Making Sense of the Covid-19 crisis

Red Green Study Group

Zoom meeting 25 April 2020 – Themes for discussion

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Prologue:

I spoke from notes extracted from a number of the articles on the reading list I circulated some time in advance of the meeting. The words below are very often those of the original authors, more or less.

I haven’t amended at all  in the light of the comments made. But as you’ll see from some of them there was a general feeling that

  • I didn’t emphasises the eco aspects enough; and
  • I said nothing about social care which really ought to be central to our responses.

That list of articles is appended below, expanded with quite a number of other interesting essays published since the original circulation. I’m sure you could all add many more I haven’t even seen let alone read (and delete some, which were only of fleeting value).

1. The problem did not start with the Corona virus outbreak in Wuhan in December when countries failed to take it seriously. It has deep structural roots.

a) As Wallace et al put it in COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital “The failures were actually programmed decades ago as the shared commons of public health were simultaneously neglected and monetized. (2)”

b) Adam Hanieh stresses the connections with wider questions of global political economy:

We need “an understanding of how the public health aspects of this virus intersect with larger questions of political economy (including the likelihood of a prolonged and severe global economic downturn).

The ways that most people across Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia will experience the coming pandemic is a direct consequence of a global economy systemically structured around the exploitation of the resources and peoples of the South. In this sense, the pandemic is very much a social and human-made disaster – not simply a calamity arising from natural or biological causes.

c) Eric Toussaint: Under the pretext of necessary fiscal austerity to repay public debt, governments and major multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and regional banks such as the African Development Bank have everywhere enforced policies that have deteriorated public health systems – particularly in the global south.

d) Grace Blakeley: “The World Bank has announced a fairly paltry $12bn to support states around the world in their response to the crisis. This cash will undoubtedly be doled out on a political basis – states friendlier to the US are likely to receive the lion’s share. The International Monetary Fund has made available a further $50bn.”

More generally

Eric Toussaint:  “all the elements of a new financial crisis have been in place for several years and that the coronavirus is the spark or trigger of the stock market crisis, not the cause” – and he looks at the liquidity crisis on Wall St in September 2019 and the crisis in the production sector beginning with an overproduction of goods, particularly in the car industry. And he points out that Thomas Cook failed before the corona crisis.

2. The crisis is not neutral – “we’re not all in it together”

It is a class, gendered, and racialized pandemic

David Harvey locates the crisis within a framework in which nature not separate from culture, economy, daily life. no such thing as a truly natural disaster. Viruses mutate all the time , but the circumstances in which a mutation becomes life-threatening depend on human actions; and the impacts of the spread of the virus depend upon preexisting cracks and vulnerabilities in the hegemonic economic model.

Here the gendered and racialised divisions are crucial:

  • the workforce that is expected to take care of the mounting numbers of the sick is typically highly gendered, racialized, and ethnicized in most parts of the world
  • division between those who can work at home and those who can’t; and
  • even the return to work will be racialised and gendered etc

b)  David Frum in The Atlantic – understands that the health burden of reopening the economy will fall most heavily on the poorest workers who are the least able to protect themselves. Writing in The Atlantic,:

“if the reopening starts in May, it will be phased not by medical advice, but by the hard grammar of wealth and poverty: poorest first, richest last.

“In the event of an early and partial reopening, the disparities can only widen. Those who can telecommute, who can shop online, or who work for health-conscious employers like public universities will be better positioned to minimize their exposure than those called back to work in factories, plants, and delivery services.”

c) Toussaint point out that quarantine and access to intensive care for people who are 70+ are very different whether you are rich or poor

3. Everything involved in the crisis – it really is systemic!

Mariana Mazzucato: “Capitalism is facing at least three major crises. A pandemic-induced health crisis has rapidly ignited an economic crisis with yet unknown consequences for financial stability, and all of this is playing out against the backdrop of a climate crisis that cannot be addressed by “business as usual.” Until just two months ago, the news media were full of frightening images of overwhelmed firefighters, not overwhelmed health-care providers.”

As she says: We need to solve all 3 crises at the same time.”

Remember, her “climate crisis” must be read as shorthand for a “global environmental crisis” in which the collapse of biodiversity is a crucial element.

4. Origins and spread of the virus highlight this interdependency

Wallace et al locate the emergence of the new virus in the collapse of biodiversity.

Many like COVID-19 originate on the frontiers of capital production. Indeed, at least 60 percent of novel human pathogens emerge by spilling over from wild animals to local human communities (before the more successful ones spread to the rest of the world)

They describe it this way:

Unequal ecological exchange—redirecting the worst damage from industrial agriculture to the Global South—has moved out of solely stripping localities of resources by state-led imperialism and into new complexes across scale and commodity.32 Agribusiness is reconfiguring their extractivist operations into spatially discontinuous networks across territories of differing scales.33 A series of multinational-based “Soybean Republics,” for instance, now range across Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. The new geography is embodied by changes in company management structure, capitalization, subcontracting, supply chain substitutions, leasing, and transnational land pooling.34 In straddling national borders, these “commodity countries,” flexibly embedded across ecologies and political borders, are producing new epidemiologies along the way.

Ecosystems in which such “wild” viruses were in part controlled by the complexities of the tropical forest are being drastically streamlined by capital-led deforestation. At the same time what were once local spillovers are now rapidly spread: The lengthier the associated supply chains and the greater the extent of adjunct deforestation, the more diverse (and exotic) the zoonotic pathogens that enter the food chain.

They list as examples: African swine fever, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora, Ebola Reston, E. coli O157:H7, foot-and-mouth disease, hepatitis E, Listeria, Nipah virus, Q fever, Salmonella, Vibrio, Yersinia, and a variety of novel influenza variants…all the HxNy viruses.

(See also Scientific American, 1st May, Stopping Deforestation Can Prevent Pandemics)

The practices of intensive production accelerate the evolution of pathogen virulence and subsequent transmission.

  •  Larger farm animal population sizes and densities of factory farms facilitate greater transmission and recurrent infection.
  • Exacerbated by trend towards less govt inspection of farms and processing plants.

Wallace et al provide a general theory of neoliberal disease emergence, combining everything from global circuits of capital and their destruction of regional environmental complexity that keeps virulent pathogen population growth in check; leading to spillover events encouraged by growth of global travel etc.

All of this destroys the processes of natural selection that have historically provided real-time (and nearly free) – disease protection is removed by the dearth of reproduction on-site in industrial livestock.

Summed up by them as: “Agribusiness is at war with public health. And public health is losing.”

5. The ethno-nationalist response (largely via Bella Caledonia article)

  1. Adam Ramsay: “In recent weeks, the government has managed the crisis catastrophically. But the Conservatives have soared in the polls as sentimental nationalism has trumped material reality.”
  2. Alison Pearson, Telegraph: ‘How is Boris? For millions of people, that was our first thought upon waking yesterday.’… ‘It’s rare for a politician to inspire such emotion, but Boris is loved – in a way that the metropolitan media class has never begun to understand.’ And then the clincher: ‘Yet, make no mistake, the health of Boris Johnson is the health of the body politic and, by extension, the health of the nation itself.’
  3. Bellacaledonia:

We’re literally living with death and disease stalking the land and the default anglo-normative response is to sing for the fucking Queen. Not only that but the not-so-subtle Vera Lynn and World War 2 references are shoe-horned into your consciousness. The result is to reinforce deference and hierarchy and to sidestep openness, transparency and accountability. The ancien regime responds to every crisis, however severe with cultural bunting.

  • Fintan O’Toole noted (Coronavirus has exposed the myth of British exceptionalism): “When the prime minister was hospitalised, his overwrought friend and fan Toby Young confessed in the Spectator to “a kind of mystical belief in Britain’s greatness and her ability to occasionally bring forth remarkable individuals, who can serve her at critical junctures. I’ve always thought of Boris as one of those people – not just suspected it, but known it in my bones.”
  • Bellacaledonia describes us as being “in a period of Covid Populism where the narrative has become about British exceptionalism rather than government failure and human suffering, it’s about personal triumphs and old men raising money for the NHS as if it’s a charity, it’s about “heroes” and stupid stories to cheer you up as if you’re a fucking idiot.
  • Ramsay agrees: (Queen beckons Britain into Covid-nationalism trap): “…in her address, the Queen took iconic elements of the community response to COVID-19: children’s pictures of rainbows, clapping for the NHS, and plonked a Union Flag in the middle of them, claiming them for Britain, and Britishness, and firmly drawing a line around our imagined community, with her at the centre of it. We may collaborate with the rest of the world, but we do so, first and foremost in her rhetoric, as “Britons”.
  • Don Flynn: “Expect nasty stuff … An angry, recently impoverished class of failed business owners will be available to rally to the xenophobic calls which blame foreigners and liberal internationalism for its predicament. For the Tories, escaping the extra debt the state has lumbered itself with requires highly discriminating policies which protect the spending programmes which are supported by the disappointed middle classes whilst cutting even deeper into those which support the living standards of low-wage earners. 

6. What to do: The full programme

  • Wallace et al: Disalienation: abandoning settler ideologies, reintroducing humanity back into Earth’s cycles of regeneration, and rediscovering our sense of individuation in multitudes beyond capital and the state…
  • Toussaint: We must plan de-growth while improving living conditions. We must give absolute priority to common goods, and relocate manufacturing and services while adapting production to make it compatible with our struggle against the environmental crisis. The sphere of public services under citizen control must be massively enlarged. This revolution will only take place if the victims of the capitalist system and of patriarchal society are self-active, self-organizing and shunt the 1% and their lackeys away from the various centres of power to create real democratic power. A self-managing, anti-racist and feminist ecological-socialist revolution is needed.
  • Harvey, (Jacobin, April)

What the crisis shows graphically is that what Marx was talking about is here. Capitalism’s dynamism has produced a reality in which the rise of something like automation or artificial intelligence creates conditions and possibilities for the emancipation of labour.

[Marx in the Grundrisse: “the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose “powerful effectiveness” is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production”]

OK: so what didn’t we know?!

But what can we think about doing or demanding?

7. WHAT TO DO HERE AND NOW?

A: Prioritise health

1. Adam Hanieh “The COVID-19 crisis has sharply underscored the irrational nature of health care systems structured around corporate profit – the almost universal cutbacks to public hospital staffing and infrastructure”

  • Mike Davis (writing in 2005): Access to lifeline medicines, including vaccines, antibiotics, and antivirals, should be a human right, universally available at no cost. If markets can’t provide incentives to cheaply produce such drugs, then governments and non-profits should take responsibility for their manufacture and distribution. The survival of the poor must at all times be accounted a higher priority than the profits of Big Pharma.”
  • Wallace et al:: Shorter-term things that can be done – demands about the health system generously conceived.
  • nationalize hospitals as Spain did in response to the outbreak
  • supercharge testing in volume and turnaround as Senegal has.
  • socialize pharmaceuticals.
  • enforce maximum protections for medical staff to slow staff decay.
  • force companies to produce the needed ventilators and personal protection equipment required by health care workers and
  • start mass-producing cocktails of antivirals such as remdesivir and old-school antimalarial chloroquine (and any other drugs that appear promising) while we conduct clinical trials testing whether they work beyond the laboratory.
  •  

In sum, we must establish a massive pandemic corps to do all this

B: Add in wider workers’ and social demands – and relate them all to health

  • questions of worker safety,
  • the necessity of neighbourhood level organising,
  • income and social security,
  • the rights of those on zero-hour contracts or in precarious employment, and
  • the need to protect renters and those living in poverty.

C: Add in wider, global questions, linking them to health, such as

  • the abolition of ‘Third World’ debt,
  • an end to IMF/World Bank neoliberal structural adjustment packages,
  • reparations for colonialism
  • a halt to the global arms trade,
  • an end to sanctions regimes, and so forth.

All of these campaigns are, in effect, global public health issues

D: Bale-outs – but only with conditions

A whole range of authors have come up with different conditions which might be imposed in return for loans. Here are a few examples

a) Mazzucato – Governments are now extending loans to businesses at a time when private debt is already historically high – and it was high debt that causes the global financial crisis.

Rescue must come with conditions e.g.

  • firms getting money must retain workers – Better still, as in Denmark, government should be supporting businesses to continue paying wages even when workers are not working – simultaneously helping households to retain their incomes, preventing the virus from spreading, and making it easier for businesses to resume production once the crisis is over.
  • When it comes to households, governments should look beyond loans to the possibility of debt relief, especially given current high levels of private debt
  • rethink public-private partnerships.

b)  Don Flynn: Labour should set three conditions for the support that the state should be offering to these businesses.

  1. They should open their books to inspection by auditors (and worker reps) who will need to be satisfied that the firm has a solid business plan that includes the proper remuneration of its workers.
  2. this commitment to workforce interests takes the institutional form of trade union recognition and structures which involve employees in management.
  3. the business operates in an honest fashion in ways that sustain the interests of workers and consumers across its trading network. 

c) 110 Parliamentarians calling for a universal basic income, at least as a temporary measure as a way out of the lockdown

d) Mike Phipps suggests

  • an immediate increase in Statutory Sick Pay, extending it to all workers;
  • support for councils and funding for food banks;
  • emergency measures on debt and essential payments;
  • an increase in Universal Credit and an end to the 5 week wait;
  • requisitioning premises for additional medical facilities necessary to deal with the outbreak.
  • the requisition of empty homes.
  • the NHS to be fully reinstated as a public service, with proper funding, and also for “state suppliers of vital equipment and drugs, rather than relying on private companies who answer to shareholders first. Commandeering private facilities is vital, as in Spain, which issued an emergency decree to take control of all healthcare facilities – including private hospitals and pharmaceutical manufacture.
  • increased welfare payments and an end to sanctions,
  • rents should be frozen and utility bills should be suspended, as in France.
  • parents should get immediate leave to care for their children on full pay, with arrangements to feed children on free school meals.
  • Local authorities must be compensated for loss of business rates – or “Debt cancellation, for instance the debt owed by local authorities to the Public Works Loans Board (PWLB)

7: Futures: Possible Outcomes: the state now playing as massive role will the outcome be good?

a) Will this lead to a global social democracy? Hanieh: Not if the World Bank has its way!

World Bank President David Malpass at the (virtual) G20 meeting of Finance Ministers a few days ago: “Countries will need to implement structural reforms to help shorten the time to recovery …  For those countries that have excessive regulations, subsidies, licensing regimes, trade protection or litigiousness as obstacles, we will work with them to foster markets, choice and faster growth prospects during the recovery.”

b) David Harvey (Jacobin, March)

  1. If China cannot repeat its 2007–8 role, then the burden of exiting from the current economic crisis now shifts to the United States and here is the ultimate irony: the only policies that will work, both economically and politically, are far more socialistic than anything that Bernie Sanders might propose and these rescue programs will have to be initiated under the aegis of Donald Trump, presumably under the mask of Making America Great Again.
  2. Likelihood of US elections being cancelled…An imperial presidency to save capital and the world from “riot and revolution.”

c) Harvey (Jacobin April): Collective forms of action are required to get us out of this serious crisis in dealing with COVID-19 and to control its spread — lockdowns and distancing behaviors, all of those kinds of things.

  • If we are tough and sophisticated enough to cope with this virus, then why not take on capital at the same time?
  • Glimpses in the socialization of food supply and even cooked meals in NY, alternative production (of ventilators) in UK

d) Neal Ascherson:

Now, unmistakably, there’s a feeling that “things will never be the same after it’s over” and “we can’t go back to all that”.

And he continues, “Can’t we, just?”!

There will be a window of opportunity – we must seize it!

Appendix

RGSG: April 2020 zoom discussion – some possible articles to read (links from article titles should be live)

Rob Wallace, Alex Liebman, Luis Fernando Chaves and Rodrick Wallace

COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital

Monthly Review, Mar 27, 2020

Mariana Mazzucato

Capitalism’s Triple Crisis

Project Syndicate, Mar 30, 2020

David Harvey

Anti-Capitalist Politics in the Time of COVID-19

Jacobin, 20 March 2020

Adam Hanieh

This is a Global Pandemic – Let’s Treat it as Such

Verso blog, 27th March 2020

Neil Faulkner and Phil Hearse

Mass Deaths, Mass Poverty, Mass Repression

argues that the coronavirus crisis is a Tory attack on us all.

Time to Mutiny, 20 March 2020

Christine Berry

The COVID-19 pandemic will change everything – for better or worse

Verso blog, 24 March 2020

Richard Gunn and Adrian Wilding

Pandemic, Precarity and the Demands of the Left

Bella Caledonia,  3rd April 2020

Simon Hannah

Corona Virus has given us two visions of the future

Time to Mutiny, Mar 27

David Runciman

Coronavirus has not suspended politics – it has revealed the nature of power

Guardian, 27 March 2020

David McWilliams, Joe Lynam

World will need new financial system after Covid-19

We need to avoid putting current system back together with sticking plaster

Irish Times, Mar 25, 2020

Jerome Roos

The Coming Debt Deluge

But one thing is now abundantly clear: global capitalism finds itself at a critical juncture.

Tribune, 22 March 2020

Ariella Angel

No One Is Well

To respond to the coronavirus crisis, we must fight to replace the logics of capitalism with the logics of care

Jewish Currents, 18 March 2020

Don Flynn

A radical programme to get us through the crisis

Chartist, 27/03/2020

 

Mike Davis on COVID-19: The monster is finally at the door

Monthly Review online, Mar 19, 2020

Plus, subsequent to the original list being sent out:

Eric Toussaint (19 Mar, 26 Mar, 21 April)

Part 1: The Capitalist Pandemic, Coronavirus and the Economic Crisis

Part 2: To confront capitalism’s multifaceted crisis the bankers must be expropriated and the banks socialised

Part 3: Covid-19: Likely financial conflagrations to come

David Harvey: We Need a Collective Response to the Collective Dilemma of Coronavirus

23 April, David Harvey, Jacobin

Radhika Desai

The Unexpected Reckoning: COVID 19 and Capitalism

Coronovirus pandemic exposes the consequences of taking the neoliberal road decades ago, explains Prof Radhika Desai

theAnalysis.news,nd

Jayati Ghosh

Covid-19: What Is To Be Done?

According to Prof Jayati Ghosh, this is the greatest crisis experienced by the capitalist system; she lays out the direction of policy responses commensurate to what is needed.

theAnalysis.news,nd

Georgie Wemyss and Nira Yuval-Davis

Bordering under the corona virus pandemic

Social Scientists Against the Hostile Environment, nd – March 2020

The editors, Scientific American

Stopping Deforestation Can Prevent Pandemics

Destroying habitats makes viruses and other pathogens more likely to infect humans

Scientific American, May 1, 2020

Gabriel Levy

Coronavirus, economic crash and climate change: this could go either way

People and nature, 28 April 2020

Marja Brill

The Covid-19 crisis is exacerbating gender inequalities—but who cares

Social Europe, 5th May 2020

Birgit van Hout

Covid-19 does not discriminate—nor should we

A paradigm shift in national and EU Roma strategies is more urgent than ever.

Social Europe 5th May 2020

Robert Skidelsky

COVID-19 and THE NOAH’S ARK PROBLEM

Progressive Ecnonomy Forum, 30 April 2020

Mary Mellor

Coronavirus lockdown: Why should the public have to pay the price?

If direct funding it can be used to rescue the banks, why can’t it be used to rescue the people? Why should they have to pay the price?

The London Economic, 7 May 2020