As billions of people struggle to contain the coronavirus inside a world system of exploitation and oppression, one thing is clear: no government can be trusted to safeguard their population from suffering and dying.

By Martin Ralph

At the beginning of September Covid-19 had led to 863,535 deaths, 26 million cases and 17 million recoveries from Coronavirus. The total number of confirmed deaths is 35,000 per week, according to Our World In Data. They also include unrecorded deaths, the actual numbers are much higher.

Capitalism divides the world according to its economic, political, national and imperialist interests and erects borders that kill people.

“Only a fraction of total cases – those confirmed by a test – is known…Viruses don’t respect borders – even the 1918 influenza pandemic reached remote islands within months, and that was long before the days of global air travel. It is therefore the entire world that needs to make progress against the virus if we want to prevent a situation where countries either need to lock themselves off from the rest of the world or suffer recurring COVID-19 outbreaks [i].

In the opinion of Our World In data “only if we end the pandemic everywhere can the pandemic end anywhere.”

We agree. But the aim of the earth’s rulers is profit, not to safeguard the population. That can only be achieved by the mass struggle of workers, and revolution.

That is why we think the October Revolution needs to be studied as it had to solve the problem of many pandemics and other concurrent harsh conditions at that time.

By revolutionary means

The tasks facing the new Bolshevik Government in October 1917, not least in the area of public health, should never be underestimated. After three years of a world war, civil war and the allied occupation in some regions (the withdrawal of French, American, British and Japanese allied armies from Russian territory took place between 1919 and 1922), the signing of the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Germany in March 1918, refugee and migrant problems, dire food shortages, epidemic outbreaks and famine compounded by economic and social unrest, counter-revolutionary sabotage, bureaucracy, inexperience, shortages in medical personnel, supplies, and facilities, created a vortex of uncertainty, fear, instability, as the Soviets and the Bolshevik leadership confronted the harsh challenges.[ii]

Many of those opposed to the revolution’s existence gave it days or weeks. So how did it survive?

Facing the problems created by Czarism and war

On the eve of the outbreak of the World War I (WWI)  there was a shortage of doctors, lack of government funding and a system of private medicine. An estimated two million children died annually from pandemic diseases. In 1914, 75% of the workforce in technologically unspecialised factories were women and children, with workers starting employment under the age of 12 and 31% between the ages of 12 to 14 years working the same number of hours as adults.

In the Czarist army before 1914 roughly 10% of army recruits suffered from TB. Leprosy, trachoma, typhus, plague, smallpox, cholera and malaria were among the recurring epidemics and common infectious diseases.

Over-crowding and chronic housing shortages provided a breeding ground for insanitary living conditions and a resultant spread of infectious diseases, particularly among children.

Between 1918 to 1922 there were 2.5 million deaths as a result of the typhus epidemic. There was some headway in the control of smallpox resulting in deaths and exposure to the disease reaching one fifth of the pre-war level. Cholera took its deadly toll, preventive measures were rolled out and harsh survival choices were made. Incidence of TB remained high, figures for Moscow compared with London were 4.6 per 1000 and 1.8 per 1000 respectively.

“A Soviet demographer has estimated that there were at least 573,000 typhus cases resulting in some 100,000 deaths in the Red Army from 1918 to 1920”.[iii]

Population figures fell by 35 million and were estimated at 139 million in 1921 – a direct result of the war, famine and epidemic diseases.


Typhus, carried by lice, was a terrible disease, causing fever, mental confusion and utter exhaustion. Death occurred in up to 40% of cases. The disease had been around since the Middle Ages and outbreaks occurred at periods of severe disruption.. In Russia it had broken out after Napoleon invaded in 1812-13, during the Crimean war in the 1850s and also during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. It is no surprise therefore that the disease came once again to Russia and Eastern Europe during the First World war, the revolution of 1917 and the civil war which followed it.

Workers’ control and the measures taken by the Soviet Government

The October revolution established not a system of parliamentary control and capitalist dictatorship, but of workers’ control allied with the peasants. It faced almost impossible odds, and success was very finely balanced a number of times. Even Lenin talked about the need to know how to retreat. Not to give up their methods, the party, the struggle for a revolutionary International and the drive for a world revolution but knowing how to retreat using these methods.

For Lenin writing in November 1917 under the heading “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?,”

“the grain monopoly, bread rationing and labour conscription in the hands of the proletarian state, in the hands of sovereign soviets, will be the most powerful means of accounting and control…means which will provide a force unprecedented in history for setting the state apparatus in motion…the chief thing is to imbue the oppressed and the working people with confidence in their new strength, to prove to them in practice that they can and must themselves ensure the proper, most strictly regulated and organised distribution of bread, all kinds of food, milk, clothing, housing etc. in the interests of the poor. Unless this is done Russia cannot be saved from collapse and ruin”.[iv]

The masses who made the revolution were able to organise collectively through the Soviets and subsidiary organisations against the problems that arose.

A statement put out by Bolshevik health officials in December 1917 explained the government’s position on tackling public health reform:

“the war, economic dislocation and the waste of population and other consequences associated with this have placed before the workers and peasants government the question of struggling on a state-wide scale with morbidity, mortality and the unsanitary living conditions of the broad masses of the population

“comprehensive sanitary legislation is required regarding water supply, national canalisation and sanitary supervision over commercial and industrial enterprises and residential housing

“(and for) sanitary inspection for the struggle with morbidity and mortality and in particular with child mortality, TB, syphillis etc. for the struggle with contagious diseases and to provide the population with sanitary and salubrious resorts etc…. it is necessary to take pharmacies out of private hands and transfer them to the public institution of the Soviet government”[v]

In December 1917 the Bolsheviks nationalised German pharmacies and took over pharmaceutical factories and new pharmaceutical companies were opened.

In February 1918 the Council of Medical Departments was established in Petrograd to co-ordinate medical work by various departments. But this programme was impeded by an outbreak of typhus, civil war and sabotage.

‘In the Red Army conditions were also terrible, “the state of the medical services in the 5th army defies description… there are no doctors, no drugs, no hospital trains. The wounded are transported in cattle trucks” …”doctors, hospital trains and drugs are needed”[vi]

Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution, said in 1919,

typhus… is mowing down our troops. Comrades, it is impossible to imagine the dreadful situation in the typhus regions, where the population is broken, weakened, without material resources, where all life, all public life ceases. To this we say, “Comrades, we must concentrate everything on this problem. Either the lice will defeat socialism, or socialism will defeat the lice!” And here too, comrades, by using the same methods as elsewhere, we are beginning to achieve success.”[vii]

Lenin stressed in this speech that to overcome the problems they faced including the pandemic the emphasis had to be on the fight for the world revolution, of which October 1917 was just a beginning. He said that even though it was considerably slower, more difficult and complicated than had originally been thought, the revolution had held out for “two years in a backward, mined and war-weary country.”

And he added to win working class power and the civil war

“…was our first and chief victory, because it was not only a military victory, it was not really a military victory at all—it was actually a victory of that international solidarity of the working people for which we began the whole revolution, and which we pointed to and said that, however numerous the trials we would have to undergo, all these sacrifices would be repaid a hundredfold by the development of the world revolution, which is inevitable. It was apparent from the fact that in the sphere where the grossest material factors play the greatest part, namely, in the military sphere, we defeated the Entente countries by depriving them of the workers and peasants in soldiers’ uniforms.” [viii]

Trotsky had the same position and determination to face Typhus in building and leading the Red Army. They held out against Russian bourgeois counter-revolution and the invasion of many foreign armies, each one trying to destroy the October revolution and bring about a restoration of capitalism.

In 1919 the socialist revolution had to solve the questions of grain, fuel and typhus. These problems were solved, not without difficulty, but because of the great struggle for organisation appropriate to the tasks, to overcome a backward culture and ignorance dating from the days of the Czar carried through by discipline and mass struggle.

Control measures to combat typhus included the evacuation stations at fixed points along railway lines. Many women were enlisted in the sanitary campaigns, public baths in villages and punitive measures against the unwashed.

By November 1919 disinfection teams were treating 40-50,000 passengers daily in Moscow train stations. Eventually, the Soviet government the Soviet government set up some 250,000 beds for typhus patients and erected about 300 isolation and disinfection stations along the railways and waterways. Hundreds of bathing and disinfection detachments were created in the military to delouse the troops.[ix]

Extensive efforts were made to educate the public by pamphlets and lectures; railway carriages with special exhibits toured the areas under Soviet control. Officials attempted to control railway passengers and on 6 December 1919 proclaimed a week of cleaning railway stations. Special attention to the railways was an essential feature of the anti-typhus campaign.

As the working masses had gained power they prioritised the needs of the working class and poor peasants.

This contrasts with what is happening in the world today where governments are concerned with firms making money and political control by capitalism than with the health of workers and policies to strengthen the working class.

Leading scientists on the government Sage committee said recently we have to ‘learn to live’ with the virus. But this covers up the real problems of the production of protective equipment, the development of a track and trace system, and the implementation of health and safety essential measures which remain far behind what is needed. Big business demands a return to work, and in the majority of cases the necessary risk assessment are not being carried out or even planned. For precarious workers it is even worse.

Bloody Civil War

The civil war would last until 1921 when the ‘Whites’ (the counter-revolution army backed by Western imperialism) were defeated. During the civil war the Red army suffered from typhus, as did the White army. White leaders Admiral Kolchak saw 50,000 of his troops die of typhus during his army’s retreat in 1919. At the time a US army and a Czech army were helping him. The Czech army gave the admiral a hoard of gold and treasure that they had looted earlier in Kazan to help his cause. However, Kolchak and most of his army were captured and the admiral was shot on 7 February 1920.

The disruption and devastation of the civil war were the perfect conditions for typhus to thrive. Before his eventual denouement Admiral Kolchak’s army had retreated to Omsk just ahead of the pursuing Red army. Here typhus spread unchecked with 37,000 cases. 50 Doctors died and 20,000 unburied victims lay outside the town.

The Whites retreated further to Kirsk where many of the officers became ill with typhus. Eventually they found themselves in the port of Novorossiysk on the Black sea where there too there was a raging typhus epidemic. 50,000 Whites managed to escape, helped by British and French warships bombarding the revolutionary forces.

The Red forces had defeats also, while losing 50,000 soldiers to typhus they lost control of the Terek region because of the disease.

The Revolution defeats Typhus

In this period there was nationalisation under workers’ control and centralisation of hospitals and pharmacies, medicines were distributed fairly and factories built to produce medicines and other equipment needed to combat typhus.

Due to all the efforts typhus declined after 1922 and only recurred in the early 1930s due to Stalin’s disastrous collectivisation and industrialisation programs. But, by 1940 typhus was no longer a problem in the Soviet Union. This was largely a result of the efforts of the Bolsheviks in tackling the virus during the revolutionary period.

What now?

Covid-19 is a world horror. It cannot be solved in one country or a few countries alone because the very nature of capitalism is of world domination and it imposes its control, privatisations and war wherever necessary.

A vaccine may be produced, but its production will be for profit as will its distribution. It will certainly not be controlled democratically by the billions who are suffering poverty and oppression, or be used primarily to safeguard the working class and the poor.

Fighting Covid-19 does not suit the capitalist mode of production.

In the face of this catastrophe, scientists are looking to produce a vaccine much faster than normal, but according to even the bourgeois journal The Economist these efforts “do not measure up” with, “a mere $10bn…devoted to the cause”[x]

The figures are murky, but on a rough estimate the world has bought about 4 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines for delivery by the end of next year, which is in theory enough to give half the planet one dose. Yes, just half of the planet!

But far fewer people will secure protection from the disease. Some of the vaccines in production will fail to get regulatory approval, and a potential candidate that reaches a large-scale clinical trial—as several have—still has a 20% chance of failure. Others will be approved but may not provide full protection. They may not be suited to the elderly, for instance, or they may stop people dying from Covid-19 but not from passing it to others. Other vaccines will require more than one dose in order to be effective.

Because of these contingencies, even those countries such as Britain and the US, that have bought more than two doses for each of their citizens have still not bought enough.

Again The Economist explains that,

“the world as a whole can wring the most benefit out of limited supplies of vaccine by pooling resources and allocating doses on the basis of need…Unfortunately, however, politicians in some countries with manufacturing capacity are likely to put their own interest first.”[xi]

Imperialism will increase the uneven divisions in the world. We cannot wait until socialism to solve these problems. The struggle to defeat the plans of capitalism is now.  The fight against the pandemics is now. That will lead to more intense struggles as the imperialist and dominated neo-colonial countries show they will discard many who suffer from Covid-19, especially the poor and the vulnerable.

Many trade unions use Covid-19 as a reason for not organising and hardly function. Many unions do not mobilise to support current struggles, those and the social movements that do such as BLM and the nurses do so with safety. While the nurses take angrily to the streets of London holding out their arms to keep two metre distance with masks, the TUC restricts decision making to General Secretaries at their next congress after years of ineffective congresses.

Some of the youth, Black people and migrants have moved into struggle in the NHS, Black Lives Matter movement and the new unions independent of the TUC such as the United Voices of the World and Independent Workers GB have emerged and are fighting back. Mass struggle against capitalism and bureaucracy is the only way to safeguard ourselves and our class.

In the case of Covid-19, it has cost the world trillions of dollars and already killed almost a million people, so clearly urgent action is needed.

An essential part of the fight against Covid-19 and the coming pandemics is in building the strength of the working class to fight and construct a revolutionary leadership through the years of class struggle. There are no shortcuts. The pre-history of the 1917 Socialist Revolution did not start in 1914, it started in 1903 with the formation of the Bolshevik party under Lenin’s leadership, and the subsequent struggle to build it. Without the Bolshevik Party there would have been no October 1917.

Revolutionary situations keep on emerging without revolutionary parties. To save countries such as the Lebanon a revolution programme and party are needed. It is the same in the fight against Covid-19.

“Almost a third of all emerging diseases have originated through the process of land use change. As a result, five or six new epidemics a year could soon affect Earth’s population.  ‘There are now a whole raft of activities – illegal logging, clearing and mining – with associated international trades in bushmeat and exotic pets that have created this crisis,’ says Stuart Pimm, professor of conservation at Duke University.”[xii]

The great experiences of the October Revolution are carried forward in the struggle for the Fourth International, certainly in the International Workers League-Fourth International. Revolutionary and Marxist leadership is needed to fight capitalism and defeat all the pandemics that capitalist policies and actions create and are unable to contain.

[i] Our World in Data says we are “about Research and data to make progress against the world’s largest problems.”

[ii] Health Reform in Revolutionary Russia, Barbara Khwaja, May 26, 2017

[iii] Typhus and its control in Russia, 1870-1940, medical history, 193,37: 361-381.  K. David Patterson


[v] ibid

[vi] Trotsky, Chairman of the Military War Council F.A.O. Lenin, Chairman of the Council of Defence; Peoples Commissar of Health; Chief Administration of Sanitary Services April 1919

[vii] V. I. Lenin, Seventh All-Russia Congress Of Soviets, December 5-9, 1919

[viii] Ibid

[ix] Typhus and its control in Russia, 1870-1940, medical history, 193,37: 361-381.  K. David Patterson


[xi] Ibid