Capitalism and the Covid-19 Disaster

And here it becomes evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society. —   Karl Marx

By Stephen Gowans

May 9, 2022

[The following is an excerpt from my new book The Killer’s Henchman: Capitalism and the Covid-19 Disaster, outlining the plan on the book. The book’s official release data is June 1.]

The United States would not bring the virus to heel through vaccines anymore than it would defeat, through drugs, any of its other public health problems—from obesity to type 2 diabetes, heart disease to cancer. These problems are largely the unwelcome consequences of capitalism. The food industry lards its products with fat and sugar to delight taste buds, with predictable consequences for the waistlines and arteries of consumers. Diet, exercise, weight loss, and reduced exposure to carcinogens—the solutions to these public health problems—are anti-capitalist, in the sense that they displace profit-generating pharmaceutical interventions. Likewise, the non-pharmaceutical public health measures that can bring pandemics to heel, and prevent them in the first place, are anti-capitalist too, so far as they displace therapeutics and reduce the need for vaccines. As one of the public health figures featured in Michael Lewis’s book The Premonition, put it: “From the point of view of American culture, the trouble with disease prevention [is] that there [is] no money in it.”[i]  The expert had used “American culture” as a euphemism for “capitalism.”

The incentive structure underlying capitalist healthcare favors drugs to manage chronic conditions rather than prevention to stop them. As a result, the response to the Covid-19 threat was predictable. While China, and a handful of other countries, emphasized aggressive containment through non-pharmaceutical public health measures, most governments limited their response to managing infection levels to prevent the number of cases from exceeding hospital capacity, while awaiting a vaccine. The response was shaped, not by what was best for the health of the public, but what was best for the health of the business community. For governments enthralled to capitalist imperatives, it was far better to minimize the impact on business activity of pandemic control measures, avoid costly public health expenditures, and support profit-making opportunities in vaccine development, than to implement stringent measures, as China did, to stop the outbreak.

The WHO’s assessment of the world’s response to the pandemic noted that “while much of the early response to COVID-19 involve[d] missed opportunities and failure to act, there [were] some areas in which early action was taken to good effect, most notably in research and development (R&D) and, in particular, vaccine product development.” This invites a question: Why did much of the world fail to incur the costs necessary “to curtail the epidemic and forestall the pandemic,” but succeeded so notably in “vaccine product development”?

To answer that question, it is necessary to address four topics, which I do in the chapters to follow.

The first topic concerns who it is that made the decisions on how to respond to the pandemic (if to respond at all) and what their interests are. In most countries, governments are dominated by members of a billionaire class and by politicians indebted to them. Not only do these decision-makers make decisions with capitalist class interests in mind, they operate within a capitalist framework which limits the range of decisions that can be made without impairing the smooth functioning of capitalist economies. Even if decision-makers aren’t already inclined to formulate policy to comport with capitalist class interests—and they very much are—the structure of the capitalist economy compels them to act in ways that protect and promote capitalist interests. Capitalist interests discouraged the pursuit of Chinese-style zero-Covid measures, for their perceived injurious effects on business activity and profit accumulation, and encouraged the development of vaccines as a profit-making opportunity.

The pharmaceutical industry—central to the pandemic response of most capitalist states—is the second topic. Like the state in capitalist society, Big Pharma is dominated by wealthy investors, whose interests come first. The industry, like government, operates within a capitalist framework. All decisions must ultimately serve one aim: the profitable production of drugs. While advantages to public health may follow as a by-product of the pursuit of profit, they are by no means necessary. Enlarging the interests of the industry’s capitalist owners is the industry’s sole mission. As a consequence, the production of useless and even harmful drugs is tolerable, so long as profits are produced. The pharmaceutical industry, with the complicity of Washington, fast tracked the development of Covid-19 vaccines with little regard for their safety, arguing that safety protocols needed to be circumvented to address a public health emergency—one that need not have happened and was of Washington’s own making.

The third topic is Bill Gates, a significant member of the US capitalist class. Gates uses his vast wealth to pursue pet projects under the guise of performing charitable works, including promoting vaccines and capitalist pharmacy as the solution to the world’s most significant public health problems. Gates offers a concrete example of how members of the capitalist class use their wealth to shape political agendas to expand their own interests at the public’s expense.

The final topic is Operation Warp Speed, Washington’s Covid-19 vaccine program, which used public money, and capitalized on publicly-funded research, to develop vaccines and therapeutics in record time. Washington transferred these publicly developed goods to the private sector for private commercial gain. Many decision-makers and influencers in Washington had stakes in the vaccine makers that profited from this transfer. Firms such as Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca made a killing, thanks to billions of dollars in publicly-funded research and advance purchase orders from governments. The model of  “socialism for the rich”—taking money out of the pockets of taxpayers and putting it into the pockets of private enterprise—is the basis, not only for capitalist pharmacy, but for capitalist economics as a whole.

[i] Michael Lewis, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, W.W. Norton & Company, 2021, p. 299.