Ask The Socialist: How would socialists deal with the pandemic?


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One of our supporters recently asked us: “Capitalist governments around the world are doing a terrible job handling COVID-19, but what would socialists do instead?” We answer below.

Early this year, it became apparent that the world was facing a global crisis with the spread of the novel coronavirus causing Covid-19.

In countries which had faced the earlier SARS epidemic, quarantine measures were introduced early and the spread of the disease was limited relatively quickly. But elsewhere the ruling class delayed action, to avoid hurting profits. In countries like Sweden and the UK, lives were sacrificed in the name of a disastrous policy of “herd immunity.”

When quarantines have been introduced, capitalism has left people cut off from basic necessities, particularly in the neocolonial world. From Brazil to India, a common refrain has been “We are more afraid of hunger than of Covid-19.”

Healthcare systems globally have been underfunded by capitalist governments wanting to slash public spending. Shortages of hospital beds and equipment have led to thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Australia has avoided these nightmare scenarios, but not by much. Shutdown measures didn’t begin until 47 days after the first Australian case. By the time a national policy came into effect, there were more than 200 cases. Scott Morrison famously waited until after a Hillsong conference attracting thousands of people before banning large public gatherings.

Lockdowns were seen as a trade-off for public safety at the expense of profit, and governments rule in the interests of profit. But the more far-sighted parts of the ruling class saw economic and political dangers in letting the virus spread.

State governments in New South Wales and Victoria placed pressure on the Morrison government, which was desperate to regain some credibility after an appalling bushfire season. This led to the formation of a National Cabinet, to put on a unified face and implement a national shutdown.

Measures were introduced in a careless way. Restrictions on movement forced people in remote communities to choose between risking arrest and going without essential groceries. And when panic-buying broke out, it was left up to individual supermarkets to ration goods. They responded with price-gouging and haphazard rationing that left many unable to find the basics.

The needs of ordinary people were not taken into account, because ordinary people did not have a real say in how to deal with these issues.

While state and federal governments argued over whether or not to shut down schools, by mid-March school attendance dropped by 50% in Victoria and 25% in NSW. Limited strike actions took place at a Laverton warehouse over the lack of personal protective equipment, and at the DPP World terminal in Melbourne over a breach of quarantine.

People were discussing lockdown measures long before they came into effect. They were quoting epidemiologists and pointing to the unfolding disasters in places like Italy and the US. But these discussions were mostly limited to social media and private conversations.

If working people had their own democratic committees through which to make policy, the pandemic would have unfolded very differently. This is how it would work in a socialist society. Workers would make decisions democratically, informed by their own experiences and needs. We would be able to use the best expert advice for halting the pandemic because there would be no profit incentive for us to ignore or sideline scientific advice.

We could allocate resources to human needs, such as healthcare and safety equipment for essential workers. Hospital administrators have long raised alarm bells about the capacity of the healthcare system, and both Liberal and Labor governments have seen healthcare spending fail to keep up with society’s needs.

There is enough wealth in society to avoid this, but it is locked up in profits. Socialism would unleash this wealth for the benefit of all.

Living wages could be provided to everyone while all but the most essential workplaces were shut down. There would be no forced choice between poverty or being safe from the virus.

But more than this, a socialist society would already have taken measures against the root cause of this outbreak: capitalism’s impact on the natural world.

Epidemics like Covid-19, as well as SARS, MERS, Ebola and the Hendra virus before it, are rooted in the behaviour of capitalist agribusiness. As land is cleared and animals are farmed more intensively, humans are pushed more and more into contact with novel viruses.

A socialist approach is one where working-class people run society together. Without the profit motive, we would develop a different relationship with the natural world. We would be able to respond more quickly to disasters, and have more resources available to support people through it. This is how socialism would address a pandemic.

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