COVID, Capitalism, and Class War: A Social and Political Chronology of the Pandemic
This is the introduction to Volume 1 of “COVID, Capitalism, and Class War: A Social and Political Chronology of the Pandemic.” It is available for pre-order as an e-pub at Mehring Books, and will also be released in abridged form as a print volume later this year.
This book—compiled from the World Socialist Web Site’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic as it spread across the globe—is a social and political chronology of a historically critical event whose impact on the twenty-first century will prove to be as profound as that of World War I on the twentieth century. The comparison of the pandemic to the First World War is justified not only on the basis of the scale of human losses. In a manner no less profound than the cataclysm that erupted in the summer of 1914, the outbreak of the pandemic in the opening months of 2020 triggered a world crisis that exposed the political, social, and moral bankruptcy of capitalist society.
Confronted with a public health emergency of unprecedented magnitude, virtually every government in the world refused to implement policies that were required to prevent mass infection, debilitating illness, and death. Economic interests—specifically, those of the financial and corporate elite—determined the response to the pandemic. Saving profits was prioritized over saving lives. Humanity is grappling with the consequences of the socially criminal response of governments to the pandemic.
Despite vast advances in mankind’s scientific understanding and technology over the past century, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has proven to be the most devastating infectious disease since the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed between twenty-five and fifty million people in the span of just two years. Government policies have been characterized by a staggering indifference to human life. In November 2020, the former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson blurted out, “No more f***ing lockdowns, let the bodies pile high in their thousands!” More recently, US President Joseph Biden declared in a television interview that the pandemic was over. On September 18, 2022, the day his statement was broadcast to a nationwide audience, there were, according to the New York Times, 61,712 official new infections and 464 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States.
Since the start of the pandemic, over six-hundred million people have officially tested positive for COVID-19 and over 6.5 million have died from the disease worldwide, both of which are known to be significant undercounts. Studies indicate that well over half the world’s population has already been infected with SARS-CoV-2, while estimates of excess deaths attributable to the pandemic place the real global death toll at over twenty million people. Worldwide, hundreds of millions more have been impacted by Long COVID, a myriad range of symptoms that can affect nearly every organ in the body for unknown duration. Of this large portion of humanity suffering lingering symptoms from their infection, tens of millions have been disabled by the virus, unable to work and often largely confined to their homes.
For the first time since World War II, global life expectancy declined by nearly two years in 2020 and 2021. National declines in the first two years of the pandemic were highest in five countries in Latin America—Peru (5.6 years), Guatemala (4.8), Paraguay (4.7), Bolivia (4.1), and Mexico (4.0)—and three in Europe, including Russia (4.3), Bulgaria (4.1), and North Macedonia (4.1). In the United States, the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, life expectancy dropped by nearly three years during this time. Experts anticipate massive long-term health ramifications from the pandemic, as COVID-19 infection substantially increases one’s risk of heart attack, stroke, dementia, kidney disease, and more.
As we approach the beginning of the fourth year of the pandemic, it continues to exact a horrific toll each day, as nearly every world government outside China has abandoned all mitigation measures to slow the spread of the virus and has instead adopted a policy of “forever COVID.” Provided with billions of hosts, the coronavirus continues to evolve into new variants, threatening to further erode the efficacy of existing vaccines and treatments and cause recurring waves of mass infection, debilitation, and death.
Past struggles against polio, malaria, measles, smallpox, and other infectious diseases have been justly celebrated as milestones in the progressive impact of science on civilization. There will be no celebration of the official response to COVID-19. Its history will be a record of lies and crimes by governments, the corporate media, and official institutions that have subordinated the health of society to the profit interests of a tiny corporate-financial oligarchy.
In the coming years, historians of the COVID-19 pandemic will subject to scathing criticism the lack of preparation, despite numerous advance warnings. They will expose the social and economic interests that determined policy, and explain why governmental institutions were compromised to the point that they completely abandoned public health. The historians will examine how the fascistic “herd immunity” policy was developed, and the role of the media and trade unions in enforcing this policy. They will also call attention to the global fight by workers and scientists to stop the pandemic. In probing these topics, this book and the archives of the World Socialist Web Site will be recognized as an indispensable and authoritative guide, which provided the most incisive contemporary analysis of the pandemic.
The analyses of events as they were unfolding were extraordinarily prescient. The great advantage of the editors and writers of the World Socialist Web Site—published by the International Committee of the Fourth International—was that they were guided by a perspective deeply informed by history and a Marxist-Trotskyist understanding of the conflict between private economic interests and the welfare of the public in modern capitalist society. On this foundation, the WSWS identified the pandemic not simply as a medical event or a biological phenomenon, but primarily as a social and political crisis of global dimensions.
This is the first of three volumes that cover the years 2020, 2021, and 2022. Each volume provides an annual chronology, charting both the objective development of the pandemic and the perspective elaborated by the WSWS. A major challenge the editors faced in compiling these volumes was the matter of selection. Since January 2020, the WSWS has published over 5,500 articles on the pandemic, with the articles selected for these volumes representing less than 10 percent of this total. Emphasis was placed on the most critical statements, which elucidate key turning points in the pandemic and explain their social and political significance. In introducing this book, it is necessary to review some of these key developments and how the pandemic has unfolded.
2020: Initial outbreak and the two dominant strategies towards the pandemic—elimination and “herd immunity”
In the decades preceding the spillover of SARS-CoV-2 at a wet market in Wuhan, China, there was a series of global outbreaks of new infectious diseases, including the SARS outbreak (2002-2004), the H5N1 “bird flu” epidemic (2003), the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic (2009), the MERS outbreak (2012), the Ebola virus epidemic (2014-2016), the Zika outbreak (2015-2016), and more. Scientists, who continuously warned of the dangers of a devastating pandemic, were treated as Cassandras, and nothing was done. Instead, scientific research and pandemic preparedness were severely underfunded, based on the lie that there was no money, even while global stock markets soared and military budgets ballooned. The well-known factors that would lead to new spillover events—climate change, unplanned urbanization, and ecological destruction—were allowed to worsen year after year.
When the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 began in late 2019, world capitalism was completely unprepared. In the opening months of 2020, all of the key issues and basic problems that have defined the pandemic were first raised. The two fundamental strategies that have since dominated governments’ responses to the pandemic—elimination and “herd immunity”—emerged during this time. The central problem involved in public health and the control of infectious diseases, i.e., stopping viral transmission, was dealt with in two diametrically opposed manners.
Within China, after initially bungling the response and faced with growing opposition within the working class, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) implemented the first successful elimination program to contain the coronavirus. It utilized every public health measure at its disposal, including mass testing, rigorous contact tracing, the safe isolation of infected patients, and quarantining of exposed people, all of which had been developed by mankind over centuries. It also initiated the first mass lockdowns in history in Hubei province on January 23, 2020. After seventy-six days filled with enormous stress and self-sacrifice among workers, doctors, and scientists, Chinese society had stamped out viral transmission in the most populous country on Earth, protecting 1.4 billion people from SARS-CoV-2.
This became the model followed by New Zealand, Vietnam, and other countries in the region and internationally, many of which maintained elimination for over a year, until finally succumbing to the pressures of global finance capital. The total death toll from COVID-19 in China since April 17, 2020, just after the end of the Wuhan lockdown, now stands at just 594, by far the lowest death toll of any major country in the world and just 0.013 percent of the per capita death toll in the United States during the same time. Nearly all of these deaths in China took place from April to May 2022, the result of a major outbreak of the Omicron BA.2 subvariant in Shanghai that was again successfully suppressed.
Outside of China, a very different response unfolded in early 2020. Nearly every other government viewed the coronavirus not through the prism of science and public health, but that of global finance and corporate profits. As is always the case, this took the crassest form in the United States, where President Donald Trump encouraged Americans to inject themselves with disinfectant and ultraviolet light to supposedly ward off infection.
On February 7, 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping personally informed Trump, and presumably many other world leaders, that SARS-CoV-2 is airborne and has a much higher fatality rate than the flu. Concealing these truths, Trump whipped up anti-Chinese xenophobia by branding SARS-CoV-2 the “China virus.” In January 2020, his fascist adviser Steve Bannon first promulgated the “Wuhan Lab Lie,” which was later promoted by the corporate media and utilized by governments to deflect blame onto China for their own disastrous mishandling of the pandemic.
As the virus spread, a veil of silence was imposed by the corporate media and political establishment through the end of February 2020, covering up the growing dangers facing society. In March 2020, as hospitals and morgues filled up throughout the world and workers mounted wildcat strikes to halt production, governments were forced to belatedly implement partial lockdowns, causing a plunge in global stock markets. By the end of March, the CARES Act and other financial bailouts were crafted and rapidly approved internationally, funneling trillions of dollars into the financial markets. The aim was to provide immediate resources to restore the stock market. Once this objective had been achieved, the fight to stop viral transmission was subordinated to a ruthless back-to-work drive.
The new mantra for the back-to-work campaign, coined by Trump and promoted by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, was that “the cure cannot be worse than the disease.” In essence, this phrase expressed the class interests of the financial oligarchy, which after less than two weeks would no longer tolerate lockdowns or other essential public health measures that slowed viral transmission but deprived the corporations of the workforce they required for the exploitation of labor and the generation of profits.
In promoting the reopening of businesses before the virus was contained, Trump, Friedman, and the Times hailed the Swedish government’s refusal to implement lockdowns, based on the distortion of the scientific concept of “herd immunity.” While historically this term had always referred to the level of vaccine-induced population immunity necessary to stop the spread of a given disease, beginning in March 2020, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell encouraged the deliberate infection of the majority of the population to create a mythical “herd immunity” while supposedly “shielding” the elderly and infirm. Tegnell and his adviser Johan Giesecke exported this pseudoscience globally and it became codified in the infamous Great Barrington Declaration, which the WSWS characterized as a “manifesto of death.”
Over the course of 2020, the official COVID-19 death toll in Sweden reached 9,706, a per capita rate over ten times higher than neighboring Norway and among the highest in the world. From March 2020 on, Sweden’s homicidal “herd immunity” strategy was adopted by the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, India, and other countries, based on eugenicist conceptions akin to “survival of the fittest.”
Throughout the world, numerous scientists opposed these policies and advocated for measures necessary to stop the pandemic. Since April 2020, aerosol scientists in particular have waged a heroic struggle, urging governments to publicize the fact that SARS-CoV-2 is an airborne virus that can be dramatically curtailed through the use of high-quality masks and improved ventilation. Yet to this day, nearly every government and even the World Health Organization (WHO) have refused to educate society on airborne transmission, keeping the global population largely ignorant of this most essential feature of the virus and how it spreads.
The public health methods used in China, New Zealand, and other countries were never seriously adopted throughout much of the world. Each of these techniques, which mankind has accumulated through centuries of struggle against past plagues and which could be deployed in a highly advanced manner using modern technology, were instead withheld from the beginning. What transformed the pandemic into a catastrophe was that the resources of governments were mobilized, not to stop viral transmission, but to limit and even sabotage such a necessary response.
The concluding months of 2020 saw the approval of anti-COVID vaccines and the escalation of the “herd immunity” policy, in what the WSWS termed a “winter of death.” In the final three months of the year, nearly 850,000 people officially died from COVID-19 worldwide, while estimates of excess deaths place the real total at roughly 2.5 million.
2021: The roll-out of vaccines, the mitigationist strategy and viral evolution
As the pandemic entered its second year, new problems emerged. The rollout of life-saving vaccines was done in a haphazard manner subordinated to corporate profits, producing vast inequities in global vaccination rates between wealthy and poorer countries. Furthermore, the mass vaccination efforts not only encountered a vile, anti-scientific campaign of misinformation which stymied uptake in many countries, but also produced a more subtle problem.
The vaccines were increasingly seen by governments not as an auxiliary but as a substitute that rendered unnecessary a comprehensive public health program. This became the basis for a third, mitigationist strategy towards the pandemic, which encouraged vaccinations alongside an amorphous mixture of other public health measures, while accepting that a certain unspecified level of viral transmission would remain. Mitigation amounted to an attempt to negotiate with the virus, while ignoring the objective laws of viral evolution. Ostensibly liberal governments cultivated illusions that the vaccines would serve as “magic bullets” and provide lasting protection against infection, thinking pragmatically that they could now proceed as if everything was fine.
Most notoriously, on May 13, 2021, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told vaccinated Americans that they could take off their masks. This led to the wholesale scrapping of mask mandates across the US, which never returned to the same levels as before, a process replicated by many other governments. Two months later, on July 4, 2021, US President Joe Biden absurdly declared “independence” from COVID-19, just weeks before the more infectious and virulent Delta variant ripped through the country and killed over 200,000 Americans.
During this time, the Delta variant was spreading rapidly in India and soon worldwide. From late March to mid-May 2021, over two million people were killed in India alone, as the fascistic Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government headed by Narendra Modi enforced the “herd immunity” policy of mass death. This remains the worst surge to have happened anywhere in the world during the pandemic. Scientists warned that new variants such as Delta could cause “breakthrough” infections among vaccinated people, and that vaccines alone would not stop viral transmission, but these warnings were once again ignored.
The mitigationist strategy was expressed most sharply in the full reopening of schools, which by early 2021 had been definitively proven to be centers of viral transmission. Extraordinary claims were made that if schools required masks, opened windows, improved ventilation, or some combination thereof, they would be safe havens from infection. In reality, reopening schools before the pandemic was contained proved disastrous throughout the world, including in districts with more stringent mitigation measures, with thousands of children and an untold number of educators killed by COVID-19 internationally over the past two years.
Over the course of 2021, the WSWS intensified its fight for a scientific strategy to eliminate SARS-CoV-2 globally. On August 20, 2021, it published a major statement which provided a clear political assessment of the mitigationist strategy, stressing:
Mitigation is to epidemiology what reformism is to capitalist politics. Just as the reformist harbors the hope that gradual and piecemeal reforms will, over time, lessen and ameliorate the evils of the profit system, the mitigationists nourish the delusion that COVID-19 will eventually evolve into something no more harmful than the common cold. This is a pipe dream totally divorced from the science of the pandemic.
In reality, as long as the virus spreads it will continue to mutate into new, more infectious, lethal, and vaccine-resistant variants that threaten all of humanity. Unless it is eradicated on a world scale, the embers of COVID-19 will continue to burn and create the conditions for the virus to flare up anew.
Over the past year, this perspective has been entirely vindicated. In advancing the strategy of global elimination, the WSWS collaborated with a broad layer of scientists who had advocated for this policy. This collaboration led to two public webinars hosted by the WSWS, on August 22 and October 24, 2021,…