The International Coronavirus

This post is translated from French from:

Around the World in 20 minutes

Sunday, March 29

According to an AFP count, by Friday, March 27th at 11 am (Paris time), the coronavirus had already killed more than 25,000 people worldwide, two-thirds of them in Europe. Hundreds of thousands have been diagnosed, yet the figures do not reflect the reality of contamination, since no country has wanted (or been able) to set up a testing system that meets the need.

Every day, the virus kills more than 2,000 people worldwide. The Director General of the World Health Organization said: “From the first reported case, it took 67 days to reach 100,000 cases; 11 days for the second 100,000 cases; and only four days for the third 100,000 cases.”

Sorry to bring you this obituary report:

Italy is now close to 10,000 dead (including 1,000 just Friday).
Spain 5000.
France 1,700 dead.
1,500 in the United States (This is old news. We have reached 8,276 as of April 4th.)
Iran has announced 2,400 dead.
The pandemic is now affecting South America, Africa, and all continents except Antarctica. 2.6 billion people, more than a third of humanity, is confined1.

I. A global health disaster

1. International destruction of health systems

The reasons for such a massacre have been stated many times already. The international decimation of healthcare systems is not a new or isolated phenomenon, nor is their subordination to profitability and private profit.

This is true in France (we will talk about this later) but it is also true in all rich countries. In the United States 37 million people have no health insurance at all. Millions more have minimal health coverage, which means they have to pay part of the cost from their own pockets. And even people with the best medical coverage have to wait a considerable amount of time to see a doctor; they are on waiting lists for surgery or other treatments. Today, even in normal times, most hospitals in the United States lack sufficient staff, supplies, equipment, and beds.

In Germany over the past 30 years, the number of hospitals has decreased by 20%, and the number of beds per capita by 25% (while the number of public hospitals has decreased by 39%, that of private hospitals has increased by 73%).

China is no exception either, its healthcare system is also deteriorating. China, similar to European countries, has limited spending on healthcare. 

So if the world’s leading economic powers have undermined all the conditions that could have made it possible to deal with the pandemic, what can we expect in Algeria, let alone Chad, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso? They are even less equipped and prepared, and are announcing their first deceased! On Thursday the 26th, at the Boufarik Hospital in the Blida region, workers went on strike and organized a sit-in to protest against the lack of resources, poor conditions for the sick, and the incompetence of their director.

2. Then there was the carelessness and incompetence displayed by governments

This incompetence has been found at the highest levels of the richest nations. The rulers mocked the virus for months: Trump spoke of a “Chinese virus.”

Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte, of the populist Five Star movement, said the epidemic would be more dangerous in China than in Italy, explaining: “We have all seen them eating live rats.” He had to apologize when he received millions of masks from China. Bolsonaro, friend of Trump, still thinks that “real” Brazilians cannot get sick…2

In France, a month ago, only supply mattered – the problem was not the virus, but how to keep the factories running if the large Chinese global workshop could no longer supply parts for iPhones or cars. (Carlos Tavares said it clearly.3)

At the start of the epidemic, there was support to help China contain the virus. However, as the virus progressed, each state wanted to conduct policies within its own borders, at its own slow pace, using improvised measures. Yet we have been expecting this virus for months; we have been aware of the epidemic’s development in China.

Then Trump declared this week: “the death rate, in my opinion, is very, very low.” Yet in New York, which accounts for 30% of cases in the United States, makeshift morgues are being built to cope with the rise in deaths. In New Orleans, which is currently experiencing the fastest growth of new cases in the world, hospitals are short on equipment and space.

II. Economic security before health security

1. A more serious economic crisis than that of 2008

As a result of the aberration of the capitalist system, we have a pandemic that modern technical means could contain (if we had not limited spending), but instead threatens to turn into a global economic crisis worse than that of 2008! Even worse than that of 1929.

In the United States, economists at Goldman Sachs suggest a 24% contraction, while those at Morgan Stanley expect a fall in activity which could reach 30% annualized in the second quarter of 2020.

What is called “the economy” in a capitalist regime has nothing to do with satisfying needs nursing staff, drugs, hospital beds, ventilators, masks… The great concern of those in power, as we have seen and reviewed, is not so much to guarantee “health security” as to preserve “economic security.” This is an essential concern, as we were told by our very own Minister of the Economy, Bruno Lemaire himself4. That is to say, the preservation of net profits and dividends to shareholders is the most important.

And this is where support for the economy, with mind-boggling credits being offered to bankers and bosses, and breaches to labor law, uses mass unemployment as blackmail to force this down our throats.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a slowdown in global economic activity but also a drop in the demand for oil, the fluctuations of which are linked to the immediate profits that the big oil trusts expect to gain, at the expense of the economies of regions that are heavily dependent on their product. “The region is likely to experience a sharp decline in growth this year,” said the IMFs regional director for the Middle East and Central Asia. A finding that applies just as much to Africa: from Algeria to Nigeria…

2. Blackmail: mass unemployment

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there could therefore be between 5 and 25 million additional unemployed people around the world, depending on economic scenarios, half of them in the most developed countries. And so the attacks begin.

In Norway, the unemployment rate rose from 2.3% of the working population to 10.4% in one month. In Austria, there were 163,000 new claims for unemployment benefits in ten days, a jump of 40%. In Sweden, from March 16th to 22nd, 14,000 employees received pink slips, compared to the usual average of 3,000 per month. In Budapest, Budapest Airport has cut 15% of its workforce.

The tourism industry has certainly been hit hard. However, the problems of the wealthy passengers of a cruise ship stuck at the entrance to Panama move us less than the situation that is unfolding in Africa, or is beginning to develop in India.

The automobile industry is also at a standstill. However, this is pretty normal for today. What is abnormal is factories that are still open, where workers don’t produce anything that is necessary for health. But who is going to pay the price for this? 

In Eastern Europe, most factories are closed, plunging tens of thousands of workers into technical unemployment, but with what kind of paycheck? In Spain, where Renault, Ford, Volkswagen, Nissan, and Seat have announced partial unemployment affecting nearly 50,000 workers in total, there is some supplemental workers’ compensation, but at the cost of blackmail regarding vacation time. In Hungary, the government has already warned that it expects “hundreds of thousands” of additional unemployed workers, while auto subcontractors have announced their first social plans. This is about workers who will become unemployed in the future, not just those out of work during the time of the epidemic.

And then, there are the tens of thousands of companies using their potential bankruptcy as blackmail.

The Spanish Confederation of Small and Medium Enterprises (Cepyme) has already made its calculations: 300,000 jobs will be lost if shelter in place lasts for a month. It is impossible to know how many jobs will be lost if it continues longer. 

Governments across Europe have reacted in the same way: to avoid corporate bankruptcies they’ve put the economy on an IV infusion of cash, to preserve the “productive fabric” in order to “save jobs” and “bounce back” when “the pandemic is over,” said Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish Prime Minister. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz confirms: “Partial unemployment is better than unemployment.” Partial unemployment at State expense, for the entire population, with the exception of employers, who will pay absolutely nothing5.

3. Massive State aid to businesses, at the expense of the people

Across the globe, far more than in 2008, the same governments (including France), skimp on masks, and have given billions upon billions of dollars in aid to big companies.

In the United States, aid to large companies will reach $500 billion, including 425 billion in loans, some guaranteed by the Treasury (and these programs will be overseen by the famous BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager). These bailout bills are passed without even an explanation. In addition, $350 billion in aid is being transmitted to small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs). As in France, national unity was in full play: Trump thanked the Democrats and the Republicans of the Senate “for having unanimously adopted the most important financial aid measures in American history.” Among the Democrats who participated in this unanimous vote was Senator Bernie Sanders.6

In Europe, within a few weeks, the “Stability and Growth Pact,” which governs budgetary discipline in the countries of the eurozone, was suspended. It required the curbing of (social) spending, but included an exception to subsidize employers. Germany has presented the biggest stimulus budget in its history and forsaken a balanced budget; the European Commission has put tens of billions on the table; and the European Central Bank (ECB) has announced the injection of 1 trillion euros. Europe has turned into a money printing press! And tomorrow we will have to pay the price increases!

Of course, closing the borders, especially to migrants, was among the first steps. This was yet another perfect opportunity for a criminal policy which we saw the images of just a few weeks ago on the Greek borders.

III. The anger that is sheltered within… is nonetheless ready to burst out 

1. Get everyone back to work?

How will the price for this orgy of billions of dollars disbursed to banks and companies be paid for? With the exploitation of labor and extraction of profits of course! And to pay back the subsidies, and direct loans from states, there will be tax-payer money and new restrictions on public services. This is what we are being prepared for.

In France and around the world, employers intend to force workers to return to work in dangerous conditions through economic blackmail and, if necessary, pure force (as seen this week in France, at the post office and elsewhere). In Algeria, Rebrab, an employer (the richest in the country), promises to pay for the import of masks and respirators from his own pocket, but continues to force laborers to work in his factories, in the midst of an epidemic.

The French poetic platitudes of “civic mindedness” or “health and safety” going hand in hand with “economic security” have found simultaneous echoes all over the world.

In Germany, the daily, Handelsblatt, published an interview with hedge fund manager Alexander Dibelius, who said that “the economic collapse” is “more frightening than this viral infection.” In the United States, Trump said last Thursday: “We have to get back to work”, “Our people want to work, they want to go back, they have to go back… This is a country that was built by doing the work, and our people want to go back to work. I hear it loud and clear from everyone.” The main leaders of Wall Street, as well as the editorial page of the New York Times, both close to the Democratic Party, insisted on the need for a rapid return to work, under Trump’s slogan “the cure cannot be worse than the problem,” with an article titled “Shutdown Highlights Economic Cost of Saving Lives.” Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar who worked for the Obama administration, was quoted as saying, “A program that saves younger people is better, in this sense, than an otherwise identical program that saves older people.

As for the President of Mexico (a “leftist”!), he judges that paralyzing the economy would have worse consequences for the poor than the pandemic, and he guilts those who are lucky enough to have a job. On Thursday he said, “To those who are demanding that I paralyze everything, I remind you that some of us have a fixed salary while others earn their living on the street.” The feelings of millions of workers around the world can be summed up by this statement by a Florida teacher: “After delaying for months and not providing necessary tests or medical supplies, Trump stirs up xenophobia and racism by labeling the virus a “Chinese virus.” The ruling class in the United States and several countries have essentially stated that it is normal for tens of millions of people to become infected and millions to die worldwide. Obviously, the working class is replaceable: it has never been so clear. If it were a computer virus that could wipe out their wealth, they would care. “

2. A confined yet evident anger

In France we have seen thousands of employees assert their “right of withdrawal” at Amazon, the post office, the SNCF (railroad), and in the auto industry. And we see anger in hospitals. Walkouts have multiplied at the Fiat-Chrysler plants in Michigan and Ohio, among transportation workers in Alabama, in shipyards in Maine, in the food industry in Georgia and in Northern Ireland, at Amazon in New York, in Italy and in France, in hospitals in Zimbabwe and in Algeria, at the Post office in Brooklyn and in France…

But let’s go back to China, where it all started. While confinement began to be lifted in mid-February, the gradual resumption of work – which had apparently stopped more rigorously than in France – was accompanied by a resumption of strikes. They were not uncommon before the epidemic, but they became widespread afterwards, notably to demand the payment of back pay for the past few months. The focus is on the epidemic, but we can only hope it turns into a strike pandemic, perhaps even before the end of confinement!

1As of March 30 on we are at 3.6 billion, more than half the world’s population is confined.

2And British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was betting on “group immunity” and risking a few hundred thousand lives in the process… before he was caught by the disease himself.

3Carlos Tavares, CEO of PSA (a global auto group if there ever was one, having bought Opel and merged with Fiat-Chrysler) expressed it in his own way at the beginning of March: “For European sites, we have set up a multidisciplinary team which works 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, to ensure the supply of the European industrial system. We first seek to reduce the risks associated with the cessation of activity in Hubei Province. For the moment, we have succeeded in protecting the European industrial machine which is running at full capacity. The orders are very good, even excellent. This is obviously the result of the agility of the teams. In China, we have no control since it is the Chinese authorities who decide. The only information we have is that we will be able to resume activity on March 11. “

4Tuesday, March 17 in the evening, from Edouard Philippe (Prime Minister): there was no question of prohibiting layoffs, even in a period of confinement – the emergency measures do not deprive the bosses of this freedom. As for “the rights of withdrawal” (allowing French workers to refuse to work in dangerous conditions), assessment of the conditions will be left to the employer. On Wednesday 19, the Minister of the Economy, Bruno Lemaire, said on BFM TV: “all the employees of businesses still open and of activities essential to the smooth functioning of the country – cleaning, water treatment, food industry, mass distribution – must go to their workplace,” shall we say almost everyone? And he adds “health security and economic security must go hand in hand!” Labor Minister Muriel Pénicaud attacked the employers’ unions in the construction industry this morning: “an employers’ union [which] tells companies to stop going to work […] This is defeatism.” The union in question answered him as dryly: “If they are mistaken in their financial calculations compared to what they promised, and that they are counting on the well-behaved workers of the building trades to accept marching orders and march to the front, taking reckless risks to their health but also for the health of their customers…forget it.”
If a construction bosses’ union can talk to a minister like that, what should the hundreds of thousands of workers say who can’t see their mothers or their friends, but who have to show for work, practically one on top of the other, for the sake of the economic health of their boss?

5The UK, which has a generally limited social welfare net for the unemployed, has announced that the state will pay 80% of wages if businesses affected by the pandemic agree not to fire their workers. In the Netherlands, the state guarantees 90% of the salary; in Belgium, it is 70%, increased by an allowance of 6 euros per day; in Spain, 70% of the salary; in Denmark, 75%, within a limit of 23,000 crowns (3,000 euros); in Germany, the system, already successfully tested during the 2008 crisis, capped aid between 60% and 67% of wages; in Austria the government promised between 80% and 90% will be covered, with payment from the first day.

6To avoid any conflict of interest, the Democrats have obtained assurances that any business owned by Donald Trump or his family would not be eligible for Treasury loans. This would also apply to companies owned by members of Congress.