Our spring issue, “Pandemic Politics,” is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

How Capitalism Kills During a Pandemic

From failing to develop a vaccine, to evicting the jobless and cutting off their health care, to needlessly subjecting workers and the public to infection: capitalism will be responsible for millions of coronavirus-related deaths.

People speak near a makeshift morgue outside of Bellevue Hospital on March 25, 2020 in New York City, New York. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / Getty

Critics of socialism often point to the mass deaths that occurred under dictators like Stalin and Mao. Such deaths were abhorrent, of course. But one problem with this line of attack is that it selectively ignores the numerous examples of mass deaths that occurred under brutal capitalist regimes, while also overlooking the everyday deaths that are a matter of course under capitalism, caused by grinding and utterly unnecessary poverty.

Both of these realities are or soon will be confronting us under the unfolding coronavirus pandemic. The virus will likely kill millions of people in the United States alone. Many of these fatalities could have been avoided if we had a social order that placed the needs of people over profit. Make no mistake: we’re facing a pandemic that could produce one of the worst mass deaths in human history, and capitalism will be responsible for many of them.

Profit Over People

To explain why, we should first go over some basics about capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system in which a small number of people (capitalists) own the vast majority of material resources (land, buildings, factories) necessary to produce useful things. Other people, the working class — the vast majority of us — own very little or no such resources.

Members of the working class must sell their labor to capitalists for a wage in order to survive (or they must depend on the financial support of someone else who works for a wage). The capitalist then sells the products made by the worker on the market, hoping to fetch a price over and above the cost of materials and what they paid the worker who made the goods. The difference between a good’s cost of production and the price the good sells for is what the capitalist keeps as profit (and can do with whatever the hell they feel like: buy a yacht, build a fourteenth bathroom in their mansion — whatever their heart desires).

Usually, capitalists compete with one another to sell similar goods. That competition forces each capitalist to keep their prices as low as possible. But, in order to continue making a profit, capitalists need to keep costs low as well.

Competition forces each capitalist to not just make profits, but to make greater profits than their competitors, Why? Because greater profits mean a greater ability to beat out your competition moving forward: by investing in labor-saving technologies and lowering one’s labor costs, or by expanding production and making use of economies of scale, or by spending money on marketing and taking away competitors’ market share. Capitalists who fail to maximize profits will soon find themselves unable to sell their goods and be put out of business. And being put out of business means ending up in the dire position of a worker.

This way of organizing the production and distribution of goods has its virtues, as Karl Marx himself emphasized. Capitalism can inspire incredible innovation. But the same feature of the system that breeds innovation — the imperative that capitalists maximize profits — also gives rise to capitalism’s most destructive tendencies.

It means that capitalists prioritize profits over the welfare of their workers and of humanity as a whole. Owners will make their employees work in uncomfortable and dangerous conditions and refuse to pay them a living wage. They will pollute the environment with deadly toxins and planet-destroying greenhouse gases before spending money on safe production processes. And they will oppose life-saving social policies like Medicare for All because they increase their taxes and strengthen employees’ power to bargain for better wages. Which brings us back to coronavirus.

The Coronavirus and Capitalist Dysfunction

The coronavirus pandemic is showing us the many ways in which the relentless drive for profit can be deadly.

First, pharmaceutical companies could have started to develop a vaccine for the virus years ago. The novel coronavirus that is now ravaging the world is actually one of a family of coronaviruses (including SARS and MERS) with which we have long been familiar. It would have been possible to begin research on vaccines and cures for coronaviruses in general, giving us a head start on treatments for the current outbreak. But pharmaceutical companies did not pursue this research, because the prospect of a cure was not sufficiently profitable. (A similar problem afflicts development of new drugs to treat antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.)

Researchers are now working on vaccines, but those are twelve to eighteen months away from being ready. The outbreak may well have run its course by then.

Epidemiologists estimate that the coronavirus could kill up to 2.2 million people in the United States, 510,000 in Great Britain, and 50 million people globally. Many or most of those deaths could have been avoided if we had a vaccine. We don’t have a vaccine because developing one wasn’t profitable for corporations.

Second, the measures necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus mean that most businesses need to suspend operations, and many workers will lose their jobs or find their hours drastically reduced. In countries where left-wing political parties and strong labor movements have built robust welfare states that check some of capitalism’s worst features, this will be bad but not catastrophic.

Norway, for instance, is giving all workers affected by the coronavirus slowdown generous paid leave while businesses shut down. Denmark and the United Kingdom are putting forward a similarly expansive relief package, covering the vast majority of workers’ wages while they’re out of work.

The United States, on the other hand, has never had a powerful left party, and its labor movement is incredibly weak. As a result, the American working class confronts a particularly pure and brutal form of capitalism. Unlike countries with a stronger labor movement, we do not enjoy strong collective bargaining rights, nor basic social welfare provisions like universal health care.

That means being laid off is particularly disastrous for American workers. Losing a job could result in losing your health-care coverage or being unable to pay your student loans. Worse still, it could mean being unable to pay rent and getting evicted. Losing your health-care or home can be deadly, even in the best of times. But experiencing these hardships during a pandemic is horrific, depriving people of the ability to avoid infection or to receive treatment if they get sick.

Some workers will hold on to their jobs, but their work will put them (and those they come into contact with) at high risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Capitalists should shut down their businesses for the sake of their workers and of public health; for businesses that can’t shut down, bosses should make every effort to ensure their workers’ safety. But capitalists won’t do these things of their own free will, for a very simple reason: they hurt bosses’ bottom line.

Starbucks, for example, kept their stores open, even in cities that had ordered nonessential businesses to close. (The company has since shifted to only providing drive-through service because of employee pressure.) Many grocery stores are not providing gloves or masks, nor allowing workers to follow CDC guidelines around handwashing and social distancing.

The drive for profit is endangering untold numbers of people by allowing the virus to spread more rapidly. This is especially true in the United States, where many workers do not have paid sick leave and so will be compelled to work even if they’re sick. President Donald Trump is even considering ordering businesses to open again in April, likely at the peak of the pandemic, to protect corporate profits. Millions more could die if this happens.

Neglect of worker safety is especially unconscionable when it comes to health-care workers, our first line of defense against the coronavirus. Many hospitals are woefully understaffed and under-equipped to deal with the crisis.

At Oakland’s Highland Hospital and Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, for instance, nurses are being asked to reuse single-use face masks, making them more likely to catch the virus from infected patients and spread it to others. Similar problems are common across the United States: nurses in Seattle report a shortage of masks and other protective equipment, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Center in New York City has only a week’s supply of masks on hand. One Brooklyn Health System in Brooklyn, New York, will likely be unable to afford enough hospital beds to treat victims of the virus. These conditions mean, again, that many people will die unnecessarily.

The unpreparedness of our hospitals is not inevitable. It, too, is the product of a system that puts profit over people. If we adequately invested in public hospitals or used state resources to rapidly produce necessary medical equipment, the unfolding pandemic would not hit our health-care system nearly as hard.

Despite the fact that Italy’s health capacity has been overstressed by the particularly brutal explosion of coronavirus there, its universal single-payer health-care system is ensuring that every person, no matter their job or income level, can receive the best treatment possible. Single-payer systems have allowed Denmark and South Korea to quickly institute coronavirus testing on a large scale, which has been essential to their success in slowing the virus’s spread.

For the past several decades in the United States, however, capitalists have waged an all-out assault on public goods and public investment, fighting for tax cuts for billionaires and promoting reliance on “market-based” solutions — and ensuring that we don’t join the rest of the world in developing a public health system.

People Over Profit

Capitalism is making an already terrible pandemic worse, especially in countries like the United States where capitalism is relatively untamed. Much of the damage has already been done: our failure to develop a vaccine will kill millions or tens of millions, and our lack of a universal single-payer system means that many will die because they cannot get tested or treated. This is a disaster on the scale of Stalin’s gulags or Mao’s mass famines.

But we can still minimize damage by organizing for and demanding policy changes that challenge this murderous logic. We need Medicare for All, so all people can receive the treatment they need regardless of ability to pay. Continuing to support and build on Bernie Sanders’s campaign for president — a campaign that we need now more than ever — is one way to put pressure on Congress to pass a version of Medicare for All in response to the crisis.

We need paid sick leave for all workers (including gig and contract workers), so that no one is forced to come to work sick. We should force all nonessential businesses to close, and pay all workers enough to live during their time off. We should demand a freeze on rents and mortgage payments, and a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, so that no one has to worry about going homeless. And we should demand that the state use all resources at its disposal (including the requisition of private property) to rapidly expand our health system’s capacity to treat coronavirus patients. Sanders’s coronavirus platform, which incorporates all of these demands, puts forward just the sort of policies we need.

Capitalists will resist these measures, because such measures challenge their power and their profits. But they are needed to save millions of lives. We have to organize to win these demands. From auto workers to bakery and café workers and Verizon employees, working people across the country have already shut down businesses and won paid leave from their employers through strikes and the threat of strikes. This kind of disruptive action on a large scale is necessary to force owners and their public officials to take our health and safety seriously.

By exerting their collective power, workers can prevent the worst-case pandemic scenarios. But to avoid similar massacres in the future, like the one climate change could cause, we have to move beyond an economic and political system that prioritizes profit over human life.