Capitalism in the time of COVID-19

Wednesday, July 1, 2020 - 7:35pm

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Illustration by Hibah Mirza

The transition into the new decade was bursting with promise. The world, it seemed, was on the precipice of change. Across the globe, riots were breaking out and cities were overrun by protesters. Anger and frustration were seeping onto the streets. Protests bled across borders and reached beyond the Atlantic. It seemed that people, the vague amorphous unity, were responding to the empty promise, held by both sides of the political spectrum, that free markets would lead to prosperity. In a resounding echo, it was becoming clear that these free market-based initiatives had failed the people. But then news about the coronavirus spreading in Wuhan, China began to creep into news feeds until it too jumped borders and became a full-fledged pandemic. And while the virus has certainly made it difficult to mobilize on the streets against capitalism, it exacerbated the precarious reality that triggered the 2019 protests. As the coronavirus began to sweep the globe, it left in its wake the decaying facade of capitalism. 

Many are hailing the coronavirus as the great social equalizer, perhaps in an attempt to find something positive in the midst of the unprecedented chaos that has ensued. This is an opportune myth circulating across social media platforms in part propagated by tone-deaf celebrity messages and “Imagine” covers. It ignorantly claims that infectious diseases are above class and social differentiation. While on a purely and rather violent biological level it is true that the virus affects all humans the same way, a capitalist world order makes it unmistakably clear that not all humans are the same. There is without a doubt a disparity in public health across class, racial, and gendered barriers leaving certain sectors of the population uniquely vulnerable to the virus. It should not come as a shock that in the United States the pandemic has affected black communities at a disproportionate level. This is strongly linked to the second class citizenship granted to Black people in America. Their ability to access key resources that ensure a good quality of life like clean air and water is significantly hindered. Across the board, communities of color face higher rates of food insecurity. Data on COVID-19 suggests that the racial disparity in deaths is strongly linked to a pre-pandemic reality. Moreover, the African American community has higher rates of underlying conditions like heart and lung disease that have been linked to more severe cases of COVID-19. Furthermore, not only does the Black community in America often have less access to quality health care but they represent greater numbers of “frontline jobs.” These factors make it much more likely that the Black community will get infected as well as putting them in a difficult position to quell the implications of getting sick. This difference is seen across communities. In the United States, indigeneous nations have expressed grave concerns with their ability to control the spread of the virus on their reservations. Moreover, those in prisons and detention centers are confined to small spaces with no way to isolate. Only recently and after a judge’s orders citing the severity of the pandemic, were detained children released from detention centers. The coronavirus is not the great equalizer — instead, it is fracturing the idealized image of a hegemonic economic system. 

The pandemic is unapologetically substantiating what is at the heart of the globalized economic system: profits over lives. And to be more precise, the pandemic is confirming the dark underbelly of capitalism — profit has always been the priority. This economic system depends on the lives of women, immigrants, black people and the working poor but it is willing to let them die. 

The United States is facing the pandemic in a more precarious situation than other first world countries. It’s not so difficult to trace the cause of our current situation. In the years following World War II, the U.S was home to a systematic weakening of the social welfare state. The threat of the Soviet Union, the theories of Milton Friedman, and the election of Ronald Reagan created the perfect landscape for the dwindling of a social fabric funded by the federal government. The federal government has slowly and systematically shown a general tread to dismantling social services that today have left us particularly vulnerable. In addition to a debilitated social infrastructure, the country has experienced an ideological swing that has systematically degraded those responsible for creating social wealth. Teachers, trash collectors, agricultural laborers, factory workers, delivery drivers, mailmen, supermarket employees, child carers, elderly caregivers, nurses and healthcare workers in general have often been dismissed in a society that places a high premium on flashy jobs like startup founders, computer scientists, and investment bankers. And yet, it is the workers whose labor is severely undervalued that are keeping the world afloat. This reality is so evident that these occupations are now referred to as  “essential workers” and “our frontline heros.” As fears of scarcity abound, be it over toilet paper or meat, it becomes painfully clear that we are much more connected than what the brutal economic system would have us believe. 

There is in fact someone behind that gallon of milk you pull off the refrigerated shelves every two weeks. 

Moreover, perhaps ironically, the policies that under “normal” circumstances seemed unattainable are now suddenly proven possible. For the first time in years cities ravaged by pollution are seeing clear skies and animals are returning to their original habitats (Think of the swans in Venice!). Countries with more social democratic tendencies are providing comprehensive stimulus packages along with pre-existing comprehensive medical care. In the US, however, policies that have become popular with Sanders and Co are still being dismissed by the current administration. The Trump Administration’s push for opening the economy confirms one thing: while the rest of the world is adapting to the pressing reality of the virus, the existing American government refuses to change. The response by the Trump administration confirms the brutal exploitative oppression proper to capitalism. The federal government is actively supporting a pro-business mentality instead of prioritizing changes that would help quell the forthcoming economic crisis and new potential biological threats. The stimulus package has been hailed as an effort to support small business owners, yet the reality is that money is being funneled to chain companies.  There are even sources showing that money is going right into the pocket of Trump owned companies. Although, at this point in his term this is unsurprising. The pandemic and the efforts to open the economy unveil just how deadly the economic drive for profit is. The coronavirus is exacerbating the inequality so very ingrained in American society. 

There are certain circles that believe that his pandemic will be what shocks people into consciousness. The silver lining in all the tragedy is that it possibly will have created a reality where Medicare for All becomes widely accepted and other comprehensive initiatives will be popularized. 

However, it seems all the more likely that the pandemic is creating the landscape that allows for controversial and reactionary policies to be enacted, somewhat unnoticed. Take, just as a single example, Trump’s recent call for a ban on all immigration. In a fight against an “invisible enemy” and under the guise to protect the jobs of Americans, Trump has promised to sign an executive order that temporarily suspends all immigration. Although this executive order seems much more symbolic, considering that there is a travel ban already in place and that the Canadian and Mexican border are closed, it suggests that the pandemic will create the perfect breeding ground for nativist policies. In more recent news that follows this anti-immigration trend, Trump has announced the suspension of H1-B visas. The language in his tweets and press releases suggest, in line with right populist rhetoric, a drive to protect national workers and their interests. However, it is likely to be argued in court under an appeal to protect national security and more importantly protect the nation’s public health. Further evidence of a nativist trend is the Secretary of Education’s barring of undocumented college students from emergency aid. It is still early to know what other initiatives will be instituted under the umbrella of national protection with an impetus to open the economy, but these examples serve to show the beginnings of an alarming trend. 

The impact of the virus depends very much on the existing cracks and vulnerability of the current system. Before the spread of COVID-19, there seemed to be a crescendo of murmurs. The need for mobilization was palpable. We will never know if what was building before the pandemic would have resulted in radical change, but what is clear is that the pandemic will put pressure on the wounds of the world. There is hope that the severity of the situation will be the trigger for change and lead to cultural shifts. Maybe the recent Black Lives Matter protests are the beginning of this shift. 

But a pendulum swings left and right. On the other end is something more nefarious. It could create the crisis needed to confirm right reactionary power. Social activist and political analyst Naomi Klein used the term disaster capitalism to describe this: in the face of world wide crisis “private industries spring up and directly profit from the chaos”, wherein the government in turn prevents progressive policies from implementation. Instead of having a Green New Deal, modeled after the New Deal that came underway after the Great depression, we could witness the tightening of borders, a growing wealth divide, an increase in xenophobia, and a general state of emergency that allows for extreme reactionary politics. 

What lies at stake is the opportunity for the rebirth of society: perhaps the opportunity for a new social order that does not play with the polarizing characteristics of democracy, and instead  moves away from the ravages of capitalism.