April 05, 2020

The Politics of Pandemics

EVERY global pandemic must be seen in its political, social and economic context. The Covid-19 pandemic is occurring at a time when neoliberal capitalism has ravaged all the basic services which are vital for the well-being of people. Privatisation has denuded or dismantled the public health system in many countries; the State has abandoned the responsibility of providing for the basic needs of the people – food, housing, education and public transport. In any crisis faced by society, whether it be economic or social, the priority of State policy has been to safeguard the interests of finance capital – the corporates, banks and billionaires – and not that of the working people.

The coronavirus pandemic has seen a range of policy responses from the governments and ruling classes of countries which lay bare the contradictions in an exhausted neoliberal system and the instinctive reaction of capitalism to place profits before people.

US imperialism continues to behave in the same way as before – using intimidation and coercion against countries who do not accept its diktats. It has refused to withdraw sanctions against Iran at a time when the country is seriously affected by the virus and a health crisis has developed. Iran finds it difficult to access drugs and medical equipment due to the illegal sanctions on companies of third countries having commercial relations with Iran and the prohibition of trade and transport links. In the case of Venezuela, apart from sanctions which have a dire effect on the economy, the Trump administration has indicted President Maduro and his colleagues in government, on charges of narco-terrorism right in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. A reward of 15 million dollars has been set for information leading to the arrest of Maduro – an open invitation to assassinate the head of a sovereign State. Not only that, the United States and its Western allies were instrumental in the IMF rejecting Venezuela’s request for emergency funding to tackle the coronavirus crisis.

President Trump himself has led the campaign to blame China for the coronavirus epidemic. He called it a “Chinese virus” and accused China of not informing about the threat of the virus in time. He cynically sought to use the pandemic to isolate China and strengthen his bargaining position in his economic and trade battles with China. It is another matter that after deriding China for well over a month and a half, facing a Covid disaster at home, the Trump administration has allowed supplies of medical equipment from China to be imported. The first flight with masks, gowns and test kits landed in New York on March 29 and 21 more flights are scheduled to various cities.

While Trump cannot bully China on the Covid pandemic, the brazen disregard of the Trump administration to the well being of people outside America can be seen in its efforts to stop countries accepting Cuban medical missions to fight the virus. The US is warning these countries in the Caribbean and Latin America that the Cuban missions will harm their countries’ interests.

For American imperialism, hegemony is paramount, not the people’s health and well-being. As in 2008, during the global financial crisis, the priority for the US ruling circles and of the advanced capitalist countries is to bailout corporates, banks and financial-investment companies. The class priorities are explicit and the working people, especially precarious workers are at the bottom. For instance, the 2 trillion dollars package hands out billions of dollars to corporates in the US with fewer strings attached than in 2008.  The cash transfer of 1200 dollars per person is a paltry amount for those who are losing jobs and have no social security. This transfer does not prevent the massive lay-offs that are already on. A record 3.3 million people claimed unemployment benefits last week.

It is only in the Scandinavian countries and a few others in Europe where social-democratic traditions exist, even though much eroded, that workers are being protected from lay-offs and much of their wages underwritten by State grants. In Denmark for instance 75 per cent of salaries would be paid by the State and 25 per cent by the companies. The Conservative government in UK has also been an exception, it is giving grants to cover 80 per cent of salaries of employees of companies, though precarious workers have not got anything worthwhile.

Most of the rightwing governments’ first response was to ensure that the economy and economic activities do not suffer. That is they quickly embraced the idea of “herd immunity” which simply put meant that instead of stringent measures to prevent the spread of infection, allow people to get infected and when a substantial number, say 80 per cent of the population get infected, they would recover and develop immunity. Thus society would get immunity from the virus. This approach would not require lockdowns, large-scale isolation or social distancing enabling normal activities to go on.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of UK, the rightwing prime minister of Netherlands, the Italian leadership and President Trump too in his own way held on to this idea. But they were forced to give it up when the rise of infections began to engulf their countries. Trump till last week was insisting that running the economy must take precedence to fighting the virus. It is only after the US raced ahead as the country with the highest number of infections in the world, far surpassing the Chinese figures, that Trump finally acknowledged that saving lives is the priority and the economy comes after that. But putting profits before people has led to an American disaster unfolding before the eyes of the world.

There is another Trump acolyte holding out, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. He continues to deny the seriousness of the virus threat. He continues to exhort people to work and engage in economic activities. At his call, demonstrations were held around the country against the Supreme Court and the Congress with whom he has been engaged in running battles. Public anger at his callous stand is mounting with people banging pots and pans in their houses in protest everyday.

Modi, who had invited the demented Bolsonaro as the chief guest on Republic Day this year, obviously does not share his bizarre views on the coronavirus. But there is something common between the two – authoritarianism. To call for a total lockdown of 1.3 billion people and a shutdown of their daily activities with three and a half hours notice can only stem from an authoritarian mind-set. Moreover, it displays a callous class outlook: it was a declaration of war on the working class.  The term “migrant labor” is partly misleading. Most of them are workers engaged in production, construction, distribution and services. There is no protection for their jobs, no unemployment benefits, no food security or even shelter for their families. All that Modi offered in his speeches were pious homilies asking employers not to dismiss workers or cut their salaries.  When the workers and their families voted with their feet, the crackdown began: they are being herded into makeshift shelters, or quarantined in deplorable conditions, or the more recalcitrant are being sent to temporary jails.

The reality is that after three decades of neoliberal policies, we have an enfeebled skeleton of a public health system (with exceptions like Kerala), no universal public distribution system and a State which refuses to do public provisioning for basic services.  In the post-pandemic period the work is cut out for us. There have to be alternative policies to the toxic mix of neoliberalism and Hindutva. The Left has to take the lead to fight for this alternative path.

(April 1, 2020)