Would a Plan for a Just Peace in Ukraine Make Any Difference?

December 5, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

Would a peace plan for Ukraine that addresses each parties’ ostensible concerns about security and ethnic rights create a lasting peace?

In my view, it would not.

The parties’ substantive concerns are economic. Concerns about security and ethnic rights, while real, conceal more profound issues.

A plan that addresses the surface concerns but not the substantive ones is bound to fail.

What might the contours of a peace plan for Ukraine look like?

  • Russia withdraws from all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea.
  • Ukraine
    • Pledges neutrality, foreswearing membership in any military bloc.
    • Agrees to an irrevocable long-term lease of Russia’s naval base at Sevastopol.
    • Guarantees languages rights for Russophones and declares Ukraine to be a country for all its citizens, not a national Ukrainian state, and not one in which ethnic Ukrainians have superior rights. Instead, all citizens are guaranteed equal rights regardless of their language, religion, or ethnicity.

This proposal meets Russia’s stated concerns about security and the rights of Russian-speakers in Ukraine. At the same time, it restores all Ukraine’s territory.

But the plan fails to address key areas of tension.

First, it says nothing about whether the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines, built to circumvent Ukraine as a transitway for Russian natural gas, will be re-engaged to fulfill their originally intended role.  If so, Ukraine will be denied a major source of revenue in transit fees.  After the United States, Ukraine had been the major opponent of the pipelines. Kyiv would be expected to oppose any move to open the pipelines. So too would Washington.

It is unlikely that Moscow would agree to a plan that doesn’t see Russia’s return to Europe as a hydrocarbons vendor. Washington, conversely, is likely to oppose Russia’s re-engagement with Europe as an energy provider, considering that Europe’s renunciation of Russian gas has provided Washington with a much-needed market for US LNG.  The United States is now the world’s top LNG exporter.

Second, the plan fails to address perhaps the key issue underlying tensions since 2014: Whether Ukraine’s economy will be oriented toward the West or Russia.

Bearing an antipathy to Russia, a country they see as an historical oppressor, nationalist ethnic Ukrainians have pressured Kiev to orient their country toward the West, not only militarily, but economically. In contrast, Russophone Ukrainians have inclined more strongly to economic integration with Russia. For these reasons, Washington and Brussels have supported nationalist ethnic Ukrainians, and Moscow has backed Russophone Ukrainians. Both ethnic groups are used as tools by their superpower patrons to advance great power goals in Ukraine.

Thus, the cultural struggle between ethnic Ukrainians and Russophone Ukrainians is not only a struggle over nationalism and linguistic rights, but also a struggle over economics, with both the West and Russia intervening in Ukraine’s affairs for self-serving economic ends. A plan that addresses the surface linguistic and cultural concerns, but fails to tackle the key issue of Ukraine’s integration into one or the other economic bloc, will not produce a durable peace.

Cut-throat competition for markets, raw materials, pipeline routes, investment opportunities, and strategic territory is an enduring feature of capitalism. It is unlikely that a workable plan for peace can be found in a world in which capitalist competition is a constant. 

To sum up, a peace plan that addresses the ostensible reasons for war will make little difference. Ostensible reasons mask deeper motives—motives whose taproot is capitalist competition.

To end the fighting, one of two things must happen:

  • Russia, the United States, the European Union, and Ukraine pledge not to conduct themselves as capitalist powers. This isn’t going to happen.
  • The competition for Ukraine weakens one or both of the sides until one or both decides the potential gains are outweighed by the costs.

That’s how competitions end. In the victory of one side, in both sides simultaneously withdrawing, or in the mutual ruin of both. They don’t end in a just peace.

Engels’ Anti-Duhring and the COVID-19 Calamity

There are many scourges that bedevil humanity that could be, but aren’t, ended. They persist as inevitable consequences of capitalism. The Covid-19 pandemic is one of them.

Stephen Gowans

October 26, 2022

In Anti-Duhring, Friedrich Engels’ attempt to produce an encyclopaedic survey of Marxism, the main tasks of scientific socialism are presented as follows: To show that:

  • Many of the current conditions in society that make no sense or are unjust are the necessary consequences of capitalism;
  • The existence of conditions that make no sense and are unjust reveals that capitalism is no longer a useful mode of production—no longer one which comports with the interests of the majority (though it did in an earlier era);
  • A better future exists in embryo in the present, and it is the role of Marxists to make the proletariat aware of its historical mission to bring a new socialist society to birth. [1]

What conditions of society make no sense? What conditions are unjust?

Let me mention just two, of many.

First, wars of aggression. In the Marxist view, or at least in the view of many Marxists, capitalism inevitably creates conditions that makes violent conflict between states more likely.

One of the goals of the Bolsheviks was to show that the first world war was a necessary consequence of capitalism, and to argue, accordingly, that capitalism no longer comported with the interests of the proletariat. The working class, along with the peasantry, no matter which side they were on, bore all the burdens of the war.

After that war, Bertolt Brecht—the playwright, poet, and writer—pointed out that common people always suffer and never benefit from war between capitalist rivals. He wrote:

When the last war came to an end

There were conquerors and conquered

Among the conquered the common people starved

Among the conquerors the common people starved too [2]

That common people are victims of wars between capitalist rivals remains true today in the war between the United States and Russia over Ukraine. While no one is starving—not yet, though this may come to pass—common people throughout the world bear the burden of the war in a cost-of-living crisis and impending recession, while starvation is a very real possibility in low-income countries as a result of disruptions caused by the war.

Still another current condition of society that is an ineluctable consequence of capitalism is the absence of meaningful democracy for the common people. Lenin’s indictment of capitalist democracy was twofold:

First, the formal equalities of capitalist democracy have no meaning if one in every 10 people exploits the remaining nine. Class society necessarily means exploitation of one class by another. There can be no de facto equality in class society, and therefore there can be no de facto democracy.

Think of a slave society. If every adult in a slave society was made formally equal by giving each, both slave and slave-owner, the right to vote, would a society of democratic equality be thereby created? Obviously not. How can a society be democratic if one part of the society exploits another part?

Lenin’s second indictment of capitalist democracy is that it denies the proletariat a meaningful political voice. Why? Because capitalism concentrates wealth in the hands of the bourgeoisie, which is able to use its immense wealth to dominate the political process: to buy and lobby politicians; to promote its point of view in the media and in the schools; to place its representatives in high-level positions in the state; to create think tanks to recommend its policy preferences to government; and to pressure governments to toe the bourgeoisie line through the implicit, and sometime explicit, threat of capital strike and capital flight. Governments tend to accommodate the demands of business. A government that encroaches on business interests too vigorously will almost invariably precipitate an economic crisis—and this will either lead to its defeat at the polls or its overthrow, outcomes most governments avoid by keeping their business communities happy (which, given their connections to business, most governments are already inclined to do anyway.) The corporate sector and the very wealthy, thus, have vastly more influence over public policy than does the proletariat. As political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page demonstrated in their study of over 1,700 US policy issues, the “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.” [3] This is a necessary consequence of capitalism.   

One of the tasks of Marxists, if you follow the logic of Marx and Engels, is to show that you can’t have political democracy, let alone social democracy, in a capitalist society.  

Engels argued that there are three signs that the current mode of production, the current way of organizing the economy, and the current way of organizing our politics, is no longer useful and no longer comports with the interests of the majority. [4]

  1. Existing social institutions—the democratic process, for example, or international relations, or the economy, are seen to be unreasonable and unjust.
  2. Reason appears to be unreason—that is, a lot of things make no sense.
  3. Right seems to have become wrong.

Significantly, these signs have been amply present during the pandemic.

To give you an example, in April of 2021, I wrote the following in a blog post: [5]

“For days, doctors and scientists in Ontario had offered the government the same advice: close non-essential businesses for a few weeks to avert a looming public health crisis.

“The government acted. It prohibited virtually every activity that could fuel the upward trend in infections and hospitalizations—except the most significant. What it didn’t do is what the doctors and scientists said it should do: temporarily close non-essential businesses.

“Critical care physicians, ICU nurses, and epidemiologists were bewildered. Why had the government ignored their advice? Why was it refusing to implement the most significant measure of all 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 her is that the role of government is to protect its citizens.’ She couldn’t understand why the government was failing to do so.”

Reason had become unreason. Right had become wrong.

The science was available, the science could be followed, but it wasn’t followed. That is, a solution to a problem that plagued society was within the grasp of political authority, but political authority refused to act.

As a parallel, Engels would argue in Anti-Duhring that the means are available to offer everyone a materially secure existence and to ensure to all the full and free development of their physical and mental capabilities. [6] All the same, the potential remains just that—potential, not reality.  

At one point the critical care physician conceded 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.

****

In The Killer’s Henchman: Capitalism and the Covid-19 Disaster, I try to follow the approach articulated by Engels in Anti-Duhring of examining the ties between a social abuse (in this case, the pandemic) and capitalism. Specifically, I show that the tools to end the pandemic, indeed, to prevent it, were already in humanity’s toolbox, but that capitalism prevented them from being used; that the Covid-19 calamity was preventable in principle, but inevitable in capitalist reality.

An estimated 17.7 million people around the world have died [7] unnecessarily from a pandemic that could have been avoided had capitalism not prevented the solutions to this problem from being implemented. Or to use the words of the World Health Organization’s Secretary General, we have all the tools to end the pandemic. The question is, Why don’t we use them?

If we were to argue in the manner of utopian socialists, the answer would be that doctors and scientists haven’t invested enough time and effort to let political authority know that the tools to end the pandemic are available, or that people in positions of authority are too stupid to understand that the tools are at hand.

A Marxist, by contrast, might argue that the approach to the pandemic is not a failure of understanding but a failure of capitalism; that it is a necessary consequence of capitalism; that it shows capitalism is no longer a useful system; and that capitalism militates against the implementation of solutions to the pandemic that are already present.

My argument is that capitalism prevents us from using the tools that are available; that capitalism, however much it was, at one point, a progressive force, has become a barrier to human progress; that in the 17.7 million (and climbing) deaths attributable to Covid-19, it has become evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society (to borrow the words of Karl Marx.) The capitalist class is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society because in the pursuit of its own interests it has prevented humanity from using the great potential inherent in social production, in industry, and in science to solve humanity’s problems, not least of which is managing the emergence of novel pathogens like the virus that causes Covid-19.   

****

In May 2021, more than a year into the pandemic, the World Health Organization released a report by an independent panel on the performance of the world’s governments in responding to the Covid-19 health emergency. The panel arrived at a stunning conclusion: the pandemic could have been avoided. [8]

Even as late as January 30, 2020, the day the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency of international concern, and two to three months after the virus likely first began to circulate, it was “still possible,” concluded the panel, “to interrupt virus spread, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts and promote social distancing measures.”

But that didn’t happen.

By March 11, the virus had spread far enough that the global health organization declared a pandemic.

How had a controllable outbreak become a catastrophe on a world scale? The answer was simple: inaction. “On 30 January 2020, it should have been clear to all countries from the declaration of the” public health emergency of international concern “that COVID-19 represented a serious threat,” the panel averred. “Even so,” it continued, “only a minority of countries set in motion comprehensive and coordinated Covid-19 protection and response measures.” The result was that February 2020, a month “when steps could and should have been taken to” prevent a controllable outbreak, was lost to history. Governments tarried, and their foot-dragging plunged humanity into a dark abyss.

Not all governments were content to sit tight until it was absolutely certain they were staring disaster in the face. “China, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand and Vietnam.” These countries, the panel noted, acted quickly and decisively to contain the emergency, and all with exemplary success. They pursued an aggressive containment strategy that involved mass testing, robust contact tracing, and quarantine, with “social and economic support to promote widespread uptake of public health measures.”

Most other countries, by contrast, waited far too long to act. And when they did act, they failed to do enough, never fully implementing the measures needed to bring their outbreaks under control.

Why did most countries do too little, too late? The panel pointed to cost. Most governments judged concerted public health action as too expensive.

Three costs were central to these countries’ concerns:

  1. The direct expense of testing, contact tracing, the construction of isolation facilities, coordinating quarantine, and providing financial support to the quarantined.
  2. The indirect cost of business disruptions.
  3. The impact on the stock market.

The people inside the US government who would be charged with executing various aspects of any pandemic strategy, believed that public health measures would promote nothing but economic loss, according to Michael Lewis in his study of the US response to the pandemic, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story.

Concerning the cost of business disruption, the 1918-1921 Spanish Flu offered an anticipatory model. Studies of how the United States responded to the flu pandemic found that government decision-makers were under incessant pressure from businesses to lift public health measures. And because the business community wields outsize influence over public policy—as a necessary consequence of capitalism—cities tended to capitulate. Those that bowed to business pressure—the majority—did far worse than those that did not.

Finally, Donald Trump deliberately downplayed the public health emergency, repeatedly declaring that it would magically resolve itself, because he feared that acknowledging the danger would result in untold stock market losses. According to the Washington Post, “Trump grew concerned that any action by his administration would hurt the economy, and … told advisers that he [did] not want the administration to do or say anything that would … spook the markets.” [9]

The panel criticized countries for taking “a wait and see” attitude, but didn’t inquire into the reasons why they took this attitude.

Why did they wait? Most countries waited because it was far more important for political authorities to avoid the error of acting before the danger was confirmed and thereby unnecessarily spooking the markets than it was to avoid the error of acting too slowly and unleashing a pandemic. In other words, the interests of capitalists trumped those of everyone else.

****

One country, among a handful of others, acted quickly:  China.

By pursuing a “zero-Covid strategy”— setting zero cases as the goal and taking very aggressive steps to attempt to suppress transmission of the virus—China has achieved great success in protecting the health of its citizens from Covid-19.

There are an estimated 1.35 million cumulative deaths attributable to Covid-19 in the United States, compared to only 22,000 in China, a country with over four times more people. Per million, fatalities due to the novel coronavirus are over 259 times greater in the United States than China—4,077 vs. 16. [10]

What has China done to set itself apart from the United States so favorably?

There is no particular genius in China’s approach to curbing Covid-19 transmission. Beijing’s strategy is based on an axiom. As Michael Lewis explained in The Premonition, “One thing that is inarguably true is that if you got everyone and locked each of them in their own room and didn’t let them out to talk to anyone, you would not have any disease.” China’s approach is based on this core truth.

The British Medical Journal explains the Chinese approach this way:

“China mobilized quickly and within two months had contained the epidemic and eliminated local infections in the country. There were no magic bullets in the tools it used: the methods were old school public health strategies, which are often called non-pharmaceutical interventions. Other countries also successfully eliminated local infections, showing that elimination of an emerging disease with pandemic potential is possible by using non-pharmaceutical interventions alone. Public health methods such as mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing, and restriction of public events and travel played an important part. Identifying and quarantining people with covid-19 and their close contacts was also critical” (emphasis added). [11]

China’s success, then, has been due, not to vaccines, but to old school public health strategies—strategies the World Health Organization describes as proven and known to work. [12]

In an April 2021 study [13], the medical journal, the Lancet, compared five OECD countries that pursued a zero-Covid strategy with 32 others that opted for hospital surveillance-based mitigation (that is, a strategy that does not set zero as the goal, but sets as its goal as many cases as are tolerable within the limits of hospital capacity and medical resources.) Australia, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea followed China’s zero-Covid lead, imposing tight border controls, along with test, trace, and quarantine methods, to eliminate community transmission.

The study found that:

  • The mortality rate was 25 times lower among countries that set zero as their goal. 
  • Lockdown measures “were less strict and of shorter duration” in the zero Covid group.
  • “GDP growth returned to pre-pandemic levels in early 2021 in the countries that set zero as their goal, whereas growth [was] still negative for the other OECD countries.”

On the basis of their analysis, the authors concluded that governments that pursued a zero-Covid strategy not only performed better at protecting the health of their citizens and saving lives, but also better protected their economies and minimized restrictions on civil liberties—that is, they had fewer lockdowns and the lockdowns were of shorter duration. The zero-Covid strategy checked all the boxes.

Nine of 193 UN members—China, five OECD countries, and three southeast Asian non-OECD states, less than one in 20—used the tools that were available to end the pandemic. As of October 26, 2022, there were an estimated 249 deaths attributable to Covid-19 per million people in these countries, compared to 2,850 in the nearly 96 percent of countries that failed to follow the science.  In other words, the zero-Covid countries reduced deaths by over 90 percent (China by over 99 percent) compared to countries that rejected this proven method, known to work. Even among the countries that eschewed proven public health and social measures, the United States is an outlier; deaths due to Covid-19 per million are over 16 times greater than the average of the zero-Covid countries.

****

If Beijing set zero as its goal, Washington—the bellwether for most countries—set protecting the stock market and avoiding disruptions to business as its goals—along with one other: developing a vaccine. From day one, “all expert talk” in the United States “was about how to speed the production and distribution of vaccines,” observed Michael Lewis. No one seemed to be exploring the proven public health and social measures that were known to work; that were endorsed by the World Health Organization; that were pursued with great success by China and eight other countries.

We heard repeatedly in the months following the viral outbreak that at some point, within a year, a vaccine would be developed, after which it would be quickly distributed, allowing us to resume our lives as before. What we didn’t hear amid all the celebration of vaccines was that nine countries had already largely put the pandemic behind them, without recourse to vaccines, using old fashioned public health methods. In other words, what we didn’t hear was that the tools were already available to save us—that is, to limit hospitalizations and fatalities, minimize the number and length of lockdowns, and safely reopen economies. But those tools weren’t being used. Instead, we were told that the only tool that mattered was a vaccine. Anthony Fauci called the vaccine “the cavalry.” [14]

To be sure, safe and effective vaccines are highly desirable. Vaccines for smallpox, polio, rubella, and many other diseases, including Covid-19, save countless millions of lives, and help many more people avoid sickness. They represent a significant advance in public health. But are vaccines the sole—even the best—way to address pandemics? Are they a silver bullet? And are they the cavalry?

The World Health Organization director-general warned that “vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis” [15] and “vaccines alone cannot solve the pandemic.” [16] He added that “there is no silver bullet. Stopping outbreaks comes down to the basics of public health and disease control; testing, isolating and treating patients and tracing and quarantining their contacts.” [17] In other words, doing what China, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and few other countries did—epidemiology 101.

Echoing the World Health Organization, numerous public health experts repeatedly cautioned that:

“We should not be thinking of the vaccine as a silver bullet.” [18]

“Vaccines alone will not be the silver bullet that will allow us to return to normal life.” [19]

Vaccines “are not magic solutions.” [20]

Vaccines are “really important, but they’re not a silver bullet.” [21]

“Anyone who says that vaccines alone can end the pandemic is wrong.” [22]

And yet that’s not what expert opinion at the White House said. The Trump White House announced that it was “fully focused on defeating the virus” through a vaccine [23]—not through public health and social measures, even though these were endorsed by the World Health Organization, even though they were shown by nine countries, including the world’s most populous, to work, even though this was epidemiology 101.

For its part, the Biden administration said that: “Vaccination is key to getting the pandemic under control.” [24] Indeed, the availability of vaccine doses for every US adult led Biden to effectively declare the pandemic over in the summer of 2021, despite the fact that the United States continued to post among the world’s worst Covid-19 morbidity and mortality figures.  Since that date, the number of estimated deaths in the United States attributable to Covid-19 has grown by 589,000—a 77 percent increase. The pandemic was over—except for the burials.

The World Health Organization’s assessment of the world’s response to the pandemic noted that “while much of the early response to COVID-19 involved missed opportunities and failure to act, there [were] some areas in which early action was taken to good effect, most notably in … vaccine product development.”

This invites a question: Why did the world succeed notably in vaccine product development but 19 of every 20 countries failed miserably in implementing proven and effective public health measures?

And why was the false silver bullet of vaccines chosen over the proven and effective methods of public health, especially when there were, in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, plenty of reasons to think that vaccine development would end in failure?

To be sure, we have safe and effective vaccines today, but did success seem certain in the spring of 2020?

Throughout the first half of 2020 and into the summer of that year, there were serious doubts about whether humans could develop a durable immunity to the novel coronavirus. The World Health Organization reminded governments that the question of whether humans could acquire immunity to the virus had yet to be answered. In October 2020, the Lancet would report that “there is no evidence for lasting protective immunity to SARS-CoV-2 following natural infection.” [25] Even Anthony Fauci, champion of the vaccine strategy, expressed concern. Fauci pointed out that there’s “never a guarantee, ever, that you’re going to get an effective vaccine.”  [26] That was an understatement.

Historically, only six percent of vaccine efforts had succeeded. And the very few that did succeed took a long time to come to fruition. The average development time for successful vaccines was almost 11 years. [27]

Robert van Exan, a veteran of the US vaccine industry, assessed the probability of a safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine as “relatively low.” [28] The consensus among scientists was that a vaccine, if it arrived, wouldn’t arrive soon. So, anyone reviewing the state of the art in 2020 would have reasonably concluded that the chance of a vaccine being rapidly developed was poor (about 6 percent).

Which raises the question: If vaccine success appeared to be unlikely, and non-pharmaceutical public health measures had already been shown to be effective, why were billions of dollars invested in a project that looked likely to fail, while at the same time, a demonstrably effective solution in public health measures was rejected? 

At the time, The New York Times raised doubts about whether a vaccine was possible, while at the same time pointing to another concern: safety. The “whole enterprise,” noted the newspaper, “remains dogged by uncertainty about whether any coronavirus vaccine will prove effective … and whether … compressing a process that can take 10 years into 10 months — will sacrifice safety.” [29]

The answer, it turned out, was that US officials did take risks with public safety. In fact, it was only by risking public safety that vaccines were produced quickly. This doesn’t mean that the vaccines are unsafe, but that the protocols normally in place to assess vaccine safety were side-stepped in an effort to fast track the vaccines. (Playing Russian Roulette is unsafe, but not everyone who plays ends up dead. Likewise, US officials took a chance the vaccines were safe, and so far, the gamble appears to have paid off. The question is, with safe and effective public health measures available, was the gamble necessary?)

Here’s how The New York Times explained it. Because “of the pandemic’s urgency, any promising Covid-19 vaccine is likely to be fast-tracked through the testing and approval process. It may not go through years of clinical trials and careful studies of possible long-term side-effects, the way other drugs do.” And, just as the newspaper predicted, the vaccines were rushed into people’s arms. This happened under a regime called “emergency use authorization”, before clinical trials were completed and before sufficient time had elapsed to evaluate possible long-term side effects. Emergency use authorization allows unapproved, i.e., experimental drugs and procedures to be used in the face of an emergency where no other alternative exists. The trouble is, there was an alternative—the public health and social measures that China, five OECD countries, and three southeast Asian non-OECD states showed significantly check fatalities, limit the number and duration of lockdowns, and hasten the return to economic growth; measures, moreover, that were recognized and endorsed by the World Health Organization.

Scientists who predicted in 2020 that a vaccine could not possibly be produced in 12 months assumed that like other vaccines, a Covid-19 vaccine would require a period of testing over many years. For example, one vaccine expert told the Wall Street Journal that he was “skeptical a safe and effective vaccine could be available soon, given all the testing required.” [30] What he didn’t know was that all the testing required wouldn’t be done. Had normal testing protocols been followed, it would have taken two years or more to approve a vaccine.

Political authority, then, took risks with public safety that didn’t have to be taken because other tools were available that were known to work. These tools weren’t used. Instead, the dice were rolled on public safety.

****

A puzzle. In 2020, the Rockefeller Foundation presented a proposal to the Trump administration to tackle the pandemic. Invest $100 billion in a health corps of 300,000 public servants to conduct a country-wide test, trace, and quarantine program. [31] This would emulate the strategy that allowed China to bring its outbreak under control and safely reopen its economy. The White House declined. Instead, Washington decided to spend tens of billions of dollars on a vaccine, supported by the logistical expertise of the US military and the scientific expertise of government labs and publicly supported universities. The same military logistical capability and the same multi-billion-dollar funding could have been used to create and operate a test, trace, and isolate program. This didn’t happen.

Why, then, with the pandemic upon it, would Washington turn down an approach to pandemic control that had been shown to succeed in nine countries and was endorsed by the World Health Organization in favor of going all in on a vaccine program which, in the first half of 2020, appeared to any reasonable person to have little chance of success? Why pass on the sure, safe, option and bet on the long shot—moreover, a long-shot that would—owing to the need to compress 10 years of testing into 10 months—put the safety of billions of people at risk?

One driver of Washington’s predilection for vaccines was the ability of billionaires, such as Bill Gates, to set the public health agenda to favor pharmaceutical solutions and their profit-making potential over public health solutions and their considerable expense to the public purse. Owing to their great wealth, billionaires, foundations, and the pharmaceutical industry—that is, the bourgeoisie—have the resources to strongly influence public discourse on healthcare issues and have accordingly set the public policy agenda on matters related to health, including pandemic preparedness—an agenda that supports bourgeois interests at the expense of the public. (And this too is an inevitable consequence of capitalism.) The bourgeoisie has long ago used its influence to push vaccines to the top of the agenda on how to meet the challenge of pandemics. As a result, when the novel virus emerged, governments followed the path capitalist class influencers had already set, shunning the proven public health measures which, though unquestionably effective, offer no opportunities for amassing colossal profits. In a capitalist society, which approach will be favored—one that benefits the community as a whole, or one that benefits the sectional interests of the capitalist class? The answer is evident in the term “capitalist society.” A society for capitalists. A society in which capitalist interests reign supreme.

****

How the vaccines were developed calls to mind two points made by Engels in Anti-Duhring.

First, Engels wrote that: The official representative of capitalist society — the state — will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. [32] In making this point he was saying that the foundations of socialism are already present in bourgeois society.

The second thing he said was that “The transformation of [large enterprises] into state property shows how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose. All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange.” [33]

The top two Covid-19 vaccines in the Western world are the Moderna vaccine, sometimes called the NIH-Moderna (or National Institutes of Health—Moderna) vaccine, and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The Moderna vaccine is called the NIH-Moderna vaccine because the US government, through the National Institutes of Health, shares the patent, and is largely responsible for its development. The intellectual property for both vaccines wasn’t developed by private sector scientists working in isolation of public support, funded by far-seeing private capitalists risking their own capital (as the fairy tale goes), but by government scientists working in government labs along with university colleagues supported by government grants.

Moreover, the vaccines were developed under a US government planning project called Operation Warp Speed. Yes that’s right: state planning. Here is Engels’ model of the official representative of capitalist society—the state—ultimately having to undertake the direction of production—in this case, of vaccines. The state did the planning and then provided the inputs: scientists and intellectual property; the logistical expertise of the military; and billions of dollars of direct funding.

The outcome of state planning and state investment was the development vaccines that were handed over to the shareholders of Moderna, Pfizer, and BioNTech, so that the shareholders could sell vaccine doses back to the state, and, as Engels put it, pocket the dividends, tear off the coupons, and gamble on the Stock Exchange.

But if the public—that is the proletariat in the main—did all of the heavy lifting, furnishing through its labor the tax dollars that funded the government labs that created the intellectual property; that allowed Moderna to expand its facilities and labor force; that purchased vaccine doses in advance of their production; that paid for the US military to plan and carry out the logistics, what did the shareholders of these companies contribute? Nothing. Their contribution was to cash in on the sale of vaccines developed by public funds, by public planning, and by publicly-supported expertise. Pharmaceutical shareholders, as Engels would have pointed out, are no longer necessary. Even worse, they’re parasites—they live on the labor of the proletariat in the form of the taxes paid by the proletariat to the official representatives of capitalist society—the state.  

So, to go back to what Marx and Engels thought scientific socialists ought to do: my book tries to follow the path they set.

It shows that a controllable outbreak that turned into a pandemic—a catastrophe on a world scale that has killed nearly 18 million people to date, and has become the third leading cause of death in the United States after heart disease and cancer [34]—is the direct consequence of capitalism.

It shows that capitalism prevented the political authority of most countries from using proven and effective public health tools to protect public health. This shows that capitalism no longer comports with the interests of the majority, is a barrier to human progress, and a threat to the safety of us all.

The book also shows, in Operation Warp Speed—an exercise in public planning using public resource for public need—that the foundations of socialism are present in current society; that the bourgeoisie is no longer necessary; and that the capitalist class exists nowadays for one purpose alone: to pick the pockets of the proletariat.

All that remains for a transition to socialism is for the proletariat to be made aware of its historical mission to seize political power in order transform the socialized means of production into state property, and to organize social production on the basis of a plan comporting with the needs of the community and each individual.

Only then will humanity be able to use the tools at its disposal to solve its most pressing problems; only then will humanity progress; only then will unreason become reason, injustice become justice, and wrong become right.

****

The Killer’s Henchman can be ordered directly from the publisher, Baraka Books, or from Amazon, The Book Depository, Indigo, and other online book sellers.

****

1. Friedrich Engels, Anti-Duhring, Wellred Publications, 2017, p. 180.

2. “The War Which is Coming”, from A German War Primer.

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

4. Anti-Duhring, p. 316.

5. Stephen Gowans, “The Catastrophes of the Pandemic are the Catastrophes of Capitalism,” gowans.blog, April 21, 2021

6. Anti-Duhring, p. 181.

7. https://covid19.healthdata.org/

8. “COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic, The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness & Response,” Word Health Organization, May, 2021, COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic (theindependentpanel.org).

9. Yasmeen Abutaleb and Josh Dawsey, “Trump’s soft touch with China’s Xi worries advisers who say more is needed to combat coronavirus outbreak,” The Washington Post, February 16, 2020.

10. https://covid19.healthdata.org/

11. “What can the world learn from China’s response to covid-19?”, The British Medical Journal, December 2, 2021.

12.  WHO Press Conference on Covid-19, August 4, 2021.

13. Miquel Oliu-Barton, “SARS-CoV-2 elimination, not mitigation, creates best outcomes for health, the economy, and civil liberties,” The Lancet, April 28, 2021.

14. KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: What Would Dr. Fauci Do?,” November 19, 2020.

15. WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on Covid-19, 14 December 2021.

16. WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the WTO – WHO High Level Dialogue: Expanding COVID-19 Vaccine Manufacture To Promote Equitable Access, 21 July 2021.

17. WHO COVID-19 Virtual Press conference 3 August 2020.

18. Sarah Bahr, “Fauci Says It Could Be a Year Before Theater Without Masks Feels Normal,” The New York Times, September 11, 2020.

19. Drew Hinshaw and Daniel Michaels, “Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 Vaccine Is Cleared for Use by EU Drug Agency,” The Wall Street Journal, December 21, 2020.

20. Sarah Bahr, “Fauci Says It Could Be a Year Before Theater Without Masks Feels Normal,” The New York Times, September 11, 2020.

21. Benjamin Mueller, “How a Dangerous New Coronavirus Variant Thwarted Some Countries’ Vaccine Hopes,” The New York Times, February 8, 2021.

22. Eric Reguly, “Why herd immunity to COVID-19 is proving elusive – even in highly vaccinated countries,” The Globe and Mail, May 27, 2021.

23. Yasmeen Abutaleb and Josh Dawsey, “New Trump pandemic adviser pushes controversial ‘herd immunity’ strategy, worrying public health officials,” The Washington Post, August 31, 2020.

24. Sabrina Siddiqui, “Biden Meets With Top Executives on Covid-19 Vaccine Mandate,” The Wall Street Journal, September 15, 2021.

25. “Scientific consensus on the COVID-19 pandemic: we need to act now,” The Lancet, October 15, 2020.

26. Jennifer Abbasi, “Anthony Fauci, MD, on COVID-19 Vaccines, Schools, and Larry Kramer,” The Journal of the American Medical Association, June 8, 2020.

27. David E. Sanger, David D. Kirkpatrick, Carl Zimmer, Katie Thomas and Sui-Lee Wee, “Profits and Pride at Stake, the Race for a Vaccine Intensifies,” The New York Times, May 2, 2020.

28. Stuart A. Thompson, “How Long Will a Vaccine Really Take?,” The New York Times, April 30, 2020.

29. David E. Sanger, David D. Kirkpatrick, Carl Zimmer, Katie Thomas and Sui-Lee Wee, “Profits and Pride at Stake, the Race for a Vaccine Intensifies,” The New York Times, May 2, 2020.

30. Jared S. Hopkins and Jonathan D. Rockoff, “Race for Coronavirus Vaccine Accelerates as Pfizer Says U.S. Testing to Begin Next Week,” The Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2020.

31. Nina Burleigh, Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC, and the Hijacking of America’s Response to the Pandemic, Seven Stories Press. 2021. p. 26.

32. Anti-Duhring, p. 330.

33. Anti-Duhring, p. 330.

34. Jon Kamp, “Covid-19 Is Still Killing Hundreds of Americans Daily”, The Wall Street Journal, September 11, 2022.

Promoting Development and Fostering the Unity of Humanity, or Dividing Labor to Conquer It?

July 19, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

Microsoft president Brad Smith warns that US companies are facing a new era of growing wage pressure, owing to declining population growth and fewer people entering the workforce.

To most people, upward pressure on wages is not a problem. But to Smith it’s a concern. More for labor means less for capital. And for the Microsoft president and other top corporate executives whose job it is to maximize returns to investors and shareholders, i.e., capitalists, growing labor bargaining power—the outcome of weak population growth—is definitely a problem.

Smith’s concern may have been aroused by the work of economists Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan, who touched off the alarm in their 2020 book The Great Demographic Reversal: Ageing Societies, Waning Inequality, and an Inflation Revival.

Goodhart and Pradhan argue that the integration into the global capitalist economy of low wage labor from the highly populous China, vastly expanded the available global labor force, undercutting labor bargaining power in the developed world, and with it the wages, benefits, working conditions, and the economic security of Western labor.

The effective labor supply for capitalist exploitation more than doubled from 1991 to 2018, the years during which China opened its doors and invited foreign investors to exploit the country’s vast, disciplined, and cheap work force. Along with the reincorporation of Eastern Europe into the capitalist economy, the baby boomer demographic wave, and rising participation of women in the labor force, these developments provided what the two economists call an enormous “positive” supply shock to the available labor force in the world’s capitalist trading system.

The supply shock definitely turned out to be favorable to the interests of the world’s captains of industry and sultans of finance, since the result was a weakening in the bargaining power of the Western labor force and a steady decline in private sector union membership with consequent benefits for capital in growing profits and CEO compensation.

“The gainers from all this have been those with capital,” note Goodhart and Pradhan, along with workers in China and Eastern Europe. Workers in North America, Western Europe, and Japan have suffered.

But the tide has turned. With the capitalist integration of China and Eastern Europe now complete, and population growth waning, Goodhart and Pradhan warn business leaders and their representatives in government that labor bargaining power is about to grow stronger.

They recommend the following measures to scotch the profit-limiting trend:  

  • Accelerate automation;
  • Increase the age of retirement;
  • Outsource jobs to Africa and India (the last great pools of cheap labor);
  • Maintain aggressive immigration targets.

Neither Microsoft president Brad Smith, nor economists Goodhart and Pradhan, can abide the idea of labor increasing its bargaining power. Capital will do everything in its means to reverse the trend. More for labor means less for capital, and in a capitalist economy—that is, a society that takes its name from the class its serves, capitalists—less for capital is intolerable.

This ought to raise a question for those of us who rely for our living on employment income: Why tolerate a system that—in deploring better wages and working conditions—is so clearly against our interests?

Goodhart and Pradhan argue that the far right comes closest to acknowledging the reality that capital has used the outsourcing of jobs to China and Vietnam, and aggressive immigration targets, as weapons to undermine the bargaining power of Western labor.

As a consequence, the far right has been able to successfully vie with the left for the working class vote, since the left tends to shun analyses which might be construed as criticism of immigration and therefore misconstrued as racism, while eschewing criticism of China’s and Vietnam’s integration into the global capitalist economy out of a sense of solidarity with the developing world.

As they put it:

“One might have expected the voting support of those who have lost out relatively during the last three decades to go to left-wing parties in their own countries. After all, these parties were usually founded to foster the interests, and to look after the welfare, within the political scene of the working classes. Yet this has not generally happened in Europe and North America…Instead, the support of those left behind has gone in Europe mainly to radical populist right-wing parties.  Why has this been so? One answer is attitudes toward immigration. Left wing political parties are idealists that support the unity of humanity…Moreover, the left-wing parties usually have a large base of immigrants. Thus, it is unlikely that left-wing parties will support tight controls on immigration.”

By contrast, the “right-wing populist position on immigration is far more consonant with the views of those who have been deleteriously affected by globalization than the inclusive position of left-wing parties.”

These analyses, as incendiary as they may appear, only show that:

  • Capitalism must be understood as a worldwide system and not analyzed in isolation, within national boundaries;
  • Capital pits labor in one part of the world against labor in another;
  • Solidarity across national borders, rather than solipsistic struggles within, is the effective counter-response to capital’s strategy of divide and conquer.

Unfortunately, what is construed nowadays as proletarian internationalism amounts to support for capitalist exploitation of low-wage labor in countries that call themselves Communist, rather than the joint struggle of labor across national boundaries against the proletariat’s common enemy, the bourgeoisie. Solidarity with China and Vietnam is not internationalism, and nor is support for aggressive immigration targets, where the purpose of the targets is to increase the supply of labor in order to hold down or decrease its price. Indeed, much of what passes for the far left these days is, with the exception of a few communist parties, a left interested in the boutique issues of multipolarity and Russia’s and China’s inter-imperialist struggles with the United States, rather than the state of the working class globally.

The left does indeed support the unity of humanity and equality of all people. But supporting policies intended to intensify competition for jobs is not support for the unity of humanity—it’s support for the disunity of the proletariat and the growing strength of the bourgeoisie. The better alternative is support for industrialization, cooperative development, and full employment everywhere—a world economy for, of, and by the proletariat, free from exploitation, rather than a global capitalist economy which compels workers in country A to compete with (and often fight against) workers in country B.

So long as labor remains reconciled to the capitalist system, one which fundamentally depends on labor’s exploitation, it will forever be the victim of a strategy of divide and conquer.

Socialist China or Capitalist China? It’s All the Same to the Country’s Communist Rulers

May 13, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

Empiric, a word infrequently used these days, refers to a quack. This seems odd, considering that empiric and empirical (based on observation) are related. In antiquity, empirics were physicians who relied on their experience and observation rather than on the texts of Aristotle and other philosophers to treat patients. Medicine based on the thinking of philosophers was the realm of the scholastics, or schoolmen, the established medical authorities of their day. Challenging the pure reason of Aristotle with facts was considered an act of quackery.

Soon after writing a blog post titled Why China Is Not Socialist, whose title expresses a conclusion based on the same empirical method the established authority of the ancient world so reviled, I received a rebuke, in the form of an e-mail, from a scholastic, citing chapter and verse from Chinese Communist Party texts. Had I not read any of these texts, the outraged schoolman demanded?

According to my correspondent, my quackery was based, not in any of the following observations, which I was assured the omniscient Chinese CP, endowed with an Aristotelian authority, had already taken into account and factored into its plans.

  • China’s development is proceeding along capitalist lines.
  • Capitalism is in command.
  • China is integrated into the world capitalist economy of exploitation, as one of its most important players, if not the most important.
  • The vast fortunes of such Western billionaires as Elon Musk, and the wealth of such Western CEOs as Tim Cook, is minted out of the exploited labor of Chinese workers.
  • As a major power integrated into the world capitalist system, China vies with other capitalist powers for access to markets, raw materials, investment opportunities, and strategic territory, i.e., is part of an imperialist system.
  • China is not socialist.

But if my observations were already well known to China’s CP, and factored into its plans, why was I being excoriated by an agitated scholastic? After all, I was being censured for the alleged sin of “assuming that 100 million small oriental minds could not figure this out themselves,” another way of saying I was only stating the obvious.

The answer appears to be that while these observations are apodictic, making them is considered bad form. China may be a capitalist power fully integrated into an imperialist system as a major participant, but you’re not supposed to say so.

Having objurgated me for my lapse in etiquette, my schoolman sought to instruct me on proper form. The rules for polite discourse, it turns out, are contained in Chinese CP texts (the one’s my aggrieved correspondent demanded to know whether I had ever read.) Therein one learns that the word socialism can be made infinitely plastic. Indeed, where it was once the antithesis of capitalism, correct form demands it now be used as a synonym of capitalism. In short, Chinese scholastic etiquette redefines capitalism as various stages of socialism, from primary, to intermediate, based on the degree of capitalist prosperity. This allows the schoolmen in Beijing to approach the problem of a capitalist and imperialist China run by Communists as a branding problem. Simply call Chinese capitalism and the country’s integration into an imperialist system of rivalry among capitalist states, “socialism”, and poof, the branding problem disappears.  

No longer is it necessary to cast about vainly for an answer whenever someone asks, “How can a capitalist behemoth be run by Communists?” All you have to say is “What do you mean? China is socialist. Haven’t you read the CP documents? C’mon, get an education!”

If one were to observe the punctilios of Chinese proper form, China would be referred to as “primary stage socialist China.” If anyone as unversed in proper form as I am, were so bold as to ask, “What does primary stage socialism mean?”, the honest answer would be “capitalism at a low level of development.” In other words, if you read Chinese CP texts closely, China ought to be referred to as “capitalist China at a low level of development.” You can call “capitalist China at a low level of development” “socialist China” if you like, but then again, you can also call moon rocks Swiss cheese.

In short, “socialist China” is a euphemism for “capitalist China,” in the way “lavatory” is a euphemism for “crapper”. Euphemisms are useful for concealing delicate truths you don’t want mentioned publicly (such as that this vampire, who Beijing has indulged with innumerable subsidies and advantages, is accumulating profit on a Pantagruelian scale on the backs of cheap labor supplied by Chinese workers, or that Chinese President Xi Jinping is in the habit of justifying the exploitation of proletarians in the same manner every Republican does, namely, by invoking the aphorism ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’)

I replied to my aggrieved correspondent with this:

You remind me of Christians who scream at me that I should read the bible. I have read the bible, which is why I’m not a Christian.

I have also read Chinese CP plans. Having done so, I know that even Chinese Communists do not consider China socialist. Not yet. At least not in any ordinary meaning of the word.

You mention plans. In 2100, when China expects to have achieved a fully publicly-owned, fully-planned economy, our grandchildren can have a conversation about whether the plan has been achieved. If it has, I’m sure they will be quite happy to call China socialist. Until then, the term “socialist China” is purely aspirational and until the time China achieves its goal, if indeed that time ever arrives, I’ll call China what it is, and what the Chinese acknowledge in their plans their society is, and will continue to be for quite some time: capitalist. 

Long before 2100, and long before the day arrives when we can assess whether China actually arrives at the destination its Communists have mapped out for it, we can have a conversation about whether there are roads to socialism other than those that follow the path of capitalist industrialization; that is, other than the one the Chinese CP has chosen to follow.

Is there a path of socialist industrialization, following along the lines explored by the Soviets, one, which, unlike the Chinese path, isn’t based on integration into the world capitalist economy of exploitation; one that doesn’t compel a people to participate in the project of minting the wealth of billionaires like Elon Musk out of their exploited labor; one that doesn’t enmesh a country in a system of imperialist competition for raw materials, investment opportunities, export markets, and strategic territory?

One senses that you are embarrassed about the capitalist path the Chinese CP has chosen to take, with all its ugliness in exploitation and imperialist rivalry, and that you seek to assuage your embarrassment and burnish China’s reputation by transposing an aspirational distant socialist future onto the present. It’s an exercise in deception. There is no socialist China. All that exists at this point is a China that hasn’t eliminated the exploitation of man by man but embraces it; a China that doesn’t plan to eliminate exploitation fully for decades to come, and may never eliminate it; all that exists today and will continue to exist until the next century is a capitalist China which exhibits all the ugliness that capitalism contains within it.

Have I read the Chinese CP texts? Yes. My question to you is, have you understood them?

Why China Is Not Socialist

Colonial politics and imperialism are not healthy, curable deviations of capitalism…they are the inevitable consequence of the very foundations of capitalism. Competition among individual entrepreneurs either to become ruined, or to ruin others; competition between individual countries places before each of them the alternative of their remaining behind, running the risk of [falling behind], or ruining and conquering other countries, thus elbowing their way to a place among the great powers. – V.I. Lenin, “Imperialism and Socialism in Italy”

May 12, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

From The Wall Street Journal we learn that China’s President Xi Jinping has hammered home the need for tighter party control over the economy with a wider role for state enterprises. Under Xi, China’s Communist Party has tried to transition from ‘economics in command’ to ‘politics in command.’

But now “China’s economy is struggling, and its financial markets are suffering. Some economists expect growth to contract this quarter. Millions of graduates are struggling to find jobs.”

Premier Li Keqiang is “helping press Xi to dial back some measures that have contributed to China’s economic slowdown.”

“As a young man, Li pursued a doctorate in economics under a prominent Chinese economist known for advocating Deng Xiaoping’s market-reform agenda and privatizing state firms.”

“Under Mr. Li’s influence, Beijing recently eased a regulatory crackdown on private technology firms, loosened lending to property developers and home buyers, and acted to help some manufacturers”, including Tesla, controlled by Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, “resume production when much of China has been forced into lockdowns by Mr. Xi’s zero-Covid approach.”

As the Marxist sociologist Albert Szymanski once pointed out, communists, like Xi, who choose to operate within the capitalist system soon discover that state policy is structured by capitalism, not by their policy preferences. Decision-makers who defy capitalism’s imperatives find their actions precipitate crises. Humbled, they quickly back peddle.

In a Chinese idiom, economics, i.e., capitalism, is in charge.

I explore this issue in my new book The Killer’s Henchman: Capitalism and the Covid-19 Disaster.

“The political orientations of the people who hold high-level positions in the capitalist state are largely irrelevant. The logic of capitalism structures the policy boundaries within which policy- and decision-makers operate, forcing conservatives, liberals, social democrats, and even communists who elect to work within the capitalist system, to operate within the same narrow pro-capitalist policy space. The prosperity and stability of a capitalist society depends on the private owners of capital accumulating sufficient profits. If they cannot generate enough profit, they cease to invest, and economic activity grinds to a halt. To maintain stability, governments must pursue policies to support the profit-making activities of their business communities. If they choose not to, their only option is to mobilize popular support to bring the economy under public ownership and control, so that investment decisions can be transferred from private hands to the public sphere, from profit-making as its goal to satisfying public needs as its end. There is no middle ground, where working-class interests can be robustly and continually expanded within a capitalist framework at the expense of the capitalist class.”

Capitalism structures state policy, not only in the realm of domestic matters, but in foreign relations, as well. Communists who elect to operate within the capitalist system are constrained to compete with other capitalist states for markets, raw materials, spheres of investment, and strategic territory, vital to their investors and profit-accumulating enterprises. If they are to play the capitalist game, states can no more absent themselves from rivalry with other states— with potential to escalate to war—than a private firm can absent itself from rivalry with its competition.

As two Bolsheviks wrote in their ABC of Communism, each “producer wants to entice away the others’ customers, to corner the market. This struggle assumes various forms: it begins with the competition between two factory owners; it ends in the world, wherein capitalist States wrestle with one another for the world market.” And in the struggle of capitalist states for the world market—in arms, oil and natural gas, rare earths, vaccines, robotics, supercomputers, AI, autonomous vehicles, 5G, and other commodities—lies the potential for war.

There is no doubt that Beijing has chosen to play the capitalist game. It is the centerpiece of its  development project. There is, therefore, no option for China to excuse itself from imperialism. If it is to develop along capitalist lines, it must behave as a capitalist state, including by vying with other states for capitalist advantage around the world and indulging billionaires like Elon Musk and Apple’s Tim Cook, capitalists who have grown immensely wealthy by exploiting cheap Chinese labor.

That China’s capitalist development project is under the command of communists, neither negates the reality that the project is one of integration into a world capitalist system based on exploitation, or that, as Xi is finding out, politics in command can be checked by capitalism in command.

As political science professor Minxin Pei told The Wall Street Journal, Xi may be a “leftist deep down, but he has to make tactical compromises over the economy.” That is, the world capitalist economy.

In sum, despite the Communist Party being nominally in charge, and the president being a leftist “deep-down,” China is integrated into the world capitalist economy as a major, if not the major player, by the choice of China’s Communist Party rulers. State policies are not structured by communists seeking to end the exploitation of one human by another, but by the imperatives of the capitalist system Chinese communists have consciously embraced.

The idea that China is socialist is as far-fetched as the idea the moon is made of cheese.

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. 

Pandemics Are Not Inevitable, and China’s Covid-19 Experience Proves It

By Stephen Gowans

May 9, 2022

[This is an excerpt from my new book, The Killer’s Henchman: Capitalism and the Covid-19 Disaster, officially released June 1.]

“To me, this feels honestly more about economics than about the science.” – Yonatan Grad, associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases, Harvard University[i]

“COVID-19 remains a global disaster. Worse it was a preventable disaster.” — WHO Independent Expert Panel[ii]

Pandemics are not inevitable.

To be sure, the emergence of new infectious diseases is a near certainty. Pathogenesis—the birth of a new disease—is a necessary condition of pandemics, but it is not a sufficient condition. That pandemics are optional and not inevitable is provable by reference to one word: China. By following a zero-Covid strategy of eliminating local transmission of the novel coronavirus, the Communist-led country avoided overwhelmed hospitals, limited fatalities to extraordinarily low levels, and escaped significant economic hardship. While the pandemic danced a macabre waltz around it, China, along with a handful of other countries that followed a similar strategy, failed to show up at the ball.

Public discourse outside China and other zero-Covid countries accepted the pandemic as an inevitability. The narrative was highly influenced by people such as billionaire Bill Gates, who advanced the view that pandemics are unavoidable, and that vaccines and drug therapies should be developed in anticipation of their ineluctable arrival. CEPI, the Center for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation—a non-profit organization that played a leading role in the fight against Covid-19 among countries in the US orbit—was born as a vehicle for promoting Gates’ views and approach to emerging infectious diseases. Needless to say, the reality that the emergence of a novel pathogen is not a sufficient condition for a pandemic, and the fact that China demonstrated that a pandemic could be avoided by using mass testing, contact tracing, and isolation to break the chain of pathogenic transmission, refutes Gates’ view.

While Gates is a major funder of the World Health Organization, the organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, rejected the erroneous Gates’ idea that vaccines ought to be the principal tool used to fight pandemics. “Vaccines are not the only tool,” Tedros announced. “Indeed, there is no single tool that will defeat the pandemic. We can only defeat it with a comprehensive approach of vaccines in combination with proven public health and social measures that we know work” (emphasis added.)[iii]

On the same day Tedros told the world it would need to combine vaccines with non-pharmaceutical public health measures to beat Covid-19, Eric Lander, at the time US president Joe Biden’s science adviser, promulgated a different view. He wrote in the Washington Post that “Coronavirus vaccines can end the current pandemic.” Lander made his prediction at a time vaccines were available to any US adult who wanted one, but when US case counts—already high by world standards—were climbing. The vaccine strategy clearly wasn’t working, though Lander appeared not to notice. Ignoring the reality that the United States’ own experience impugned the ability of vaccines alone to end the pandemic, Lander—a multimillionaire who has substantial investments in the pharmaceutical industry—announced that “the scientific community has been developing a bold plan to keep future viruses from becoming pandemics.” Would it involve the proven public health and social measures Tedros said we know work and that China had demonstrated do work? No. Instead, it would be based on vaccines—the tool wealthy US Americans with stakes in drug companies, like Gates and Lander, continued to tout as the pathway of escape from pandemics, current and future. In the United States, and the countries that orbit the imperial center, all belief was for vaccines as the main route out of the pandemic, and all evidence was against.

The US government, according to Lander’s plan, would see to it that vaccines were designed, tested, and approved within 100 days of detecting a new pandemic threat and would arrange to manufacture enough doses to supply the world within 200 days.[iv] The folly of the approach was evident. First, there is no guarantee that effective vaccines can be developed for every pathogen, let alone in 100 days. There is no vaccine for AIDS, for example, despite the decades of effort scientists have invested in trying to develop one. Second, it’s impossible to test a vaccine for safety in 100 days. Since the very short testing window allows scientists to follow test subjects only over a very brief period, it would be impossible to say whether the vaccine was free from any but immediate adverse side-effects. This would pose an enormous health risk to the billions of people who would be inoculated, perhaps greater than the risk of the novel pathogen itself. Third, even if the extraordinarily ambitious goal of manufacturing enough doses to supply the world within 200 days was met, the logistical difficulties of administering the vaccine to billions of people worldwide would take more than 200 days to overcome; it would likely take years. In the meantime, the only way to prevent the pandemic pathogen from running out of control, killing millions, collapsing healthcare systems, and devastating economies, would be to implement the proven public health and social measures we know work. It would seem, then, that the best way of meeting the challenge of future pandemics is, in the first instance, to figure out why most countries failed to implement the proven public health and social measures that could have prevented the Covid-19 pandemic, so that the impediments that blocked an effective response can be overcome the next time the world confronts a novel pathogen. Why was a strategy that worked in China, South Korea, and New Zealand, as well as in Vietnam and North Korea, rejected everywhere else? And why was it eventually rejected in South Korea and New Zealand as well?

Despite China having every pandemic risk factor, it is one of the few countries that has escaped a Covid-19 catastrophe. It has the world’s largest population, close to one hundred cities with populations of one million or more, high-speed trains to whisk passengers from one part of the country to another, innumerable airline connections to the rest of the world, and yes, scientists who collect coronaviruses from the wild and study them in laboratories. All the same, China has not been struck by disaster. The numbers of infections and deaths per million have been held to astonishingly low levels, the healthcare system has not collapsed, and economic activity recovered quickly after an initial setback. What’s more, China may very well have been ground zero for the virus. It was the first country to identify the new infection—and while that doesn’t mean the virus originated there—there’s a good chance it did. And yet the Communist-led country has emerged mostly unscathed. If ever there were an answer to the question of whether pathogenic catastrophes are optional, China is it. 

+++

In May 2021, more than a year into the pandemic, the World Health Organization released a report by an independent panel on the performance of the world’s governments in responding to the Covid-19 health emergency.[v] The panel arrived at a stunning conclusion. The pandemic could have been avoided. It wasn’t inevitable, even as late as January 30, 2020, the day the WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern, and two to three months after the virus likely first began to circulate. Even at this late date it was “still possible to interrupt virus spread, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts and promote social distancing measures commensurate with the risk.” But that didn’t happen. By March 11, 2020, the virus had spread far enough that the global health organization declared a pandemic. How had an avoidable pandemic become a catastrophe on a world scale?

The answer was simple. Inaction. “On 30 January 2020, it should have been clear to all countries from the declaration of the” public health emergency of international concern “that COVID-19 represented a serious threat,” the panel averred. “Even so,” it continued, “only a minority of countries set in motion comprehensive and coordinated Covid-19 protection and response measures.” The result was that February 2020, a month “when steps could and should have been taken to” prevent a controllable outbreak from irrupting into a pandemic, was lost to history. Governments tarried, and their foot-dragging plunged the world into the dark abyss of a pulmonary pandemic.

Not all governments were content to sit tight until it was absolutely certain they were staring disaster in the face. “China, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore and Thailand and Viet Nam,” the panel noted, all acted quickly and decisively to contain the emergency, and all with exemplary success. These countries, the panel reported, pursued an aggressive containment strategy that involved mass testing, robust contact tracing, and quarantine, with “social and economic support to promote widespread uptake of public health measures.”

While the panel failed to mention North Korea, the East Asian country also acted swiftly, sealing its borders on January 21, even before the WHO declared a global health emergency. The country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, called pandemic control North Korea’s “top priority” and “most important work.”[vi] The Washington Post noted that Pyongyang had taken the pandemic “hyper-seriously,”[vii] while the New York Times observed that “North Korea has taken some of the most drastic actions of any country against the virus.”[viii] These reports accorded with the country’s claim to have experienced not a single Covid-19 case. Howard Waitzkin, a physician with a Ph.D. in sociology, critically examined North Korea’s Covid-19 claims, concluding that Pyongyang’s report of zero cases and zero deaths “is plausible” and the DPRK may, in fact, lead the world in the fight against COVID-19.[ix]

Most other countries, by contrast, waited far too long to act. And when they did act, they failed to do enough, never fully implementing the measures needed to bring their outbreaks under control. What’s more, they almost invariably dialed back measures too soon, with catastrophic consequences for the health of their citizens. 

“Countries with the poorest results,” the panel found, “had uncoordinated approaches that devalued science, denied the potential impact of the pandemic, delayed comprehensive action, and allowed distrust to undermine efforts. Many had health systems beset by long-standing problems of fragmentation, undervaluing of health workers and underfunding.”

So, why did most countries do too little, too late? The panel pointed to cost. Most governments judged concerted public health action—the aggressive test, trace, and isolate measures implemented by China and a handful of other countries—as too expensive. Three costs were central to their concerns:

  • The direct expense of testing, contact tracing, the construction of isolation facilities, coordinating quarantine, and providing financial support to the quarantined.
  • The indirect cost of business disruptions.
  • The impact on the stock market.

Concerning the first cost, according to best selling author Michael Lewis’s study of the US response to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, the “people inside the American government who would be charged with executing various aspects of any pandemic strategy … believed none of these so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions”—the kind China pursued to great effect—”would contribute anything but economic loss.”[x]

Concerning the cost of business disruption, the Great Influenza offered an anticipatory model. Studies of how the United States responded to the 1918-1920 flu pandemic found that government decision-makers were under incessant pressure from businesses to lift public health measures. Now as then, capitalist governments were highly influenced by business communities and finely attuned to their needs. Minimizing the cost to business was the top priority of governments working out how to deal with a global health crisis.

Finally, US president Donald Trump deliberately downplayed the public health emergency, repeatedly declaring that it would magically resolve itself, because he feared that acknowledging the danger would result in untold stock market losses.[xi]  “Trump grew concerned that any [strong] action by his administration would hurt the economy, and … told advisers that he [did] not want the administration to do or say anything that would … spook the markets,” reported the Washington Post.[xii] What the WHO panel perceived as “a wait and see” attitude on the part of many governments was actually a “take no strong action to avoid spooking the markets” attitude. The contrast between China’s aggressive response and the United States’ “see, hear, and speak no evil” approach, is revealingly summarized in the comments of the countries’ respective leaders: China’s Xi Jinping: “Infectious disease control is not merely a matter of public health and hygiene; it’s an all-encompassing issue and a total war.” The United States’ Donald Trump: “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”[xiii]

+++

China’s success in protecting the health of its citizens from the ravages of Covid-19 is perhaps the greatest public health accomplishment in human history. By contrast, the United States’ dismal Covid-19 performance is perhaps one of the greatest public health failures of all time.

Despite the fact that the first Covid-19 cases were identified in China, and the country’s population is over four times the size of that of the United States, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the United States surpassed China as early as March 26, 2020, only two weeks after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. By March 29, US deaths due to Covid-19 had already inched past China’s, and would continue to climb, with the gap between the two countries unremittingly increasing. The disparity between the US and Chinese figures—little mentioned in Western public discourse—is astonishing. By December 31, 2021, some 23 months after Chinese authorities reported a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases in Wuhan, there were nearly 55 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the United States, compared to slightly over 100,000 in the far more populous China. The number of people that had tested positive for Covid-19 was over 164,000 per million in the United States compared to only 71 per million in China. Incredibly, deaths per million in the United States were over 770 times greater than in China. Over 800,000 US Americans had died from Covid-19, making the outbreak the greatest death event, measured in absolute numbers of deaths, in US history, exceeding fatalities from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Great Influenza of 1918-1920, and even the Civil War. Meanwhile, in China, fewer than 5,000 had died, less than six-tenths of one percent of the US figure. At 3.2 people per million, Covid-19 deaths in China were less than two-tenths of one percent of the United States’ 2,480 deaths per million. When it came to pandemic control, China and the United States inhabited different planets.

Was China the anomaly or was the United States? In fact, both were, though compared to the world at large, China performed anomalously better and the United States anomalously worse. On December 31, 2021, confirmed cases per million were over 500 times better in China than the world average and over four times worse than the world average in the United States. Confirmed deaths per million were over 200 times better in China but over three and a half times worse in the United States. The United States, with only four percent of the world’s population, accounted for 19 percent of cases and 15 percent of deaths, while China, comprising 18 percent of the world’s population, accounted for less than one-tenth of one percent of the world’s cases and a similarly infinitesimal fraction of the world’s deaths.[xiv]

The United States’ utter failure by comparison with China, and failure even by comparison with the world at large, was a taboo subject, judging by the virtual absence of discussion of the numbers, despite the fact that the figures were readily available for inspection by anyone with access to the Internet. Our World in Data, a collaborative effort between researchers at the University of Oxford and the non-profit organization Global Change Data Lab, assembled a vast storehouse of Covid-19 information by country, from morbidity and mortality figures, to vaccine uptake statistics, and more. The yawning chasm between Washington and Beijing in pandemic performance was immediately evident to anyone who cared to inspect the data. No country or jurisdiction, with the exception of a handful of sparsely populated nations, had accumulated fewer cases or deaths per million than China. By comparison, the United States’ record was among the worst in the world. All the same, journalists and academics in the US orbit mainly avoided Sino-US comparisons, and, on the rare occasions they did make comparisons, grossly understated the disparity. By avoiding quantitative comparisons, or obscuring them when they were made, the Western media prevented important questions from being asked. Why had China performed so much better, not only in comparison to the United States, but relative to virtually every other country in the world? Why hadn’t China’s approach, a manifest success, been emulated except by a few other countries? How many lives might have been saved had governments learned from the experience of the East Asian colossus?

Washington failed in multiple ways.

  • To avoid spooking the markets and to preserve investor wealth, it refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the threat.
  • It refused to emulate the successful approach of China to stop the outbreak, rejecting non-pharmaceutical pandemic control measures as too costly.
  • It eschewed successful non-pharmaceutical pandemic control measures, even after it became unavoidably clear that China’s approach was the most effective way to safeguard the health of US citizens.

These failures precipitated a pandemic and produced avoidable death on a scale never before seen in US history. How many lives were needlessly sacrificed to the stock market and Washington’s desire to spare the business community the expense and inconveniences of public health measures?

It’s possible to answer this question. Had Washington emulated China’s approach, an estimated 1,067 US Americans would have died from Covid-19 by December 31, 2021 (equivalent to the number of Covid-19 deaths per million China experienced, adjusted to the size of the US population.) That is 823,173 fewer deaths than the actual US Covid-19 death toll to that date. In other words, to protect the stock market and avoid the costs of implementing stringent non-pharmaceutical public health measures, the lives of more than 800,000 US Americans were sacrificed. Had Canada emulated the Chinese approach, an estimated 122 Canadians would have died from Covid-19, compared to over 30,000 that actually did die. In the United Kingdom, 216 would have died compared to more than 146,000 whose lives were cut short by London’s failed pandemic response.

What if the world as a whole had followed China’s lead? Had that happened, an estimated 25,239 people would have died from Covid-19 by December 31, 2021, compared to over 5,428,000 that actually did perish, a difference of over 5,402,000 people. The failure of the world’s governments to act in a manner that China, early on, had demonstrated was an effective means of controlling the outbreak, created in excess of 5.4 million preventable deaths, some two years after the world became aware of the novel coronavirus.


[i] Benjamin Mueller, “Will shortened isolation periods spread the virus?”, The New York Times, December 28, 2021.

[ii] Grant Robertson, “The world’s ‘lost month’ in fight against COVID-19,” The Globe and Mail, May 12, 2021.

[iii] WHO Press Conference on Covid-19, August 4, 2021.

[iv] Eric Lander, “As bad as covid-19 has been, a future pandemic could be even worse — unless we act now,” The Washington Post, August 4, 2021.

[v] “COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic, The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness & Response,” Word Health Organization,  May, 2021, COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic (theindependentpanel.org).

[vi] “5 key terms for parsing Kim Jong un’s vision for N. Korea, in 2022,” The Hankyoreh, January 3, 2021.

[vii] Michelle Ye Hee Lee, “What’s happening inside North Korea? Since the pandemic, the window has slammed shut,” The Washington Post, September 9, 2021.

[viii] Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea Declares Emergency After Suspected Covid-19 Case,” The New York Times, July 25, 2020.

[ix] Howard Waitzkin, “COVID-19 in the Two Koreas,” Monthly Review, September, 2021.

[x] Michael Lewis, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, W.W. Norton & Company, 2021, p. 99.

[xi] Amber Phillips, “Was the stock market the object of Trump’s ‘don’t create a panic’ coronavirus approach?” The Washington Post, September 10, 2020.

[xii] Yasmeen Abutaleb and Josh Dawsey, “Trump’s soft touch with China’s Xi worries advisers who say more is needed to combat coronavirus outbreak,” The Washington Post, February 16, 2020.

[xiii] “What did leaders of US, Japan and China say about COVID-19?” The Hankyoreh, March 14, 2021.

[xiv] The source for all confirmed case and death figures is Our World in Data.

The pandemic is done. Except for the burials.

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

January 25, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

In the early days of the pandemic, UCLA economist Andrew Atkeson sat down to forecast what would happen if no measures were taken to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Plotting the course of the virus’s spread by day, Atkeson reckoned that in fairly quick order, the number of people infected would climb to 10 percent of the population. One in 10 workers would be off the job. Another set of workers would take time off to care for sick children and relatives. At the same time, a growing number of people would require medical attention, straining hospital capacity. The result would be an unbearable strain on the economy.

Two years later, newspapers are filled with stories of Covid-19-induced employee absenteeism disrupting supply chains, schools plunged into chaos because teachers, staff, and students are out sick, and hospitals groaning under the weight of record-high infections, as burned out doctors and nurses leave their posts.

According to The Wall Street Journal:

  • Soaring virus cases have brought the U.S. economy to a near standstill.
  • The U.S. food system is under renewed strain as Covid-19’s Omicron variant stretches workforces from processing plants to grocery stores, leaving gaps on supermarket shelves.
  • Omicron has left many schools short of the essentials needed to operate, like teachers, substitutes, bus drivers, cafeteria workers—and sometimes students themselves.
  • Omicron this month pushed Covid-19 hospital admissions among children to record levels.
  • More than 1,000 hospitals have been reporting daily critical staffing shortages.
  • The healthcare sector has lost nearly 500,000 workers since February 2020. [In response, the United States, along with Canada and the UK, are now looting the under-resourced health care systems of low-income countries of their doctors and nurses in order to replenish their own Covid-19-depleted health care systems at home.]

In the Canadian province in which I live, Ontario, the trend in the number of Covid-19 patients in the hospital, in an ICU, or on a ventilator, has been increasing almost vertically since Christmas, along with the number of deaths per day. Hospitalizations are at record levels.

It’s as if we’re back to where we were in the early days of the pandemic, under Atkeson’s uncontrolled transmission scenario, despite the fact that vaccines—heralded by Anthony Fauci as a cavalry that would recue humanity from a terrible affliction—arrived more than one year ago. 

The rolling seven-day average of daily deaths as of January 23, was higher in the United States than it was in 77% of days since February 29, 2020, higher in Canada than in 89% of days since March 9, 2020, and higher in the UK that 83% of days since March 6, 2020.

No matter how you measure it, whether in number of deaths, infections, hospitalizations, or disruptions to the economy, the pandemic hasn’t been quashed, beaten, overcome, or even tamed into endemicity. Instead, in many respects, it’s worse than ever.

Nor does it seem that an exit is imminent. Despite hopeful prognostications that Omicron represents an “exit wave”, World Health Organization secretary-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sounds a warning: “It’s dangerous to assume that Omicron will be the last variant or that we are in the endgame. On the contrary, globally, the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge.”

How is this possible?

In the early days of the pandemic, Bill Gates—who saw himself as the encephalon of the global response to Covid-19—assured a fawning media that “a lot of the work here to stop this epidemic has to do with innovation in diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines”—areas in which he claimed expertise. Gates’ brainchild, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, which works to advance vaccines as the answer to epidemics, has been at the center of the response to Covid-19 in the West. Gates’ view that vaccines are—and continue to be—the solution to Covid-19, is shared by the White House, Big Pharma, and most journalists.

Joe Biden assured us that vaccines would give us “the upper hand against this virus” and announced in the summer of 2021 that owing to vaccines we “can live our lives, our kids can go back to school, our economy is roaring back.” Monica de Bolle, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, averred that “You can’t have functioning economies without vaccines.” The Wall Street Journal described vaccines “as the only way out of” the pandemic, while Canada’s Globe and Mail announced that “Vaccines are the best weapon in the war on COVID-19” and “the most important tool for fighting the virus.” Jeremy Farrar, director of the drug company-endowed Wellcome Trust, and a scientific adviser to the British government, agreed. Vaccines, he said, have “always been the exit strategy from this horrendous pandemic.” Two officials of the American Civil Liberties Union, David Cole and Daniel Mach, opined that there “is no equally effective alternative [to vaccines] available to protect public health.” The New York Times’ Donald G. McNeil Jr. rhapsodized about US “pharmaceutical prowess” and predicted it would allow the country to “bring the virus to heel.” Nepal’s health secretary, Laxman Aryal, intoned that the only way to control the rate of infection—yes, the only way—was through vaccination. Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron announced that vaccination was “the only path back to a normal life.” France’s “line is simple,” he said. “Vaccination, vaccination, vaccination.”

While Macron’s commitment to “vaccination, vaccination, vaccination” may be emblematic of the thinking in drug company executive suites and the halls of power, in the public health community the thinking has been a good deal more skeptical.

The WHO director-general counselled that “vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis” and “vaccines alone cannot solve the pandemic.” He added that “there is no silver bullet at the moment and there might never be. For now, stopping outbreaks comes down to the basics of public health and disease control; testing, isolating and treating patients and tracing and quarantining their contacts.”

Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, echoed Tedros. “We should not be thinking of the vaccine as a silver bullet,” she warned.

Emer Cooke, the Executive Director of the European Medicines Agency—the EU’s drug regulatory body—said the same. “Vaccines alone will not be the silver bullet that will allow us to return to normal life.”

Dr. Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, joined the chorus. Vaccines, he said, “are not magic solutions.”

Simon Clarke, a professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading observed that “There’s been an attitude in some quarters that a vaccine is our automatic savior.” While vaccines are “really important,” he said, “they’re not a silver bullet.”

Martin McKee, a professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, put it bluntly” “Anyone who says that vaccines alone can end the pandemic is wrong.” Experience has proved him right.

Pundits and world leaders who anointed vaccines as the only solution, the only way out of the pandemic, and the only effective alternative, were dishonest. Even before Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca sought emergency use authorization for their fast-tracked vaccines, China, along with a handful of other countries, had months earlier taken the exit out of the pandemic. And they had done so by simple, old-school public health measures—measures the World Health Organization kept pointing out were proven and demonstrated to work, but which, unfortunately, much of the world, ensorcelled by vaccines, chose to ignore, with tragic consequences for the lives of millions.

China’s success in using these measures to protect the health of its citizens is perhaps one of the greatest public health achievements in human history. By contrast, the United States’ dismal Covid-19 performance—predicated on the hope that a vaccine would be a silver bullet—is perhaps one of the greatest public health failures of all time.

Despite the fact that the first Covid-19 cases were identified in China, and the country’s population is over four times the size of that of the United States, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the United States surpassed China as early as March 26, 2020, only two weeks after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. By March 29, US deaths due to Covid-19 had already inched past China’s, and have continued to climb, with the gap between the two countries unremittingly increasing. The disparity between the US and Chinese figures—little mentioned in Western public discourse—is astonishing. By December 31, 2021, some 23 months after Chinese authorities reported a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases in Wuhan, there were nearly 55 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the United States, compared to slightly over 100,000 in the far more populous China. The number of people that had tested positive for Covid-19 was over 164,000 per million in the United States compared to only 71 per million in China. Incredibly, deaths per million in the United States were over 770 times greater than in China. Over 800,000 US Americans had died from Covid-19, making the outbreak the greatest death event, measured in absolute numbers of deaths, in US history, exceeding fatalities from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Great Influenza of 1918-1920, and even the Civil War. Meanwhile, in China, fewer than 5,000 had died, less than six-tenths of one percent of the US figure. At 3.2 people per million, Covid-19 deaths in China were less than two-tenths of one percent of the United States’ 2,480 deaths per million.

Is China the anomaly or is the United States? In fact, both are, though compared to the world at large, China performs anomalously better and the United States anomalously worse. On December 31, 2021, confirmed cases per million were over 500 times better in China than the world average and over four times worse than the world average in the United States. Confirmed deaths per million were over 200 times better in China but over three and a half times worse in the United States. The United States, with only four percent of the world’s population, accounted for 19 percent of cases and 15 percent of deaths, while China, comprising 18 percent of the world’s population, accounted for less than one-tenth of one percent of the world’s cases and a similarly infinitesimal fraction of the world’s deaths.

What has China done to outperform the United States and the rest of the world? Beijing takes Covid-elimination seriously—perhaps more seriously than any other country, with the possible exception of North Korea. “China,” according to New York Times’ reporters Rebecca Tan and Alicia Chen, “always set zero as their goal.”

There is no particular genius in China’s approach to stamping out Covid-19. Beijing’s strategy is based on an axiom. As author Michael Lewis explained in his book The Premonition, “One thing that is inarguably true is that if you got everyone and locked each of them in their own room and didn’t let them out to talk to anyone, you would not have any disease.” China’s approach is based on this core truth.

Beijing’s initial response to the outbreak was to lock down Wuhan, the city in which the disease was first identified. Only one member of each household was permitted to leave their place of residence every few days to gather provisions. This was a variation on Lewis’s “lock everyone into their room and don’t let them out until the disease is gone” approach. Within a matter of weeks, the city’s 11 million people were tested for SARS-CoV-2. Sixteen temporary hospitals were rapidly built to isolate people with mild to moderate symptoms. Because patients were quarantined in a hospital and not at home, family residences did not become petri dishes for the growth and transmission of the virus. If a patient’s condition worsened, they were transferred to a regular hospital. By March 10, the outbreak had been brought under control, and the temporary hospitals were no longer needed. After 76 days, infections had been driven to zero, and the city was reopened.

At the same time, Beijing rapidly set up a country-wide contact tracing system, eventually developing a highly stringent definition of contact. Anyone who has been in a building four days before or after a person who develops Covid-19 symptoms or tests positive for the disease is deemed a contact and quarantined. While this may appear to be draconian, and a measure guaranteed to gather large numbers of people in its net, it should be remembered that case numbers are exceedingly low. In fact, they’re so low that the odds of encountering an infected person are less than the odds of being struck by lightning. As a result, only a small fraction of the population ever gets caught up in the net.

Having eliminated the disease within its borders by severing the chains of transmission, China implemented additional measures to minimize the chances the virus would seep into the country from outside. Travelers require special government approval to enter the country, and those who receive visas are required to quarantine for weeks. Quarantine is required for all travellers, including those who are fully vaccinated. These controls are not infallible. Occasionally, the virus evades border restrictions and slips into the country. When it does, public health authorities act quickly and decisively. When nine airport cleaners at the Nanjing Lukou International Airport tested positive for Covid-19 during routine testing, the city immediately imposed lockdowns and tested its 9.3 million residents in just two weeks.

Zeng Guang, the former chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, describes China’s strategy as on one that doesn’t “simply treat infected patients but cut[s] off the disease infection routes by screening out and quarantining every close contact or potential virus carrier through prompt epidemiological investigations.” In others words, China simply follows the tenets of epidemiology 101. As the British Medical Journal explained:

“China mobilised quickly and within two months had contained the epidemic and eliminated local infections in the country. There were no magic bullets in the tools it used: the methods were old school public health strategies, which are often called non-pharmacological interventions. Other countries also successfully eliminated local infections, showing that elimination of an emerging disease with pandemic potential is possible by using non-pharmaceutical interventions alone. Public health methods such as mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing, and restriction of public events and travel played an important part. Identifying and quarantining people with covid-19 and their close contacts was also critical.”

China’s success, then, has been due, not to vaccines—the lodestone of the West’s pandemic response—but to old school pubic health strategies—strategies the World Health Organization describe as proven and known to work.

Had the world reached for known and proven old school public health methods in early 2020, as China did, it’s likely that the embryonic pandemic would have been aborted, sparing humanity two years (and counting) worth of clogged hospitals, cancelled surgeries, burned out nurses and doctors, supply chain disruptions, closed businesses and schools, millions afflicted by long-Covid and its enduring health impairments, and possibly as many as 20 million deaths to date, according to excess death estimates.

In May 2021, more than a year into the pandemic, the World Health Organization released a report by an independent panel on the performance of the world’s governments in responding to the Covid-19 health emergency. The panel arrived at a stunning conclusion. The pandemic could have been avoided. It wasn’t inevitable, even as late as January 30, 2020, the day the WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern, and two to three months after the virus likely first began to circulate. Even at this late date it was “still possible to interrupt virus spread, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts and promote social distancing measures commensurate with the risk”—in other words, to do what China did.

 But that didn’t happen. By March 11, 2020, the virus had spread far enough that the global health organization declared a pandemic. How had an avoidable pandemic become a catastrophe—and a continuing one—on a world scale?

The answer was simple. Inaction. “On 30 January 2020, it should have been clear to all countries from the declaration of the” public health emergency of international concern “that COVID-19 represented a serious threat,” the panel concluded. “Even so,” it continued, “only a minority of countries set in motion comprehensive and coordinated Covid-19 protection and response measures.” The result was that February 2020, a month “when steps could and should have been taken to” prevent a controllable outbreak from morphing into a pandemic, was lost to history. Governments tarried, and their foot-dragging plunged the world into the dark abyss of a viral nightmare.

Not all governments were content to sit tight until it was absolutely certain they were staring disaster in the face. “China, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore and Thailand and Viet Nam,” the panel noted, all acted quickly and decisively to contain the emergency, and all with exemplary success. These countries pursued an aggressive containment strategy that involved mass testing, robust contact tracing, and quarantine, with “social and economic support to promote widespread uptake of public health measures.”

Most other countries, by contrast, waited far too long to act. And when they did act, they failed to do enough, never fully implementing the measures needed to bring their outbreaks under control. What’s more, they almost invariably dialed back measures too soon, with catastrophic consequences for the health of their citizens. 

So, why did most countries do too little, too late? The panel pointed to cost. Most governments judged concerted public health action—the aggressive test, trace, and isolate measures implemented by China and a handful of other countries—as too expensive. Three costs were central to their concerns:

  • The direct expense of testing, contact tracing, the construction of isolation facilities, coordinating quarantine, and providing financial support to the quarantined.
  • The indirect cost of business disruptions.
  • The impact on the stock market.

Concerning the first cost, the “people inside the American government who would be charged with executing various aspects of any pandemic strategy … believed none of these so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions”—the kind China pursued to great effect—”would contribute anything but economic loss,” according to Michael Lewis.

Concerning the cost of business disruption, the Great Influenza offered an anticipatory model. Studies of how the United States responded to the 1918-1920 flu pandemic found that government decision-makers were under incessant pressure from businesses to lift public health measures. Now, as then, capitalist governments were highly influenced by business communities and finely attuned to their needs. Minimizing the cost to business was the top priority of governments working out how to deal with a global health crisis.

Finally, US president Donald Trump deliberately downplayed the public health emergency, repeatedly declaring that it would magically resolve itself, because he feared that acknowledging the danger would result in untold stock market losses. “Trump grew concerned that any [strong] action by his administration would hurt the economy, and … told advisers that he [did] not want the administration to do or say anything that would … spook the markets,” reported the Washington Post. What the WHO panel perceived as “a wait and see” attitude on the part of many governments was actually a “take no strong action to avoid spooking the markets” attitude. The contrast between China’s aggressive response and the United States’ “see, hear, and speak no evil” approach, is revealingly summarized in the comments of the countries’ respective leaders: China’s Xi Jinping: “Infectious disease control is not merely a matter of public health and hygiene; it’s an all-encompassing issue and a total war.” The United States’ Donald Trump: “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”

Why did the United States, and most countries in its orbit, embrace vaccines as a silver bullet, when the World Health Organization urged countries to adopt the proven public health and social measures that were known to work and that China had confirmed did, indeed, work—and what’s more, worked remarkably well?

One driver of Washington’s predilection for vaccines was the ability of billionaires, such as Bill Gates, to set the public health agenda to favor pharmaceutical solutions. Owing to their great wealth, billionaires, foundations supported by the wealthy and large corporations, and the pharmaceutical industry, were able to strongly influence public discourse on healthcare issues and to set the public policy agenda on matters related to health, including pandemic preparedness. They had long ago used their influence to push vaccines—a potential cornucopia of profits—to the top of the agenda on how to meet the challenge of future pandemics. As a result, when the pandemic hit, governments followed the path capitalist influencers had already set, eschewing the proven public health measures which, though unquestionably effective, offered no opportunities for amassing profits.

Additionally, Washington had long been planning for how to meet the threat of a biological attack, or warfare carried out with germs. Always, the response had been seen to depend mainly on developing and stockpiling two things: vaccines and personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Vaccines and PPE, however, are not the only ways to address germ threats, but the idea is so ingrained in public discourse, that when asked how humanity ought to prepare for another pandemic, the answer is almost invariably: make sure we have enough N-95 masks and build vaccine manufacturing infrastructure. But there is another model of pandemic preparation that is almost always overlooked: develop the infrastructure to trace, test, and isolate. Few people—and no one in senior positions in government—ever talk about developing the infrastructure for an elimination strategy as the means to meet the next pandemic threat. Instead, the chorus only ever has two notes: vaccines and PPE.

This might reflect borrowed thinking from the military. The standard ways of defending military forces from weaponized pathogens are to equip troops with biohazard suits and respirators and to vaccinate them in advance against the bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens the enemy might employ. Test, trace, and isolate is absent from the military doctrine on defense against biological threats because it is ill-suited to the military environment. Blindly importing military anti-biological threat doctrine into public health practice omits an effective technique that, while ill-suited for military purposes, works very well in the civilian realm.

Moreover, vaccines and PPE comport with the United States’ techno-fix culture. “Techno-fixes,” according to the late Howard P. Segal, who was an historian of science and technology at the University of Maine, “are short-term, avowedly practical proposed solutions to hitherto unsolvable economic and social problems” that “reflect an almost blind faith in the power of technology as panacea.” Techno-fix culture biases people enmeshed in its web to overlook social and economic solutions, in favor of what seem like quick technological fixes. Techno-fix culture is a religion based on faith. Its votaries believe that the god of technology will save humanity from all problems, even in cases where the evidence shows that proposed techno-fix solutions have failed. If techno-fix religion has a pope, it is surely Bill Gates.

But the technofix religion has other grand figures, as well. “Google,” wrote historian Jill Lepore,” opened an R&D division called X, whose aim is ‘to solve some of the world’s hardest problems.’” Elon Musk, one of the world’s richest people, if not, the wealthiest, promotes “a capitalism in which companies worry…about all manner of world-ending disasters”—disasters, notes Lepore “from which only techno-billionaires, apparently, can save us.”

Techno-billionaires promote techno-fix faith because the religion stimulates interest in their products. Techno-fix enterprises are the perfect distillation of their view that the combination of technology and private enterprise can save the world. Technology and free enterprise are also the foundations of the techno-billionaires’ fortunes and instruments of their continued expansion.

A number of other mutually reinforcing factors led Washington’s to favor vaccination as “the key to getting the pandemic under control and keeping the economy strong,” as Joe Biden put it.

First, non-pharmaceutical public health measures are contraindicated under capitalism. Rather than spending billions of dollars on vaccines, billions could have been spent on a robust public health response. The Rockefeller Foundation proposed a test-trace-isolate program to the Trump administration, which was immediately rejected. The problem, from a capitalist perspective, is that a public sector program to hire hundreds of thousands of public servants to carry out old-school public health measures, offers few, if any, profit-making opportunities for the private sector. Shoe leather epidemiology—the basic, hard labor of tracking down infected individuals, tracing their contacts, and herding them into quarantine—is the unsung labor of public servants. On the other hand, vaccine production can be quickly and easily made a private sector activity, one offering a rich banquet of profits on which investors—Washington’s principal clients—can gorge.

Additionally, Washington—always a bastion of free enterprise and private sector boosterism—has no desire to promote the public sector. The capitalist class, the US state, and individual billionaires such as Gates, agree that free enterprise must be the main vehicle through which the world’s problems are addressed. There is no room in this view for the public sector, except as a host for private enterprise parasitism and source of the private sector’s new products (such as mRNA vaccines.)

Writer and journalist Nina Burleigh observed that the White House’s focus was “on its conviction that private enterprise was the way out of the disaster.” Not only would vaccines be the exit from the calamity, but vaccines produced by the private sector (generously funded by the public sector) would be presented as the only possible escape.

Burleigh also argued that Washington’s incompetence, evidenced in its failure to prevent hundreds of thousands of US citizens from dying, is deliberate. The White House could seize the levers of public power to bring the pandemic under control by dint of old-school public health measures, following China’s path, but chooses not to in order to avoid giving hope to US citizens that government, unhinged from its service role to the bourgeoisie, can be a force for good.

The vaccine strategy—the notion that vaccines alone can protect public health and return the world to the status quo ante—has failed. Vaccines were approved under emergency use authorization after an unconscionably short period of testing (only two months into planned two-year-long phase 3 clinical trials) because the FDA declared falsely that there were “no adequate, approved, and available alternatives” to address a (self-inflicted) medical emergency, as if China’s success had never occurred. The reality is that there existed then, as there does now, a safe and demonstrably effective alternative to the failed silver bullet vaccine strategy. China has shown the way. Unfortunately, capitalism holds us back.

*The title is adapted from André Picard, “’I’m done with COVID’ is easier said than done,” The Globe and Mail, January 24, 2022.

Coming soon. The Killer’s Henchman: Capitalism and the Covid-19 Disaster. Available for pre-order from Baraka Books.

THE KILLER’S HENCHMAN: Capitalism and the Covid-19 Disaster

Announcing a new book by Stephen Gowans from Baraka Books.

Summer 2021, the novel coronavirus is scything through populations worldwide. WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announces the Covid-19 pandemic will end “when the world chooses to end it .… We have all the tools we need. They include proven public health and social measures; rapid and accurate diagnostics; effective therapeutics including oxygen; and of course, powerful vaccines.”

The pandemic didn’t end.

Much of the world ignored the proven health and social measures Tedros mentioned. On the other hand, China, Vietnam, New Zealand and a few other countries had used those measures successfully to drive infections to zero. The rest of the world preferred to let the virus to run riot, or impose half measures, and only when hospitals were under an unbearable strain.

The promised vaccine exit ramp turned out to be more mirage than oasis. Countries that rolled out vaccines quickly to large parts of their populations, soon turned to boosters, but with little success.

Poor- and middle-income countries meanwhile experienced a global vaccine apartheid. They were left waiting for crumbs to fall from the rich countries’ table, as new, possibly more virulent variants, threatened to emerge.

Stephen Gowans investigates why, when all the tools to avert a catastrophe were available, the world failed to prevent the Covid-19 disaster. He examines the business opportunities and pressures that helped shape the world’s failed response. His conclusion:  the novel coronavirus, a killer, had a helper in bringing about the calamity: capitalism, the killer’s henchman.

Exposing the role profit-making played in creating the disaster, Gowans shows how capitalism, its incentives, and its power to dominate the political process, impeded the protection of public health and prevented humanity from using the tools available to solve one of its most pressing problems.

Now available for pre-order at THE KILLER’S HENCHMAN, Capitalism and the Covid-19 Disaster – Baraka Books.

The COVID-19 Crisis is The Result of the Death Drive of Capitalism

August 25, 2021

In this episode of By Any Means Necessary, hosts Sean Blackmon and Jacquie Luqman are joined by Stephen Gowans, author of “Traitors, Patriots, and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Fight for Freedom,” to discuss how capitalism drives vaccine inequality in the world, how pharmaceutical companies are putting the pursuit of profit over the needs of humanity, and how rich countries neglected public health measures to mitigate the pandemic and pursued a disastrous strategy focused on vaccines.