The Crisis of the Capitalist System in Face of the Coronavirus Pandemic

March 2020

The current coronavirus pandemic, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, has accelerated the decay of the capitalist system with it being incapable of dealing with such emergencies due to it prioritizing profits instead of workers’ lives. Thousands of deaths are counted both in the Chinese bureaucratically deformed workers’ state and capitalist Italy, with hundreds in other countries and a perspective of hundreds of thousands worldwide in the next few months. Capitalist governments are utterly incapable of satisfying even the minimal needs of working people.

The virus had its epicenter in China, where measures of contention and strict quarantine, along with the centralized use of the state-owned enterprises that comprise the bulk of the country’s non-capitalist economy, helped reduce the spreading. Western Europe, having a high percentage of elders, soon became a new center of cases with Italy and Spain currently having the most infections. In Italy, it is said that those citizens above 80 are being “left to die” due to the health care system being crowded and unable to provide further assistance.

The elderly and those with a weakened immunological system, mainly those suffering from previous respiratory diseases, are the sections of the population most affected by the disease. Although there is a low mortality rate among healthy young adults, the virus disseminates extremely quickly, reaching a massive number of people in short time. All those infected carry the virus around until it is eliminated by the body, even if they show no symptoms. Healthcare systems tend to get overwhelmed, preventing them from taking care of all people demanding intensive care.

The most efficient measures to contain the spreading of the virus involve social isolation, and most capitalist countries have started taking them, in an attempt to mimic the efforts undertaken in China. But shutting down all non-essential services means accepting a scenario of economic recession, if not of complete social chaos. That is because companies will not happily take the “burden” of maintaining the wages of workers in quarantine or isolation. They will instead try to implement mass lay-offs and cut hours and wages. Essential services will keep demanding payment of their bills while many workers are prevented from going to work and therefore have no salaries. This crisis will hit ever more hardly the enormous masses of unemployed and casual workers, who depend on the so called “gig economy” for survival and have no formal links to their companies, or to the companies to which they provide work.

The capitalist governments are mainly worried about saving the banks and big companies, and have started passing “stimulus packages” that revert money from the national treasure to big capitalists (1 trillion dollars are expected for this in the US). As such, the spending for the workers lag far behind and will make little difference. It is precisely the workers and the poor who will have less to zero access to treatment if they acquire COVID-19. And with a new cycle of economic recession or even depression lies ahead after the peak of the disease, the result will be an accumulation of death, suffering, unemployment and hunger.

So far, the politicians of the ruling class are split into two camps. The first consists of denying or minimizing the seriousness of the current crisis in healthcare and the economy as a whole. In Brazil, this position is taken by President Bolsonaro, who speaks of “hysteria” being spread by the media and stimulates mass public meeting of his supporters. A few weeks ago, Donald Trump had the same take, before being “brought to reason” by his minions. That was also the view of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who believes allowing the virus to disseminate around the population is the “best strategy”. Such views come from sheer ignorance and disbelief in science and could quickly lead to the death of tens of thousands.

The second position is the one taken by most capitalist governments: mitigation measures such as canceling most non-essential services, public events and meetings, classes in schools and universities, and other activities, but without offering guarantees to the working force. Companies will and in some cases have already started laying-off workers or cutting working hours (and wages) to “keep the balance sheet in order”. But workers are left without means to survive or resources to maintain their households. In face of a “quarantine” imposed without social safety nets, many workers prefer to risk their lives and keep working in precarious jobs, afraid of having nothing to eat in the following week or month. In the richest imperialist countries such as France, Germany or the US, a few guarantees, if still insufficient, are being conceded to the population. But those barely exist in the periphery of the capitalist system.

In a society ruled by the workers, there would be reserve funds to maintain our economic safety and tranquility during periods of crisis such as this. In capitalism, instead, those resources are in the pockets of a handful of parasitic billionaires. The situation demands a working class response in struggle for our lives, which must involve strikes in strategic sectors of the economy and a broad denunciation of capitalist governments, with the aim of preparing the overthrow of this irrational system. Workers must struggle to achieve the following demands:

  • Prohibition of all lay-offs, wage cuts and other reprisals against workers for the duration of the isolation measures and the effects of the crisis.
  • Payment of a basic income, sufficient to cover for all basic needs, to all the unemployed and informal workers, and to those who are not being paid, to guarantee effective social isolation measures when all non-essential workplaces are shut. These payments will be made possible by confiscating the profits of banks and big capitalists.
  • Cancel the limits in public spending: immediate transfer of large sums to public healthcare systems, with free distribution of testing for COVID-19, medicines, hospital equipment and prevention items. Heavy investment in research to develop vaccines.
  • Cancel rent, water, electric energy, gas and internet bills for the duration of the crisis. The charges must be made null and the services provided for free to the working class. Companies which refuse to do it must be expropriated by workers, without compensation, to remain functioning and providing their service.
  • Expropriation of private hospitals, to be reorganized as public hospitals, and use of their beds, equipment and resources by the entire population, without discrimination and for free. Immediate hiring of more workers to public healthcare systems by demand.

At every moment of this crisis, the less narrow-minded managers of capitalist governments perceive the need for such measures, which until yesterday were seen as “socialist” or even “communist”, and which are even partially and temporarily adopted in some cases. In Spain, private hospital beds have already been socialized. In France, charges of essential services have been lifted and there is talk of paying a basic income to all citizens. A similar program is likely to be adopted in the United States. But despite this, the capitalists have their hands tied in face of their commitment to the defense of private ownership of the means of production and distribution. The measures taken will be, at most, demagogic, to try to contain the social revolt and chaos engendered by the crisis. Real help will go to the banks and big companies.

If in the imperialist countries the state still has resources, obtained by exploiting the workers from large parts of the world, to spend on their citizens without touching private property, this will be impossible in semicolonial countries, already devastated by the effects of the previous economic crisis. In these countries, millions of workers will quickly be completely helpless. Sooner or later, they must realize that it will be impossible to resolve the crisis, made evident by, but not limited to, the medical emergency of the coronavirus, without ending this system that prioritizes billionaires over toilers and the population in general.

The question is posed in a way that does not allow for half measures: either the banks and big capitalists are saved, or the lives, dignity and future of millions are saved. Capitalist governments have long ago chosen the first option. It is up to us, workers, to choose the second, to speak out loud and to impose, with the means available, the will of the class that produces everything. Only the working class can lead all of those displaced, humiliated and destituted by capitalism.

The capitalist system will not “automatically” end. The bourgeoisie sees us as a mass to work to death, as cheaply as possible, and that is all. They have no compassion for the lives of workers. On the contrary, capitalists nourish a profound hatred for those who rise up and challenge them. There is no war, health crisis, humanitarian catastrophe or anything else that the ruling class will not try to “manage”, looking for a way out that guarantees the maintenance of their profits and the continuity of their “order”, even if it is at the cost of the indescribable suffering of humanity and of the planet. Capitalism has to be overthrown.

The proliferation of coronavirus will be a social tragedy because we are still stuck with such system. It will be temporary, for a few months, but the acute agony of the capitalist crisis will be much longer. The shorter it will be the faster is the organization of the workers’ movement, independently of the bosses, for the overthrow of the state, the expropriation of large companies and banks, and the construction of workers’ power organs, the basis of a proletarian transitional government to socialism, which will guarantee us a much more fulfilling and dignified life. Today more than ever, we shout: socialism or barbarism!