The article which follows is a translation from Battaglia Comunista 3 (March 2020), paper of our Italian affiliate, the Internationalist Communist Party. Italy has currently one of the worst death rates from coronavirus (4%), higher even than China’s. This despite locking down over a dozen towns in Lombardy, closing all schools and universities throughout the country, banning public gatherings and telling Italians who attend any social gatherings that they should keep one metre in any direction away from the next person.
The lock down is now being extended right across the North (in a very confusing way) but the infection has also reached Lazio (the Rome region) where even the leader of the Democratic Party, Nicola Zingaretti, has been infected. Meanwhile, social life has become unbearable particularly for the young since most places shut down by early evening. The Italian economy has had 18 months of no growth, the collapse in tourism and the rest of economic life can only make things worse. This article though looks at the wider context of the impact of coronavirus which in some ways has provided an alibi for what was already a coming crisis.
And it’s not only in Italy that the state’s cuts in health and social spending are revealing a ‘health service’ in no position to combat an epidemic like coronavirus. On 4 March Boris Johnson magnanimously announced that workers who had to go on sick leave because of infection from coronavirus would be paid statutory sick pay from the first day of that leave, rather than from the fourth as per normal. However, around 2 million people in the UK do not earn enough to qualify for any statutory sick pay, including more than a third of the million or so workers on zero hours contracts. Many of these workers are engaged in vital work in health, social care and cleaning: areas especially important for a society facing the possibility of an infectious disease pandemic. On top of this, GP surgeries are overflowing as the number of GPs has dropped with the government’s chopping of their pension entitlements.
The situation in the US is even worse with millions of US citizens unable to pay for emergency treatment and a government which began in denial of the seriousness of the outbreak and is still not monitoring people on the move. The death rate in the US so far is higher than most of the rest of the world (although this should decline over time). A comrade from the IWG, our US comrades, tells us:
"As the cases increase by the day and thousands are quarantined across cities from coast to coast, the spread of the virus and its resulting media coverage have left a considerable impact on the economy. A significant increase in demand for products like hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and surgical masks has caused a shortage all across the country. Pharmacies and similar stores have felt this impact in their sales since many businesses have been unable to restock the majority of these supplies due to a limited supply and an inability to meet the demand. The sanitizing products which remain available are significantly marked up in price in an effort to increase profit. Business owners are not the only ones affected by the coronavirus epidemic; workers who are infected are quarantined and most are not compensated for the time they are forced to take off work. Across the US, school districts have been shut down, and many teachers and faculty (who are not infected by the virus) will especially struggle to make ends meet."
In every state across the planet the health speculators are already making a killing, and we are as yet only at the beginning of this saga…
Initial Thoughts on Coronavirus and its Fallout
1. The Health Crisis in Italy
Leaving aside the purely epidemiological aspects, which we won’t go into here, it was revealed from the very start that the health system is close to collapse. In the past ten years alone there have been cuts of over €37 billion with over 70,000 fewer beds, etc. This has produced two basic results: the first is that having border controls is not enough and for some time the number of pathologies has increased that could instead have been limited with an effective and widespread programme of prevention, control and medical treatment. In the last decade of crisis, in which the purchasing power of families has collapsed, one of the first expenses to be cut is per capita health expenditure.
Italian healthcare faces a dramatic situation in which the exasperation of “customers" is the fuse that triggers the increasingly frequent attacks on ambulances and medical personnel. What might happen, given the inability of such a remodelled health system to cope with a growing emergency, becomes clear.
The second result is one we have known for some time: there are not enough medical personnel to cope with the emergency. The shortage of hospital doctors who are not hired because they "cost too much", is already well reported alongside the scarcity of other staff which an emergency like this forcefully reveals. Now the dire condition of health research is also being revealed. To give one glaring example: the three researchers from the Spallanzani hospital who isolated the virus in Italy are all young and precarious.
2. The Economic Crisis
Though a long way from being the real reason for the global crisis, this epidemic could dramatically worsen it (and the crisis of 2008 has still not finished). The coronavirus will weigh heavily on Chinese, Italian, European, and global GDP for the year 2020. The figures on global debt, the slow recovery of industrial production, the largely ineffective outcome of Quantitative Easing, the tiny increases of GDP, etc., already illustrate one overall difficulty of the economy. It is in a crisis that has not yet been overcome whilst a new and more devastating crisis is already approaching. Coronavirus could be the final drop which causes the capitalist cup to overflow. The next few months will be critical. In the meantime, the economic forecasts (and we are only in March and a few weeks since the beginning of the epidemic) claim that this emergency will knock one to three points off GDP, which, at any rate will be the justification for the typical heavy financial intervention which will be paid for, as always, by workers. This will be accompanied by a decline in domestic trade which foreign companies and traders will pass on to "their" workers in terms of wage cuts and worse working conditions.
The mass media have not talked about anything else, thus demonstrating the immense firepower that the dominant ideology has when it decides to convey a particular message. As a result the entire Italian population has been engulfed in a moment of panic.
But panic is functional as much for social control as for economic speculation, which is always lying in wait. In such an emergency speculators can throw themselves like sharks on a shoal of cod to seize every mini-opportunity to make extra profits: with the boom in sales of disinfectant gel and masks the pharmaceutical and health sector has seen numerous and significant speculative peaks. Meanwhile supermarkets have been stormed and emptied. A big thank you from these vultures to the coverage given by the media that so terrified the population. But speculation doesn't stop there. Tens of billions of euros have already been burned in the Milan stock exchange in recent days, as, once again the opportunity is seized to make those prone to be terrified, pay at least part of the cost of the crisis: like the small and medium savers who, at every turn of the crisis, see part of their savings evaporate.
4. Social Control
In China, as in Italy, or wherever the virus is spreading, this emergency represents a test for the State's ability to intervene. Far from being a static factor, the power of the State, its ability to control and react to social phenomena is the product of complex human and historical dynamics. Serious emergencies are a laboratory in which the State increases its capacity to centralise, control and regulate the population. The global scale of the coronavirus emergency just repeats this dynamic on an even larger scale. It is here that the State tests the capacity of its machinery to centralise the control of population flows, access restrictions, social emergency management, etc. Today to contain the virus, tomorrow... for whatever else might happen. The state, the ruling class, in fact know that the system is facing future disasters of an increasingly devastating and unpredictable nature (economic crises, wars over poverty, migration, hunger, and thirst, as well as environmental devastation, climate disasters, epidemics, even riots...), so each new emergency is also experienced, and it could not be otherwise, as a potential test of its capacity for action (and for Marxists, the State is nothing but the instrument of oppression of one class by another).
All this without taking into account the possible conflicts that the measures taken can produce within the different sectors of the bourgeoisie and the politicians who represent them. In this particular case, for example, the right wing is trying to capitalise on the situation by asking for the expenditure of tens of billions of euros (which they know very well no-one will ever make available) for the support of businesses and families. Meanwhile, the government has decided to ban the strikes of some sectors, scheduled for some time this month, including that of “Non una di meno" (Not one less) on 9 March, by pulling old anti-strike legislation out of the filing cabinet.
5. The Planet and Humanity are Sick
The coronavirus is only the latest alarm signal. The planet and humanity are suffering from a far bigger and more serious disease than a virus, a disease that comes from the system of production itself. It poisons social relations by commodifying them, devastating and degrading everything it encounters in order to realise its vital substance: profit. This disease is called capitalism, the planet and humanity are ill with senile capitalism and the coronavirus is but its latest manifestation. This, like all the other symptoms of planetary, environmental, human, social malaise, must be turned against the disease itself to denounce its dangers.
6. There is a Cure
There is a cure for this virus, as for all the other disasters that the capitalist disease has produced, is still producing and, even worse, will produce in the future. The cure is not immediate and definitive, that is clear, but it is a cure that fixes the minimum conditions for facing the environmental, human and social emergencies that capitalism will bequeath to the society that will replace it. Communism is the cure for this evil.
This is not a miracle cure that will, as if by magic, free humanity, and the planet from the many woes that plague it. No. The communist cure works differently: by freeing humanity from the slavery of profit. Once freely associated human beings no longer produce for the profit of the few, and produce only to meet everyone's needs, then we will change the way we deal with problems. By putting human and environmental well-being at the centre of our concerns, harmful production will be abandoned, huge resources will be used to restore polluted environments, freely associated human beings will be able to face the different problems for what they really are, concretely get involved and no longer give a damn, as happens today, about the impact this can have on GDP, imperialist power, and capital growth.
We can guarantee our cure will work because it implies a radical change in mindset as well as in economic and social relations, exactly what this planet and this humanity so dramatically ill with capitalism needs today.