COVID-19 PANDEMIC AND THE ENSUING ECONOMIC MEALSTROM: GOING BEYOND CAPITALISM
By Kola Ibrahim
If there is any lesson to be learnt from the raging coronavirus pandemic that has infected over 6 million and killed about 380,000 people globally as of May 31, it is that the current socio-economic system, represented by global capitalism cannot take humanity forward. More than ever before, the need to supplant the capitalist system with a genuinely democratic socialist system is more urgent now than ever. Aside the human deaths recorded through the pandemic, the economic dislocation and maelstrom that comes with it underscores the chaotic and anarchical nature of capitalist system and its inability to move humanity forward to the next stage of civilization.
No doubt, this is not the first term that human race has witnessed a pandemic, that has wasted hundreds of thousands of lives, and indeed millions. Also, it is true that the Covid-19 pandemic came as a natural event. However, given the current level of scientific and economic advancement, it is clear that the disease could have been better managed and contained to reduce fatalities and victims to the barest minimum. While the Covid-19 disease might have developed as a natural disease, the fact that major capitalist and global powers failed to utilize the experience of the past to plan for future reflect the chaotic nature of capitalist system. It is a known fact that the current coronavirus is a strain of a generic coronaviruses with flu like symptoms, which have been witnessed in the last 15 to 20 years, especially in the outbreak of such diseases as MERS and SARS.
While a few Asian countries previously hit by MERS or SARS took some steps to prepare for new pandemics most countries did not. Rather than undertake extensive research and develop adequate medical and pharmaceutical antidotes for the viruses, the majority of capitalist governments across the world simply carried on as though nothing happened. Various independent research works carried out in relation to these diseases, which pointed to the high possibility of greater health dangers, were simply ignored. This is not strange in the capitalist world, since every research is usually commercialized and privatized for private businesses in the health and pharmaceutical industries to make big bucks. And since there is no immediate money to make from the scientific research works on the disease, even when they signaled health danger, they are simply abandoned.
More than this, the Covid-19 pandemic also paints a gloomy future for mankind especially as relating to climatic catastrophe. While the impacts of climate change and unbridled industrial activities on the rise of strange and new disease strains globally have not been fully explored, the breakout of Covid-19 disease and its rapid spread and impact (economic, health and social) point to a scary future for mankind, should the climate crisis reach a tipping point. Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic may be a child’s play or a subset of series of calamitous outcomes of a climate catastrophe. Yet, global capitalist classes and governments care no hoot; they at best undertake tokenistic policies just to show that they care, without looking at how to fundamentally change processes of production on long term basis in order to save the planet. If they do act, it is because climate change threatens their system. But it would be wishful thinking to expect capitalist class across the world to take a more holistic stand on climate issue given that their profits will be eroded with a more sustainable and planned production and distribution which are necessary for reversing the ominous effects of climate change, but are an anathema to the profit maximization aim of global capitalism.
Halting climate change will require the democratically planned use of the means of production and distribution across the world, a process that is alien to the anarchical and chaotic nature of capitalism. Under capitalism, capital move to where the profits can best be made, with little or no consideration to the impact on environment, humanity and the future. With socialist planned production and distribution, the immediate aim is to provide for the needs of the majority and sustain the environment and the future, in order to stop chaotic human activities that destroy the environment. Therefore, capitalism and a sustainable future cannot cohabit on a long term basis.
The various responses of the capitalist governments across the world to the spread of the coronavirus disease has again exposed the bankruptcy of the neo-liberal capitalist policies being implemented in most parts of the world. In spite of the huge scientific, medical, technological and financial resources unleashed by capitalism, the disease met a world that cannot provide for the healthy living of majority of the population. In the United States – the epicenter of global capitalism and currently the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic – the government was compelled to release over $3 trillion to mitigate the economic effects of the disease. But just a fraction of this amount is needed to provide universal health coverage for all Americans. Yet, healthcare in the most developed capitalist country is one of the costliest in the world, with millions of Americans lacking access to functional health care. In the same America, the pharmaceutical industry and insurance companies sit on hundreds of billions of dollars in profits. In Europe, the story is not different. Prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus disease, the National Health Service (NHS) that was fought and won by the working class in the United Kingdom and which is meant to provide a universal healthcare for citizens, was under attacks through privatization of it services and underfunding by government. While major advanced capitalist countries spend trillions of dollars on defence and military budgets, which only profiteer the arms industry and wreak havoc to the world, the health sector is poorly funded.
In the third world, especially Africa, health sector is one, if not the most, neglected social sector. It is a fact that the continent, in spite of its huge mineral, natural and human resources, has become the backwoods of civilization. The continent is home to several preventable diseases that could have been avoided through simple sanitation, water supply, good nutrition and education. Yet, in spite of its huge resources, the social service sectors like education, healthcare, water supply and sanitation, are in terrible state, such that as much as over 400, 000 people die of malaria-related diseases yearly in the continent. Chronic shortage of medical and health personnel, poor facilities and funding, low level of research, etc. still dog health sector in Africa. It is important to note that the continent is a source of cheap resources and labour for many multinational corporations across the world, yet the effects of the huge resources, wealth and profits extracted and exploited from the continent are only felt through death, strife, diseases, poverty, ignorance and environmental destruction.
As much as the kleptomaniac ruling classes in the continent are part of the problem, so also is the global capitalist system that ensure the regeneration of a degenerate political class and parasitic business/capitalist classes that only eat from the carcass of the dysfunctional economies and social service sectors. While various pundits and analysts of capitalism are pointing towards a possible calamitous effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on Africa, the fact that the capitalist system which they defend and superintend over is a major cause of this cannot be ignored. Through socialist democratic planning, the resources and wealth of the continent can be utilized to ensure better and improved lives for the majority of Africans without undermining the environment and future generations. But this presupposes that the huge wealth and resources of the continent are taken away from the ruinous global capitalist forces and their parasitic local business and political classes, and such resources and wealth are put under the democratic ownership, control and management of the working people, youth and the poor.
The economic impacts of this Covid-19 pandemic is just unraveling, and the capitalist classes are already preparing their arsenal to unleash the crisis on the working people. From increasing mass sack of workers across the world to attack on social services, obviously, the capitalist system is in for a great crisis. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, global capitalism was already showing signs of distress as witnessed in the US-China trade war, and just before the Covid-19 pandemic, the oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia had begun. Last year the IMF was already warning of another economic crisis as world trade growth slowed down. Now, with Covid-19 pandemic, which has led to sharp drop in the world economy, the crisis of capitalism can only get deeper. While the number of people who have filed for unemployment benefits in US, UK and other advanced economies have almost doubled within the last 3 months, German economy, the biggest European economy, has entered recession. Also, China, the second largest economy in the world has seen its economic growth falling sharply.
While the US and other western capitalist economies have been propping the economy with huge bailout funds, this cannot in the long run save all of the manufacturing and other sectors, without government’s direct control of the economy, something which would put capitalism’s legitimacy into question. The capitalist classes, rather than make efforts to reduce unemployment by focusing more on raising purchasing power of the majority and less on immediate profit maximization, will sooner or later move to only exploit the huge unemployment situation to drive down wages, and force workers to work the more. Despite such measures reducing demand for their products, the capitalists will in this way attempt to restore their profits which are the motives force for capitalism. Yes, credit economy and financial gambling can serve as smokescreen for a while, but this will only make the bubble bigger and the burst more pronounced and fatal. Even if the global economy picks up again, it will be at a very anemic level that can only ensure gloomy future for the working people.
Obviously, the working people and the poor would be made the sacrificial lamb in many folds. There will be mass retrenchment and attacks on jobs through salary cut, non-payment of salaries, and attacks on working conditions. Aside this is the fact that the working people will be made to work in more precarious conditions that exposes them to Covid-19 infections, as capitalists try to recoup their profits by all means. Even before the pandemic, tens of millions of workers work in precarious conditions, even in the health sector, without adequate protection and safety provisions by employers. Given the scale and rate of the infection which has overwhelmed many capitalist governments, coupled with the expected rabid drive for profits by capitalist businesses, there will be less provision for health safety of workers. This reality is already staring workers in the face as the capitalist classes are putting pressures on governments to open up the economy and end lockdowns meant to safeguard lives, without proper provisions for safety and protection. Also, the rises in the cases of workers being forced to work in precarious conditions, and growing number of workers being infested at work are ominous signs for workers. Furthermore, the informal sector will be seriously affected as many small businesses are already closing down while working people’s purchasing power dwindles. All of these will worsen already bad cases of unemployment, poverty, disease and social tension.
Nigeria: Pandemic worsens a bad economy
In Nigeria, whose economy relies majorly on revenue from crude oil sale, the chicken is already coming home to roost. The price of oil has fallen significantly, with Nigeria’s crude finding no buyer, as the cost of production is higher than price in the international market. This means that government’s revenue will shrink, which will impact directly on the economy, as government’s spending plays key role in the economy. Already, naira value has fallen against major currencies, with N400 now trading for a dollar. The various lockdowns have impacted negatively on many businesses. Despite Nigeria’s poor statistical record keeping, the real impact of the Covid-19 lockdown will be strongly felt. Meanwhile, given the sharp fall in government’s revenue, there is very little the government was ready to do to lift millions of poor people and small businesses out of economic crisis.
In fact, governments at various levels are already using the fall in revenue to launch attacks on working people. Some state governments are already defaulting in salary payment while some others have started cutting workers’ salaries. At the federal level, many workers are being owed salaries while there is growing cases of retrenchment in government agencies and establishments such as NNPC Kaduna Refinery. In fact, the federal government has reactivated the previously abandoned plan to reduce number of government agencies and establishments, which will lead to mass sack of workers. Interestingly, the same federal government, through the CBN, ‘directed’ banks not to sack workers in this period. Aside the threat to jobs and pay, governments will also use this period to renege on existing agreements on working conditions for instance, minimum wage and payment of various arrears of salaries and pensions.
Worse still, there will be further attacks on social service funding. Even before economic crisis, governments at all levels just paid lip service to education, health, sanitation and water supply. The Covid-19-inspired economic crisis will only give ample excuse to further attack these sectors. Not minding the grandstanding of governments over Covid-19, health sector will receive poor attention. Despite the grandstanding on Covid-19 spread, some state governments, and even federal government, are owing health workers, including doctors, salaries as witnessed in FCT and Ondo State. Indeed, given the crookedness of Nigeria’s political class, Covid-19 pandemic will not just become a conduit pipe for siphoning public fund, especially given the fact that there will be less revenue now to loot through construction projects; but also become a ready excuse to abandon government’s responsibility towards the health sector as a whole. For instance, many state governments are now focusing on building isolation centres for Covid-19 patients, but no attention is paid to other aspect of the health sector, that even kill more people than Coronavirus.
In the private sector, there are increasing cases of retrenchment. The Access Bank case highlight the reality that will face private sector workers in the coming period. Worth mentioning also is the hypocrisy and shortsightedness of capitalist class in Nigeria, and indeed globally. Despite amassing tens of billions of naira in profits, the capitalists are not prepared for any short term reduction in their profits, if only to keep jobs and sustain purchasing power and effective demands.
For instance, the Access Bank that wanted to sack a quarter of its workforce because of projected profit reduction, declared tens of billions of naira in profits in the last quarter of 2019, and it, along with other banks, has been declaring increased profits every quarter. Yet, the bank would not even wait for the financial report for 2020 first quarter before announcing retrenchment plan. As said earlier, many other companies have also followed suit, either openly or covertly. The Covid-19-instigated economic crisis will also serve as excuse by private businesses, especially in the essential and existential sectors to hike prices of goods and services. Showing the hypocrisy of private businesses, Dangote Group, whose owner (Aliko Dangote) donated a billion naira to the federal government for Covid-19 fight, has increased prices of its products. Of course, as a result of naira devaluation and other economic variable, inflation may not be unexpected. However, many of the capitalists will rather use the opportunity to recover expected loss in revenue and profits through depressed demands, by hiking the prices of their goods and services, especially in the essential sectors where people have little or no choice.
Given these scenarios and analyses, it will be retrogressive in thinking to expect the same capitalist class to safe humanity from the current morass, which they put us all into in the first place. Indeed, capitalism will only worsen these if not challenged. As noted earlier, the debacle of climate calamity hanging over us all is a pointer to the fact that capitalism, as a political economic system, has now become a fetter for further development of human race and civilization. In Nigeria, it will be like turning logic on its head, to expect that more neoliberal capitalist policies of more privatization and commercialization of public enterprises, utilities and social services can resolve the economic quagmire the country is in to. It is like asking that a frightened deer be handed over to a lion. But this is what the capitalist pundits and analysts including newspapers are proposing for the government. These prognoses are not unexpected as these analysts and pundits, are paid to defend or, earn their means through investment in, capitalism. What they are proposing amount to shock therapy, which amounts to using the generalized fear about the future to drive through more anti-poor policies. Working people must reject this entirely.
For a Socialist Planning
The Covid-19 health crisis and the economic downturn it has engendered have underscored the need for a planned society and a planned economy that is centred on the needs and wellbeing of the majority. However, we cannot plan the society and the economy with a political economic system that is inherently disorganized, anarchical, individualistic and profit-motivated, which capitalism represents. In order to organize society and plan the economy in the interest of the majority of the population, and for the sake of the environment and future generations, there is the need to put society’s resources under public ownership. This means material and natural resources, scientific and technical knowledge, industrial concerns and big businesses will be put under collective public ownership. Following this will be the democratic control and management of these resources by elected representatives of the working people, communities, trade associations, relevant professionals, through their popular organizations in various sectors and spheres. This is what socialism entails.
With this, it can be possible to plan for the wellbeing of the majority and direct resources towards immediate needs and future plans. With private ownership of the economy, we cannot plan for the collective and the society as private interests of big business to amass profit and wealth will clash with the need to spend for the public. It is no accident that the power sector remains comatose today, almost seven years after private sector takeover, because the big businesses in the sector cannot invest huge resources in the revamping of the sector without getting guarantee of immediate profits. Of course, the sector was mismanaged when it was under government’s ownership because it was run on a bureaucratic basis as management and board appointments were done to satisfy political and economic interests of those in the corridors of power and in big business. With proper public funding and democratic management and control, the power sector can be improved significantly within short period.
What the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed is the need for democratic public ownership and planning to save humanity from calamity thrown up by capitalism or worsened by the capitalist system. Of course, under the best socialist system, there can be disease outbreaks or natural disasters, but with democratic planning and public ownership of the economic mainstay, it can be possible to mitigate the effects of these disasters and diseases. In fact, many diseases can be prevented and avoided with planned health system that prioritizes preventive medicine and environmental sustainability. Many diseases also spread through poverty and want, as witnessed in Africa. Socialist planning will not only focus on piecemeal health policies but will incorporate social and economic policies into the health programmes and policies. By nationalizing the pharmaceutical industry and under a democratic control, it will be possible to commit the industry to long term research and development of needed drugs, by breaking the barrier imposed by patenting of discoveries and profit-making from people’s illnesses.
No doubt, the coming period will be a challenging period for the working people, youth and the poor, as they struggle to wriggle out of the pandemic and the economic dislocation imposed by the response of the capitalist governments and capitalist employers. The traditional mass organisations of the working people, especially trade unions, need to start building programmatic actions to defend the working people, and ensure that the burden of the crisis is not offloaded on the shoulders of the workers and the poor. No doubt, ideas of struggles, strikes and mass actions will emerge in the coming period, and labour leaders, in spite of their present cozy relationship with employers, will be forced to respond in kind. But ultimately, the question of looking for solutions beyond capitalism will become apparent as the inability of the capitalist system to resolve the health and ensuing economic crisis in the interests of the majority becomes apparent. The ideas of socialism and socialist planning will be thrown up again and again, as more and more people become radicalized by the situation.