The emergence of this new virus and the reaction of the bourgeoisie shows how the development of the productive forces has come up against the death and destruction caused by capitalism. So while China has become the world’s second economic power it has been laid low by a viral epidemic, and while medical science forges ahead capitalism cannot protect its population from disease, any more than it can from economic crisis or war or pollution.
Covid-19 is one of a number of new infectious diseases that have emerged, particularly in the last 50 years, including HIV (AIDS), Ebola, SARS, MERS, Lassa fever, Zika. Like so many new diseases Covid-19 is an animal virus infection that has jumped species to infect people and spread, a result of the changed conditions brought about by capitalism in this period. We have increasingly global supply chains and urbanisation; for the first time in history the majority of the world population lives in cities, often with the population crowded together and inadequate infrastructure for hygiene. And as in China there are many workers not just concentrated in cities but in crowded factory dormitories, eg Foxconn’s workers live 8 to a room. Alongside this is the use of bushmeat, and in Wuhan an illegal wildlife market is thought to be the source of the new infection. In addition the destruction of the natural environment and the effects of climate change are driving more and more animals into cities in search of food. Crowded cities are a potential breeding ground for epidemics as Wuhan shows, and the increased international connections a means to transmit them abroad.
These conditions are the result of the decadent capitalist system being driven to disrupt and pollute every last corner of the planet in order to cope with its crisis of overproduction. The destructive impact of this global expansion was clearly demonstrated by the First World War, which marked the beginning of this epoch of decline. At the end of the war came the deadly Spanish flu pandemic that is estimated to have infected about a third of the world population and killed over 50 million people in three phases. The death rate was linked to the conditions of imperialist war including hunger and malnutrition, poor hygiene, and the movement of sick soldiers from the trenches which bred a more deadly virus for the second wave.
In the more recent period we can see that HIV has killed 32 million, mainly in Africa, and has now become endemic. Despite the medical advances that have turned HIV from a killer to a chronic disease, AIDS killed 770,000 in 2018 due to lack of access to care. Many other diseases that medical science can prevent are continuing to cause illness and death. We hear about the measles cases in the USA, perhaps in Samoa, and the importance of immunisation to prevent its transmission. But the media are silent on the nearly 300,000 measles cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the deaths of nearly 6,000 children, where the woeful heath care facilities are also trying to cope with Ebola. These deaths are of no great interest to the ruling class because unlike the swine flu pandemic in 2009 or the current Covid-19 epidemic in China they do not threaten its production and profits to the same extent. But capitalism is responsible for the conditions that give rise to these epidemics: in this case, an unstable country, the result of the carve up of Africa by imperialist powers, constantly ravaged by fighting over its natural resources (gold, diamonds, oil and cobalt) which has claimed millions of lives. 50% of DRC exports go to China. It is a particularly graphic example of what we mean by the decomposition of capitalism, the period in which the ruling class does not have sufficient control to carry out its cold blooded response to the crisis, a new world war, because the working class is not defeated, but equally the working class has not the strength to take its struggle to a level that can threaten capitalism. It was announced by the collapse of the Russian imperialist bloc, and is characterised, among other things, by chaotic localised wars.
The persistence of polio is also directly related to decomposition, when fighting or fundamentalism prevents immunisation, with health workers being murdered by jihadists, for instance in Pakistan. Any publicity about this is totally hypocritical. The great powers which condemn this are perfectly willing to use irregular and terrorist fighters – as the west used the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan against the Russians in the 1980s and since then in many other conflicts. In fact the rise of terrorism is a feature of imperialist conflict in the period of decomposition.
Meanwhile, rather than spend on health or education, global defence spending in 2019 was 4% up on 2018. For the US and China it was more than 6% up and for Germany more than 9%. To give an idea of the bourgeoisie’s chilling priorities, while the CDC (Centre for Disease Control) budget in the US was cut from $10.8 billion in 2010 to $6.6 billion in 2020, the US has just passed a rearmament budget of $738 billion. China’s annual defence budget is estimated at $250 billion. The WHO had a budget of only $5.1 billion in 2016-2017.
Lies and irrationality
There are many diseases causing more deaths than Covid-19 at present, yet the bourgeoisie are taking this seriously as a threat, as they do every new disease that may become a pandemic and may therefore cause increased threats to their productivity and profits, for instance through increased sickness absence – something we see with this new virus in China, as well as causing threats to human health and life. There are many aspects of the disease that can contribute to its pandemic potential – infectivity, the nature of the disease. It is also important that it has arisen in a large city of 11 million inhabitants in a country that is well connected internationally for trade and tourism, and this makes it harder to contain the spread of the virus. Harder to contain than if it had arisen, like Ebola, in Africa with far less opportunities for foreign travel, or if it had arisen in 2003, like the SARS epidemic, when China’s economy and connections were smaller.
Much of the initial response to this new virus by the Chinese state was criminally negligent and unscrupulous. While they had already got preliminary genetic data on 26 December indicating a SARS-like virus, the Chinese authorities were harassing Dr Li Wenliang for warning of the danger on 30 December. At the same time they were warning the WHO about the virus. Nevertheless the authorities in Wuhan continued to suppress information about the epidemic, holding an enormous communal meal and a Lunar New Year dance on the 18 and 19 January, pretending it did not pass from person to person, before locking down the city on 23 January when 5 million people, almost half the population, had already left for the New Year holiday.
All this has given rise to enormous anger in the population, enraged that the government should conceal the disease from the public and make a doctor sign a false confession for ‘spreading rumours’ for warning about it. This has engendered a campaign for free speech within China. Media and politicians in western countries have echoed this campaign with sermons about the benefits of democracy and free speech. However, we should not think for a moment that our own ruling class have any greater moral scruples about lying and covering up information when it suits them, even if it puts human life at risk. Drug companies suppress clinical trials that put their profits at risk, even when this means failing to warn that certain antidepressants have an increased suicide risk for teenagers and young adults (see Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre, a whole book about such dishonesty). And the US and UK governments infamously lied about weapons of mass destruction to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The Chinese state was completely cold blooded in putting its concern to maintain its authority above concern for health and life of the population, a result of its rigid hierarchical Stalinist bureaucracy, which has led it to cover up the start of an epidemic when timely action was needed to reduce and slow the spread of the virus. This shows the brutality of the regime which takes little account of human life, but also its irrationality as taking timely action in response to the epidemic would not only have saved lives, but also it would have saved much of the loss we can expect to the economy and much of the damage to China’s prestige as a growing power in the world with its ambitious Belt and Road initiative. This irrationality of China’s regime in its response to the epidemic is linked to its paranoia about any loss of power or control, a paranoia shown in its big labour and ‘re-education’ camps for Uighurs and others, in its fondness for facial recognition technology and in its Social Credit system for keeping the population in line. To preserve its authority it dare not admit any dangers or problems.
Repressive quarantine measures
Quarantining a city of 11 million by shutting all transport links and putting in place road blocks is a first. To do so after half the population has been allowed to leave makes matters worse. Building two new hospitals to take 2,600 extra patients in 10 days is an impressive piece of propaganda, and even an impressive feat of prefabricated engineering (even if they weren’t ready when claimed). But it did not provide the equipment or doctors and nurses needed – even with army medics and volunteers from other regions. Hospitals in Wuhan have been overwhelmed, as have quarantine centres equipped with 10,000 beds. Sick people with coronavirus cannot get into quarantine centres let alone hospital. Patients with other conditions, including cancer, cannot get hospital treatment as all the beds are full. Sick and dying patients in quarantine centres have no nursing care. Quarantine centres have hundreds crowded together in beds or on mattresses on the floor wearing small paper masks of doubtful value, with inadequate toilet and washing facilities, sometimes portable toilets and showers outside. It is quite clear that anyone entering a quarantine centre without Covid-19 will soon get it. Those suspected of carrying the virus have been forcibly taken to quarantine centres – one disabled boy starved to death after the relatives he relied on were taken. It is as much a police exercise as a health measure.
Herding people together in quarantine centres which can only become centres for passing on the virus is reminiscent of the hospitals for the poor until the 19th Century in Europe which were also sources of infection, for instance increasing maternal mortality from puerperal fever from the 17th to the 19th Centuries before the need for hygiene was understood.
Equipment is lacking, including protective clothing for hospital staff; doctors and nurses are working extremely long hours, all of which makes them more vulnerable to illness. 1700 of them have been infected and 6 have died.
Inaccurate monitoring of the disease
In these circumstances it is clear that there will be many patients dying who might have been saved with adequate medical care. Covid-19 appears to have more than double the mortality in Wuhan than elsewhere because of this. However, whether or not the Chinese authorities are continuing to lie about the numbers infected, the figures are suspect because not all the cases can be confirmed. Hence a spike in the number of cases reported in Wuhan on 11 February when those diagnosed clinically – without a test – were included, bringing the total recorded cases to over 60,000.
It is not only in China that disease figures are likely to be inaccurate. Unlike Singapore, a rich country with numerous connections which has been preparing for an epidemic since SARS in 2003, many other poorer countries are not prepared. “Any country that has significant travel back and forth with China and hasn’t found cases should be concerned” says a Harvard professor of epidemiology. Indonesia, for instance, evacuated 238 citizens from Wuhan and quarantined them for two weeks but did not test them for the disease because it is too expensive. More to the point, what about China’s African trade and clients for the New Silk Road? There will be many places without the health infrastructure to diagnose and care for patients with the virus.
What is impressive is that the new virus was sequenced by 12 January. Following on from that the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI) which was set up in 2017 after the west African Ebola outbreak has been working towards a vaccine, in the hope that this can be ready if Covid-19 spreads, and particularly if it becomes a seasonal disease like flu. In fact as we write this article work on the vaccine is under way, using a new method based on gene sequencing, which is safer than working with a deadly virus, and has already expedited production of vaccines for Zika, Ebola, SARS and MERS. Of course it will require testing for safety and effectiveness before it can be used, and this will take time.
However, this striking potential for the productive forces is not the end of the story. There is a lack of factories to produce sufficient vaccine, and since with the risk of pandemic governments will not export vaccine until they have stockpiled enough for their own use “citing national defence or security” CETI needs to plan for it to be manufactured in several sites.
Effects on the economy
China’s economy has ground to a halt as it has gone into lockdown to contain the new virus. In response it is pushing money into the economy, the banking regulator is relaxing rules on bad debt. However, China is now responsible for 16% of global GDP, 4 times greater than in 2003 at the time of the SARS epidemic which cut 1% off its GDP for the year. Its economy is much more integrated into global supply chains than it was 17 years ago. This has already forced Hyundai to close car plants in South Korea, Nissan to close one in Japan and Fiat-Chrysler to warn it may shut some European production. Smartphone production could be down up to 10% this year. Textiles (China produces 40% of global exports), furniture, and pharmaceuticals could all be hit. As will tourism. And China now accounts for nearly 20% of global mining imports, and is trying to cancel deliveries of oil, gas and coal it doesn’t need. Shares in US firms with high exposure to Chinese sales are underperforming by 5%. Coming with its trade war with the US not resolved, this is bad timing – for China and the global economy.
In the longer term this may make China look a less reliable trading partner for multinational companies to invest in. It certainly makes it look less a powerful trading partner and imperialist backer for its clients on the New Silk Road. It may depend on how quickly it can get its economy back to normal.
Whatever happens with this new Covid-19 virus, whether it becomes a new pandemic, or whether it dies out like SARS, or becomes established as a new seasonal respiratory virus, this new disease is yet another warning that capitalism has become a danger to humanity, and to life on this planet. The enormous capacity for the productive forces, including medical science, to protect us from disease comes up against the murderous search for profit, the herding of an ever larger proportion of the population into huge cities, with all the risks for new epidemics. The risk of capitalism does not end here, there are also the risks of pollution, ecological destruction and increasingly chaotic imperialist wars.
. See ‘Theses on decomposition’, https://en.internationalism.org/ir/107_decomposition
. Quoted in The Economist 15.2.20
. The Economist 8 Feb 2020