The Coronavirus Pandemic: An Olympics of Failure

This is the text of the first presentation given at our Online Townhall on March 28, 2020: “The Coronavirus Pandemic: Their System Can’t Protect Us“. (link to the second presentation at the townhall) (link to the discussion portion of the townhall) A Video of this presentation can be seen here:

We are seeing a global pandemic that has spiraled out of control. The response by governments has been different in different countries. But everywhere, what they all have in common is that they are guided by the logic of the capitalist system, where the interests of banks and corporations is sacred, and the lives of human beings are not. And it could not be any clearer that this system is threat to all of our lives.

As of this writing, the virus has spread to every continent except Antarctica.

It’s in most countries on the planet, has infected over 722,000 people, and its spread is accelerating. For now it has taken the lives of over 34,000 people. And so far the poorest countries have just begun to be hit – the devastation there is likely to be unimaginable.

Adults of all ages are at risk of getting this virus. In France and the U.S. about half of all patients admitted to the Intensive Care Units are under 60 years old. In countries with major outbreaks, hospital systems are completely overrun. Medical staff make up about 15% of new infections.

In Italy, medical workers have been forced to implement war-time protocols of “catastrophe medicine,” where healthcare workers must choose who to save and who to let die, knowing that they may be the next patient.

In Spain and France the situation looks the same. Spain is using ice rinks to store dead bodies because morgues are all full. All funerals have stopped. And everyone dies alone.

New York City hospitals could be worse than Italy, with its morgues already reaching capacity. Many health care workers are filling out their wills and writing letters to their children in case they never see them again. Hospital workers are working without protection, wearing trash bags, splitting ventilators between multiple patients. And now hospitals are one of the best places to become infected. Many U.S. cities are heading towards the nightmare that is unfolding in New York. And this in the richest country in the world.

This Pandemic Wasn’t Inevitable

There was nothing inevitable about this tragedy. A few countries have shown it is possible to get the spread of the virus under control. Governments simply needed to act quickly, to test widely, and to track and isolate cases. This is a textbook response, epidemics 101.

This is what Hong Kong and Taiwan and South Korea did. They have all been able keep their death rates very low.

But ultimately the type of response was hardly determined by concerns about human life. No – for every government, the type of response has been determined by the same capitalist logic: “what will this mean for the economy?” What will this mean for the profits of our corporations and banks? Or, like Trump shamelessly said to the whole world, will the cure be worse than the disease? In other words, is it worth it to damage the economy in order to save lives?

For capitalism, what is its moral compass, its calculus of catastrophe? It is always the same: capital, investment, profits, economic strength. Not human life.

For the few countries that responded quickly – their calculus was the same: If we don’t stop this virus, our economies will be more devastated.

For Hong Kong – they had no choice. They are one of the most densely populated countries in the world, closely connected to China. A mass outbreak would have devastated their society.

In Taiwan, the government knew the island’s economy would be quickly overwhelmed by a mass outbreak. They had to act fast and they were prepared. They quickly blocked flights from China and started testing.

And for South Korea it was no different. Its capital is one of the most densely populated in the world. As soon as large clusters were identified, South Korea rapidly unveiled a massive testing and tracking operation. If they didn’t act fast, their economy would have been in crisis.

For now, the outbreaks in these countries are under control, with low death tolls.

A Delayed Response

But so far these countries have been the exception, not the rule. So far every other ruling class has made a different calculation. From China to Europe to the U.S., they chose to wait and see.

Why? Were they ignorant to the economic threat of pandemics?
Of course not. Their scientists are among the world’s best. Their choices were made with full knowledge of the risks.

But their economic concerns told them to wait. Disrupting flights, restricting travel, mass testing and mass isolation – that cure may be worse than the disease, they thought.

So they waited.

In China, where it all began, they waited too long. Of course the regime was concerned with an outbreak and the impact it could have on the economy, and especially with the reaction from their population.

For years now, the working class in China has been a powder keg, with record levels of strikes – all of which have been met with intensified repression of activists. There’s no telling when a movement could erupt and threaten the regime.

The Chinese government waited over five weeks before imposing any kind of quarantine and admitting to the world there was widespread human-to-human transmission. By the end of December, in response to grave warnings from lab technicians and doctors that a new SARS-like virus was spreading within the city of Wuhan, the government arrested those who spoke up, and forced them to sign statements admitting to “spreading rumors.” Saying it was a threat to the country. They publicly denied all evidence of human-to-human transmission.

China did not impose any real quarantine until Jan. 23. But they did not ban travel around the Chinese New Year, which is the largest annual human migration on the planet. Many of the three billion trips that take place throughout the country during this time had already begun.

By then it was too late. The virus had already spread to other cities in China and several other countries. Within days, the city of Wuhan would be overrun and the ultimate death toll would be over three thousand.

And even today, accusations abound inside China about underreporting of new cases and deaths. Time will tell.

The Gold Medal of Failure

Instead of serving as a lesson, the hesitation of China has been repeated and exacerbated throughout Europe and in the U.S. The opportunity for a rapid intervention came and went. Italy and Spain have become the crystal balls of misery that await many countries.

In country after country we are seeing an Olympics of failure. And the U.S. deserves the gold medal.

Before this virus, in the U.S., economists worried about an economic downturn for months. Record levels of corporate debt had piled up. The stock market was being kept afloat through bubbles of speculation. The tiniest economic disruption could tip the economy over the edge. This was the biggest cause of delay for the U.S.

The U.S. identified its first patient on January 20, the same day as South Korea. While South Korea responded quickly, in the U.S. there was no response whatsoever.

On January 30, the US imposed a completely porous restriction on travel from China. Chinese citizens were blocked from entering the U.S., but other passengers were only screened for coughs and fevers.

Without testing, screening does practically nothing with this virus. It can spread for weeks without symptoms.

Another 30 days of community spreading goes by and nothing happens.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, the largest mass testing onslaught was underway. Within two weeks after their first case, South Korea was testing more people per day than any other country – testing forty times the number of people per capita than the U.S. In South Korea tests are done in ten minutes and results are back in about an hour.

But in the U.S., by the time the virus was all over the world – still nothing! No real mass testing. No real tracking down of cases. Still waiting.

On Feb. 29, when the U.S marked its first death in Seattle, South Korea had already begun cutting its new cases per day in half. The U.S. hadn’t even tested more than a couple hundred people. And most of those tests were likely invalid as the test kits sent by the CDC returned many false negatives and positives.

The U.S. didn’t even have a working test available from the CDC until March 3. And by then the window to stop the spread of the virus had closed.

The U.S. gave up on any sort of mass testing. Testing was being done mainly on those with severe symptoms, who would be admitted to a hospital. Testing was not being done as a way to actually track the virus and limit it.

Unless of course you were in the NBA, or the Queen Kardashian or some other millionaire or politician – they could get tested immediately.

Trump was even honest enough to call that kind of class inequality just the “story of life.”

Even today, to get tested you have to be highly symptomatic, and tests can still take 5-7 days for results. Remember it takes an hour in South Korea.

It’s no wonder that now the U.S. has the most cases in the world. What this means is that the disaster happening in New York and Louisiana is likely to be repeated in many other cities.

For years the healthcare system in the U.S. has been gutted in the interests of cost cutting and profits. Public hospitals have been closed or suffered massive budget cuts. All hospitals have been stripped to the bone in the interests of productivity. On a normal day, hospitals are already at capacity, emergency rooms often full.

And today healthcare workers are forced to reuse masks, to spray them down, and store them in brown paper bags because of the extreme shortages of protective equipment.

Health care workers have been forced to risk their lives, the lives of their families, coworkers, and patients in the hospital.

It is difficult not to focus on the complete idiocy and malice of Trump. But make no mistake, every politician at every level is guilty of waiting too long to act, of caring more about capital than corona.

Even today many states have not issued Stay-at-Home orders. Many people are working without any real protection, with new outbreaks showing up in warehouses and grocery stores. Mass transit has continued in cities for weeks without any change.

Governors and mayors waited to close schools, waited for weeks to issue quarantines. When Universities eventually shutdown, all students were sent home without testing, as oblivious vectors of contagion.

And now Trump is trying to force workers back to work before Easter. This catastrophe is far from over.

The Logic of Capital

There is nothing unique in all of this failure. Putting the economy first is par for the capitalist course of destruction.

Whenever there are catastrophes from hurricanes or earthquakes or fires, investors see new dollar signs amidst redevelopment and mass displacement. Little is done to relieve the victims of the tragedy. Little is done in advance to prepare.

Despite decades of warnings from scientists about the threat of a pandemic, no real attempts were made to prepare for it. The U.S. can do preemptive strikes in Afghanistan and the Middle East, but capital is incapable of a preemptive strike against a virus if it means striking against profits.

And we see the same sick logic in their economic response to the crisis.

The government has already granted astronomical sums – around $6 trillion dollars – to assist banks and corporations while the vast majority of workers will see crumbs at best.

Unemployment is approaching at least 30 percent. This week marked the highest unemployment filing in the history of this country – 3.3 million claims in one week.

The latest stimulus bill offers some relief: $1,200 per adult and $500 per child. It is a one-time payment for one month only. And there is a $600 Federal increase to state unemployment benefits for four months.

This is better than nothing – and it will make situations easier for some. But it is pathetic compared to what we need. No worker should have to lose a dime.

In the Eyes of the People Grows an Anger

In his novel Grapes of Wrath – an indictment of U.S. capitalism during the Great Depression, John Steinbeck writes:

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation.
There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize.
There is a failure here that topples all our success.

Nothing could be more true today.

Their system has committed crimes that go far beyond denunciation.

Their system has caused a tsunami of sorrow to crash upon our shores.

And all of the so-called success of the capitalist era has led to this nightmare – another complete and utter failure of their system.

This failure is clear for all to see. And their crimes are not going unnoticed. There is a new anger that is growing in the population. And inside that anger, there grows an enormous potential for change.