Josephine Varghese: The Coronavirus Pandemic Exposes the Inefficiency of Capitalism

Josephine Varghese: The Coronavirus Pandemic Exposes the Inefficiency of Capitalism

We must of course have equality of treatment, patients with this virus will be treated for free, and they’ll be treated as part of a single, national hospital service.

These were the words of the Irish health minister Simon Harris when he announced the nationalisation of all private hospitals for the duration of the Covid 19 pandemic. Yes, it makes sense to have equality of treatment. But why only during a pandemic?

Like most people under lockdown, I have been spending a lot of my time reading about the pandemic. My interest, for the most part, lies in analysing official responses from various governments across the world. An overarching feature of the responses globally is the increased government control over vital functions of society. Many governments, including New Zealand, Spain and Liberia invoked national emergencies, suspending fundamental rights citizens enjoy in ‘normal’ times such as right to freedom of movement and assembly. And for most people it became clear that heavy-handed government action was necessary during this time. As the global economy has virtually come to a grinding halt, we are witnessing massive public spending programmes across the world. What this public spending is allocated towards, is often revealing of the dominant ideological framing of various governments. For example, while the biggest beneficiaries of the multi-trillion USD bailout of the United States government were big corporations, the 200 billion INR(Indian Rupee) response of Kerala government, my home state in India, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has been centred around ensuring the wellbeing of the most vulnerable, by providing free universal food rations, cooked meals and shelters for homeless and stranded migrants, benefit payments and early pension payments, among other measures.

Capitalistic health systems

Neoliberal capitalism has altered the shape and capacity of health systems around the world. Even in places where universal healthcare exists to some extent, the onslaught of neoliberalism has resulted in underfunding of healthcare systems, and as a result, the contracting out of important jobs associated with public health to the private sector. This is the case in New Zealand as well, and here, although public healthcare is accessible to all, it does not comprehensively cover certain aspects of health such as dental care, eyesight (for example, spectacles) and hearing (consultation, for example, is not covered). Visiting a doctor remains too expensive for a large section of the population, which leads to poor access to preventive healthcare. Notably, the healthcare policy put forward by Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist in the USA covers all these aspects, and raises the status of mental health, bringing it into the fold of the proposed single-payer healthcare system.

In Spain, a peculiar trend arose during the crisis. Some private hospitals were seen to be redirecting patients with COVID symptoms to already overloaded public hospitals, and many private players were not effectively cooperating with the government, for instance, in mobilising available PPE and bed capacity towards the Covid 19 effort. Now we must note that this is not an isolated pattern seen during times of crisis. In nations where private healthcare exists alongside public systems, private players very often offload a lot of their burden to the public system and maximise profits by utilising the public infrastructure, cheaper medicines and equipment. Additionally, and more importantly, the systematic reduction of funding in public healthcare under neoliberalism & austerity has resulted in a decreasing quality and capacity of public health not only in Spain but around the world. In the face of the pandemic, the private sector did not effectively work together with the public sector which led to the Spanish government taking control over the private healthcare system for the duration of the crisis. And, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, the government of Ireland followed suit.

War vs Pandemic under Capitalism

Yet another striking feature of this pandemic is how it exposed the failure of powerful nations in providing basic protective gear to frontline workers and in many cases, relief to its most vulnerable. Some politicians, including Donald Trump (whose nation, at any given point, is involved in multiple wars and conflicts) compared the pandemic to war, declaring himself a war-time president. But if this pandemic were a war, would the likes of USA, France and UK be short of equipment? If it were bombs and guns instead of PPE, many of the nations currently on their knees unable to protect their citizens and frontline workers would be much better prepared.

The threat of pandemics in a globalised world is imminent, and this is a well-known fact. Since the beginning of the new millennium, we have seen multiple outbreaks of viral diseases including SARS, MERS, Ebola and Nipah virus. The necessity of personal protective equipment is well-known among public health experts. It is therefore imperative to critique the lack of preparedness of well-resourced capitalist nation-states.

While I recognise that there are numerous factors which make each nation’s situation unique, one cannot but notice that left-leaning governments –  in Cuba, Kerala, Portugal, Vietnam and even a heavily weakened Venezuela – formulated responses that were centred around helping the most vulnerable and have done better than many rich right-wing and centrist neoliberal governments. Venezuela, for example, along with assuring continued wage support for workers, in the first instance of the pandemic suspended rent payments for tenants – an issue which even Jacinda Ardern, a global icon for her ‘kindness’ brand has not addressed. Portugal’s Socialist Party government granted all immigrants and asylum seekers full citizenship rights during the period of the pandemic. The plight of immigrants is another issue the New Zealand’s centre-leaning neoliberal government seems to have overlooked.

Capitalism and Efficiency

Most people take for granted the dominant notion that capitalism is the efficient way of meeting human needs. Is it so? “We are 20 years into a new century, and we have had 3 crises (of capitalism). The dot-com crisis, the global economic crisis and now the coronavirus crisis.” Economist Professor Richard Wolff made this point in one of his recent podcast appearances. All these crises, especially the latter two, adversely affected poor and working people. Wolff argues that the disproportionate suffering of poorer people under in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic must be viewed as a crisis of capitalism and that the repeated crises, which are clearly a feature of capitalism, expose its inefficiency in meeting the fundamental needs of society. Again and again, the state artificially props up the inefficient system to keep it going.

Universal Basic Services

The economic cost of this pandemic is huge. What can get us through is security for all people – in terms of health, housing, food (perhaps through a universal subsidised public distribution system). Austerity and incrementalism have failed. It is time for political parties to champion policies that will benefit common people – the working poor, the marginalised. For example, strengthening and expanding the public health system and public housing. Universal access to the basic necessities of life (or universal basic services- housing, comprehensive healthcare, education, food) is a baseline we cannot negotiate upon. While there are demands for a Universal Basic Income in many parts of the world, I believe this is the time to also discuss the immediate need for access to Universal Basic Services such as healthcare, housing and food. As many have pointed out, this crisis does not show that “we’re all in this together”, quite the opposite – the crisis has, in many ways, magnified inequalities. However, the pandemic does emphasise the fact that the collective wellbeing of humanity is in the interests of each one of us.

Josephine Varghese is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Canterbury


Photo by urban-museum on / CC BY

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