A Better World is Possible: Pandemic Management Under Capitalism and Communism

by Karyn Pomerantz, 4-3-2020

This contrasts the ways capitalist countries (primarily the US) mismanage epidemics and the changes communism would make. Part 1 discussed the prevention of epidemics.

Part 2 – Pandemic Management Under Capitalism = Social Murder

As described in Part 1, capitalists operate to make profit off the backs of workers. Whether they pay low or high wages, they ultimately exploit their employees by paying them less than the value they produce. Corporate boards cut benefits, increase productivity, establish factories in low wage, non-union countries, and avoid taxes to increase their wealth. This leaves low wage and unemployed workers destitute and vulnerable to disease.

Furthermore, in the interests of short term gains, they don’t plan for future needs or stockpile emergency equipment. While no country would ever have sufficient beds lying around in case of a pandemic, capitalists don’t invest sufficiently in prevention, health care, or medical research that would decrease the death rate of contagious diseases. Over the last decade, the US Congress has stripped funds from the CDC that cut over 700 employees and from public health budgets, leaving state and local health departments unable to conduct contact tracing, deploy enough outreach workers to educate the public, or pay for protective body wear.

In the richest country, we have regular people sewing gowns and printing 3D masks for healthcare workers. We have nurses, Instacart shoppers, and Amazon warehouse workers striking for protective gear and hazard pay. In Taiwan, factories produced millions of masks per day; the US has already depleted its stockpile and recommends that people make their own. The US had actually contracted with a company that could make inexpensive ventilators, but when the medical device industry objected, the government cancelled the contract.  Currently, major hospitals will run out of ventilators this month (April 2020). This neglect amounts to social  murder.

Here are some of the ways US capitalism sets up people for the kill.

No national coordination or consistency in messages. Instead we have “DIY” (Do It Yourself) disaster control. Trump delegates control of the pandemic to governors, mayors, and local health officials who have different policies that vary by state and locality. He promises supplies but doesn’t deliver, creating more anxiety. The line of the Administration changes daily confusing the public about what safeguards to adopt.

Trust/Mistrust.  Disease control depends on people trusting governments and public health agencies. The US has a long history of racist and sexist research and care that has diminished trust in government interventions and information. Today, Trump lies constantly about Covid19. Prior administrations also behaved unethically. They stacked CDC environmental advisory committees with industry representatives, conducted unethical research on sexually transmitted infections in Guatemala where they deliberately infected people to test a treatment, and blocked life saving interventions, such as needle exchange, to stem HIV. Vice President Pence, the Trump’s Administration’s leader on the Coronavirus Taskforce, refused to support a needle exchange program until the epidemic exploded in Indiana where Pence was governor. At the same time, Pence signed a bill criminalizing possession of needles. There is no reason to trust these politicians from either party.

Racism. Racism creates even more deadly inequities during epidemics and natural disasters, like Hurricanes Katrina in New Orleans, Sandy in New York City and New Jersey, and Maria in Puerto Rico where the US government abandoned predominantly poor black and Latin people, reinforcing patterns of neglect and oppression. Politicians have intentionally institutionalized discrimination against black and Latin people by closing public hospitals, reducing the quality of healthcare, red-lining housing, limiting educational resources, denying employment, and increasing incarceration. Industries disproportionately dump environmental toxins in black neighborhoods, such as storing diesel buses in Harlem or carcinogens in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley area (conditions that have inspired victorious campaigns in some communities). 

Immigration policies inflate the risk of infection to 100s of 1000s of immigrants and migrants throughout the world. In the US, immigrants fear capture by ICE and therefore avoid medical visits. As of early April, ICE imprisons 38,000 children and adults in unsafe, unhygienic camps, and refuses entry to asylum seekers, creating closely packed tent cities in Mexican border towns. 

Racist scapegoating of Asian people and Asian countries for causing the virus encourages attacks on Asian and “Asian looking” people, such as a man spraying Febreeze on someone he thought was from China. Over 650 incidents of anti-Asian assaults were recorded by the end of March 2020.

Information quality. Faulty information, such as ridiculous cures for Covid-19, flows through many news sources, beginning with Trump’s press conferences and spreading through social media outlets. Combined with the public’s low levels of science and health literacy, this leads to unhealthy decisions and confusion. Although the FDA orders companies to stop such claims, there is little enforcement.

In a system where money buys health and everything else, access to testing and care for Covid-19 and other conditions varies by income, employment, and racial categories. Sports and entertainment celebrities obtain tests while working class people get far fewer. On March 18, a 17 year old teen in Los Angeles died after a clinic turned him away because he had no insurance. Even with insurance and Medicare, high co-pays (an average of $1300) and deductibles discourage people from seeking medical help. Survivors will suffer long term disability from heart and lung disease, requiring care many will not be able to afford.

Safety nets. No safety net exists for people who are financially unable to adopt safety measures, such as working at home, quarantining, ordering food, and social distancing. Forty percent (40%) of US residents have $400 or less saved for emergencies, worsening their precarious situations. At the end of March, six million people applied for unemployment benefits. A subsidy of $1200 and more generous unemployment for four months will not cover the expenses of rent, food, utilities, and health care. (Other European governments are giving  money to unemployed workers and eliminating rent). We see the same class inequities where high income earners stay comfortable while others suffer enormous levels of unemployment, unstable housing, hunger, and despair. The pandemic jeopardizes the next generation of kids who lack the digital equipment necessary to socialize with friends, play, and learn online.  

Too little and too late interventions fail to mitigate the effects of inadequate housing, health care, and living wage jobs. Developers make a fortune creating luxury homes, pushing more people into unstable or no housing. Now that mayors recognize the risk of people living in shelters or on the street to the general public, they are scrambling to provide alternate homes. They should use vacant hotels and houses, and require developers to include large numbers of affordable housing units in their building plans or place a moratorium on luxury homes. To the elites, poor and unhoused people, prisoners, and migrants are merely vectors of disease.

Pandemic Management Under Communism: What We Can Fight For

The response of many regular people around the world has been inspiring, giving us reason to hope we can create a better world. Health care, transportation, grocery, and delivery workers are risking their lives to provide services and income for their families. People have spontaneously organized to provide aid and support to neighbors and people they never knew. They have demonstrated tremendous creativity in many ways: producing protective gear, starring in funny videos, using technology when available to stay connected, writing resource lists, convening support groups, and pressing for policies to release prisoners, house people, protect workers, and save jobs. This should build more confidence that the working class can truly run society, especially when there is better coordination and planning. Rebecca Solnit provides many stories about grass roots people managing post disaster relief efforts when governments abdicated their responsibility (A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, 2013). 

A communist society is based on these practices of mutual aid and sharing. Here are some of the aspects of a communist response to epidemics.

Social needs and planning. Communism does not allow profit to guide the production of goods and services. In contrast, communists base production on the needs of society to achieve and maintain a more sustainable environment, mass transportation, healthier agriculture and food production, and healthier people. A public health model that begins with ongoing monitoring of environmental hazards, occupational injuries, and infectious diseases provides data for decisions. With concrete data, planning bodies at the local and international levels can order the production of health equipment, construction of hospitals, cooperation with mitigation policies, development of drugs, and recommendations for behavior change, such as eating a plant based diet or vaccinating kids.

Equity. Communists (and many others) believe in equity, levelling the playing field so everyone has the same conditions to promote good health. That will likely mean that highly resourced people would have less in order for people without healthy resources (sanitation, electricity, housing) to have more to make up for centuries of exploitation. Communists would plan to share abundance and scarcity among areas of the world. Even now, Cuba, Solidarity Bridge, and Doctors Without Borders send doctors to countries devastated by Ebola, Covid-19, Chagas disease, or war. Chinese communists trained and organized lay people to serve as “barefoot doctors” deployed to the countryside to provide basic health care. (This model developed into the physician assistant profession). Cuba located its primary care clinics in neighborhoods to serve families; the health center staff also lived in the same areas, ensuring that no one was “hard to reach.”  The government can train and mobilize the general population to conduct door to door contact tracing, wellness checks, health education, and deliveries of food and medication  

Incentives.  Leaders would not receive any benefits that workers don’t have. They would be chosen based on their commitment to serve. Under capitalism, union leaders make as much money as many businessmen make, and politicians use their positions to make financially favorable business deals. These parasites erode any trust people have in their political leaders and parties. Without trust, people will not seriously take orders to shelter in place and practice physical distancing during epidemics. On the other hand, some may place too much trust in leaders, like Trump, who disseminate harmful information and implement dangerous policies. 

To reduce racism, anti-LGBT stigma, and scapegoating, health and political leaders would target the disease and not the people who have it. They would reject policies to criminalize those who carry it as several US states did during the HIV epidemic and as several countries in Africa do to gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and any non-heterosexual people.

As paraphrased from a friend: “We are 100% sure that capitalism sucks. Why not fight for a system that has a better chance of serving our needs and promoting equity?” 

No future is guaranteed, but it is high time that we stopped tweaking capitalism, replacing it with a system run by the vast majority of people. Capitalism developed over hundreds of years, changing as it responded to new environments. We can study the successes and failures of the Soviet Union and China, and correct their mistakes while making new ones. Otherwise, climate change, disease, and racism will wipe us out.

3 thoughts on “A Better World is Possible: Pandemic Management Under Capitalism and Communism”

  1. Along with the first in this MRUB series, this piece is wonderful: informative, politically sharp, and *very* useful for discussion with friends and colleagues trying to understand the bedrock causes–and necessary solutions–to the current crisis.


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