Updated March 9, 2020 | revcom.us
Editors’ Note (3/9/20): As the coronavirus pandemic—an epidemic widespread in geographic reach—continues to spread, the following points of orientation posted last week remain relevant.
What is coming into sharper relief is how the underlying workings of this system, the system of capitalism-imperialism, really constrain and obstruct the necessary response at a global level—despite people’s best sentiments. This occurs in conjunction with, and is exacerbated by, the policies of Christian fascists like those in the Trump/Pence regime. Instead of the most advanced medical science and resources, doctors, public health officials, and researchers being marshaled collectively in coordinated fashion, the response to the pandemic is distorted and shaped by great-power rivalry, such as between the U.S. and China, or the pursuit of profit by private drug companies in the accumulate-or-die logic of capitalism-imperialism. For example, it is reported that there is virtually no cooperation between the U.S. and China around the coronavirus epidemic. A particular howling contradiction is that while the U.S. has benefited immensely from its position atop a parasitic economy feeding on the resources and wealth of the planet, dominating and super-exploiting large parts of the world, these resources, medical professionals, and infrastructure are nowhere close to being put at the service of solving this problem—for humanity.
This is further exacerbated by Trump and fascist propaganda machines like Fox News underplaying this crisis for narrow political ends and due to not wanting to “spook” the “markets” and economy; the appointment of Pence—a Christian fascist who opposes the science of evolution and believes in “End Times” theology*—to coordinate the response in the U.S.; and the refusal to accept science and work with scientists when it is not politically expedient and consistent with Trump’s narrow and distorted objectives.
Even when people are inclined to better sentiments, such as caring for the most vulnerable, because of how society is organized and how people are led to think by the propaganda organs of this system, ultimately people end up “looking out for themselves,” responding individually instead of collectively. Overarching in this country is an entrenched American chauvinism in the focus on how this affects Americans, not how this affects humanity, and approaching the response from that standpoint. This is manifested, for example, in some critiques of Trump from some of the liberal bourgeois electoral leaders and commentators who fault him for failing “the American people,” even while the basic critique of the sluggish non-responsiveness of the Trump/Pence regime is eminently justified.
Past socialist societies—on a radically different economic, political, and social foundation—have dealt with such public health problems very differently, marshaling the people and social resources collectively and consciously, as opposed to being dictated by the workings of capital. (See “You Don’t Know What You Think You ‘Know’ About… The Communist Revolution and the REAL Path to Emancipation: Its History and Our Future, Interview with Raymond Lotta.”) For example, when China was socialist (1949-76), its public health accomplishments were unparalleled in extent and rapidity. Through a combination of putting people’s needs first, mobilizing resources, and combining medical care delivery with the efforts and involvement and education of the masses of people, revolutionary China quickly overcame cholera, plague, smallpox, and major nutrition-related illnesses in the 1950s. Learning from these past experiences but going much further as part of a whole new framework of the emancipation of humanity, The Constitution for a New Socialist Republic in North America [Article I. The Central Government – Section 2. The Executive – H. Health and Medicine, p. 36], authored by Bob Avakian, has an approach to public health that provides a framework for dealing with epidemics such as the coronavirus that is radically different from what we are witnessing now.
* “End Times” theology is the view that the “second coming of Christ” prophesized in the Bible is coming soon, and when that happens, all the “true” Christians will be “raptured” up to heaven (while everyone else is destined for hell) and from there will watch as Jesus Christ inflicts seven years of “tribulation” on the remaining inhabitants, after which he will lead an epic battle with the “antichrist” and establish a 1,000-year Kingdom of God on Earth. [back]
I’ve been following the news and analysis of the developing coronavirus crisis, and wanted to offer some of my observations on this. I’ve been trying to evaluate developments in light of these three questions:
What is happening?
Why is it happening?
What is in the interests of humanity?
Here are some of my thoughts on this emerging crisis, divided into two major themes: Some Basic Information and Perspective on the COVID-19 Coronavirus Crisis; and The Trump/Pence Fascist Regime Has Made This Crisis Worse—And the Danger May Only Be Beginning.
Some Basic Information and Perspective on the Coronavirus Crisis
The new coronavirus (COVID-19) is a natural phenomenon, but how it gets dealt with occurs in a social context. The virus that broke out in China is COVID-19, and is part of a biologically linked family of viruses called coronaviruses. The outbreak of this virus in China and its spread in China was unexpected and unanticipated. It was “out of left field,” and in that sense it is like a natural disaster or an accident. You could compare it to a hurricane. In this case, it is a natural disaster that is already on a major scale, if not a full global epidemic (pandemic) yet.
Like natural disasters, how this affects people and how it gets dealt with takes place in a social context. We live in a society divided into classes and with other very important social divisions. Globally, the whole world is divided between a handful of imperialist countries—like the U.S., Japan, and countries in Western Europe—and the many nations around the world that those countries oppress, commonly referred to as the Third World. In particular, this takes place in a context today in which the nations and peoples of the world are very interlinked and in which there are fascist movements in power, or contending for power, in many countries. All these factors together set the stage for how this is diagnosed, how the word is spread, how people are treated—and, ultimately, who lives and who dies.
The coronavirus family is one that is known to scientists and health specialists; but that does not mean scientists could predict how and when it would develop, the particular manifestations, or where and when it would break out. The SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak of 2002-3 was caused by a different coronavirus. Although SARS had a high mortality rate in those who got it, it did not spread as easily, so less than a thousand people died from it worldwide. Almost 3,000 have already died from COVID-19.
The underlying character of these viruses has been and continues to be studied by scientists. How the virus arose and evolved, how it mutates (changes), how it affects different humans, and how it spreads—sometimes from one species to another—are some of what they study. Scientists also study how social factors interact with the development and spread of viruses. In this case, this includes the relationship of viruses like COVID-19 to climate change, humans encroaching on wildlife habitats, human migration patterns, and the highly integrated and connected globalization of the capitalist system. However, the fact that the deeper and general underlying causes and dynamics of these new diseases, as well as the way they interact with society, are scientifically knowable does not mean that it was possible to anticipate when and where this specific outbreak would occur.
COVID-19 spreads easily. Medical professionals are warning that this virus seems to spread relatively easily from person to person (like colds and flus spread). According to their best understanding at this point, up to 80 percent of the people who get the virus will show no symptoms or will only become mildly ill. This will tend to hasten its spread.
However, based on what has been seen so far, among older people and people with chronic diseases or other health problems, the virus will be more deadly than the flu by many times over. In Wuhan, China, the center of the outbreak, healthcare professionals and workers have also been hard hit. Relatively young doctors and nurses have died. In China there is a severe shortage of protective gear for those treating the sickest patients, and there have been calls for nurses from other countries to come to their assistance. This may be an indication that many front-line healthcare providers are contracting the disease and are unable to continue working.
COVID-19 is being made worse by U.S. imperialist domination. While there is a lot of anxiety in the U.S. about the disease gaining a foothold here—which public health officials think is indeed likely—there is not nearly enough concern, government funds, expertise, or efforts to mobilize to help the rest of the world, which is already struggling with the spread of COVID-19.
Imagine what will happen in Iran, for example. Iran is now experiencing a major outbreak of COVID-19. This is a country where U.S. “sanctions”—bans on trade and financial transactions to and from Iran in order to make Iran conform to U.S. political dictates—have already crippled the economy. The sanctions have caused a shortage of medicine and a wider healthcare crisis even before COVID-19 hit. These sanctions have already caused many deaths; what will it mean now?
The domination of the world by imperialism, including U.S. imperialism, has resulted in other parts of the world—the countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America—facing extreme poverty, overcrowded living conditions, and poor healthcare systems. This makes billions of people much more vulnerable to these modern-day plagues than they need to be and results in untold needless deaths. This can be seen in the dire impact and spread of cholera in Haiti and AIDS and the Ebola virus in Africa, and in the slow and weak international response to these epidemics. While viruses do not recognize borders or nationalities, the imperialist countries—with their wealth, relatively higher standards of income and education, and overall developed health care and infrastructure—can afford to take an approach that is relatively potentially more effective in dealing with the virus in their “home countries,” while countries with the least health resources but often the worst affected are left to fend for themselves way too much of the time.
Even as there are heroic efforts by scientists, medical professionals, healthcare workers, and many ordinary people to deal with the virus and try to save as many of the sickest patients as possible, the sincere efforts of people trying to stop this pandemic will be deeply marred and seriously held back by the outlook, economic relations, and political priorities of the world imperialist system. Already, some countries are now sealing borders and hoarding resources for their own populations (like medical protective gear which is right now desperately needed in parts of China and other parts of the world), instead of focusing on how to defeat the epidemic globally.
Initially, U.S. officials in charge of the virus would not even promise to make any vaccination or cure available to all who need it in this country, much less anywhere else. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar argued that besides government funds for developing a vaccine and other measures, there will also be some private investment, and those investors will need to reap a profit. And they would—under this system. Remember how for many years the U.S. refused to make available life-saving AIDS medications to Africa as the continent was devastated by the disease and tens of millions unnecessarily died.
The spread of COVID-19 coronavirus and some of the measures taken to stop it have already disrupted the normal functioning of many societies. The government of China (which is not actually communist, despite what its leaders and others claim1) imposed an unprecedented quarantine on 45 million people in the areas most severely affected by the virus. Travel restrictions in and out of countries with clusters of cases have become more widespread. As outbreaks of the virus hit parts of Europe, South Korea, Iran, etc. and governments try to limit or slow its spread, the normal functioning of society is being shut down or disrupted in unprecedented ways that affect millions of people. Large portions of Lombardy (home of Milan, Italy’s second largest city) and other provinces in northern Italy are on “lockdown”… all schools are being closed in Japan for two months… the Islamic holy sites in Saudi Arabia have been closed to foreign visitors.
This disruption has also hit the world economy. Capitalism-imperialism is the economic framework of the entire world economy; it penetrates every part of the globe. The world is highly interconnected and dependent on global supply chains for the production and distribution of the basic necessities and luxuries of life, where the assembly of something like the iPhone may be located in sweatshops in China, but with component electronics and parts shipped in from many other parts of the world, and the final product shipped globally for consumption. Everything from medicine to electronics to machine parts is made in countries where companies can reap the most profit. Then these products circle the globe, getting plugged into “just in time” supply chains that are now being disrupted in major ways. Stock markets around the world, including in the U.S., have plummeted, an indication of the impact the virus is having on the global economy.
In the United States there are a small number of confirmed cases at this point. However, experts are pointing out that there is almost no testing being done. As of March 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed that it had done less than 500 tests, although it has been seven weeks since the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the U.S. By contrast South Korea has tested 100,000 people. In fact, until a few days ago, the CDC was only testing people who had traveled to the Wuhan region in China or were close to someone who had been there, rather than testing all people hospitalized with respiratory illnesses as experts on pandemics recommended. For over a week CDC would not test a patient in California who health officials were concerned had the COVID-19 virus. As it turned out, that patient tested positive—that is, they actually did have the virus. And on top of that, the test kits CDC sent out to cities around the U.S. were defective and could not be used! So at this point, due to the near-complete failure of testing, nobody knows how many cases of COVID-19 there may be in the U.S., nor how far or quickly it will spread.
The Trump/Pence Fascist Regime Has Made This Crisis Worse—And the Danger May Only Be Beginning
The Trump/Pence fascist regime has taken measures that may make the impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus seriously worse. After taking power, the Trump/Pence regime gutted the U.S. infectious disease infrastructure, forced out key leaders, and tried (unsuccessfully) to cut the budget of the CDC. When faced with the COVID-19 crisis, the Trump administration initially announced that it would allocate $2.5 billion for dealing with the possible epidemic in the U.S. This is far less than the minimum experts felt was needed. Even worse, Trump pledged nothing to assist people in other parts of the world who at this point are being vastly more impacted by the spread of this virus.
Even more criminally and fundamentally, the Trump/Pence regime has waged a war against science, the scientific method and scientists across the board. Already there are reports that CDC experts and officials are being told to not give public briefings. Health and Human Services workers were sent without training or protective gear to deal with people who were quarantined on U.S. military bases because of possible coronavirus infection. Then, when they reported the situation, they were accused of not being “team players”!
Trump appointed Mike Pence, the Christian fundamentalist fascist vice president, to head the U.S. effort. Pence is a biblical literalist. Pence does not believe that the theory of evolution is true. He has been a crusader against science. As one international expert on pandemics tweeted in response to his appointment: “OMG!” (“oh my god!”). This is criminal for humanity. At the press conference where his appointment was announced, no one even asked about this.
In her book, The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism: Knowing What’s Real and Why It Matters, Ardea Skybreak made a point about the SARS coronavirus that is very relevant to the situation today with COVID-19: “It is simply the case that no one can come to understand anything essential about the SARS virus and epidemic (and how best to deal with it) without factoring in some basic facts about biological evolution. The basic principles of biological evolution are, first of all, helping to identify the genetic structure of this particular virus, and to uncover what other viruses the SARS virus is related to….This evolutionary knowledge in turn is important for trying to figure out which medications and/or vaccines might or might not have an effect on the SARS virus….”
The Trump/Pence regime’s ongoing demonization of immigrants, on top of the national chauvinism reinforced by imperialism more generally, has created a tinderbox for spreading irrational xenophobic fear, especially of people who have roots in China, South Korea, and other Asian countries where the virus began. In cities like Chicago, Chinatown restaurants are empty for no logical reason! And this can get even more ugly very fast. What we need is people pulling and working together to deal with a public health crisis.
Meanwhile, Trump’s fascist strategists like Steve Bannon and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross see this as an opportunity to weaken their imperialist rival China from within as the Chinese government struggles to meet the challenges of a serious health crisis.
Members of the fascist Trump regime are on TV accusing his opponents in the Democratic Party and the news media of deliberately trying to create panic to hurt the economy and his administration. Right now it suits their interests to pooh-pooh what scientists generally believe to be a serious threat. But should the virus begin to spread in a serious way in this country, it is not hard to imagine that Trump and the fascists would try to use it to make huge leaps in consolidating fascism in the U.S., taking repressive measures and further whipping up fear of and hatred against immigrants and people from other lands.
1. The revolution in China was defeated and capitalism was restored after the death of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong in 1976. China was turned into a giant sweatshop for imperialist powers, even while today, China is now itself an emerging imperialist power. At the same time, for various reasons they have kept the name of “communist.” For more on this, see: You Don’t Know What You Think You “Know” About… The Communist Revolution and the REAL Path to Emancipation: Its History and Our Future, Interview with Raymond Lotta. [back]