COVID-19 and the specter of pandemic

January 27, 2020

by Tim Finnigan

Chicago—Since December, nearly 3,000 cases of the new coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan have been officially recorded in mainland China; 82 people have died. Some medical researchers fear the real number could be significantly higher. Cases have also been reported in neighboring countries from South Korea to Australia, and as far away as France. Five cases have been reported in the U.S., including one in my own city.

Electron micrograph of coronavirus virions. Photo: Content Providers(s): CDC/Dr. Fred Murphy.

Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, was first quarantined. With almost the entire province of Hubei now under quarantine, over 41 million people, this represents the biggest medical lockdown in history. Powerful and frightening video images have emerged from Wuhan’s hospitals and streets.

“Authorities” may say don’t panic. They are behind history’s curve. We have learned from AIDS and other crises to face this kind of situation with resolution and clarity, to take measures in our own defense, and to demand absolute transparency and accountability from authorities. The terrible history of such pandemics as the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed countless millions around the world, require us to take responsibility.

Many of us grew up in working-class households with memories of that Spanish flu outbreak, learning the names of young people who never lived to be old. It is possible to make a case for that pandemic, spread among the military camps and ruins of World War I, being as true a class aspect of the war as was the Russian Revolution.

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.


According to the World Health Organization, “Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning that they are transmitted between animals and people. Investigations found that Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (the 2004 SARS epidemic) was transmitted from civet cats to humans and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) from dromedary camels to humans. Several known coronaviruses are circulating in animals that have not yet infected humans.

“Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.”

This process of transmission is known and well documented. Still, some are speculating that this coronavirus escaped from the National Bio-safety Laboratory in Wuhan. The Chinese government’s general lack of transparency helps fuel those rumors.

To me, it is more interesting to note that such a world-class, high tech, internationally connected research facility coexists with the chaos of Wuhan’s wet market where living and dead animals and crowds of people interact with no regulations but the market price. This is state-capitalist China in a nutshell.


As someone with a compromised immune system, the thought of this virus spreading across borders frightens me. As bad as that thought is, the specter of the coronavirus crossing the class boundaries that have arisen since the 2004 SARS epidemic is even more terrifying.

The refugee camps and concentration camps throughout East and South Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, already lacking in health care, could become death camps. The human suffering in Syria’s Idlib, where the Bashar al-Assad regime and Russia have targeted hospitals and healthcare workers for death, is already beyond imagining. How could the children and elderly in tents, mud and cold survive a pandemic?

The teeming tent cities of America’s West Coast homeless populations are already seeing the return of diseases once thought controlled or gone. A new virus, with no human antibodies yet developed, could be devastating. Looking at the areas where the virus has been detected so far, these places seem to me to be on the front lines.

Beyond this, Africa, Latin America….The world must act together to stop this, and if hopefully we succeed, we must also think about what it all means.

Xi Jinping admits that the coronavirus outbreak is a crisis. For him, it is a crisis of his government and his power. For the rest of us, it is a crisis of the rulers’ class oppression, racist inhumanity, and religious bigotry. It is a crisis of the wrong turn history has taken.

2 thoughts on “COVID-19 and the specter of pandemic

  1. Just over 3 weeks later, the “official” Chinese infection figures are upwards of 45,000, with over 1100 deaths. We have learned that the doctor who first tried to warn government officials of the dangers of this virus was threatened by the government with vicious and wholesale repression, before he contracted the disease and died 10 days later.
    We have also seen only the tip of the iceberg of Chinese government massive repression of human rights (affecting 60 million of its population) in the name of quarantine. The economic and social disastrous consequences have only begun. As Finnegan writes, we can certainly expect a faster spread and more deaths in the world’s population of homeless, refugees, and impoverished peoples in general. Even if cures and vaccines are developed, these people are the least likely to benefit, as with the continued spread of AIDS in Africa.
    There are no simple fixes: there are always enough people who defy authoritarian conditions to prevent total control of a disease, even when those measures are known to prevent suffering and death. Besides, do we really want such measures to become the new normal means of controlling all social problems, especially aimed at revolutionary movements against capitalism and for a more human society?

  2. Dunayevskaya was really on point when she called Reagan “King” because he was putting troops all over the world for regime change. Trump is the same; he is pushing the limits of presidential powers. How can a president ignore subpoenas? The beat goes on. Trump is getting away to the point that he out-Reagans Reagan. I am reminded of a quote: “the United States is a republic–as long as you can hang on to it.” The House of Representatives is smoldering–I don’t know why it doesn’t burst into flames.

    The Warren Tech Center of General Motors used to employ 16,500; now it is down to 3,300. General Motors announced it was paying smaller bonuses to temporary workers, who already are paid only half of what “permanent” workers earn. Every large enterprise divides workers.

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