At least a third – although there are estimates of 40% – of humanity undergoes complete confinement or some type of circulation restriction to try to contain the advance of the new coronavirus [1]. We are witnessing an unprecedented fact in history.

by Daniel Sugasti

Scientific research on the pandemic concludes that social distancing and quarantine are essential to stop, or at least slow down the spread of the virus. Without any measure to isolate people – infected or not – up to 80% of the world population can be contaminated in a short time. According to the analysis of the behavior of the new coronavirus in rich countries, it is expected that 20% of contaminated people will need hospitalization. Out of the inpatients, 5% will develop severe respiratory failure that will require IUC beds –equipped with mechanical ventilators. Of the latter, at least 4% will die.

The isolation of so-called risk groups and patients – for which it was also shown essential that not only very ill patients be tested – and social distancing could decrease significantly the death toll. This is the basis of serious scientific recommendations that demand that governments adopt aggressive “drastic measures” in this regard.

Recent research conducted by the Imperial College London – signed by 50 scientists, including a group related to the WHO – states: “We estimate that in the absence of interventions, COVID-19 would have resulted in 7.0 billion infections and 40 million deaths globally this year. [2] The same report estimates that even taking drastic measures of shielding the elderly and slowing down transmission among the wider population, 20 million people could die. But it is worth insisting that these conclusions result from the study of data that come from China or European countries. The health crisis in poorer semi-colonial countries, with poorer public health systems and lack of access to basic sanitation, will certainly be much worse. We are facing a possible humanitarian crisis that could reach devastating levels, mainly among the most impoverished sectors of the working class. Not to mention those who already survive on the fringes of society, such as the destitute or the prisoners who rot in jails.

Consequently, underestimating the catastrophe that threatens us is criminal. It involves plainly defending the extermination of millions. The problem is that this is the content of the solution proposed by the capitalists and their governments, concerned with saving their businesses, even if this means a catastrophe in other areas.

The new coronavirus and the divisions between those at the top

The worsening and uncertainty generated by this world crisis – health and economic – however, opened a debate – and a certain division – between sectors of the world bourgeoisie, which manifests differently in each country.

This division appears exactly in what we mentioned at the beginning: the relevance or the degree of social isolation that the working class must keep. These differences between those at the top, as we will see, are expressed in a grotesque and caricatural way in some places.

The problem posed is the following: saving economy – as a drastic quarantine supposes a more or less complete paralysis of production – or saving lives, reducing social contact and, with it, the number and infection rate.

On the one hand, some world magnates like Bill Gates propose a “total closure” for six weeks, since it would not be rational to think about GDP while ignoring that “pile of bodies over in the corner”. Gates assures that “it is really tragic that the economic effects of this are very dramatic. I mean, nothing like this has ever happened to the economy in our lifetime. But money, you know, bringing the economy back and doing money, that’s more a reversible thing than bringing people back to life.” [3] It can be said, roughly speaking, that Macron, Merkel and other authorities from imperialist countries hold a similar position: “Lives first.”

In semi-colonial countries like Brazil, neoliberal politicians like João Doria [4] began to distance themselves from the disgusting statements by President Jair Bolsonaro – who opposes measures of social isolation to avoid economic collapse. In this context, Doria tries to appear as a serious leader – evidently thinking about the possible electoral benefit of that position – saying that he will maintain isolation measures in accordance with the recommendations of science and will always act motivated by the interest of saving lives: “Politics that kills people does not save the economy,” he affirmed on March 27 [5].

On the other hand, there are politicians such as US President Trump and the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and Italy, Boris Johnson and Giuseppe Conte, respectively. They did not take measures of social distancing – or they did it half and too late – saying they didn’t want to harm economy and jobs. Trump, for example, said he wanted the nation “opened up and raring to go by Easter.” [6]

The aftermath is obvious: the US is the new epicenter of the pandemic (more than 130,000 infected) and in Italy hundreds of people die every day (more than 10,000 deaths). [7] In the transalpine country, for example, workers’ organizations protested the fact that more than 12 million workers in large non-essential industries – which would represent 40% of the productive sector – such as those of armaments or distribution centers for Amazon, continue to be forced to go to work by the Italian employers. [8]

The same can be said of the Spanish State, which has almost 6,000 deaths to date, where the supposed left-wing government established a late quarantine that does not apply to many non-essential companies.

But perhaps the worst, the most criminal – or the most sincere from a bourgeois point of view – is the caricatural Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. From the beginning, this nefarious character underestimated the threat of the new coronavirus, stating that it was no more than a collective “hysteria” and without reason, since, in his words, “the COVID-19 does not go beyond flu or a cold.”

On March 26, he reinforced his conviction that there is no reason for social isolation since the Brazilian should be “studied” because he does not catch anything: “he sinks in sewers and nothing happens.” [9] He then said: “There will be some deaths, patience.” [10]

In the context of this criminal logic, the Brazilian government began a US$ 960,000 advertising campaign, funded by public coffers, with the slogan: “Brazil cannot stop.” The genocidal drift acquired tragicomic features when, through a well-oiled propaganda machine on social networks, Bolsonarism called a motorcade protest against the tepid isolation measures that some governors and mayors established.

In this way, a series of “motorcades of death” – organized by large entrepreneurs who managed to bring together some urban middle sectors, large and medium investors who speculate in the financial market, fearful medium traders, etc. – paraded in several Brazilian cities locked in their cars with plenty of gel alcohol in their hands to force the end of quarantine, which in practice would mean the return of millions of workers, packed on public transport, to their normal activities. What these “good citizens” honked their horns at is nothing but the free spread of the virus. When we maintain that these are genocidal sectors, we are not exaggerating. The Imperial College research predicts that, without isolation measures, there would be at least 1.15 million deaths in Brazil. [11]

Infographic of the Brazilian newspaper Estado de São Paulo based on the Imperial College report. (Intensive social isolation: 44 thousand deaths; elders isolation: 529 thousand deaths; light social isolation: 627 thousand deaths; no social isolation: 1.1 million deaths).

But far-right protests of this nature should not be surprising if Bolsonarism is understood to represent a sector of the Brazilian “lumpen-bourgeoisie,” a faction with fascist features and linked to organized crime (the militias, who control part of drug dealing and act as death squads in poor neighborhoods) which, moreover, does not hide slavery and medieval vision of the world: a large part is Flat Earthers and rabidly unscientific. In this sense, it is not weird that their rhetoric reaches levels that hardly characters like Trump or Boris Johnson would dare to imitate. But we do not mention the case of Bolsonaro and his gang because they are the only ones who propose abandoning the poor to their own fate, but because they show, without covers, the genocidal face of capitalism.

So, as we said at the beginning, from the bourgeois perspective there are two possible exits. 1) Quarantine measures so that the pandemic is contained as soon as possible and, with it, the world economy resumes; 2) No isolation, to save the economy, translated into rhetorical formulations such as the need to save jobs, to obtain a better impact on society, a speech that can penetrate even among the most vulnerable sectors of the working class: casual workers, self-employed, unemployed, etc.

Now what is real and what is fallacious in this discussion?

The fallacy is that capitalism, with its various governments and regimes, would be sincerely interested in “saving lives” of the working class. Ultimately, all the bourgeois factions have a fundamental agreement: that the economic weight – and of the corpses – is borne by the working class, mainly the poorest.

The sector that claims to defend “life” and proposes “stay at home” does not do it for any type of humanitarian motivation but because they consider it a lesser evil at the moment, an expensive solution but that could mitigate a situation that tends to get out of control and, in addition, would accelerate the recovery of the economy, that is, its own rate of profit.

Even so, this faction faces the pandemic in a limited way: it imposes half social confinement and does not offer actual conditions for the protection of important sectors of the working class from the virus… and from hunger. They suspend certain economic activities but maintain others that are not key. That situation generated protests and even strikes in Italy and Brazil.

These half-quarantines, on the other hand, are threatened with being revoked in a few days or weeks. In Latin America, governments trying to appear “responsible” talk about resuming activities in the first weeks of April. This would be contrary to all scientific forecasts, which assure that the peak of infections will occur between April and July. The curve would begin to flatten only between August and September. So Bill Gates’ “six weeks” would not suffice.

Will governments that claim to be “for life at any cost” maintain their shy measures of social distancing for the next five or six months?

This is almost impossible since they know very well that without the working class producing there will be no profit for the capitalists. And states and governments are at the service of capitalists. On the other hand, everything shows that both the health crisis, related to the pandemic itself, and the economic crisis that points to an almost certain recession, will worsen terribly. So Bill Gates’ or João Doria’s speech, each in his own way, will not be sustained for long and will end up coinciding, in fact, with the essence of Bolsonarism’s proposals.

The fundamental reason why these owner sectors, for now, impose social isolation measures –with the economic consequences that this entails–, however lukewarm, is their fear of future social and political consequences. They fear that if the situation spirals out of control and leads to the most complete chaos – with millions of deaths, shortages, looting, increased street crime, etc. – the consequences in the class struggle will be much more difficult to handle. In southern Italy, there are already looting in supermarkets and protesters chanting: “People are hungry.” That bourgeois sector knows that it will have to deal with spontaneous social outbursts and a renewed push of revolutionary processes that were underway before the COVID-19 crisis, such as that of Chile, to name just one example. They are aware that the crisis will be immense and that the class struggle will not stop. When the curve flattens out and circumstances allow it, the death and unemployment toll, and the new poor, in short, the contempt for the life of the working class, will take its toll through future social battles.

The controversy between capitalists means the existence of a sector with overtly fascist features or tendencies, which does not hesitate to express bluntly what all the rich think, although some, with a better sense of politics, don’t dare to say: the economy must continue to work, even if a few million people die.

Thus, the differences between bourgeois factions end up being reduced to just different tactics.

In any case, the discussion about quarantine, about its rigidity and duration, reveals what both capitalist sectors are aware of and end up implicitly recognizing: without the working class, without social production, there is no wealth to turn into private property.

The working class must also draw this valuable lesson about its own strength.

Finally, the discussion about either saving lives or the economy is senseless from a Marxist perspective. There is a way to save both. The real discussion is which class will pay its cost.

It is possible to save millions of lives and also save the world economy from collapse as soon as the working class fight to impose anti-capitalist, that is, socialist, measures.

To guarantee a total quarantine in all non-essential sectors, without redundancy or reduction of wages; a decent income for informal and self-employed workers; universal healthcare, etc. It is necessary, among other urgent measures, to confiscate and socialize the medical and pharmaceutical technology industry; take control and socialize the global financial system; confiscate and socialize the large networks of hotels, abandoned buildings and leisure spaces to care for the sick and shelter the homeless… And all under democratically self-organized workers and popular control. Only in this way, there will be plenty of resources to build new hospitals or to make heavy investment in research, free from the control of the capitalist market, among other things.

In short, the moment raises the urgency of organizing around a revolutionary program.

This means fighting to seize the political and economic power of the society, which is in the hands of the world bourgeoisie, and to put the enormous material resources at the service of meeting the needs of the majority of the population. And this will only be possible through socialist economic planning, which will end the murderous anarchy of the capitalist mode of production.


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[4] Governor of São Paulo State, the most populous and richest Brazilian state, currently the epicenter of the pandemic in the country.

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[7] Data from Johns Hopkins University, 03/28/2020.

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