How capitalism made the pandemic worse, every step of the way


Josh K

Josh is the main author of Northern Currents. Josh is an electrician of 10 years and has been interested in radical politics for even longer. Follow me on Twitter at @josh_nc.

Photo: Wesley Tingey

The Covid-19 pandemic has raged on for over two years now while the world is currently experiencing its sixth wave of infections. Yes, that’s right, wave six.

At each stage of the pandemic, pandemic austerity has reigned supreme in many countries. This is also true of Canada, whose government response has never really posed any threats to the profits of economic elites. 

And yes, I know Canada has done better than the USA, but that’s a low bar to set. We need to stop comparing ourselves to the USA.

It may seem odd to some to criticize capitalism’s response to some people. After all, didn’t capitalism create vaccines for the new virus at record-breaking speed?

Not exactly. Setting aside the massive amounts of public investment into vaccine research, production, and distribution – which incidentally companies like Pfizer reap major profits from – capitalism actually slowed down the prevention of the virus:

“The problem isn’t that prevention was impossible,” [Peter] Daszak told me. “It was very possible. But we didn’t do it. Governments thought it was too expensive. Pharmaceutical companies operate for profit.” And the W.H.O., for the most part, had neither the funding nor the power to enforce the large-scale global collaboration necessary to combat it. 

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of every way capitalism made the pandemic worse. That would require a whole book. Instead, this is a broad outline of pandemic austerity.

The Origins of Covid-19

The engine of capitalism is profit. The profit motive is what compels corporations toward constant growth: this growth means expanding their production, political influence, and customer base, endlessly. 

This profit-driven process is what causes corporations to expand across the globe, in search of new resources and markets to exploit. As they expand further into nature, deforestation increases the likelihood that humans, wildlife, and livestock interact with each other, providing new pathways for viruses we’ve never encountered before to “jump” across the boundaries of animal species. 

Scientists have been warning of the inevitability of a global pandemic for decades, and we’ve had warnings with less-transmittable viruses such as SARS and MERS. Unfortunately though, deforestation is profitable, and profit is always the first consideration under capitalism.

Thus we can say that capitalism’s own internal processes of endless growth made a pandemic like Covid-19 much more likely to emerge in the first place.

Pro-business, anti-worker government response

The federal government, with Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister, responded quickly to the pandemic and somewhat haphazardly. It’s hard to blame them for a haphazard approach given that this is a situation never faced before. They responded with programs such as CERB, the wage subsidy, and various business loans. 

Incidentally, Some of these business loans, like CEBA for example, allowed businesses to pocket $10,000 that didn’t need to be paid back.

There are two aspects of the big-business friendly response that aren’t talked about much, that I’d like to discuss here: 

  • Worker-friendly policies that weren’t even brought to the table, and
  • The influence of corporate power on the response

Policies that weren’t considered: Banning mortgage and rent collection

Some policies that would have significantly helped workers and their families survive the pandemic but cut into corporate profits were not even brought to the table in Canada.

Some unions proposed cancelling all mortgage and rent payments until the pandemic was over. CERB was a great tool for many but was simply not enough. CERB was taxable, so not all of it could be spent, and most of the rest was siphoned off by banks and landlords in the form of rent/mortgages. There was no national media attention or parliamentary discussion of this proposal.

An outright ban on all mortgages and rents would have given workers a real choice of refusing unsafe working environments. Our political elites and mainstream media never considered the idea, most likely because it would mean a hit to major banks’ profits, I would assume.

Instead, we just got mortgage deferrals and eviction bans which ultimately preserved the profits of banks.


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Corporate influence in politics: Early reopening of the economy

As soon as the first wave of the pandemic began to wind down, right-wing pundits and politicians engaged in a concerted effort to reopen the economy as fast as possible.

Donald Trump led the charge to “reopen America,” while far-right outlets like Fox News delivered him the critical support and legitimacy needed to get the job done. Profit and GDP had shrunk dramatically due to lockdowns, and many employers were eager to get back business and make some money. 

Trump’s plan to reopen America was carried out despite the warnings of virtually every relevant scientist. Reopening too early would lead to the second wave of infections that would overtake the country, which could have been delayed by months if daily case counts were brought closer to zero. And as expected, this is what happened; the second wave was over 4 times more deadly than the first in red states like Florida.

This same trend to capitulate to business interests – at the expense of working people – was noticed in Canada too. Then Conservative leader, Andrew Scheerechoed Trump’s comments to push an early reopening of Canada’s economy while kicking workers off CERB.

This is pandemic austerity politics at its finest. Now that Canada is in its fifth wave of the pandemic due to variants like Delta and Omicron, Scheer’s comments seem extremely short-sighted.

Essential workers have no say in their workplace

Once the pandemic hit, it spread like wildfire across the globe. Many non-essential businesses were forced to shut down for some time, to allow healthcare systems to adapt while also slowing the spread of Covid-19. This was known as “flattening the curve” and generally worked well at first.

Many of us were suddenly designated “essential workers” and we rose to the challenge. Grocery store workers, hospital staff, garbage collectors, those who maintain infrastructure (like myself), and many others kept society running, albeit at a much slower pace.

The problem with this – and this became more apparent months after the start of the pandemic – is that workers have little to no say in how their workplaces are run, and this includes workplace safety.

Many were forced to work in unsafe conditions throughout the pandemic. Remember, if you voluntarily quit your job, you were not entitled to CERB, and few places were hiring as they were shedding employees due to a faltering economy.

If workers themselves owned and controlled their own workplaces, they would no doubt implement more stringent safety measures such as paid sick leave, early reporting of viral exposures, company-provided masks, and refusal of unsafe work conditions. 

If Cargill was democratically owned and controlled by the workers, with elected managers, maybe they wouldn’t have been the site of Canada’s largest outbreak? The outbreak caused hundreds of infections among staff with three deaths. 

In short, worker-ownership is good public health policy.

The cure is for wealthy countries only 

Finally, we arrive at the final stage of the pandemic in which vaccines were distributed to the masses. This distribution has been on extremely unequal, profit-driven grounds.

The most rational way to distribute vaccines globally would be to simply give vaccines to the most vulnerable of every country first. Then, make them increasingly available to younger and younger people as supply is ramped up.

As we have seen, this is not how things worked out. Global capitalism, led by major pharmaceutical companies, created a vaccine system now referred to as vaccine apartheid. Major pharmaceutical companies kept their vaccine technologies as patented private property in order to maximize profit.

Governments of the wealthier global north made backroom deals directly with pharmaceutical companies to ensure their own countries’ access to vaccines, a form of “vaccine nationalism.” While anti-vaccine protests continued on in the global north, the global south was systematically denied access to life-saving vaccines. Something to think about next time you come across an anti-vaccine protest.

An alternative to pandemic austerity: economic democracy

The over-arching theme during this pandemic has been a response tainted by elite capitalist interests. Pandemic austerity, like capitalism more broadly, requires the threat of poverty to keep workers in line and to force them to work. This austerity is used to mobilize citizens to support nationalist public health ideals (securing our own countries vaccines supply) and to accept dangerous and precarious working conditions.

This faulty conception of vaccine nationalism has devastating consequences. As we have seen, this requires an internationalist, global response. If one country is largely vaccinated while another is not, the virus will mutate and cause harm to everyone.

A clear solution to pandemic austerity is economic democracy. Giving workers more power and control over their own lives enables them to better protect themselves. 

In practice, this could mean many things. Unions have been a counter-balance to push back on provincial and federal governments not doing enough to protect workers. 

More socialist methods of worker co-operatives and workers councils provide an alternative to the top-down, authoritarian business models of capitalism and would allow for more public input into public health decision-making. Nationalization of pharmaceutical industries, expansion of universal healthcare, and massive increases in funding scientific advances are imperative to ensure a strong public health system, as well as a healthy public.

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