One year on, it is clear as day that capitalism has been unable to deal with the health crisis unleashed by Covid, argues Rob Winkel.
During the Covid-19 crisis, two things have become abundantly clear about the capitalist system as its contradictions are laid bare through the inadequate management of the crisis by governments in the West. The first is that capitalism is unable to deal with a public health crisis of this scale as its exploitative priorities are at odds with the measures necessary for dealing with a pandemic. The second is that – contrary to the accepted wisdom propagated for decades – our lives don’t have to be lived at the mercy of capital.
The past year has made doubly clear that an alternative way of arranging society is not just possible but necessary if the post-Covid world is going to be able to prioritise human health and wellbeing over capital accumulation.
Neoliberal destruction of society
The Irish right-wing parties have for years pushed the neoliberal argument that public money can’t be spent on public services and that government should have a ‘light touch’ approach, leaving the private sector to profit handsomely from filling the gaps that these policies have intentionally created in housing, health, transport, care and other sectors. This obsession with outsourcing and privatisation, coupled with a refusal by governments to learn the lessons and warnings from countries in Asia, meant that when the crisis hit, public bodies and local authorities were hardly able to mobilise the resources that would have helped greatly during the early days.
Healthcare is probably the most blatant example of this. Before the pandemic, Ireland’s healthcare system was famously underfunded and unable to cope with a routine level of demand. The two-tier healthcare system, in which an individual can pay for lower waiting times, is not fit for purpose. The UK’s NHS, while under systematic attack from the Tory government, provides free healthcare to all those who need it. This principle should be a baseline everywhere. That the Irish government has created a situation where people need to think about the financial implications of even booking a GP appointment should – particularly in light of the Covid-19 crisis – be seen as nothing short of criminal.
The crisis has also exposed the gaping holes that neoliberalism has left in workers’ rights in Ireland. Many industries in Irish capitalism have eroded labour rights to the point where they are unable to cope with allowing people to take sick leave for Covid-related reasons. The development of a culture in which taking sick days is seen as shameful has left workers fearing for their jobs if they need time off for health reasons, and the lack of workers’ protection has left many either too scared or unable to afford taking time off.
Capitalist ideology has steered a policy of ill-advised early reopening which led Ireland through a second and third wave of infections; the business-obsessed government trading public health against the needs of private companies. The Christmas 2020 reopening which went ahead against public health advice led to over 2,000 potentially avoidable deaths. The lockdowns before and after this surge were not far-reaching enough to adequately suppress the virus. As long as we are led by those who listen to business lobby groups more than public health advice, public health will not be able to win out against epidemiological outbreaks in the future. Some capitalist governments in Asia and elsewhere showed slightly more strategic thinking by implementing zero-Covid policies, which have allowed for their economies to return to a degree of normality. Through their refusal to do what is necessary to stamp out Covid-19, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are failing at protecting public health. However, even through the lens of their own priorities of protecting the economy, they utterly unsuccessful compared to countries where a zero-Covid strategy has been implemented. Instead, we have a cycle of lockdowns now set to last much longer due to a laissez-faire attitude towards the virus.
Given the scale of the emergency at hand, we might think that the government would requisition parts of the private sector considered crucial to dealing with the crisis. Instead, they have allowed the private sector to cash in on providing the necessary services. We saw for instance that at Cork and Dublin airports, instead of the government providing Covid-19 testing using the resources of the state, they have asked private companies to offer this. The government handed in the region of €115 million per month to private hospitals during the first wave, and recently insisted on putting their half-baked airport mandatory quarantine programme to tender to a private hotel group. Like every other crisis, they are using this one to find ways to allow the private sector to profit handsomely.
We have learned that despite the obsession with uninterrupted economic activity that the Irish government has, the world doesn’t stop when economic activity gets disrupted. Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe and others love platitudes about “getting Ireland back to work” as soon as possible. In 2017, Irish economists had a field day speculating that one-day closures due to Storm Ophelia resulted in the loss of up to €1 billion to the Irish economy – giving a sense that society will crumble unless everyone is at work. The pandemic has seen many parts of the economy closed for months on end, putting to bed the idea that the whole country has to be permanently busy. It turns out, after all, that in order for society to thrive, there is not a need for every participant to be ‘economically productive’. Our political leaders and many sections of the media have an unhealthy obsession with economic growth. Lockdown for the majority of the year has clearly exposed this to be a fairly pointless indicator of the health of a society and clearly other aspects such as access to healthcare, homelessness and poverty indicators are where political obsession needs to lie.
Throughout these lockdowns, again the priorities of the government are clear: many people in services deemed ‘essential’ are permitted to go to work and be in proximity to co-workers; however, those same people are in many cases not allowed to see their loved ones for months on end.
The pandemic has truly exposed the neoliberal lies of the last few decades. In their dealing with the crisis, the Irish government have rightly ensured that Covid-19 assessments and testing are free to all those who need it. If it applies to Covid-19, then it follows logically that the same should apply to all healthcare needs. Similarly, we learned at the start of the crisis that contrary to continued denials by successive housing ministers, evictions can be banned overnight. Again, if this applies to a public health crisis, there is no justification for not pursuing this policy for society in general.
A final myth that has been blown out of the water is the idea that humans aren’t adaptable to change in society. The proponents of capitalism love to tell us that things can’t change and that a revolutionary change in society would be too much of an upheaval for people. The onset of the pandemic brought about a rapid shift to working from home (or not working at all) for millions, along with the adoption of ‘new normal’ ways of conducting everyday life. But if society can adjust to this ‘new normal’, then of course it can shift to one which sees a change for workers: for example, a society in which workplaces are democratised and run based on a 4-day work week. The public sector can be reoriented to serve public needs and instead exist to provide subsidies to private capitalists. All that has ever stood in the way of this is the political will to make these adjustments.
Capitalism has shown itself to be completely unable to deal with the crisis because it must put the needs of capital first. In Ireland and elsewhere in the West, governments are criminally trying to balance public health with private profit. None of this is to suggest that we should be shocked that a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil government is useless at dealing with the emergency. After all, they have for years governed on the basis of serving the needs of property developers, beef barons and tax-dodging multinationals. They exist to strip down the public resources in favour of those who they serve and probably never imagined that one day they would be forced to govern on the basis of serving the public good during a pandemic.
Building a fit-for-purpose post-Covid society
All this leaves us with the question of what society should look like in the aftermath of Covid-19. In mapping a way forward, we need to be clear about what the priorities should be. Firstly, the ideology that has run our public services into the ground has to go. This was clear before Covid-19, and the ongoing crisis has exposed this even further. There is now ample historical record of neoliberalism ruining public services, and time needs to be called on this damaging political programme which will ultimately offer up all it can of the public sector to private investors until there is no such thing as a public service left.
Secondly, the coming years are going to be filled with a “who will pay for it?” debate. Many kites have been flown by the government testing the ideas of a public sector pay freeze and further austerity. But we should be clear that ordinary people should not pay for this. For a start, much of the bill of the crisis is through public funds used to cover wages of private companies and subsidise their costs and losses during the closure. These companies have benefited enormously from this as it has ensured that they retained staff. Modest wealth taxes and increased corporation tax could foot the bill many times over without even having a notable impact on the livelihoods of those taxed.
During World War Two, corporation taxes as high as 90% were not uncommon as governments tried to foot the cost of war. Today, governments are going to need to start thinking along similar lines if a vibrant society is going to be developed after the pandemic. The capitalists who have hoarded more wealth than any time before the pandemic are not going to volunteer to be a part of the rebuilding of our art and culture sector, for instance – this sector on which we can’t put an economic value, as well as others, will need serious public investment.
For the post-Covid society of the future, there is a world to win. We have learned that despite the stubborn stance from the government that it has to be their way, an alternative is possible. At the start of the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of people took the preventative action of distancing and isolating before the government took decisive action on restrictions. Throughout the crisis, ordinary people have been a step ahead of government policy. The crisis has shown that the path out of it is paved by ordinary people and frontline workers, and – not by Micheál Martin, Stephen Donnelly, Leo Varadkar or Simon Harris.
The Irish government is begrudgingly paying €350 to workers whose jobs have disappeared for the pandemic and they try to propagate the idea that this is the main cost of the crisis which will have to be recouped through austerity. But what this has exposed is that paying unemployed people €350/week is better for the economy and much better for businesses because the money keeps circulating in society rather than being hoarded as happens when tax-breaks and subsidies are given to the ultra-rich.
Data from around the world makes it abundantly clear that inequality has worsened during the pandemic, with billionaires finding opportunities to pocket record levels of wealth while the poorest suffer most. At the very minimum we have to protect and enhance the existing welfare measures – and ensure fairer taxation of the wealthiest – if we are to begin to push back against the inequality-worsening forces of capitalism and build a fairer society. Most of all, the crisis has shown that the public sector needs to be robust and well-resourced to serve the needs that society has at any given time. Public resources need to be prioritised to where the public need them and we are living through a crisis worsened by the simple fact that this hasn’t happened for a long time. For the future of humanity, it is crucial that we build a fairer world that serves the needs of the many and not the private profits of the few. Time needs to be called on capitalism, and on those who govern as agents for its benefactors – its aims and priorities could hardly be more at odds with those required to respond to a public health crisis.