4 things the pandemic taught us about capitalism in 2021

3 January, 2022

Vaccination queues overnight in Madrid.
Vaccination queues overnight in Madrid.

In 2021 it became clear that the magnitude and duration of the slaughter is the product of policy decisions made in order to subordinate human lives to the profitability of capital. Moreover, vaccines have not put an end to the pandemic nor to the appearance of new variants because from the beginning their development and production has been dependent on the concentration of large capital. The opinion industry, “democracy’s backbone”, has been forced to devote all its efforts to sustaining the criminal nonsense under which we live.

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The magnitude and duration of the carnage is a product of political decisions that have subordinated human lives to sustaining the profitability of capital

Worldwide Covid cases and deaths from 2020 to present day
Worldwide Covid cases and deaths from 2020 to present day

When last Christmas’ Covid wave reached its peak in February, the accumulated numbers gave a scale of the true significance in human lives of Covid: over 2,200,000 dead, five times the total population of a small European country like Malta. This is probably an understatement.

In Spain the official figures accumulated 61,386 deaths, but during 2020 alone excess mortality had amounted to more than 80,000 people. That is to say, at that point, a little less than a year ago it would have taken more than 6,600 years of terrorist attacks, 1,400 years of gender-based violence or 20 years of suicides to produce a similar slaughter.

And yet the carnage was not evenly distributed. In China, the source of the pandemic, the “Covid Zero” strategy had effectively contained the disease.To date, the official death toll in this country of more than 1.4 billion people is “only” 4,636.

This is not to praise the attitude of the Chinese bourgeoisie and bureaucracy. The slaughter was not restrained out of humanitarianism or consideration for their labor power. The Chinese bourgeoisie was simply a little less short-sighted than that of the US, Brazil, Argentina or Europe in calculating how to minimize the medium-term damage to their productive chains. And in doing so, it showed that the extent of the carnage – not to mention that of the persistent Covid – was the result of political decisions.

Read also: The pandemic and the working class: lessons learned to date, Feb. 6

But the global context was even worse, the lack of sufficient measures in the US, Europe and other countries of concentrated capital and the inaccessibility of vaccines for the rest of the world allowed the virus to keep on replicating freely.

The combined result of the decision not to carry out real lockdowns, of the incapacity of the bourgeoisie to organize universal responses and of the subordination of the vaccine to the imperialist interests of each capital, is the appearance of new and much more deadly variants.

The pandemic and the working class: lessons learned to date, Feb. 6

All this is what, unsurprisingly, we are now paying for in the form of a new pandemic wave.

The lockdowns and social contact restrictions have been insufficient from the outset and have been followed by hasty de-confinements which made evident the real priorities: saving the profitability of capital rather than saving lives. […] But, as we have been pointing out from the beginning, the main issue is that a pandemic means a global crisis, and the bourgeoisie is incapable of giving universal answers to universal problems.

New wave of Covid: the pandemic is not over, Nov. 16
Read also: New wave of Covid: the pandemic is not over, Nov. 16

Vaccines have not put an end to the pandemic nor to the occurrence of new variants because from the beginning their development and production have been subordinated to the concentration of large capitals.

Vaccination in Tunisia

From the beginning of 2021 it became clear that the production of vaccines, as had happened before with their development, was subordinated to the creation and capitalization of pharmaceutical industrial giants. The delays in Europe, the policy of contracts in advance and the restriction of production to a few large factories, made it clear that the goal was not to produce as many vaccines as possible as soon as possible, but to ensure German and US capital a field of accumulation without “leakage” of dividends to their competitors.

Read also: Vaccination problems and the German instrumentalization of the EU, January 15

Only this strategy can explain how a development financed by US, EU and British equity investments, subsidies and public contracts – which are financial assets equivalent to a loan – could take the patentability of the developed vaccines for granted without discussion.

By no means is it a question of “good use of public resources”. Vaccine patentability has meant riskier and less resilient developments to new variants, using less production capacity than available, and making vaccination almost impossible in the regions of financially weaker states. All in all: hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths and paved the way for the disease to develop more aggressive variants.

Read also: Intellectual Property and the pandemic, February 9

The monstrous development of “intellectual property” is characteristic of decadent modes of production, all of which exacerbate their characteristic forms of property in an attempt at final entrenchment.

But in this case the costs were too obvious not to be questioned. Thanks to patents on vaccines, pharmaceutical companies only produce in a few countries and entire continents are out of stock. To patents, originally intended to ensure the diffusion of innovations, we owe the “absolutely unacceptable ” vaccination rates in semi-colonial countries, according to the World Bank, which would make it completely impossible to stop the spread of the disease, the mass slaughter and the emergence of new variants, according to the UN and the WHO.

When the debate eventually broke out, under pressure from Biden and the US, it also came under the same objectives: it was not about saving lives or ensuring incentives for production, but about who would attract and place profitable capital in countries with weaker national capitals.

The US saw an opportunity to bring massive capital to the peripheral states in order to expand its industry and regain influence over governments – as China and Russia were also trying to do, with worse products. Needless to say, Germany and with it the EU and industry itself fought tooth and nail and the “debate” died down as soon as the global propaganda showed the “good heart” of the US president.

Read also: Covid vaccine patent waiver: Biden vs EU, May 7

The Covid vaccine development and production model that the industry – and the states – had in mind and secured during 2021 is the same as that of insulin: a global monopoly that the WHO itself has described as a “catastrophic moral failure”.

A monopoly that, in due course, will give up on the race against variants if it does not see extraordinary profitability, as it has already done with antibiotics in the race against bacterial infections.

This is the general pattern of industry under the logic of accumulation: concentration of capital to ensure monopolies, which in turn produces geographic concentration and artificial scarcity.

The production of several goods which are essential to the global production chains is limited to a few huge plants, all of them controlled by certain national capitals. All this becomes evident whenever sanctions and blockades disrupt the world industry’s access to semiconductors, as well as the current quasi-monopoly of certain countries with the production of vaccines against covid, the shortage of oxygen for covid patients or the lack of access of many semicolonial countries to drugs or products as basic as fertilizers.

Today’s chemical plants and the manufacturing logic of capitalism in the article “In Communism…. Won’t there be big chemical plants and gigantic heavy industrial factories?”, April 9.

The stance of states and capital invested in big pharmaceuticals is pure and simple imperialism: they seek to secure a monopoly – shared and forced – over foreign markets while concentrating capital in a monstrous way even at the cost of the global loss of productive capacities necessary for humanity as a whole.

For instance: Pfizer restricted access to the BioNTech vaccine to semi-colonial countries, Moderna refused to share process know-how and thus to produce outside its own factories…. The WHO is even warning of the lack of syringes for all types of vaccinations due to the monopolization of the most capitalized countries (USA, EU, China…).

In other words, what the artificial limitation of vaccine production and its effects have taught us during 2021 is that not only have states subordinated the most basic human needs – to live, not to get infected, not to infect – to the needs of capital – to ensure production and sales – but that the health of the economy (= accumulation) parasitizes the health of workers and society as a whole.

It is difficult to find a clearer example of the antagonism between (capital) growth and (human) development typical of decadent systems.

The worst “fake news” are born as official messages … and they are not innocent

London: "Please believe these days will pass". A message typical of a dictatorship that always pursues our passivity.
London: “Please believe these days will pass”. A message typical of a dictatorship that always pursues our passivity.

The development and artificial limitation of the production and distribution of vaccines was, of course, part of the aggravation of the imperialist conflict between China and the USA. The pandemic became part of the propaganda war. The alleged lab leak origin of the virus, which had originally been one more conspiratorial stupidity used by the Trumpist propaganda, was picked up by Biden without any qualms whatsoever and “pondered” by his European allies with a straight face.

In reality, the origin of the virus is quite well located and documented in an extensive article published in Nature. Beyond the links in the chain of transmission/mutation, it is clear that the origin of Covid, as of the great majority of zoonotic epidemics -originating in animals before affecting humans- lies in the conditions that capitalism imposes on livestock production and the survival of the peasantry. Neither Chinese nor global capitalism come out of the real story well. Neither do environmentalist tales.

Read also: The origin of Covid, September 7

But the global media’s blindness to the studies published by scientific journals and their insistence on the same Trumpist “fake news” they had originally mocked and which now became “serious” and “disturbing” when repeated by Biden, was neither novel nor innocent.

Each phase and wave of the pandemic has had its characteristic “fake news”, insinuated if not directly pushed in most cases by the governments themselves and their “experts” and hammered by the media and the opinion industry. Coincidentally, these lies coincided with what would have been good to be true for these disastrous epidemiological policies.

For example, we all remember how, at the height of the exponential rise in contagions and deaths during the first wave, we were told that masks were not necessary. This was when the state could not guarantee the supply even to the health workers, who suffered a brutal mortality. Then they tried to classify them into “solidary” – the least protective but produced by a national company in agreement with the state – and “unsolidarity” masks, the FFP2… which the state itself ended up distributing for free afterwards.

When the goal was to avoid lockdowns at all costs in order to keep workers producing, we were told that there were no contagions in public transport. Obviously, infections can not be traced in public transport, but that does not mean that there are none.

When the goal was a “back-to-school” operation in order to facilitate the availability of parents to work, there was a whole campaign to show that after all children becoming infected was not “so serious”… invisibilizing also the fact that living with children was and still is one of the main factors of contagion among adults.

When they wanted to revive the theaters, they launched the slogan “culture is safe”, as if spreading of the virus depended on the contents one enjoys and not on the forms of socialization.

And so on until now, when they tell us, without scientific evidence, that Omicron “could be the beginning of the end”… without any proof or study to demonstrate any pattern of evolution of the virus; or when they say that until its appearance “the end of the virus was already visible” when even the WHO was tired of repeating that without extending vaccination throughout the world there is no point in expecting new variants and waves to stop appearing.

The list is, at this point, endless and practically identical all over the planet with only small variations per country. But it is no less ignominious for being long and universal.

We must acknowledge that the media have not ceased to promote confidence in “science” in the midst of the anti-vaccine frenzy of the most desperate and reactionary petty bourgeoisie. But it is an unreal, magical confidence, which once again exonerates governments for their inaction.

For instance, what are vaccines for? To drastically curb transmission and significantly reduce the expected average severity of the cases that do occur. They are not magic; they do not eliminate either individual or societal risk.

They are, however, a very powerful tool to be used against the pandemic under two conditions: their universalization and the adoption of complementary measures aimed at reducing contagion -lockdowns and closures- and improving treatment -investment in hospitals and pharmacological development. But none of these things have been done. The media have in fact sold vaccination as an alternative to taking real measures to reach “covid zero” within each country. And that too was “fake news”.

The common element of all these messages massively propagated by the opinion industry, supposedly the “heart of democracy”, was always the same: to make acceptable the sacrifice of lives and needs to save the “health of the economy”, that is, the smooth running of the business of national capital in all its private, state-owned or intervened branches. Which during a pandemic means passively accepting the slaughter and human disaster in order to avoid the death of profits.

What became clear during 2021 is that the opinion business is in reality one more instrument of the empire of a particular interest -that of accumulation- over the societal whole. That is to say, a fundamental and militant piece of what can only be defined as dictatorship.

And the fact is that there is no middle way, and even less so in a pandemic: dictatorship of profit or dictatorship of human needs. At the moment, we have the former all over the world and at an enormous human cost.

The alternative can only come from the workers

Demonstration of teachers in Italy: ‘DAD (Distance Didactics) NO, Vaccines YES’

In reality, since March 2020 there was only a single force standing up to this whole disaster by trying to impose universal human needs over the atrocious logic of profit. And it was certainly not because the system failed to react. We have already seen what the media did. We have even seen how in France and Italy quite a few trade unions joined the “antivax” while feminism played its part.

During the first year of the pandemic, workers reacted in much of the world to demand that universal human needs lead the fight against the pandemic because they have no direct interests other than the fulfillment of those same needs.

Since last March we have seen a rise in Covid strikes around the world. In sectors such as education or health but also in large factories, the demands have been focused on imposing closures and working conditions that would prevent the spread. In others, the demands for minimum life security have been expanding to cover the imposition of (profit) recovery measures at the expense of the workers.

So far these struggles represent the largest global strike wave in 30 years. And yet, despite partial victories, they have not succeeded in globally overturning the strategy of the bourgeoisie and its governments worldwide.

However, they have shown a working class that fights practically synchronized for the same thing all over the world: to assert universal interests, life, against the openly anti-human and anti-historical logic of capital. A working class capable of overcoming the atomization exacerbated by the pandemic and the risk of contagion, the most brutal information blackout seen outside wartime and in many cases of overcoming the trade union blockade.

The pandemic and the working class: lessons learned to date, Feb. 6

And yet, during the second half of 2021 the “Covid strikes” disappeared. What did that mean? What is to be expected? In our last summary report of 2021 we will focus on what the class struggle showed us and left us with during 2021.

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