When the German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that the current COVID-19 pandemic was Germany’s biggest challenge since World War II, she gave the impression she was overreacting. But after that, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, declared the same thing. Even Donald Trump, who at the beginning of the pandemic compared it with a common flu, ended up declaring that it was also the biggest challenge for his country since World War II.

By Martin Hernandez

In the same sense, renowned personalities from the scientific, cultural and political fields compared the current pandemic with the Spanish flu, one of the deadliest in history. And it is even said that its possible consequences may become comparable to those of the first and second world wars.

But it is still too early to know all the consequences the current pandemic will bring for humanity.

Pandemics and capitalism

COVID-19, as well as the Plague of Justinian, the Black Death or the Spanish flu, is one of the many diseases that, throughout history, have wiped out important parts of humanity. But human beings have been dominating nature throughout their history in such a way that all the conditions to prevent such an epidemic from becoming a pandemic existed and if it were to happen, to prevent it from having serious consequences.

The Plague of Justinian, which peaked between 541 and 544 AD, could not be controlled. It stretched for two centuries, killing around 25 to 100 million people.

The bubonic plague, known as the Death Plague, on the contrary, could have been controlled. That pandemic, which emerged in China and infected Europe between 1347 and 1351, had a higher death toll (between 75 and 200 million). It caused the extermination of more than a third of Europe’s inhabitants. However, it managed to be controlled by two measures that today seem relatively simple: quarantine and hygiene care.

But if the Death Plague could have been controlled 669 years ago, what explains that, from the outset, COVID-19 could not?

The explanation of this contradiction is the same as the one of another terrible pandemic 100 years ago, the Spanish flu. It could not be controlled because of the interests of the great imperialist powers of that time.

Marx, more than 170 years ago, said: “Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society” [1] and this statement turned true when the Great War I broke out in 1914.

The Great War put face to face the armies of the great European powers, formed by young peasants and workers, to kill each other just to defend the businesses of the bourgeoisie in each country. The result was frightening. 10 million people were killed, including troops and civilians, while 20 million were wounded, most of them mutilated. It was in this context that the Spanish influenza pandemic spread and caused, globally, a much higher death and injured toll than those of the war.

Were there conditions to prevent this tragedy 100 years ago? It was only enough to implement, at least, the same policy that controlled the Death Plague in the Middle Ages. But that would affect the interests of great imperialist powers, particularly of the United States. And then it was decided to save the economy at a tragic human cost.

The Spanish flu, contrary to what its name indicates, did not arise in Spain but in the USA. In March 1918 the epidemic began inside a troops camp when they were preparing to deploy in the war and it spread to 13 other camps. Despite this, the need to mind the economy over health prevailed and troops infected by the Spanish flu were sent to Europe. Thus, what was an epidemic in the US spread across all continents and turned into a pandemic.

In Europe, destroyed by the inter-imperialist war, the flu found fertile ground to develop and the same happened in the colonies where extreme poverty reigned. While all this was happening, the existence of the Spanish flu was kept as a state secret by all countries at war. This only changed when, after reaching France, the country where the American troops deployed, the flu spread to Great Britain, from there to Italy, passing through Germany to finally reach Spain, which, being a neutral country, turned public the existence of the terrible scourge. Hence, it is known as “Spanish flu” because it was said that it was the only country where such flu existed.

To prevent the epidemic from turning into a pandemic, the US needed to isolate itself from the rest of the world. But that, in practice, meant retreating from the war they had just entered and that was unthinkable for the American empire.

The US, at first, did not participate in World War I, which allowed Thomas Woodrow Wilson, with a pacifist speech, to win the presidential elections. But, after his victory, a change in policy and with the hypocritical speech of “… making the world safe for democracy” he decided to intervene so as not to miss the distribution of the loot and thus he sent a million and a half troops, many of them infected, which caused many of them to die on ships before reaching Europe.

The intervention of the USA was decisive for the Entente [2] to win the war. If they had not, the United States would not be the imperialist power they are today.

At the end of the pandemic, the “collateral damage” could be taken into account. The U.S., that had 116,000 killed in the war, had more than 500,000 by the Spanish flu; France 400,000; Great Britain, 250,000; Italy 400,000; India between 10 and 17 million; China 30 million; Spain 200,000; Russia between 450,000 and 2.75 million; Brazil 35,000; Argentina 15,000; Chile 43,000. In total, between 50 and 100 million people died globally, while small indigenous communities were completely wiped out.

Capitalism and COVID-19

If in 1918 there were conditions to prevent the Spanish influenza epidemic from becoming a pandemic, there are now, theoretically, much better conditions to deal with the COVID-19.

For example, to deal with this pandemic there are now more than 100 different tests to detect contaminated people and thus be able to isolate them from the rest, which did not exist in 1918.

Also today the most serious patients can be treated with mechanical ventilators, and with all kinds of antibiotics, and in a week you can build a huge and modern hospital. All this was unthinkable in 1918. On the other hand, the Spanish flu could spread rapidly in Europe because the continent was shattered by war.

However, despite all the scientific and technical advances, and despite there is not a world war, the world is currently in equal, or even worse conditions than in 1918 to confront a pandemic that threatens to cause millions of deaths.

This is because, as in 1918, the interests of capitalism, as Marx said, are opposed to the interests of society as a whole and therefore it cannot take advantage of the advances of science. In reality, capitalism is unable to guarantee, even more so, the two measures that in the Middle Ages were used to stop the Death Plague.

The pandemic has already spread to almost every country with a growing number of infected and dead people. On the other hand, it caused a sharp worldwide drop in stock markets, in production, and all the data indicate that the world has entered a deep economic recession [3] that could give rise to depression. [4]

The above situation has led all societies to begin a “war against COVID-19” but with different goals. The populations, with doctors and nurses at their head, desperately seek, first and for all, to save lives. Governments, along with the great capitalists, are also desperately seeking, first and for all, to save their businesses.

Thus the American government assigned many millions of dollars for the “war against COVID-19” but a good part of those resources are intended to help large companies supposedly to “defend employment.” The problem is that, with the government’s endorsement, they have already fired 22 million workers in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, the American government, despite having all those resources, is only now trying to buy supplies for hospitals because they have already collapsed. To such an extent that not only ventilators are missing, but even face masks to protect doctors and nurses while not knowing who is infected because very few people are tested.

This is not, as well as the vast majority of the world’s governments, due to a supposed misunderstanding but to the conscious policy, they had had for years to destroy public health systems and their early approach to confront the pandemic, which is now changing, but only partially.

A genocide is underway

There is virtual unanimity among scientists around the world that the “go-it-alone” approach that allows the population to be contaminated in order to build up the population’s herd immunity would lead to deaths of many millions of people. Mainly because of the collapse of the health systems in different countries would cause most of the people with serious COVID-19 illness to die as well as patients with other serious illnesses.

On the contrary, the suppression approach, in which a combination of social isolation, quarantine and mass testing is used would lead to qualitatively fewer losses of human lives.

The problem is that the latter approach would greatly affect the economy. Hence the current dilemma has become more important, economy or health?

The masses from all over the world have had no doubts. They have opted for health or, to be more precise, they have opted for life because that is what it is about. On the contrary, capitalists have chosen to defend their businesses at the expense of the lives of millions and millions of people, even though many are defending this policy with the hypocritical “defense of health” speech.

The Trump government, as well as the governments of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Mexico, Brazil, France, and many other countries, at first defended the go-it-alone approach, saying that the coronavirus pandemic did not exist or that was just a little flu. A policy very similar to that applied in 1918 when the US defended the same, with the lying argument that the flu only existed in Spain. It was for having defended that policy, in the face of the current pandemic, that the US, and most of the other countries, did not prepare to face the COVID-19.

But this policy was abandoned by most countries, mainly on the basis of the global impact of the death toll in Italy, Spain, and the US itself. For governments surely feared possible unrest when the masses found that it was not just a flu.

But the next step of Trump and the rest of the governments was not the one of suppression. Most governments are now devoting resources to health and are taking more forceful measures, such as social isolation. But in most countries, such isolation does not reach the industry, which continues to function, as well as transport, so that the workers and their families are exposed to contagion while a large part of entrepreneurs and some presidents are pushing to quickly end even those limited measures.

Trump announced his policy shift for the U.S. saying that if they did nothing (his previous approach) more than 2 million people would die while, with the new approach, “only” between 100 and 200 thousand would die (a prediction that is disputed by various scientists).

What Trump didn’t say is that the limited measures he’s taking will affect mostly the poorest sections of the population, that is, the black people. In Chicago city, for example, where they are 30% of the population, 70% out of the dead are black people.

If this is so in the U.S., what will happen when the outbreak reaches the poorest countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia?

The pandemic, so far, has reached only the richest countries with force and there are already 2.3 million infected and 158,000 dead in the world [on April 20 the death toll growth to 165,939 people]. In these countries, however, the so-called risk groups (over 60 years and/or with pre-existing serious illnesses) are a minority of the population.

But what will happen when you reach the poorest countries where most of their populations are at a high health risk?

What will happen when you arrive in a country like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with 80 million people, where the majority suffer from malnutrition? Or what will happen when you arrive at the Central African Republic, with five million inhabitants and only three mechanical ventilators across the country?

What is going to happen is that large sections of these populations will be wiped out. A real genocide. And not just in those two countries.

Official reports from the WHO and the UN show what the capitalist world of 7 billion people is like. Most countries are at high risk in the face of the pandemic because 2 billion people live in precarious housing; 2.4 billion have no basic sanitation in their homes; 2 billion lack electricity, 1.1 billion do not have access to tap water; 821 million people are malnourished; 2.6 billion have no toilets in their homes and there is finally a deficit of 5 million nurses.

That’s the real world, the capitalist world. That’s why COVID-19 is going to cause genocide of the poor majority in the planet.

How current Marx words sound in the face of this situation! “And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society… It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery…[5]

Wars and revolution

Governments and the mainstream international media identify the fight against the outbreak as a war, and they are right. This is a war, not for its form, but because of the catastrophic consequences, especially for the masses of the whole world and particularly, as in every war, for the poorest and most helpless people.

This war against the COVID-19 resembles world wars, although in this case, it is much greater because it reaches 188 countries out of 193 on the planet.

But, to be more precise, we would have to compare it to those wars where troops on the front are so poorly armed that they are massacred by the enemy, as happened in tsarist Russia during World War I. And we can also compare it to a just war, such as the Malvinas war, of Argentina against the UK, that have such a reactionary leadership [in the case of the Argentinian dictatorship] that, being a coward to face the enemy, is very “brave” to face its own troops, who are humiliated, punished and even tortured.

In this war the mainstream media highlights, surprised, the actions of solidarity and courage that arise from the different populations of the world.

Everywhere health workers are rightly called “heroes” and are frequently honored by the population because they go to war, without armor to defend themselves and with few weapons to attack the enemy and never desert their posts.

Their working conditions are so precarious that the contaminated health workers are counted in tens of thousands. In Italy alone, there are already 14,000 contaminated and more than 130 doctors or nurses have died.

Despite this, when some governments call on doctors and nurses to go to the front line, tens of thousands respond to the call and the same happens when volunteers are summoned for other tasks.

The same is true of the rest of the “essential services” workers. They proudly perform their duties (with no desertion) despite knowing of the risks they face.

In neighborhoods in many countries, thousands of young people risk shopping for the elderly, refugees at home, while thousands of all ages gather food to deliver to those most in need. This behavior has spread in Santiago slums and in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro favelas.

As the outbreak grows, human solidarity spreads like wildfire, especially among the poorest sectors. This human solidarity stands in contrast with the typical entrepreneurs’ selfishness and their governments, concerned with their businesses in the first place.

The aforementioned case of social isolation while factories function despite not being part of essential services is a sample of their class greed. The same happens with the manufacture of mechanical ventilators, an irreplaceable instrument to save the lives of the most seriously ill patients. Without them, millions of people will inevitably die. However, in a good part of the world’s hospitals such devices do not exist or are completely insufficient.

In the beginning, the ventilators did not exist because the governments, for the reasons we have given, did not prepare for the outbreak and nowadays because the manufacturers of such machines are doing “sweet deals” by selling them at astronomical prices with payment in advance.

To get an idea, a device that is relatively simple, whose cost price is around US$ 400, was being sold for US$ 9,000 at the beginning of the pandemic and currently, prices are up to US$ 40,000.

Governments say “we are at war” but they do not do what any government would do in a conventional war, which is to put the factories’ output at the service of war needs. In this case, they would have to compel entrepreneurs to manufacture ventilators and deliver them to governments at cost price.

The only exception was the US government, that forced General Motors to manufacture 30,000 ventilators appealing to a Korean war-time law. And the company wanted to charge such absurd prices that even Trump publicly complained. At last, after a month of negotiation, GM established a “cost price” of US$ 16,000 each, with which the U.S. government agreed. However, the government unpreparedness and the long negotiation time led the company to deliver them only in June.

38,000 people have already died in the US [42,483 on April 20], many due to a lack of ventilators. How many more will have to die until June? If this is the situation in the USA it is possible to imagine what it will be like in their colonies and semi-colonies. Capitalism kills.

Capitalist governments are unable to guarantee a true quarantine, to guarantee hygiene standards for the entire population, to carry out massive tests, to produce ventilators to save millions of lives, to guarantee face masks and gloves, at least for doctors and nurses and, many times, they are unable even to guarantee a decent burial for people as it is currently seen in Guayaquil, Ecuador capital, and in the mass graves in New York City, the center of imperialism. And the outbreak is still in its infancy.

The capitalist governments show, from the outset, that they are unable to winning this war. Their narrow class interests prevent this. In such a way that the powerlessness of the bourgeoisie will push millions of people to death, victims of the COVID-19, while the millions of survivors will join the millions unemployed worldwide. In the last four weeks, 22 million workers were laid off in the largest capitalist power, the United States.

There were all the conditions to win this war against COVID-19. For that, it was enough that the governments acted with the same disposition and solidarity shown by the masses in defense of life. But this is impossible because, in this war, unlike conventional ones, what is at stake is the lives of millions of poor people and, for the current owners of power, what is at stake is their businesses.

To win this war, it would be necessary that the best representatives of these masses who are willing to face the pandemic to the end were at the head of their countries. In this regard, it is good to remember what happened in Russia with another epidemic in 1918.

In Russia, a strong typhus outbreak emerged, a disease transmitted by the lice that plagued Russia due to the destruction and misery generated by the Civil War. That epidemic contaminated 25 million people and killed 3 million. But the war against lice and typhus was taken as a central task by the government that emerged with the triumph of the revolution, which brought together the masses and through campaigns in defense of hygiene, the construction of a large number of hospitals and medical services inside the factories, could control the epidemic and save many millions of lives.

Lenin spoke at the Seventh All-Russia Congress of Soviets in 1919 about that struggle of the government along with the population:

A third scourge is assailing us, lice, and the typhus that is mowing down our troopsTo this we say, “Comrades, we must concentrate everything on this problem. Either the lice will defeat socialism, or socialism will defeat the lice!”It is necessary for every worker, every organisation, every institution to bear this in mind at every meeting… if we devote all our efforts to wiping out typhus in Russia—the typhus which comes from a lack of culture, from poverty, backwardness, and ignorance—if we devote to this bloodless war all the strength and experience gained in a bloody war we can be certain that we shall achieve even greater successes in this work…

But unfortunately, it is not the workers in the struggle, as was the case in Russia in 1918, who are now at the forefront of the different countries. So, the combination of the pandemic and the economic recession will give rise to important changes in the world. The world is going to look like those war-torn countries. With factories closed, with many millions of newly unemployed, malnourished, refugees. With a significant increase in urban violence and also suicide.

The COVID-19 is winning one battle after another, and if that continues it will lead to an almost inevitable defeat of the exploited and oppressed of the world. We cannot deny this possibility, or… rather, this actuality, unless the virus, overnight, undergoes a mutation, as happened with the Spanish flu [6] and the pandemic becomes a common “flu,” as Trump would like. Or that scientists discover a medicine to cure contaminated people. But if these quite unlikely hypotheses do not occur, capitalism will commit a crime of great proportions against humanity once again.

And what can we expect from this defeat? How will the masses react to it?

Those who like to analyze reality based on common sense will surely conclude that behind a great defeat, inevitably, new defeats will come. However, the class struggle is usually not very friendly with common sense.

Nothing can be ruled out about the future as from the new reality that is emerging.

We can only have two certainties. The first is that a lot of things are going to change and the second is that, as always, the class struggle will have the final say.

Therefore, we cannot rule out that the masses will not fight back this attack. Or fight back and suffer a historical defeat (those that remain for decades), which could even lead to the generalization of fascist regimes.

However, from the comparison we are making to a great war, we do not think this is the most likely aftermath.

Wars, because they are a situation in which the masses are forced to take on a struggle for life or death, push all social contradictions to the extreme turning previous processes in such a way that, normally, a week of war is equivalent to more than one year of class struggle.

When World War I began, millions of workers, peasants, and the people were conscripted to kill their class brothers from other countries. It was the beginning of the worst defeat in the history of the world working class, reinforced by the fact that they were sent, to kill or to die, by the leadership of their working-class parties, the II International.

Both sides of that war, from the point of view of the masses, were defeated: Ten million deaths to which should be added at least 50 million from the Spanish flu.

However, Lenin, shortly after the war began, said that a revolutionary situation had opened up in Europe and, in the midst of the atrocities of war, he said, in 1916: “Europe is pregnant with a revolution.” [7]

Lenin’s stance must surely have appeared, for many in his day, as a delusion but history confirmed that he was right. The existence of war was a qualitative element to cause a series of revolutionary uprisings inside the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, England, and it was precisely in that context that the greatest revolution in history, the Russian Revolution, happened.

This is known, but not so well known to what extent war was the qualitative factor for the Soviets to take power in Russia as the following fact shows: In the Bolshevik Party, at the decisive moments, there was much doubt and insecurity about Lenin’s proposal of seizing power by the Soviets. And, to overcome those doubts, the position of several battalions of soldiers who were on the front line was decisive. They not only defended that the Soviets took power but they proposed that, if they did not, they would march with their weapons to St. Petersburg to occupy the Soviet. It was like that because, for the troops, the Bolshevik slogan of Peace meant the difference between life and death.

A few months before the triumph of the revolution, Lenin stated about the role of the war: “If there had been no war, Russia would have lived perhaps years, or even decades, without a revolution against the capitalists.

On this same subject, Trotsky wrote: “Not in vain war has been many times in history the mother of revolution.” [9]

Apparently we would now be in a different situation because several governments, having changed their positions and put themselves at the forefront of the war against the COVID-19, have strengthened, as are the cases of Trump in the U.S., Fernandez in Argentina or the governors in Brazil.

But this can’t fool us. Normally, at the beginning of all wars, lying speeches of capitalist leaders manage to convince the masses. In the Great War, it was also like that. In the beginning, a patriotic feeling took the masses in all countries, who crowded the streets to greet the young soldiers marching towards war.

Trotsky was in Austria when the war began, and he was able to witness the patriotic fervor of the nation and drew the following conclusion: “The mobilization and declaration of war have veritably swept off the face of the earth all the national and social contradictions in the country. But this is only a political delay, a sort of political moratorium. The notes have been extended to a new date, but they will have to be paid.” [10]

The question now is: Will the time come when the world masses start exacting the notes from capitalist governments for their responsibility for the genocide?

Will the current war against the pandemic, in the midst of the economic recession, in any way repeat what happened during and at the end of World War I? Is a period of big, class-versus-class clashes opening up? Will governments and even regimes fall? Can we witness revolutionary outbursts and even revolutions? Will the working class and other popular sectors be able to quickly advance their trade union and political organization? Will the small revolutionary organizations active today be able to grow significantly? Will the working class along with popular sectors be able to seize power in any country?

These questions, for now, have no answer. What we do know is that all governments are concerned about the possible reaction of the masses and are preparing for it. They have made a series of concessions to avoid the worst, such as having changed their policy to confront the COVID-19 even if a completely insufficient change, unable to prevent a genocide. They are aiding the sectors most in need but only for three or four months while the economic recession is going to extend for a long time. On the other hand, under the pretext of disciplining people to combat the pandemic, the presence of police and military in different countries is becoming increasingly common, taking charge of the situation with the obvious aim of acting, in the future, against possible mass outbursts.

On the other hand, the masses, partly frightened partly confused and largely reclusive in their homes, begin to express some reactions that very possibly will increase when the genocide becomes a reality and capitalism begins to be unmasked.

A new global reality, in all areas, is being developed and its contours will ultimately be determined by the confrontation of interests between all classes and class sectors.

Great events bring about major changes and the great events we are witnessing, the COVID-19 pandemic, which is going to lead to genocide, and the economic recession, which can turn into a depression, will inevitably bring about new and important changes.

This requires that the Marxist revolutionaries face a great challenge, which is to understand in depth the new reality that appears before us to draw the practical conclusions necessary to take the steps towards a socialist society that can liberate humanity from capitalism.

It is a very difficult challenge that most Marxists, in similar previous situations, have failed.

This was the case with the great changes that occurred in the First World War, in the Second World War and in the processes of Eastern Europe, of capitalist restoration and revolution.

Only a small number of revolutionary leaders, including the figures of Lenin and Trotsky, were able to deeply understand the meaning of the new reality created by World War I and from there they were able to draw practical conclusions. Without that understanding, the triumph of the Russian Revolution would have been impossible.

That is precisely why Marxists, to try to understand the new actuality that has begun to be born, must rely on their elaborations, no matter how different was the world they lived in. But that’s not enough. Only by intervening in the current processes of class struggle, however incipient they may be, can we move forward in building the program that has no other goal than to find the way of the masses and thus build the revolutionary leadership without which the victory of the exploited and oppressed will be impossible.

Notes:

[1] Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, in chapter Bourgeois and Proletarians.

[2] Triple Entente, a military agreement between France, the United Kingdom and the Russian Empire, which was subsequently joined by Italy and the U.S.

[3] A recessionis considered to occur when the GDP of a given country, region or world is negative for two consecutive quarters.

[4] There is no single criterion for determining depression. Some economists believe that it occurs when the fall in GDP is greater than 10% or when the fall in GDP remains for more than three years.

[5] Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto.

[6] The Spanish influenza virus, in its beginnings, was very little lethal until a mutation it suffered in March 1918 caused the death of millions of people in a few days and, subsequently, a new mutation transformed it into a rather harmless virus putting an end to the pandemic.

[7] Lenin, quoted by Jean-Jacques Marie in his book Lenin, POSI Publishing House, p. 138.

[8] Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 32, p. 31

[9] Leon Trotsky, “My Life,” p. 183, Editorial Pluma.

[10] Idem, p. 184