COVID-19: A world-historic threat

March 7, 2020

From the March-April 2020 issue of News & Letters

 by Gerry Emmett

As this is written, the COVID-19 coronavirus has continued to spread across Eurasia from its origin in China’s tormented province of Hubei. Cases have also appeared in North Africa, Brazil, the U.S. and Australia.

What the COVID-19 virus looks like under an electron microscope.

This pandemic is a crisis of world-historic proportions. A significant portion of those who become infected will develop serious symptoms—one study of 72,000 reported cases indicates a death rate of 2.3%, as opposed to the common flu’s rate of 0.1%. As of Feb. 27, 2,808 deaths have been reported worldwide.

One of the keys to COVID-19’s quick spread was the lack of transparency of China’s surveillance state. As the epidemic began in the city of Wuhan, officials played down its seriousness, refused to cancel public events, and persecuted health workers and citizen journalists who told the truth. Dr. Li Wenliang, who was threatened by police after issuing warnings, and later died of the disease, became a martyr in the eyes of many Chinese people.

Iran’s genocidal regime also became an instrument of COVID-19’s spread throughout the Middle East and beyond. Iran has now reported the most deaths outside of China. Worldwide, the disease threatens those made most vulnerable by this current stage of capitalist reaction—the homeless, the refugees, prisoners, and all who have seen cuts in public health budgets.

Other governments, including the U.S., played along with the compromised World Health Organization in downplaying the seriousness of this crisis. They kept stock markets artificially inflated, for example, until the sight of machine guns on the highways of Italy enforcing quarantine made propagating illusions impossible. The Trump administration is still pushing the illusion that the U.S. might escape a virus that is already here.


COVID-19 has arisen a century after the last great pandemic, the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed as many as 100 million around the world. That disease spread among the military camps and ruins of World War I, and it can be argued that it was as much a class aspect of that war as was the Russian Revolution.

Since then science has learned much more about viruses, and humanity has had the invaluable experience of struggles waged against AIDS, for example, by ACT UP, or sickle cell disease by the Black Panther Party. As Zeynep Tufekci writes for Scientific American (Feb. 27), “We should prepare not because we are facing a doomsday scenario out of our control, but because we can alter every aspect of this risk we face as a society.”

It is impossible to separate these health issues from what Karl Marx called humanity’s metabolism with nature, which formed the basis of his critique of capitalism. The antagonistic relationship between public health and state-capitalist bureaucratic interests is one aspect of this; the absolute opposition between human life and the inhuman logic of capitalist accumulation is another.

Just as happened at the moment of imperialist world war a century ago, the supposedly abstract categories of Capital take on life and voice. The formation of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance in Hong Kong followed a strike of healthcare workers last month, which China Labour Bulletin (Feb. 18) said “marked the beginning of a new era of worker activism” there. Much more such activity is likely as people across the world defend their lives.


The U.S. and China are, respectively, the first and second largest economies in the world. Bourgeois scholars and ideologues have made arguments for and against the possibility of a U.S.-China condominium (joint dominion over the planet), or G-2. What they failed to see was that relationship already existing within the context of what Marx termed the primitive accumulation of capital.

In fact, the exploitation of China’s dispossessed working class, coupled with the growth of the U.S. national debt—mechanisms identified by Marx as central to this category—in recent decades have come together to create one of the most intensive periods of primitive accumulation in history. Imperialist tensions could continue to exist within this reality, as much as North-South tensions continued to exist during the era of U.S. slavery.

Nevertheless, for world capitalism this combination is the definition of “too big to fail.” Chinese factories account for about 20% of world manufacturing output. Already many industries—from automakers to food and pharmaceuticals—are beginning to feel the effect of disrupted supply chains. The inhumanity of capitalism’s logic is obvious in the demand today that Chinese workers should return to the factory floors despite the great danger of contracting COVID-19.

In writing of the lack of proper ventilation in 19th-century English factories, Marx made a point relevant to today’s crisis. Provision of proper ventilation wasn’t cost effective for employers then, and so “The health officers, the industrial inquiry commissioners, the factory inspectors, all repeat, over and over again, that it is both necessary for the workers to have these 500 cubic feet [of breathing space], and impossible to impose this rule on capital. They are, in reality, declaring that consumption and the other pulmonary diseases of the workers are conditions necessary to the existence of capital.”

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