COVID19: Impacts on Capitalism, State and Economy

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By SK Arman from Presidency University

We all know that the entire human race is witnessing its greatest health crisis nearly after 100 years. It was 1918 when the Influenza caused by H1N1 virus hit the world in form of a pandemic. It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide. Today, the severe acute respiratory syndrome Corona Virus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), causing the COVID-19 pandemic, has nearly infected 7.94 million people approximately and resulted nearly 4,35,000 deaths till date, and the numbers are touching the sky by every passing day. From the end of 2019, the virus started to spread among us slowly. The first human cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel Coronavirus causing COVID-19, subsequently named SARS-CoV-2, were first reported by officials in Wuhan City, China, in December, 2019. From that point of time, gradually, COVID-19 broke out all over the world. In response to that, different states responded differently, some took immediate decision of lockdown, some didn’t. But few social, political and economic aspects are very global, just like the virus. After the SARS epidemic of 2003, scientists anticipated that another pandemic can happen in near future, probably a variant of the SARS Coronavirus. The capitalist system did not responded to these anticipations; rather it carried on rapid destruction of nature and life and created more and more capital. With the accumulation of more capital, the state system developed itself into a powerful, superior and dominant state in the capitalist order. This also helped the big corporate capitalists to dominate the economy through free markets. Market was busy to make profits and generate more capital and had neglected the anticipations about pandemic.  The drug companies follow the market signals and the governments are blocked by neo-liberal doctrine. So the entire fiasco of COVID-19 and capitalism has many aspects which can be looked upon. In this write up, we will try to look upon few of these aspects that will affect the human lives in post COVID-19 world.

Collision between Capitalism and Nature

Humans have always exploited their surrounding nature. For the sake of survival and existence, humans need to intervene with nature. These interventions can be in many forms with different levels of intensity. From producing corps as necessity through small scale agriculture to massive mass level production through industrial agriculture, all are forms of intervention to nature by humans. It is very evident that the intensity and damage to nature in these two cases have a huge difference. The first one comes with a question of necessity and second one is of profit, luxury and capital. While analysing the COVID-19 pandemic, epidemiologist Rob Wallace said, “The increased occurrence of viruses is closely linked to food production and the profitability of multinational corporations. Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production…” The reason behind Wallace’s argument can be easily found. With the capitalist globalisation, capital has its eye on the last piece of land of primary forests, the small scale farmers farmlands are also at risk. This process is done with the investments of big multinational companies, deforestations, urbanisation and development. This exploitation of life and nature leads to new diseases which can further develop into another pandemic. Lands, forests, ecology represent functional diversity and complexity which have boxed in pathogens and other mysterious natural things but with systematic exploitation of life and nature, capitalism bringing this pathogens to local livestock and human communities. For instance, Coronavirus also came from a ‘wet’ market where wild bats are killed for human food. In this regard, Dipesh Chakrabarty wrote as an opinion in a newspaper, “The Chinese have a tradition of eating ‘wild’ animals. Besides, the rapid development of large urban populations with money at their disposal has led to an expanded demand for ‘luxury’ food items that once figured as ‘exotic’ on the dinner menus of only the very rich.” It is very evident that the wild agriculture and exposure to hinterlands and the increasing capitalisation, not only in China but also globally, is making the wild food more formalised as an economic sector. In the late twentieth century, capitalist globalisation had increasingly adopted the form of interlinked commodity chains controlled by multinational corporations, connecting various production zones, primarily in the Global South, with the apex of world consumption, finance, and accumulation primarily in the Global North. These commodity chains make up the main material circuits of capital globally that constitute the phenomenon of late imperialism identified with the rise of generalised monopoly-finance capital. The development of global agribusiness with its expanding genetic monocultures of domestic animals removes whatever immune firebreaks may be available to slow down transmission. Larger population sizes and densities facilitate greater rates of transmission. Immune response is depressed by these types of crowded conditions. Along the line of agribusiness, Wallace added, “High throughput, a part of any industrial production, provides a continually renewed supply of susceptible, the fuel for the evolution of virulence. In other words, agribusiness is so focused on profits that selecting for a virus that might kill a billion people is treated as a worthy risk.”. The cost of the epidemiologically dangerous operations can externalise on human, animals, farm workers and so on by these companies as long as they are improving their capital. If this trend continues, bacteria and viruses will keep jumping species, and humans will have nobody to blame but themselves. But environmental destruction is part and parcel of capitalism. Capitalism’s drive for profit, its short term nature and its externalisation of nature from its calculations of profit and loss are the basis of the environmental catastrophe we face. The industrial revolution, the development of capitalism and the expansion of capitalism to every corner of the world, as well as the imperialistic wars that have been fought by various national powers have all associated environmental and ecological consequences. The very idea of capital can be equated with dead nature and hence capitalism creates a deadly collision with nature, a collision which guarantees victory for a side and extinction of the other.

“Environmental history is not simply a product of technological or demographic change; rather it is inseparable from, even subordinate to, the way we organize out social relations. The environmental crisis is a crisis of society in the fullest sense. It signals the fact that a one-sided development of human productive powers without a commensurate change in the social relations by which we govern society spells social and ecological disaster.” John Bellamy Foster – ‘The Vulnerable Planet; A Short Economic History of the Environment

State, Surveillance and Solidarity

The human race is probably witnessing the biggest crisis in recent centuries, certainly biggest of our time. What the people and governments will decide in this vulnerable time will not only shape the health care system but also the economy, culture and politics. Quick and decisive actions should be taken in accordance with their long term consequences. Many of today’s short term emergency will become fixtures of our future life. The scope of deliberate decision is less while immature technologies, false and contradictory information are full. Each and every country is on the laboratory waiting for its test result. In these hard times, we are facing totalitarian surveillance *

In order to prevent the transmission of this pandemic, we need to restrain ourselves from physical touch from not only humans but also objects where the virus can be present. This basic idea resulted in quarantine for people and lockdown for the state. But this does not end here. The state is monitoring people, at each and every possible step in its territory according to state capacity and punishing those who are not following the rules. With the help of technology, this surveillance is possible to some extent. China, already lacking free speech, democratic rights and being a flag bearer of authoritarianism, did this surveillance notably through personal smart phones. It used millions of face recognising cameras, temperature sensors and a range of mobile based software applications which can provide the nearest corona virus case or carriers. This type of surveillance based app got popular to the state leaders all over the world. In India, the government of India launched ‘Aarogya Setu’ and the Indian Prime Minister, Mr.  Narendra Modi urged people to help combat the spread of coronavirus, downloading this Indian government-built smartphone app which helps identify their risk of catching and spreading the virus. The ‘Aarogya Setu’ app becomes the fastest downloaded app within hours, with 83 million users and so on. But two things make it very problematic. The first one is that India has no anti-surveillance, privacy data protection laws, the 1885 Telegraph Act is still in use. The second one is, of course, India has a nationalist government with right wing ‘Hindutva ideologies’ and a lot of unprecedented powers.

According to Indian author Arundhati Roy, “The Coronavirus is a gift to authoritarian states including India… Pre-Corona, if we were sleepwalking into the surveillance state, now we are panic-running into a super-surveillance state.” However, the Indian state did not stopped by launching the app, it made it mandatory for government and private employees by a guidelines published by the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs. Although it was taken down because of protests and criticisms from employees and employers.

The United States, Hong Kong, China, Singapore and multiple European countries have developed this type of surveillance app. One can argue that this is nothing new, in recent times we experienced a lot of incidents of data tracking, monitoring and manipulating people by the government or corporations. But the point that lies here is people’s support which is coming from almost every section of society. Frightened, confused people are giving in to the authoritative nature of state, admitting they are helpless in a way. This might normalise the mass level surveillance in the post COVID-19 world. Historian Yuval Noah Harari marks this surveillance as ‘a dramatic transition from “over the skin” to “under the skin surveillance’”. In which, you are on surveillance of the state for your temperature and blood pressure under the skin while you are clicking some link which was monitored in the past. Harari argues that this surveillance system will develop with time and will become new, a more terrifying one. Biometric surveillance can track heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure and by this data one can easily track what makes a human laugh, what makes him cry, and what makes him really, really angry. And by having these data, the governments and corporate can sale us anything they want — from products to politics. Although the tracking of biometric data is done on an emergency basis, it is seen that most states do not lift the emergency measures partially or totally in order to control the people, which creates a threat to human rights.

Some countries are having no new cases of COVID-19. Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand are notable in this regard. All of these countries had its own way of surveillance and lockdown but along with surveillance, there was social solidarity among the people. The use of scientific temperament on a daily basis in form of washing hands to staying home made this happen. The centralised monitoring, punishments, set of rules are not the only factors which helped this countries but also scientific temperament, physical distancing, mutual trust towards public authorities, and strong sense of social solidarity. Over the past few years, irresponsible politicians have deliberately undermined trust in science, in public authorities and in the media. Now these same irresponsible politicians might be tempted to take the high road to authoritarianism, arguing that one just cannot trust the public to do the right thing. 

This social solidarity should be executed at a global level at which countries will share information openly and humbly seek advice, and should be able to trust the data and the insights they receive.  A global effort to produce and distribute medical equipment, most notably testing kits and respiratory machines to poor and needy countries from rich and recovered countries is also needed. Instead of every country trying to do it locally and hoarding whatever equipment it can get, a co-ordinated global effort could greatly accelerate production and make sure life-saving equipment is distributed more fairly.

At this moment, the path of global solidarity will certainly help human race not only in terms of fighting Coronavirus and future epidemics but it will also help battling the upcoming economic recession in the world economy. On the other hand, there is option of disunity; self-centred policies and hatred which will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes in the future.

Repairing the Economy

The entire world economy has been shattered by more or less continuous lockdown for almost three months. For three months, international flights are not taking off, markets are closed trading is not happening, in other words the economy collapsed due to corona virus. But what will happen with the economy after the Coronavirus storm is under control or how things will be recovered is still question to be answered. If the economy opens prematurely, while the outbreak is still not in under control the consequences will be worse. Being a global public health crisis, an economic recovery will not be possible unless the health crisis is resolved first and public fear is alleviated. On the other hand, the more day to day economic activities are suspended the more people will become financially vulnerable and will be at subsistence risk Therefore, the public health and the economic sides of the problem are closely interrelated. Instead of a sequential solution—public health first or economy first—the way forward must be guided by solutions based on a clear understanding of the connections between these two aspects of the crisis.

In case of India, the most vulnerable strata are the low income class because of co morbidities which are worsened by pre-existing poor health conditions and zero exposure to public health services. This class is majorly formed of unorganised unskilled labours. There is a lack of possibility of returning of migrant workers to their work places as they will be exposed to a venerable condition. Sectors depending on migrant labours will face serious shortage of manpower. The lack of employment in villages except few landowners will also thrive in the economy.

Global co-operation is vitally needed on the economic front. Given the global nature of the economy and of supply chains, if each government does its own thing in complete disregard of the others, the result will be chaos and a deepening crisis. We need to act plan fully and globally.

Conclusion

The pandemic caught us in three ways. Medically, it is showing how unprepared we were despites the anticipations of pandemic. Economically it caught us in the most uncomfortable manner where we might have to choose life over economy or economy over life. Thirdly, it impacted psychologically. The daily co-ordinates of millions have been changed. The notion of social is at stake — all because of us. We failed to remember that we are a part of life and nature. The human race is no counterpart of nature but it resides within nature. The alienation which leads to rapid destruction of nature, guided by capitalism is bringing more pathogens near to human livestock. Coronavirus forced the richest, most powerful nations of the world, bringing the engine of capitalism to a juddering halt. Temporarily perhaps, but at least long enough for us to examine its parts, make an assessment and decide whether we want to help fix it, or look for a better engine. It also showed mutual trust with public authorities and social solidarity among people can control the pandemic along with the surveillance. The countries that are anti-poor, pro-1%, largely authoritarian with populist leaders are topping the list of most infected. Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality’, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This is no exception. And for the new world, we have to fight for it, a world which is not for few but for all.

Additional References

Wallace, Rob. 2020. “Capitalist agriculture and Covid-19: A deadly combination” interview by Yaak Pabst. Marx21, March 11 2020.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Pandemic” 2020, OR Books, New York.

Foster, John Bellamy. “The Vulnerable Planet: A Short Economic History of the Environment”. NYU Press, 1999.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Distances in a crowded house”

The Telegraph, March 29, 2020

url:https://www.telegraphIndia.com/opinion/how-the-coronavirus-crisis-and-social-distancis-is-affecting-lives-around-the-world/cid/1760056

Petersen, Hannah Ellis. “India’s Covid-19 app fuels worries over authoritarianism and surveillance”

The Guardian, May 4, 2020

url:  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/04/how-safe-is-it-really-privacy-fears-over-india-coronavirus-app

“New Guidelines See Home Ministry Ease Up on Compulsory Use of Aarogya Setu in Offices”

The Wire, May 17, 2020

url: https://thewire.in/government/in-new-guidelines-home-ministry-eases-up-on-compulsory-use-of-aarogya-setu-in-offices

Harari, Yuval Noah. “The world after coronavirus”

Financial Times, March 20, 2020

url: https://www.ft.com/content/19d90308-6858-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75

Ghatak Maitreesh., Roy, Anand Lal. “The Twin Crises of Covid-19 and How to Resolve”

The India Forum,April 28,2020

url: https://www.theindiaforum.in/article/twin-crises-covid-19-and-how-resolve-them

“COVID-19: Indian macroeconomic situation bleak, could worsen if lockdowns continue,says Jean DrezeOVID-19: Indian macroeconomic situation bleak, could worsen if lockdowns continue,says Jean Dreze”

PTI, April 5, 2020

url:https://www.cnbctv18.com/uncategorized/covid-19-indian-macroeconomic-situation-bleak-could-worsen-if-lockdowns-continuesays-jean-dreze-5627161.htm

Roy, Arundhati, “The Pandemic is a Portal”

Financial Times, April 3, 2020.

URL: https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca

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