Not fit for purpose: Neoliberalism and Covid 19

At this time of crisis, we will still need to raise our voices to call on governments to use their resources to care for ordinary citizens, not cater to the whims of industry and the wealthy.


With news of the arrival early this year of a new strain of coronavirus, which is already responsible for the common cold and other more serious ailments, a growing panic has ensued in the fear that it could be a disaster on the scale of the 1918 flu that killed more people over a much shorter period of time than the First World War. One of the differences between the current crisis and that earlier one is that while that influenza early last century mainly affected the young, this one appears to be a bigger threat to those over 65, many of whom already have compromised immune systems.

The new virus is reportedly a relative of SARS, a viral respiratory disease, “sharing almost 80% of its genetic sequence… another coronavirus that swept through China and other countries in 2002 and 2003, eventually killing more than 800 people around the globe.”

Governments at all levels in the west have been scrambling to respond to what the World Health Organization has declared a pandemic. Despite this, until very recently, the current occupant of the White House seemed more concerned about the health of the stock market than the country’s citizens, at one point taking to Twitter to write, “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant.”

Although some in the corporate press have begun to praise the current occupant of the White House’s late response, Beth Cameron, who served as senior director of the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which would have been at the front line in reacting to the virus but was dissolved in 2018, explained in an editorial in the Washington Post on March 13th, “In a health security crisis, speed is essential. When this new coronavirus emerged, there was no clear White House-led structure to oversee our response, and we lost valuable time.”

As it has spread, the virus, named Covid 19, has shown many of the vulnerabilities in the neoliberal economic system that has ruled most of the world since the late 1970s. From supply chains to the herd mentality of stock markets, the flaws are becoming more glaringly obvious by the day. Worse, after almost a decade and a half of increasing austerity imposed by the 2008 financial crisis throughout most of the world, systems designed to promote social welfare have faced massive cuts, hampering the response in many places.

Showing the danger of a system that promotes the profit motive over everything else, rather than marshaling all of its resources to call for and join an international effort to find a vaccine, the current administration in Washington, D.C. attempted to pay out as much as a billion dollars to a German company, CureVac, that has been working on one, to selfishly make it available only to American citizens on a “for profit” basis.

On the other side of the country’s political divide, the public health emergency led to unusual measures such as holding last Sunday’s Democratic debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders without an audience at CNN’s Washington studios.

One of the most irresponsible things we have seen in this contest so far occurred at the event, when the former vice president argued that Italy’s universal healthcare system, which is currently at the center of the pandemic in Europe, has been ineffective at combating the crisis and demonstrates that such systems don’t work.

The lack of beds and equipment in Italy, especially in the hard hit north of the country, is not, as Biden seems to think, the fault of universal coverage but rather of an aging population and even more so an austerity regime, largely imposed from above by the EU. Similar worries about the availability of beds, ventilators, respirators and other equipment have been voiced in many E.U. countries, where similar crises are expected to play out. The argument that the United State’s mostly privatized healthcare system, in which initial tests for the virus could cost as much as $1400 with insurance, is better than a Medicare for All system is not just patently absurd, it’s dangerous. As Senator  Sanders has noted many times during the primary campaign, almost 70,000 Americans die every year due to a lack of medical care, including many with private insurance that they avoid using because of the cost. This is many more than have died worldwide during this Covid 19 crisis at present.

If the idea to hold the last Democratic debate behind closed doors was a wise one, yetinexplicably, despite the risks to both voters and poll workers, three states, Florida, Illinois and Arkansas, held their Democratic primaries as scheduled on Tuesday, March 17th. This directly contradicted the advice of both state authorities and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommended that citizens avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

In Florida alone, many polls needed to be closed as 800 volunteers backed out or didn’t show up, with just 100 offering to replace them, meaning that voters were forced to travel if they were even able to find a place to vote at all.

Worse, the Democratic National Committee, after Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine defied the courts and made the decision to cancel primary voting in the state, released a memo insisting that the primaries go on as scheduled despite the crisis, telling state parties that unless they have voted by June 9thrd they risk losing half of their delegates and thus much of their voice at the convention scheduled to be held in Milwaukee from July 13-16. While the excuse being given, that the DNC is just following party rules and will need to hold these primaries before that date to ensure the selection of delegates is smooth, it also seems like a cynical act on the part of party insiders to speed up the process and ensure that Joe Biden has a fast track to the party’s nomination.

On the international economic front, it’s become increasingly obvious that besides hurting tourism and business travel, the disruption to global supply chains will be felt for months, if not years, to come. If this were merely a matter of ‘just in time’ automobile parts, it would be bad for some workers but hardly the end of the world.

What’s been exposed, however, is that many countries, including the United States, no longer produce much of what they will need to confront such a crisis on their own, including vital medicines such as penicillin, which hasn’t been mass-produced in the U.S. since 2004, part of the move towards ‘globalization’ that now looks more than ever like a greedy and stupid race to the bottom.

As a result, even in the event that Covid 19 is not as bad as most scientists and medical professionals warn it may be, many people will face difficulty and even the risk of death from a lack of medicine unrelated to the pandemic.

Typical to crises exacerbated by neoliberalism, working people and those with the fewest resources will be hardest hit. Bar and restaurant closures will increase the precariousness of contemporary life, especially for the younger workers who tend to fill these jobs and have little in savings. Those with school and daycare age children will have to figure out what to do in the event that schools close; the old stand by, having older relatives care for them could create new dangers because, as noted above, this is the group most at risk from the virus and many children don’t show symptoms of it.

One of the few silver linings of the crisis has been the decreased amount of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere, especially as air travel has come to a virtual halt in many places. Even the usually fetid canals of Venice have cleared in a short amount of time and some animals have returned (although experts claim that this is mainly due to constant traffic unsettling the sediment below them).

Even in the best case scenario, how we respond to this unprecedented crisis as individuals says a lot about our societies, and selfish runs on items like toilet paper and price gouging for items like hand sanitizer and surgical masks are not showing us at our best. At the same time, many people have shown kindness to others, with citizens in many countries purchasing and delivering needed supplies to elders.

Solidarity is more than a word or part of a slogan for the progressive left, it is the realization of an essential truth: people are at their best (and, we might also argue, at their most natural) when we work together, especially in difficult times. It has required a great deal of effort to kill this basic instinct toward cooperation, to make us, as individuals, retreat into ourselves and define ourselves by what we buy.


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