What does humanity have to look forward to? Not what Canada represents

June 11, 2021

By Stephen Gowans

I wrote this on July 1, 2017. July 1 is Canada Day, Canada’s equivalent of the fourth of July. July 1, 2017 was Canada’s sesquicentennial.

I am reposting it, with some edit, in light of calls, initiated by Idle No More, to cancel this year’s Canada Day.

Idle No More is an organization which “calls on all people to join in a peaceful revolution which honors and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty and which protects the land, the water, and the sky.” Equating Canada Day with a celebration of “stolen indigenous land and stolen indigenous lives,” the organization proposes that on July 1 “any individual, group or community who wants to challenge and disrupt Canada’s ongoing colonialism” undertake various actions in support of their call.

The call comes on the heels of the discovery of the remains of 215 indigenous children at a school in Kamloops, British Columbia, formerly run by the Catholic Church under Canada’s residential school system. The residential school system, which operated from 1831 to 1961, separated aboriginal children from their parents, and sequestered them in schools run by the Catholic Church or Canadian government. The aim was the forcible assimilation of indigenous peoples and the extermination of their cultures. Many children were subjected to abuse, rape, malnutrition, and unsanitary living conditions. Searches are underway at other sites and it is expected that more bodies will be found.

The city of Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, has announced it will cancel upcoming Canada Day festivities.

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Canada Day is an annual fete to honor the birth of the country. In Ottawa, the capital, Canadians, drunk on patriotism, dress in the red and white of their country’s flag, set baseball caps with CANADA emblazoned across the front atop their heads, clutch mini Canadian flags in their hands, and make their way to the annual spectacle on Parliament Hill, home of the country’s legislative building. The spectacle features massive flags, marching soldiers, and Canadian war planes roaring overhead—the same ones that engaged in foreign bombing missions, including in Libya, where Canadian pilots quipped facetiously but accurately that they were al-Qaeda’s air force.

Canadians have been led to believe by the people who foster mindless patriotism that their country stands for peace, democracy, equality, and freedom. This is eye wash.

Norman Bethune

A Canada that embraced the commitments of Norman Bethune, a talented surgeon who fought fascism in Spain, helped overcome feudalism and foreign tyranny in China, and pioneered the fight for universal healthcare in Canada, might provide a model of a world that humanity could look forward to, in contrast to a Canada that hammers out arms deals with medieval tyrannies, supports a racist settler state in the Levant, and whose military helps enforce the international dictatorship of the USA.

Consider a departure in deed from the country’s self-declared but infrequently adhered to values. The Trudeau government, the latest in a long line of governments committed to facilitating the profit-making of the country’s substantial citizens, no matter what the consequences for peace, democracy, equality, and freedom, forged ahead with a $15 billion arms deal secured by the previous Harper government to sell light armored vehicles to an oil rich medieval monarchy in Arabia. Named after its ruling Saud family, this Arab tyranny abhors peace, democracy, gender equality, and religious freedom, wages an illegal, unprovoked, war on Yemen, and was one of the main arms supplier to al-Qaeda and its allies in Syria—the sectarian militants who carried out terrorist attacks which, on the occasions they spilled over into Europe, provoked great outcries of indignation in Ottawa, but when they occurred on an almost daily basis in Syria, were met by silence by Canada’s leaders.

Add to this the deplorable realities that the tyranny’s retrograde and hate-filled version of Islam was the ideological inspiration for al-Qaeda and Islamic State, and that, difficult as it is to credit, the kingdom’s male despots refuse to allow women to exercise much autonomy at all, and you would think that a country that prides itself as standing for peace, democracy, equality, religious tolerance, and all that is virtuous, would regard its client as so noxious as to steer a wide berth around any business transactions with it.

Diderot once remarked that humanity would never be free until the last monarch was strangled with the entrails of the last cleric, which may sound anachronistic, considering that Europe was delivered from the oppressions of aristocracy at the end of World War I, or soon after. But the vile institution persists in the Arab world, concentrated among Canada’s principal Arab allies, and Diderot’s words hardly seem anachronistic or harsh to anyone who still has to bear monarchy’s oppressive weight. How could ostensibly democracy-loving Canada be so committed to such vigorously anti-democratic allies?

Ottawa hammered out a deal with six Arab Gulf monarchies, including the aforesaid Saudi tyranny, “that spells out how Canada might deepen its relationship with these countries in coming years,” reports the Globe and Mail’s Steve Chase. To repeat: Ottawa plans to deepen its relationship with these vampires, not eschew them as affronts to humanity, as one might expect a country would which professes to be deeply devoted to progressive humanitarian values.

“The Joint Action Plan,” writes Chase “sets out areas of co-operation between Canada and Arab Gulf states on everything from politics and security dialogue to trade and investment, energy, education and health.”

And to ensure that Canadians continue to be deceived by twaddle about how their country is a paladin of so many virtues, Ottawa won’t let them see what’s in the agreement.

The key to Ottawa’s commitment to deepening its relationship with the Arab Gulf dictatorships is the promise of a cornucopia of profits for Canadian investors, banks and corporations. And in Canada, as in all countries where wealthy investors, banks and corporations use their wealth to dominate politics and the state, the decisive organizing principle of the society is not peace-keeping, or democracy, or equality, or religious tolerance, but what matters to banks, wealthy investors, and major corporations: profits.

In the pursuit of private, profit-making, interests, Canada has generally been on the wrong side of history since its founding more than 150 years ago. And when it has been on the right side, it has been on the right side, for the wrong reasons.

My first rebellion against the cult of Canadian patriotism occurred more than 35 years ago when on a visit to the country’s war museum I came upon a celebratory reference to Canada’s 1918-1919 military intervention in Russia. The glorified Canadian military intervention was directed against a social revolution engendered by centuries of a Tsarist tyranny and the chaos, destruction and disorganization wrought by World War I. How was an intervention to quash a movement which authentically embodied the values of liberty, equality and fraternity, worthy of celebration? And what business was it of Canada’s to intervene militarily in the affairs of another people who posed not the slightest threat to Canada? Ottawa was terrified that the Bolsheviks were a source of inspiration to Canadians who might seek to replicate in Canada what was underway in Russia; that Canada might be made to stand for something meaningful to ordinary people, like: jobs for all; free education at all levels; universal public health care; public day care; inexpensive public transportation; an end to the exploitation of humans by humans; and recognition of the humanity of all people, regardless of color, ethnicity, religion, and sex; in other words, all the virtues the Bolsheviks brought to the former Tsarist empire, and for which they are almost never recognized and to which Canada tried to put a stop. To paraphrase Victor Hugo’s remarks about the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution may have been a great blow to the Russian aristocracy and the industrialists and financiers of the world, but it was a warm caress for the rest of us.

Canada’s participation in the imperialist charnel house of World War I—a kind of holocaust against the working people of Europe and the colonial slaves whom the European elites threw into the conflagration—is in no way defensible, and was a reflexive, unthinking commitment to a mother country, Britain, whose reason for entering the war had nothing whatever to do with the rights of small countries, as it was mendaciously professed to be, and everything to do with preserving the access of the British land-owning, industrial and financial elites to markets, investment opportunities, and raw materials in competition with their German rivals. Britain declared war on Canada’s behalf, and the Canadian government dutifully committed its sons to the Moloch.

In 1950, my maternal grandfather, who had enlisted in the Canadian Army during the Great Depression through a kind of economic conscription, joined other Canadians in the UN-denominated US-led “police action” in Korea—a project of frustrating the attempts of Koreans to liberate and revolutionize their country, in favor of maintaining a US puppet state on the Korean peninsula, to provide Washington with a geostrategic perch from which to dominate East Asia on behalf of Wall Street financiers. The Americans, who arrived on the peninsula in 1945, and immediately swept away the People’s Republic of Korea, the first independent Korean government in decades, are still there.

Ever since, Canada has been willing to help the United States fight most of its subsequent wars of domination—in Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, now in Syria, and on the horizon, possibly in Russia and China.

Canada’s National War Memorial in Ottawa. If it is unacceptable for Germans and Japanese to honor their countries’ wars of aggression (and it is), is not equally unacceptable for Canadians to honor Canada’s wars of aggression, including the war on Korea and the war on Afghanistan?

As for World War II, Canada was on the right side of that conflict, but for the wrong reason. The country entered the war, because the mother country, Britain, did, and not to fight fascism or the Nazi persecution of communists, socialists, trade union leaders, Slavs, Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and the disabled, or to defend the Soviet Union, or to give teeth to the Atlantic Charter, which promised sovereign rights and self-government, but which, as Churchill made clear, would only apply in practice to people under the Nazi yoke, not the British yoke, which included the hundreds of millions of Indians subjugated by Britain. Indeed, Britain’s great colony of India, along with the conquered space of the American West, were models Hitler sought to emulate for Germany. He would build Germany’s American West, or its East Indies, in Eastern Europe. And if the project was carried out on a mountain of corpses it would hardly be without precedent. “We eat Canadian wheat,” remarked Hitler, “and don’t think about the Red Indians.”

Mackenzie King, Canada’s wartime prime minister, admired Hitler, and hated Jews. Before the war, Churchill also admired Hitler, and sang paeans to Mussolini. The fascist dictators were admired, not only by King and Churchill, but by large parts of the British and North American establishment, for their ardent anti-communism.

Mackenzie King, Canada’s wartime prime minister, admired Hitler, and hated Jews. Before the war, Churchill also admired Hitler, and sang paeans to Mussolini. The fascist dictators were revered, not only by King and Churchill, but by large parts of the British and North American establishment, for their ardent anti-communism. Canada’s prime minister at the time, Mackenzie King, who had worked as head of industrial relations research for the Rockefeller Foundation to develop methods for big business to co-opt organized labor, was sympathetic to Hitler’s virulent antipathy to Jews (and communists.) King, who met Hitler, and expressed admiration for the Fuhrer in his diary, wrote that “I would have loathed living in Berlin with the Jews, and the way in which they had increased their numbers in the city, and were taking possession of it in the most important way…It was necessary to get them out, to have the German people really control their own City and affairs.”

Neither did Ottawa have trouble with fascists, so long as they confined their attention to fighting communists and organized labor and focused their wrath on the citadel of communism, the Soviet Union. So-called premature anti-fascists, like Norman Bethune, who travelled to Spain to fight Franco’s reaction to the country’s democratically elected Popular Front government, were looked upon with suspicion, and Ottawa erected legal impediments to Canadians traveling abroad to join the fight. Following World War II, Canada found that it could get along quite comfortably with fascist regimes in Spain and Portugal, to say nothing of the police state dictatorship it helped to defend on the Korean peninsula, or apartheid South Africa.

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Behind Parliament, on a small island in the Ottawa River, sits a mock village of the indigenous people on whose land the capital—and country—has been built, an unintentional reminder (lost on most Canadians) that Canada was founded on the dispossession and genocide of the land’s aboriginal people. Canada is, after all, an expression of British settler colonialism, one of the most vile, destructive, brutal, sanguinary forces, in human history. The sun, it has been said, never set on the British Empire. But nor did the blood ever dry on it either. As Richard Gott has written,

“Wherever the British sought to plant their flag, they were met with opposition. In almost every colony, they had to fight their way ashore. While they could sometimes count on a handful of friends and allies, they never arrived as welcomed guests, for the expansion of empire was invariably conducted as a military operation.”

The British hacked, cut, pushed and slaughtered their way into other people’s lands to plant their flag, and to steal the land and natural resources of the natives. Canada, a country founded by settlers, was no exception.

It’s consistent, then, that Ottawa should maintain an unwavering commitment to the racist Jewish settler state in the Levant, known as Israel, made possible by Britain’s conspiring with France and Tsarist Russia during the Great War to carve up the dying Ottoman Empire, and turn over the southern Levant (Palestine and Transjordan) to a British League of Nations mandate, in which was ensconced a commitment to create a Jewish homeland. Canada, not surprisingly, allies itself with the Jewish settlers, and therefore against the indigenous people of the Levant, and was opposed to the efforts of the autochthonous peoples of Zimbabwe to take back their land from the descendants of the British settlers who hacked, cut, pushed, and slaughtered their way into land they dubbed Rhodesia, after the great paladin of British imperialism, Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes is to the indigenous people of southern Africa what Hitler is to the Slavs and Jews. This raises a question about whether Egerton Ryerson, the architect of the residential school system, can be similarly compared. [A statue honoring Ryerson, situated on the campus of the eponymous Ryerson University in Toronto, was recently, and thankfully, toppled.]

The Bolsheviks, who were reviled in Ottawa, established suffrage for all, including for national minorities, before Canada did. Canada didn’t offer universal suffrage, even Herrenvolk (master race) suffrage until after WWI, and true universal suffrage had to wait until 1960, when aboriginal Canadians, the dispossessed original inhabitants of the land, were belatedly allowed to vote.

The United States, another Herrenvolk democracy, didn’t effectively achieve universal suffrage until as late as 1965, when its regime of white supremacy was formally dismantled and the civil and political liberties of black Americans were finally formally secured throughout the country. This late and grudging surrender of white supremacy was partly due to Washington’s need to compete ideologically with the Soviet Union, where racial discrimination—and the idea of a master race—were unthinkable.

What many of us in the United States, Canada and Western Europe hold to be the great social achievements of our countries—the mitigation of discrimination on the basis of sex and religion and racial and national origin, and the development of the welfare state—owe much to the pressures Western elites felt to compete ideologically with the Soviet Union, where discrimination on these grounds was inconceivable and where a robust social welfare state prevailed. With the USSR now defunct, a suicide carried out by the country’s last president, Mikhail Gorbachev—who, for obvious reasons is celebrated in the West, but is widely reviled in Russia—the ideological competition has ceased, and with it, large parts of the welfare state have been dismantled and continue to be demolished.

The French novelist Henri Barbusse, once wrote that the burning question of all time is what is the future of the human race, so martyred by history. To what, he asked, has humanity to look forward to?

Not $15 billion arms deals with monarchs whom Diderot, where he alive, might say ought to be strangled by the entrails of the last Wahhabi cleric; not the dispossession of peoples of their land by usurping settlers from abroad; not denial of self-determination; not wars of neo-colonial re-conquest; not acting as al-Qaeda’s air force to re-colonize the world on behalf of the planet’s dominant imperialist power.

If Canada offered something for humanity, so martyred by history, to look forward to, I would celebrate its founding, or at least, the moment it changed course, and set itself to the service of the vast majority of us—not the centimillionaires and decabillionaires, not the Saudi and Emirati monarchs, not the Jewish usurpers in the Levant, not the international dictatorship of the United States, not the continued colonial dispossession of the aboriginal peoples—but to a world free from the exploitation of humans by humans, where each person is an end in their self and not means to others’ ends.

How deadly has Covid-19 been compared to the United States’ major wars?

There have been as many plaques as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise. – Albert Camus, The Plaque, 1947 

June 9, 2021

Updated June 11, 2021

By Stephen Gowans

The quote above from Albert Camus’s 1947 novel, The Plague, implicitly categorizes plagues and wars as congeneric events—what I’ll call death events.

Five great wars in US history have produced major US fatalities. The deadliest was the Civil War, which claimed 620,000 lives, more than perished in WWI, WWII, Korea, or Vietnam.

How do these wars compare to the Covid-19 pandemic?

In absolute number of deaths, the pandemic has been more deadly in the United States than four of the five great wars, with only the Civil War producing more deaths. More have died to June 7 (almost 600,000, with more deaths to follow) than died in WWII (418,500).

But comparing absolute numbers presents a problem. The longer a death event lasts, the greater the opportunity for fatalities to accumulate. In order to compare like to like, we need to place fatalities on a common scale. One way is to look at the average number of deaths per day over a death event’s course.

When death events are examined this way, the pandemic reveals itself to be more deadly than the great wars. Over 1,100 US citizens have died daily, on average, from Covid-19, from 19 January 2020, the day the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in the United States, to 7 June 2021. The deadliest war, the Civil War, at 427 deaths per day on average, is a distant second.

Covid-19 vs. war deaths, United States
 DeathsDaysDeaths per day, (avg.)
Covid-19*597,5925241,140
Civil War620,0001,451427
WWII418,5001,365307
WWI116,516591197
Korea36,5161,12732
Vietnam58,2094,38013
*Jan 19, ’20 – June 7, ’21

And while US politicians and journalists speak as if the pandemic is all but over in their country (and many US citizens act as if this is true), the numbers suggest the celebration is premature. The average number of Covid-19 deaths per day from June 1 to June 7 was 324, according to Our World in Data, greater than the average daily number of US fatalities in WWII. This means that US citizens are dying today from Covid-19 at a greater daily rate than US soldiers perished in combat every day from late 1941 to late summer 1945.

Yet, no matter how deadly the current pandemic has proved to be, there was one more deadly: the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. That pandemic killed an estimated 675,000 US citizens, or 1,232 per day on average, somewhat higher than the daily number killed to date by the novel coronavirus.

Covid-19 vs. 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, United States
 DeathsDaysDeaths per day, (avg.)
Influenza pandemic 1918-1919675,0005481,232
Covid-19*597,5925241,140
*Jan 19, ’20 – June 7, ’21

The rough parity in deaths between the two pandemics is misleading. The US population was much smaller in 1918. Adjusting for population growth, the influenza pandemic was much more deadly, carrying away a greater percentage of the population than Covid-19 has. How do the various death events compare if historical differences in population size are taken into account?

Looking at fatalities per million, the Civil War is by far the deadliest event in US history*, both in the cumulative number of deaths and the average number of deaths per day. The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 comes second, while the Covid-19 pandemic comes a distant third. The coronavirus pestilence and the twentieth century wars comprise a class of their own, much less deadly than the Civil War and the 1918-1919 influenza. Even so, compared to the wars of the last century, the current pandemic is more deadly, even controlling for population growth.

Pandemic vs. war deaths, United States, per million
 DeathsDaysDeaths per day, (avg.)
Civil War19,7261,45113.6
Influenza pandemic 1918-19196,54154811.9
Covid-19*1,7965243.4
WWII3,1371,3652.3
WWI1,1285911.9
Korea2401,1270.2
Vietnam3034,3800.1
*Jan 19, ’20 – June 7, ’21

What these findings reveal is that the Covid-19 pandemic is a major death event. More US citizens have perished in the pandemic to date than in any of the four major twentieth century wars, controlling for the number of days the death event lasted and population size.

They also show that notwithstanding the unduly sanguine pronouncements of the pandemic’s imminent end in the United States, the rate of mortality continues to be high relative to the major wars of the last century. Only by redefining “almost over” to mean a death rate better than abysmal but still higher than WWII—and no better than that of the world as a whole, as the chart below shows—can the pandemic be said to be nearly over. If deaths per million in the United States have reached a point where this is true, then the pandemic can also be said to be nearly over in the world as a whole, since deaths per million globally are at the same level. But who believes that on a world scale, the pandemic’s demise is imminent?

The figures also confirm, for the Covid-19 pandemic, the observation implicit in Camus’s words, namely, that plagues and wars are, in their deadliness, of the same sort.

A caveat: The United States is an anomaly, and the findings above cannot be considered as representative of the world in toto.

First, US fatalities in major wars have been very low by comparison with other belligerents, and have comprised but a very tiny fraction of total, word-wide, deaths.  

Second, US authorities have exhibited considerable ineptitude in meeting the challenge of the pandemic. Favoring a pharmaceutical solution (which offers a cornucopia of profits to the biopharma industry) over a zero-Covid public health approach (which, through business closures, would have severely attenuated profits in the larger business community temporarily but whose efficacy was demonstrated early on by the Communist-led Chinese government), deaths accumulated to a level commensurate with what would be expected from a failed state. The conclusion is that capitalism is a comorbidity–a condition whose presence amplifies the deadly effects of the pandemic.

Only now, nearly a year and a half after Washington should have taken swift and decisive action to smother the infant pandemic in its cradle, is the roll out of vaccines starting to have an effect. This is hardly a consolation for the loved ones of the nearly 600,000 US citizens whose deaths could have been prevented.

Embarrassed by its abject failure to contain the pandemic, especially in light of Communist successes in China, Vietnam, Cuba, and North Korea, Washington has redefined success; it now means the fruition of its strategy, namely, the mass uptake of vaccines, but this metric bears little relation to the question of whether the virus continues to scythe through the population, which it does, as this analysis has shown.

And it’s doubtful that Washington’s pharmaceuticalization strategy will succeed. No pathogen has ever been eliminated by vaccination alone, and nor does it seem likely that Washington is about to set a precedent, given the realities of vaccine hesitancy, the expectation that it will be two or more years before low income countries are fully vaccinated, and the expected continued emergence of variants—some of which may prove resistant to current vaccines.

For these reasons—the US anomalies of low war fatalities and high Covid-19 deaths—US figures cannot be taken as indicative of what is true of the world as a whole. In a follow-up post, I’ll examine the question globally, comparing the death event of Covid-19 with the death events of WWI and WWII.

A final caution. Covid-19 has likely been deadlier than the official numbers indicate. As the Wall Street Journal noted, “Epidemiologists believe [the official] numbers represent only a portion of the pandemic’s true toll, due in part to missed Covid-19 deaths and collateral damage from issues like healthcare disruptions. In the U.S., for example, experts believe limited test availability hampered the ability to correctly identify many Covid-19 deaths early in the pandemic.” (Covid-19 Deaths This Year Have Already Eclipsed 2020’s Toll, June 10, 2021)

*In terms of absolute number of deaths, the genocide of the Amerindians and the slave trade, the foundations of US capitalism, almost certainly preponderate the death events examined here.

Washington’s Lab Leak Playbook Revealed?

By Stephen Gowans

June 7, 2021

On June 5, Joe Biden wrote an editorial in the Washington Post in which he reiterated what has long been apparent: that Washington regards China as an enemy. [1]

Biden says China’s enemy status is based on Beijing’s rejection of “market democracy” and adoption of what he calls ‘authoritarianism.’ But this can’t be true.

  • The United States counts a number of ‘authoritarian’ governments among its most cherished allies (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, and so on).
  • Washington was quite willing to pursue amicable relations with China for many years, from the point Beijing opened the country to US trade and investment and became a cornucopia of profits for corporate USA, until Chinese capitalism became a rival to, rather than a prop for, US capitalism. During this period, Washington had no trouble befriending China despite Beijing’s authoritarianism.

What has changed is that China has rejected its place in the global economy as a low-wage manufacturing appendage of the US economy. In pursuit of its goal of building a prosperous, independent, China, the Communist Party has presided over a mixed economy and dirigiste capitalism which has come to challenge Wall Street’s primacy. That’s the source of Washington’s hostility.

There are other reasons for Washington to take an inimical stance to China. Not only does corporate USA face stiff competition from the East Asian giant, but a Communist-led China is challenging Washington in other ways, too.

Beijing has lifted countless millions out of poverty, and Chinese citizens face the future with optimism, expecting their standard of living to continue to rise. Meanwhile, US citizens are pessimistic, as US capitalism leaves millions behind, in low-wage, precarious work, with little hope for a bright future.

What’s more, Washington’s self-proclaimed leadership role in the world has been badly damaged by its failure to deal competently with the Covid-19 pandemic.  While US newspapers hubristically declare that, with the roll out of vaccines, the end of the pandemic is imminent, in terms of Covid-19 deaths per million, the United States has only gone from being a failed state to no better than the rest of the world.

In contrast, China acted swiftly and decisively to eliminate community transmission of the virus, allowing Beijing to reopen its economy quickly. As an article in the medical journal The Lancet concluded, the model pursued by China has been superior to the model of inaction and privileging profits over public health favored by US authorities. The model’s superiority is evident in better health and economic outcomes, and (because the Chinese approach allowed the country to reopen quickly) better civil liberty outcomes. [2] Had Washington emulated China, it would have prevented over 550,000 Covid-19 deaths. [3] A government that caters to business interests before public health hardly has the moral standing to claim world leadership.

Even on the matter of vaccines, on which the United States professes leadership, it has produced fewer doses than China, and exported fewer to other countries. [4]

Clearly, if Washington wants to claim global leadership in the face of its own failures and China’s undeniable successes, it is going to have to turn the tables on China.

Part of the fight back is positive. The Biden administration plans to emulate China through a program of industrial planning and major investments in infrastructure to “deliver real results for our people in a rapidly changing world.” [5] The program might be called Meeting the China Challenge.

Another part is negative. It involves efforts to undermine China’s economic growth through tariffs, target Chinese companies like Huawei for destruction, block Chinese investors from buying Western economic assets, and prevent Western investors from investing in a number of Chinese firms.

Additionally, Washington seeks to discredit China. One way to do so is to blame Beijing for the pandemic. Trump made early efforts in this direction, referring to Covid-19 as the Wuhan flu, the kung flu, and the China virus. His state department insinuated that the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab. Biden—different from Trump in style but largely continuous with the previous administration on foreign policy—has resurrected Trump’s lab leak theory.

Insight into Washington’s playbook on discrediting China may have been provided by Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, who wrote an editorial in The Washington Post on June 4. It was titled “China could pay if nations come to believe the virus leaked from a lab.” [6]

The Council on Foreign Relations is a Wall Street funded and directed think tank that provides policy advice to the State Department. It is firmly interlocked with the US foreign policy establishment and the Biden administration. Typically, members of the council fill top cabinet positions. The current secretaries of state, treasury, defense, and commerce are members of the council, as are the UN ambassador, the national security advisor, CIA director, Indo-Pacific czar, and chief of staff, among others.  [7] As A.B. Abrams explained in Immovable Object: North Korea’s 70 Years at War with American Power (Clarity Press, 2020, p. 453)

The CFR’s members were described by the Washington Post as ‘the nearest thing we have to a ruling establishment in the United States’ and includes almost all CIA Directors, National Security Advisors, UN Ambassadors, Federal Reserve Chairs, World Bank Presidents, and Directors of the National Economic Council, several presidents and vice-presidents, the majority of state secretaries … and many high ranking NATO and military commanders. According to the Post, the council members were part of a foreign policy establishment with shared values and world views, whose role was not limited to analyzing foreign policy but also included taking an active hand in shaping it. … Stephen F. Cohen [himself once a member] described the council as ‘America’s single most important non-governmental foreign policy organization,’ with the power to ‘define the accepted, legitimate, orthodox parameters of discussion.’

Huang’s editorial at the very least reflects the kind of thinking that takes place in US foreign policy circles and may in fact reveal a playbook the CFR-interlocked Biden administration is actually following to turn the tables on China.

Huang notes that “China has, until now, enjoyed prestige on the world stage for its containment of the pandemic, especially compared with many Western countries” but adds that “if missteps by Chinese scientists” were seen to be “the cause of that pandemic, such praise would quickly fade.”

“Even a belief in a coverup without firm evidence of wrongdoing would be damaging”, he says. Moreover, if US intelligence were seen as exposing a coverup, it could re-establish “America’s reputation for competence.”

Huang believes that fostering a belief in a Chinese coverup, even without firm evidence, would:

  • “Precipitate a free fall in China’s relationship with the outside world”;
  • Provide a pretext for the United States to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics;
  • Raise questions in China about whether the Communist Party is fit to rule;
  • Force China to close in on itself in a fit of angry isolation as it is shunned by the rest of the world.

In other words, there are strong reasons for Washington, which makes no secret about viewing China as an enemy to be contained and countered, to manufacture a belief in a coverup.

However, US intelligence is of the view that it is unlikely that firm evidence of a lab leak can be obtained [8]. Accordingly, the pursuit of these policy benefits will depend on innuendo. Western journalists are working diligently to provide it, and, writing dozens of features in which, claiming powers of ratiocination equivalent to those of a Sherlock Holmes, they claim to have deduced Chinese culpability (see, for example, Nicholas Wade in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist.)  Of course, all of this is nonsense. There is no evidence for a lab leak, and no matter how brilliant some journalists believe their powers of deduction are, their exercises in ratiocination remain pure speculation. Speculation is not evidence. Speculative arguments can also be constructed on the other side, and have been. [9]

The Wuhan lab leak theory has, within the context of US foreign policy, become the equivalent of the magician’s misdirection; it draws attention from the deception that the Western model works. The model, as it relates to the pandemic, has clearly failed.

It is clarifying to consider that in the rush to create a misdirection, two separate questions are being conflated:

  • Where did the virus come from?
  • How did the pandemic start?

We don’t know where the virus came from, and may never know. We still don’t know where the virus came from that killed tens of millions of people worldwide in the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 to 1920 .

But we do know how the Covid-19 pandemic started, which is the more consequential question. The pandemic started when “Chinese doctors and scientists working in international collaborations,” provided information “showing a deadly virus had emerged that had no treatment and could be passed between people”, and the United States, Canada, and Europe did precious little with this information, failing to act, unwilling to disrupt business activity and the continued tranquil digestion of profits, as the Lancet’s editor Richard Horton has pointed out. [10][11] Had these countries acted as swiftly and decisively to eliminate community transmission as China did, not only would they have been able to safely open their own economies long ago, they would have spared the world a deadly pandemic, which has already claimed the lives of more than 3.7 million people, and will carry off many more.

Much as Washington professes to disdain conspiracy theories, it is one the world’s principal creators of them, and vehicles for their propagation, amply aided by the Western mass media. The paragon case is the Washington-manufactured conspiracy theory about Saddam Hussein covering up weapons of mass destruction. As the Council on Foreign Relation’s Yanzhong Huang makes clear, a lab leak conspiracy theory has the potential to pay substantial dividends to the US position in the world, one badly bruised by China’s successes and Washington’s abject failures.

[1] Joe Biden, “Joe Biden: My trip to Europe is about America rallying the world’s democracies,” The Washington Post,  June 5, 2021

[2]  Miquel Oliu-Barton et al., “SARS-CoV-2 elimination, not mitigation, creates best outcomes for health, the economy, and civil liberties,” The Lancet, April 28, 2021, DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(21)00978-8

[3] With (a) a US population of 328.2 million and (b) 1,796.26 deaths per million to May 31, there were (a)/1,000,00 x (b) = 589,533 covid-19 deaths in the United States. If the fatality rate had been as low as that of China, there would have been  (a)/1,000,00 x 3.221 = 1,057 covid-19 deaths, or 588,475 fewer.

[4] Yuka Hayashi, Sabrina Siddiqui, and Andrew Restuccia, “U.S. to Increase Covid-19 Vaccine Exports Amid Global Pressure,” The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2021

[5] Biden.

[6] Yanzhong Huang, “The origin of the virus is a scientific question — but one with huge political implications.” The Washington Post, June 4, 2021.

[7]  See Laurence H. Shoup, “The Council on Foreign Relations, the Biden Team, and Key Policy Outcomes,” Monthly Review, May 2021.

[8] Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger, “U.S. Is Said to Have Unexamined Intelligence to Pore Over on Virus Origins,” New York Tines,  May 27, 2021.

[9] See for example Angela L. Rasmussen and Stephen A. Goldstein, “Labs like the one in Wuhan are essential to preparing for future pandemics,” The New York Times,  June 4, 2021.

[10] “Lancet editor Richard Horton quoted in “West suffering because it failed to listen to China on COVID-19, says Lancet editor,” CGTN, May 3, 2020

[11] “COVID-19 in the USA: a question of time,” The Lancet, April 18, 2020

We need an inquiry into the origins of the pandemic

By Stephen Gowans

June 5, 2021

On 4 March of this year, two dozen scientists, social scientists, and science journalists from the United States and allied countries—countries whose governments are engaged in various maneuvers to ‘contain’ a rising China—released an open letter attacking the WHO-convened mission which inquired into the origins of SARS-CoV-2. This letter is widely cited in Western journalism that now accepts the once discredited Wuhan lab leak theory as credible and worthy of consideration.

The WHO mission had concluded that the virus likely originated in bats and spread to an unidentified second species before spilling over into humans. It concluded that spillover through a laboratory accident was very unlikely.     

The authors of the open letter said they released the letter to raise public awareness of the fact that half of the WHO team was comprised of Chinese citizens and that the scientific independence of these team members may have been limited. They did not question the scientific independence of other members of the team, implying that the Chinese members were partial but that the other members were not.

The motive for the letter appeared to be unease with the WHO mission’s conclusion that a lab leak was very unlikely. The authors called for a new inquiry to consider five possible pathways, all but one of which, if found to be the cause, would implicate employees connected with Wuhan laboratories.

The authors listed the following as the possible origins of the virus.

  • A pure zoonosis event with/without intermediate host;
  • Infection at a sampling site of a lab employee or of some accompanying non-lab personnel;
  • Infection during transport of collected animals and/or samples;
  • Lab Acquired Infection (LAI);
  • Lab-escape without LAI.

To be sure, all of these are possible pathways for SARS-CoV-2, and for other zoonoses, as well. It is unnecessary, however, to know which of these possible causes, if any, lie at the heart of the SARS-CoV-2 spillover to know that any of these, generalizing from Wuhan labs to all labs, could be the possible cause of a future spillover. What measures, therefore, ought to be taken to close or at least severely restrict these possible pathways? The authors of the letter do not say.

While the signatories urge that a new inquiry be undertaken because “Finding the origins of SARS-CoV-2 is critically important to both better addressing the current pandemic and reducing the risks of future ones”,  they offer no explanation for how identifying the specific actual causes of this pandemic will help reduce the risk of future ones; (there are multiple possible causes of zoonotic spillovers, and those involved in a future spillover may be different from the causes underlying the current one.) What’s more, it is unclear how finding the origins of SARS-Cov-2 will help better address the current pandemic; (discovering the ingress point for a mouse into your house won’t help catch it.)

The cause of the pandemic, not the original outbreak, but the development of a potentially controllable zoonosis into an outbreak of global reach, is already known: It was the failure of the United States and its allies to take quick and decisive action in February 2020 at a time the catastrophe in embryo could have been aborted. Rather than mobilize public health measures to extinguish small fires and prevent their spread, as Beijing did, the United States, and countries that followed its lead, did precious little, unwilling to disrupt business activity and the continued tranquil digestion of profits. It is US and allied non-feasance—that is, human inaction—that transformed a preventable catastrophe into a full blown calamity that so far has produced over 3.7 million deaths.

As the editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, Richard Horton, recalled: “The United States of America wasted the whole of February and early March before they acted. That is the human tragedy of COVID-19. Thanks to the work of Chinese doctors and scientists working in international collaborations, all of this info [showing a deadly virus had emerged that had no treatment and could be passed between people] was known in January but for reasons that are difficult to understand, the world did not pay attention.”

But Horton had offered a clue as to why Washington failed to act, in an editorial he wrote for The Lancet.

The degree to which the USA stalled in taking aggressive action to curtail the spread of COVID-19 is directly the product of an administration marked by consistently poor timing, intent on making decisions in favor of economic interests instead of those that are guided by science and to protect health. The rush to reopen the country [put] dollars over deaths.

Zoonotic spillovers in nature may be infrequent, but they do occur. So, too, do lab leaks. To be sure, measures need be taken to reduce these events. But the events by themselves do not inevitably precipitate pandemics. Pandemics, like conflagrations, require a spark, but also kindling, and at times, firefighters who fail to act.

An unrestricted international investigation, guided by the goal of learning how to better address the current pandemic and reduce the risks of future ones, unquestionably needs to be undertaken. But the investigation, if it is to be meaningful (and not a fishing expedition to gather data with the aim of pillorying a near-peer competitor), must inquire, not into what we already know—that certain events are possible causes of zoonotic spillovers—but into what we are not clear about, namely, the institutional forces that stopped the United States and its followers from acting decisively to avert an impending public health disaster. In other words, the inquiry must identify why the United States, and many other countries under its sway, followed not the dictum, public health is the highest law, but the principle, private profit is the highest good.

It is the answer to that question that must be known if we are to reduce the risk of future pandemics and better address the current one.

A scandal is being thuggishly covered up by a regime more interested in propaganda than human life

If a scandal is being thuggishly covered up by a regime more interested in propaganda than human life, the US government is the regime, the scandal is the preventable deaths of over half a million US citizens, and the propaganda is Biden’s Wuhan lab leak hypothesis.

By Stephen Gowans

June 1, 2021

China is a paragon in dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic—the country all others ought to emulate. Its Covid-19 elimination strategy brought community transmission to a virtual halt, allowing the country to reopen quickly and return to the path of robust economic growth.

An April 28 report in the medical journal The Lancet concluded that “SARS-CoV-2 elimination,” the strategy pioneered by China, and “not mitigation,” the US approach, creates the “best outcomes for health, the economy, and civil liberties.” [1] The British Medical Journal concurred, concluding in a report in December that China’s elimination strategy “could be the optimal response strategy for covid-19 and other emerging pandemic diseases.” [2]

In contrast, the United States stands close to the other end of the continuum, a negative model of what countries should not do. As of May 31, there were 1,796 COVID-19 deaths per million in the United States, 558 times greater than the 3 deaths per million in China, according to Our World in Data. [3]

Had Washington acted quickly and decisively to check the spread of the virus, emulating China’s zero-COVID approach, it would have prevented more than 588,000 deaths. [4]

Even on vaccines—an area in which the United States claims leadership—China is ahead. The East Asian giant has produced more doses, and shipped more abroad, than the United States, according to the Wall Street Journal. [5]

Vaccine doses shipped abroad

  • China, 252M (total produced, 659M)
  • EU, 111M
  • Russia, 27M
  • USA, 3M (total produced, 333M)

Moreover, it has become evident that the preferred US strategy of emphasizing the development of vaccines and anti-viral drugs over non-pharmaceutical interventions—that is, a strategy of bolstering biopharma profits while continuing to starve public health–is a road to failure. As Nature reports, “Even with vaccination efforts in full force, the theoretical threshold for vanquishing COVID-19 looks to be out of reach.” [6]

This is because, as The Lancet reported, “relying solely on COVID-19 vaccines to control the pandemic is risky due to their uneven roll-out and uptake, time-limited immunity, and the emergence of new SARS-CoV-2 variants. History shows that vaccination alone can neither single-handedly nor rapidly control a virus and that a combination of public health measures [is] needed for containment.” [7]

Humiliated by China’s superior performance, and its own abject failures, Washington retaliates. Recycling the Trump administration’s baseless claim about the virus leaking from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Biden seeks to divert attention from US failures and Chinese successes. With the aid of the Western news media, Biden shifts the story, from the genuine scandal of nearly 600,000 needless US deaths to the invented scandal of Chinese incompetence in preventing a lab leak.

Bret Stephens, the New York Times columnist, nicely summarizes the narrative the Biden administration is trying to instill in the public mind:

If it turns out that the Covid pandemic was caused by a leak from a lab in Wuhan, China, it will rank among the greatest scientific scandals in history: dangerous research, possibly involving ethically dubious techniques that make viruses more dangerous, carried out in a poorly safeguarded facility, thuggishly covered up by a regime more interested in propaganda than human life, catastrophic for the entire world. [8]

Stephens, by the way, notes that “this possible scandal … is as yet unproved”, which kind of gives the game away.

The US president and the Western news media want it both ways: they want to present a leak at the Wuhan lab as a possibility worthy of consideration while at the same time acknowledging there’s no evidence. But if there’s no evidence, the possibility can hardly be worthy of consideration.

Following a clear double-standard, they say there’s no evidence for China’s counter-allegation that the virus could have leaked from laboratories at the US military base, Fort Detrick, and therefore that the Chinese allegation is unworthy of consideration. Seemingly unbeknownst to Stephens, Fort Detrick is the site of dangerous research, possibly involving ethically dubious techniques that make viruses more dangerous, carried out in poorly safeguarded facilities, which on more than one occasion have been shuttered owing to biosafety concerns. Indeed, this has been reported in Stephens’ own newspaper under the headline Deadly Germ Research Is Shut Down At Army Lab Over Safety Concerns. [9] [10]

Hence, if the Wuhan lab needs to be investigated once again, it seems perfectly fair and reasonable to investigate Fort Detrick as well. Given the mishaps at the US lab, there’s a more compelling reason to begin there.

Stephens’ observation that the “possible scandal…is as yet unproven” points to a favored Washington tactic: start with a desired conclusion, and work backward to collect if possible and manufacture if necessary evidence to substantiate it. Recall the WMD scandal, in which ethically dubious deceptions about Saddam concealing weapons of mass destruction were carried out and covered up by a regime more interested in propaganda than human life, which, on the basis of this deception, thuggishly murdered countless Iraqis in cold blood, tortured hundreds, toppled their government, rewrote their constitution, destroyed their livelihoods and infrastructure, and took away their independence.

The outcome of the intelligence community investigation ordered by Biden may be the kind of assessment we’ve seen in the past with allegations of Syrian chemical weapons attacks—namely, some elements of the US intelligence community will produce a document that says while they have no proof, they assess (it is their judgment) that what the White House has alleged is indeed true. Or perhaps a dodgy intelligence dossier will be conjured, recalling Colin Powell’s infamous conduct before the UN Security Council in which he produced false intelligence to suggest Iraq was secreting weapons of mass destruction.

If this plays out as it has in the past, the news media will report that the US intelligence community has concluded that the Wuhan laboratory was the source of the pandemic. The key qualifier that the conclusion is based on no proof, will be quickly passed over and eventually forgotten, and the reality that the conclusion came from the intelligence community will be adduced as its substantiation, as if US spooks are impartial arbiters of all questions of consequence, and not part of a state apparatus that has a vested interest in discrediting a country Washington deems a near-peer competitor.

Former CIA case officer Ralph McGehee’s view of his former employer suggests what outcome we can expect from Biden’s ‘find me some evidence’ order to the intelligence community. “The CIA is not now nor has it ever been a Central Intelligence Agency,” McGehee said. Instead, “it is the covert action arm of the president’s foreign policy advisers” whose role is “reporting ‘intelligence’ justifying” the president’s positions and activities. The CIA “shapes its intelligence … to support presidential policy.” McGehee concluded that disinformation is a large part of the intelligence community’s ambit, and the US population is “the primary target audience of its lies.”  [11]

The catastrophe of the Covid pandemic was caused by the failure of the United States and its allies to act quickly and decisively to eliminate community transmission. In the critical month of February 2020, as China acted with resolve to smother the flames of a developing pandemic, the United States dithered, incapable of mobilizing its underfunded public health infrastructure, which barely existed, and reluctant to disrupt business activity. The result was that a small fire that could have been contained and extinguished, soon grew into a global conflagration. This ranks among the greatest failures in history: profits were prioritized over public health—a process involving ethically dubious decision-making that made the pandemic more dangerous, thuggishly covered up by a regime more interested in propaganda than human life, trying to divert attention from its abject failures by falsely blaming the one country, China, that has done more than any other to bring the pandemic to a close.

1 Miquel Oliu-Barton et al., “SARS-CoV-2 elimination, not mitigation, creates best outcomes for health, the economy, and civil liberties,” The Lancet, April 28, 2021, DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(21)00978-8

2 Michael G Baker, Nick Wilson, and Tony Blakely, “Elimination could be the optimal response strategy for covid-19 and other emerging pandemic diseases,” The British Medical Journal, December 22, 2020 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m4907 

3 COVID-19 Data Explorer – Our World in Data, accessed June 1, 2021.

4 With (a) a US population of 328.2 million and (b) 1,796.26 deaths per million to May 31, there were (a)/1,000,00 x (b) = 589,533 covid-19 deaths in the United States. If the fatality rate had been as low as that of China, there would have been  (a)/1,000,00 x 3.221 = 1,057 covid-19 deaths, or 588,475 fewer.

5 Yuka Hayashi, Sabrina Siddiqui, and Andrew Restuccia, “U.S. to Increase Covid-19 Vaccine Exports Amid Global Pressure,” The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2021

6 Christie Aschwanden, “Five reasons why COVID herd immunity is probably impossible,” Nature, March 18, 2021

7 Miquel Oliu-Barton et al., “SARS-CoV-2 elimination, not mitigation, creates best outcomes for health, the economy, and civil liberties,” The Lancet, April 28, 2021, DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(21)00978-8

8 Bret Stephens, “Media Groupthink and the Lab-Leak Theory,” The New York Times, May 31, 2021

9 Nicholson Baker, “The Lab-Leak Hypothesis,”  New York, January 4, 2020

10 Denise Grady, “Deadly Germ Research Is Shut Down at Army Lab Over Safety Concerns,” The New York Times, August 5, 2019

11 Quoted in A.B. Abrams, Power and Primacy: The History of Western Intervention in the Asia-Pacific, Peter Laing, 2019, p. 124.

Israel’s relationship with Washington: Talk at the Institute for the Critical Study of Society

My talk on Israel’s relationship with Washington, given at the Institute for the Critical Study of Society’s Sunday Morning at the Marxist Library, May 30, 2021.

Israel’s relationship with Washington

60 minute talk followed by 60 minutes of questions and discussion.

http://www.barakabooks.com

The politics of the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis

By Stephen Gowans

May 29, 2021

US president Joe Biden has ordered a “hunt for new intelligence to determine whether the Chinese government covered up an accidental leak” [1] at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a laboratory in Wuhan, the city in which the novel coronavirus was first identified. The lab is a biosafety level 4 (BSL4) facility, the highest level.

Twelve months ago, then secretary of state Mike Pompeo also “asked intelligence agencies to continue looking for any evidence to support” (what the New York Times at the time) called “an unsubstantiated theory that the pandemic might be the result of an accidental lab leak.” Times’ reporters Edward Wong and Ana Swanson added that the intelligence community had told Pompeo that “they most likely will not find proof.” [2]

At the time, some US “officials were wary of President Donald J. Trump’s motives, arguing that his interest in the origins of the pandemic was either to deflect blame from his administration’s handling of it or to punish China.” The Biden administration says that “the central goal of the new intelligence push is to improve preparations for future pandemics.” [3]  

It is widely agreed that the pandemic originated in a zoonotic spillover—the transmission of the novel coronavirus from another species to humans. The spillover may have happened in nature, or it may have happened in a laboratory. A laboratory spillover would involve the accidental infection of a scientist working with live virus.     

Virus hunters have “collected samples from 164,000 animals and humans and claimed to have found ‘almost 1,200 potentially zoonotic viruses, among them 160 novel coronaviruses, including multiple SARS- and MERS-like coronaviruses.’”  These potential pandemic pathogens are “studied and circulated in laboratories worldwide.” [4]

In 2012, there were at least 42 facilities engaged in researching live potential pandemic pathogens, including 30 labs that were working with live SARS virus. [5]

Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, Lynn Klotz, Senior Science Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, warned in 2019 that “Incidents causing potential exposures to pathogens occur frequently in the high security laboratories often known by their acronyms, BSL3 (Biosafety Level 3) and BSL4. Lab incidents that lead to undetected or unreported laboratory-acquired infections can lead to the release of a disease into the community outside the lab; lab workers with such infections will leave work carrying the pathogen with them. If the agent involved were a potential pandemic pathogen, such a community release could lead to a worldwide pandemic with many fatalities.” [6]

Nicholson Baker, a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, wrote a long article in New York Magazine in January exploring the lab-leak hypothesis. Baker wrote that “In 2015, the Department of Defense discovered that workers at a germ-warfare testing center in Utah had mistakenly sent close to 200 shipments of live anthrax to laboratories throughout the United States and also to Australia, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and several other countries over the past 12 years. In 2019, laboratories at Fort Detrick — where ‘defensive’ research involves the creation of potential pathogens to defend against — were shut down for several months by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for ‘breaches of containment’.” They reopened in December 2019.” [7]  

According to the New York Times, safety concerns “led the government to shut down research involving dangerous microbes like the Ebola virus” at the military lab in the summer of 2019. The newspaper noted that “Missteps have occurred at other government laboratories, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health.” [8]

Research was also suspended at Fort Detrick in 2009 over bio-safety concerns. [9]

China has demanded an independent inquiry of the Fort Detrick laboratories as the possible source of the novel coronavirus, [10] a demand the US news media have ridiculed, arguing there is “not a shred of evidence to support” a leak at the lab. [11]

But, as lapses at Fort Detrick demonstrate, laboratory accidents do happen, “even in high containment settings.” [12]

According to the scientific journal, Nature Reviews Microbiology, “More than twice a week in US laboratories, there is a ‘possible release event’ or a ‘possible loss event’, even if we look only at select agents — some of the most dangerous pathogens. For every 1,000 lab-years of work in BSL-3 laboratories in the United States with select agents, there are at least 2 accidental infections. This level of safety may be acceptable if the risk is to the laboratory workers only, as it is with most pathogens that are not readily transmissible. However, the same probability of an accident that could spark a global pandemic cannot be called acceptably safe.” [13]

Lynn Klotz, and Edward Sylvester, a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, ask us to “consider the probability for escape from a single lab in a single year to be 0.003 (i.e., 0.3 percent)…[With] 42 labs carrying out live [potential pandemic pathogen] research, this basic 0.3 percent probability translates to an 80 percent likelihood of escape from at least one of the 42 labs every 12.8 years.” Klotz and Sylvester argue the “level of risk is clearly unacceptable.” [14]

By 2012, SARS had “escaped from laboratories three times.” [15] A “researcher at the National Institute of Virology in Beijing” was infected, and “passed it on to others, including her mother, who died from the infection.” [16] If SARS could escape three times from a laboratory, could SARS-2 have escaped one or more times?

Whether it did or didn’t, lab leaks do happen, and questions need to be raised about whether the risks involved in working with potential pandemic pathogens in the laboratory are acceptable. Many scientists, including  Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, believe the consequences of a potential pandemic pathogen leaking from a lab are too great to accept the risk, no matter how small.  He compares lab work with pathogens that could spark a pandemic to “looking for a gas leak with a lighted match.” [17]

Clearly, the possibility that there was a leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology cannot be ruled out, any more than leaks at Fort Detrick or the dozens of other laboratories around the world that are looking for gas leaks with lighted matches can be ruled out.

And there is a surface plausibility to the Wuhan lab leak claim. As the New York Times reported, “The coronavirus first came to light in the city of Wuhan, home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where researchers study dozens of strains of coronaviruses collected in caves in southern China.” [18]  

What’s more, according to intelligence shared with Washington by an ally, “three workers in the Wuhan virological laboratory were hospitalized with serious flulike symptoms in the autumn of 2019. [19]

However, there are also plausible alternative explanations. We don’t know whether the novel coronavirus originated in Wuhan. We only know that Wuhan is where a new form of SARS was first identified. The virus may have originated elsewhere, and the first cases misdiagnosed as pneumonia or flu, and later brought to Wuhan.

As to the lab workers who are alleged to have fallen ill in the autumn of 2019, the New York Times reported that US “intelligence officials do not know whether the lab workers contracted Covid-19 or some other disease, like a bad flu. If they did have the coronavirus, the intelligence may suggest that they could have become sick from the lab, but it also could simply mean that the virus was circulating in Wuhan” earlier than currently believed. [20]

And while the lab employees were hospitalized it “isn’t unusual for people in China to go straight to the hospital when they fall sick, either because they get better care there or lack access to a general practitioner. Covid-19 and the flu, while very different illnesses, share some of the same symptoms, such as fever, aches and a cough.[21]

The fact of the matter is that although a lab leak is possible, including one at the Wuhan lab, there is no evidence that one happened.

“Most of the broader intelligence community, including the C.I.A. and the Defense Intelligence Agency, believe there is not yet sufficient information to draw a conclusion, even with low confidence, about the origins,” according to the New York Times. [22]

“British intelligence services” likewise “are skeptical of the lab leak theory.” [23]

Also, evidence exists that is inconsistent with the hypothesis that the novel coronavirus spilled out of the Wuhan lab.  Virologist Robert Garry “observed that Chinese scientists would have to have collected SARS-CoV-2 and then grown it in a colony of cells, but somehow never publish any details of it even as they published reports on other coronaviruses for years. ‘It makes no sense to me’,” he said. [24]  

Biden says that unlike Trump, he is asking the intelligence community to investigate the possibility of a lab leak in Wuhan in order to “improve preparations for future pandemics,” not to discredit China. [25]  But his claim is implausible.

To show this, consider the following sets of questions. Only one of them is directly relevant to the question of how to reduce the risk of future pandemics.

  • Are the risks of a lab accident acceptable given the possible consequences? If not, can the risks be reduced to acceptable levels by enhancing laboratory safeguards? Or, is it the case, that the consequences of a leak could be so catastrophic, that taking any risk is foolhardy?
  • Did SARS-CoV-2 leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology?

If we’re genuinely interested in reducing the chances of future pandemics, we ought to answer the first set of questions. The second question is irrelevant.

Even if a lab leak didn’t happen at the Wuhan lab, the question of whether the risks of a leak from any lab are acceptable still stands. Should we be looking for gas leaks with a lit match?

And if a leak did happen in Wuhan, the first set of question still remains.

Here are two objectives. Which of these most closely match the questions above?

  • How can we reduce the chance of a future pandemic?
  • How can we blacken China’s reputation?

If Biden were genuinely interested in learning how to prevent a future pandemic he would be exploring how to prevent zoonotic spillovers, both in nature, and in the lab. On the other hand, if he’s interested in tarring the reputation of a country he has labelled a competitor, as his predecessor was, he is proceeding along the right path. Unfortunately, that path has nothing to do with protecting humanity from future pandemics.

1 Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger, “U.S. Is Said to Have Unexamined Intelligence to Pore Over on Virus Origins,” The New York Times,  May 27, 2021

2  Edward Wong and Ana Swanson, “Some Trump Officials Take Harder Actions on China During Pandemic,” The New York Times, May 1, 2020

3 Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger, “U.S. Is Said to Have Unexamined Intelligence to Pore Over on Virus Origins,” The New York Times, May 27, 2021

4 Nicholson Baker, “The Lab-Leak Hypothesis,”  New York, January 4, 2020

5 Lynn C. Klotz, Edward J. Sylvester, “The unacceptable risks of a man-made pandemic,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,  August 7, 2012

6 Lynn Klotz , “Human error in high-biocontainment labs: a likely pandemic threat,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 25, 2019

7 Nicholson Baker, “The Lab-Leak Hypothesis,”  New York, January 4, 2020

8 Denise Grady, “Deadly Germ Research Is Shut Down at Army Lab Over Safety Concerns,” The New York Times, August 5, 2019

9 Denise Grady, “Deadly Germ Research Is Shut Down at Army Lab Over Safety Concerns,” The New York Times, August 5, 2019

10 “Time to probe Fort Detrick biolab despite US hype: Global Times editorial, “Global Times, May 26, 2021

11 Steven Lee Myers, “China Spins Tale That the U.S. Army Started the Coronavirus Epidemic,” The New York Times, March 13, 2020

12 Gain-of-function experiments: time for a real debate, Nature Reviews Microbiology volume 13, pages 58–64 (2015)

13 Gain-of-function experiments: time for a real debate, Nature Reviews Microbiology volume 13, pages 58–64 (2015)

14 Lynn C. Klotz, Edward J. Sylvester, “The unacceptable risks of a man-made pandemic,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,  August 7, 2012

15 Lynn C. Klotz, Edward J. Sylvester, “The unacceptable risks of a man-made pandemic,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,  August 7, 2012

16 Carl Zimmer, James Gorman and Benjamin Mueller, “Scientists Don’t Want to Ignore the ‘Lab Leak’ Theory, Despite No New Evidence,” The New York Times,  May 27, 2021

17 Nicholson Baker, “The Lab-Leak Hypothesis,”  New York, January 4, 2020

18 Carl ZimmerJames Gorman and Benjamin Mueller, “Scientists Don’t Want to Ignore the ‘Lab Leak’ Theory, Despite No New Evidence,” The New York Times,  May 27, 2021

19  Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger, “U.S. Is Said to Have Unexamined Intelligence to Pore Over on Virus Origins,” The New York Times, May 27, 2021

20 Michael D. Shear, Julian E. Barnes, Carl Zimmer and Benjamin Mueller, “Biden Orders Intelligence Inquiry Into Origins of Virus,” The New York Times,  May 26, 2021

21 Michael R. Gordon, Warren P. Strobel and Drew Hinshaw, “Intelligence on Sick Staff at Wuhan Lab Fuels Debate on Covid-19 Origin,” The Wall Street Journal, May 23, 2021

22 Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger, “U.S. Is Said to Have Unexamined Intelligence to Pore Over on Virus Origins,” The New York Times, May 27, 2021

23 Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger, “U.S. Is Said to Have Unexamined Intelligence to Pore Over on Virus Origins,” The New York Times, May 27, 2021

24 Carl ZimmerJames Gorman and Benjamin Mueller, “Scientists Don’t Want to Ignore the ‘Lab Leak’ Theory, Despite No New Evidence,” The New York Times,  May 27, 2021

25 Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger, “U.S. Is Said to Have Unexamined Intelligence to Pore Over on Virus Origins,” The New York Times, May 27, 2021

Talking about Israel on Coming From Left Field podcast

Conversations with Greg Godels and Pat Cummings.

11-“Israel, A Beachhead in the Middle East” with guest Stephen Gowans – YouTube

I talk with Greg and Pat on their podcast Coming From Left Field about Israel, a US beachhead in the Middle East.

Pat Cummings grew up with middle-class privilege in a close and happy Irish-American military family. He came of age in the Vietnam era, beginning his activism in the antiwar movement. He spent his life in public education, where he saw first-hand the systemic inequalities that elevated some but suppressed many.

Greg Godels grew up in a working-class family and in a working-class neighborhood. His family’s strong labor ties lead him to anti-racist and anti-capitalist activism and to Marxism-Leninism. He identifies with the legacy of Communism in the US. His writings have appeared in a number of publications in the US and internationally.

Do Communist-Led States Protect Public Health Better Than Capitalism?

By Stephen Gowans

May 5, 2021

Had all capitalist countries managed the Covid-19 pandemic as effectively as the Communist-led countries of China, Cuba, and Vietnam, nearly 147 million people would have been spared illness and over three million lives would have been saved, according to projections based on data from Our World in Data. These projections are based on applying the number of cases and deaths per million for the Communist world to the world as a whole.

Taken together, the Communist countries have limited the spread of the novel coronavirus to 134 cases per million, compared to 24,058 cases per million in the non-Communist world. At the same time, communist countries have held Covid-19 deaths to four per million, while in the capitalist world, the death rate per million has been well over a hundred times greater.

What’s more, according to reports from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, North Korea has likely been as successful as its Communist cohorts in protecting public health in the face of the worldwide coronavirus emergency.

Clearly, compared to the capitalist countries, the Communist-led states have not only done a better job of protecting their citizens from the dangers of Covid-19, they have done a supremely better job.

Continuity

In 1986, sociologist Shirley Ceresto and physician Howard Waitzkin published research in the American Journal of Public Health comparing the performance of Communist-led states and capitalist countries on physical quality of life indicators, including six public health measures: infant mortality, child death rate, life expectancy, population per physician, population per nurse, and daily per capita calorie intake. Using World Bank data, the researchers found that when comparing Communist-led countries with capitalist states at the same level of economic development, the Communist countries came out ahead on all six public health measures.

Waitzkin told The Los Angeles Times that he believed the Communist-led countries fared better because they considered health care to be a basic human right. Ceresto added: “The first thing a country does when it becomes socialist is improve the health care and education and feed the people.” This, she said, “is their goal: To feed their people and get them health care and education.”

In 1992, sociologist and political scientist Vincente Navarro published in The International Journal of Health Services a continent by continent survey of the performance of socialist and capitalist countries in their response to the health needs of their populations. Navarro concluded that socialism and socialist forces [had], for the most part, been better able than capitalism and capitalist forces to improve health conditions.”  

Among other comparisons, Navarro contrasted China with India, showing how life expectancy in the Communist country lagged India’s by seven years when Mao’s forces came to power in 1949. A quarter of a century later, life expectancy had increased by 35 years and was 12 years greater than in India, where life expectancy had increased only 17 years. Today, China continues to lead India in life expectancy at birth.

Navarro concluded that “the socialist experience … has been more frequently than not more efficient in responding to human needs than the capitalist experience.”

Communist Countries Today

As was true in the 1980s, today’s Communist-led states outperform capitalist countries on various measures of public welfare, including life expectancy, hospital beds per thousand, extreme poverty, as well as scoring higher on the human development index, a composite measure of income, life expectancy, and education.

Table 1 shows that average life expectancy is five years greater in Communist countries than capitalist states (77 vs. 72). The lead is even greater in Cuba and Vietnam (seven years), comparing these countries with capitalist states at the same level of economic development.

Table 2 shows that Communist-led states have close to twice as many hospital beds per 1,000 people as capitalist countries, with Cuba having over three times more beds per 1,000 people than capitalist countries at the same level of economic development.

Table 3 shows that the percentage of the population living in extreme poverty is lower in the Communist-led states (for which data are available, namely, China and Vietnam) than in the capitalist world as a whole, or in capitalist countries with a similar GDP per capita.

The idea that extreme poverty is greater in the capitalist than Communist world challenges the myth, industriously cultivated in the rich countries, that capitalism means wealth and development while the Communist countries are uniquely poor. While it is true that some capitalist regions are very wealthy, specifically, those with an imperialist past and present (North America, Western Europe, and Japan), they comprise only a small part of the world’s population, about ten percent. The Communist countries comprise a further one fifth. That leaves the bulk of humanity—seven of every ten people in the world—living within less developed parts of the capitalist sphere. The capitalist norm, then, is not one of wealth and development, but of poverty and underdevelopment.

Capitalism has two faces. One is the face of great wealth. The other is the face of poverty, agony of toil, brutality, and foreign domination. For most human beings, capitalism has showed, and continues to show, only one of its faces: that of poverty, misery, and imperialism. It is from, and against, this sphere that the Communist countries have emerged.

Table 4 shows that the Communist countries have a higher level of human development (the index ranges from 0 to 1, with 1 as the highest level) compared to the capitalist world. The Communist advantage is particularly evident in the cases of Cuba and Vietnam, where human development in these countries exceeds that of capitalist states with roughly the same income per capita.

Managing the Covid-19 Pandemic

Given that the data indicate that Communist-led countries are more responsive to the human and health needs of their populations, we might expect that the Communist-led countries have also been more effective in protecting their populations from the Covid-19 pandemic. The next two tables confirm this expectation.

Table 5 shows the number of infections per million has been considerably lower in the three Communist-led states than in the capitalist world.

Similarly, Table 6 shows that the Communist countries have significantly outperformed capitalist states in limiting the number of Covid-19 deaths per million.

Note that the difference between the Communist and capitalist worlds is not trivial. The infection and fatality rates in the capitalist countries have been, respectively, 180 and 127 times greater than in the Communist states.

Capitalist Exceptions

Some capitalist states have performed better than others. Unique among the capitalist countries in pandemic management are Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, which have not only achieved infection and mortality rates well below the capitalist average, but have done better than Cuba, as Table 7 shows.

However, while the performance of these capitalist countries has been very good relative to their capitalist peers, as Table 8 reveals, it has nevertheless been less effective than that of the Communist-led states as a group.

The achievement of the capitalist quartet in limiting infections and deaths challenges the belief that infection control is only possible in Communist-led countries and is not possible in liberal parliamentary states. Moreover, all four countries had a low rate of vaccination as of the end of April, refuting the notion, widely promoted in the Western news media, that vaccines are the sole route to managing the pandemic.

Had all countries performed as well as these four, 121 million people would have been spared illness and 2.6 million lives would have been saved. While these numbers represent a substantial improvement over how the world has performed, they are nevertheless not as substantial as the gains that would have been garnered had all countries performed as effectively as the Communist-led states.

The Confucius Hypothesis

Some analysts have attributed China’s stellar pandemic performance to the country’s Confucian culture rather than its Communist politics, pointing out that other countries with strong Confucian influences, namely Japan and Korea, have also stood out in the degree to which they have effectively managed the virus. These analysts argue that Confucian values of duty, obedience, and social solidarity, have predisposed the populations of the Confucian-influenced countries to more fully comply with government directives on infection control than is true in countries in which individual liberties are valued over the collective needs of the community. 

While there may be some merit to this argument, it is still the case that within the Confucian trio, China has performed the best, and significantly better than its capitalist counterparts, as illustrated in Table 9. This suggests that China’s nature as a Communist-led country has conferred an advantage in pandemic control greater than whatever advantage it has reaped from Confucian values.

China vs. India

It is illuminating to compare China to India, a fellow Asian behemoth which differs from China in having rejected a development path under the red flag of Communism. On all seven human welfare and health indices in Table 10, India lags China, including on the number of physicians per 1,000 people; hospital beds per 1,000 people; ICU beds per capita; and health spending as a percentage of GDP.

Coincident with its poorer performance in meeting the health needs of its population, India has also failed to effectively manage the coronavirus pandemic, severely underperforming its Asian neighbor. To be fair, India’s GDP per capita is less than half that of China’s. However, the gulf between China and India in satisfying their respective population’s health needs is so great that even correcting for the income difference would fail to eliminate the gap between the two countries. On grounds of human development and health, if one had to choose between the two countries as a place of residence, Communist-led China is clearly the better choice.    

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asian countries have also performed better than the average at curbing the spread of the coronavirus and limiting deaths, though not better than the Confucian trio. Within the Southeast Asian group, Vietnam’s performance is unparalleled. Again, inasmuch as Vietnam and China belong to regions with superior pandemic performance, regional factors have likely contributed to their successes in limiting infections and deaths. However, within both groups, the performance of the Communist-led countries has been ne plus ultra, pointing to their politico-economic orientation as an additional factor explaining their superior pandemic control.

Caribbean and Central American Region

The Caribbean and Central American region has performed less effectively than the rest of the world in checking the spread of the coronavirus and limiting fatalities. While Cuba does not lead the region, as its Communist-led cohort countries do theirs, it has performed much better than the regional average and more effectively than the average of all other countries. Moreover, at 0.58 percent, Cuba is second only to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in case fatality rate, compared to 1.99 percent for the other regions, and 4.64 percent for the Caribbean and Central American region as a whole. Cuba’s low case fatality rate likely reflects the Communist state’s strong emphasis on universal access to a health care system which boasts among the highest number of physicians and hospital beds per capita in the world. Table 2 showed that Cuba not only leads capitalist countries at the same level of development in hospital beds per 1,000 people, but leads capitalist countries in the aggregate.

Table 13 shows health spending as a percentage of GDP among Caribbean and Central American countries. Cuba allocates more resources to health as a percentage of GDP than any other country in the region, demonstrating the Communist-led country’s strong commitment to meeting the health needs of its citizens.

North Korea

Publicly available data for North Korea is scarce if not altogether absent, but there are indications that the DPRK’s performance in checking the spread of the novel coronavirus is consistent with what one would expect of a Communist-led country with strong Confucian influences. Some news reports in Western mainstream news media refer to Pyongyang implementing vigorous measures of pandemic control. For example, The New York Times’ Korea specialist Choe Sang-Hun reported on July 25, 2020 that “North Korea has taken some of the most drastic actions of any country against the virus, and did so sooner than most other nations.” It is clear from the example of China, that countries that have prioritized public health, and have acted quickly and decisively to curb the spread of the coronavirus, have achieved impressive levels of infection control. Additionally, The Wall Street Journal reported on February 26, 2021, that “Alexander Matsegora, Russia’s ambassador to North Korea, said on the embassy’s Facebook page earlier this month that ‘thanks to the most severe bans and restrictions, [North Korea] turned out to be the only country which didn’t get the infection.’”

Given these reports, along with North Korea’s unquestioned ability to manage crises, including the collapse of its foreign markets in the early 1990s, flood- and drought-induced famines in the same decade, and the unremitting threat of US aggression, it seems highly likely that the DPRK has responded to the threat of Covid-19 with a high degree of competence, likely on par with that of its Communist counterparts.

Capitalist Incentives Foster Irrational Public Health Choices

It is instructive to consider that infection control as good as that achieved by the Communist-led countries would have necessitated a departure from capitalist logic in the capitalist countries.  

First, it would have required the temporary closure of a greater percentage of business establishments than most capitalist governments were prepared to tolerate, and for longer periods. Since the shuttering of businesses has deleterious consequences for the profits of business owners, capitalist governments acted to limit business closures in three ways: Shutting down a bare minimum of businesses, allowing many non-essential businesses to continue to operate; re-opening businesses before local infection rates had been brought under control; and failing to require adequate infection control measures for employees in businesses that were allowed to remain open.

Second, to approximate Communist country-performance, capitalist governments would have had to have quickly mobilized substantial public health resources to undertake large-scale screening and robust contact tracing. However, rather than implementing this public solution to a public problem—one which offered no benefit to private investors (except in the UK where contact tracing was handed to a private firm which immediately botched the job)—the leading capitalist governments chose to subsidize major businesses to compensate owners for their pandemic losses and to invest untold billions of dollars in vaccine development or pre-payment of vaccine doses or both, creating a pandemic bonanza for the biopharmaceutical industry and its major shareholders. This is not to say that investing in vaccines was unnecessary or undesirable, but that the timing was driven by capitalist incentives rather than public health rationality.

The leading capitalist countries declined to address the worldwide public health emergency by mobilizing resources for “shoe-leather” epidemiology to bring the pandemic quickly to heel, with the consequence that the emergency worsened. The worsening emergency was then used to justify the roll out of vaccines under emergency use authorization before they had been adequately safety-tested in fully completed Phase III trials.

The winners in this scenario have been the investors whose business interests have been protected from the effects of pandemic disruptions by government subsidies, as well as those wealthy enough to reap the benefits of substantial investments in the biopharmaceutical industry. The losers are the 150 million people who became ill or died unnecessarily and could have been protected from the ravages of the pandemic had their capitalist governments chosen to prioritize the health of the public over the health of their business communities’ bottom lines. Business that were able to remain open to satisfy the demand for goods that shuttered businesses would have provided, Amazon, for example, were also winners.

The leading capitalist governments could have mitigated the emergency to manageable levels, equivalent to those achieved by the Communist-led states, and then worked on the development, testing, and dissemination of vaccines. This would have saved millions of lives, and spared countless millions the potential hazard of being inoculated with vaccines which may or may not be harmful over the long term. This approach, however, would have meant spending public funds on “shoe leather” epidemiology, an investment which offered no profit-making opportunities of consequence to the business class favored by capitalist states. Plus, it would have required the closing of a large proportion of businesses for a month or more, attenuating profits—an anathema in capitalist society.

From the perspective of a capitalist logic, the course chosen was far more desirable, even if it meant more illness and more deaths. Limit business closures to a bare minimum to protect profits. Channel resources into subsidies for major businesses hurt by the pandemic. Make vaccines the main plank of the pandemic management strategy. These were the choices made by capitalist governments guided by capitalist logic. Vaccines offered an alternative to business closures and public expenditures on mass screening and contact tracing—an alternative with the promise of vast profits for those wealthy enough to get in on the action in a consequential way. 

The capitalist governments could have made the public health-friendly choices above to mitigate the emergency, prevent sickness, and save lives. They could have, but had they, they wouldn’t have been capitalist governments.

Conclusion

Capitalist society exists to protect and expand the interests of capitalists, not the interests of those who work for them. Capitalism may or may not exist in Communist society, but where it does exist, it is yoked to the people-centered aims of Communism, not the aims of capitalists. In Communist states, capitalists do not have political mastery.  

The degree to which Communist countries have eclipsed capitalist states in protecting their citizens from Covid-19 is substantial, and is evidenced in this: Had all capitalist countries managed the pandemic as effectively as the three Communist-led states, nearly 147 million people would have been spared illness and over three million lives would have been saved.

This conclusion is arrived at in the following way: At the end of April, 2021, approximately 147.8 million people had tested positive for Covid-19. Assuming a world case rate of 134 cases per million, equal to that of the Communist-led countries, the total number of cases in the world would have been 134 x a world population of 7.7 billion x 1/1 million, or approximately one million cases. Hence, 147.8 million less one million, or 146.8 million people worldwide would have avoided the illness. By significantly reducing infections, the pandemic may have been effectively extinguished, and the circulation of the virus sufficiently retarded that it could have been held in check by wide-reaching screening programs and robust contact tracing. This would have provided breathing room for a more deliberate and careful pace of vaccine development, thereby obviating emergency authorization of vaccine use prior to the collection of sufficient safety data.

Communist-led countries limited Covid-19 deaths to four per million. This fatality rate applied to the world as a whole would have produced a little over 27,000 deaths globally, compared to the 3.1 million who have died to date. In nearly a year and a half, a capitalist logic that discouraged temporary business closures, adopted non-pharmaceutical interventions with great reluctance and abandoned the few that were adopted much too early, and by its very nature favored the profit-making opportunities inherent in the pharmaceuticalization of public health, has cost the world over three million lives to date. Many more needless deaths will follow.

The Catastrophes of the Pandemic are the Catastrophes of Capitalism

Make no mistake: Business interests trump public health.

Abstract: For capitalist governments, maintaining conditions conducive to the profit-making interests of business owners and investors is the top priority; public health, only so far as it is necessary to maintain an adequate supply of labor, is not. Understanding this helps explain (i) why many capitalist governments have, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, exhibited a high tolerance for public health catastrophes that could have been averted if only even mild measures had been taken to temporarily subordinate business interests to the public good, and (ii) why countries led by people-centered governments have performed better in protecting public health against the pestilence of COVID-19 than capitalist governments as a whole. This article demonstrates the second point empirically, via an analysis of cross-sectional country-level data bearing on the performance of people-centered vs. capital-centered governments in protecting the health of their citizens in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.  

Stephen Gowans

April 21, 2021

For days, doctors and scientists in Canada’s largest province, Ontario, had offered the government the same advice: close non-essential businesses for a few weeks to avert a looming public health crisis. Coronavirus infections were spreading rapidly in the workplace, in factories, in warehouses, and on construction sites. Workers who were infected on the job, were bringing the virus home to their loved ones. With new cases growing daily at an accelerating rate, hospital beds filling up, a backlog of surgeries growing ever larger, and COVID-19 therapeutics becoming scarce, the public health care system teetered on the edge of an abyss. Strong measures were needed.

The government acted.  It prohibited virtually every activity that could potentially create a super-spreader event—except one, the most significant: employees of non-essential businesses co-mingling at work. This was the engine of the new third wave. And yet the government refused to turn the engine off.

Critical care physicians, ICU nurses, and epidemiologists were bewildered. Why had the government ignored their advice to shutter non-essential businesses? Why was it refusing to implement measures to prevent suffering and save lives?

The director of the committee the government had set up to make science-based recommendations said he was “at a loss” to understand why the “government announced a suite of measures that didn’t account for his group’s advice.” Another panel member said “he was dumbfounded by the government’s rejection of science and common sense.” A third said “she and her colleagues were stunned.”

One critical care physician, interviewed on TV, said that she had been “reflecting on why this happened  and one thing that occurred to me is that the role of government is to protect the citizens.” Why, then, was the government failing to do so?  

Incompetence?

Governments are often accused of ineptitude when they behave in ways that lead to catastrophe. The disastrous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by the Trump administration in the United States, and the botched response of the Johnson government in the United Kingdom, are often attributed to mismanagement. It’s as if some governments don’t know what they’re doing.

But the only way to know whether a government is incompetent, is to evaluate its actions against its goals. If you say my weight loss plan is a masterpiece of ineptitude because I’ve gained ten pounds, you’re right, assuming my goal is to lose weight. But if my goal is to manage my weight as best I can while gorging on pastries every day, your assessment is off the mark.

The trouble with declaring a government inept is that we may be mistaken about what the government is truly trying to achieve. Too often we make the wrong assumption about the goals that guide a government’s actions.

The critical care physician mentioned above assumed the public health goal of the government was to protect its citizens. And all the advice she offered took this assumption as its starting point. The obvious dissonance between protecting public health as a goal and the government’s failing to do what was necessary to achieve this goal, left her dumbfounded.

One way she could have resolved her puzzlement was to ask whether the government was pursuing a different goal. In fact, at one point she conceded rather tentatively and with much reluctance—as if the thought was too unsettling to contemplate—that maybe the government was more committed to the interests of business owners than to the welfare of the larger community.

As unthinkable as the thought may be, could it be that the true role of government in capitalist society is not to protect its citizens, but to protect what lies at the very heart of capitalism itself: profits? If so, then what seems at first to be government ineptitude, may, to the contrary, be government acting as it ought to act (or must act) within the framework of a capitalist logic.

It would hardly be surprising to discover that the Ontario government has a strong affinity with the business community. Its members are part of that community, and came to power on a platform of catering to its (and their) interests. They promised citizens they would deliver jobs and prosperity in return for allowing businesses to generate handsome profits.

For the head of the government, profits are not only critical, but personal. He is the co-owner of a manufacturing firm—one of the non-essential businesses that scientists advised him to temporarily shutter. Heeding their advice and ‘following the science’ would have had a direct and unwelcome effect on his bank account.

Members of his cabinet are no less married to profits. They include: a former investment banker and insurance company executive; the founder of an advertising business; a corporate/commercial lawyer; a former chamber of commerce president; and a financial analyst, the daughter of a former CEO, prime minister, and member of multiple corporate boards; she is married to an investment banker who is the scion of a wealthy publishing family. One would hardly be going out on a limb to suggest that this group might have a greater preference for keeping the profit spigot open than keeping the polloi—with its lowly factory, warehouse, and construction workers—safe from a pandemic.

It’s also probably safe to assume that the cabinet members are all ambitious people who hope, when their political careers are over, to secure lucrative positions in the C-suites or on the boards of major corporations. They know their ambitions are more likely to be realized if they have acquitted themselves admirably in government as able defenders of the business community against the democratic demands of the public.  Sacrificing profits to public welfare could not possibly recommend them to high-level, munificently remunerated private sector opportunities.

This is not to say that the Ontario government is indifferent to public health, only that public health comes second, and not at all, if one must be sacrificed to the other. The metaphor of sampling delights at a local bakery (protecting profits) while paying some heed to weight-management (protecting public health) illustrates the relationship. Capitalist governments like to say they’re protecting public health, and they are, to a point, but they’re only doing so, so far as they don’t endanger the health of the most important patient—profits.

Who gets harmed by a business-first, public health-second policy? In the case of the Ontario government, not its cabinet. After all, its members have been vaccinated, and have access to private medicine or connections that allow them to get priority access to the public health care system, even one under stress. And while the people who go to work every day in factories, warehouses, and construction sites will, along with their families, bear the brunt of the escalating crisis, what does it matter from the perspective of the business community and their representatives in government? In a capitalist system, factory, warehouse, and construction workers exist for one purpose: to promote shareholder value. Those who the virus ushers along the path from workplace to sick bed to cemetery, to no longer serve their useful function as means to shareholder ends, are easily replaced. The business-friendly fiscal, monetary, and immigration policies of the Ontario government’s federal counterpart have seen to that; they have underwritten a reserve army of potential replacement employees, ready to rapidly fill whatever void the virus creates.

From this perspective, the decision of the government to ignore its science panel’s advice to close non-essential businesses makes perfect sense. Seeing the logic in the decision requires that we ask: Government for who? Policy for who? Democracy for who? If the pandemic policies of the Trump and Johnson governments were disasters, who were they disasters for? They may have been catastrophic for the bulk of US and British citizens, but were they disasters for major investors and shareholders?

In a multitude of ways the interests of private profit-making enterprises, and those of the public, are antithetical. Businesses have an interest in paying their employees as little as possible, and employees have an interest in resisting their exploitation, and eliminating it altogether. The public has an interest in clean air and water, and polluters have an interest in shifting the costs of remediating pollution to the public. Employers have an interest in making their employees work under unsafe conditions if it means healthier bottom lines, and employees have an interest in safeguarding their health.

 In competitions that pit investors and shareholders against employees and consumers, businesses often come out on top. Their ownership and control of the economy equip them with the resources and leverage they need to ensure their policy preferences are transformed into policy directives—not always, but most of the time. They do so by ensuring their representatives are elected to public office, by funding think tanks to propagate their policy preferences, and by lobbying governments to adopt policies that are congenial to corporate aspirations. 

Moreover, the business community sets the ideological tenor of the times. It influences public opinion through its ownership of the mass media and influences the academic agenda by endowing university chairs and funding research programs. As a result, a pro-business ideology is instilled in politicians long before they arrive in government.

In an analysis of over 1,700 public policy issues, political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page concluded that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial impacts on government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” [1]

In other words, the demos, the ordinary people referred to in the word ‘democracy’, have virtually no influence on public policy, while wealthy business people and their lobbies and representatives in government, who constitute only a tiny fraction of the population, have substantial sway. G7 countries, and many others in the world, are not democracies, but plutocracies, countries ruled by the wealthy. And the public health policy of a plutocracy is one which, not always, but for the most part, addresses the concerns, interests and aspirations of the country’s financial and business center, not Main Street.

If government policy makes no sense within the logic of public welfare, but makes perfect sense within the logic of capitalism, the reason why is plain; it’s not incompetence that leads governments to stumble into public health catastrophes; it is capitalist logic that produces public health catastrophes as a by-product of the pursuit of capitalist interests.

A publicly-owned and publicly-directed economy is preferable to one predicated on a capitalist logic, for three reasons.

#1. A public system is specifically designed to redress the capitalist shortcomings and inequities that affect the lives of the majority.  

#2. Democracy. Capitalism, by definition, is a system for privileging capitalists, an infinitesimally tiny elite, at public expense. In contrast, a public system—which is accountable to the public at large rather than a small minority of private business owners—is democratic, by definition.

#3. People matter more in a public system. This can be seen in the superior pandemic performance of countries that have moved, to varying degrees, toward the ideal of public-ownership and planning of their economies, namely, Cuba, North Korea (DPRK), China (PRC), and Vietnam—countries led by what I’ve called Communist, or people-centered, governments. While none of these countries has achieved the ideal, they are the furthest along the path. 

In the graph below, I’ve shown per capita fatality rates for four Communist countries, as well as for major capitalist powers. I’ve also included capitalist countries and jurisdictions in East Asia and Oceania which have performed well in pandemic management. Since a country’s ability to manage a public health crisis ought to vary proportionally with income, I’ve juxtaposed fatality data against GDP per capita.

The graph shows that countries with higher incomes (Italy, France, the UK, and the USA) have performed poorly in protecting the health of their citizens, while the four Communist countries have performed well, despite having considerably lower incomes and therefore fewer resources for pestilence-management. The graph also shows that with the exception of Cuba, the best performers have been the East Asian and Oceanic countries, both capital- and people-centered.

The graph below shows that the three East Asian Communist countries have performed better than South Korea (ROK), Japan, and Australia, but only as well as Taiwan and New Zealand. However, the region’s people-centered  countries have achieved comparable levels of pandemic management despite lower per capita incomes than their capitalist regional counterparts.

The final graph compares the four people-centered countries with the capitalist world as a whole. Clearly, the East Asian and Oceanic capital-centered countries are anomalies, and the performance of the capitalist countries as a category has been significantly worse than that of the Communist countries in protecting their citizens from COVID-19.

Moreover, the superior public health performance of the people-centered countries has been achieved with significantly fewer resources than are available to capitalist countries, which have higher incomes per capita, and therefore more resources to protect public health if they choose to allocate their resources to this project. This finding suggests that Communist countries are not only more committed to safeguarding the health of their citizens, but do so with greater efficiency, since they have achieved better outcomes with fewer resources. This is consistent with the well-established finding that public systems deliver better public health outcomes at lower cost than private systems.

The graph also demonstrates that the idea that the public health role of government is to protect its citizens, while valid in connection with people-centered countries, is invalid as a description of capital-centered countries as a whole. Clearly, in the capitalist world, business interests trump public health.

Together, the graphs also show that public health disasters and recurring waves of infection are not inevitable outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic, and that it is possible to provide a high level of public health protection against the dangers of COVID-19, even with limited resources. Given that the people-centered governments have performed admirably without wide-spread vaccination roll-outs, it can also be concluded that vaccination is not the sole route to public health protection in the face of a novel virus. It is widely believed in the leading capitalist countries that vaccines are the offramp from the pandemic, but the data  presented here suggest that it was capitalist logic that steered most countries onto the pandemic freeway in the first instance—a freeway on which the Communist countries have never travelled.

An objection to this analysis is that Communist China and Vietnam are not people-centered but profit-centered, since both have embraced capitalism. While it is true that these countries have flourishing private sectors, it also true that they have substantial and growing public sectors and significant state planning. Moreover, Communist parties remain in charge, and while China and Vietnam may appear, at first glance, to be Communist in name alone, the red flag continues to fly in Beijing and Hanoi. In Bright Red: The Chinese Communist Ideal, [2] French Sinologist Alice Ekman examines the Chinese Communist Party’s internal documents and concludes that China’s true color remains red. China’s orientation toward capitalism compared to that of the United States, in which there is no ambiguity about its capitalist identity, is perhaps best illustrated by the following observation from the Wall Street Journal. “A figure like [Apple’s Tim] Cook commands a great deal of respect, even deference, in Washington. In Beijing, he’s treated like any other business executive—as a supplicant, angling for favors to keep his market hopes alive.” [3] In other words, unlike in capitalist countries, where government is but the means to capitalist ends, in China, capitalists are but the means to Communist ends.

Pandemics are inevitable. Whether they become disasters is contingent on who is prioritized by the underlying logic of a society’s organization. As the data above suggest, it is in capitalist countries, where capitalist logic elevates the interests of a tiny minority of wealthy business-owners above public health interests, that the coronavirus pandemic has become a disaster. In contrast, in Communist countries, where capitalist logic has either been eliminated or subordinated to Communist goals, public health has been protected to a degree far in excess of what is true of capitalist countries as a whole.  Avoiding future pandemic disasters will depend on learning the lessons that the public health catastrophes of COVID-19 have been the catastrophes of capitalism, its successes the successes of people-centered Communism, and that a pandemic of catastrophes need not happen the next time a zoonotic pathogen breaches the species barrier. Whether we, in the capitalist world, meet the next public health crisis as effectively as China, Vietnam, Cuba, and North Korea have met the challenge of COVID-19, will depend on the choices we make about whether to transition to a democracy where our common interests are brought to the fore, or whether we continue to accept our subordination to a capitalist logic in which we are only the means to capitalist ends.   

Sources

GDP per capita (PPP), The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency.

“Mortality Analyses”. Johns Hopkins University, Coronavirus Resource Center, March 28, 2021. Accessed on 7 March 2014.

Notes

1.Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, Fall, 2014.

2. English translation of the book’s French title, Rouge Vif: L’Idéal Communiste Chinois.

3. Andrew Browne, “China’s dream is Apple’s nightmare: US tech firms cave for Beijing’s rules,” The Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2017.

DPRK. While there are no solid COVID-19 data for North Korea, there are a number of indications that the country’s infection and fatality rates are low. First, we can assume that the factors that have uniquely contributed to the superior performance of East Asian countries in managing the pandemic also apply to the DPRK as a fellow East Asian state. Second, a number of news reports refer to Pyongyang implementing vigorous measures of pandemic control.  For example, the New York Times’ Korea specialist Choe Sang-Hun reported on July 25, 2020 that “North Korea has taken some of the most drastic actions of any country against the virus, and did so sooner than most other nations.” It is clear from the example of China, that countries that have prioritized public health, and have acted quickly and decisively to curb the spread of the coronavirus, have achieved impressive levels of infection control. Additionally, the Wall Street Journal reported on February 26, 2021, that “Alexander Matsegora, Russia’s ambassador to North Korea, said on the embassy’s Facebook page earlier this month that ‘thanks to the most severe bans and restrictions, [North Korea] turned out to be the only country which didn’t get the infection.’”

Given these reports, along with North Korea’s reported commitment to effectively managing the pestilence, and its unquestioned ability to manage other crises, including the collapse of its foreign markets in the early 1990s, flood- and drought-induced famines in the same decade, and the unremitting threat of US aggression, it seems highly likely that the DPRK has responded to the threat of COVID-19 with a high degree of competence. Accordingly, for this analysis, DPRK deaths per 100,000 were set to the minimum for all other countries.

Taiwan. While the analyses include Taiwan, the territory is not recognized here as a separate country, but as a part of China under the control of the government of the Republic of China. Since the ROC offers an example of a capital-centered government in contradistinction to the PRC’s more people-centered approach, its inclusion in the analyses as a separate jurisdiction was warranted.