Pandemic Capitalism: Searching for an alternative to the cruel absurdity of status quo politics
The United States leads the world in COVID-19 morbidity and mortality. It is also among the global frontrunners for organized political idiocy, as President Trump’s deadly incompetence in managing the crisis has left many Americans in despair, their hopes for the future uncertain if not on life support.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported 1,504,830 total cases and 90,340 deaths from COVID-19 as of May 19. While state case reports vary, further waves of disease are likely unless vigilant public health measures, including greatly expanded testing, contact tracing, and quarantining, are in place.
For Trump and his right-wing political allies, Fox News media, and anti-lockdown groups, such concerns are only minor irritants. They want a reopened economy now, damn it! And if that means downplaying or ignoring public health expertise over how to do so safely, then so be it. Indeed, the pandemic has exposed Trump’s callous disregard for the lives of ordinary people. But even more it has exposed the cruel absurdity of competitive rivalries in an interconnected world. It has also exposed the irrationality and waste of class society, with its extremes of wealth and poverty, concentrated elite political power, and social policies driven by capitalist profits rather than human need.
Reopening Risks Downplayed
The estimates vary now on exactly how much testing is required to safely reopen society. But in the past week only 9 of the nation’s 50 states had sufficient testing in place to drive infection rates below the safety benchmark needed for reopening, according to an analysis of metrics used by the Harvard Global Health Institute. In fact, Harvard researchers calculate a minimum of 900,000 daily tests are necessary to safely ease social distancing measures without risking a surge in new infections. This is almost three times current testing of approximately 300,000 to 400,000 daily tests done between May 12 and May 19, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
Accordingly, public health experts, such as Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, are warning moving too fast to reopen runs the risk of undoing progress to contain the virus. Incredibly, Trump and his propaganda ministers at Fox News have declared Dr. Fauci’s concerns “unacceptable.”
Trump argued recently that he also now believes COVID-19 testing is “overrated.” “If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases,” explained the same man who earlier wondered if shining UV light inside the body or ingesting disinfectants might eliminate the virus from humans. Ironically, while now disparaging the value of testing, Trump also boasts about how much testing the United States is doing, more he claims than any other nation.
Actually, as of May 10, 2020, the United States ranked ninth in the proportion of testing relative to population size among nations most impacted by the pandemic. With 52,781 and 50,767 tests per one million population, Spain and Portugal respectively have performed the most COVID-19 tests, a rate about double that of the United States.
To note, shuttering the economy was first necessitated by lack of adequate testing capacity, as public health experts have tried to explain. In fact, epidemiologists estimate 90 percent of the deaths in the United States from COVID-19 could have been prevented if social distancing guidelines had been implemented by March 2, just two weeks earlier than March 16 when they were.
Remember in late February when Trump declared COVID-19 cases would soon be “close to zero?” The latest version of similar right-wing disinformation is the Fox News hosts who now suggest the mounting death toll is “inflated.” Actually, if anything mortality figures are more likely underrepresented in official CDC reports, caution Dr. Fauci and other public health experts.
Medical Experts: Remove the U.S. President
The leadership shown by Trump to manage the pandemic is a case study in many things, but mostly just failure. The United States was spectacularly unprepared for the pandemic threat. The White House was warned in mid-January that immediate action was required to stop the spread of COVID-19. But little was done for almost two months, beyond a China travel ban on February 2 and a ban on most European travel some six weeks later. This despite evidence travel restrictions for a highly contagious virus such as COVID-19 would only have a “modest effect” in delaying spread of the disease, unless combined with strict public health interventions including social distancing practices.
When the pandemic emergency began, medical equipment and testing capacity were also in desperately short supply. Trump claims no one could have foreseen a pandemic of this scope; another lie. In fact, as The Nation reports a 2017 Pentagon assessment anticipated a future scarcity of ventilators, face masks, and hospitals in the event of a novel virus pandemic.
The current leadership crisis in the United States is severe and deepening. Trump is clearly a deluded incompetent, a man whose magical thinking is not exactly leading us into the land of enchantment. Charging the Trump administration with “an inconsistent and incoherent response to the COVID-19 crisis,” treating CDC expertise as not much more than someone else’s two cents, the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet has taken the unprecedented step of calling for the removal of the American president from office.
“The [Trump] Administration is obsessed with magic bullets—vaccines, new medicines, or a hope that the virus will simply disappear,” wrote the journal’s editors in a May 16 editorial. “But only a steadfast reliance on basic public health principles, like test, trace, and isolate, will see the emergency brought to an end, and this requires an effective national public health agency.”
A Crisis Long in the Making
The social crisis we are entering is beyond the time for half-measures. Unfortunately, the $3 trillion HEROES legislation passed recently by the House of Representatives falls short of protecting the livelihoods and needs of American working people, rejecting proposals for paycheck guarantees or recurring stimulus payments to struggling workers.
“This legislation does not keep workers in their jobs and guarantee the certainty of paychecks,” said U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), a leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who voted against the legislation. “More than 36 million people have filed for unemployment in only eight weeks and a full 40% of households earning less than $40,000 lost a job in March alone,” says Jayapal in a statement on her website. “Mass unemployment is a choice and we cannot wait to let the rate of unemployment rise to 40% or 50%, which it will do if we do not act boldly. This is the highest level of unemployment we have seen since the Great Depression and we cannot sit idly by and only offer half measures or let it rise.”
You might logically assume that the wealthiest nation on earth would be the best prepared for an infectious disease pandemic. But this would be a wrong assumption. This also should not come as a surprise. The United States has long established itself as the neoliberal superstar, the modern nation with the most wealth inequality, threadbare social safety net, and thoroughly corporatized political leaders from both major parties.
Obviously, Trump’s rush for a reopened economy is not motivated by concerns for workers’ livelihoods, beyond perhaps some sketchy calculation that an America open for business will translate into electoral popularity come November. Actually, Trump’s encouragement of the anti-lockdown protests is more likely to spike morbidity and mortality rates in the coming months. Then again, Trump is counting on the unwavering loyalty of his base of right wing supporters, a group at apparent peace with their Dear Leader’s endless lies and whose demands for “freedom” come increasingly colored in violent, fascist-tinged sentiments.
Can former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden win the presidency now with his apparently stealth campaign, counting on Trump to essentially defeat himself in November? Maybe. And then? Will we get more sycophant Wall Street politics, adapted to the new pandemic era, but still offering basically the same Democratic “liberalism” whose failures first set the stage for the rise of Trump and mainstream far-right politics?
If so, get ready for a further emboldening of the far right, whose supporters include not only elite financial interests, but self-styled armed militias whose protests are a likely sign of worse things to come. Republican Party extremism is on a collision course with even the pretense of democracy. It will take a different kind of transformative politics, one built on mass mobilizations for a far-reaching program of social and economic justice, to truly defeat the reactionary ghouls who are taking this country to the brink of ruin.
The global pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of our common humanity. It has also brought a new urgency to the need for political alternatives to status quo politics, a need for socialist politics and organization and a vision of a future beyond capitalism. Under conditions of a public health emergency, the venality at the core of the capitalist way of life is now exposed for the acute threat to life it actually is.