Poverty and the Pandemic – Profits flow while the majority faces unchecked disease

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Australia is in the grip of another wave of the SARS-2/COVID pandemic. At the time of writing, a guesstimate by the ABC’s Dr Norman Swan, who taps into crucial medical networks, is that around 4% of the population is currently infected. That’s about 1 million people, give or take. Why “guesstimate?” I’ll come to that later.

Taking care of big business. The current phase of the pandemic was predictable. Strategies and tools were available to the federal and state governments months ago. State governments, closer as they are to the everyday consequences, have managed better, if unevenly. Which is not to absolve any of the these administrations from their maladministration. Nor their adherence to the fundamental principle that business must be aided at all costs. All have failed the poorest and most vulnerable.

So, to Swan’s “guesstimate.” This goes directly to the core of responsibility for the current COVID crisis here. It is the Liberal-National Party and its ideological think tank — the so-called Institute for Public Affairs (IPA). Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New South Wales premiers Gladys Berejiklian and her successor, Dominic Perrottet, have been willing executors of the IPA’s thoroughly reactionary, pro-business agenda. The core of that agenda is privatising benefits and socialising risks. Of course, it’s not marketed that way. We, the powerless and vulnerable, are meant to take “personal responsibility” — for what is a national and global crisis! The slogans and actions of Morrison and company are aimed at making sure big business is free from any responsibility for the monumental failure of their economic and political system.

This is on top of the clear corruption at the top of government, which has seen the provision of Rapid Antigen (RA) tests handed over to a few government party donors. The RA tests handed out for free by the United States’ Biden administration are manufactured in Australia. But obtaining just one here is a lottery, where suppliers hold all the valid tickets. It would be laughable if it were not simply obscene. Norman Swan and other experts are reduced to guesswork because the individualisation of testing means that central statistics are, at the very least, unreliable, if not useless. And that is Morrison’s game. Sweep the pandemic under the carpet, away from the 24 hour news cycle in time for the election. Just as he didn’t “hold a hose” during the bushfire crisis of last summer, he doesn’t hold a database during the COVID crisis.

And the criminal thing is this: we have no idea what the long term effects of a COVID infection might be. Is it always there, like the Herpes Simplex virus — or HIV? Does it leave long lasting, degenerative consequences for the respiratory system? We don’t know, yet the Morrison government is arrogantly placing short-term electoral gain, and big business profits, ahead of the health of the entire population. All the while depriving the health system of vital information needed to manage the increased demand on already scarce resources. That scarcity means that hospitals and ambulance services are already at breaking point. It can only get worse.

But, hey, the rich can buy all the healthcare they desire.

Capitalism versus civilisation. There’s a well known report of an exchange between respected archaeologist, Margaret Mead, and a student, Ira Byock, who relates it in a 2012 book:

“Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilisation in a culture…Mead said that the first sign of civilisation in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die…

“A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilisation starts, Mead said.”

Contrast that to the policies, not only of the Morrison regime, but of capitalist governments everywhere. Vaccine rates in the poorest countries, or in the poorest segments of the population in so-called “wealthy” states, are generally abysmal. Basically, the poor are being left to sicken and possibly die — unless they are currently vital to the survival of the profit system.

We know that the current COVID variant arose in the poorest parts of southern Africa, specifically the still desperately neglected post-Apartheid “townships” outside South Africa’s major cities. We also know that, in general, low vaccination/immunity rates allow viruses to mutate more effectively and more rapidly. Similarly, the Delta variant arose in the desperately poor majority of the population of India. Poverty breeds disease. This has been known since ancient times. And yet, unlike ancient times, or even the early 20th Century, the world right now has the resources to not only eradicate all but the most complex of human diseases, but to end poverty completely, everywhere.

Capitalism requires scarcity and obstructs collective action. Profit is not possible in a state of abundance, or at least independent subsistence. In the original heartland of capitalism, Great Britain, capitalists deliberately and consciously went about destroying subsistence agriculture by fencing off the common land and evicting small farmers. The better to fill the new cities with cheap, powerless labour — wage slaves! Add the (ongoing) plunder and literal enslavement of non-European civilisations. All of this destruction has been integral to capitalism, a parasitical and largely uncontrolled blight upon the whole planet; a brutal, inhumane global machine that accumulates only to accumulate more — and all for the benefit of a diminishing number of capital owners.

A winning plan. Now, it’s important to avoid despair and confusion, and the fear arising from them. We need to oppose the anti-vax protests organised by the far-right. See Now is the time for a united self-defence against the far-right “freedom” movement.

But how to defeat the pandemic itself? What must we demand? Firstly and obviously that the pharmaceutical sector is nationalised under workers’ control. This country has the means to produce vaccines for the entire Pacific region as a start. We can’t beat the virus if our neighbours are left to fend for themselves. And ignore the drug patents. These are only tools for strangling supply to maximise profits for the pharmaceutical companies.

Full funding for testing and treatment. The budget for this is already there: simply tear up the defence contracts!

Enough health workers must be recruited and trained to meet all current and projected demand. Nurses, ambos and doctors are not robots, and the government must stop treating them as such through working them into the ground. While we’re at it, nationalise the private healthcare system. Governments across the country effectively took over control of the private system when the first wave of COVID hit. All that is needed is the small step of denying profits to the shareholders, who continue to make money from misery. So, it’s really not that difficult — although big business will howl and complain.

If the current health crisis teaches us anything it is that collective challenges need collective responses. Nothing else works, and it never has, except at the cost of mass misery and death.

SARS-2/COVID arose because of climate change —unsustainable pressure on a particular local ecosystem. But it is sustained and renewed by poverty. In Australia there is no need to queue for RA tests. Across the planet, there is no need for whole populations to go unprotected by vaccines. There’s only a system that relies on strangling supply when its profits are threatened. An uncivil system, propped up by propaganda and sustained by division and — too often — brute force.

Time to really “civilise” the planet. Last June in my Soapbox piece, “Capitalism: the real pandemic,” in the Freedom Socialist Organiser I made the case that capitalism is the virus.

Well, we are the vaccine. And the whole planet needs inoculating.

Peter is a passionate ecosocialist and member of the Rail Tram and Bus Union.

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