Canada is at a critical stage in its fight against COVID-19. Each new day brings a higher number of confirmed cases than the last. The death toll, relatively low until now, also looks set to skyrocket. The situation facing countries like Italy and Spain draws closer by the hour.

The imposition of both travel restrictions and bans on public gatherings may have slowed the spread of the virus, but has not stopped it. Much of the country is now under partial lockdown, thus minimizing the impact of these measures going forward. 

The main objective now is to massively expand production of testing kits for the virus. The World Health Organization has long said the priority for countries is to “test, test, test.” Studies out of China estimate that as many as 75 per cent of cases of COVID-19 are asymptomatic. By isolating those cases early on, the spread of the virus can be more easily curtailed. 

Shortage of tests, medical equipment

Canada is now conducting as many as 10,000 tests per day. However, this is still short of what’s needed. Even at 20,000 per day, it would take Canada more than five years to test its entire population. In Ontario and Alberta, testing kits are being rationed, with even those showing advanced symptoms of COVID-19 being denied. As such, the virus continues to pass through communities undetected.

Health officials blame shortages for the slow rollout of testing kits. In particular, testing centres lack medical swabs and reagents, a medical fluid needed to carry out the test. If this situation continues, tests may soon lose their effectiveness against the pandemic, leaving the hospital system as the last line of defence.

However, Canada’s hospitals are also plagued by shortages. Nurses complain of a severe lack of ventilators, masks and gowns needed to treat patients. In 2015, Canada had only 5,000 ventilators, or 14.9 per 100,000 people, for the entire country. The figure has likely not increased much since then. Short of equipment, doctors will soon be forced to choose between who receives care and who does not. 

Industry lags behind

Who is to blame for these shortages? 

Swabs, reagents, ventilators, masks and gowns are all provided by the private sector. However, the handful of corporations responsible for their production have been unable to keep pace with the demand. As such, the state has been forced to step in.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford have appealed to industry to step up their game. Factories are being encouraged to retool their production towards medical equipment, in hopes of alleviating the shortage. Both have pledged their support, as well as public money, to make it so. 

In effect, Trudeau and Ford have acknowledged the inability of the “free market” to halt the pandemic, and are being forced to introduce a form of state-directed capitalism to make up the shortfall. Similar actions are also being taken by other countries. Indeed, no other option is available to them.

Market interference

However, the “plans” of the state are already colliding with the operations of the capitalist market. 

Media has pointed to breweries retooling to produce hand sanitizer as an example of what the state-directed private sector can achieve. However, many of these had made the switch even before the government had stepped in, largely due to its ease and the opportunity for profiteering. Steinhart Distillery in Nova Scotia, to cite just one example, now sells 100- and 200-millilitre bottles of hand sanitizer—at $15 a bottle. 

GM and Linamar, both auto parts manufacturers, have volunteered to retool their production towards ventilators. GM has retooled its production before—producing tanks during World War II, among other instruments of war. This was no act of generosity: in return, GM received a princely sum from the state—one which it no doubt expects to receive again.

Even then, analysts believe it may take as long as six months for the first ventilators to be produced—too long to make any difference. Here again, the operations of the market stand in the way. In order for a private firm to retool on this scale, suppliers of raw materials must be sought out, new contracts signed, workers retrained, schematics for production acquired, and most importantly, all of this done at a profitable rate

To further complicate matters, those retooling production may find their efforts stymied by other capitalists. One recent CBC article suggests that “there could be issues of how much manufacturers of ventilators are willing to share their intellectual property with other companies.” And why? Because sharing their “intellectual property” risks undercutting their own profits

Socialist plan of production

In truth, the economy as a whole has all of the components necessary to reconfigure production towards medical equipment, and in a relatively short amount of time. However, because these components are strewn across multiple firms, each with their own selfish interests at heart, their combination is inevitably delayed, if not made totally impossible. Does the industry exist to end the shortages facing society? Yes. However, the capitalist market prevents it from being put to good use.

The intervention of the state is an admission that the capitalists, by themselves, are incapable of solving the present crisis. However, Trudeau and Ford only plan to oversee and, if necessary, direct the capitalists, in the same way that an untalented conductor directs an unresponsive and even less talented orchestra. In both cases, a poor performance can be the only result.

In order to properly respond to the crisis, capitalist relations must be discarded altogether and replaced with a socialist plan of production. Factories capable of producing medical equipment should be immediately seized, then integrated into a broader plan of production based on needs, not profit. The “intellectual property” of large companies should be made public, with the research and schematics of different firms used to aid in the production of urgently needed equipment. The “Big Five” banks should be taken into public ownership, and their financial levers used to organize production in the most rational way possible. In this way, shortages can be more rapidly addressed, hospital systems fortified, and the pandemic brought under control.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not a product of nature, but the result of a system no longer able to control it. The tools exist in society to do precisely that. 

Socialist planning can help piece them together.