged from the cramped and unsanitary conditions of factory farms. This is because many animals living close together is an ideal environment for viruses and bacteria to thrive. A thriving pathogen is able to reproduce quickly, which means many mutations will arise. Eventually, one or more mutations may enable the virus or bacteria to cross between species. 

This process is what produces new variants of an existing virus, including Covid-19. Capitalists’ concern for profit pressured countries to postpone taking precautionary measures as long as possible and to lift those measures as soon as they could get away with it. This allows the virus to continue to spread, generating second and third waves, with billions more opportunities for new, deadly mutations to evolve. Combine this with the limited capacity and underfunding of public health systems around the world, and we have the current situation, in which a global second wave is winding down while the virus continues to rage in select areas. This could have been avoided. 

A new variant of the virus has emerged, originally identified in India, known as the Delta variant. So far, it seems to be more contagious than other variants and leads to more severe cases that cause patients’ conditions to worsen faster than the other strains of the virus. The Delta variant is estimated to currently comprise about 10 percent of all cases in the United States, with a doubling period of about two weeks. In the UK, where the Delta variant is more widespread, cases are up nearly 25 percent from three months ago, but deaths still remain low, suggesting that vaccines are still effective against Delta. Despite this growth in cases, the UK is considering easing travel restrictions in order to appease the airline industry.

Despite the vaccines’ effectiveness, however, former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb is concerned that the Delta variant will contribute to a new spike in cases in the fall, particularly among the 55 percent of U.S. residents who are not vaccinated. While some of this is due to vaccine hesitancy, the FDA has not yet approved any of the available vaccines for children under 12. People in some areas are also limited by vaccine shortages and difficulty accessing vaccine appointments or sites. Others cannot get the vaccine for medical reasons, or their immune systems do not respond to the vaccine as expected. Data from the New York Times shows that the most vulnerable counties have the lowest rates of vaccination.

One important area of concern related to the Delta variant comes from Indonesia, where more than 350 doctors have contracted the virus, with several needing to be hospitalized, despite having already received the Sinovac vaccine. While people often refer to “the vaccine” as if just one exists, this situation reminds us that different versions may behave differently. Some of these issues could be avoided if vaccine formulae were released from their patents and licensed to the public domain, allowing all manufacturers to create the most effective kinds and researchers to compare data. 

Where is Covid-19 Growing?

The pandemic continues to disproportionately impact the Global South, due to both vaccine imperialism and the decades of neoliberalism that have kept these countries in global capital’s vice grip. South America in particular is experiencing a catastrophic rate of Covid-19 deaths per million people. While the contributing factors to this crisis are varied, the United States’ role cannot be overstated, since the country has been interfering in the region to protect its interests as a burgeoning world power since the country was first founded. In recent years, this interference includes economic manipulation via the IMF and supporting rightwing coups in Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile, and Brazil. The current state of the pandemic must be understood in this context, alongside U.S. interference in other countries as well. 

Case counts are rising to a worrying degree in several different countries, including Nepal, Russia, Afghanistan, Paraguay, Uruguay, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, the UK, and most countries in Africa, where fewer than 1 percent of people have been vaccinated, due to vaccine hoarding in wealthier countries and pharmaceutical companies’ insistence on turning a profit on these essential products. South Africa, Tunisia, Zambia, Uganda, and Namibia are among the worst-hit so far, largely due to difficulties in acquiring vaccines due to wealthier nations buying up most of the current supply. In Uganda, hospitals are also running low on oxygen and ICU capacity. In Russia, the problem is largely the opposite: they have plenty of vaccines, but relatively few people (so far, only 13%) are interested in getting a shot. 

In Afghanistan, more than a third of all tests last week have come back positive, and hospitals are at capacity in Kabul and other areas. In Japan, while numbers are down compared to this time last month, many are concerned about the impact of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, which will bring visitors from all over the world. 

The Guardian also discovered that AstraZeneca’s promise to provide its vaccine to less developed countries at a zero-profit cost in perpetuity leaves out 34 countries already identified as requiring vaccine assistance. In each of these countries, AstraZeneca is allowed to start charging for-profit prices as soon as the company decides that the pandemic is over — not when the international medical community decides it’s over. So, the company can essentially start charging for-profit prices whenever it wants to, rendering this pledge largely meaningless. Make no mistake: AstraZeneca does not care about people in less developed countries. Originally, Oxford University (which developed the vaccine almost exclusively using public funding) was going to allow any manufacturer to create the vaccine without paying royalties to Oxford. Then, under pressure from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, they made an exclusive licensing deal with AstraZeneca. Both AstraZeneca and Oxford are expected to make significant profits from the deal. 

While Covid-19 cases are low in Spain compared to previous months, recent data has shown that deaths from all causes in Madrid and its surrounding areas in 2020 were up 41 percent from 2019. Comparing total deaths is one method of estimating the indirect impacts of the coronavirus, since unemployment, reluctance to seek medical care due to the virus, and strained hospital capacity all also have impacts on health.

Employment, Housing, and Other Measures

While Covid-19 cases are on the decline in the United States for the time being, and many people are looking forward to returning to some of their pre-pandemic activities this summer, the economic problems exacerbated by the pandemic are still ongoing. Capitalism created these problems, not the virus, and even with three stimulus plans and other temporary provisions, it continues to fail to solve them. As the national eviction moratorium, enhanced unemployment benefits, and the pause on student loan payments are all set to expire soon, we can expect to see increased suffering for the nation’s most vulnerable people, not the “comeback” that Biden is promising. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s biweekly Household Pulse survey, as of June 7, approximately 8 million people in the United States are currently behind on rent or mortgage payments and have little to no confidence they will be able to pay next month’s bill on time. In South Carolina and Georgia, more than 10 percent of all households meet these criteria. Out of everyone who is behind on payments, slightly more than half of adults say they are likely to face eviction or foreclosure in the next two months. 

According to the same survey, 27.3 percent of all U.S. adults (nearly 63 million people) are still having trouble paying for their usual household expenses. In Mississippi, Louisiana, and New York, this proportion is higher than one third. Nearly 10 percent of U.S. adults (over 20 million people) have had difficulty getting enough to eat in the last week. The states with the highest rates of food insecurity are New York (16.1%), Arkansas (14%), and Texas (13.2%). 

While unemployment is down compared to this time last year, there are still nearly 15 million people receiving unemployment benefits, as of May 29, with an additional 31 million adults (12.7% of the total population) expecting someone in their household to lose some amount of employment income in the next month. The states with the highest proportion of adults expecting a loss in income are California (17.6%), New York (17.5%), and Nevada (16.7%). 

The United States is large enough that every percentage point of the population represents millions of people. While many of these numbers are “good” in comparison to last year, an enormous number of people are suffering, often from circumstances that are only exacerbated by the pandemic rather than caused by it. And with several different federal programs ending in the coming months (the eviction moratorium ends June 30, and enhanced unemployment benefits and the pause on student loan payments both expire in September), “back to normal” is likely to make many of these problems worse and not better. 

This is not to say that people shouldn’t be happy about how vaccines are allowing them to safely enjoy more activities. They should be happy. But the global situation is yet another example of how capitalism, as a system, is incapable of solving these social problems; in fact, it creates them. 

The Trotskyist Fraction’s statement from the early days of the pandemic and Left Voice’s own 10-point emergency program present some measures that, if taken, could have resulted in a drastically different outcome. These measures include free, public, and universal healthcare; universal paid sick leave funded by the super-rich; a freeze on all furloughs, terminations, and layoffs; wealth taxes to fund pandemic safety measures; a suspension of all bills and other payments for workers; nationalizing all healthcare-related industries under worker control, and more. In April 2020, Nathaniel Flakin offered additional specific steps for a socialist response to the pandemic, including universal pandemic wages and putting the retail sector under public ownership to ensure that consumers could still access basic goods while keeping retail workers safe. 

Had workers controlled the response to the pandemic from the beginning, we wouldn’t be where we are today, with nearly 4 million deaths directly attributed to Covid-19 worldwide and nearly 200 million total confirmed cases as of June 2021. 

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Olivia Wood

Olivia is a writer and editor at Left Voice and lecturer in English at the City University of New York (CUNY).

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