The coronavirus pandemic
highlights many features of imperialism today. But people often misunderstand
what is happening and can easily end up giving a reactionary response.
For example, if modern capitalist production methods, especially in agriculture
with factory farming, are seen by some to have caused or at least exacerbated
this pandemic, how is it that viral outbreaks most commonly start in less
developed capitalist countries? Or if, as some ecologists suppose, the pandemic
is a sign of ‘nature’ responding to human intrusion, what are we to think of
programmes to eliminate mosquito-borne malaria? This article begins with
relevant facts about viruses, and then looks at developments in China, the US
and the UK.
Appendices to the article
discuss the ‘R’ reproduction number for a virus and the report on potential
virus deaths that influenced UK government policy. Technical details and
sources are given in footnotes.
Contrasting with the global
mayhem it has caused, a virus can be seen as just a submicroscopic infectious
particle. It can replicate itself only within a host cell – of a plant, an
animal or a human being, and it can sometimes transfer from one type of host to
another. It may cause serious disease and death, or be relatively harmless. How
problematic it might become depends upon the social and economic context.
Scientists estimate that about
three-quarters of new human diseases originate from existing viruses in
“Animals that harbour and can transmit a particular virus
but are generally unaffected by it are said to act as a natural reservoir for
that virus. For example, the H1N1 virus that caused the 2009 flu pandemic
… was likely passed to humans from pigs; for this reason, it was originally
called ‘swine flu’.”
There are around 150 animal
viruses that affect humans, and there are possibly half a million more that
could potentially do so.
The virus causing Covid-19
disease is thought to have come from a bat, which then passed on the virus to
another animal and then it was passed onto humans. Along the way, this virus,
like others, can mutate as it gets reproduced in the host’s cells, which can
make it more, or perhaps less lethal to humans. The first outbreak of the
disease was in Wuhan, capital city of Hubei province in China, and the most
widely suspected original location was a ‘wet market’ in Wuhan that was selling
freshly killed animals for meat.
Despite conspiracy theories,
there is no evidence whatsoever that the virus was manufactured in or escaped from
a laboratory, in China or anywhere else. Such accusations ignore how easy viral
transmission can be when other factors come into play.
What made the new virus,
was that it was roughly 10 times more deadly than the regular seasonal flu
virus and that it could be transmitted more readily, since many who were
infected and who could pass it on had no symptoms themselves. Even those who
ended up having severe, life-threatening symptoms would usually only develop
these after more than a week or so, giving the virus plenty of time to spread
to family, friends and accidental contacts.
But the real issue for zoonotic
viruses – the ones infecting humans that come from animals – is the
The cells in all animals, including humans, are more similar than one might
think. While many animal viruses have not been known to infect humans, there
are still plenty that might. If a virus particle exists in a cow, a pig, a
chicken, a bat or wherever, then there is also a chance that it can attach
itself to particular cells in the human body. The more that animals and humans
interact, the greater the chance. Equally, some viruses infecting humans can be
passed on to animals.
Nature & society
In economically developed
countries, most animals are kept away from people – apart from household pets
that have not been found to be a threat to health. The risks of infection in
livestock farming, etc, are also generally known and are kept under control
with hygiene measures and vaccinations, although there have still been
outbreaks. Some people may not like the capitalistic, large-scale farming of
animals, but in this respect they tend to work well.
The risks of zoonotic viral
epidemics have been far greater in the poorer countries of Asia, Africa and
Latin America. In these countries, markets are more common where live animals –
not only ‘exotic’ animals, but also ducks and chickens – are slaughtered and
sold for meat. These can raise the risk of human infection from viruses,
including providing a forum for originating new viruses, especially if
the trading is not strictly regulated and the markets are not kept sufficiently
So, while the virus particles
provide the potential for viral epidemics, that potential is only realised in
particular social-economic contexts. An important context was brought out by a
2017 study of emerging infectious diseases globally. It argued that such
diseases, and almost all recent pandemics ‘originate in animals, mostly
wildlife, and their emergence often involves dynamic interactions among
populations of wildlife, livestock & people within rapidly changing
the factors involved were large land-use change programs such as logging and
mining concessions, dam building, and road development.
The risk of new infectious
diseases emerging is clearly a global problem. As the chart taken from the 2017
study brings out, the risk spans every continent, although to different degrees
in each country.
Estimated risk of emerging
infectious diseases by location
https://nature.com/articles/s41467-017-00923-8.pdf. Note that the projection
used in the map diminishes the area of countries closer to the equator and
increases that of regions nearer the poles.
environmental changes have been going on for centuries, also pre-dating modern
capitalism. What makes them more problematic now is the greater integration of
the world economy, with more opportunities for travel, the expansion of urban
areas and the shift of populations from the countryside to towns, especially if
some former peasants wish to continue their previous ways.
But this does not imply
that economic development should stop, or that travel and global integration
are bad things that should be reversed. We do not need to adopt The League
of Gentlemen’s ‘local shops for local people’ approach. Development gives
evident benefits for humanity, not just in economic terms, but also by
improving social connections, knowledge of the world, science and health. To
take just one example of public health achievements: average life expectancy
was less than 50 years before 1900, even in the richer countries; today it is
more than 60 years even in the poorest and up to 80 years in the richest.
Unless you believe in an afterlife and would be pleased to meet your maker at
the earliest opportunity, that has to be a good thing.
Humanity has made progress by
understanding, modifying and channelling nature to meet human needs. One should
not think that the reckless way capitalism treats the environment is something
that is inherent in all possible forms of economic system. The latter view
would call a halt to development, despite 10% of the world still being in
extreme poverty, and it would support the reactionary idea that ‘nature’ is a barrier
that should be left alone. Viruses and other diseases have been dealt with in
the past, and can be dealt with again. But, as the following sections will
show, imperialism today creates many barriers to achieving this.
& disease inequality
Capitalism will not readily
minimise the risk of diseases emerging, since it costs money to do so. But an
epidemic is still bad for business, and might also affect the ruling groups. So
governments in rich countries will usually impose some health measures, promote
widespread vaccinations and find other ways to stop or limit the spread of
disease. Such measures mean, for example, that smallpox, measles, polio,
malaria and cholera have been almost eliminated.
These things also apply to capitalist agriculture and animal farming, where big
efforts are made to
keep animals free from
disease. If infected meat got into consumer products, food production companies
would see their business collapse. Witness what happened to the demand for
British beef after the outbreak of BSE, or ‘mad cow disease’, in the late
By contrast, poorer countries
have fewer sources of funds to deal with disease, and less scope for doing this
when capitalist exploitation is less restricted. Dominated by the rich powers
and their companies, they can do little to thwart the capitalist objective to
screw out as much profit as possible. Poor countries are also more burdened
with dangerous levels of pollution – often based on their dealings with the
rich – and many of their population groups do not even have easy access to
clean drinking water. The social and environmental changes brought about by the
ruthless, capitalist one-sided development of poorer countries have destructive
consequences, but that is an argument to stop this destruction, not to stop
China & the latest virus
Substantial evidence links the
emergence of Covid-19 to a ‘wet market’ in Wuhan that sold fresh meat, fish and
other perishable goods. Animals were also slaughtered for meat on customer
demand. These types of market are common in many developing countries,
particularly in Asia and Africa, but they are not unknown in richer countries,
for example fish markets selling live fish, crabs, lobsters, etc. The earlier
comments made about the possible transmission of disease clearly imply that
such markets should at least be tightly regulated. But China’s authorities have
been concerned that closing the markets would encourage these practices to
continue outside of a formal market setting, which could make things worse.
In many respects, the problem
comes down to consumers not being happy that the meat is fresh, unless they see
the animal killed. That in turn reflects a worry both about the quality of
shop-bought meat and a desire to do things the old, trusted way as in
traditional livestock farming and in more rural communities. These traditional
ways will not easily disappear until safer, new methods gain acceptance, but it
is very likely that China’s government will take stronger measures against wet markets
The Chinese authorities had been
slow to act on the outbreak in late 2019, and censored the initial warnings
from medical personnel. However, they then acted quickly and decisively,
including locking down Wuhan and other cities in the Hubei region on 23
January, thus affecting over 50 million people (other regions came shortly
after). Detailed information on the new virus was given to scientists
internationally by early January 2020. An English language article was also
published on 24 January in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet,
warning about the risk of human-human infection.
China’s state is authoritarian
and can sometimes seem to act in a paranoid manner. However, this country has a
history of being dominated by major powers in Europe, by Japan and also by the
US. That history, added to the more recent hostility of the US, gives plenty of
material to support such a political response: they really are out to get me
Note that the US has military bases around China – including in South Korea and
in Okinawa Island, Japan – and it is the major supplier of weapons to Taiwan,
an island province that China rightfully claims.
China has no military bases around the US.
One Flu Over the Cuckoo’s
US President Trump has used the
latest virus pandemic to increase hostility to China, attacking the World
Health Organization for being too ‘China-centric’ and stepping up the pressure
on US allies to impose economic sanctions on the country’s major companies.
This anti-China stance is a common theme in all US political thinking, worried
as it is about the rise of China as a rival power.
Trump blames China for ‘covering
up’ the virus in its early stages, thus setting the stage for a pandemic. There
may be some validity to that view, but even if so, there are no grounds on
which to criticise China’s subsequent actions. The allegation of a cover up
does not excuse the delayed reaction of the US authorities when the virus was
widely known about. It also has to answer reports on US mainstream media that
the US intelligence agencies (the CIA) knew of a viral outbreak in China in
November 2019. Of course, the CIA’s main concern was that it might affect US
forces in Asia!
POTUS#45 has distinguished
himself in this pandemic, easily exceeding any stupidity measure of which his
critics might have thought him capable. From comparing the virus to a normal,
regular flu epidemic, to promoting a drug, hydroxychloroquine, used for other
conditions that was untested and possibly dangerous for Covid-19, to even suggesting
that somehow injecting or ingesting household bleach might be a way of fending
off the virus, his statements have stunned most observers, including the
administration’s medical advisers.
Still, an egomaniac might easily
become distracted by the fear that economic damage from the Covid-19 crisis,
and now the protests against racist violence by the US police, could undermine
his hopes for re-election as president in November. Who could expect any
coherent strategy for dealing with the virus?
I will not deal with those
economic outcomes of collapsed output and employment, which are easily found in
daily news reports. But it is worth noting that in recent years severe cutbacks
in funding to federal and state agencies responsible for dealing with such crises
will have hindered an effective anti-virus policy in the US. For example, in
2018 the Trump administration ‘streamlined’, as the euphemism goes, the Global
Health Security and Biodefense team, and put it into a more general directorate
combining arms control and non-proliferation, weapons of mass destruction,
terrorism, and global health and biodefence. At the same time, maintenance
contracts on stockpiled ventilators lapsed and there was an insufficient
stockpile of medical equipment. All this added to the confusion caused by the
president’s own absurd statements.
To crown all these achievements,
on 29 May President Trump terminated the US relationship with the World Health
Organization, following up his previous decision to suspend US funding for it. His
rationale was the previously alleged Chinese culpability and, for good measure,
adding to his anti-China policies, he has also announced that in future Hong
Kong would no longer have special trade and investment relationships with the
The English Patient
The US tops the world in the
number of Covid-19 cases and in the number of fatalities from it, the latter
passing the 100,000 mark just after US Memorial Day. But at least the US has a
population of 328 million; the UK with its 67 million has no such size excuse
for having the second highest number of virus deaths on the planet.
There are many parallels between
the UK and the US handling of the virus impact. For example: the lack of
specialist medical and personal protective equipment that would, in former
times, have been seen as a necessary stockpile for emergencies; a too long
delayed, confused and halting ‘strategy’ by the government to deal with the
crisis, and a political leadership that tried to bluff its way through a
pandemic and push back any criticism with an escalating series of half-truths
and outright lies. One could also cite the narcissism of both Trump and UK
Prime Minister Johnson as the reason they always have something else on their
minds than dealing with the pandemic.
Johnson claims to be following
the recommendations of his scientific advisers. This gives him cover for any
decision his government makes that goes wrong. More than that, the scientists
concerned have basically colluded with the government. Here is the editor of The
Lancet, Richard Horton, recently criticising the somewhat less than
independent role of many UK scientists:
“Every day a cast of experts – led by the chief scientific adviser,
Sir Patrick Vallance, and the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty – lends
credibility to this government by annealing their reputations with those of
“The failures within the scientific and medical
establishment do not end with government experts. The UK is fortunate to have
an array of scientific and medical institutions that promote and protect the
quality of science and medicine in this country – royal colleges, the Academy
of Medical Sciences and the Royal Society. Their presidents have been elected
to defend and advance the reputation of medicine and medical science. And yet
they have failed to criticise government policy. Why? Surely their silence
amounts to complicity.
“ … When advisers are asked questions, they speak with one
voice in support of government policy. They never deviate from the political
In the UK, available resources
for managing the pandemic were focused on the National Health Service, to the
detriment of care homes. The sharply rising death toll in UK care homes was
ignored for weeks until accumulating news media reports forced a modest change
in government policy. It would clearly have been straying too far into the
political arena for the main medical advisers to point out this problem in
Probably the most egregious
policy error of the UK government was to have ignored for several weeks what
was going on in Italy. That country’s health system was quickly in a state of
collapse as infections and the death toll from Covid-19 soared. At least Italy
had some excuse of being surprised at how quickly the virus could spread; the
UK did not.
The first, outrageous policy
response from the government was to go for ‘herd immunity’. The rationale was
this: no vaccine was available for the new disease, it looked like the death
rate among those infected was ‘only’ around 1%, so letting a large number of
people get it and then recover would provide a buffer of immune people in the
population – assuming, of course, that one could not get infected again later.
How disastrous this policy could
turn out to be should have been obvious from the start. A rate of 1% for deaths
might sound low, but not when the herd was judged to include 50-80% of the UK
population! It would have implied anything from 300,000 to 550,000 deaths in
total. Yet it took another two weeks or so for the implications to sink in. The
bias of policy finally changed the week after a report from Imperial College,
published on 16 March, spelled out to the government the potential scale of
deaths under different scenarios, from no measures taken to a complete lockdown
and suppression of the virus.
Lockdown policies in many
economies to contain the new virus led to a slump in economic activity, output,
employment and incomes. To some extent, richer countries were able to offset
the disaster caused for people’s livelihoods by offering subsidies for wages,
increasing grants and cheap loans to companies and reducing the cost of
borrowing. The scale of the extra spending and liabilities taken on has been
countries were, as usual, in a much worse position, with their populations
facing penury or facing risks of being infected with the virus if they
The global spread of the virus
has nevertheless been very uneven. Some countries have so far been relatively
lucky to escape from a big impact, whatever may have been the response of their
governments. Others have had experience with previous epidemics and were well
prepared to deal with this one. However, countries with right-wing, populist
leaders – notably the US, UK and Brazil – have tended to be much worse at
implementing an effective anti-virus policy.
The advantages enjoyed by richer
countries in their virus-crisis spending plans are brought out by the very low,
yields they pay on government debt issues. But it is naïve
in the extreme to assume that such high borrowing will have no cost. Interest
rate costs on the debt may be minimal, but the extra debt itself has to be paid
back and will be an economic burden – via taxation or spending cuts – in future
years. That debt is added to already high levels compared to GDP. Among other
reports about this issue on this blog, see here
Some debts owed by companies, eg
short-term low interest loans, might be paid back fairly quickly if the
collapse of business activity stops and is partially reversed in the next six
months. Yet that still leaves them with a net loss of revenue and far worse
prospects than they had assumed before the crisis. In the UK’s case, the Bank
of England has forecast 2020 GDP at minus
14% in 2020. While it
projected a hard-to-believe bounce back of 15% in 2021, even that would still
leave 2021’s GDP lower than in 2019.
Similar down/up hopes and guesses will apply to all countries in the rest of
2020 and in 2021. The Bank was also optimistic because private banks now have
much better capital ratios than in 2007-08, so they are better able to bear
losses from loans not repaid. But that is not saying much compared to that disastrous
Viruses & Moribund
From the point of view of ruling
elites, viruses along with many other diseases are usually seen as being a
little too indiscriminate. They can infect or kill anyone, rich or poor, so it
makes sense to have public health systems in place to deal with them or to
limit their damage, both to the national population and in economic terms. This
particular virus has, however, been far more global, far more quickly and with
a far greater impact than any other in recent memory.
The big, rich countries were
well aware of the risk of pandemics, often had specialist teams of scientists
to study and monitor them, and also supported international health
institutions. This should make shocking the British and US delays and
incompetence in dealing with the latest virus. But it is not much of a surprise
when you examine the political leaderships in each country. And if you ask how
did such people ever get into positions of responsibility, that question is
answered by the fact that very large numbers of people voted for them. It is
not in the nature of these ugly beasts to be prepared for a public health
crisis, especially when there are other political objectives in mind, whether
that is a Brexit fantasy or re-election.
The imperial grinding machine: what goes in, what comes out
In previous articles I have
covered many aspects of imperialism, looking at how the major countries have
exploited the world and wreaked havoc. One image I have used is of the imperial
grinding machine, where the resources of the world available to meet humanity’s
needs end up in crises, poverty, racism, war and oppression. The latest virus
episode throws a different light on these topics, one that shows how they are
not even good at protecting the more vulnerable in their own populations. While
the major powers can handle the economic costs, or postpone the economic
impact, this contrasts with many other countries where local populations are
faced with the choice of losing their livelihoods or risking death.
Health risks and viruses are
clearly global issues, but these cannot be dealt with effectively in the
imperialist world economy. Even the international bodies set up to manage
health are poorly funded and cannot work well to contain disease. Trump cutting
funds to the World Health Organization is bad enough, but there have also been
moves from the US to prevent future vaccines and medicines for Covid-19 from
being ‘public goods’ available to all countries and not bound by patent rights.
The UK also backs the US approach.
Both the US and UK governments are providing huge sums to their own
pharmaceutical companies, and want them to benefit from any vaccine or
treatment breakthrough by the patent protection of such ‘intellectual
property’. In March, Trump even attempted to get exclusive rights to a
potential vaccine from a German pharmaceutical company!
Every day the capitalist economy
answers the question of what life is worth by asking back: how much can you
pay? The world’s resources are monopolised by the major countries, but they
still screw it up. Unable to run the economy without threats, violence and
terror, we now see clearly that they cannot even save their own citizens’
Tony Norfield, 9 June 2020
a) Talking out of their Rs?
It is difficult to estimate how
many people have been infected with a virus when there are few tests carried
out, as is still the case in most countries. Full population tests may not be
necessary for an accurate view of infections, since representative samples, as
in opinion polls, might be sufficient. But with regular opinion polls, for
voting preference, etc, there is usually already a good population-based
estimate of voters, by age, gender, social circumstances, previous voting
choice, likelihood to vote, and so on. This helps a pollster build a
representative sample to reflect the population; the larger the sample, the
more accurate it is. With this new virus, however, it is not possible to get
many of the same kind of key, relevant data items, and without large scale
testing, judgements on the course of the infection will be far less reliable
than most opinion polls. In the absence of data, models for predicting the
virus make many assumptions based on little evidence.
Early in the outbreak, recorded
hospital deaths indicated that older people were more vulnerable to Covid-19,
especially those who also had other diseases that led to difficulties
breathing. It also seemed that younger people, especially children, were far
more likely to develop only mild, or even no symptoms, even if they had been
infected. But each of these assumptions is being at least partially revised as
more evidence accumulates. One other unexplained feature of the virus is that
the non-white section of the population seems to be more vulnerable to
developing bad symptoms and dying. This seems to be the case even when factors
such as socio-economic status and occupation are taken into account. All this
makes estimates of the potential impact of the virus very uncertain.
Yet one virus parameter commonly
promoted is its ‘basic reproduction rate’ R0
(or R in the usual
discourse, and in what follows). This parameter reflects the degree to which
one infected person will infect someone else, and is critical for the future
path of the virus in a population.
If the R number is two and that person goes on to infect another two people,
and they each do the same, and so on, then there is a doubling of the numbers
in each round of infection, which may be every couple of days. This leads to an
exponentially rising number of infections.
An R number remaining less than
1.0 means the virus will diminish and eventually die out; the lower the number,
the more quickly. A number that stays above 1.0 means that infections could
grow until more or less everyone is impacted, and grow more quickly, the bigger
the R. So, governments would like to promote any reports of R < 1.0 from
scientists in order to get out of the lockdown that is damaging economies.
But the reports of various R
numbers in the media, no matter which scientists they are from, need to be read
with caution. To put this in a fuller perspective, it is worth reading a
critical article on such calculations from the US Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention, published in January 2019. Its main point is that ‘many of the
parameters included in the models used to estimate R are merely educated
guesses; the true values are often unknown or difficult or impossible to
Without mass testing, it will be
difficult to get a good estimate of the virus reproduction rate, let alone the
percentage of the population that has been infected. Of course, if the number
of new cases diagnosed in tests trends lower, then one can argue that the R
number has dropped, but all that is really being said is that the number of new
cases is lower!
b) The Imperial College virus
The media reports of Imperial’s
projected UK deaths from the virus – from around 250,000 to 500,000 – had the
salutary effect of making the UK government wake up. Three months on, those
numbers seem crazily pessimistic, even though the reality of around 50,000 at
present is no cause for celebration and the impact of the virus is far from
over. Yet the report made a very well argued case in favour of suppressing the virus,
to prevent both an extremely high death toll and the collapse of the health
A closer look at the report also qualifies the headline numbers.
One of Imperial’s scenarios did
project 510,000 deaths, but that was if the R number for the virus were 2.4,
and it was in ‘the (unlikely) absence of any control measures or spontaneous
changes in individual behaviour’.
Mitigation, with some measures, was projected to result in 250,000 deaths, even
assuming all patients could be treated in hospital (which was not very likely).
So their recommendation was that much firmer measures would be needed to
suppress the virus. In the most extreme range of measures they considered,
schools and colleges being closed, social distancing, household quarantine and
home isolation of cases, then, on various scenarios about the R value, total
deaths from the virus could probably be reduced to less than 50,000.
Interestingly, they did not consider any economic lockdown scenario in the 16
March report, but they noted that the effects on the economy would be profound.
I think the only criticism that
can be made of the Imperial report – apart from my scepticism about being able
to calculate R numbers with any precision – is that its extreme scenarios for
deaths were pretty unlikely to come about. The ‘spontaneous changes’ in
behaviour it noted were possible would have been inevitable if people
began to see a high number of fatalities from the virus. Even with the low
death toll in the UK in the early stages, people were ahead of the government
in curbing their activity well before the government’s lockdown measures on 23
March. Some usually busy shopping streets, for example, were already becoming
deserted by early March.
US federal government measures, including spending, grants
and guarantees, amount to some $3 trillion, in addition to vast new loans and
securities purchases from the Federal Reserve. The EU is also planning a €750bn
fund, in addition to individual country measures. The UK government will likely
borrow more than £300bn, with up to some £80bn going on various income subsidies.
I will not detail all these spending plans, but those interested could consult
the European think tank Bruegel’s report covering 10 EU countries plus the UK
and US here