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The COVID-19 Pandemic Is a Crisis of Capitalism

COVID-19 is another blow to the house of cards that is the existence of the marginalized.

Customers line up to shop at a Costco store in Brooklyn as the COVID-19 outbreak continues on March 19, 2020, in New York City.

Part of the Series

In a world in which the majority of human suffering is perpetrated by a small minority against the vast majority, a small silver-lining of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is that it seems to have us all on the same side. A scourge with the capacity to terrorize those in charge means that we are, ironically, both more scared and safer. We are increasingly made aware of, and given some of the best tools available to confront, the emergency of “life under COVID-19,” in a way that we are not for the everyday terror that is “life under capitalism.”

Climate change, war, genocide, economic exploitation, famine and curable disease take more victims daily than COVID-19 will in its entire reign. Because these phenomena are foundational to the status quo, victimizing those subjected to it rather than those who subject others to it, they aren’t shocking but routine. As such, they will never inspire the coordinated global response that coronavirus already has.

But of course, even an equal-opportunity virus exists in a social context that is anything but equal, ensuring that a nondiscriminatory illness has discriminatory impacts.

Coronavirus’s entrance into public consciousness has reinvigorated long-standing, anti-Chinese narratives, swiftly piercing many Western countries’ thin veneer of multicultural civility. Our friends, co-workers, neighbors and community members of East Asian descent — including children — have been experiencing ostracism, harassment, ridicule and economic persecution. That British immigrants weren’t similarly targeted amid the “Mad Cow” disease outbreak scares, exposes the ugly truth underlying this phenomenon. As Edward Hon-Sing Wong of the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto chapter has written, this “latest health epidemic is a reminder of the pervasive racism that deems Chinese populations to be inherently foreign, unhygienic and carriers of disease.”

Racist scapegoating isn’t on the World Health Organization’s list of public health best practices. But bona fide pandemic-era safety routines aren’t accessible to everyone. The poorest among us who can’t afford days off work; and who populate overcrowded and overburdened homeless shelters, food banks, public transit systems, migrant worker camps, and public long-term care facilities can’t really practice “social distancing.” Neither can those detained in prisons and detention centers. The millions of food-insecure North Americans who don’t have the guarantee of a next meal certainly can’t access the psychological comfort of mass-purchasing canned goods, toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Indigenous nations living under conditions of perpetual governmental neglect — resulting in poverty, poor-quality and oversaturated housing, and limited access to transportation and health care services — don’t have the resources or infrastructure to protect their communities from harm. Criminalized and stigmatized drug users won’t be equipped with the same resources as everyone else to adjust their lifestyles for this new reality.

Moreover, public health measures are themselves creating new burdens on workers left without pay as their jobs are put on hold (worse still for undocumented migrants who can’t depend on income supports and employment protections); parents scrambling to find day care (a scarcity in non-pandemic times) for the children who will now be out of school; those facing restricted access to the social services providing for their basic physical, social and emotional needs; those requiring medical attention from underfunded and understaffed hospitals now stretched thin; migrant workers too fearful to even access health care because illness makes them eligible for deportation; and people with disabilities who are finding that the easy-use goods they depend on (like disinfectant wipes) are out of stock. These burdens are also now being placed on the non-permanent/non-citizen residents separated from their families and livelihoods, as they’ve been prohibited from re-entering certain countries (proving that racist scapegoating is also a go-to for state bodies in times of public panic).

But just as surely as there are losers, there are also winners. As Gerald Posner, author of Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America, explains, this global crisis “will potentially be a blockbuster for the industry in terms of sales and profits…. The worse the pandemic gets, the higher their eventual profit.”

COVID-19 — like pretty much any other situation — will reward the winners and punish the losers. But let’s remember that, under business as usual, our society nonetheless guarantees that there are losers.

Reports from Canada and the U.S. document worse health and lower life span among those marginalized by race, Indigeneity, immigrant status, gender, class, ability and sexual orientation. Ultimately, our socio-economic status is quite literally written onto our bodies; health isn’t a right but an expression of our privilege.

Under pandemic mode — when our individual health status is only as secure as that of our neighbors’ — the burdens of a health-denying status quo come to bear (at least slightly) on those responsible for creating it. Thus, unsurprisingly, the status quo is shifting in response. Amazon — whose cruel labor practices literally make workers sick — is currently offering unlimited unpaid time off, and sick pay for those in COVID-19-related quarantine. Some telecom companies are waiving additional usage fees for residential internet customers, corporate media outlets are removing pay walls, hotels are allowing for last-minute cancellations without penalty. It’s not the COVID-19 in the air that’s imbuing these institutions with a sudden benevolence. It’s that in this rare instance when our fates are wrapped up in each others’, the interests of the elite are — albeit briefly and incompletely — entering into alignment with those of the rest of us.

Of course, this doesn’t warrant a newfound trust in the political and corporate class. Author and journalist Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” theory — the “political strategy of using large-scale crises to push through policies that systematically deepen inequality, enrich elites and undercut everyone else” — provides a helpful framework for understanding and anticipating the progression of this pandemic. Already, the pharmaceutical industry has capitalized on the urgency of the situation. Having successfully lobbied the U.S. government for legislation that would uncap prices from the publicly funded drugs they develop, it has secured its right to profit massively from COVID-19 using taxpayer money.

So, without suspending our cynicism, we can still appreciate what this pandemic does offer us — a case study to counteract the false narratives upholding the legitimacy of capitalism. Among these include:

1. The narrative that social and economic privilege protects us from the inherent fragility of being human.

When the United Nations released a report in 2018 explaining that we have just over a decade to address the climate crisis before significant irreversible damage is done, those of us assuming this would inspire meaningful action were disappointed to discover the world chugging along as per usual. President Trump still refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of climate change science, while Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave lip service to the severity of the situation but continued to push through his pipeline agenda.

Of course — when those with the power to arrest environmental destruction are Global North-residing, rich and old, then nothing needs to be done. Once climate change inflicts the kind of damage on Western societies that it already has on the Global South, they’ll be dead or have moved to Mars. Now, as COVID-19 circulates the globe wreaking immediate havoc — before alternative planets have been set up with flat-screen TVs — the elites are required to confront their own precarity; made to experience, in some small measure, the vulnerability they engender in others; forced to accept their interdependence with those they have treated as mere resources for their material accumulation.

2. The narrative that a capitalist system of resource distribution accurately reflects our contributions to society.

Without much disruption to our collective functioning, the world’s top earners have quickly closed shop — in Hollywood, movie release dates are being postponed, film festivals cancelled and production put on hiatus; music concerts and festivals are being scrapped; and all the major sports leagues are on hold.

Who is still at work? Front-line workers in fast food, retail, child care, household cleaning, mail and package delivery, transit, agriculture and, of course, health care. These people are working overtime and under increasingly stressful conditions, reflecting the extent to which our economy is dependent upon the labor of those who make minimum wage, are employed precariously, underappreciated and overburdened; those who are disproportionately poor, feminized, racialized, immigrant and non-status. Unjustly, their indispensability is what also makes them most physically vulnerable — in the best of times and in pandemic times.

3. The narrative that endless economic growth is necessary and inevitable.

So “necessary” that when our planet — the only source of material for this economy — asserts its limits, even that is insufficient to justify a slowing-down. The belief that economic growth is a pre-requisite for the well-being of the human race is easily contested by the fact that our world is both filled with more things than it ever has been, and there are more people living in deadly deprivation than ever before.

The problem isn’t that we haven’t reached our productive potential — it’s that the 26 richest people on Earth have the same net worth as the poorest half of the world’s population. Growth untied to the moral imperatives of equitable resource distribution and environmental sustainability is, in fact, immoral. What COVID-19 has shown us is that it’s not inevitable. As Greenpeace’s Amanda Larsson has said, “Climate change deniers love to perpetuate the myth that it’s too hard or inconvenient to change the status quo, but what we’re seeing is both people and governments can adapt quickly in a time of crisis.”

As economic participation is scaling back in response to COVID-19, global carbon emissions are, perhaps temporarily, down, and drastically so. In China — the country hit hardest by the virus — the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has described “significant decreases” in the air pollution that causes asthma and other respiratory conditions. The COVID-19 side effect of enforced planetary rest has, ironically, shown that carbon emissions can be reduced quickly while society still functions.

Those of us experiencing quarantine time as an enforced vacation should remember all those whose labor is more indispensable than ever before but whose working conditions reflect the capitalist ethic that they are, in fact, utterly dispensable. In all likelihood, they won’t be invited to the red carpet opening of Hollywood’s inevitable memorialization of “COVID 2020,” even though they will have ensured that we come out on the other side of this. Let’s remember all those who live precariously every day but whose struggles will never elicit the widespread political, economic and social solidarity that this pandemic has. Let’s remember those for whom life under COVID-19 is yet another blow to the house of cards that is their fragile existence.

But let’s also remember the human creativity, willingness, resilience and love that we only fully appreciate at times like these — not so much from the institutions or government bodies officially responsible for our protection but from everyday people. Those congregating (increasingly online) to coordinate information sharing, social and emotional care, and material support for each other, and especially those made even more vulnerable by crisis.

These are the people who have always resisted, and compensated for, the failures of our system, and who will continue to do so after this viral menace is a distant memory and the violence of status quo fully resumes.

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