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We don’t want others getting face masks”, declared president Trump when explaining the policy of his government to get hold of the equipment and supplies necessary to fight the pandemic of the new coronavirus, that has stricken the United States in the last few days. In fact, the main world power is now the new epicenter of the COVID-19 virus, with more than 369,000 infected and 11,000 dead [1].Trump, who at first denied the gravity of the situation and avoided adopting measures of social distancing for a long time, had to recognize that in the coming weeks: “there will be a lot of death” [2].

By Daniel Sugasti    Apr 07,2020

This pandemic reveals truths about the society at the same speed as it advances. It strips the essence and the inherent contradictions of the capitalist-imperialist system as so few times in history; a cruel essence, already present before the pandemic. The hegemonic imperialism, that possesses enormous amounts of resources, is hard pressed to deal with the sanitary crisis because of a lack of a public healthcare system. On another note, few confessions could more gruesomely depict the motto “America First” that Trump has defended since he was candidate: when he says that face masks should be hoarded by the United States, he’s saying that the lives of (some) Americans are more valuable than the lives of other people from other countries. Even a child could understand this message.

What does Trump’s “aggressive policy”, to retain or increase the storage of face masks, individual protection equipment, mechanical respirators or other essential supplies to mitigate the lethality of the COVID-19 virus, entail?

On the one hand, it means prohibiting the export of those products to other countries, especially Europe and LatinAmerica. 3M, one of the major producers of the N95 masks (the most recommended for use by medical personnel) was forced, by a law dating back to the war against Korea in the 1950s, to cancel orders from the outside. On the other hand, it means to commandeer orders made by other countries, mainly made to businesses operating in China, most of the time at the last minute in the actual ports or airports.

Germany, France, Brazil, Paraguay, among others, reported “detours” of orders that had already been agreed upon. The German Minister of Interior Affairs, Andreas Geisel, denounced that 200,000 face masks had been diverted to the United States in Thailand, an act that he labeled as “modern piracy”. The order of about 600 respirators, negotiated by governors of northeast Brazil, was subtly “cancelled” when it was being embarked in a Miami airport. The president of the region of Isle de France, Valérie Pécresse, compared the face masks and medical supplies dispute in the world market as a “treasure hunt”. She reported that American businesses offer triple or quadruple the value previously negotiated, paying on site and in cash, to keep the cargo destined to other countries. [3].

But the outraged claims by some European governors omit that the “face mask war” also occurs inside their own continent. “We are at war, a health war”, claimed French president Emmanuel Macron on March 16. With that assertion, at the start of March, the French government seized five million masks from the Swedish company Mölnlycke that operates in Lyon that were destined for the State of Spain and Italy when both countries were going through their most tragic moment in the fight against COVID-19. “Humanitarian” France also seized 680,000 masks on their way to the Czech Republic and did the same with a similar lot destined for Italy on March 22nd[4]. It’s a sinister game, where thieves rob thieves.

Let us not be fooled. This “commercial war” over technology and health security equipment will mostly affect poor countries: the rich countries, the imperialists, not only have the means to pay highly elevated prices for these items, but also the capacity to produce them at large scale; semi-colonial countries don’t have the money nor the industry nor the technology necessary to fabricate medium to high complexity equipment.

 

The Brazilian government, for instance, announced their intent of acquiring 17,000 respirators at approximately 15,000 dollars. But if another country – through their companies – makes a better offer, nothing stops the provider from cancelling the order and selling the lot to the highest bidder.

 

The heart of the matter is that this practice is not “piracy”, and it’s not “illegal”. It’s based on the fundamental laws of the capitalist market. In bourgeoise society, everything is merchandise. From pins, to the workforce to the most elemental rights as is healthcare, everything is liable to buy and sell. In consequence, those who receive medical attention are the ones who can pay for it. According to Oxfam, 10,000 people die every day for not being able to afford medical attention. Every year, 100 million people fall into the extreme poverty category due to medical expenses that  destroyed the family finances. Life expectancy in the poor countries or regions is between 10 and 20 years below that of prosperous areas [5].

 

The pandemic proves – and will continue proving, as the situation is aggravated – this reality in all rawness: those who can pay more, take the product, be it a place in intensive care or a face mask. On one end, imperialist countries are hoarding medical materials – first of all, to save the lives of the dominant classes and higher sectors of the middle classes – without giving second thought to the fate of the poorest countries – that, at a lower scale, prioritize their resources, though more limited, to save the lives of the same privileged sectors –. On the other end, medical businesses are getting richer, taking advantage of the high demand generated by the pandemic.

For example, multinational corporations like German Dräger claim that the number of orders for mechanical respirators tripled in the last few months. China is the main worldwide producer of face masks, and their authorities declare they’ve exported nearly 4 billion face masks and 16,000 respirators since March. This doesn’t mean though that this production is made possible by Chinese capital [6]. 3M for example, makes nearly 100 million N95 masks per month, from which, only a third is made in the U.S. A good part is produced in plants in China. With almost all the countries in the world demanding the same equipment at the same time, companies of this sector ensure exorbitant profits. This is the context of the “face masks war”, in which equipment and protective materials for the poorest countries aren’t even guaranteed with payment. And this, to tell the truth, isn’t a problem they’re concerned with, because the rich in poor countries, in a worst case scenario could flee abroad. The ones who are screwed are the workers.

This begs the question: how is it possible that with the development of the current productive forces in the world, there are shortages of technology and protective healthcare equipment as simple as face masks, gloves or scrubs? Moving along from the poor countries, medics in the United Kingdom have denounced they’re tending to grave cases of COVID-19 covered with “garbage bags over their heads” [7]. If this happens in London, what can we expect to happen in Haiti, South America or Africa when the pandemic hits these regions full front?

We’re in the midst of a situation that combines scarcity and full blown speculation. Isn’t this irrational? Of course it is! As irrational as the fact that 1% of the world population holds 82% of the riches. So irrational as the fact that the 2,153 billionaires in the world own more wealth than 4.6 billion people combined, that is 60% of the world population, according to a report by Oxfam disclosed in January 2020 [8]. Almost half the world population survives on 5.5 dollars a day, according to the same organization [9]. The problem is that this irrationality is the most rational for a capitalist system, whose base lies in the insatiable thirst for profits of a minority.

Us revolutionaries must fight against capitalism because we maintain our position that a system that is unable to guarantee the minimal conditions for existence for the majority of its society, deserves to die. As we’ve mentioned in other posts on this site, like few times in history, the crossroads between socialism or barbarism, socialism or systemic extermination of the majority of the population, is set in such a dramatic manner.

In fact, terrible scenes like the collapse of not only the healthcare system but the funeral services in Ecuador, with bodies decomposing for days in houses or abandoned in the streets, are clear signs of barbarism. And this doesn’t just occur in poor countries like Ecuador. In New York, the capital of the «American dream», due to the burden on the morgues, the possibility of burying people in parks is being contemplated.

It is not possible to fight the pandemic and the havoc wreaked by capitalists in the global economy if we don’t end the anarchy of the capitalist production. The global crisis – both sanitary and economic – demands anticapitalist measures, that is, socialist measures. To start with, global economic planning. This requires organizing and conscious engaging with a program whose strategy is the power takeover of the proletariate and its allies – the other oppressed and exploited sectors –, as an essential step towards the destruction of imperialism and the coming of global socialism. With mere parliamentary reforms, nothing of substance will be solved.

Only capitalist anarchy can account for the lack of medics, nurses and other health professionals, as well as the scarcity of basic supplies such as face masks and respirators in this dire moment.

A socialist economy, planned by the same auto-organized working class, would place all resources and productive forces of society – all the technology reached by human knowledge so far – to the service of tending to the needs of humanity, not the enrichment of a few magnates who  profit over others’ health.

However, for this, it is necessary to expropriate capitalists. To face the pandemic, among many other measures, it is urgent to expropriate and nationalize all private hospitals and medical supplies factories. It is also imperative to expropriate and nationalize the private educational system, fostering free access to study medicine and other healthcare areas, which is currently a privilege for just a few.

Registration and control of all ICU units available is necessary to centralize resources and make a “single file” of patients, organized from a working class controlled State. In Brazil, for example, there are 1.4 ICU beds for every 10,000 inhabitants in the public healthcare system (SUS), while the private network, for the same amount of people, has 4.9 ICU beds. Those beds are at the service of those who can pay for them because there is a conglomerate of capitalists that “sell” health. Isn’t it more rational to socialize them in the midst of this pandemic?

The lack of ICU units and basic protective equipment in the Brazilian public health system is the result of decades of neoliberal policies that, as in many other semi-colonial, imperialist countries (like Italy and the UK), corroded the public health systems. While Paulo Guedes, the minister of Economy of Bolsonaro’s extreme right government, didn’t hesitate to turn in one trillion Brazilian reales to the banks, nor does he invest in the public healthcare system (SUS) and delays the payment of 600 Brazilian reales (115 dollars) in aid to the most impoverished families as much as possible. This was approved not by some humanitarian sense but as a preventive measure before the possibility of social disturbances that may arise in the most volatile sectors. In the United States, Trump foresees rescuing big banks and corporations using more than 454 billion dollars [10]. This is the “rationale” behind capitalism, the anarchy of production based on profit calculations made by capitalists.

The only thing that can clear this anarchy, and we insist, is establishing a socialist program. Only a socialist economy could guarantee access to free, public, quality and universal healthcare. It is urgent to set march on economic central planning so that every non essential business will produce the necessary medical equipment and supplies to face the pandemic and in a more general sense, satisfy the needs of humanity.

Notes:

[1] Data from the Johns Hopkins University dating 04/07/2020.

[2]See: < https://g1.globo.com/bemestar/coronavirus/noticia/2020/04/04/nao-queremos-outros-conseguindo-mascaras-diz-donald-trump-sobre-equipamentos-de-protecao-contra-o-coronavirus.ghtml?fbclid=IwAR3gm2neFYyyCm50kZtzJsNa51uXnx4fqrz5Vfj_mZ397OHHWZ4nESH3_Do>.

[3]See: < https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/internacional-52166245?fbclid=IwAR37IgGzyAdJKF522VOWUR9T17vCRW7Hk7reGgy0IJMYq7BDnGW-lrAXrCM>.

[4]See: < https://www.jb.com.br/internacional/2020/04/1023129–estamos-em-guerra—franca-confiscou-1-milhao-de-mascaras-destinadas-a-espanha-e-italia.html?fbclid=IwAR0XCSA5hK90NedZScdaUZCTjA7IS01tUfRcyFnzKekA1B1nhHw1xDFewEs#.XoeY_gGH5HQ.facebook>.

[5]See: < https://www.oxfam.org/es/cinco-datos-escandalosos-sobre-la-desigualdad-extrema-global-y-como-combatirla>.

[6]See: < https://www.abc.com.py/internacionales/2020/04/05/china-ha-exportado-casi-4000-millones-de-mascarillas-por-coronavirus/?fbclid=IwAR3qigz2solVORIEp1YT68CmC72oy3sdZqcM7L7YAq3VscS4dyelOMJoQlc>.

[7]See: < https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-52173310?at_campaign=64&at_custom1=%5Bpost+type%5D&at_medium=custom7&at_custom2=facebook_page&at_custom4=9F0B7E04-77C9-11EA-95AC-60D4923C408C&at_custom3=BBC+News+Mundo&fbclid=IwAR3FMO5Ut9TFiI7HZOaz90Fp1u8REUksni1g9HYhNvy_uoWQd7Ii2t3ixQg>.

[8]See: < https://www.oxfam.org/es/notas-prensa/los-milmillonarios-del-mundo-poseen-mas-riqueza-que-4600-millones-de-personas>.

[9]See: < https://www.oxfam.org/es/cinco-datos-escandalosos-sobre-la-desigualdad-extrema-global-y-como-combatirla>.

[10]See: < https://litci.org/en/a-socialist-perspective-on-the-coronavirus-stimulus-plan/>.

Translation by: Anastasia Ransewak