Socialist Alternative

Socialists and the Covid-19 Pandemic

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How the virus is used by the ruling class and big business in their interests, and what should we demand?

Statement from the International Executive of the International Socialist Alternative

Covid-19 has now spread to all continents. At the time of writing it is unclear how long the crisis will last, how many will be affected and how many will die. The effect it is having on the world economy is already becoming clear with stock markets falling and companies laying people off. A feeling of panic is spreading, forcing governments to take action.

A Real Threat

Covid-19 does present a real threat. It is a highly aggressive virus with, it currently seems, a higher mortality rate than “normal flu” affecting especially older and already weakened patients. The health systems in the advanced capitalist countries are not sufficiently prepared for it — but in those countries subjected to neo-colonialism, an outbreak could develop into a nightmare.

People are dying primarily of the virus, but a significant number of those who die do so, because of weaknesses in the healthcare system. Even in the advanced capitalist countries, the effects of decades of neo-liberal cuts have created a situation in which there are too few hospital beds, overworked staff, inadequate test facilities and a lack of technical and medical support for those infected. In the developing countries, adequate health care systems have never even existed.

Covid-19 is a de facto pandemic, although, due to modern medical techniques it is unlikely to be as severe as the Spanish flu that killed up to 50 million people, almost 100 years ago. But if it spreads further, if millions are infected, if governments continue failing to react appropriately, then it has the potential to produce severe consequences. After balancing on the edge for quite a while, Covid-19 could also be the trigger that pushes the world economy into the next recession.

It may also have serious political effects. The capitalist system and with it bourgeois democracy has been in a deepening crisis since the ruling class proved incapable of solving the economic crisis after 2007. Since then, the political situation in all parts of the world is characterized by instability, with quickly changing governments, and the appearance of “new” politicians proposing populist measures to overcome the deep mistrust as they attempt to restore stability. 2019 was a year when the ruling class all over the planet was shaken by uprisings, mass protests, revolts and revolutionary movements — explosions of discontent against the political and economic system. A pandemic could cut across these movements, but could also lead to new waves of protest, as the ruling elite proves once more that it can not solve the problems. This could unfold very quickly, as in Iran. But with the nature of this crisis — a virus that is passed from one person to another — there is the danger that anger and fear could lead to isolation, racism and separation, before collective protest develops. This makes it even more important that socialists explain the roots of the crisis, and also put forward concrete proposals and demands on how to handle the situation.

Failure to Intervene Early And Justification of Lockdowns

Despite what many establishment voices say, the handling of the early outbreak in Wuhan by Chinese authorities was a catastrophic failure. The first infections happened at the beginning of December last year and the novel Covid-19 strain of Coronavirus was identified on January 7 this year. Genetic analysis showed it was remarkably similar to the SARS Coronavirus, which had a staggering mortality rate of about 10% in the 2003 outbreak. Instead of taking this as a warning and starting to contain the outbreak while it was still localized, the authorities decided to ignore it and silence critical scientists and journalists, who were trying to warn the public — the fate of the late doctor Li Wenliang being the most notorious example of this policy.

At that point, the start of the outbreak, it would probably have been possible to stop it by tracing the chain of infection and isolating the individuals at risk, while simultaneously informing the public, handing out face masks and installing antiviral disinfectants at public places. But it took more than 2 weeks for the Chinese government to realize they could no longer hide the problem, so on January 23 they imposed the Hubei lock-down, restricting the basic human rights of 60 million people in that area.

While we do not fundamentally oppose the restriction of the right to travel during a dangerous outbreak, we do criticize the regime, for failing to take any measures before this drastic restriction, as well as the way it was decided and implemented. Also it has to be pointed out, that according to leaked information, the conditions of the lock-down are horrific for those affected: many workers are on unpaid leave, quarantine facilities consist of hundreds of beds next to each other with limited sanitary facilities, basic needs like food and water are not properly taken care of, with staff working under unbearable conditions.

In the advanced capitalist countries, we see politicians downplaying the dangers of the outbreak while stressing that they are well prepared, which is, in most cases, not true. Given the already existing mistrust in the ruling elite, many people sense that there is something wrong with this approach, which encourages panic reactions like hoarding. The failure to arrange a proper early response leads to the danger that later more extreme measures to deal with the outbreak need to be introduced, as is already seen in Italy with the local lock-downs and restrictions on the right to strike.

Information and Democracy

If earlier, cynical media magnates claimed that ‘sex sells papers’, now it seems they think “panic sells”. At the moment, there are two contradictory problems: while regimes are not properly informing the population, the media are grasping the smallest details to help create a panic. In China it is now clear that a doctor, Li Wenliang working in Wuhan, had warned of the Coronavirus before it started to spread, but was ignored and harassed by the regime. The regime, resorting to its usual methods of censorship and repression tried to isolate the problem, but this attempt back-fired. Later it made a U-turn and put millions of people into quarantine.

These draconian measures taken by the Chinese regime have been welcomed by governments all over the world, there is even a sense of “well, in such a situation you need at least elements of dictatorship to handle the situation”. This is a dangerous trend, one that began to appear with the introduction of a “climate state of emergency” and “anti-terror laws”, which are used to justify limiting democratic rights. While it is true that in a situation of a pandemic, quick and sometimes restrictive measures have to be taken, this does not mean that this should be done in an undemocratic and dictatorial way.

These measures are taken to ensure the ruling class maintains its power, and there is no guarantee that any of these ad hoc measures will not remain long after the crisis is over. They are justified with the argument that ordinary working class people do not understand what is going on and are incapable of finding solutions. Both are far from true.

In Iraq, faced with the collapse of the healthcare system, protesters have handed out leaflets and delivered lectures on coronavirus prevention, and the makeshift clinics erected months ago to treat demonstrators hurt by police repression are now distributing free medical masks, gloves and sanitizers. Volunteers in biohazard suits take the temperature of protesters lined up in organized queues. This shows a very small glimpse of what would be achievable on a larger scale if the response to the virus was democratically organized from below, on the basis of the solidarity of working people, rather than dictated by the profit, prestige and power of the capitalist elites.

We Say

As a first step we need the widespread distribution of scientifically based information using all media channels. Genuine medical and scientific experts, independent of companies and political elites should give advice on how to keep the risks of infection and spreading as low as possible. This information should be distributed for free, including by the private media without payment for print space or time and in all necessary languages to reach all layers of society. Any media that spreads wrong information, racist slanders, conspiracy theories, or that demands payment should be taken over by the public and the staff immediately. This shows the need for independent working class media!

Information has to be widely distributed in workplaces, universities and schools during paid working hours or study time.

Decisions about the necessary measures to be implemented and their management should be taken by democratic structures of ordinary working class people, of representatives of the labor movement and the local population, guided by the opinion of medical experts.


Government measures such as body temperature measurements at airports, that are more or less useless given that one can carry the virus without fever or other symptoms, are taken in an attempt to show that “something is being done” and to disguise their failure to make the necessary investments in more medical staff and resources. They have mostly failed to introduce a program of early testing in order to track infection chains and implement effective ways to block them. They also use the threat to further their political interests such as in Italy, where strikes have been banned using Covid-19 as an argument for this anti democratic measure.

At the same time, people are pressured to go to work even if they feel ill for fear of losing pay, or even their job. Recently, a worker in the German VW plant in Wolfsburg went to work although feeling ill, and then died. Management forced his colleagues to continue working next to the body to avoid stopping the production line. Some companies, such as airlines, are attempting to use the virus to resolve earlier economic problems by making the workforce pay — by firing people, putting them on reduced working hours, sending them on unpaid leave and cutting pay.

In their attempts to limit the spread of the virus, governments use measures that affect the public, but leave the consequences to individuals, who have to, and often can’t afford to pay. We demand a different approach — the health of all is a public responsibility and needs therefore to be organized and financed by the whole of society.

We Say

Facilities for proper hand washing, disinfection and whatever is necessary and useful should be provided wherever necessary and materials distributed for free. It shows the absolute perversion of the capitalist system that businesses are trying to profit from the people’s need to protect their health, so those companies should be taken over by, and run for the needs of society. This would allow production to be switched or increased by companies making similar products. Workers themselves know well how production is organized, which products are useful and necessary, and can easily be replaced and how production can be changed to urgently provide any necessary emergency supplies. For this, production has to be managed and controlled by democratically elected bodies of the workers themselves.

Masks and other items needed for the protection especially of medical staff should be provided for free and in the quantities necessary. Some companies already argue that stocks are low, just to sell at higher prices. This underlines why the industry should be controlled by elected representatives of the public, workers from the company itself and the wider workers’ movement.

The schizophrenic character of bourgeois governments is revealed when they close down big events such as the Venice carnival and sports events. Medical experts comment that this only means that people spend more time in enclosed spaces, such as bars where transmission is even easier. At the same time, people are still expected to travel to work every day, often using mass transit, to keep the economy running, and profits flowing. If there is a need to reduce the risk of further spreading, then the first measure should be reduce the need to work to those jobs that are really necessary, and if possible to allow home-working These measures should be implemented so that all workers, whether working or not, get full pay. Special measures to provide additional help for the low paid are needed as they have no spare resources for extra expenditure.

If schools and kindergartens have to be closed, then the parents have to be released from work with full pay — important, not only to protect the rights of workers, but also to prevent the formation of informal groups of children, organized as parents can’t stay at home. Observing the necessary hygienic measures amongst groups of small children is virtually impossible. If companies argue they can not afford to pay, as a first measure their books should be opened to public scrutiny to check this is true, and those that cannot pay should be taken over by the public and run under the control and management by the workers themselves.

When travel restrictions are implemented, they must not be at the expense of working class people: if people have to cancel or change booked travel, they should be fully compensated for losses or any extra costs. Discussions and decisions about necessary quarantines, what production needs to be continued and what measures have to be taken to reduce the spreading of the virus should be made by democratically organized and run committees of health experts, the local community and workers on the ground. They must not be left in the hands of the bourgeois government representing the needs of the capitalist class.

In those regions where quarantine is necessary, the distribution of food and other necessary items has to be organized publicly by democratically elected committees to prevent a situation where those with more money get “served” better than others.


The mortality of Covid-19 is strongly linked to the quality of the health sector. In countries with weak health sectors or no public health service, more will die. In Iran, the country with the highest death toll outside of China, the response to the epidemic has been hampered by the regime’s inaction, lies and corruption — but also by US-imposed economic sanctions that have reduced access to basic medical supplies and restricted the import of coronavirus diagnosis kits.

But also in the advanced capitalist countries, there will be enormous problems due to a lack of resources. An older patient in Austria was only found to be infected with Covid-19 after having been in hospital for 10 days suffering from “flu”. In Italy, the situation is demonstrating how serious, dangerous and obtuse the process of dismantling public health carried out in recent years by the country’s main political forces has been. Aided by neo-liberal attacks and federalist regionalism, the last twenty years have seen the dismemberment of public health, which has been deprived of resources, torn to pieces, demolished, and broken up into numerous autonomous regional health services without the powers and impact that a unified National Health Service (NHS) of a modern state should have.

The improvement of medical science and technology has reduced the need for lengthy treatments in hospitals. But everywhere this argument has been used to go too far in that direction in order to cut health expenditures. So called experts have been demanding the reduction of hospital beds and staff to make them more efficient or, as in many cases the privatization of key parts of the health sector in the interests of profit. This has led to exhausting working conditions in hospitals and a lack of resources for decent treatment — even in “normal” times. Now the pandemic threatens to create extreme conditions, and the whole health system is stretched to breaking point.

We Say

As a first step, all staff in the health sector should be freed from work that is not directly linked to care — such as administration and unnecessary documentation. This would immediately liberate 20–30% extra resources.

More health staff should be employed with maximum safety measures and proper pay — and more staff should remain after the epidemic, to reduce the working hours in the health sector for good. While there is a need for more staff, we reject forced labor and defend the right to deny work. History has shown how selfless people are prepared to even put their own life in danger in times of war, catastrophe or disease.

During times of disease, and in reality at all times, there is no room for competition in the health sector. Where hospitals or clinics exist, they have to cooperate for the benefit of society. All private clinics and health facilities must provide treatment for the Covid-19 virus for free to all who ask.

There should be no limit to access to medical treatment anywhere.. Billions of people all over the planet can’t afford health insurance. Even in the richest country on the planet — the USA — no universal health service exists. All necessary medicines and treatments to deal with Covid-19 should be provided by, and paid for by the state.

All economic sanctions on Iran and other countries should be ended immediately, along with all measures that restrict the circulation of medical equipment in affected areas. In a situation of Pandemic, it is obvious that not only are sanctions inhumane, but a threat to the whole of society as infected, yet untreated people will only spread the virus further.

Health is a human right and must never be handed over to a profit driven market. Privatized and private health institutions should be (re)nationalized immediately. In a nationalized and democratically organized health system all information is shared, material is distributed in the most effective way and patients are treated equitably and effectively.

Pharmaceutical research and industry

Like everything else under capitalism, health and research is a commodity. But it is not just a few dodgy companies making extra profits by speculating with masks and other medical supplies– it is the whole pharmaceutical industry. 2019 saw the 10 biggest pharmaceutical companies increasing their profits by 7% to a total of 138 billion dollars. The company that first produces a vaccine or even medicine for Covid-19 will make a fortune. So while teams of scientists work on medication, companies do not share information and research results are kept secret. This same goes for other severe illnesses! Profit for the few is more important than the lives of the many.

The Covid-19 outbreak shows clearly the problems of the centralized production of drugs so as to boost profits. As most drugs are manufactured in China and India, the shortage of important medications is becoming more urgent in a number of countries. As shortages increase, the health of non-infected people is put at risk.

We Say

The pharmaceutical industry has to be taken into public ownership and run in the interests of all.

Patents have to be abolished as they monopolize information — all available information has to be shared and made public. More has to be invested in research to provide quicker results — the profits of the pharmaceutical companies can easily pay for this. Elected committees of experts, workers, patients and medical staff should make all key decisions, evaluate the results and decide necessary changes.

The restoration of de-centralized structures for manufacturing drugs to prevent shortages in situations of outbreaks, natural disasters and so on.

No hoarding of medication for profit — for the democratic management of the distribution of medication.


The capitalist system with its wars, exploitation and destruction of nature forces millions of people on the planet to flee their homes. The far right, but also “ordinary” bourgeois governments, try to put the blame for the effects of their policies — the loss of jobs, lack of housing etc. — on migrants and refugees. The racist propaganda that has poisoned society for decades has already led to racist attacks against Chinese or other “Asian” looking people in Germany, Italy, Britain, Russia, the USA and other countries.

With an increase in infections in Africa and the Middle East, which threaten to lead to epidemic outbreaks in the huge refugee camps, where people are squeezed together in horrible conditions lacking sanitation and medical help, and with the “opening” of the border into the European Union by Erdogan, socialists and the labor movement need a program for refugees.

The far right already attacks migrants and refugees using Covid-19 as an excuse. Soon, undoubtedly, they will be followed by various bourgeois parties, including seemingly “progressive” social democratic and green parties. They will try to implement even more racist migration rules, to build walls and strengthen fortress Europe, arguing that this is needed to “protect” against the virus. In Cyprus, four of the nine crossings along the buffer zone between the North and South have been closed, in a move the government presents as a measure to combat the spread of the coronavirus — despite the absence of confirmed cases on either side of the divide.

If no other effective measures are taken, this can lead to a situation where even left and working class people have the feeling that, while not liking such actions, they have no option but to accept them. But Covid-19 is democratic and anti-racist: it does not ask for gender, religion or nationality. So any measure that is based on such characteristics is at best useless. But those who use the virus to create division prevent us from working together to stop the further spread and solve the crisis.

No border control can keep all refugees out — let alone any virus. “You cannot wall in a virus” explains Larry Gostin, Professor for Global Health Law at Georgetown University in Washington — we would add: “You cannot wall out a virus”. The reason why people fear migrants and refugees is the misinformation spread about Covid-19 and to the long term experiences of many, that the ruling classes made ordinary working class people pay for the even poorer refugees who came to Europe in 2015 or who fled Latin America to the US. But neither refugees nor working class people in the advanced capitalist countries are responsible for war, climate change and poverty — the usual reasons why people have to flee from their homes.

At the time of writing, the long-term effects of Covid-19 are unclear. But the virus clearly demonstrates the weakness of the world economy and the inability of the ruling elite and the capitalist system as a whole to deal with such threats.

A pandemic can be a shock. It can stop the wave of protests and struggles that erupted in 2019. But the inability of the ruling class to solve it or even deal with it properly will lead to anger. If the organisations of the working class show a way forward, show solutions how to deal and overcome the crisis then this can help to prevent despair, a growth in racism and xenophobia and to show a way forward based on a socialist solution to bring to an end this diseased, capitalist system. It is not the time to panic, but to organise the fightback!

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