COVID is the virus, but capitalism is making us sick

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Stick me baby one more time Daniel Schludi via Unsplash

Capitalist countries fail

In December of 2019, the Wuhan government first reported COVID-19 to the rest of the world. Before that point, it was reported as a cluster of pneumonia cases, and any other information about what was happening was hard to come by. As the story developed, many believed it wasn’t a big deal, and there was no possible way it would become a problem outside of China. Fast forward to March 2020, and the world as everyone knew it ended. Across the planet everything shut down, and a collective breath was held as governments, scientists, and the general population scrambled for answers and direction. If you paid any attention to the news back then, you would have noticed that every country had a different response to the virus, and some were more successful with combating case numbers and keeping people safe and healthy than others. Throughout the pandemic it has become clear that health is an economic and political issue, and government and business often have more to say about who lives and dies than the doctors in the hospital.

At the moment, it is hard to say with absolute certainty the direct impact capitalist economies have had on the spread of COVID-19. It will take years of research to put hard numbers on paper, but some things are obvious even to the casual observer. The United States, the capitalist center of the world, basically allowed COVID-19 to run rampant through the country, and they have the case numbers and death count to prove it. Canada hasn’t had any better luck, even with public health care. But countries like Cuba, who have planned economies directly controlled by the government, have had a relatively low number of cases and low death counts per capita compared to the United States and Canada. It would be easy to blame it on the for-profit health care in the U.S., but the problems capitalism causes for health run so much deeper than that. Many situations that come from capitalism, such as class structure, poor working conditions, pre-existing health conditions from the environment, and lifestyle have all directly contributed to the death counts in countries like the States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and many others. To better understand the implications of economics on health, the Carillon spoke with Robert Chernomas, an economics professor from the University of Manitoba that researches health economics.

“I would say it’s a tricky thing because healthcare is relevant, but not that relevant because there’s the same issue in Great Britain, which has universal healthcare, and everyone has access to it. But it’s a very inequitable society where conditions are much more likely to be worse for working class people than for upper-class people. But access to healthcare is not that powerful of a dependent variable in determining who’s going to die and not going to die. And the question I ask is to what extent is a health a biological issue, a lifestyle issue, or a political economic issue, and while biology of course matters, it’s a political economy issue and it didn’t start with COVID. It existed long before COVID in the history of capitalism,”

One of the biggest reasons capitalism causes issues in health is because it creates a class system. There is a vast divide between the very wealthy and the very poor, and those riding the poverty line are generally more at risk of infection because capitalism allows them little control over their lives. Many did not choose to risk exposure during the initial outbreak of the pandemic, but were forced to continue working in places where transmission rates were high. Throughout the pandemic many citizens in countries like the US and Canada have not been given a chance to prioritize their health because the government and corporations demand that they continue to work, or go hungry and lose their homes.

Another way capitalist economies contributed to COVID is because capitalist economies are interested in just that: capital. Everything is about competition and keeping big business profitable, and shutting down the industry to protect workers is not in the best interest of profit. Capitalism also doesn’t allow for a financial surplus in society to be relocated back to the community. Instead, the excess gets invested back into those who have economic influence in the form of bank bailouts, tax breaks, or even excessive military spending. When a socialist country has a surplus, for example, in Cuba, that money is redistributed to the community and the advancement of the population, so health care and education are often well-funded even if the country doesn’t have a substantial GDP. It’s a good demonstration of the way the apparent economic health of a country doesn’t necessarily correlate with quality of life for a majority of citizens.

On the other hand, Cuba put their citizens first, and it shows. They launched a massive information campaign, not shying away from the virus and its profound threat. 30,000 contract tracers tracked down everyone who came in contact with the virus and put them in isolation units until they could no longer transmit the virus. The government shut down the tourist industry for several months, and enforced strict measures at resorts and airports once they reopened. Masks in public have been mandatory for everyone over six years old, and homeschooling was mandatory until November 2021. Cuba’s biotechnology industry which employees 23,000 scientists also produced sixty per cent of Cuba’s medications, 80 per cent of its vaccines, and has fully vaccinated 85.6 per cent of their population. In contrast, Canada’s only government-owned vaccine lab was privatized and sold to a French company in the 1980s, and the vaccine rate is currently sitting at 77.6 per cent.

It’s easy to look at the United States and condemn their response, but Canada has also had a problem controlling COVID and it’s not the first time the country has struggled to manage disease outbreaks. In 2003 when SARS was reported in Toronto, the conservative provincial government prioritized public image and relations over its front-line workers health and actually laid off health care staff and denied many people danger pay. This kind of attitude is seen today in the governments of places like Saskatchewan, where Scott Moe has repeatedly put economic interests ahead of health and allowed the number of COVID patients in hospitals in Saskatchewan to get to unsustainable levels.

It’s a lot to take in, but in summary, capitalism played a significant role in escalating COVID by prioritizing profit over people. And not to sound glum, but this is only the beginning; as humans explore deeper into untouched territories, we are constantly exposing ourselves to new pathogens and their natural hosts. So, capitalism is not only hindering our ability to combat illness; it’s helping cause it. As more rainforests are cut down for farming or more land is taken up for development, we get exposed to things our bodies don’t know how to fight. It would benefit countries to take a note from Cuba when the next virus ravages the planet, but only time will tell if some governments can learn to put people over profit.

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