"Johnson’s solemn words amount to little more than a smokescreen; we are seeing safety substituted for spin."The Telegraph/YouTube

On Monday evening, the Prime Minister’s speech to the nation urged a Blitz Spirit, as we were informed that we must stay at home and that the way ahead would be hard. This marks a change of tune from Boris Johnson’s initial “herd immunity” plan, which amounted to sitting tight and doing nothing. Sacrificing half a million lives proved too hard a sell, and Johnson’s attempt to play Emperor Nero, watching Britain burn whilst he fiddled, was brought to an abrupt close.

Throughout this crisis, we have seen world leaders drag their heels: from underplaying the severity of the virus, to branding it “foreign” in a desperate scramble to shift blame elsewhere. Yet the severity of this crisis has cut across these glib platitudes and promises that things will get better if we keep calm and wash our hands. Our loved ones’ lives are being put in unnecessary peril. We are two weeks behind Italy, where thousands of people have died, yet pictures of packed transport in the UK still fill social media. Billionaires are already asking for bailouts and laying workers off. Workers at construction sites, to give one example, are being told from above that their work is essential. Essential, of course, only in keeping profit margins high. Johnson’s solemn words amount to little more than a smokescreen; we are seeing safety substituted for spin.

“To not politicise this pandemic is to be blind as to what caused the crisis in the first place.”

We should not limit our criticism to that of the callousness displayed by world leaders. Their interests are plain as day: defending the capitalist economy which sacrifices human life at the altar of profit. The loss of life that will be incurred by COVID-19 is abetted by austerity-stricken health care systems. The NHS was on a lifeline before this epidemic hit; after decades of under-funding, staff were already chronically overburdened. As epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, who led the fight against smallpox, once said: “outbreaks are inevitable, but pandemics are optional”. To not politicise this pandemic is to be blind as to what caused the crisis in the first place.

Take the pharmaceutical industry as a case in point. Research into a SARS vaccine, another coronavirus, was scrapped back in 2004 as soon it ceased to be profitable to continue research, and enough people had died. In the past two decades, SARS-CoV-1, Mers, Zika, Ebola have torn through the world, causing untold devastation and suffering. Yet to date, among all those diseases, a vaccine for only one – Ebola – has reached the market.

Whilst profits surge, the number of new drugs and vaccines has been decreasing for some time. Leaving this industry in the hands of the bosses has not only plunged us from one pandemic to the next, but fundamentally undermines our ability to contain the contagion.

“Faith in the market has gone into free-fall as many are taking their destinies into their own hands.”

Deadly diseases like tuberculosis still plague poorer nations. Neglected tropical diseases kill 500,000 people in the developing world every year. The reality is that Big Pharma does not care what research is most humane and necessary, but rather what research can reap the biggest financial profit. US drugmakers have already doubled the price of a potential coronavirus treatment. The matter comes down to this: it is not profitable for Big Pharma to make medicine freely available to the entire world’s population. The more urgently-needed a treatment is, the more money they will hope to make by exploiting the desperation of those suffering. This, in the words of Frederick Engels, is social murder – pure and simple.

Donald Trump has expressed keen interest in striking a ‘great deal’, offering to pay top dollar to patent vaccines so that they can be used solely in the United States. Isolationism and a lack of international coordination, epitomised by Trump’s strategy here, has undermined efforts to stop the pandemic from growing. Likewise, a medical device manufacturer has threatened to sue two Italian volunteers that have 3D printed valves for $1. These valves, which typically cost about $11,000, are essential for life-saving COVID-19 treatments. It is no surprise that #NotDying4WallStreet is trending on Twitter, as people express anger at the opportunists seeing dollar signs in the midst of death and suffering. We are being forced to now realise that it is the capitalist class and their relentless drive for profit that prevents the level of coordination that is necessary to fight COVID-19.


Mountain View

The COVID-19 crisis is being exacerbated by selfishness

The free market offers no way out of the current crisis. In Spain, private hospitals have been requisitioned and, closer to home, the Tories have banned the export of 80 drugs, acknowledging that they would otherwise be bought on the cheap and sold dearly abroad. This is a damning indictment of the capitalist system they so arduously defend, and proof that measures can – and, in fact, should – be taken against private property rights and the anarchy of the market.

The industry exists for there to be no shortages within society whatsoever. The technology and technique exists for the economy as a whole to reconfigure production towards medical equipment and supplies. Empty houses bought for the sake of speculation could be used to house the homeless, where demands to social distance and stay at home prove a cruel joke. The need for a planned economy, run by the majority of society and in our interests is becoming clearer by the day. Whatever measures the government proposes, they are always too little too late. And let’s not have any illusions over who will be asked to pay back the debts they incur in the process: today’s government stimulus is tomorrow’s austerity package.

In the words of Antonio Gramsci, “the old world is dying and the new world is struggling to be born: now is the time of monsters”. Community organising has shown what solidarity and self-sacrifice looks like in practice. Wildcat strikes have shown where the power really lies in society. Faith in the market has gone into free-fall as many are taking their destinies into their own hands. Capitalism is the disease. Socialism is the cure.