A Better World Needs to be Born -Preventing and Controlling Pandemics, Part 1

by Karyn Pomerantz, 3-29-2020

Part 1 contrasts epidemic prevention under capitalism and communism

Part 2 will contrast management and control of epidemics (coming soon)

By Karyn Pomerantz, March 28, 2020

Like Hurricane Katrina, the coronavirus pandemic has stripped bare all the extreme inequities of capitalism. With millions at risk, it is the working class around the world, especially its poorest, black, and brown members, who suffer the most. As higher income people stay at home, low wage workers hold down jobs that endanger their health.  Added to this are lifetimes without quality health care, education, food, and housing, and often the stress of racism and marginalization. 

On March 27th, Black Agenda Report nailed it when it wrote: 

“The United States is a global vector of suffering and death, through the policies of its corporate party tag-team. When deadly diseases are set in motion, the crime becomes mass murder-suicide.”

US imperialists, be they Republicans or Democrats, spread death and destruction through wars and exploitation of labor. Such practices fuel epidemics and obstruct their control. The US ruling class ignored warnings of a likely pandemic made by many sources, including the journal Nature in 1997, Bill Gates in 2015, and in 2016 when the Trump Administration was briefed on the threat of a flu like epidemic that would likely need more equipment than existed. No or unaffordable health insurance along with decreases in hospital beds (NY eliminated 20,000 beds since 2000) eviscerated health care, especially in rural areas where over 170 rural hospitals closed since 2005, and 430 currently risk shut down (NBC News, 9/19), causing close to a 6% increase in mortality. 

We don’t need to accept this.  A system that promotes egalitarian ideas and policies could help prevent or manage pandemics. 

This article contrasts prevention and management of epidemics under capitalist and egalitarian societies. Part 1 discusses how capitalism fails to prevent epidemics contrasted with ways an egalitarian, worker run society could change this.

What is Capitalism?

Capitalism is a system designed to generate profit for owners of large corporations and financiers who control the government (the ruling class). This group employs workers to produce services and goods, paying as little as possible to maximize profits, speeding up work, denying benefits, ignoring safety practices, and outsourcing work to avoid paying higher wages and benefits. It primarily uses racism as well as other forms of exploitation to divide workers and generate greater wealth. 

Capitalism PROMOTES Epidemics – Not Prevention

The biological cause of covid19 is a highly transmissible virulent organism, leading public health scientists to call for strict physical distancing and good sanitation. Above and beyond these factors are the social, economic, and political problems that weaken our ability to prevent, resist, and manage the coronavirus pandemic.

These are some of the conditions that promote disease and epidemics:

US capitalism promotes the illusion of individual responsibility where people’s behaviors, like eating, are said to determine their health and well being regardless of their living conditions. It takes no social or political responsibility for the conditions that cause poor health, like tobacco promotion and inaccessibility of healthy food. Trump’s orders to governors and mayors to find their own ventilators and masks epitomizes this lack of social responsibility.

Racism maintains capitalism by generating super profits from the underpaid work of primarily black and Latin people who make approximately 65% and 35% of the wages of white men in the US, respectively, while white women made 77% in 2017 (Economic Policy Institute, epi.org). Globally,companies wrench even more profit from workers of color around the world by outsourcing jobs to countries with lax or no labor protections. 

Racism turns workers against one another by scapegoating immigrants for job losses, black people for laziness, and now Asian people for the coronavirus. As of March 28, over 650 episodes of racist anti-Asian incidents have been reported, recalling the violent attacks on Chinese workers in the 19th Century, the internment of Japanese-American residents during WWII, and the 1982 murder of Vincent Chen who was beaten by two Chrysler workers who blamed Japanese people for unemployment in the auto industry.

Sexism, the oppression of women, allows extra profiteering by keeping women’s wages lower than white men. Today, women overall earn about 80 cents an hour for every $1 white men make. Combined with racism, Latinas make 35 cents an hour compared to the men! Social norms expect women to perform household responsibilities, rear children, and conform to concepts of femininity, such as fulfilling ridiculous beauty standards and suppressing anger. Businesses from the auto industry to sports objectify women’s sexuality to sell their products. 

Fascist immigration policies endanger thousands left without food, shelter, flu vaccines, and medical care at the US-Mexico border and scores of other migrant camps around the world. Fear of detention causes immigrants to avoid medical care, and policies that deny them food stamps and Medicaid jeopardize their health. As we learn during epidemics, the health of the most vulnerable people contributes to the health of everyone.

There is no coordinated system of healthcare in the US. Production of medical supplies, like ventilators or masks, is on an “as needed,” just-in-time basis leaving hospitals ill prepared for emergencies, such as the absence of protective gear. States and local governments have been closing hospitals, reducing services for mental health and drug use, and restricting reproductive health care for decades creating a disaster when epidemics occur in spite of warnings years before they do. NY Governor Cuomo has overseen the loss of 20,000 hospital beds and the closure of many hospitals, as he proposes CUTS to Medicaid, leaving NYC unprepared to care for covid19 patients, even as he is the loudest voice demanding beds and supplies in this crisis.

As with other goods, the potential for profit drives the provision of medical services and equipment, the construction of medical facilities, and the supply of vaccines and medications. Furthermore, the racist distribution of health care facilities, personnel, and quality of care creates wider health inequalities as exemplified by the closing of DC’s Providence Hospital and the United Medical Center’s OB-GYN service as the deaths of black pregnant and postpartum women soar amid the deterioration of other medical services. Instead of improving the UMC, the city plans to replace it with a private, for-profit, union busting George Washington University Hospital. In an area with high rates of violence, residents of Wards 7 and 8 across the Anacostia River have no trauma centers, requiring long and expensive trips to the five hospitals in Northwest and Northeast DC.

Dangerous, unhealthy conditions make people more vulnerable to diseases.  Poor black, Latin, and native people are more likely to live in environmentally toxic areas, such as ‘cancer alley’ in Louisiana, in shoddy housing that exacerbates lung diseases, and in neighborhoods with poor schools and violence. LGBT people suffer shaming, violence, and stigma for their sexuality and gender choices, often causing them to avoid medical care. These and other factors create stresses that diminish people’s immune systems needed to fight off infections and other diseases.

Unsafe neighborhoods also discourage physical activity that builds physical hardiness, improves pain control, and enhances mental health.

People incarcerated in jails (many just awaiting trial or bail), prisons, and detention centers suffer inferior or no medical care, bad food, brutality, and overcrowding that enhance the transmission of infections. In DC jail, at least 38 people have covid19; many are rebelling against their conditions, and some states are releasing those with convictions for non-violent crimes. Organizations, such as Critical Resistance, are demanding the release of ill and aging prisoners, and the abolition of cash bail that so many cannot afford.

Food insecurity due to poor access and high cost damages people’s resistance to disease and leads to eating cheaper, harmful foods, like chips and sweet drinks, that worsen diabetes and increase weight.

Unregulated agriculture and food production practices cause disease. Bacteria, like E. Coli, new viruses, and endocrine diseases are associated with animal-human interactions and methods of food production.  Meat and agricultural corporations use crowded pens to increase production, feed animals hormones to ramp up size, market sick animals, and harvest contaminated produce. 

Scientists suspect that the coronavirus jumped from bats to humans through close contact. Climate change, the drive to producing bigger and more profitable meat, and human encroachment on animal territory also contribute. There are inadequate methods of prevention and inspection by the FDA and US Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, many immigrant men and women work in the fields and meatpacking factories where they earn unlivable wages, endure harsh conditions, risky exposures to toxic germs, and high rates of injuries.

Woeful science education leaves people susceptible to quack practices for prevention and treatment of covid19 and other conditions. Facebook posts recommend eating tons of garlic, drinking bleach, and gargling, none of which have any scientific evidence. Librarians, health educators, and scientists try to steer people to more reliable evidence in spite of the Trump administration’s lying about the seriousness of the pandemic and its marginalization of the CDC.

Various administrations have encouraged an anti-science culture that muzzles scientific experts, like climate expert James Hanson at NASA. The Bush administration removed expert lead scientists from a CDC advisory committee and replaced them with representatives of paint companies. Climate deniers and others create doubt about disease treatments, climate change, and environmental hazards while allowing the pharmaceutical industry to lie about drug safety and effectiveness, demonstrated by its selling of an arthritis medication, Celebrex, that caused fatal heart conditions.

Prevention Under an Egalitarian Worker Led Society

A system controlled by workers, communism, who collectively own the world’s resources would plan production of goods and services based on need. Everyone would contribute to the economy according to commitment and need without wages, and would receive basic necessities, such as quality education, housing, health care, and food. Cooperation and sharing would form the basis of social relations. Without profit and competition, society can outlaw racism, the oppression of women, and stigma against people with different abilities, and gender definitions.

Communism promotes healthier living environments that strengthen people’s resistance to infection and other diseases. It eliminates unemployment and poverty that are associated with poor health, mental illness, and addictions, and cause great disparities in health.  

Society would prioritize the prevention of disease and health promotion. 

In its early days, the Soviet Union provided income to all retired and elderly residents.  When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, life expectancy plummeted as it has in the US today. 

After the revolution, the Chinese government mobilized thousands of people to remove snails from waterways to eliminate the source of schistosomiasis (a worm disease that causes death and infertility). It also eliminated syphilis and drug dealing, and sent barefoot doctors to the villages to teach first aid and healthy practices.

There is an equitable distribution of resources so people can share surplus and scarcity. Leaders would not receive more or better services or goods than the public. They would serve based on their commitment to equity rather than their pursuit of wealth and power.

There would be no wages, which stratify workers into “upper” and “lower” classes. Instead there would be the provision of housing, food, etc. based on need, such as family size. There would be no profit and therefore no reason to underpay black, Latin, immigrant, and women workers, and to create an ideology of white supremacy.

The environment would be cleaner due to alternative sources of energy, safer agricultural practices, reduced air pollution, expanded mass transit, elimination of tobacco products, and other science based practices.

Health services would be available to all with the same quality of care. Each neighborhood could have community health centers run by people who live in the neighborhood and know their patients (the Cuban model for primary care).

Planning and surveillance would determine the types and numbers of health workers who needed training to provide medical and public health services.  

The production of medications would be based on need. Profit would not determine the development of vaccines and treatments for large and small groups of people.

Public health surveillance would be greatly expanded to identify diseases, such as food poisoning, and toxic and infectious environmental problems, such as E. Coli in food.

Everyone would have sanitation, such as indoor plumbing (and plenty of toilet paper) and clean water to reduce infections and improve quality of life.

Economic security could be guaranteed due to widespread employment and free necessities regardless of age or work history. 

Science and critical thinking would be included throughout the curriculum and beyond formal education, such as in adult education and media. Libraries would be widely available and would host programs to inform the public about scientific developments and information literacy (how to evaluate the validity of information). 

Collective, supportive lifestyles, such as communal housework and child rearing, would remove the stress on families, especially women, and institutionalize “it takes a village.” Family responsibilities would not fall on women and girls.

Workers would have opportunities to participate in the arts and recreational activities regardless of skills. Exercise and other healthy practices would be woven into the work day.

Sports would be redesigned to minimize injuries. Football and boxing may not meet any safety standards. Without the outrageous salaries in professional sports, athletes may be more interested in adopting new safety rules, such as no headers in soccer and harsher penalties for fighting in hockey and hitting batters in baseball.

Open borders would allow people to live anywhere; migration would be decriminalized.

Restorative justice could replace imprisonment for people who commit civil crimes, such as assaults on others. This approach convenes the offenders and victims along with friends and families in meetings where the victims describe the crime’s effects on them and the offenders accept responsibility for the harms they caused. Overall, there is little incentive to commit crimes.

These features may sound like wishful thinking. While most ordinary people would endorse them, many are rightly appalled by the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and China, and reject any form of a centralized government. They prefer more spontaneous, unstructured rebellion leaving no way to work in concert or evaluate what strategies succeed or fail.

Nonetheless, the coronavirus pandemic as well as climate change have revealed our utter vulnerability to destruction of human life and the physical world.  Let’s hope and ensure that these assaults also spur us on to strengthen our ties with one another across the planet and replace this parasitic system of capitalism.

Coming next: Part 2 Managing Epidemics

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