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?  


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.   


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.


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.