COVID-19 vaccines a ‘testament’ to capitalism?

If only there was a global effort to fully vaccinate and protect the world from the mutating COVID-19 virus. Photo: Caniceus / Pixabay

“A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths are a statistic.” This quote from Joseph Stalin grotesquely sums up the attitudes of governments and the media when talking about COVID-19.

The 5.6 million deaths globally have become a statistic. The 3500 dead in Australia are a statistic. The attitude of “let it rip” in the blind hope that the economy will somehow cope is all-persuasive. The news broadcasts simply report the numbers of dead and say no more. All tiers of government in this country accept the logic of capitalism, and all avoid the unpleasant fact that those statistics are people and all victims of capitalism.

In a particularly twisted view of the world, University of Sydney associate professor Nial Wheate, speaking of the response to providing vaccines, remarked: “It’s a testament to science, and to capitalism, how fast we’ve been able to develop these drugs”.

Capitalism, we are told, is the solution to the problem. It follows that, as capitalism is all pervasive, then we can have little to fear from COVID-19 or from any other threat to our lives or to the well-being of the planet.

It is an argument that turns all logic on its head.

The crisis of COVID-19 and the crisis of climate change are ultimately the result of an economic system that has smashed and destroyed all in its path in the quest for profit.

It has been a comfortable pandemic for some. Early in the crisis, before officially standing down as CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos’ personal wealth rose to US$159 billion, while tens of thousands of people died. If this sounds a little like the war profiteers of yesteryear, it is, because they are cut from the same cloth.

The current pandemic has reaped huge dividends for some. The drug companies that are heralded by some as being a “testament” to capitalism’s effective response to the pandemic is a case in point.

Vast profits have been made at the cost of human suffering. Moderna recorded a rise of $18.4 billion in sales last year. Pfizer’s profits rose by 44% with the additional COVID-19 revenue of $26 billion.

The speed with which the pharmaceutical companies developed successful vaccines was astonishing. It had to be. There was no altruism in this. The very future of capitalism relied on science’s ability to keep the wheels turning.

By the end last year, Australia was celebrating the fact that 90% of the population were fully vaccinated. At the same time, many low-income countries had still managed only one dose per head of population. An Amnesty International report argued that new COVID-19 variants owe their existence to the major drug companies “profit over life” approach to business. This is a “testament” to capitalism.

The relatively high rate of vaccination that the wealthy countries have achieved is, however eclipsed by Cuba’s response.

As Richa Chintan wrote, Cuba has not only managed to vaccinate its own population but is sending vaccines to a number of other countries. Could it be that socialism provides a better model to tackle crises?

While capitalism, at the level of “big pharma” exposes itself as a cruel and rapacious beast, its behaviour at the local or national level is equally abhorrent. Record numbers of COVID-19 infections are being recorded in Australia and the death rate is escalating.

At the same time governments are effectively withdrawing from the field of battle. Workers are being forced to work in unsafe conditions and employers are free to get on with the job.

All that matters is for the economy to keep ticking over despite the human cost, and so capital gambles on the economy continuing to function efficiently and that supply chains will not grind to a halt. If they do, then again it is clear just who will suffer most.

The problems associated with COVID-19, from first to last, are attributable to capitalism and its treatment of the planet. The fact that the guilty find absolution as saviours is just one dreadful irony. Robin Marantz Henig, in an article in National Geographic in 2020 wrote of how scientists had been warning for decades that something very like COVID-19 would eventuate. She cited her own book, A Dancing Matrix, published in 1990, to prove her point.

That book, and other reports expressing the thoughts and research of so many experts in the field, was blithely ignored. Nothing was done. Governments avoided spending money in the vain hope that the threats just would not come to pass. Even as governments ignored the warnings, the threats were becoming reality.

There is a clearly identified link between capitalism, climate change, global disease and pandemic, and it is no secret. The World Health Organization (WHO) has repeatedly pointed to the potential dangers associated with climate change and its relationship with human health. These reports formed the basis of much that was presented to the COP24 meeting in Poland in 2018. What is disturbing is that organisations such as WHO, and the hundreds of well-credentialed participants at such meetings, have been effectively ignored in a delusional hope that things will simply get better.

It is reminiscent of a political cartoon from the early 1980s: A top-hatted, cigar-smoking caricature of capitalism sees a billboard and orders his chauffeur to reverse to re-read the sign. It read “the world will end in 30–40 years”. “What a relief. I thought it said, 3–4 years,” commented the  character.

Satire has become reality.

The current pandemic might, possibly, have an end point, but there is no longer any doubt new pandemics and existential threats will follow. Will it be capitalism that permits new and ever more lethal pandemics, or will it be capitalism that saves us?

The answer ought to be obvious. The question should not have to asked, but governments and the economic system they serve find ways to avoid an answer because they have not heard and will not listen to the question. The media keep the truth from us and the best that is offered is the inanity that when vaccines are developed in a short space of time it is a “testament” to capitalism.

“A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths are a statistic.”