Socialism is proactive, capitalism is reactive. Which design principle should we build our health and safety systems around? Capitalism will never properly prepare for unexpected or low probability events because projects to defend against those types of threats never survive cost/benefit analysis. That’s the capitalist criteria. That’s the basis on which capitalists decide what to fund and what not to fund.
“The United States will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy… .” That’s from a 2019 report from the intelligence community to the president and congress. That report comes out every year and has been saying the same for years. This year’s report was supposed to be released in February, but it’s being buried because it says the same again. The government has been well aware that we are inadequately prepared for an outbreak for years. The Trump administration eliminated the National Security Council’s pandemic unit – explicitly to save money – and has proposed cutting the CDCs budget every year he’s been in office. Even if the pandemic unit was still there, and even though his proposed cuts have never gotten through Congress, the national infrastructure needed to respond effectively just isn’t there. Private industry isn’t going to hold extra stock of ventilators or protective gear or other important supplies or build extra production capacity that will sit idle until needed in an emergency.
That’s never going to be in any for-profit company’s budget. It’s always going to fall on the government, on the public sector – where all capitalists come crawling and begging for cash whenever there’s a market crash, but insist only corporations should get financial help, never people. Capitalism needs the people to be desperate for a job, because that’s the only way capitalism can keep inflation low – have a large stock of unemployed people competing for jobs and driving wages down. This is also why the reported unemployment rate is only a fraction of the actual rate – they don’t count anyone who isn’t desperate for a job. Anyone not looking for a job isn’t helping to keep the inflation rate down, that’s what they care about, so that’s the number the media reports. The government has already given $1.5 trillion dollars in liquidity to corporations, no one made any kind of fuss about it – does nothing to stem the rate of infection. There was a big fuss about mandatory paid sick leave – something that would actually help stem the infection rate. There was so much fuss, we only made it mandatory for about 20% of the workforce. Corporations with 500 or more employees are exempt from the requirement – because the powerful politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, are beholden to the wealthy who own those corporations and fund their political campaigns. The wealthy care more about their profits than people’s lives or the spread of the virus. These people are literally risking lives – including their own – to keep corporate profits up. That’s insane. They’re insane.
Socialists prioritize the common good and the public interest over private wealth and special interest. A capitalist government asks, “How much will it cost in taxes on the wealthy to be prepared for a once in a hundred years event?” A socialist government asks, “How much safety can our current level of technology provide?” Socialism prioritizes decreasing the risks to the many over increasing the wealth of the few. Capitalism does precisely the opposite.
Want to argue about how much it will cost? Wrong question. The right question is, how many industries will those priorities create? We spend hundreds of billions on preparing for war. That’s a gigantic financial incentive for making war. When we fund the military, we don’t ask how much does it cost. We ask, what’s the best we can get? Imagine if we put just half the resources we spend on the military towards ensuring the health, safety, and security of our family, friends, neighbors, and communities. That would spawn a gigantic boom in jobs, technology, and research at least as large as the military-industrial complex, but focused on keeping people and communities as healthy, safe, and secure as possible with our present technology. In a world with viral outbreaks, our communities are only as healthy as the person with the weakest immune system, and only as safe as the person with the least access to good healthcare.
Instead of hundreds of billions for tools designed to kill people, we could spend hundreds of billions on tools designed to heal, increase safety, and provide security. We could detect and analyze pathogens more quickly and in more detail, and take appropriate action faster. We could maintain the best equipment and facilities for manufacturing test kits, protective gear for frontline medical personnel, and treating the injured or infected. Periodically updating our facilities and equipment to the latest technologies. We could have a healthcare system designed to keep the population as a whole healthy, with enough capacity to handle significant spikes in demand from natural disasters such as an outbreak, or the coming calamities of climate change.
This outbreak is an opportunity for the people of the world to demand their governments prioritize the health, safety, and security of people above the wealth and power of a few. How much will it cost? How much is the outbreak going to cost? It’s already wiped out trillions in stock wealth, with more financial damage to come. It’s shut down whole countries, deeply damaging their real economies. Businesses are closing, putting millions out of work. Since capitalism relies on desperate workers to curb inflation, it keeps workers desperate – living paycheck to paycheck. Forty percent of Americans don’t have $400 dollars available for an emergency. They won’t be able to pay rent, utilities, or buy groceries without going to work every day. And without paid sick leave or healthcare, they’re going to keep going to work and not going to the doctor – because our system of economics prioritizes private wealth over personal and public health, and the economic system has bought our political system.
Yesterday I heard Amesh Adalja, an expert on emergent infectious diseases and pandemic preparedness with the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. He was talking about what he expects this outbreak to look like. He expects the mortality rate to be around 0.6%, a low figure compared to common estimates from other experts. He expects 30% to 50% of the US population to become infected over the next 12 to 18 months. That means between 99 million and 165 million people will get COVID-19. About 20% of patients so far require hospital care, so between 19.8 and 33 million people hospitalized. According to the OECD, the US has 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 inhabitants. With 330 million people, that works out to be 924,000 beds, about 2/3rds are already occupied. That leaves us with about 305,000 available beds. Two orders of magnitude short of what’s likely to be needed. Well prepared hospitals can surge their capacity using emergency measures by 20% to 50%. If all hospitals were as well prepared as the most prepared, that would give us about 450,000 beds at full capacity. If virus cases are spread out evenly over time, that means we have a bit less than half the beds necessary in any given month. The cases won’t be spread evenly, they’ll spike at least once, probably several times before we have a vaccine – in a year or more if everything goes well. Using Adalja’s predicted mortality rate of 0.6%, we will have between 594,000 and 990,000 dead Americans. How much does that cost?
This is not the worst-case scenario that experts have been predicting. This is a mild scenario. We’re entirely unprepared for it. I haven’t even talked about the shortages of ventilators or intensive care beds, just as bad or worse than the regular hospital bed situation. People will die if we don’t have enough ventilators to go around – this is already happening in Italy. There will be real death panels deciding who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t, not the fake ones Fox New screams and tears their hair about. Think there will be more ventilators per person in wealthy communities than poor communities? You bet. Same as there are more voting machines and polling places per person in wealthy communities.
As the human population increases and brings more of the world into our common sphere of viruses and microbes, we are more and more vulnerable to population-wide events like the coronavirus outbreak. The capitalist system of economics and government is not capable of properly preparing us for events like this. The priorities of the system always work against being prepared. Socialism has the correct priorities – people and communities, the common good and the public interest, ahead of private wealth or special interests.
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