Reflections on Covid-19: it’s not the virus that is killing us, it’s capitalism

Over recent weeks, the business as usual that activists have been fighting against for decades has been abruptly suspended in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Although many expected such a crisis could occur around this time, what could not have been predicted is the form and magnitude of the upheaval. Not just governments, businesses and heath-services, but also activists and grassroots organisations – we have all been caught with our proverbial trousers down. In this short period of time we have experienced significant changes to our lives and daily routines. Some have been able to adapt quickly, immediately getting involved with setting up mutual aid initiatives around the country. Others have needed time to recover, reflect, and regroup.

It cannot be disputed that Covid-19 is serious, and that regularly washing hands with soap, wearing a mask, and physical distancing are necessary to limit the spread as much as possible. However, the narrative that the current state of emergency, partial social collapse, and high number of casualties are caused by the virus exclusively is wrong – our society was sick long before the pandemic. Additionally, the measures being implemented by our governments at this time are unnecessary, as they are unhelpful for combating the virus and safeguarding the public.

One thing that we can all agree on is that this crisis has so overtly exposed the flaws, weaknesses and contradictions within our current system that it is no longer possible to feign ignorance.

  • Capitalism doesn’t work: at least not for the 99%. Capitalism is unnatural, exploitative, and only exists by the authoritarian rule of the state. The system is dependant on everything going smoothly at all times, and is regularly prone to failure. Even one month of pause in production can cause businesses to close, workers to be made redundant, people to lose their homes and the stock market to crash. Workplaces are run as private tyrannies, where all aspects of production are controlled from above for the purpose of extracting profit. Bosses have the unjustified power to command workers to continue generating profit, which now accelerates the spread of the pandemic. Such a system is in no way inevitable, and now is the time to discuss and promote better alternatives.
  • Universal free public healthcare is non-negotiable: but for it to actually work it needs to be properly funded. Many countries still do not have universal coverage, a fact which is proving disastrous for limiting the spread of the pandemic. It is disturbing, but perhaps unsurprising, that so many governments are willing to maintain a bastardised model of healthcare which prioritises the extraction of profit over actually providing healthcare, or to cut public healthcare spending to the bone, allowing under-resourced and under-staffed hospitals and clinics to become the norm. It is safe to say that in many countries, the majority of Covid-19 deaths will turn out to be preventable deaths directly caused by the systematic dismantling and privatisation of national healthcare systems by governments. Now is the time to fight for healthcare as a universal human right, and to make it a properly funded public good.
  • Housing is a basic human right: not a privilege for the deserving, an investment for the rich, or a commodity for Airbnb to turn into ad-hoc hotels of questionable legality. It is a travesty that governments protect unused empty houses owned by the rich while many of the poor live in unfit accommodation, or have no home at all. The government having to enforce physical distancing policies shows it is possible to house rough sleepers. It was always possible. It raises the question, after this is over, if we allow previously homeless people to be kicked back out into the streets, what does it expose about the hypocrisy and ruthlessness of the authorities? Furthermore, this crisis has made it glaringly obvious the rental system does not work. Landlords do not provide a material service, they exploit those without the income for a more stable living arrangement, unscrupulously benefit from the distorted housing market, and many are willing to throw their tenants into the street at the first sign of inability to pay rent. Will we be seeing a wave of evictions at the end of the epidemic when the government prohibition has been lifted? Now is the time to work towards dismantling the state of the current rental and housing markets.
  • This system creates second class citizens: and then has no compunction about disposing of them when it is expedient to do so. Our society already treats the disabled, neuro-atypical, and those struggling with mental health as burdens rather than equal and valuable members, and the few rights they currently have were fought for with long struggles. Yet all it takes is one pandemic for the UK government to pass a bill amending the Care Act and the Mental Health Act, putting the well-being and rights of sick, disabled, mentally unwell and elderly people, as well as their carers, in serious danger. This government wants us to accept and condone their ableist and social-Darwinist worldview, now is the time to stand up and demand no one gets left behind.
  • Borders and the exclusivity of citizenship cause misery and suffering: as people are penalised for seeking salvation from war, poverty and natural disasters. Capitalism and imperialism go hand in hand, and the result of imperialism has been the creation of the vast, super-exploited Global South. Western states have imposed dehumanising immigration rules allowing them to incarcerate refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, many of which are trying to escape conditions of war or extreme oppression caused by those same Western states. Even before Covid-19, camps like those of Moria in Lesvos were essentially hell on earth. Now they are death camps in the making, yet still the EU refuses to offer any alternative, and seems perfectly willing to accept the mass deaths that will result. Here in the UK, even those with shaky immigration status who are lucky enough to not be in detention centres still have to contend with inadequate aid or support to keep themselves safe from the pandemic. Now, more than ever, is the time to stand together as sisters and brothers to demand freedom from the false tyranny of citizenship.
  • Prisons are inhumane: and we should look to phasing them out as much as possible. Much of the crime in our society is a consequence of capitalism, and the terrible conditions it creates – without financial want, what motive would there be for theft? A society gets the crime it deserves, and the relations of domination, social exclusion, and mental health crises resulting from the conditions of capitalism mean we see a lot of it. Now, Covid-19 poses an great risk to those incarcerated by the state, most of whom need rehabilitation, community and personal support rather than punishment. Many of these people are particularly vulnerable, and viruses can spread rapidly through the confined spaces. In response we have seen the release of “low-risk” prisoners proving the arbitrariness of prison sentences. Now is the time to step up the campaigning against our overtly carceral system, to expose its shameful secrets and push for more humane viable alternatives.
  • Not everyone’s home is a sanctuary: for too many it is a place of violence, abuse or neglect. The covering up and downplaying of the reality of domestic violence and rape, just like the way abortions and reproductive freedom have been turned from a right into a shameful, and often illegal, act shows the systematic sidelining of feminist issues. Capitalism is an inherently patriarchal system, where the “man of the house” is awarded the right to “command” – and if he wants abuse – his “household” in exchange for his subjugation to the system, aided and abetted by “tradition” and all too often religion. Domestic violence services, just like youth centres, were decimated during the years of austerity, highlighting the state’s utter disregard for the issue. Now everyone is being requested to stay home, as if home means the same thing for everyone, and little to no thought seems to have been given to issues of sexual health as the government bungled and u-turned several times over access to home abortions during this period. Now is the time to shout even louder about domestic violence, child abuse and reproductive freedom, and make our demands that everyone is afforded autonomy over their own bodies as well as a home that can be a sanctuary even stronger .
  • There is real merit to the idea of universal basic income: now more than ever, and not just because it helps people cope during periods of financial insecurity. Non-essential workers would be able stay at home and protect themselves during this crisis, rather than be forced to put themselves in danger by continuing to work out of necessity. By taking unpaid leave, they could instead devote their time towards doing all the things that are sorely needed during a crisis, which in most cases are unpaid voluntary tasks. Now is a good time to refine the idea of UBI and put it seriously on the table.
  • The whole idea of wages is a sham: along with any notion of meritocracy. The fact that wages do not reflect the difficulty or importance of a job has been placed quite clearly in the spotlight at the moment, since all the jobs deemed high-priority are some of the most poorly paid, devalued and disrespected. Now is the time to revive the discussions about wage-slavery, and how economic inequality is a harmful and unjustified social construct.
  • The money exists: proven by the large sums that have suddenly appeared to bail out businesses and the economy. Since Thatcher, public services have eroded, while people have been forced to survive on stagnating wages and dwindling benefits, all because the government supposedly didn’t have enough money to do otherwise. The lie has now been revealed – money was never the issue – and now is the time to have our say in what should be economically prioritised in society.
  • We can halt the environmental destruction: if capitalist over-production comes to a stop. Just a brief pause in flying and industrial production has been enough to substantially reduce global emissions. Now is the time to really push the point and make demands for the restriction of flight travel and unnecessary industrial production.
  • The slide into authoritarianism and nationalism is an easy one: and is happening before our eyes. Under the guise of beating the pandemic, governments have been able to pass frightening restrictions on our freedom of movement and privacy. In many countries, the police have been given extended powers, including the right to interrogate or detain people going outside. The power for the state to surveil us, as well the tools they are able to use, has grown substantially. Additionally, nationalist rhetoric and racism has shaped many government’s responses, from the further strengthening of borders, to the scapegoating of Chinese people. We can’t let the immediate emergency of the situation distract us from the possible long term implications of the measures being passed now. We’re still waiting for the ‘temporary’ security measures after 9/11 to be repealed. Now is the time to make sure the red flags are raised and the measures do not go unchallenged.

What we are currently experiencing is not simply a health crisis, it is a crisis of capitalism and a crisis of governments. Capitalism has been under an extended period of decay, and hopefully this pandemic will give us the tools we need to nail its coffin shut. States have been dramatically exposed for their failings and inadequacies, as well as for where their true allegiances lie. We stand at a precipice, and how we act now will have vast ramifications for decades to come.

If we don’t resist, then we run the very real danger of allowing:

  • wealth inequality to become even more extreme and institutionalised
  • the disposability of the poor and vulnerable to be normalised and entrenched
  • the welfare state to be completely dismantled and everything to be privatised and commodified
  • borders to become even stronger and better policed as we end up living in walled nations that happily let people outside die
  • authoritarianism and restrictive state surveillance to become a normal accepted part of our lives as we willingly hand over our privacy and freedom
  • measures to be taken to give capitalism one last lease of life that will put the fight for climate justice significant steps back, and ultimately spell the end of life on earth as we know it

On the other hand, this is one of those crucial moments in history where if we fight back we stand to make a lot of gains. Governments have been forced to reluctantly give a number of concessions: rent holidays, eviction freezes, the housing of the homeless, financial aid to people left with no income or sick pay, release of prisoners and many more. Lets make sure these concessions not only become the new norm, but become the stepping stones towards demanding the creation of a more egalitarian, humane and functional society.

Similarly the numerous mutual aid groups that have sprung up all over the globe, inspired and taught by the mutual aid initiatives in response to natural disasters of the last decade, have shown that people can and will self-organised to help each other. These groups have set about providing what the state, both national government and local councils, have been unwilling and unable to provide, proving quite conclusively the redundancy, and often obstructiveness, of the state apparatus. Lets harness the experiences and relationships that are being created, nurture the spirit of self-governance so that it lives well beyond this current emergency, growing into something richer, broader and more permanent, and reminding people that we can do things for ourselves.

One big question we have been asking ourselves is in this new strange status quo is how do we continue to fight? We are used to taking the protest to the street and acting in the real physical domain. We are used to meeting, organising and building communities in the flesh. How can we continue on in this period of ‘social distancing’ where we are all essentially under a ‘light’ house arrest and group gatherings are prohibited? Thankfully we live in a digital age, where it is possible to communicate over the internet and replace many physical real world things with their virtual counterparts. Yet this is all still very new to a lot of us, and there is a lot of experimenting and exploring to be done as we investigate the questions of what effective digital activism looks like and how do we maintain effective connections while in isolation. It is essential we do the work to find answers to these questions, stay active, and prepare for the time when we can take to the streets once again. We hope that you will join us both now in the virtual world, and later on back in the physical world, because now is the time to step things up.

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