Is Coronavirus Pandemic Capitalism’s ‘Collateral Damage’?

The push towards capitalism has resulted in disasters across the globe. Is Covid-19 one such disaster?

6 min read
COVID-19 India: India isolates coronavirus, starts vaccine development.

Commenting on the dire state of stock markets globally, CNBC analyst Rick Santelli argued that it would be better to not act against Covid-19 and ‘let the disease infect everybody’, rather than allow it to wreak havoc on global and domestic economies. Santelli's statement is not isolated.

Several experts globally have made similar remarks. Egregious as they may be, these statements are not wholly uninformed. The OECD has warned that the global economy could see its lowest growth rates since the 2008 financial crisis. Re-assessing this year's performance, the think-tank claimed that even if the disease were contained to China, where it has had the worst impact, global growth rates could plummet to 2.4 percent as opposed to 2.9 percent from last year, which itself was a weak performance.

Further, if a longer and more intensive outbreak occurs, which seems likely considering recent developments, growth rates could fall to as low as 1.5 percent this year.

Conditions in India are particularly worrisome. With an already struggling economy rife with plunging investments, unemployment, farmersdistress, dwindling consumption expenditure, and increased poverty and hunger, the shock caused by Covid-19, combined with the recent oil crisis, has drowned the government's promises of a miraculous comeback.

The Indian government is not unaware of this impact. On the level of everyday business, as early as 19 February, the Ministry of Finance issued an Office Memorandum stating that the disruption of supply chains due to the coronavirus would be covered under the Force Majeure clause as a ‘natural calamity’. In terming the outbreak as a ‘natural calamity’, the government portrays Covid-19 as an outcome of an uncontrollable natural force, and not that of human action or inaction.

As I will argue, human intervention through the capitalist mode of production has been categorical to the outbreak and spread of the disease.

Declaring it as a natural calamity merely masks the consequences of our economic system while allowing it to perpetuate its ills.

Tracing the Origins of Covid-19

The origins of Covid-19 have been traced to a wet market in Wuhan, China. A similar Coronavirus known as SARS originated in a wet market Guangzhou, barely 1000km from Wuhan, in 2002. Experts claim that the present Coronavirus was first transmitted from a wild animal—presumably a bat to another intermediate host—to humans in the wet market, where wild animals ranging from snakes, peacocks, bears, civet cats, and bats are sold.

The Chinese have a long history of consuming wild animals. However, the rate of sales of these animals has increased drastically with the industrialisation of the animal farming sector in the 1980s. In the decades leading to industrialisation, China under Mao’s leadership experienced one of the worst famines of the 20th century which led to the death of around 30 million.

China’s Wildlife Laws

The decision to industrialise lifted the burden from the Communist government, and allowed for the rapid recovery of the economy. While the production of meat and seafood was primarily taken over by large corporations, a parallel market for wild animals raised in households emerged. This market gained a significant boost in 1988, when the government introduced a wildlife protection law which declared all animals to be state property, and promoted their farming. This materialised into investments from large corporations, often accompanied by unfounded claims regarding the health benefit of consuming these animals.

Considering their rarity, which naturally drove up the prices, consumers of these wild animals are generally from the rich and influential classes.

Their influence shone through in 2002-03 when the government tried to ban the sale of civet cats which are known to have caused the SARS outbreak. The ban was soon revoked and the animal found its way back into the market because of a strong lobby of its elite consumers and profit-oriented producers.

What Paved the Way for the Coronavirus Outbreak?

These conditions paved the way for the present outbreak, responding to which, the Chinese government has attempted to regulate the sale of wild animals through a government order. Notwithstanding issues of implementation, regulation is undoubtedly necessary.

Capitalism, furthered by the State’s instruments, has wreaked havoc, and without strategic intervention, it will continue to do so.

Unfortunately, China’s is not an isolated case. The push towards capitalism in the farming sector has resulted in similar disasters across the globe.

In India, the Green Revolution, touted as the solution to the agrarian crisis, has increased income and wealth inequality, leading to a record number of farmer suicides, destroyed the ecology through the abuse of pesticides and insecticides, and created a whole market of potentially hazardous products. The same is true in the West, where the meat industry is the leading contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, all on the back of cruel treatment towards animals in the name of increased production. Diseases such as swine flu, bird flu, etc. are a direct outcome of this drive towards capitalism. Recognising and remembering this factor once the Covid-19 scare passes, is essential for preventing similar and possibly more frequent outbreaks in the future.

Finding a Cure

Pandemics have a class element to them. Daily wage earners, who, unlike the upper class, cannot peacefully rest at home to abate the possibility of contracting Covid-19, are especially at risk. Think here about the majority of India's workforce who are employed in the informal sector and live on daily wages, and therefore cannot afford to sacrifice a single day's work to tend to, what seems at first glance to just, to be just the common flu.

Further, there exist limited avenues for testing and treatment for the working class on account of their place of residence, access to information, financial capacity.

Taken together these factors suggest that while the disease is democratic insofar as it does not choose its target based on class, caste, religion, ethnicity, etc, it disproportionately affects the poor. Further, this demographic divide motivated, or rather demotivated, the desire to find a preemptive cure for the disease. In other words, the divide explains why the world was not ready for Covid-19.

What Happened During the SARS Outbreak

Following the SARS outbreak, researchers the world over began to design vaccines to prevent a future epidemic. Their research, however, ended abruptly in 2016, when they failed to acquire funding to carry out human testing for the vaccine they had developed. Left in the cold freezer, that research will undoubtedly take some time to provide a viable vaccine to sustain the current outbreak. By then, countless lives would already have been lost, and the economy would be in the doldrums.

The inability to acquire funding resonates with a larger problem associated with the pharmaceutical industry in the era of capitalism.

Funding for research and development in the industry is proportionate to the profits that would accrue from selling the final product in the market. In the case of research on drugs aimed at combating epidemics such Covid-19, an initial boost in investment accompanying the outbreak is followed by a slump once the disease recedes from public memory, as was the case with the SARS virus.

Further, such drugs typically have small profit margins, and governments impose compulsory licences to promote their production. Together, this makes investment on research for such diseases unprofitable, thereby pushing them to the margins of the industries research interests.

Public Investment Required In Research

This factor also explains why there exists limited research on diseases common to densely populated developing countries. As the submission made by the Third World Network to the WHO notes, “Only 10 percent of worldwide expenditure on health research and development is devoted to the problems that primarily affect 90 percent of the world's population.” Issues such as these cannot be resolved by relying on the benevolence of private corporations that are profit-driven.

Rather, public investment, regulated by international organisations, is required to ensure that these diseases, which have widespread impact, are engaged with in a proactive rather than a reactive manner.

Here, the involvement of international organisations is key since the problem at hand is global in its scale, thereby calling for a global response. Right-wing populist responses premised on slogans such as ‘Nation first’ though persistent are inadequate.

Thinking Back to Think Ahead

With more offices and universities being shut daily, visas being withheld, and declarations of state of emergency, one wonders whether Covid-19 could, in fact, present a 'Kill-bill'-esque blow to capitalism or whether it would merely present a 'new normal' – which feebly treads the crisis-ridden path of neoliberal capitalism which created the conditions for Covid-19 in the first place.

While the prospects of such far-reaching statements can only be assessed in due course of time, this moment calls for an urgent stock-taking by analysing the political-economy causes of and responses to Covid-19.

In this regard, this article presented an admittedly narrow perspective for understanding our complex present times. Similar attempts from diverse perspectives are undoubtedly necessary. To rework Marx’s famous statement – we must first interpret the world – and then go about changing it. This article presents a preliminary step in this direction.

(The writer is a research associate at OP Jindal Global University. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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