The reworked herd immunity strategy of governments telling us to live with the virus is once again driven by their need to protect profits, writes John Clarke
Some two years into the global pandemic, it is becoming clear that governments and the key institutions of global capitalism have decided on a ‘learn to live with the virus’ approach. It is a course of action that involves considerable risks and the threat of catastrophic results, but it is not hard to understand what is driving it.
The present pandemic, much like the far greater climate crisis unfolding at the same time, results from this system’s inability to develop a sustainable relationship with the natural world. However, in the face of the dire results that flow from this, measures that preserve public health and wellbeing have been adopted only with the greatest reluctance: ‘Essentially, life-sustaining activities are in conflict with a system designed for the accumulation of capital through profit.’
As the waves of the pandemic have swept across the planet, healthcare systems that have been degraded by neoliberal austerity, have buckled under the impact, and weakened public services have struggled desperately to cope. In various countries, the appalling failure to protect workers and residents in long-term care facilities from the deadly impacts of the virus has exemplified this with brutal clarity.
Profits before life
The capitalist state embodies something of a contradiction, in that it exists to uphold and facilitate profit-making, but this means that it also has to pay some attention to public health and social stability, if it is to avoid levels of dislocation that can undermine the economy. Just as the state had to step in to put limits on the exploitation of factory workers in Marx’s day, so governments during the present pandemic had to introduce protective and restrictive measures that ran counter to the ‘business as usual’ aspirations of the most greedy and reckless capitalists.
This contradiction has produced sharp differences within ruling establishments, and political jurisdictions have adopted three different approaches. There have been various efforts simply to ‘let the bodies pile high’ and keep the cash registers jingling. The erratic antics of Donald Trump express that approach in a particularly ugly fashion. Then, we have those governments that have attempted to limit and mitigate the impact of the pandemic, without fully containing it. The Biden administration has been associated with this approach. Finally, a minority of those in political power have made real efforts to contain and eradicate the virus. After initially letting infection spread horribly, the Chinese government went over to such an approach, and robust efforts at containment were pursued in New Zealand.
The effort to keep the economy wide open, regardless of the consequences, has proven to be unsustainable, though it is in line with the worst instincts of capitalism. Many governments, then, have veered back and forth between reopening and reluctant containment. This has led to a tired ritual of business as usual bravado in the face of scientific evidence followed by belated and inadequate measures of health protection that are abandoned far too soon.
Such measures as have been taken to preserve public health and prevent rampant economic hardship have been inadequate and misdirected. Expanded income support has not met the needs, paid sick leave has been short of the mark and, despite some limiting of evictions, huge numbers of tenants have faced the threat of homelessness. There are important debates and legitimate disagreements on the left over many of the measures that states have taken to enact physical distancing and promote vaccination, but one thing that can’t be denied is that such measures have been stamped with the injustices and inequalities of this society.
It’s abundantly clear that the measures that many governments have taken were intended to shift responsibility onto the shoulders of poor, working-class people. The Covid curfew and the additional healthcare charge on the unvaccinated in Quebec stand out as particularly egregious examples of this trend. Globally, the failure to vaccinate masses of people in poor countries is the most disgraceful and destructively irrational component of the response to the pandemic. In the interests of pharmaceutical profits, hundreds of millions of people have been left unprotected, and the risk has been created of catastrophic new variant strains of the virus.
It is not hard to make out the main features of a global consensus that those in power are now putting into effect in response to the evolving pandemic. At the beginning of January, the editorial board of the Financial Times proclaimed that ‘the world must learn to live with Covid this year.’ After some obligatory posturing about expanding the scale of global vaccination and ‘protecting those who are most vulnerable,’ the editorial delivers its core message: ‘Efforts to control the pandemic have been justified so far in the context of a global health emergency but they cannot continue indefinitely.’
In the pages of Scientific American, a dissenting voice deplores a situation where ‘mass media and policy makers are pushing for a return to pre‐Covid times while trying to normalise a staggering death toll.’ The writer points to a New York Times headline in May 2020 that announced ‘U.S. Deaths Near 100,000, an Incalculable Loss,’ and compares it a recent effort by the same paper that calmly informed its readers ‘900,000 Dead, but Many Americans Move On.’
The World Health Organisation’s special envoy for Covid-19, David Nabarro, is now of the view that: ‘We have all got to learn to live with this virus, to do our business with this virus in our presence.’ Everywhere, governments are falling into line with this perspective and it is hardly surprising that the government of Boris Johnson is not being left behind in this regard. Significantly, the ‘zero tolerance’ approach being taken by China is viewed as an unacceptable discordant note. The IMF has darkly warned the Chinese government that their efforts to preserve public health ‘risk damaging the global recovery.’
The new strategy is rather desperate, but further disruption of an increasingly fragile global recovery is a daunting prospect for the leading functionaries of global capitalism, and the present signs are not heart-warming in this regard. The hope is that, with high rates of vaccination in the rich countries, the Omicron wave can run its course, in the context of reopening, without levels of death and suffering that undermine the functioning of the various economies. Measures of physical distancing are to be resisted, as unacceptable barriers to profit making and, when it comes to the dire threat of further variants, they will simply have to cross that bridge when they come to it.
This approach is obviously fraught with enormous danger but the resolve to move ahead is now very firm. Should the expectation that Omicron is past its peak prove wrong or, even worse, a more lethal strain be created under conditions of relaxed protections and inadequate vaccination efforts, it is quite possible that yet another change of course will be unavoidable. For the present, however, a reworked strategy of ‘herd immunity’ has been adopted.
The response of governments and state administrations to the pandemic has made the strongest possible case for working-class movements to act decisively in the interests of the health and wellbeing of workers and communities. The lack of movements capable of advancing fighting demands and struggling for radical solutions has given those in power far too much latitude to put profits before human life.
Here in Canada at the moment, the fascist-led ‘trucker convoy’ that has emerged, drives home the harsh truth that passivity in the face of this crisis creates a vacuum that will be filled by the most reactionary and destructive forces imaginable. Two years into the pandemic, the need for mass working-class action and organisational forms that can build and sustain it, remain the key political questions.
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John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.
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