Pandemic Story: Failures, forebodings, signs of solidarity
Rodrigo Abd / AP

The long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, while uncertain, promises to be far-reaching and profound. Here we look for signs evident now that point to various kinds of long-term effects in the future.

One set of indicators has to do with U.S. failures in prioritizing and protecting the public’s health. These may provoke movement toward new ways of providing health care, or even of reorganizing society. Signs are evident too of increasing fragility of governance itself, likely to become more apparent as the pandemic’s adverse effects mount. Lastly, markers of human solidarity and of collaboration among nations are on display. Hopefully as regards the people’s cause, they portend durability.

Public health

Capitalist governments developed public health capabilities aimed, in theory, at putting bio-medical scientific advances in the service of all the people. The object has been to prevent illnesses and guarantee access to curative and rehabilitative care. The assumption long prevailed in the United States that sickness care was to be bought and sold, or offered as charity, that is, until the advent of Medicare, Medicaid, and veterans’ health services. Prevention was always the responsibility of government or of private philanthropy.

Now privatization and profiteering pervade the U.S. health care system. Disease prevention, no profit center, has fallen by the wayside.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2019 conducted a six-month-long simulation of an influenza epidemic that demonstrated that in the United States 110 million people would be sick and 586,000 would die. It revealed the health system to be “underfunded, underprepared, and too disorganized to deal with a global pandemic.” The impact was nil. Under the Trump administration’s 2021 budget, spending on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dropped by $1.2 billion. People whose job was to plan how to deal with health disasters were dismissed.

The governments of Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Germany, and Cuba defended against COVID-19 and saved many lives. The U.S. government issued misleading public statements and waited two months before preventative action was taken. Health-care workers and patients have had to cope with shortages of tests, hospital beds, personal protective equipment, and ventilators.

Persons suspected of being infected must pay for tests and hospitalizations. Nearly 30 million of them have no health insurance and insurance coverage is inadequate for tens of thousands more. They can’t pay; they become victims. The virus’s kill rate in the United States, New York City being one sad example, is the highest in the world.

Two weeks after the world learned of the Wuhan epidemic, Berlin’s Charité Hospital made available its COVID-19 diagnostic test. Ample stocks of test kits were on hand in Germany in February, when the epidemic arrived. Public health workers at once began to track contacts. Subsequently, 350,000 diagnostic tests have been carried out every week. Officials had begun to expand the intensive care capabilities in hospitals in January. Germany’s COVID-19 death rate is the lowest in Europe.

Public health experts, economists, and political scientists of the International Association of Health Policy analyzed the world’s response to the pandemic in a teleconference in late March. Vicente Navarro, a public-health researcher based in Barcelona and Baltimore, summarized their deliberations.

The conferees noted that “several studies of recent years … had predicted that such a pandemic would occur and that the world was not prepared for it.” And, “states on both sides of the Atlantic have applied policies of privatization and cuts in public spending. The institutional base for providing services has deteriorated along with the quality of health and social services.”

Navarro and his group decided that “the biggest problem wasn’t a lack of resources, but the enormous inequalities in the availability of those resources. Therefore, it was a political and not an economic problem.” They pointed to “the minority interests of economic and financial groups that put profits for themselves above the common good.”

The state must “offer leadership, prioritizing public over private interventions.” According to Navarro, “We are witness to the end of neoliberalism.” He called for “realignment of forces within states so as to eliminate the excessive influence of particular interests opposed to the common good.”

In any case, the U.S. experience of pandemic lends new urgency for the U.S. people to embrace comprehensive, universally accessible health care.  The lesson is learned too that government is responsible for health care—and may be responsible for much more that is in the public interest.

Things fall apart

The specter is before us of political destabilization on a global scale. The accustomed ways of exercising political power may no longer work.

Dealing with the pandemic, the U.S. federal government wars with state governments. It bargains with them over supplies of testing equipment, ventilators, and personal protective equipment. States compete with each other for supplies. Local authorities and major health centers are on their own as they order supplies from China and elsewhere. Purchase orders at triple the price nullify Chinese sellers’ contracts with buyers elsewhere.

Inter-governmental relations in Europe are in disarray. The east-west divide has widened. Hungarian and Polish governments instituted additional authoritarian measures in response to the pandemic. The north-south divide resulting from conflicts over migration and the debt load of southern nations is now an open wound.

Northern creditors offered $400 billion in pandemic-related loans, but under conditions of “budgetary discipline.” To comply with the demands will be to add to the austerity and further reduce social spending. “The coronavirus could be a death blow for the EU,” one writer observes. Now Europe’s richer northern nations are stingy about assisting Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece during the pandemic.

The pandemic may trigger worldwide economic disintegration. John Smith, the author of Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, delivers the bad news. His article is titled “Why coronavirus could spark a capitalist supernova.” The disaster would clearly and totally disable the functioning of governments as we know it now. Excerpts tell the story:

“Capitalism now faces the deepest crisis in its several centuries of existence …long-term decline in interest rates … began well before the onset of systemic crisis in 2007. [It] fell off a cliff just as coronavirus began its rampage in early January 2020. Falling interest rates are fundamentally the result of two factors: falling rates of profit, and the hypertrophy of capital, i.e. its tendency to grow faster than the capacity of workers and farmers to supply it with the fresh blood it needs to live …

“Since 2008, productivity has stagnated across the world and GDP growth has been lower than in any decade since World War IIwhile aggregate debt (the total debt of governments, corporations and households), already mountainous before the 2008 financial crash, has since then more than doubled in size … Capitalism cannot escape from this crisis, no matter how many trillions of dollars governments borrow or central banks print … ”

Poet W. B. Yeats is heard: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”  “Anarchy” is taken here to mean vacuum. Vacuum for us is space emptied of competent and/or legitimate government. None too palatable characters have filled such vacuums in the past.

Silver lining?

Human solidarity is alive. Everywhere people are working so that others might exist and survive. Socialist nations too are agents of solidarity. China has sent massive amounts of medical equipment to dozens of countries. Chinese health workers and medical consultants are helping out in many of them. They are engaged in “China’s most intensive and wide-ranging emergency humanitarian operation since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.”

A brigade of health professionals, who volunteered to travel to South Africa to assist local authorities with an upsurge of coronavirus cases, attend the farewell ceremony in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, April 25, 2020. | Ramon Espinosa / AP

At a virtual emergency summit of G20 leaders, Chinese President Xi Jinping presented a four-point program for international cooperation. G20 health ministers would meet and “improve information sharing; strengthen cooperation on drugs, vaccines and epidemic control; and cut off cross-border infections.” There would be “a collective response for control and treatment at the international level” and “support [for] international organizations,” particularly the World Health Organization. Xi called for “enhance[d] international macro-economic policy coordination.”

In response to the pandemic, the Communist Party of China issued an open letter April 2 that had been endorsed by 230 progressive political parties from 100 countries. The letter covered themes Xi Jinping mentioned at the G20 Summit and highlighted goals of “improving people’s well-being, promoting national development, and safeguarding world peace and stability.”

Revolutionary Cuba, under U.S. siege for 60 years, posted hundreds of physicians to 15 countries; 52 Cuban health professionals are staffing a field hospital in Northern Italy. Cuba had already collaborated with China in producing interferon, an anti-viral, anti-cancer drug China found to be helpful in confronting COVID-19; 40 or so other countries have ordered the drug from Cuba and China’s joint-venture company in China.

Vietnam on April 7 donated half a million masks, “made of antimicrobial fabric,” to five European nations. That nation had previously reached out to Cambodia and Laos in their fight against COVID-19. In Vietnam, COVID-19 has infected only 258 people, as of April 11. No one has died.

In summary: Chinese President Xi Jinping would “build a community with a shared future for mankind.” He calls upon nations to “pool their strengths.”  Socialist nations relying on effective prevention measures and on international collective action have responded admirably. Some capitalist nations have done likewise, but have limited themselves to caring for their own populations. Capitalist United States failed.

A great hazard looms. Under duress and as chaos mounts, capital may find it useful to revert to the extremist, even brutal, measures figuring in its past.

Small tokens of strength are appreciated. From Cuba, for example, come images of Cuban leaders invariably wearing face masks as they speak. They are teaching by example. More, they are showing they are serious and that the present struggle is no short-term matter. They testify to the power of teaching.

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CONTRIBUTOR

W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont and now lives in rural Maine. He practiced and taught pediatrics for 35 years and long ago joined the Cuba solidarity movement, working with Let Cuba Live of Maine, Pastors for Peace, and the Venceremos Brigade. He writes on Latin America and health issues for the People's World.

 

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