Editorial: Capitalism struggles to cope

Capitalism survives by producing for profit, which takes precedence over human welfare. It is organised around nation states, representing the capitalist interests within their borders, competing against each other in the global market place. The new Covid-19 pandemic reveals this social system’s shortcomings in how it deals with global problems.

The virus is believed to have originated in a wildlife market in Wuhan, China, where animals were traded illegally. Overcrowded conditions and poor infrastructure in the large cities allowed for the rapid infection among the population. The virus was transmitted to other countries through tourism and trade.

Faced with such a global crisis, one would think that there would be some form of international cooperation. However, this has not been the case. The initial reaction of the local Chinese officials was to suppress any information, just as state authorities had done during the 2003 SARS outbreak, in order to avoid compromising China’s position in the global market place. After branding it a ‘Chinese virus’, Donald Trump haphazardly introduced a travel ban on European nations without any prior consultation.

Each nation state has been pursuing its own independent policy, sometimes following conflicting medical advice.

Governments have mostly been slow to respond to this emergency, partly through uncertainty and partly through reluctance to impact on the profitability of local enterprises. This lack of global coherence, cooperation and reactivity will certainly cost lives.

Despite the great advances made in medical technology over the last century and the existence of highly trained medical staff, health services will be struggling to cope. It is predicted that the NHS could be overwhelmed. Health services like everything else in capitalism are constrained by what can be afforded. In the last ten years, health services have generally seen their funding fall as governments introduced austerity measures as part of efforts to restore the rate of profit in the aftermath of the 2008/2009 economic downturn.

The production of vaccines to combat the virus is also subject to the vagaries of the market system. The largest pharmaceutical companies have the resources to search for a vaccine but will only do so if they can earn profits large enough to cover the development costs in the timescales required. Many of them have consolidated patents on the manufacturing processes. Even when work on a vaccine has begun, it may be shelved if the virus outbreak recedes (Stephen Buranyi ‘How profit makes the fight for a Coronavirus vaccine harder’ Guardian, 4 March).

The government advises us to self-isolate if we think we have the virus, and are offering to pay 80 percent of wages to make sure workers do. But little concern has been paid to insecure workers on low wages or those who work in the gig economy, who are facing financial pressure to continue working and so risk spreading the virus.

The state has been forced to intervene in the economy and in our lives. Governments exhort us to be altruistic and to look out for others. What we need to do is develop real human solidarity. The only real way to achieve this is through developing socialist consciousness, the awareness that, as workers, we have a common interest in getting rid of capitalism and establishing a global socialist society without national frontiers.