United States: The pandemic exposes capitalism's failures

April 15, 2020
Health workers demand better protection, outside a hospital in New York City.

The official death toll in the United States, as of April 14, is more than 25,000. It was 12,000 seven days earlier.

The real toll is much higher, as I have previously reported.

Many people who die from the virus are not counted, and are not even tested. This is the case among the homeless, those too poor to have health insurance, undocumented immigrants, those who die at home and others who do not go to hospitals.

A New York Times article concerning deaths in New York City reported on April 13 that “over the 31 days ending April 4, more than twice the typical number of New Yorkers died. That total for the city includes deaths directly linked to the virus as well as those from other causes, like heart attacks and cancer.

“The numbers contradict the notion that many people who are dying would have died shortly anyway. And they suggest that the current coronavirus death figures understate the real toll of the virus, either because of undercounting of coronavirus deaths, increases in deaths that are normally preventable, or both.”

The rise in preventable deaths can be explained by the fact that hospitals and medical personnel have to concentrate on the sickest coronavirus victims, overwhelming the hospitals and equipment, such as ventilators which are in short supply. This is to the detriment of people with other medical conditions.

The other factor is that those with other conditions fear going to hospital and contracting the virus there.

The rise in normally preventable deaths is an indirect result of the virus and these deaths should therefore be counted in the COVID-19 death toll.

While the media has talked about economic inequality, what this means has been made starkly evident by the pandemic.


The fundamental contradiction of capitalism is that between the capitalist class and the working class. It is the working class that has suffered from the economic shutdown. Unemployment has hit workers hard.

In the three weeks ending April 4, 17 million workers filed for unemployment insurance for the first time. The whole unemployment system has been so overwhelmed that millions more were not even able to file, according to NYT estimates.

The poorest workers, who live paycheque to paycheque, are in danger of not being able to make ends meet.

The capitalists continue to live their lavish lifestyles. They “self isolate” in their mansions, and continue to eat their upscale meals — either cooked by their servants or ordered in from their upscale restaurants.

The trillions of dollars the federal government (with bipartisan support) has allocated to ameliorate the economic effects of the pandemic are greatly skewed to bail out the big capitalist corporations and banks. Meanwhile, miserly funds are directed to workers — inadequate to meet their needs.

Medical workers are on the frontline dealing with the pandemic. Hardly a single capitalist is seen in the emergency rooms: a scant few applaud those risking their lives, but from afar.

Small business owners, part of the middle class, have also been hit hard, and their businesses may not survive. However, even they live better than their laid-off workers.

African American oppression

A second major contradiction in US capitalism is the national oppression of African Americans. That began when the first slaves were brought to the British colonies in America in the 17th century and has lasted to the present.

There was a brief period after the Civil War that ended chattel slavery, 10 years of so-called “Reconstruction”, when this oppression was ameliorated somewhat, only to take on the new form of de jure segregation (apartheid) in the former slave-holding states (the Confederacy) and de facto segregation in the rest of the country.

This new form of the national oppression of Blacks ended after 80 years with the overthrow of the system of segregation in the South (known as the “Jim Crow” system) and gains in the rest of the country by the Black liberation and civil rights struggle in the 1950–60s.

We have been witnessing a counter-revolution to those gains since the 1970s, dubbed “The New Jim Crow” by scholar Michelle Alexander.

When it became known that COVID-19 was killing Blacks at a much higher rate than the rest of the population, front-page articles appeared about how this is rooted in the continuing oppression of African Americans — indicated by every measure, including health. This is the first time in years this has been brought to the public’s attention by the mainstream media.

The centuries-long national oppression of African Americans spilled over into racism against other peoples of colour. This was intensified by US imperialism’s domination of Latin America and other continents.

One aspect of this has been the importation of immigrants into the US to work in occupations such as agriculture, service industries and construction. A large portion of these, mostly Latino, immigrants have no rights — they are the “undocumented”. There are at least 11 million of them.

Without rights, the undocumented suffer low wages, bad working conditions and often live in densely populated communities.

Some in the mainstream media have noted that the virus has also hit Latinos hard. Many families include people who are US citizens, some who have papers allowing them to live in the US, as well as undocumented family members.

In New York City, the epicenter of the US pandemic, the population with the highest percentage of coronavirus cases and deaths are Latinos in the borough of Queens.

One outcome of the pandemic has been the racist treatment of Chinese Americans and other Asians who “look Chinese”, fomented by Trump and the Republicans.

Another thing that has been only partially noted in the media is the sorry state of the US health system. One aspect that has drawn attention is the truly awful conditions in “nursing homes” for the elderly. The pandemic has festered in them.

International solidarity

While there are particular aspects of the pandemic specific to the US and other countries, it has spread throughout the world. Its impact on the health and economic crises in the US has to be seen as part of the international impact of the pandemic.

It is ridiculous to think that each country, including the US, can deal with the virus and its economic impact alone. The virus knows no boundaries. As long as it is in some countries, no country can wipe it out by itself.

The reestablishment of capitalism in the former Soviet Union and China (albeit by different routes), means capitalism dominates everywhere, with few exceptions, especially Cuba.

The economies of the capitalist world are intertwined in many ways. The pandemic has disrupted supply chains and commerce. All face recession.

The richest countries have become imperialist exploiters of the great masses in what is called the Global South, since the beginning of the 20th century. This exploitation has been continued in new ways, based on the domination of monopolies and the merging of banking and industrial capitalists in the “centres”.

Just as the poorest workers suffer the most in the pandemic, the poorest countries will suffer the most economically, as well as in health impacts, as the pandemic spreads to Africa, from China to other parts of Asia such as India, and through Latin America.

What is needed to fight the virus is international solidarity and collaboration to find effective drugs and a vaccine. These should be shared freely among all peoples — no patents and “cornering the market”. There should be collaboration among the different health departments of all countries, sending doctors and nurses as well as medical equipment to countries that need it most.

Ameliorating the economic disruption also requires international cooperation and solidarity. The richest countries should help the poor countries. In each country, funds to help workers, peasants and the middle classes should be the top priority, within the context of targeting aid to the producers of the poorest countries.

Alas, the world is moving in the opposite direction. Somewhat surprisingly, an article in the business section of the NYT said on April 10: “A nationalist mind-set among world leaders is jeopardising access to life-saving tools for all.

“As they battle a pandemic that has no borders, the leaders of many of the world’s largest economies are in the thrall of unabashedly nationalist principles, undermining collective efforts to tame the novel coronavirus.

“The United States … is led by a president who openly scoffs at international cooperation while pursuing a global trade war. India, which produces a staggering amount of drugs, is ruled by a Hindu nationalist who has ratcheted up confrontation with neighbors. China, a dominant source of protective gear and medicines, is bent on a mission to restore its former imperial glory.

“At least 69 countries have banned or restricted the export of protective equipment, medical devices or drugs … The World Health Organization warns that protectionism could limit the global availability of vaccines. With every country on the planet in need of the same lifesaving tools at once, national rivalries are jeopardizing access for all."

Simon J Everett, an expert on international trade told the NYT: “The parties with the deepest pockets will secure these vaccines and medicines, and, essentially, much of the developing world will be entirely out of the picture.

“We will have rationing by price. It will be brutal.”

Cuba stands out from all other countries in sending doctors to countries with the most need. Others send few, if any.

The US is imposing economic sanctions on many oppressed countries that make both the health and economic results of the pandemic worse. It has now impeded medical equipment destined for Cuba.

What is behind this failure of international collaboration and solidarity in the face of the pandemic is imperialism. The rich imperialist countries don’t want to make aid to the oppressed countries any kind of priority.

The imperialist countries have historically been in fierce competition among themselves, which led to two world wars. Today, international capitalist competition is once again on the rise due to the workings of the capitalist economies, including a falling rate of profit.

They compete not only economically, but over crucial equipment to fight the virus.

Only international socialist revolution can put an end to this dog-eat-dog world, something not on the immediate agenda anywhere.

But we can hope that the terrible consequences of the pandemic will push more people to see this need. In the meantime, we can struggle to demand more international cooperation when the occasion arises, including an end to US sanctions.

Workers in many countries are beginning to organise to counter the economic and health consequences of the pandemic and we can join those, and help organise them when possible.

There are the beginnings of self-organising to deal cooperatively with the various manifestations of the health crisis.

Other forms of protest will be likely against the failures of governments to protect the workers, peasants and poor from the pandemic.

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