Thursday, March 19, 2020

So much is changing so fast

Pandemics are nothing new in history, and their long record across the ages and continents has much to teach us about how best to handle the current outbreak. COVID-19 is sweeping the globe and health systems are struggling to cope and to contain it. Healthcare systems have been completely overburdened by the virus. In addition, the pressure of the coronavirus causes on health systems also leads to increased deaths from other illnesses not related to coronavirus. Other illnesses do not take a break during viral pandemics such as this. COVID-19 is teaching us how precarious and precious life is.

Those in power want us to think that they rulers act out of the goodness of their hearts as benevolent actors, but what is usually going on in reality, on the occasions  support the common welfare, yet usually they are trying to mitigate damage to their vested interests. Much of the government’s actions is to shore up a free-falling stock market because the wealthy understand  that their continued existence is dependent on the rest of society being healthy. Bailouts are to preserve their capitalist system. In politics we are seeing a kind of bipartisanship. Not because the people in power have changed, but because they recognise the ramifications of the situation, and they want to keep their power. 

Much of the media has verged on the apocalyptic. News of the worse scenarios makes for good headlines. But socialists are optimists. We all are now painfully aware, the only effective means of slowing and eventually halting the spread of the COVID-19 is through “social distancing.” That means limiting your contact with other people, avoiding large gatherings, social functions and the like. We see the possibility that the pandemic can be lived through with empathy, altruism and cooperation. A spirit of reciprocal support and mutual solidarity is spreading. Goodwill, generosity and fellowship is being expressed as much as fear of the unknown. Socialists pay tribute to ordinary people’s small acts of kindness during the outbreak.

Capitalism and its inherent competition taught us to view ourselves as islands whether as individuals, communities, nations,. In truth, we were always bound together, part of a network. Now, as enter periods of quarantine and self-isolation – as nations, communities and individuals – it becomes all so much clearer.  When disease and death haunts us it is not bankers  or CEOs or hedge fund managers we turn to. They are not the people we need. It is our family, it is our friends, it is our neighbours, it is our fellow-workers. They are the people we rely upon. It is the doctors, nurses, public health workers, care-givers and social workers who strive to save lives by risking their own that we require, not the financiers. During this coronavirus crisis we must understand who and what is most important. Yet when it eventually subsides and fade away will we return to business as usual – until the next crisis – and resume rewarding the arms manufacturers profiting from other peoples blood, the billionaire business owners feeding off their employees’ toil , and the financial  parasites leeching off other people’s sweat?

Socialists cannot but note that much of the action taken by the governments is on a scale usually reserved for wartime mobilisation. Over the course of the 20th century, smallpox is estimated to be responsible for 300 million deaths. Yet from 1966 to 1977, the World Health Organization initiated an international vaccination campaign that successfully eradicated the disease, representing one of the most substantial successes in global public health of the 20th century. The eradication program worked due to the improvised and unorthodox way in which WHO teams worked around extraordinary physical, technical, and bureaucratic obstacles. Global cooperation today to contain coronavirus will require efforts on a similar scale. Like with climate change, world-historical threats call for world levels of cooperation. People will have to work together to stop the virus’s spread.

However, many see that the Coronavirus pandemic will provide another opportunity to impose more of the right-wing agenda on a citizens scared and confused by this mysterious and dangerous disease. We witness that Wall Street’s risks are borne by society as a whole while their profits remain all for themselves. We have now learned that capitalism is far from the most efficient ways of organising ourselves as a society. That has been starkly exposed by the coronavirus crisis. Apologists for capitalism tell us that the virus was too contagious to contain, too virulent for health services to cope, too lethal to save lives. They will dodge the blame for the decades of austerity and health cuts that made our medical services inefficient, inadequate and inflexible. For sure they will take the credit reforming regulations so that workers will not spread the virus because they cannot afford to self-quarantine or take days’ off sick. But they will refuse to conclusions from the really big lesson – about how sane, rationally planned humane society should operate. 

 Those with vested interests in the current capitalist system will defend it to the bitter end. They will learn nothing from the virus. They will tell us how lucky we are to live in free societies where Amazon home delivery services, pharmaceutical corporations can still make a healthy return from our panic and fear. They will tell us the system works better than anything else imaginable. Capitalism is an efficient system for a tiny elite to make money at a terrible price.

But socialists have learned another lesson. This pandemic is all about seeking to build societies that shares in the common wealth, that values the common good, above private profit, above protecting the privileged. There no doubt will be future epidemic in socialism but survival rates will depend not on the  vagaries of the market but upon our rallying to help those in need, on planning for the best outcome for the common good. COVID-19 can teach us much. Will we learn?


Unknown said...

Will they fuck.

ajohnstone said...

Our capacity to adapt and absorb new ideas that arise in the world is part of the basic concept of the Marxist material conception of history. Cynicism and negativism about our ability to change our ways of thinking and behaving strikes me as a very nihilistic attitude. I constantly see ways people respond in crises that gives me confidence.