COVID-19 Crisis: Capitalism Is the Pandemic

Photo by Lindsey Wasson

On Wednesday, March 11th, the World Health Organization officially declared the international outbreak of COVID-19 —also known as the coronavirus— to be a pandemic. As of now thousands have died, and entire cities such as Wuhan, China and Venice, Italy have been brought to their knees. The crisis has had enormous economic consequences with the American stock market suffering its largest single-day loss since Black Friday 1987. 

In times of crisis like this one, the contradictions of capitalism become undeniable, and matters become black and white for all to see. The antagonisms between the wealthy and the working people are increasingly difficult to conceal.  As the crisis deepens, the masses are increasingly compelled to recognize the naked despotism of capital in the workplace and the harsh political domination of the capitalist class everywhere else.

At the economic level capitalists everywhere are faced with a difficult decision which they make in light of only one consideration: how to best protect profits. Do they cut their losses and shutter their doors until the crisis is over, effectively laying off their employees indefinitely, leaving them to fend for themselves? Or do they push through it, continue to operate, and put their workers and their workers’ families in danger? Either way it is the working people who will suffer the most.

Crises like this always spell ruin for the crust of small proprietors who cannot weather the storm, and accelerate the centralization of capital as the larger firms gobble up their ill-fated smaller competitors. The troubles of small businesses owned by Chinese immigrants have been compounded by a silent boycott underpinned by irrational racist fears. In some cases the racist hysteria and suspicion has even escalated to acts of violence and humiliation inflicted upon individuals based solely on their perceived nationality.

Universities have dealt with the crisis in an especially callous and harmful way with some schools like Harvard and the University of Dayton, Ohio evicting students from the dorms with as little as five days’ notice. For the students of Dayton this eviction was carried out with terror and force when riot police opened fire on students with pepperballs. Students who can’t afford to fly home or who live in countries listed as epicenters like Iran or Italy are placed in a desperate situation. Students with visas which restrict the number of online courses they can take while legally remaining in the U.S. fear they will be deported. For some deportation would mean being sent into an epicenter.

Anarchy reigns in the market as supply chains are disrupted by hoarding and panicked runs on grocery stores and online retailers for goods like non-perishable food, surgical masks, hand sanitizer, and even toilet paper. Healthcare organizations and personnel as well as the immunocompromised—those who need these goods the most—have been forced to begin conserving their resources or have been unable to obtain them at all, while others engage in unpardonable price gouging and selfish hoarding. Capitalism is fundamentally incapable of distributing resources where they are most needed according to a rational plan. The market allocates goods according to profit, not human need.

The bourgeois state has proven unfit to effectively handle the crisis with little to no relief offered to working people suffering from lost wages, medical expenses, and childcare costs for the parents of children whose schools have been shut down. What the bourgeois state has done and will continue to do is use the crisis as a pretext for authoritarian administrative measures used against the people. We must struggle against the negligence of the Trump administration which fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command in 2018 and for a long time denied the virus was anything to worry about. However, we must also struggle against the Obama nostalgics who seek refuge in technocrats, and a stronger, more organized, and repressive administrative state. Whether in China, Italy, South Korea, Iran, or the US, the bourgeois states reinforced by this crisis will ultimately be deployed AGAINST the workers and the people when we struggle for better conditions of work and social life. The working people will increasingly face a fight for survival against the landlords, health insurance companies, and employers who continue to profit in the midst of widespread panic and suffering.

But where there is oppression, there is resistance, and some workers have begun to fight back. For example, factory workers in northern Italy organized wildcat strikes in protest of their employers’ lack of respect for their safety and for asking them to continue to come to work despite the dangers. Workers for McDonald’s in the US have put forward a list of demands including paid leave and improved safety protocols. Workers from Portland International Airport have joined the call for paid sick leave and cried out against the low pay, unaffordable healthcare, and little time off they receive despite the high level of risk they currently face. CUNY students petitioned to cancel in-person classes, and students at Harvard and Dayton University protested their dorm closures despite violent police repression. The capitalist class will try to place the entire burden of this crisis on our shoulders; only by fighting back can we mitigate the disaster.