This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.
A newly spreading virus is a danger that can befall any society. The question facing the world today, however, is what kind of society can best meet such a challenge. As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, capitalism is being exposed for its inability to do so.
Decaying British capitalism, personified in the inept leadership of Boris Johnson, is making an unwanted bid for global pre-eminence in incompetence in the face of this crisis.
Most seriously affected countries have adopted the World Health Organisation recommended procedures of widespread testing of individuals and monitoring of social contacts of those with suspected exposure. Even then, as Italy has shown, health services can quickly become overwhelmed and the death toll mounts rapidly.
In Britain, things could become far worse even than Italy. Those feeling unwell are simply being advised to ‘self-isolate’ with testing only being carried out on those being hospitalised with serious symptoms. That leaves both individuals and public services without any clear idea of the real levels or geographical focus of Covid-19 infection.
Of course, widespread testing requires resources, but successive UK governments have run down the NHS over decades. Together, Public Health England and NHS laboratories have the capacity to carry out only 4,000 tests daily. That’s totally inadequate given the scale of the crisis.
Hospitals and NHS staff are also criminally ill-equipped to treat infected patients. Doctors have complained of shortages of even the most basic necessities such as face visors and goggles to provide personal protection to medical staff.
Instead of expecting the NHS to make do with such scant resources, a minimum requirement should be to inject emergency expenditure alongside an expansion of laboratories to carry out wider testing.
But when the Tories announced that they were going to find what funding was needed to deal with the crisis, they weren’t thinking of the plight of ordinary workers. No, they are looking to bail out big firms like Virgin who are suddenly facing a profit squeeze, not help workers being told they must take unpaid leave.
Neither do they want to spend any more than they are forced to on schools, hospitals and social care provision, despite the growing demands from communities hit by Covid-19.
Even where capitalist governments accept that they have little choice but to inject extra funding into health services, they still have to rely on the capitalist market to provide the goods.
However, pharmaceutical firms, private laboratories and equipment manufacturers aren’t going to offer their services cheaply. Instead, they will look on the emergency demand as an opportunity to push up prices and profits.
The NHS in England only has around 4,000 critical care beds. More beds, together with other vitally needed capacity, remain available in private hospitals. Yes, private providers have been happy to go into negotiations with the government about how they can assist at this time of need – but, of course, only if the price is right.
Capitalism’s inability to solve this crisis isn’t just limited by private ownership for profit. Competition between different nation-states also provides another critical barrier. Both issues are blocking the necessary urgency towards developing a vaccine that could provide a long-term solution to the global pandemic.
Research and development will once again be hampered by the competing selfish interests of different global pharmaceutical firms.
Cuban biotech industries have, however, been able to produce antiviral medicines that are already being trialled by Chinese doctors to judge their effect on patients infected by Covid-19. With all its limitations, the success in this field of Cuba’s small and distorted but still state-directed economy sharply exposes the failure of global capitalist corporations to put needs before profits.
Need not profit
The obscenity of capitalist production for profit, instead of need, is being mostly sharply exposed in the urgent need to massively expand the provision of ventilators. The death toll of the elderly in Italy has shown that these are vital to treat coronavirus patients.
The NHS only has access to about 5,000 of them. This is far less than is going to be needed very soon to meet the needs of both existing patients with other illnesses, and the impending explosion of new Covid-19 cases.
Tory health secretary Matt Hancock has been reduced to pleading with industry to help by converting their production lines to the manufacture of ventilators. Rolls-Royce, JCB, Ford and Honda are reportedly just some of the firms in negotiations with the UK government.
Technique and engineering capabilities do not provide a barrier to producing the equipment needed. Private capitalist ownership does. Engineers have apparently been asked to draw up plans to produce ventilators, but the specialised firms that own the designs will need to be persuaded to give up their “intellectual property rights”.
Instead of people’s needs having to wait while profiteers strike their hard bargains, a socialist plan of production could quickly get the job done. It just requires matching the skills of engineers, working in conjunction with health professionals, with the resources of central government.
Yes, the private owners would object. But society should be run in the interests of the majority, not the few, especially at such a time of crisis. Instead of pleading with big business, the relevant firms should be nationalised to allow a unified plan of production.
Nationalisation should be with compensation only on the basis of proven need, for example, to protect workers’ pension funds. Neither should initiative and creativity continue to be limited by maintaining top-down management methods. Nationalised firms should be run under the democratic control of workers in those industries, together with representatives of those in the wider workforce, health unions and patient groups.
Democratic workers’ control and management would give a concrete form to the organisation that working-class communities will be building to support each other in this time of crisis. That will encompass battling to defend incomes and safe living and working conditions, helping to support the elderly and vulnerable, or even, as in Italy, singing from balcony to balcony to keep up community spirits!
Instead of being hampered by the selfish interests of a capitalist elite, workers would have the opportunity to control the industry in the interests of the majority.
These firms should cooperate internationally with other similarly nationalised concerns to share research and development, and mutually plan the production and supply of vaccines, medicine and equipment. They could also offer assistance to nations without a well-developed economy and health service where, without such international solidarity, the impact of Covid-19 will be severe.
Such an emergency plan of production offers the best chance of resolving the coronavirus pandemic without it having too severe a global impact. But it would also offer a glimpse of how a global socialist plan of production could start to resolve all the other urgent threats to humanity, not least poverty and climate change.
Of course, capitalism would not allow such a world to be created without resisting socialist change. It will still try and use the distortion of Stalinism in the past in Russia and Eastern Europe to confuse workers with the spectre of supposedly socialist ‘dictatorship’.
But it will become ever clearer that it is working people that are needed to keep society afloat – cleaners, delivery drivers, metalworkers, doctors and all the rest of us. However, we can do without the capitalist who just puts the barrier of profit in the way of what needs to be done.
The bitter experience of the greed and incapacity of capitalist leaders to deal with this crisis over the months ahead, and the more general economic crisis that will unfold alongside it, will have a lasting impact on workers’ consciousness. Capitalism’s failings will be brought home in stark fashion. The need to build a socialist future will become ever more apparent.