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.
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:
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.
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?
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.
“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 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
In a new editorial the British Medical Journal thunders against the monopolization of life-saving vaccines by rich countries, calling it a “moral scandal” and “crime against humanity.” Vaccine makers and “their political allies” are flayed for turning a “blind eye” “towards the innumerable deaths in disadvantaged nations” caused by their refusal to share vaccine technology with poor countries, while at the same time presenting themselves as the greatest servants of humanity. What they are really doing, the editorial fumes, is “making a killing”, both figuratively (in massive profits) and literally (in preventable deaths.)
According to the BMJ:
“Vaccine preventable deaths and illness are occurring across Africa, Asia, and Latin America at an unprecedented speed and scale” because there is an artificial shortage of vaccines, and what vaccine doses are available are being sold to the highest bidders—the rich countries.
“Contrary to claims, it is possible to make enough vaccines for the world” by sharing vaccine know-how, making vaccine technologies open source, and allowing any company, anywhere in the world, private or public, to produce vaccine doses.
“Let us be clear what is causing these deaths,” the BMJ fulminates: “a free market, profit driven enterprise based on patent and intellectual property protection, combined with a lack of political will.”
In other words, capitalism. The editorial doesn’t use the C-word, but if the argument is followed to its logical end, capitalism is the inevitable destination.
Deaths and illness are occurring in low-income countries which could be prevented if vaccine manufacturers shared their technology with poor countries and allowed them to produce the vaccines themselves.
Only one percent of people in low income countries are fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data, while over 50 percent of the residents of rich countries have received two vaccine doses (and in some countries three. About one million residents of the United States have received three vaccine doses while health care workers, the elderly, and infirm in the world’s poorest countries have yet to receive even one.)
The disparity is due to two causes:
The rich countries’ pharmaceutical companies have exclusive rights to mRNA and viral vector vaccine technologies. Backed by their governments, they refuse to make the technology open source. If they did, spare manufacturing capacity could be engaged, and the supply of vaccines boosted, allowing a quicker roll out of doses around the world, but foregone profits for the vaccine oligopoly.
As the BMJ points out, the “world’s 30 richest nations—those able to pay high vaccine prices—have cleared the world’s shelves of doses through advanced purchase orders.”
Canada purchased enough doses to vaccinate its citizens five times over.
The United Kingdom secured enough doses for four times its population.
The United States has stockpiled 100 million doses.
Some high-income countries are administering, or planning to administer, vaccine boosters, absent evidence they’re needed, while at the same time destroying unused, expired, doses. Meanwhile, less than six percent of Africans have received even a single dose.
The real international community—over 100 countries—has proposed a temporary waiver on intellectual property protection of Covid-19 vaccine technologies. This would expand the supply of doses and expedite the roll out of vaccines to poor countries. On top of saving lives and reducing illness, a faster roll out would reduce the chances of new variants emerging that might evade current vaccines.
However, these developments, while a caress for humanity, would be a blow to pharmaceutical companies and the wealthy investors who back them. A supply shortage allows the companies to sell vaccines at monopoly prices with the attendant advantage of huge profits. Vaccine-makers argue that large margins are necessary to recover their research and development costs, but the vaccine technologies to which they have exclusive rights were produced in publicly-funded university and government labs. The truth of the matter is the companies seek large margins to do what capitalist enterprises are systemically compelled and legally obliged to do: generate profits to the highest level possible. Suffice to say, sharing technology with other manufacturers, means sharing market share. Any pharmaceutical company CEO who agreed to this repudiation of corporate responsibility would be quickly dismissed and replaced by another person whose moral qualms (if they have any) do not interfere with the pursuit of hard-headed business imperatives; namely, exploiting employees, despoiling customers, and paying out healthy dividends to the only people who matter in the calculus of capitalism: shareholders.
As for the dangers of new variants emerging, this can hardly be unwelcome to vaccine-makers. New variants, especially those that achieve “vaccine-escape”, present the pleasing prospect for vaccine company shareholders of a guaranteed future demand for new vaccines and therefore an unceasing stream of revenue stretching far into the future—the holy grail of capitalist pharmaceuticals. The prospect may be a nightmare for humanity, but it’s a pharmaceutical company CEO’s wet dream.
Oxfam, the BMJ notes, accuses the G20 rich nations of putting the interests of pharmaceutical companies and their investors ahead of ending the pandemic. The journal adds that “Vaccine manufacturers and many rich countries are working tirelessly to block waiver discussions at the World Trade Organization”, while at the same time, the WTO drags it heels. Quelle surprise. Whose interests do vaccine manufacturers, the governments of rich countries, and the WTO represent? Not those of poor countries.
The BMJ’s moral indignation is understandable and warranted, but its failure to take its analysis far enough to confront the systemic roots of the problem leads to recommendations that leave much to be desired. While the BMJ can’t bring itself to mention the C-word, it is capitalism, its incentives, and its power to dominate the political process, that impedes the protection of public health and undermines the solution to the pandemic, not the moral or intellectual failures of business people and political leaders.
Unfortunately, while the BMJ’s diagnosis is sound, its treatment plan—the liberal use of moral suasion aimed at pharmaceutical company investors and politicians—is next to useless. Capitalism, an amoral system, does not respond to moral appeals.
The BMJ urges vaccine company workers and shareholders to speak out.
But shareholders, who, as the BMJ acknowledges, are “making a killing”, are not going to vociferate against a system that bestows generous financial rewards upon them. Employees who protest will likely lose their jobs; that should be deterrent enough to their speaking out.
Leaders of rich nations are exhorted to pressure vaccine companies to share their technology.
But leaders of rich countries are not morally neutral parties, hovering dispassionately above the fray, disconnected from capitalist class politics or the pharmaceutical industry. It was these very same leaders who transferred to select firms the right to exploit commercially, publicly funded vaccine technologies, as it has been their practice to do with countless other innovations churned out of public labs (the internet, GPS, AI, to name but a few.) The architects of the system are not likely to be its grave diggers, or even agents of its temporary suspension.
Moreover, the leaders of the richest country, the United States, are interlocked with the pharmaceutical industry. Its interests are their interests. Moncef Slaoui, who oversaw the US effort to develop Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics, held executive posts for many years at the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, a company in which he held $10 million in stocks. He was also a member of the Moderna board and had $12.4 million in stock holdings in that company. On top of these pharma-connections, he was a partner in Medicxi, a venture capital firm that specializes in biotech investments. Alex M. Azar II, his boss, worked for three years as president of Eli Lilly’s subsidiary in the United States.
Eric Lander, the White House science adviser, holds up to $1 million in shares of BioNTech, Pfizer’s vaccine partner. Lander has recently proposed a pandemic preparedness plan which pivots mainly on providing public funding to vaccine-makers to stockpile vaccines for use against potential pandemic pathogens.
Susan Rice, Biden’s domestic policy adviser, holds up to $5 million in shares of vaccine-maker Johnson & Johnson and up to $50,000 in shares of Pfizer.
Anita Dunn, who until recently was Biden’s senior advisor, is managing partner at the consulting firm she co-founded, SKDK, which does public relations and advertising work for Pfizer.
Pfizer is a top client of Albright Stonebridge Group, a consulting firm founded by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. ASG counts among its former employees a number of high-level Biden administration figures, including:
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the United Nations.
Jeffrey DeLaurentis, Thomas-Greenfield’s deputy.
Victoria Nuland, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs.
Wendy Sherman, Deputy Secretary of State.
Uzra Zeya, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights of the United States.
Molly Montgomery, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Philip Gordon, Vice President Kamala Harris’s national security adviser.
People who spend their careers working with or for pharmaceutical interests, and have financial stakes in pharmaceutical firms, can be expected to share the pharmaceutical industry’s point of view. This is the point of view of capitalist industry–that profits are the summum bonum. No one occupies a significant position in a capitalist state without an unswerving commitment to capitalist values. Except under the most extraordinary circumstances, capitalist governments will not pressure private enterprises to negate their obligations to their shareholders in order to prevent the illness and deaths of penniless foreigners who live in what a US president once infamously called—and rich countries treat as—“shithole countries.”
The BMJ fails to recognize that the interests of pharmaceutical company investors and those of the poor countries are irreconcilably opposed. There is an assumed common interest between these two parties, namely, the end of the pandemic. Yet, while the end of the pandemic would certainly benefit the poor, both in poor and rich countries, it would not benefit the vaccine oligopoly. Restricted vaccine supply and the monopoly pricing it allows, the opportunity to provide vaccines to a vast global market, and the prospect of an ongoing stream of revenue in vaccine boosters and vaccines for new variants, are manna for the pharmaceutical industry. For rich countries—those that produce vaccines or have purchased more doses than they need—the current state of affairs offers them leverage over the have-not countries; the have-not countries are dependent on the rich counties for access to vaccines, helping to ensure their continued pliability and openness to exploitation by the rich countries.
Clearly, a temporary waiver of patent rights would harm pharmaceutical company profits and deny rich countries their leverage, and therefore, it is naïve to expect pharmaceutical companies and interlocked political elites to voluntarily submit to demands that they sacrifice their interests for the good of the bulk of humanity. The whole idea of capitalism as an exploitative system is that the bulk of humanity exists as a means to the profit-making ends of a microscopic minority of billionaires. Profits, not people. To be sure, the Biden administration has withdrawn its objection to a temporary suspension of patent rights, but this may be a concession of little consequence. Germany and other rich countries continue to fight the proposal strenuously, and the WTO is slow-rolling the issue. If and when the waiver is approved, the damage it can do to vaccine oligopoly profits will be severely limited.
There is another reason for capitalist industry to oppose a temporary waiver. The lifting of patent rights would acknowledge what no capitalist proponent wishes to acknowledge, namely, that capitalism, or at least its intellectual property protection provisions, can produce suboptimal, even harmful, outcomes for the welfare of the majority of the world’s population. The capitalist zeitgeist holds, in contrast, that capitalism is philanthropic, a blessing for humanity. Once it is established that a pillar of modern-day capitalism is harmful for public health, it becomes easier to make the case that the system of wealth accumulation in the hands of a miniscule elite of billionaires and their servants is harmful in other ways as well—for example, in anthropogenic global warming and the promotion of war. Might calls be made for the suspension, or worse, elimination of capitalism as a danger to humanity? In other words, the notion that patent rights ought to be suspended even temporarily is equivalent to the idea embedded in the Communist slogan, “people, not profit”—to wit, that the explicit aim of capitalism is to produce profits for a minority, not to enlarge and protect the interests of the majority of the planet’s inhabitants. It doesn’t take a genius to see that a people-centered system is, from the point of view of the bulk of humanity, preferable to one whose sole aim is to satisfy the wealth accumulation imperative of a tiny elite of uncrowned monarchs. Arguing that the intellectual property rights this minority has conferred upon itself need to be suspended in the interests of the rest us, is a potential opening for a system-challenging discussion. The BMJ editorial has provided that opening. It’s up to the rest of us to carry it forward.
Capitalism makes a suboptimal form of public welfare the possible, but never necessary, incidental outcome of profit-making. Optimal public welfare based on the elimination of the exploitation of humans by humans, and not profits, needs to become the sole organizing principal of society. The development of Covid-19 vaccines was made possible by public planning and spending. The leaders of rich countries recognized that capitalism was not up to the task of developing new vaccines. The costs were prohibitive and the risks just as great. Investors will not to risk their capital on an enterprise with a high probability of failure. Thus, a kind of socialism was pressed into service, under the rubric of Operation Warp Speed, to develop vaccines and therapeutics, in which the public assumed the risk. However, this was a socialism harnessed to capitalist requisites. Once the vaccines were developed, they were licensed exclusively to a vaccine-making oligopoly. The costs and risks were socialized; the benefits privatized. But rather than privatizing the fruits of socialized innovation, vaccine technology could have been socialized and produced for need, not profit. The disincentives to sharing vaccine technologies would have been few, if any, under a system of production for need.
Under the same system, the question of how to address the pandemic would not have been biased, from the start, in favor of a techno-fix that amounted to an attractive vaccine and therapeutics business opportunity, rather than in favor of public health and social measures, which China and Vietnam demonstrated are sufficient to eliminate community transmission of the virus and which the WHO has repeatedly endorsed as a proven method of pandemic control. It now appears that vaccines may be incapable of preventing transmission of the virus; it is now obvious that the vaccine strategy—based on the notion that vaccines are the exit ramp from the pandemic—is clearly incapable of rescuing humanity from the pandemic. The end of the pandemic lies, as the director of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced on August 4, in “a comprehensive approach of vaccines in combination with proven public health and social measures that we know work” (emphasis added.) As the WHO has also pointed out, had rich countries acted quickly and decisively to implement public health and social measures in February and March 2020, the pandemic would have been averted. The rich countries failed to abort the pandemic in embryo, but in allowing a crisis to be born, created many lucrative business opportunities.
The route to a system based on need, not profit, does not follow along the path of moral suasion and speaking truth to power. No matter how much they’re pressured, wolves will never act as sheep. Too often it is believed that any action, no matter how unlikely to bear fruit, is better than no action, but that’s doubtful. Actions which address symptoms (IP protections), and not causes (the capitalist interests IP protections serve), bring only temporary relief at best, and usually not even that. Actions which demand capitalists ignore the imperatives of capitalism to act as socialists—as if socialism is achievable within a capitalist framework—are quixotic. Pointless actions may be worse than useless if they foster illusions about where the problem lies and therefore what the possible solutions are.
To be sure, capitalist pharmacy is a moral scandal and crime against humanity, and not only in its production, pricing, and distribution of coronavirus vaccines, but in its operations from alpha to omega. A system designed to yield profit, not to protect and promote health, routinely produces suboptimal human health outcomes, if not outright harm. This is a virtual axiom. Recognizing that the problem is production for profit, carried out by private enterprises, organized by markets, and under the political control of governments dominated by plutocrats, is the first step on the road to a solution. Another step is recognizing the promise inherent in the alternative: production for use organized by a consciously prepared plan, carried out by publicly owned enterprises, and under the political control of governments guided by democratic, not profit-making, concerns. In this kind of system resides any hope humanity has for solving its most daunting problems: the pandemic, climate change, the threat of terminal war, and the unnecessary poverty of most of humanity.
In this segment 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 vaccine imperialism and the WHO’s ask that rich countries halt booster dose programs, how capitalism slows the production of vaccines and allows more variants of COVID-19 to develop, and the United States’ use of the pandemic as an opportunity to plunder poor countries and further its violence around the world.