The coronavirus pandemic: Capitalism is questioned

Farooque Chowdhury reflects on the pressing questions of capitalism and imperialism amid the outbreak of coronavirus

March 23, 2020 by Farooque Chowdhury
Healthcare worker walks at one of the emergency structures that were set up to ease procedures at the Brescia hospital, northern Italy, Thursday, March 12, 2020. Photo: Luca Bruno/AP Photo

The ramping coronavirus pandemic is putting capitalism in question as at least a billion people around the world are confined in homes. Millions of workers have already lost jobs. A bleak future waits for them. Governments are struggling to face the situation. The United States, allegedly the most powerful, the most resourceful, the wisest and the smartest state, is actually in a state of mess. About 150 countries now have more than 300,000 confirmed cases, according to the online data center organized by Johns Hopkins University. Some Spanish intensive care units are close to their limit.

The pandemic has forced lock-downs in 35 countries. Several have closed down borders. France has deployed helicopters and drones to keep people within their homes. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed a 14-hour stay-in-home curfew.

Factories in Europe and the US have braced the hardest hit since WWII. Millions of workers have lost their jobs, and many more will too. That means, billions of people will be plunged into a state of uncertainty and hardship. Lives, trade, travel around the world are being disrupted at an unprecedented level.

According to reports, the world stock market has already lost $12 trillion. Governments, from Australia to Britain to the US, are doling out emergency stimulus packages, which amount to trillions of dollars.

According to an NBC News survey conducted with more than 250 health care professionals across the US, there is a dire need for personal protective equipment in the US hospitals. Another major challenge for healthcare professionals is the lack of available testing kits. A nurse in Michigan told NBC, “I don’t feel like my hospital is failing us. It’s the whole system that’s failing us.”

Health care workers in several US cities have sought donations of protective equipment. Staff at a Detroit hospital began creating homemade face masks for workers. Rural hospitals are strained. In the farming community of Vidalia, Georgia, emergency room workers are wearing the same face masks for their entire 12-hour shifts.

The pandemic has not spared the world’s mightiest military machine. According to a report by AFP the US military has been forced to cancel military exercises and soldiers have been confined to bases.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said on Fox News: ‘Mission number one for the United States military remains ensuring that the American people, the country and our interests abroad are protected.’

US army operations and exercises in Iraq, South Korea, and across Africa have been suspended. On March 11, the Pentagon withdrew its participation in what would have been the largest joint US-Europe war games in 25 years. The exercise has now been cut by more than half. At its hundreds of military bases across the country and around the world, US forces are prevented from traveling. The US army’s recruitment of new troops is being hampered. Now, it’s “basically, virtual recruiting”, said General James McConville, the US Army chief of staff.

Nevertheless, the Empire’s operations are not fully halted. According to a report from March 22, the Trump administration seeks to ramp up construction of its multi-billion-dollar border wall, even while the US faces widespread shortages in testing kits and essential protective equipment like masks, gowns and gloves. Medical experts have also warned of insufficient ventilators and hospital beds to cope with the inevitable surge in sick patients.

Another central question has to do with people in prisons, detention centers and refugee camps. The US harbors the largest prison-population in the world. There are millions of refugees and internally displaced people in Syria, Turkey, Greece, Jordan, and Bangladesh. What access do these millions have to basic hygienic facilities, to wash their hands with soap and clean water? Concerns have already been raised over the situation of millions of Syrian refugees in light of the pandemic. Gaza, the world’s biggest open-air prison, is already in danger as the first coronavirus case was registered there.

This, in brief, is the appearance of today’s coronavirus pandemic-hit world dominated by imperialist order. Nevertheless, this isn’t the entire reality. There’s another reality: Not all is bad news.

Wuhan, the Chinese city with the first devastating experience of the virus, went a fourth consecutive day on Sunday without reporting any new or suspected cases of the virus.

According to the WHO, a vast majority of people recover from the virus. People with mild illness recover in about two weeks while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. Countries including China and Cuba have already begun administering drugs to fight the virus creating havoc.

Dozens of teams of scientists in countries are working round-the-clock to devise necessary drugs. It’s a war being waged by science against the pandemic while politicians have wasted a lot of valuable time and resources to get prepared to fight the pandemic.

A few of the newly innovated drugs including one in the US have already been administered to test side effects. The US Federal Drug Administration has already given approval to test a drug, which if successful can be administered at the point of care, and can bring results within a very short amount of time.

The recombinant human Interferon Alpha 2B, marketed as Heberon® Alfa R, a drug developed in Cuba has been in high demand from countries across the world to combat coronavirus.

China has already sent tons of medical equipment and medical teams to countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. The president of Serbia, one of the countries that has been aided by China stated “European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper.”

The Serb President sought medical equipment from the EU to fight the virus in his country with a population of 7.5 million, but he was denied. Italy had the same experience: Refusal by the EU countries to share their medical equipment.

At the same time, Cuba, the small island in the Caribbean that has faced the longest-ever economic blockade in human history imposed by the strongest-ever power on the earth, sent medical teams – “Armies of White Robes” – to several countries to combat coronavirus, including Italy. Cuba has also sent more than a hundred doctors and nurses to Grenada, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Suriname and Venezuela.

Leonardo Fernandez, a 68 year-old Cuban doctor and a member of the medical mission to Italy told Reuters before departing for Italy: “We are all afraid but we have a revolutionary duty to fulfill, so we take out fear and put it to one side. He who says he is not afraid is a superhero, but we are not superheroes, we are revolutionary doctors.” According to the report, the Italy mission is his eighth medical mission abroad. He also went to Liberia in the fight against Ebola. Another member, 64 year-old Graciliano Diaz, said: “We are going to fulfill an honorable task, based on the principle of solidarity.”

Britain has already thanked Cuba last week for allowing a British cruise ship that had been turned away by several Caribbean ports to dock on the island, and for enabling the evacuation of the more than 600 passengers onboard.

Within Cuba, thousands of doctors and medical students are going door-to-door monitoring the health of communities.

There’s solidarity, fraternity, revolutionary spirit, therefore. Not all is death, not all is for death.

However, questions remain.

An AFP news report dispatched from the UN headquarters has questioned: With the great powers focused intently on the pandemic, will armed conflicts across the world decrease in severity or intensify? Experts and diplomats at the UN say there is a serious risk of the latter.

Experts and diplomats have pointed out a number of reasons. Their analyses also vary, but the central factor is imperialism. As long as imperialism is there on this earth, war shall not vanish. Epidemic or pandemic cannot keep imperialism from waging war, can’t chain it as war is a permanent feature, a condition for its existence.

The money, time and labor spent behind wars, celebrations, image building is much higher than the money allocated for public healthcare, research on public health, safety, and ecology. The time the powerful spend self-eulogizing takes away the time required for fighting for public health. The problem is capitalism. The pandemic has once again exposed this fact.

It is the people, especially the working people, paying the most, losing jobs, losing opportunity for daily earnings in the sector the mainstream lovingly calls the informal sector. Their earnings are slashed. They don’t know what to do. The hapless workers leaving Delhi days ago in hundreds for their rural homes in Bihar and the eastern UP in India are the living evidence. They, just, have been told by their maaleeks, owners of small enterprises: Leave, the business is closed. What shall happen to the low-earning, lower-middle class families having no opportunity to “earn”? What shall happen to a journalist working with a small newspaper, but now unemployed? A madrasa, Islamic religious school, teacher? How many of them could buy essentials including soaps at the middle of the month? Many of them had to go without salary for months. How much water and how many hand washing soaps do the slum-dwellers of  Dhaka or Chittagong in Bangladesh or slum-dwellers in Manila or Karachi can afford? How can one practice social distancing in a slum? This is merely a fairy tale in a modern, capitalist society that uses billions of dollars to rob resources from a world that the people own.

Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka.

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