A year under the pandemic

Issue: 169

Joseph Choonara

A year is a long time in pandemics.1 It is a little over 12 months since the first victims succumbed to Covid-19. By the time of writing, the global death toll had reached 1.5 million, a figure likely to rise substantially over the winter months in the northern hemisphere. Vast numbers more have suffered ill health, sometimes lingering as the baffling array of symptoms dubbed “long Covid”, alongside mental distress, the loss of a job or income, or the grief of losing loved ones.

The virus has dominated politics, absorbing the news agenda and reconfiguring the everyday lives of billions of people. The two major breaks in the wall-to-wall coverage of Covid-19—the global Black Lives Matter movement last summer and the presidential election in the United States—were only partial exceptions; both were heavily inflected by the impact of the pandemic.

Yet with the turn of the year, there was hope in some quarters of a return to a semblance of normality. Furthermore, for some, the hope was not simply that newly developed vaccines would control the virus, but that the politics emerging in the post-pandemic era might restore the centre ground and stabilise capitalism. In this view “populism” (often little more than a label for radicalised politics of the left or right that seeks mass support) has failed the test of the pandemic, and formerly restive populations now crave a return to mainstream politics.2

Adherents to this view could point to the US, where Donald Trump failed to win re-election. By early December, his opponent Joe Biden was constructing a cabinet centred on Obama-era neoliberals committed to defending US corporate interests at home and abroad. In Britain, Dominic Cummings, who has been identified as a key proponent of right-wing populism within the Boris Johnson administration, was driven from his positon in November, along with his ally, director of communications Lee Cain. Keir Starmer has not simply replaced the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, but had by autumn made clear his intent to crush Corbynism.

Meanwhile in Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel saw support for her centre-right Christian Democratic Union rise from 30 percent at the start of the pandemic to 40 percent by June. Support for the radical right-wing AfD fell in the same period.3 In France President Emmanuel Macron, if not exactly doing well, survived the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) protests and large-scale strikes that raged a year ago, and has seen his approval rating climb to 49 percent. By autumn he was seeking to bolster his support by significantly hardening official Islamophobia and imposing more draconian policing—though not without opposition on the streets.4 In the Spanish state, after four inconclusive general elections, the radical left party Podemos agreed to lash itself to the centre-left Socialist Party (PSOE), entering a government coalition and alienating many of its supporters. Even chronically unstable Italy saw the radical right League replaced by the centre-left Democratic Party in the coalition led by the Five Star Movement and headed by the lawyer Giuseppe Conte. By April 2020, Conte had seen his approval rating rise to 71 percent.

Nevertheless, this apparent buttressing of the centre ground is superficial; it is unlikely to survive the deeper forces driving polarisation and crisis.

End in sight?

States facing outbreaks of pandemic disease are constrained by the capitalist logic of relentless profit-making and competitive accumulation. However, this does not mean that their responses are uniform or that there is a straightforward trade-off between lives and profits. In the absence of socialist solutions, the most effective responses have come where countries corralled their population, often in an authoritarian manner, into strict social distancing measures—then created effective testing and contact-tracing regimes. Hence China is one of the few countries to experience something approximating a V-shaped recovery following the initial hit to its economy.5

For states unable or unwilling to pursue this course, the relationship between economic contraction and mortality rates depends on a multitude of factors—the country’s size and geographical structure, its demographics, attitudes towards social distancing, how rapidly states responded to a rise in cases, and so on. Britain here represents a particularly dire example. The government did act in spring 2020, but only once a sharp increase in cases forced them to do so. The premature relaxation of the lockdown, followed by a confusing attempt to re-impose measures, the failure to implement effective testing and tracing systems, and reliance on outsourcing the public health response to private firms, meant an exceptionally high death toll and an especially bad economic collapse. The US, with its chaotic and uneven response to the pandemic, fared better economically; nevertheless, at the twilight of the Trump presidency, there were still high levels of infection and death, with evidence that jobs growth and the recovery were petering out.

To what extent might the development of new vaccines bring this horror show to an end?

Although the trials have been remarkably successful, there remains a gap between developing a vaccine and establishing sufficient immunity to quell the virus. One estimate, by management consultants McKinsey, suggests an “epidemiological end to the pandemic” in the US no earlier than autumn or winter 2021.6 However, this relies on widespread uptake of the vaccine. A recent article in The Lancet estimates the level of immunity required, with a vaccine that is 80 percent effective, to be in the range of 75-90 percent of the population. This would include those who have acquired immunity after recovering from Covid-19 as well as those vaccinated, and many of the vaccines trialled appear to have an efficacy over 80 percent. Nonetheless, what the authors call “vaccine hesitancy” may yet prove an issue. In Britain, where 85 percent of people say they would be interested in taking a vaccine, reaching the threshold is plausible. However, that figure drops to 67 percent in Germany and the US, and just 59 percent in France.7

Moreover, the pandemic is a global affair. The firms planning to sell vaccines do not have the capacity to create enough for the world’s population and are unlikely to waive their intellectual property rights to allow generic versions to be produced.8 By September, rich countries with just 13 percent of the world’s population had already cornered 51 percent of projected supplies.9 Beyond their ranks, some countries, notably India, which has a huge domestic vaccine manufacturing infrastructure, will likely have access. However, many others, including the poorest and some middle-income countries, are likely to lose out in this upsurge of “vaccine nationalism”.10 Then there is the question of distribution. The vaccines being trialled require refrigeration, in some cases to -70C, and thus they would rely on cold-chain distribution systems that barely exist in many poorer countries and are inadequate in many others. The World Health Organisation estimates that broken cold-chain networks already lead to 1.5 million preventable deaths a year.11 An additional question, still unresolved, is the degree to which immunity wanes over time, potentially necessitating repeated vaccinations.12 These problems make it likely that the virus will remain endemic, resurfacing even in countries capable of vaccinating their populations.

The triple crisis

The pandemic is just one element in what I have described as a “triple crisis”.13 It cannot be understood in isolation from the broader ecological and economic disorder. Both of these reflect long-term tendencies, which now feed one another. Capitalism’s long depressive phase does not simply generate repeated economic crises; it also pushes capital to make ever deeper incursions into fragile ecosystems in order to maximise profits. The ecological crisis in turn increasingly damages the capacity of capitalism to reproduce itself, for instance, through disruptive weather patterns, famines and wildfires.

The pandemic strikingly draws together these two long-term tendencies. Covid-19 emerged from animal populations into human society precisely through capital’s penetration and commodification of nature. This then acted as a detonator for a new crisis phase within the long depression. We will see more such crises in the coming years. One warning sign was the outbreak of avian flu among poultry in late 2020, another viral hazard threatening to cross over into human populations and achieve pandemic take-off.14

The relative weakness of capitalism in its current phase means, even if the pandemic recedes, the economic slump of 2020 will scar the system for years to come. Capitalism’s long depression is ultimately rooted in an unresolved crisis of profitability that had emerged by the 1970s. As Marxist political economists have regularly pointed out, restoring profitability to high levels requires the destruction of unprofitable capital on a huge scale. However, each time this threatens to occur, it is met by interventions from states and their associated central banks that seek to avert the crisis. This, in turn, defers any resolution of the underlying problems—while also increasing capitalism’s reliance on credit expansion and reinforcing its financial fragility.15 The colossal state and central bank intervention of 2020 fits into this narrative—heralding another round of tepid growth that will eventually succumb to a new crisis. There will also be further pressure on workers. In Britain, for instance, we are seeing the first attempts to rein in government spending through a public sector pay freeze and projected cuts or tax rises of £27 billion by 2024.16 This adds to the woe caused by mass job losses, particularly in retail.

The fragile centre

What does this mean for global politics? Across much of the Global South there is now an established pattern. Urbanisation and expansion of the working class tend to outpace the capacity of capitalism to deliver decent jobs, maintain infrastructure and improve living standards. To preserve their power and to enrich themselves further in conditions of growing inequality, ruling classes become increasingly repressive; cronyism and corruption become more glaring. The result, in 2019, was a series of explosions of popular anger.17 By autumn 2020, after being briefly subdued by the pandemic, this pattern resumed, with outbursts in Belarus, Bolivia, Nigeria, Thailand and Guatemala.18 Covid-19 was by now a factor driving revolt.

In the Global North, governments often won increased popularity when initial lockdowns and social distancing measures were introduced. Yet here too failure to control the virus has had a corrosive effect on this support. In Britain trust in the government’s handling of the pandemic fell from 69 percent in April 2020 to 38 percent by late November. Only 13 percent of those polled took issue with the statement that the government’s response was “confused and inconsistent”.19

The degree of governmental failure and popular discontent does not correlate simplistically with the political stance of the government (“centre-ground” or “populist”). As Susan Watkins, editor of New Left Review, demonstrates, countries such as Peru (centre-right government), Spain (centre left-led coalition) and Belgium (a liberal-led coalition) have performed as badly as many with “populist” leaders.20 The mishandling of Covid-19 contributed to Trump’s downfall, but there is as yet no sign of the imminent departure of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro or India’s Narendra Modi.21

Even where “populists” do lose elections, the kind of neoliberal governance offered by figures such as Biden is unlikely to bring lasting stability.22 The deep polarisation of politics reflects dissatisfaction towards the neoliberal consensus that developed under earlier generations of politicians, including such figures as Bill Clinton, George Bush, Tony Blair and David Cameron. Returning the political helm to their heirs, at a moment of far deeper crisis for the system, will not reverse this tendency. Rather, it will accelerate it. As Mike Davis argues about the US in the wake of the election:

Trump’s would-be successors—the current favourites include Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, Nikki Haley and Ted Cruz—will be competing to feed red meat to the vengeful Trump faithful…the lynch-mob mood amongst Republicans will become even more dangerously anti-democratic and explosive.23

In the case of Britain, the problems are further compounded by Brexit. It remained unclear as we went to press whether a post-Brexit agreement would be reached with the European Union. Some of this reflects the Johnson government’s incompetence. However, there are real political issues at play. These include tensions between the Thatcherite neoliberalism of sections of Johnson’s party and a more “sovereigntist” impulse towards economic intervention, and between the desire to avoid the disruption feared by business and Johnson’s embrace of his own nationalist rhetoric. On the EU side, there is intransigent opposition to Britain breaking free of the bloc’s regulatory framework. There are also tensions between those such as Macron who hope the City of London’s role as Europe’s main financial hub will be supplanted, and those such as Merkel more concerned with market access for Germany’s powerful manufacturing sector.24

The radical left

The continued polarisation of politics poses two challenges for socialists. The first is to confront the radical right-wing forces that have entrenched themselves in the political landscape of most countries. The Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 demonstrates the potential that exists to beat back the right. The goal must be to use this dynamism to strengthen anti-racist and anti-fascist organisation that can disrupt the growth of far-right networks, along with the state racism feeding them, which is sharpening with the crisis. This is an essential lesson from the interview with Petros Constantinou in this issue of International Socialism, describing how the Greek fascist organisation Golden Dawn was broken.

No less challenging is finding a way to construct a socialist left capable of rising to the test of the current crisis. Repeated waves of radicalism in recent years have fed a resurgence of socialist politics. This was reflected in the rise of Syriza in Greece, Podemos in the Spanish state, Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Socialists of America in the US, along with Corbyn’s capture of the Labour leadership in Britain. Each of these has been in essence a left reformist project, aiming at winning state power and wielding it to reform capitalism. Each has clashed with the nature of the capitalist state, the limits to the system’s toleration of radical reforms, and the realities of electoralism.

Syriza won office only to confront a constellation of capitalist forces clustered around the EU, capitulating to the need to impose austerity before being defeated electorally. Podemos has gone from a party of indignant outsiders to a junior partner to PSOE, a party it once taught its followers to despise as part of the “caste” of career politicians. In the US, Sanders, along with allies such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, find themselves prisoners of the Democratic Party machine, which has wasted little time in blaming them for the party’s relatively poor electoral performance.25

Here in Britain, the left within the Labour Party has also come under attack since Corbyn’s failure to win the 2019 general election. Starmer, having mounted only ineffectual opposition to the hapless Johnson, has been far more ferocious in dealing with Labour’s former leader. Corbyn was suspended from membership of Labour for saying that the scale of antisemitism had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party” after the publication of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report into the party under his leadership. The report itself marks the latest phase in the weaponisation of the antisemitism accusation, serving both to undermine criticism of Israel and weaken the internationalist left, for which support for the Palestinian cause is a touchstone.26 Behind the scenes negotiations, and further concessions from Corbyn, secured his reinstatement to membership, only for Starmer to refuse to restore the Labour whip, forcing Corbyn to sit in parliament as an independent. In a Kafkaesque twist, Labour members were threatened with suspension if they expressed solidarity with, or even discussed, Corbyn at party meetings.27

The only way of extricating itself from the trap set by the EHRC report was for the left to mount a principled defence of its pro-Palestinian position, challenging the conflation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism. Unfortunately, the Labour left has not been able to develop such an approach, often placing a greater priority on party unity. This can take the form of capitulation, as with the journalist Paul Mason, who criticised Corbyn’s response to the EHRC report and accused anyone daring to contemplate a break with Labour of plotting to form a “neo-Stalinist sect”.28 Others have pledged to stay and fight but with little idea of how such a fight can be won. Still others have begun drifting out of Labour, with an estimated 50,000 departing between April and November, even before Corbyn’s suspension.

What these experiences imply is that prioritising the attainment of state power through the electoral system is, beyond a certain point, a barrier to the development of the left. Revolutionary socialists must insist that, whatever tactical use is made of elections, this work should be subordinated to struggles on the extra-parliamentary terrain. Any new party emerging from the calamity engulfing Corbynism would have to be based on that premise to avoid the pitfalls inherent in Labourism.29 Moreover, the kinds of struggles required to renew the left are strengthened by the presence of a core of people who reject the idea that capitalism determines the outer limit of possible social transformation, and who ultimately wish to supplant the system altogether. Therefore, the growth and renewal of the revolutionary socialist tradition is essential to confronting the deepening crisis facing us.

Joseph Choonara is the editor of International Socialism. He is the author of A Reader’s Guide to Marx’s Capital (Bookmarks, 2017) and Unravelling Capitalism: A Guide to Marxist Political Economy (2nd edition: Bookmarks, 2017).


1 Thanks to Richard Donnelly, Gareth Jenkins, Sheila McGregor and Camilla Royle for comments on earlier drafts.

2 See Rachman, 2020; Watkins, 2020, p5, offers other examples.

3 Strategic Survey, 2020.

4 Mallet and Keohane, 2020; see Orr, 2020, for a discussion of recent events.

5 Roberts, 2020.

6 Charumilind and others, 2020.

7 Anderson and others, 2020; World Economic Forum, 2020.

8 This is despite the fact that these firms often received public money for their work. Moderna, for instance, received $2.48 billion.

9 Oxfam, 2020.

10 Bollyky and Bown, 2020.

11 Peters, 2020.

12 Anderson and others, 2020.

13 Choonara, 2020a.

14 For an introduction to the capitalist roots of pandemics, see Choonara, 2020b.

15 Choonara, 2018.

16 This is in line with the prediction in this journal, against the received wisdom of many on the left at the beginning of the pandemic crisis—see Choonara, 2020a, pp7-8.

17 Choonara 2020c.

18 See the articles by Baba Aye, Giles Ji Ungpakorn and Tomáš Tengely-Evans in this issue.

20 Watkins, 2020.

21 Even in the US, as Mike Davis notes, in the absence of any alternative presented by the Democrats, many of Trump’s 74 million voters accepted the “zero-sum choice” between jobs and health that he offered—Davis, 2020.

22 On prospects for Biden, see the piece by Iannis Delatolas and Clare Lemlich in this issue.

23 Davis, 2020.

24 Parker and Brunsden, 2020; Callinicos, 2020.

25 Kendi, 2020.

26 Ferguson, 2020.

27 See Waugh, 2020.

28 Mason, 2020. Mason presumably knows a thing or two about sects, having spent his formative years in the Trotskyist groupuscule Workers’ Power.

29 It is in this spirit that the Socialist Workers Party wrote an “open letter to socialists in the Labour Party” in November—https://swp.org.uk/an-open-letter-to-the-socialists-in-the-labour-party


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