I. The failed pandemic response and the fetishism of the economy

April 30, 2020

From the May-June 2020 issue of News & Letters

Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2020-2021: Shattered by pandemic, world needs new beginnings in revolutionary activity, thought

Introduction: Deep crises demand a path to liberation
I. The failed pandemic response and the fetishism of the economy
II. The true pandemic war
III. Pandemic sets in motion the latent economic collapse
IV. What to do in the face of compounding crises—medical, economic, political, and the philosophic void

… Continued from Introduction: Deep crises demand a path to liberation

I think [the coronavirus] will help accelerate the return of jobs to North America.
—Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross

America should stay at work.
—Larry Kudlow, economic adviser to Donald Trump

As long as we can turn the crisis into an opportunity to restore production and social life in an orderly fashion…we will be able to achieve the economic and social development goals set for this year.
—China’s maximum leader Xi Jinping

The magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic, with over two million confirmed cases as of mid-April, in almost every country in the world, is overwhelming and can be expected to skyrocket. This never had to happen. Every step of its growth resulted from capitalism’s inhuman, out-of-control momentum, from its likely emergence out of ecological disruption to government lies, coverups and delays that allowed it to spread unchecked initially in the interest of not disrupting business. The official responses were dictated, time and again, by the rulers’ fetishistic devotion to production for production’s sake.

Each aspect of the crisis reveals social ills that were already catastrophic but little addressed because they mainly affect the working classes, the poor, people with disabilities and people who are oppressed because of their race, class, sex, nationality, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, or immigration status.


In U.S. cities and the rural South, African Americans are dying at far higher rates from the virus—in Chicago, nearly six times the rate of whites—due to higher unemployment or working in riskier occupations, poverty, inferior health insurance coverage, institutional racism of the medical system, and living or working in more polluted places. The same factors bring Latinx people elevated rates of COVID-19 sickness and death. Undocumented immigrants are excluded from stimulus checks and unemployment benefits. At the same time, police are harassing Black people for not wearing masks, or for being where the cops think they shouldn’t be. Cops even assaulted a child selling candy at a Harlem subway station. As determined as the corporate media are to forget it, the passion of Black Lives Matter burns on, and can be expected to burst out again.

Ever since the SARS epidemic of 2002-03, scientists have been warning of the need to prepare for a pandemic. At that time, the Bush administration was preoccupied with fabricated threats to justify invading Iraq. The warnings continued, and in 2016 the Obama administration issued a comprehensive report on the 2013-15 Ebola epidemic. Later it held an exercise simulating a viral pandemic and found severe weaknesses, including projected shortages of ventilators and other critical medical supplies. A 2019 Trump administration exercise found similar results.[1] Last year, Trump White House economists warned that a pandemic could kill half a million in the U.S. and devastate the economy.

Trump ignored all of it. His White House “fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command” in 2018,[2] worked to slash public health spending, undermined the Federal Emergency Management Agency and attacked science and scientists. He has been slashing away at the already measly safety net, including Medicaid and food stamps, and accelerating the decades-long trend of healthcare industry consolidation, hospital closings in rural areas, and pricing the poor out of healthcare.

he predicted shortage of ventilators and personal protective equipment such as medical face masks came to pass. The lack of preparation and the denial and delays by authorities are the reason the outbreak became a pandemic and the reason they imposed partial shutdowns of economies across the world. The lack of testing materials is catastrophic. When tests were available, the well-connected got tested regardless of need while many people were wrongly turned away, and the federal government in some cases prohibited legitimate uses.

With materials like ventilators and masks in short supply, the administration funneled what it had based on political favors, not need. Trump told states and hospitals to find their own supplies. Unqualified son-in-law Jared Kushner, taking charge (sort of) of COVID-19 crisis management, announced, “It’s supposed to be our stockpile. It’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.” One of its uses turned out to be bounty sold to speculators. States, hospitals, and profiteers had to bid against each other, jacking up prices. Hospitals sometimes found their supply orders were seized without warning by the federal government for unknown uses.


Meanwhile, existing institutions—nursing homes, homeless shelters, jails, prisons, concentration camps for immigrants—became centers of contagion, just by maintaining the same exploitative conditions as before. Many private nursing homes are perennially understaffed and poorly run, pleading poverty to justify poverty wages, while raking in profits that are siphoned off by owners and their crony contractors. Prisons, jails and concentration camps deprive inmates of healthcare to be punitive and to boost profits.[3] Two of the biggest centers of COVID-19 spreading are Cook County Jail in Chicago and Rikers Island in New York City—jails being places where many of the people have not been convicted but are punished anyway.

Throughout the crisis, Trump—like other leaders around the world from China’s Xi Jinping to Iran’s Ali Khamenei to Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador—has focused more on keeping production and the economy going, getting workers back to work, than on remedying the shortage of medical supplies and staff and implementing public health imperatives such as social distancing and shutting nonessential businesses. He incited far-right billionaire-funded mobs to protest lockdowns in states whose governors he has a beef with, praising as “very responsible” even those who blocked an ambulance in Lansing, Mich.

When it came to the Defense Production Act, which his administration has used for hundreds of thousands of orders for military equipment and armoring the Border Patrol, somehow Trump held back from using it to make companies furnish the lacking medical supplies. He finally got around to ordering GM to supply ventilators, but only after GM had already begun the process.

Continued in II. The true pandemic war

[1] David E. Sanger, Eric Lipton, Eileen Sullivan and Michael Crowley, “Before Virus Outbreak, a Cascade of Warnings Went Unheeded,” New York Times, March 19, 2020.

[2] Laurie Garrett, “Trump Has Sabotaged America’s Coronavirus Response,” Foreign Policy, Jan. 31, 2020.

[3] See “Prisons=death” by Urszula Wislanka, May-June 2020 N&L.

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