Unprepared despite forewarnings, initially denying its seriousness, capitalist countries, rich and poor, were hit hard by the pandemic. Social and health infrastructures, already severely weakened by decades of underfunding, were overwhelmed in most rich countries and collapsed in many poor ones. Unmet health care needs, Covid or non-Covid, spiralled upwards. Capitalist governments claimed to be torn between saving lives and livelihoods when in fact they were endangering people for capitalist profits.
In the US, public authorities’ prioritised support for swooning financial markets, unprecedented in scale and variety of measures, above all. Some neoliberal governments even dallied with reaching ‘herd immunity’ through infection, no matter the death toll. Public outcry prevented this but not the only slightly less murderous ‘mitigation’ strategy: using profit-reducing lockdowns as sparingly as possible to keep hospitalisations low enough so weak public health systems would not collapse.
Long committed to corporate and commodified medicine, neoliberal governments simply refused to bolster health systems or build the community-based social and medical care capacity for testing, tracing and supported isolation of cases and contacts necessary for suppressing the virus. Instead, politicians offered their capitalist friends opportunities for private profiteering in the name of providing health and public services. Meanwhile, hesitantly applied lockdowns were inevitably prolonged and repeated, sending economies plummeting into deeply negative territory and endangering the real livelihoods of billions.
Shambolic cycles of hesitant lockdowns and too-early easings in neoliberal capitalist countries also kept enough ‘essential’ workers exposed, and bad faith government communications kept enough resisting restrictions and vaccinations, to register some of the highest case and fatality rates in the world.
While rich countries offered some transfers (to keep up demand rather than support people), this was not possible in most already indebted poor countries whose governments became even less able to respond to the pandemic or meet basic needs.
Already deep social divisions have deepened further. High-income earners worked from home. With full salaries and reduced outlays, they even paid off debt. As support for financial markets set them on unprecedented bull runs, moneyed elites became wealthier and billionaires more numerous.
Working people, especially precariously employed women, racialised minorities and other vulnerable groups, by contrast, either suffered poverty, unemployment, isolation, loss of savings, predatory debt and sheer despair, or were low-paid ‘essential’ and ‘front-line’ workers, kept working and in addition, exposed to infection, illness and death. Poor access to healthcare, overcrowded, multi-occupancy sub-standard housing and homelessness increase the risk of infection, morbidity and fatality. With many unions representing these workers inadequately or not at all, and opportunistic employers failing to protect their health, their plight remained largely unaddressed.
As child-bearers subject to male control, principal providers of unpaid care for the young, sick and elderly and the holders of lower paid jobs, women were additionally set back by the pandemic and lockdowns. Demands of childcare with school and day care closures led millions of women to give up employment. Female-headed households were particularly hard hit. As healthcare systems collapsed, millions of women lost access to contraception and under lockdowns suffered disproportionately from domestic violence.
Other marginalised groups were also vulnerable. Thanks to government disinformation and right-wing scapegoating, various minorities – East Asians in North America, Muslims in India – suffered rising violence and hate speech. Discrimination in employment, housing, health care and social services against sexual and gender minorities intensified, also exposing them to greater health risks.
Finally, isolation and lack of social engagement and participation, disrupted education and exams, all hit the young particularly. Those without reliable access to computers, the internet and electricity suffered worse and many may drop out of school altogether. Dismal job opportunities and the possibility of never being employed further deepened youth hopelessness.
The contrast with China’s socialist system was stunning. Equipped with an impressive health infrastructure for a developing country, governed by a party able to prioritise saving lives single-mindedly – building fully-equipped hospitals in days or mobilising health care workers from around the country to rush to Wuhan – China suppressed the virus, saved lives and now boasts an economy once again leading world growth.
Other socialist experiences were similar: as of 06 August 2021, alongside China’s 3.22 deaths per million, Vietnam, Laos (the most bombed country in the world), Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua limited Covid-19 deaths per million to 27.94, 0.96, 281.11, 128.92 and 29.59 respectively. Compare this with 1,858.96, 1,920.72, 704.81 and 1,661.87 for the US, UK, Canada and France respectively, though East Asian capitalist economies, with their traditions of state interventionism and ‘Confucian’ social mores, did better with 120.61 and 41.21 deaths per million in Japan and South Korea respectively.
Capitalist countries bent over backwards to not recognise this socialist success. Even the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, preferred to demonstrate the superiority of suppression over mitigation with a study confined to OECD countries, excluding the exemplary socialist models of suppression.
Unwilling to make the public investment in skills and people to suppress the virus, eager to increase Big Pharma profits, neoliberal governments bet all on vaccines. However, vaccines, while necessary, are not sufficient against the pandemic. A proper, community-based system of testing, tracing and well-supported isolation is essential, particularly when vaccine hesitancy, prompted by erosion of trust, keeps vaccinations well short of the levels required for population immunity even in rich countries and the Third World remains largely unprotected, keeping new variants emerging and spreading.
Indeed, neoliberal vaccine apartheid will ensure they do. Rich countries buy up short supplies and keep them short by insisting on honouring Big Pharma’s ‘intellectual property rights’ and preventing many countries from manufacturing them. When China and Russia augment world vaccine supplies through affordable sales and donations, the West derides this as ‘vaccine diplomacy’ and discourages poor countries from accepting them.
As new variants emerge, while new vaccines or boosters will bring Big Pharma bigger profits, they will also keep capitalist societies in a cycle of local or national lockdowns and easings and all that means for livelihoods of working people, not to mention deepening uncertainty, inequality, hopelessness and death.
Recovery when it comes is guaranteed to be weak and K-shaped, further deepening inequalities between a small, ever more obscenely wealthy elite and the rest.