The COVID-19 pandemic, now surpassing one million confirmed cases and affecting half of the world’s population, has exposed all the inequalities and inhumanities of the capitalist world system that caused and exacerbated the catastrophe. The pandemic calls for a global, democratic socialist response to mitigate the effects of the disease, minimize the chances of future outbreaks, and lay the foundation for a safer and healthier world.
Can we organize globally for a better future, rather than merely returning to the “normal” circumstances that led to where we are today? Or will the pandemic be exploited to further deepen the inhumanity of the current global system? This is a choice we need to make in our response to the capitalist exploitation of nature, neoliberal austerity and growing inequality, rising authoritarianism and geopolitical rivalries that led to where we are today. For this purpose, we need to be clear about our politics.
A Capitalist, not a Chinese Virus
COVID-19 originated in China, but neither the Chinese people nor Chinese culture are the root causes of this pandemic. When President Donald Trump calls it “the Chinese virus,” his racism is not only deplorable but diverts us from dealing with the effects of the disease with international solidarity that crosses racial lines and imperial borders. It is the worldwide capitalist exploitation of nature that is at the root of this and other outbreaks in recent years. The loss of natural habitat on a global scale, coupled with industrial livestock production by agribusiness, increases the likelihood and frequency of outbreaks of new pathogens. If this continues, the question is not whether or where but simply when it will happen again.
We have everything to gain from uniting across racial lines and imperial borders to fight both COVID-19 and an international economic system that values profit over human and non-human life. Competition between nations for economic, military, and ideological power globally—buttressed by nationalism, racism, and xenophobia—threatens the solidarity we need at this moment. In this context, while border shutdowns may appear as swift public health responses, they provide a cover for the failure of many nations to prepare for the outbreak by investing in healthcare. Global cooperation and solidarity, not racism and xenophobia, are necessary for a democratic socialist approach to the crisis.
Rising Authoritarianism, Rising Global Conflicts
The Trump Administration has sought to distract from its own failures in responding to the pandemic and its own lack of candor with the public by scapegoating familiar enemies. However, governments around the world share this disdain for transparency. By concealing information and suppressing public discussion, they likely undermined timely and effective responses and might well have contributed to global spread. Extreme authoritarian measures, including unprecedented surveillance and police power, are strengthened and justified to control the population. The Chinese government has detained citizen journalists reporting on the outbreak; the Indian police are beating migrant workers for violating the lockdown orders; the Hungary government instituted a law that grants the despotic president unlimited emergency power; and an authoritarian government in the Philippines has empowered the police to shoot desperate people rioting to demand food under lockdown. Authoritarianism everywhere carries deadly consequences, and draconian measures that ignore people’s needs will cause more devastation.
But exploiting this fact to engineer a nationalistic response that ramps up global tensions militates against the possibility of global responses. For instance, the U.S. has escalated tensions with Venezuela amid the worsening pandemic, and U.S. economic sanctions—including new sanctions on Iran that have undermined the country’s ability to purchase medicines and its vetoing of Iran’s request for $5bn Covid19 aid loan to IMF—hamper the efforts of countries such as Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and others to combat the virus, and will cause unnecessary deaths and more extensive propagation of the pandemic. Likewise, the exclusion of Taiwan from the World Health Organization at the insistence of China, including exclusion of emergency meetings on COVID-19, has put Taiwan’s population at risk. Instead, we should welcome the fact that 28,000 Cuban medical volunteers are involved in efforts to combat the pandemic in Algeria, China, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Kuwait, Qatar, and South Africa, and the Chinese donations of medical aid to Africa, Europe, the United States.
It is particularly disconcerting that tension is heightening between the U.S. and China, a rivalry that is made worse by the pandemic, and furthermore by the new reality of global economic crisis. The Trump Administration evidently sees this as an opportunity to ramp up tensions with China. But growing hostilities and nationalist sentiments in both countries, exacerbated by the political class seeking to shift blame, will only make the earth a more dangerous place if they remain unopposed by the world’s peoples. Moreover, the pandemic may be used by governments around the world as a justification to crack down on civil liberties and to suppress social movements from below.
A Class War
The pandemic has been called a war by Trump, Xi Jinping, Boris Johnson and others. But this is not a war between democracy and authoritarianism, nor even a war against the pandemic. It is a class war. Whether one lives under an authoritarian or a liberal-democratic regime, class position shapes how one experiences the pandemic. Global inequality both between countries and within each country means the impact of the pandemic will be borne disproportionately and largely by the working class, the uninsured, the poor, the elderly who are falling ill and dying in great numbers, the incarcerated, immigrants, and those held in migrant detention camps. People in the lower economic groups are more likely to suffer loss of income or health care, to contract the disease, and to die from it, while inequality and poverty exacerbate rates of transmission and mortality.
As the economic shutdown continues, unemployment is skyrocketing. In the developed world from the U.S to Europe, service sector personnel and other precarious workers are losing their incomes and their jobs, and many are not able to pay rent. In the U.S. alone, 10 million had filed unemployment claims as of April 2, and some 47 million workers could eventually lose their jobs. In the global supply chain, workforces such as in the garment industry in Bangladesh and elsewhere in the developing world are particularly vulnerable to the economic slowdown, as suppliers to global retail brands are closing shops and laying off millions of workers without severance pay, threatening their livelihood. Rural migrant workers in India, China and elsewhere are also facing loss of income and employment.
Protecting workers—especially precarious workers, many of whom will be both exposed to COVID-19 and vulnerable to the recession—is critical to containing and mitigating the effects of the pandemic and related economic hardship. The global union federation IndustriALL has demanded that “special provision be made to immediately extend paid sick-leave entitlements to workers who lack them, and to improve sick leave provisions where they exist as well as to ensure working conditions and arrangements that provide protection.” And in the fight against the pandemic, we especially express solidarity with medical and health-care workers worldwide who are on the front lines and risking their own lives to provide care. Tens of thousands of medical workers have been infected, and many have died. Almost everywhere they are reporting lack of protections and inadequate resources.
The impact on poor countries in regions beyond North America and Europe and in refugee camps could be even more catastrophic. Confirmed cases are increasing in Latin America and Africa. Indigenous groups in Latin America fear that the pandemic may wipe them out. The situation in Brazil is sufficiently dire that the right-wing Bolsonaro regime is now pleading for the return of Cuban physicians that it had previously slandered and forced to leave the country. As the pandemic spreads further, the inhumanity of conflicts and refugee policies are putting at particular high risks of infection and mortality people in refugee camps in Greece, Syria, and places like Gaza, which has been in lockdown by Israel, or the internment camps in Xinjiang, where detainees cannot practice social distancing and are not provided with adequate healthcare.
The impact of the pandemic has gendered dimensions as well. Globally, women make up the overwhelming majority of medical workers, especially as nurses at the front line of dealing with the pandemic. Women are also often primary caretakers at home for sick family members, and they take on still more domestic work as schools close. In countries from China to France, from Tunisia to the U.S., women are facing a surge in domestic violence during the lockdowns. The mostly female migrant domestic workers in the Global South also face greater exposure to the disease. The 400,000 female domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia working in Hong Kong are not only anxious about their precarious work status, but also about the lack of sanitary protection.
A Progressive Global Future
To survive the pandemic and build a better and safer future, we face the task of revitalizing the labor and social movements everywhere. And, without an organized progressive movement, disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic can and will be used as the pretext for class war against the working class and the poor. Even more grotesque inequality may follow as governments rescue businesses with subsidies and bailouts but ignore the needs of the people.
There is already a groundswell of anger and desperation for better healthcare and better livelihood protection. Everywhere people are organizing through mutual aid and collective actions to protect themselves and their communities. To name just a few examples, teachers in New York City threatened to strike in order to ensure school closures; medical workers in Hong Kong staged a strike to demand adequate protection; Italian workers have gone on strike to call for factory closure amid a national lockdown; residents in China’s Hubei province under lockdown rebelled against corruption; union movements in South Korea and Hong Kong converged to discuss shared strategy; and U.S. logistics workers at Instacart and Amazon went on strike to protest inadequate protection and low pay for the health risks.
We should demand more than just short-term improvements. Neoliberal capitalism has wreaked havoc on people’s lives long before the pandemic, and business as usual means a continuation of such misery for millions. Decades of neoliberalism have weakened health systems, which increases vulnerability of these groups and leads the virus to spread faster. Greatly increased public funding is needed for healthcare and medical infrastructure, which have been severely undercut by economic austerity. Medical care should be a human right and not a luxury for people everywhere. The precarization of employment under neoliberalism means that large numbers of workers globally do not have employment security and protection as businesses are shut down or otherwise severely affected. The global economy, already on the verge of recession prior to the pandemic, is now at risk of a depression comparable to the 1930s. Such downturns and crises are not accidental but integral to capitalism, and a return to where we were before is not good enough.
We need to transcend neoliberalism, not just fix it, and we cannot just transcend it within national borders. We must develop a progressive and internationalist global response, not only to address the direct effects of the pandemic, but also the long-term ills of ecological destruction, economic inequality, precarization of labor and lack of healthcare, among many other injustices. In the last year, we have witnessed popular uprisings around the world, including France, Catalunya, Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Chile, Ecuador, Honduras, Haiti, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, and Algeria. These massive militant movements are fueled by austerity, economic inequality, and lack of democracy; they grow strong in a common belief that alternatives are possible. The pandemic only makes the task of developing an anti-capitalist global movement all the more urgent.