Socialism in a time of pandemics

Issue: 166

Joseph Choonara

It is tempting to see pandemics as unpredictable, cataclysmic incursions of nature into human society.1 Yet the outbreak of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) is anything but a “natural” phenomenon. Epidemics and pandemics happen in a social, political and economic context, which interweaves with processes such as the mutation of viruses, their passage from one host to another and their impact on living organisms. The nature of the Covid-19 pandemic cannot therefore be grasped without considering capitalism in its current configuration.

Above all, a pandemic on this scale intensifies the pre-existing fault lines of capitalism. At the most basic level it poses a choice: defend profits or save lives. The indications, thus far, are that the former has been the overriding priority for those presiding over the system. This article explores how pandemics enmesh with the logic of capital and offers some potential responses from the left.


Covid-19 is caused by a novel virus known as “severe acute respiratory ­syndrome coronavirus 2” (SARS-CoV-2). Coronaviruses were discovered in the 1960s and cause a range of conditions.2 Some are mild: coronaviruses are among hundreds of potential causes for the common cold. Others are more deadly: when Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) emerged in 2012, over a third of the 2,040 laboratory-confirmed cases proved fatal.3 Covid-19 causes, among other symptoms, fever and a dry cough. It can lead to pneumonia, which is potentially deadly, especially in older people or those with underlying health problems. At the time of writing, estimates for the crude mortality ratio (the number of reported deaths per reported case) were 3-4 percent, compared to about 0.1 percent for seasonal influenza outbreaks.4 The coronavirus spreads through droplets in the air from an infected person, for instance when they cough, and via contact with contaminated surfaces.

At a molecular level, coronaviruses are based on a single strand of RNA, which means that they mutate rapidly: “It took the genome of the human species eight million years to evolve by 1 percent. Many animal RNA viruses can evolve by more than 1 percent in a matter of days”.5 As with many other viruses, coronaviruses lurk in reservoirs formed by animal populations. Most viral epidemics and pandemics occur when new viruses cross over to humans from other animal species, a process known as zoonosis, and, through mutations, gain the ability to pass from human to human. When a new, mutated form of the virus makes this leap, it encounters a human population that does not possess immunity to the pathogen, with ­potentially devastating consequences.

A good example is influenza. Like coronaviruses, influenza is a single-strand RNA virus. Here waterfowl, such as ducks and geese, act as a reservoir. Influenza is widely present in these bird populations but, in these hosts, leads to relatively mild symptoms—primarily digestive disorders that cause the birds to spread the virus by excretion.6 Once it reaches human populations, the virus becomes a respiratory tract infection. Influenza can mutate in such a way that it spontaneously crosses the boundary from birds to humans, although this is rare. Often an intermediate species is required. Pigs are particularly well-designed to act as such a bridge because their cells can become infected by both bird and human strains of flu, leading to new hybrid forms.7 Seasonal flu typically kills between half a million and one ­million people globally each year.8 Pandemic influenza, by contrast, can overwhelm healthcare systems.

Some coronaviruses also exist in bird populations, but a more important host for the kinds of coronaviruses that spread to humans appears to be bats.9 Again, other species such as pigs, civets or camels often play a role in ­transmitting ­coronaviruses from bats to humans.10 Zoonosis is therefore a crucial dimension to the spread of coronaviruses.

A brief history of pandemics

Early human societies consisted of small bands of hunter-gatherers. They would at times have been exposed to infectious diseases from other animals or from the ­environment. These small groups of humans might succumb to the disease or develop immunity; either way, there was little chance of infections spreading far beyond the initial group. This changed with the Neolithic Revolution, which began in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago and led to the emergence of settled agricultural societies. Population sizes grew, human waste could accumulate within settlements and, in some cases, people domesticated livestock, bringing themselves into close proximity to animals for sustained periods. These formed far better conditions for the spread of viruses and other pathogens—as did the growth of trade, war and migration between human populations.11

Over time, shared exposure to a set of diseases led to an “unstable accommodation”, creating what William McNeill calls “civilised disease pools”, spanning large regions such as those centred on the Mediterranean Sea or the Indian subcontinent.12 However, new diseases could suddenly be introduced into these pools by the opening up of new trade routes, by war or by conquest. For instance, in 165 AD, troops who had been on campaign in Mesopotamia spread a “plague” (possibly smallpox) through the Roman Empire—leading to a 15 year epidemic that, in places, may have killed a third of the population.13 Bubonic plague, a bacterial infection carried by fleas, spread through merchant ships carrying black rats, arriving in the Mediterranean in the year 541, recurring intermittently until around 767 and, by some estimates, reducing the population by tens of millions.14 McNeill suggests that the opening up of trade routes by the Mongol Empire from the 13th century, creating a vast web of communication across Eurasia, introduced bubonic plague to the burrowing rodents of the steppe. From here it spread through caravan routes, reaching Crimea in 1346 and leading to what became known in Europe as the Black Death.15 By now, trading networks and shipping routes extended through northern Europe, spreading black rats and plague across the continent, leading to the death of a third of the population of Europe during 1346-50.16 An increased population density, and rubbish-strewn, rat-infested streets in settled areas, helped to ensure the rapid spread of the disease. Regular bubonic plague outbreaks continued in Europe until the 1670s.

Even more devastating than the impact of the Black Death in Europe was the spread of “old world” diseases to the Americas during their colonisation. The “new world” was especially susceptible. Although densely inhabited in places, it lacked the ecological diversity of the combined Eurasian-African ­landmasses, with their long history of epidemics. Moreover, domesticated animals played a less important role in food production.17 Smallpox, along with mumps and measles, fused with the brutality of colonial ­empire-building. The resulting epidemics wiped out perhaps 90 percent of the population of central Mexico in the half century from 1568.18 The impact was similar elsewhere in the continent. The indigenous population of Peru fell from about seven million to about half a million.19 A pale echo of this devastation would return to haunt the “old world”. Probably as a result of the epidemic in the Americas, a more deadly strain of smallpox made its way back to Europe in the 17th century—and by the early 18th century it was causing 400,000 deaths annually.20

By this time Europe was itself experiencing profound social transformation. With the development of industrial capitalism, which took off in Britain from the 18th century, came accelerated urbanisation. This created squalid conditions in the new towns and cities, with large numbers of people packed into slums with miserable sanitation. Poverty, stress and overcrowding increased susceptibility to disease and ensured that once diseases were introduced they would spread rapidly. Moreover, once diseases arrived in a city, they could be passed through growing networks of trade, movements of people for work, to wage war or administer colonies, or to escape war, poverty or repression.21 Indeed, in this period, through to the 19th century—when nutrition, sewerage, hygiene and public healthcare began to improve—people in British towns and cities tended to die younger than those in the countryside. London in particular was a “devourer” of people, with more burials than baptism for much of the 18th century, “largely a result of ‘crowd diseases’ such as smallpox, measles and tuberculosis”.22

In the case of smallpox, the virus was not transmitted by zoonosis in the manner of influenza or coronaviruses—humans were themselves the reservoir species. Once it had swept through an area, a population of about 100,000 was required to ensure sufficient susceptible people were born each year to sustain it.23 By the mid-17th century, London was already three times bigger than that; by 1801, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham were each approaching 100,000 people. Tuberculosis, which generally affects the lungs, was spread by bacteria, rather than a virus, but here zoonosis is important. The disease infects humans through infected milk, then passes from person to person through coughing and spit. Evidence of cases stretches back millennia, probably to the domestication of cattle. However, it was in the industrial cities that it became a major cause of mortality—by 1780 it may have been responsible for a fifth of deaths in England and Wales.24 From here, the disease’s spread followed the pattern of early industrialisation—first western Europe, then eastern Europe and North America, where, in New York in 1812-21, about a quarter of deaths were attributed to “consumption”, as the disease was known. The spread reflected not simply the formation of densely populated urban areas, but also the presence of “town dairies”, which allowed the disease to pass between cows and from cows to humans.25

By the 19th century, urbanisation, poverty and colonialism were ­combining to generate new threats. Cholera had been prevalent in India for centuries. With its integration into the British Empire and the associated movement of people and goods, cholera spread. In 1817 an epidemic in India enveloped Russia and China. Three years later, British troops brought the disease to the eastern Mediterranean. Then, in 1832, 1848 and 1866, genuine pandemics radiated out from India, spreading across Europe and the Americas. As George Dehner writes: “It was characteristic of the transmission pattern of the illness that it would appear first in cities, generally port cities linked to trade. Outbreaks could be tied at first to the waterways that linked a region and in later years to the expanding railroad systems that crisscrossed states”.26 Up to half of those infected died. The disease was concentrated in poorer areas because the bacteria that caused the disease spread through contaminated water. In the early 19th century it was common for sewage, which in a rural setting might have been used on fields or dumped away from housing, to be cast into the streets, with effluent flowing into rivers and lakes from which drinking water was drawn.

The conditions that spread cholera through 19th century Manchester were detailed by a young Friedrich Engels: “When the epidemic was approaching, a universal terror seized the bourgeoisie of the city. People remembered the unwholesome dwellings of the poor, and trembled before the certainty that each of these slums would become a centre for the plague, whence it would spread ­desolation in all directions through the houses of the propertied class.” He added that an inspection of 6,951 houses in Manchester revealed “2,565 urgently needed whitewashing…960 were out of repair; 939 had insufficient drains; 1,435 were damp; 452 were badly ventilated; 2,221 were without privies”.27 Years later, in his articles on the “housing question”, he returned to the theme: “Modern natural science has proved that the so-called ‘bad districts’, in which the workers are crowded together, are the breeding places of all those epidemics which from time to time afflict our towns. Cholera, typhus, typhoid fever, smallpox and other ravaging diseases…the capitalist order of society reproduces again and again the evils to be remedied”.28

In many countries, such conditions are not a thing of the past. For instance, Yemen, where war and famine rage, has recently experienced a cholera epidemic.29 More generally, accelerating urbanisation, with its attendant slum formation, has generalised the conditions that led to these early industrial pandemics. A deadly storm of infectious diseases, chronic illness and ­malnutrition, combined with retrenchment of public healthcare and inadequate sanitation, has developed in the modern world.30

While some of the conditions producing crowd diseases were ameliorated in the most developed countries by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a new danger, pandemic flu, was coming into focus. Flu epidemics were not unknown. One European outbreak in the 1550s may have killed as many as one in five inhabitants in England, before, again, wreaking havoc in the Americas.31 Now the threat returned with a vengeance. The prelude was the “Russian” flu outbreak of 1889, which began in Bukhara, in present day Uzbekistan, spreading first to St Petersburg in autumn and within eight weeks across Europe, reaching North America and Southern Africa. Over successive months it penetrated South America, then India, and finally Australia and New Zealand. “A very conservative estimate for first-wave mortality (1889-1890) in Europe posited that the number of deaths had been between 270,000 and 360,000”.32 This was simply a dress rehearsal. In spring 1918, as the First World War raged, soldiers began to fall ill with the flu. The disease soon became a pandemic, but, in its first wave, it led to few casualties and was overshadowed by the effects of the war. But the second wave of this “Spanish” flu, produced by a mutated strain of the virus, was devastating.33 Dehner writes:

The Great War had created an unusual confluence of events. Many millions of men and women were crowded together in substandard conditions… These crowded masses were linked to transportation systems that flowed to every corner of the globe. The stressed population comprised a vast tinderbox for epidemic outbreaks—especially respiratory epidemics.34

The virus spread with incredible speed and scope. It has been estimated that almost a third of humanity was infected over the next few months. Medical facilities, already depleted by the war mobilisation, were overcome by cases of pneumonia. After the second wave, a third, less deadly, one followed in 1919. Recent estimates for deaths from the three waves fall between 50 and 100 million, several times the number killed directly by the war itself.35 In all probability, the high death rate was not simply a result of the virulence of the strain of influenza, but also the way it opened pathways for bacteria that would cause secondary infections, leading to pneumonia.36 Again, worst hit were those in the poorest countries where mortality rates were rarely recorded.37 India may have suffered 18.5 million dead, with hunger, poor housing, grain requisitioning by the British, which coincided with drought to weaken the immune response, and inadequate healthcare all deepening the impact of the disease.38

In 1947, after several decades during which scientists sought to understand the nature of influenza and how it had caused such carnage, a global influenza ­surveillance programme was established. This Global Influenza Programme would later become part of the newly formed World Health Organization (WHO). Later outbreaks in 1957 (the “Asian” flu pandemic) and in 1968 (the “Hong Kong” flu pandemic) killed about two million and one million people respectively. Following this came two false alarms. The first was a 1976 outbreak of swine flu, which spread through a US military base before petering out, but not before an emergency government-initiated programme vaccinated 43 million people, about a quarter of the US population.39 The second, a 1977 “pseudo-pandemic”, spread widely but its effects were mild.40

Modern threats

The emergence of viral pandemics remains a major threat in the contemporary world.41 Understanding the threat means looking at the changing structure of societies, drawing on the work of authors such as Rob Wallace who have traced the connection between contemporary agricultural systems and zoonosis. Wallace’s best known work, Big Farms Make Big Flu, emphasises the potential for large-scale agribusiness to act as a gigantic petri-dish for the creation and propagation of new diseases.42 Monocultures of domesticated animals, crammed together in large numbers, mean high rates of transmission and weakened immune responses. The growth of agribusiness is a global phenomenon, with a “livestock revolution” feeding expanding consumption of meat concentrated in the Global South. As Mike Davis writes:

The world icon of industrialised poultry and livestock production…Tyson Foods…which kills 2.2 billion chickens annually, has become globally synonymous with scaled-up, vertically coordinated production; exploitation of contract growers; visceral anti-unionism; rampant industrial injury; downstream environmental dumping; and political corruption. The global dominance of behemoths like Tyson has forced local farmers to either integrate with large-scale chicken and pork processing firms or perish… Entire farming districts have been converted to the warehousing of poultry, with farmers serving as little more than chicken custodians.43

However, it is not simply within this modern livestock-industrial complex itself that the problems lie. As an anonymous author in the journal Chuang, drawing on Wallace, puts it:

To this is added similarly intensive processes occurring at the economy’s fringes, where “wild” strains are encountered by people pushed to ever-more extensive agro-economic incursions into local ecosystems…epidemics can be loosely grouped into two categories, the first originating at the core of agro-economic production, and the second in its hinterland… The basic logic of capital helps to take previously isolated or harmless viral strains and place them in hypercompetitive environments that favour the specific traits which cause epidemics, such as rapid viral lifecycles, the capacity for zoonotic jumping…and the capacity to quickly evolve new transmission vectors.44

In other words, it is not simply factory farms that generate new viruses, but also the broader disruption of ecosystems and the expansion of commodity ­production. This has the consequence of pushing different animal species together as well as bringing humans and other animals into contact—drawing new pathogens into circulation. A few examples help illustrate the point. In the 1960s Bolivian haemorrhagic fever spread from rodents to farm workers. The 1963-4 outbreak centred on agricultural labourers in San Joaquin, who, after the local family of beef barons were dispossessed in the 1952 revolution and closed their business, pushed into dense jungle areas to plant crops in order to feed themselves. In doing so, they disrupted the natural habitat of the rodents, who invaded the town—a factor reinforced by the use of DDT spraying to control malaria, which reduced the local cat population.45 Road building further spread the disease through the country by pushing rodents to migrate.46 Nipah virus emerged in South-East Asia at the end of the 1990s due to the intensification of pig farming and the infection of pigs by bats, probably through bat droppings, when the bats’ habitat was destroyed by drought and human deforestation.47 A particularly important contemporary example is Ebola virus, which can kill up to 90 percent of people infected and which emerged in epidemic form in west Africa in 2013. This virus is also carried in the wild by bats. A land-grab by US, European and Chinese multinationals in the Guinea Savannah Zone led to bat populations being drawn to expanding oil palm plantations for food and shelter, creating the conditions for zoonosis.48

These tendencies have been exacerbated over recent decades by unregulated expansion of agriculture. Thus Wallace argues in a recent interview that ­alongside industrial agriculture, “capital is spearheading land grabs into the last of primary forest and smallholder-held farmland worldwide. These investments drive the deforestation and development that lead to disease emergence. The functional diversity and complexity these huge tracts of land represent are being streamlined in such a way that previously boxed-in pathogens are spilling over into local livestock and human communities”. This process is driven by flows of capital from the heartlands of the system: “In short, capital centres, places such as London, New York, and Hong Kong, should be considered our primary disease hotspots”.49 As well as changes to land use, the wider ecological disruption brought about by climate change is likely to induce further zoonotic transfers.

This double-edged expansion of threat is demonstrated by two major ­outbreaks of flu in recent decades. The first was “avian flu”, caused by an unusual strain known as H5N1, which first emerged in chicken farms in Hong Kong in 1997. Initially it caused large numbers of deaths among chicken flocks. By the end of the year, 18 people had been hospitalised, testing positive for H5N1, with one third dying. In December 1997, chickens in a “wet market” in Hong Kong were hit—again H5N1 was identified as the culprit.50 In Hong Kong “farms…ranged from large operations where chickens were in very stressful (for the birds) large flocks to small operations where the birds ran free with other farm animals and mingled along the watercourse and ponds with interloping wild birds like ducks and geese”. There were also large “holding facilities” containing birds to insulate against market fluctuations. This haphazard and poorly-regulated industry then serviced markets that “were a chaotic jumble of cages of a variety of species”, including, alongside chickens, “ducks, geese, partridges, quail, pigeons and a variety of wild caught birds” as well as mammals and reptiles.51

These production systems were, crucially, connected to, and under intense pressure from, mainland Chinese producers. Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong, has become a sort of laboratory for new chicken farming methods, ­emulating the industrial chicken farming pioneered in the US in the post-war decades.52 It is, as Davis puts it, the “epicentre of influenza evolution”.53 Critical to this story is the Charoen Pokphand business empire built by two Thai brothers—essentially emulating the methods of Tyson in the US and astutely taking advantage of Deng Xiaoping’s opening up of the Chinese economy from 1978.54 The turn to industrial farming does not just breed viruses, it actually selects for more virulent ones. As Wallace argues:

Pathogens must avoid evolving the capacity to incur such damage to their host that they are unable to transmit themselves. If a pathogen kills its host before it infects the next host it destroys its own chain of transmission. But what happens when the pathogen “knows” that the next host is coming along much sooner? The pathogen can get away with being virulent because it can successfully infect the next susceptible in the chain before it kills its host… There are additional pressures on influenza virulence on [industrial] farms. As soon as industrial animals reach the right bulk they are killed. Resident influenza infections must reach their transmission threshold quickly in any given animal, before the chicken or duck or pig is sacrificed.55

The network spanning Guangdong and Hong Kong, with poultry moving both ways across the border, was therefore an ideal place for a deadly flu virus to emerge. The region combined patterns of expanding, industrialised, but poorly-regulated, farming with the mixing of different kinds of birds, either on farms that were expanding into the province’s wetlands, or in wet markets. Later it emerged that the H5N1 virus was a result of a strain found in geese combining with two quail strains of influenza.56 The outbreak was contained by aggressive culling, shutting down markets for cleaning, restructuring of markets to separate species, and a ban on sales of live ducks. Up to 200 million birds died or were culled.57 This worked, but largely because H5N1 has only, thus far, achieved human-human transmission occasionally and on a small scale.58 The WHO has recorded 861 cases of H5N1 in humans, with 455 deaths, with Egypt, Indonesia and Vietnam the worst affected.59

However, it was not H5N1 that led to the first influenza pandemic of the 21st century. Instead, in 2009, a new threat, based on an H1N1 strain of influenza, a variant of the type that caused the 1918 pandemic, emerged—not in the wet markets of South-East Asia but in North America. By the time cases emerged in the US, human-human transmission was already possible. The disease had run through Mexican swine herds, which were increasingly large-scale industrial operations.60 The strain turned out to combine “human, avian and two distinct swine lineages (North American and Eurasian)” of gene segments.61 The WHO was quick to declare swine flu a pandemic. Fortunately, the virus proved comparatively mild, with mortality rates comparable to seasonal flu. Indeed, this led to a significant backlash against the WHO, especially when the British Medical Journal revealed that a number of WHO experts were in the pay of pharmaceutical firms who stood to profit from the production of vaccines and anti-virals.62 This demonstrates the danger of treating health as a private rather than a public good. It is hardly surprising that there is suspicion of, or even hostility to, the medical establishment if it is permeated by profiteers. Nonetheless, H5N1 and H1N1 should be viewed as catastrophes narrowly averted or, more likely, ­postponed—the former because it has not yet achieved significant human-human transmission, the latter because it is not, in its current form, especially virulent.

The same cannot be said of the two earlier coronavirus outbreaks over this period. In 2003 a coronavirus emerged in Guangdong, with a large cluster of pneumonia cases in the province. The resulting Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) had a case fatality rate of about 10 percent. SARS ­probably emanated from masked palm civets sold in a wet market in the province, with the animals an intermediary between humans and Chinese horseshoe bats, which act as a reservoir for a range of SARS-related coronaviruses.63 The ­emergence of SARS reflects Wallace’s argument about the interaction between the urban and the rural. The rapid expansion of Guangdong has created a broad “peri-urban” zone, characterised not just by “a coexistence of industry and agriculture or urban and rural activities but also by the interdependence of the two sectors”. This has accelerated since the opening up of the Chinese economy. “Urban-rural interaction in the pre-reform era was tightly constrained…through central resource allocation, price determination and migration control, which formed an invisible yet effective ‘wall’ separating cities from the countryside… The implementation of liberal and flexible economic policies since the reforms has allowed urbanites and peasantry to interact in a direct and spontaneous manner, giving rise to reorganisation of the urban-rural relations”.64

The disease entered Guangzhou, then a city of ten million, by the end of 2002. However, Chinese government officials delayed sharing information about the outbreak, either with their own public or the international health community, until 11 February 2003.65 SARS was ultimately contained in 2004, after a massive state-run programme of quarantine, disease detection and cleaning, in many ways acting as a test run for what happened in early 2020.66 But things are unlikely to be so simple with Covid-19. With SARS, people tended to become most infectious only after they were already seriously ill and largely incapacitated. This is not so with Covid-19, which has already spread far more widely.67

An even more deadly coronavirus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), emerged in Saudi Arabia in 2012—with a case fatality rate of about one-third. It spread to Europe, Asia, the wider Middle East and North America, leading to 2,494 confirmed cases and 858 associated deaths.68 Here the intermediary between bats and humans were dromedary camels, with the latter known to have carried forms of the virus for several decades. Today, across oil-rich and now largely urbanised Arab states, camels are primarily owned as status symbols, for instance for camel racing and shows, or for the production of meat or milk products to sell, rather than as pack animals or for immediate consumption. As well as intensive farming of camels, there are now both extensive imports of live camels into Saudi Arabia—70 percent of those slaughtered in Saudi Arabia in 2013 were imported—and movement of camels between different Arab states for racing and shows. These commercial processes may have led to the mixing of different strains of coronavirus from different populations, leadings to the MERS outbreak.69

The emergence of Covid-19

Covid-19 is caused by a betacoronavirus, like that responsible for SARS and MERS. Wuhan, thought to be ground zero for the outbreak, is a city of 11 million, the capital of the landlocked Hubei province in central China. It lies to the north of Guangdong, which, together with Jiangsu to the east, has been an engine of China’s manufacturing growth. Wuhan was an economically and politically important city in the early 20th century—standing at the centre of a network of waterways and later railways. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, it was home to large state-sponsored heavy industries, particularly iron and steel, and later automobile production.

The opening up of the Chinese economy from the late 1970s saw the city’s importance decline relative to the coastal regions. Nonetheless, the recent period has seen Wuhan drawn into the Chinese construction boom: “Wuhan not only fed this bubble with its oversupply of building materials and civil engineers but also, in so doing, became a real estate boomtown of its own”.70 According to a report by HSBC bank, the residential population of Wuhan grew by about a fifth from 2008 to 2017; many of the newcomers were migrants, from elsewhere in China, who make up about a third of the city’s population. By 2017 investment in housing projects had reached $26.8 billion, with accommodation prices quadrupling over the past decade. The city’s richest man, Yan Zhi, made much of his wealth, which peaked at $10 billion in 2018, in property.71

Large numbers of the city’s residents rely on wet markets for food and it is in this context that Covid-19 seems to have emerged. However, as Wallace points out, “while the distinction between factory farms and wet markets isn’t unimportant, we may miss their similarities (and dialectical relationships)”:

Wet markets and exotic food are staples in China, as is now industrial ­production, juxtaposed alongside each other since economic liberalisation… Indeed, the two food modes may be integrated by way of land use. Expanding industrial production may push increasingly capitalised wild foods deeper into the last of the primary landscape, dredging out a wider variety of potentially proto-pandemic pathogens. Peri-urban loops of growing extent and population density may increase the interface (and spillover) between wild non-human populations and newly urbanised rurality. Worldwide, even the wildest ­subsistence species are being roped into [agricultural] value chains: among them ostriches, porcupine, crocodiles, fruit bats, and the palm civet, whose partially digested berries now supply the world’s most expensive coffee bean. Some wild species are making it onto forks before they are even scientifically identified, including one new short-nosed dogfish found in a Taiwanese market. All are increasingly treated as food commodities. As nature is stripped place-by-place, species-by-species, what’s left over becomes that much more valuable.72

Indeed, Chinese policy, at a national level, and through regional and local leaders engaged in competition, has promoted wildlife farming, seen as a boost to rural industries. Wildlife farming was valued in 2017 at £57 billion.73

Covid-19 quickly spread beyond Wuhan. Not only are global populations more connected that ever, but air travel means that travel times are often shorter than the incubation period for pathogens—travellers may have arrived and begun spreading a disease before showing any symptoms. Back in 2003 with the outbreak of SARS, Hong Kong was the nexus point for transmission to cities around the world, but today China itself is linked by a dense network of communication with other cities.74 Wuhan has its own international airport, connecting with over 60 destinations abroad.75 There were 515 million internal flights in China in 2019, with international flights growing from 6.2 million in 2000 to 51.62 million in 2016.76

While there has been spectacular growth and urbanisation in China, there remains low expenditure on healthcare. “Most public spending has been directed towards brick and mortar infrastructure—bridges, roads and cheap electricity for production” leading to a “general degradation of basic healthcare”, replicating some of the conditions of early industrialisation elsewhere. Public spending on health, per person, is “low even among other ‘upper-middle income’ countries, and…around half that spent by Brazil, Belarus or Bulgaria”.77 In addition, many Chinese migrant workers do not enjoy access to healthcare once they leave their rural hometowns. Conditions were primed for an epidemic to spread through China and to the wider world.

The economic impact

China has, in recent years, transformed itself into the world’s largest merchandise exporter—and the biggest importer of raw materials. It controls 40 percent of global clothing and textile exports, about a third of global exports of office, data processing and telecoms equipment, 13 percent of iron and steel exports, and 14 percent of integrated circuits electronic components.78 However, China is not simply an export powerhouse; it has placed itself at the centre of global production networks, integrated on a regional and international scale. This is particularly true in electronics. As quarantine rules and factory closures spread through regions such as Zhejiang, Guangdong and Henan, supply chains for firms such as Apple were hit. The giant Taiwanese firm, Foxconn, which manufactures iPhones for Apple, expects its first quarter revenues to fall by 45 percent. Across the country, the purchasing managers’ index for manufacturing, a key measure of expected activity, experienced its sharpest contraction of all time, worse than during the 2008 crisis.79

The slowdown in China itself and the impact of Covid-19 on the global economy more broadly soon triggered collapse in stock markets across the world. By mid-March, markets in the US and Europe had recorded some of their biggest falls in history. The stock market tremors were exacerbated by an emerging price war in the energy sector. For the past three years, oil producers such as Saudi Arabia and Russia have colluded to restrict supplies and keep oil prices relatively high. With the Chinese manufacturing slowdown, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, sought to persuade Vladimir Putin to cut production. Putin, though, regarded coordination between producers to prop up the price of oil as a subsidy to the US shale industry, which requires expensive energy to make it viable. Shale production has allowed the US to become the world’s biggest oil producer, overtaking both Russia and Saudi Arabia. Moreover Putin bristled at the recent decision of the US to impose sanctions on the trading arm of Rosneft, Russia’s state-controlled energy company. Russia allowed prices to fall, ending its alliance with Saudi Arabia. MBS responded by flooding the market with oil, triggering the price war.80

It is likely that a new recession is taking hold, and this is certainly the view of central bankers. On 3 March, the US Federal Reserve held an emergency meeting and slashed interest rates by 0.5 percent for the first time since the 2008-9 crisis. The Fed also promised to pump funding into financial markets, particularly “repo” markets that financial firms use to obtain short-term liquidity in exchange for collateral such as bonds. A week later, the Bank of England followed with its own rate cut. The European Central Bank (ECB), whose main rate is already negative, unsettled investors by offering a more limited stimulus, expanding its existing quantitative easing programme. Then, on 15 March, the Fed announced new action—cutting US interest rates close to zero, expanding its purchases of bonds, and offering new “swap lines” to supply dollars to other central banks. The focus on repo markets and the provision of plentiful dollars in order to lubricate the global financial system reflects fears of the kind of liquidity crisis that developed from 2007—and strongly echoes the emergency measures eventually taken a decade ago.81 In other words, those at the commanding heights of the economy believe this could be a crisis at least on a comparable scale to 2008-9.

However, while Covid-19 may trigger a global slowdown, it is not the underlying cause. The world system was already extremely sickly before Covid-19 hit.82 The roots of this lie in a long period of depressed profitability and the methods used to drag the economy out of the recession of 2008-9. As I argued in 2018: “The recession of 2008-9 was a long-deferred crisis for the system, one prepared by a period of subdued profitability, by dysfunctional patterns of financialisation and by the actions of states. The fact that it was not allowed to become a slump on the scale of the 1930s has given us instead a long depression—a prolonged period of relatively sluggish and tentative growth”.83 The action taken by ruling classes in the wake of the crisis—stimulus packages, interest rate cuts and quantitative easing, meant that:

Capitalism was placed on a life support mechanism—but one that took a distinctively financialised form… The measures ostensibly aimed to ensure a stream of credit to corporations, boosting production. But, in conditions of subdued profitability, this failed to transpire. Rapid accumulation takes place in conditions in which investors believe that production is going to be profitable. Instead money was either squirrelled away by the banks or streamed into financial investments, often high-yielding, risky investments… Not only has the financialised bailout fuelled speculation—and, incidentally, inflated the price of the assets of the rich—it has also further deferred any resolution to the underlying crisis.84

In a Financial Times piece entitled “The Seeds of the Next Debt Crisis”, John Plender notes that by the third quarter of 2019 global debt had reached a record 322 percent of GDP, close to $253 trillion. Much of this among non-financial corporations, which, given the current disruption, may struggle to service their debts.85 In other words, we may have reached the limits of the period of stagnant and uncertain growth that emerged after 2008-9. As another piece in the Financial Times noted:

Companies have gorged on cheap debt for a decade… Borrowing costs had tumbled after central banks lowered interest rates to jolt their economies following the 2008 financial crisis. Investors, starved of yield from safer government bonds, saw lending to riskier companies as a way to juice returns. Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, estimates that one in six US companies does not earn enough cash flow to cover interest payments on its debt. Such “zombie” borrowers could keep putting off the crunch as long as debt markets kept letting them refinance. But now a reckoning is coming.86

Without a clearout of unprofitable firms on a far greater scale than has happened thus far, is it unlikely that profit rates will rebound. In this context, in which interest rates are already near or below zero, and central bank balance-sheets loaded with previous asset purchases, there are limits to what monetary policy can do. We may face, as Plender argues, “a credit crunch in a world of ultra-low and negative interest rates”. Even if there is more central bank ­activism, he notes that it risks “entrenching the dysfunctional monetary policy that ­contributed to the original financial crisis, as well as exacerbating the ­dangerous debt overhang the global economy now faces”.87 Because much of the ­ammunition that would traditionally be used to stave off a crisis has already been fired, many policymakers and commentators are advocating a shift to fiscal policy. Yet, as Michael Roberts points out, there is limited evidence that simply running a deficit and engaging in state expenditure on the scale envisaged can sustain growth in the face of low and declining profitability—and, anyway, this is impossible for many weaker economies of the Global South.88 A major ­contraction may well be the result.

Between complacency and authoritarianism

Governments have responded in a range of ways to the pandemic. This is not primarily a result of disagreements about epidemiology or virology, though, given the limited extent of knowledge about Covid-19 at time of writing, there remain plenty of unknowns. Far more fundamentally, the responses reflect the context of class-divided capitalist states, integrated into a conflict-filled global order. The typical response of those presiding over the system has been, first, complacency as they seek to maintain the production and circulation of capital at the expense of human suffering, followed by desperate top-down measures as it becomes clear that the viability of future profit-making is being called into question by the pandemic.

China’s programme of lockdowns extended at its peak to some 760 million people.89 Major workplaces were closed and the movement of people restricted. As a result, China is widely viewed as having slowed the spread of the virus—though questions remain about the official figures and whether, as controls are relaxed, the virus will resurface. This is particularly relevant as the government appears to be prioritising the rapid reopening of workplaces.

In addition, there are three reasons why the left should be wary of heaping praise on China. First, it is undeniable that an authoritarian state machine can sometimes do things that liberal democracies cannot. That is not, however, an argument for accepting dictatorship as superior to democracy—a version of the “Mussolini made the trains run on time” argument.90 The forcible herding of tens of thousands of people into makeshift isolation centres in stadiums, mass surveillance both online and at local street level, are hardly a model for ­socialists or a method of engendering genuine support for public health measures.91 The Chinese response has been described as consisting of “desperate, aggressive measures” similar to those used in counter-insurgencies in Algeria or Palestine, but in this case conducted across “megacities” housing a large portion of the world’s population.92

Second, the superficial picture of efficient, centralised repression assumes that the Chinese state is more powerful and coherent than it really is. Again, the anonymous author in Chuang provides the best commentary. While the central state apparatus could, eventually, focus its efforts in Wuhan, in general it relied on a combination of “widely-publicised calls for local officials and local citizens to mobilise and a series of after-the-fact punishments meted out to the worst responders”.93 Outside of Hubei, the response was highly uneven. This led to arbitrary repression in some areas, for instance the issuing of 30 million “local passports” in four cities in Zhejiang, “allowing one person per household to leave home once every two days”.94 China-based journalists at the New York Times report:

A grass-roots mobilisation reminiscent of the Mao-style mass crusades not seen in China in decades, essentially entrusting front line epidemic prevention to a supercharged version of a neighborhood watch… Despite China’s arsenal of high-tech surveillance tools, the controls are mainly enforced by hundreds of thousands of workers and volunteers, who check residents’ temperature, log their movements, oversee quarantines and—most important—keep away outsiders who might carry the virus.95

The patchwork nature of China’s response reflects competition among local and regional leaders. According to one Chinese professor: “Once the epidemic was disclosed, the central government put huge pressure on local officials. That triggered competition between regions, and local governments turned from overly conservative to radical”.96

Third, it ignores the culpability of the Chinese state in allowing an epidemic to take hold in the first place—something that has happened with great regularity in recent years, as the examples of SARS and H5N1 show. The initial response of the state, when cases emerged in early December 2019, was to seek to cover up the outbreak—silencing medical professionals who acted as whistleblowers, most famously the ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, whose Covid-19 related death sparked an outpouring of anger.97

Outside China, at the time of writing, Italy appeared to have the largest number of cases and deaths from Covid-19. There is evidence that the virus had been circulating in the country undetected for some time before the first case emerged. Italy is particularly vulnerable because it has an abnormally high proportion of older people. The health service, already weakened by years of austerity, is now being overwhelmed, and specialists in intensive care wards are reaching the point where they will have to consider which patients should receive life-saving treatment.

The response of the government was, eventually, to shut down schools, universities, shops, other than supermarkets and pharmacies, bars and restaurants—yet banks and workplaces kept going. There has been a similar pattern in many countries: workers are not to gather together, except to tend to the means of production. Indeed, Confindustria, the major Italian business lobby, wrote to the government asking for a “balanced solution”, as closures of workplaces would “inevitably impact on turnover and employment”.98 Politicians of various stripes responded to the message. The governor of Lombardy, a member of the radical-right Lega, argued the outbreak was “little more than normal flu”, while the centre-left mayor of Milan launched a “Milan doesn’t stop” campaign.99 One response in Italy in early March was a spontaneous wave of strike action as workers took matters into their own hands. Strikes developed in Fiat plants in Termoli and near Naples, car component manufacturers in Florence, ­shipyards in Venice and the docks in Genoa. Steelworks and clothing plants were also hit by walkouts.100

By mid-March it was clear that the pattern of infections in Italy was simply the forerunner for similar waves across Europe. By 16 March, 36 European countries had closed or partially closed their schools; most had imposed travel restrictions internally, with some closing their borders; public gatherings and sporting events were banned in most, shops, cafes, cinemas and theatres shut in some.

Meanwhile in the heartland of global capitalism, Donald Trump’s initial reaction to Covid-19 was to denounce it as a Democratic Party “hoax” akin to the impeachment attempt, while his ally, Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, told people to “stay at work”, as the virus was “relatively contained”.101 Eventually, Trump felt forced to announce a national emergency, agreeing a stimulus package and increased funding for federal agencies, an approach combined with anti-Chinese outbursts and border closures. The delay in recognising the threat of the outbreak has exacerbated problems caused by the US’s private system of healthcare provision. Testing for Covid-19 is among the lowest levels for wealthy countries, there are far too few intensive care beds, and especially few empty ones, and the financial barriers to accessing healthcare are considerable. There are widely publicised cases of individuals being billed for treatment, including mandatory quarantining.102

Then there is the case of Britain. As with Trump, the overriding impression given by prime minister Boris Johnson in the opening weeks of the year was of complacency. Aside from early advice for people to wash their hands while ­singing Happy Birthday (or, in the case of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the national anthem), Britain lagged behind other countries in implementing measures to control the virus’s spread. John Ashton, a former regional director of public health in the north-west of England, condemned delays in the convening of the government’s emergency Cobra committee to respond to the emergency. “Our lot are behaving like 19th century colonialists playing a five-day game of cricket,” he said, while also decrying the impact of a decade of austerity on public health.103 When the government’s budget on 11 March announced a £76 billion increase in spending, some of it focused on mitigating the impact of the economic slowdown, the New York Times greeted it with the headline: “The UK Shields Its Economy From the Virus, Not Yet Its People”. The article argued that “the country’s aggressive economic rescue plan…contrasted sharply with its public health response to the epidemic”.104

A day later, Johnson announced that Britain would move from the “contain” phase of the crisis to the “delay” phase, seeking to slow the disease’s spread through the population. But he compounded people’s disquiet with a callous speech, which will be remembered for its key line: “I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”.105 The government’s chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, claimed in a widely publicised interview on Sky News that “herd immunity” would be achieved through “about 60 percent” of people contracting Covid-19—comments that were echoed by other advisors and rightly condemned by Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet.106 A number of authors noted that this approach could mean over half a million deaths. For some elements in the ruling class, these deaths might not matter much. Daily Telegraph journalist Jeremy Warner wrote that “from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the Covid-19 might even prove beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents”.107

However, on 16 March, there was a sudden shift towards a lockdown—with Johnson advising an end to all “non-essential contact”; for people to stay away from pubs, clubs, restaurants and theatres; and for the most vulnerable to seek to isolate themselves for 12 weeks.108 The direction of travel suggests more draconian policies are likely to follow. According to academics at Imperial College, whose research helped transform government thinking, the announcement marks a shift from “mitigation”, in which the virus is allowed to spread through the population while attempting to limit the impact, towards “suppression”, in which the government seeks to reverse the spread of the virus.109 One challenge of the latter is that a relaxation of the measures may well allow the virus to ­continue its ­progress—raising the prospect of 18 months or more of suppression being required. This would prove devastating economically. Johnson’s shift was accompanied by the announcement of £330 billion of loan guarantees and other measures aimed at supporting businesses—but it seems likely that the government will be forced to extend its interventions in the economy if it is serious about suppressing the outbreak.

While the passage of the virus through East Asia, North America and Europe is relatively easy to chart, the impact that Covid-19 will have in the Global South is terrifyingly uncertain. It is simply not known how many cases there are in sub-Saharan Africa, because there were initially only two labs in the region capable of performing the necessary testing, and because health systems there have been hollowed out by years of structural adjustment.110 The optimism of those hoping that relatively youthful populations of Africa, the warmer climate or the familiarity of medical professionals with pandemics will ameliorate the effects of Covid-19 is likely to be misplaced.111 As it arrives on the continent it will impact upon populations already weakened by the effects of the HIV and Ebola pandemics, and subject to impoverished healthcare provision. As of 2015, Kenya, population 50 million, had only 130 intensive care beds.112 A small taste of what may be to come is seen in Iran, which has become another major centre of the pandemic. Iran spends almost seven times as much as Kenya per capita on health, but the disease is already threatening to overwhelm hospitals, with the evidence suggesting that it spread for some time through the population before efforts were made to contain it.113

A socialist response

A socialist response to the crisis should accept much of the epidemiological common sense. Once a virus has spread sufficiently to make the initial efforts at containment unrealistic, the central priority becomes either to slow or reverse its spread. Epidemiologists sometime use the “basic reproduction number” (R0) to denote the number of people likely to be infected by each person with the virus under conditions in which nobody is immune. If the R0 is less than one, a disease will peter out; if it is greater than one, it will tend, initially at least, to spread. The R0 for the virus that causes Covid-19 has been estimated as lying in the region 2.0-2.5.

Two aspects of the R0 value are important to understand. First, its value assumes nobody is immune. At the time of writing, it was unclear to what degree those who recover from Covid-19 become immune and, if so, how permanent this immunity is.114 Second, R0 is not a purely biological concept. It “is an estimate of contagiousness that is a function of human behaviour and biological characteristics of pathogens”.115 So, as well as the nature of the virus, it also depends on people’s response to the spread of the virus and the action they take. As noted above, the shift in government policy in Britain appears to have come about at least partly due to the paper by Ferguson and his colleagues at Imperial College. This argues that policies of mitigation could result in over half a million deaths in Britain—before the additional impact of the health services ­becoming overwhelmed is taken into account.116 They go on to argue for ­suppression of the outbreak, though they note the huge difficulties involved: “no public health intervention with such disruptive effects on society has been previously attempted for such a long duration of time. How populations and societies will respond remains unclear”.117

Whether or not suppression proves possible, there are powerful reasons for seeking to reduce the R0 for the virus. First of all, this might “flatten the curve” of the outbreak, decreasing the degree to which the health service becomes overwhelmed with serious cases by spreading the impact over several months. Second, it could push the peak of the outbreak into the summer, when there is less chance of it coinciding with a peak in seasonal flu. Third, it may potentially buy more time to allow a vaccine to be developed—though it appears unlikely that a vaccine could be in production until 2021 in even the rosiest scenario.118 The immediate priority must therefore be to reduce the spread of Covid-19, while protecting the most vulnerable.

Widespread testing for Covid-19, voluntary isolation of those showing ­symptoms, followed by contact tracing and voluntary quarantine of those they have been in close contact with, are recommended by the WHO. These need to be supported by “social distancing”. This means changes to behaviour—standing more than two metres from people, avoiding handshakes and other physical contact, and so on. It also means avoiding people gathering together in close proximity to one another. This is particularly important in the case of Covid-19 because the virus can be spread while people remain asymptomatic.

The question is how best to achieve this in a capitalist society. The answer means developing a class-based response as an alternative to the complacent or top-down approaches adopted by governments so far.

The super-rich have little difficulty in self-isolating. They can simply flee to bunkers or holiday spots in private jets, often with private physicians in tow.119 For working class people things are more difficult. The most important points of concentration of people in most capitalist societies are workplaces. About 90 percent of British employees are in workplaces of ten or more people—and about half are in workplaces of 100 or more.120 Therefore it is meaningless to argue for social distancing without contemplating closing workplaces. Of course, some workplaces are essential to deal with the pandemic—hospitals being the most obvious, but this can be extended to power generation, food supply and the production of much needed medical equipment. Workplaces should be turned over to essential production or they should be shut down. Where work needs to continue, workplaces need to be cleaned regularly and to operate with safeguards in place to protect people’s health, including allowing those infected to self-isolate. Price controls should be imposed on such businesses to prevent profiteering.

However, thoroughgoing isolation measures are not possible where an economic compulsion to work remains. People must be guaranteed an income for the duration of the pandemic. In its recent budget, the British government extended statutory sick pay to employees affected by Covid-19, but this is ­currently set at roughly one-fifth of average weekly earnings. For the large number of workers who are one pay cheque from eviction, this is untenable. Moreover, many of those in “bogus” self-employment—the most high profile being Uber drivers or Deliveroo couriers, but the category includes far larger numbers of construction workers and other contractors—are not entitled to sick pay. They have been left to try to access meagre benefits instead, if they even qualify for access. School closures also entail large numbers of people being unable to work because of caring responsibilities. The primary reason why the British ­government lagged behind most European countries in shutting schools is that its advisors told it that a four-week closure would reduce GDP by 3 percent.121 The left should argue for parents to receive full pay if they are forced to stay at home caring for children.

These kinds of demands should be pursued not in the name of some fictitious “national interest”, but in the interest of the working class—even if they imperil economic growth or profit-making. Because they are inimical to the interests of the capitalist class, they may need to be pursued through collective action. Here there are signs of good sense in sections of the working class. Royal Mail workers in London walked out in mid-March to demand hand gel and wipes to protect them from the virus; refuse workers in Glasgow staged a sit-in because they had no hand sanitiser or hot water. Privately employed cleaners at a London hospital walked out over non-payment of wages, making clear the stupidity of undermining hospital hygiene at this moment. Many universities have, under pressure from union members returning from their latest strike action, moved their teaching online.122 The crisis should not see a suspension of class struggle, but rather its escalation.

As workplaces close and people self-isolate, the challenge of caring for the vulnerable grows. One heartening aspect of the crisis has been the establishment of “mutual aid” groups—largely organised through Facebook or WhatsApp—to undertake this. My local group describes itself thus:

In times of crisis we need each other…mutual aid will be essential for many, but most of all, the vulnerable in our society. We will be looking to help people access food, collect prescriptions, complete errands and so on—particularly for those who are elderly, disabled and/or immuno-compromised. No prejudice will be tolerated…we show Leicester pulls together in the face of adversity.

Likewise, Wallace argues: “Self-quarantines with the proper support—check-ins by trained neighbourhood brigades, food supply trucks going door-to-door, work release and unemployment insurance—can elicit…cooperation”.123 Particularly for socialists whose workplaces have been shut down, a shift from workplace-based activity to building through neighbourhood organisations becomes important. Such bodies can coordinate with healthcare workers, trade unions and community organisations, to help develop a genuine working class response to the crisis. In order to resource them properly, they could demand funding from local or national government.

Activity in working class communities need not limit itself to basic care and support functions. There is a particularly acute issue around housing. As Engels noted in the 19th century, multiple occupancy homes spread diseases. Surely this is a time to push for the taking into public ownership of the huge stock of empty homes in cities such as London, many of which are held simply for investment purposes.124 These could be used both to house the homeless and to allow people to self-isolate.

The pandemic also exposes the parlous state of the National Health Service (NHS) after a decade of austerity, and several decades of privatisation and ­marketisation. Britain has terrifyingly few beds, just 2.8 per thousand people—by comparison South Korea has 11.5, Germany 8.3, Italy 3.4—and even fewer intensive care beds. In the short term, requisitioning private hospitals, as proposed by the GMB trade union, could relieve a little of the pressure.125 This needs to be accompanied by a massive programme of investment in healthcare. An effective response to the crisis requires mobilising both resources and people. Contact tracing, testing, cleaning, as well as the basic activity of caring for the sick, are labour intensive. During the SARS outbreak in Toronto, which was not on anything like the scale of Covid-19, the virus spread from person to person in overcrowded public areas of hospitals, due to lack of facilities in which people could be isolated and lack of staff due to cuts to health budgets.126 Attention must also be given to the protection of workers in these areas, who ­disproportionately suffered infection in Italy due to inadequate or insufficient protective equipment.127 Health and social care staff also need to have access to testing and tracing to ensure that they are not spreading the virus among patients, vulnerable populations and colleagues.

The resources of pharmaceutical firms, along with university labs, should be turned over to research on vaccines and other potential treatments. This should be done with full transparency and public accountability, stripping away the jealous guarding of intellectual property and profiteering that undermine vaccine production.128 Any vaccine should be produced on a mass scale, and made available at the production cost—and freely in the Global South.

More generally, as the dual crisis of Covid-19 and economic contraction develops, governments are likely to be dragged, however reluctantly, into bailing out and sustaining sections of the economy. The left must both push for this to be done as far as possible with democratic control by workers, rather than according to the diktats of the capitalist state, and also expose what this reveals about the limitations of capitalism as a system for organising production. Capitalism is both a generator of pandemics and is incapable of adequately responding to them—or, indeed, of meeting the other needs of the planet’s seven and a half billion inhabitants. The arguments for a sustainable planned economy, under democratic control—arguments for socialist transformation—may gain a greater audience as the crisis deepens.

Finally, there is a need to defend against scapegoating and racism. There is a long history of epidemics being portrayed as the work of “alien outsiders”. Jewish people suffered pogroms after being accused of spreading the bubonic plague in the 14th century. In the US in the 19th century Irish immigrants were seen as bringing cholera with them, while tuberculosis was, again, seen as a “Jewish disease”. In the 20th century, Italians were the scapegoats for the spread of polio.129 Diseases are often named for their place of supposed origin—“Spanish”, “Russian”, “Hong Kong” or “Mexican” flu, for instance—and often perceptions of outsiders bringing in diseases have been caught up with inter-imperialist rivalries. The current outbreak is no exception, bound up as it is with the ongoing clash between the Chinese and the US states. Hence, for Trump, the virus causing Covid-19 is dubbed the “foreign” or “Chinese” virus.130

The association of Covid-19 with Chinese populations has fuelled a wave of racist attacks in Britain, the US and elsewhere, much of the brunt of which has been borne by the growing numbers of Chinese students whose extortionate tuition fees have helped keep the British higher education system afloat. Any coherent socialist response must confront attempts to racialise the outbreak by creating scapegoats among migrant communities—and resist the closing of borders, which will do little to slow the spread of the virus now it has already established a beachhead in most societies.


The measures proposed here form simply an outline of immediate demands the left might raise in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. Sadly, though, this will not be the last major pandemic to threaten our lives—it may not even be the most deadly. We exist in a world ripe for the spread of such diseases, whether they originate from wet markets in Wuhan, industrialised pig farms in Europe or chicken factories in the US. Therefore, alongside these immediate demands, a deeper questioning of the system that breeds pandemics is required. As the perceptive Rob Wallace puts it:

Agribusiness as a mode of social reproduction must be ended for good if only as a matter of public health. Highly capitalised production of food depends on practices that endanger the entirety of humanity, in this case helping unleash a new deadly pandemic. We should demand food systems be socialised in such a way that pathogens this dangerous are kept from emerging in the first place. That will require reintegrating food production into the needs of rural communities first. That will require agro-ecological practices that protect the environment and farmers as they grow our food. Big picture, we must heal the metabolic rifts separating our ecologies from our economies. In short, we have a planet to win.131

To achieve such a transformation, and not only this, but to rid the world of class division, racism, imperialist conflict and catastrophic climate change, it becomes more and more apparent that a break with the whole logic of capitalism is needed. The truism that our ultimate choice is one between socialism and barbarism has been a commonplace on the left for many decades. Covid-19 is a warning: it is telling us that the clock is ticking.

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 Alex Callinicos, Esme Choonara, Martin Empson, Charlie Kimber, Richard Donnelly and John Parrington for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.

2 Viruses are simply pieces of genetic code (DNA or RNA), held in a protective casing, which can only reproduce within the cell of a living organism. Once infected, the immune system of a host may be able to adapt to a virus, giving it immunity to the specific pathogen. However, the genetic code forming the virus can mutate, creating new forms of the virus.

3 WHO, 2017.

4 WHO, 2020a. The number of deaths per infection is likely far lower, as some infections go unreported. There are also big variations between countries, reflecting, for instance, the extent to which healthcare systems have been overwhelmed.

5 Morens, Dazak and Taubenberger, 2020, pp1-2.

6 The virus still mutates in birds, but, because it is relatively benign and spreads easily, it is less likely that new strains will supplant the prevalent forms—Dehner, 2012, pp26-27.

7 Dehner, 2012, pp27-29.

8 Dehner, 2012, p12.

9 Specifically, bats are the main reservoirs for the alphacoronavirus and betacoronavirus genera.

10 Hu and others, 2015.

11 Dehner, 2012, pp33-34.

12 McNeill, 1976, pp69-131.

13 McNeill, 1976, p103.

14 It is likely that climate change also precipitated a population explosion among rodents hosting the disease, pushing them out of their natural habitat and into proximity with humans, a reminder of the possible consequences engendered by human-generated climate change today—Sherman, 2007, pp73-74.

15 McNeill, 1976, pp132-145.

16 McNeill, 1976, p149.

17 McNeill, 1976, pp176-180. Jared Diamond (1999, pp159-163, 178, 213) points out that most large animals suitable for domestication were found in Eurasia, while many large mammals native to the Americas became extinct about 13,000 years ago. The llama and alpaca are the main exceptions, though their domestication did not spread far beyond the Andes. These animals also tended to be kept in smaller herds than their Eurasian counterparts and to be kept outside the home.

18 McNeill, 1976, p180.

19 Cartwright and Biddiss, 2004, p79.

20 Cartwright and Biddiss, 2004, p80; Sherman, 2007, p56.

21 The philosopher Immanuel Kant (2007), in response to a flu epidemic that hit Königsberg in spring 1782, noted: “The community in which Europe has placed itself with all parts of the world through ships as well as caravans spreads many maladies over the whole world.”

22 Daunton, 1995, pp408-413.

23 Sherman, 2007, p56.

24 Sherman, 2007, p107.

25 Sherman, 2007, pp107-108, 110.

26 Dehner, 2012, p51.

27 Engels, 1975, p365.

28 Engels, 1988, pp337-338.

29 Flecknoe and others, 2018.

30 Davis, 2006a, pp146-148. The plagues visited upon the Global South by imperialism are not limited to those directly affecting people. Rinderpest was introduced to Africa by Indian cattle brought by Italian colonists to Eritrea in East Africa in the 1880s. It spread as far as South Africa, travelling through ox-wagon routes, moving at 20 miles per day, devastating communities that relied on cattle for milk, meat, leather, dung for heating and cooking, motive power or as means of exchange—Phoofolo, 1993. The disease was cataclysmic—over 5.2 million cattle died south of the Zambezi River. The result was famine and, later, the incursion of thornbush into the savannah, creating ideal conditions for tsetse fly, bringing a new plague of sleeping sickness—Chuang, 2020; Van der Bossche, 2010.

31 McNeill, 1976, p185; Cartwright and Biddiss, 2004, p149.

32 Dehner, 2012, p57.

33 In Spain, which was neutral in the war, newspapers were free to report on the flu outbreak, avoiding the restrictions in combatant countries, creating the impression that it was particularly bad there and helping to reinforce the idea that the disease was Spanish in origin. In Spain, it was dubbed the “Naples Soldier”, after a popular musical number deemed similarly “infectious”, and, later, “French flu”—see Trilla and others, 2008. It remains unclear where the outbreak actually originated, with authors claiming the United States, Austria and France, among others.

34 Dehner, 2012, p60.

35 Liu and others, 2018, p463.

36 See, for instance, Morris, Cleary and Clarke, 2017.

37 Monto and Sellwood, 2013, p42.

38 Davis, 2006b, p26; Davis, 2020.

39 Davis, 2006b, pp40-43.

40 Monto and Sellwood, 2013, pp44-45.

41 For reasons of space, this overview is selective, missing out, for instance, the extremely important HIV and Zika pandemics.

42 Wallace, 2016.

43 Davis, 2006b, pp83-84.

44 Chuang, 2020.

45 Strauchs, 1998, pp 102-103.

46 Morens, Dazak and Taubenberger, 2020, p2.

47 Looi and Chua, 2007.

48 Wallace and others, 2015, pp4, 6.

49 Wallace, 2020a.

50 Dehner, 2012, p121. A “wet market”, a term derived from Hong Kong English, is simply a market selling perishable goods such as meat, fish and produce, as opposed to a “dry market” selling products such as clothing or electronic goods. The term is in the recent coverage sometimes used in a derogative way to imply that the culinary habits of Chinese people are somehow responsible for the outbreak. However, there are plenty of “wet markets” in Europe and North America and, as one writer points out, there is a burgeoning trade in alligator ribs, muskrat, bobcat and rattlesnake in South Florida—see St Cavish, 2020.

51 Dehner, 2012, pp121-122.

52 Wallace, 2009a, pp923-926. Pig farming in China is also now heavily industrialised—see Schneider, 2017.

53 Davis, 2006b, pp58-62.

54 Davis, 2006b, pp97-100.

55 Wallace, 2009a, pp921-922.

56 Dehner, 2012, p126.

57 Dehner, 2012, pp125-126.

58 Wallace, 2009a, p918.

59 WHO, 2020b. A second flu strain, H7N9, has caused repeated epidemics in China, with, as of December 2019, 1,568 confirmed cases and 616 deaths, again mostly from those who have been in contact with poultry, though again with rare cases of human-human transmission—WHO, 2019; Paules and Subbarao, 2017.

60 Wallace, 2009.

61 Dehner, 2012, p142.

62 See Godlee, 2010.

63 Hu and others, 2017.

64 Lin, 2001, pp64, 66.

65 Ali and Keil, 2006, pp497-498.

66 Davis, 2006b, pp74-75.

67 Wilder-Smith, Chiew and Lee, 2020.

68 Peeri and others, 2020.

69 Hermida and others, 2017.

70 Chuang, 2020.

71 HSBC, 2018; Forbes, 2020.

72 Wallace, 2020b.

73 Standaert, 2020.

74 Ali and Keil, 2006, p500.

75 Peeri and others, 2020, p8.

76 IATA data; Wang, Yang and Wang, 2019, p5.

77 Chuang, 2020.

78 WTO data.

79 Yang and Hille, 2020.

80 Brower, Raval, Sheppard and Meyer, 2020.

81 See, for instance, Tooze, 2018, pp202-219.

82 Roberts, 2020a.

83 Choonara, 2018, p107.

84 Choonara, 2018, pp104, 105.

85 Plender, 2020.

86 Edgecliffe-Johnson and others, 2020. I drew attention to “zombie firms” in Choonara, 2018, pp105-107.

87 Plender, 2020.

88 Roberts, 2020b.

89 Zhong and Mozur, 2020.

90 This is, anyway, a myth. Bergan Evans (1954, p77) comments on the “myth of fascist efficiency”: “The author was employed as a courier by the Franco-Belgique Tours Company in the summer of 1930, Mussolini’s heyday, when a fascist guard rode on every train, and is willing to make an affidavit to the effect that most Italian trains on which he travelled were not on schedule—or near it.”

91 Yuan, 2020. On the emergence of China’s social media based surveillance system, see Zuboff, 2019, pp388-394.

92 Chuang, 2020.

93 Chuang, 2020.

94 Chuang, 2020.

95 Zhong and Mozur, 2020.

96 Quoted in Zhong and Mozur, 2020.

97 Buckley and Myers, 2020.

98 Tamma, 2020.

99 Perrone, 2020.

100 Basketter, 2020; Del Panta, 2020.

101 Lahut, 2020.

102 Scott, 2020.

103 Boseley, 2020.

104 Landler, Castle and Mueller, 2020.

105 Stewart, Proctor and Siddique, 2020.

106 Horton, 2020.

107 Warner, 2020.

108 Stewart, Boseley, Walker and Elliott, 2020.

109 Ferguson and others, 2020.

110 Kentikelenis, 2017.

111 Pilling, 2020.

112 Nordling, 2020; Davis, 2020.

113 WHO data.

114 If Covid-19 is not suppressed and becomes a permanent addition to the pool of infectious diseases afflicting humanity, “herd immunity” might eventually become relevant. This is the notion that if some people become immune to a disease it can slow its spread through the wider population by reducing the numbers who can transmit it. However, unless this is achieved through a vaccination programme, it should be viewed as a horrific result of the failure to stop the spread the disease—not the professed goal of government.

115 Delamater and others, 2019.

116 Even in the most optimistic scenario, their model predicts about quarter of a million deaths—Ferguson and others, 2020, pp7, 16.

117 Ferguson and others, 2020 p16.

118 Buranyi, 2020; Ferguson and others, 2020.

119 Neate, 2020; Rao, 2020.

120 WERS 2011 data.

121 Adams, 2020.

122 Socialist Worker, 2020.

123 Wallace, 2020a.

124 A conservative estimate, covering just homes left empty long-term, suggests there are 216,000 in England. Kollewe, 2019.

125 GMB, 2020.

126 Ali and Keil, 2006, p501; Davis, 2006b, pp76-77.

127 Oddone, 2020.

128 Buranyi, 2020.

129 Cartwright and Biddiss, 2004, p39; Sherman, 2007, pp111-112; Kraut, 2010, p125.

130 Zimmer, 2020; Kuo, 2020. Some Chinese officials seem to have retaliated by claiming that the pandemic was started by the US army—Myers, 2020. Not to be outdone, Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s radical right leader, blamed Iranian migrants for spreading Covid-19.

131 Wallace, 2020a.


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