The Coronavirus pandemic is revealing that capitalism is incompatible with public health.
In Ireland and the UK, right wing governments are now implementing measures which only a few months ago would have been dismissed as the idealistic and unaffordable dreams of socialists. But now, the public health emergency of COVID-19 is making socialism the only alternative.
Against the background of the pandemic, Ireland’s two-tier health system appears for what it always has been: an unjust, unequal distribution of care to those who can afford it. We needed the virus, it seems, to convince ourselves that this cannot continue. The injunction to ‘stay in home’, meanwhile, has forced us to confront the precarity of people’s daily lives in a context of insecure work and eroded public services. Many have no savings to fall back on, cannot afford to take time off work, lack access to sick pay, and are at the mercy of rapacious employers and landlords. Many others are homeless. The inequity of this state of ‘normality’ suddenly becomes apparent in the context of the pandemic.
It has taken a contagious disease to cause the political establishment in this country and elsewhere to reckon with the fact that capitalism as we know it today is itself a kind of disease proliferating upon the Earth. The novel coronavirus was produced not by an angry Nature but by the poverty and overcrowding that current economic conditions force upon so many in the poorest parts of the world. Trump and others try to blame China, but the more humanity as a whole exploits animal life and the natural environment, the more these kinds of crises will become the norm as the 21st century goes on.
Many of the world’s leaders now talk about a ‘war’ with the virus, but such metaphors demonstrate a deep misunderstanding. A virus is a replicator, a fragment of genetic code that copies itself over and over, and which needs organisms (such as humans and animals) in order to do. Although viruses are not technically alive, they show us life at its most basic level: as a will to propagate. We should not go to war against life but should learn to care for it properly. Caring for life properly means attending to all kinds of life, human and non-human, as best we can.
But capitalism only cares about a certain kind of life it calls economic ‘growth’. There is a conflict here between two kinds of life, and the economic disruption caused by the virus shows us this dramatically. In one week, six trillion dollars were wiped off the stock market. The phenomenon of panic buying resulted when people believed their ability to be consumers was compromised. The idea of being a citizen and not just a consumer is becoming so alien to us that, when our habits of consumption are threatened, we enter into a frenzy of irrational shopping until the shelves are bare.
It sometimes seems as if money can propagate like a virus, making more of itself constantly on the stock market, and the capitalists cheer when the markets go up as if it were all down to the magic of money. But when workers withdraw their labour, money dies as surely as a virus does without a body to carry it. The pandemic is life taking its revenge on us for caring only about a certain kind of flourishing that goes hand in hand with economic growth.
From the point of view of the working class, the solution to this crisis lies not in keeping the economy going no matter what but in challenging the dominance of the economy over all other aspects of life. It is not a question of going to war against the virus, but of caring for life in all its forms. This requires that capitalism, based as it is on an unsustainable commitment to economic growth at all costs, give way to a healthier system.