The pandemic has been raging for two years now, and the ruling class has been unable to stop it. While we have barely reached the peak of the Omicron wave, which has wreaked havoc and pushed health-care systems to the brink of collapse, capitalist politicians are already in a hurry to reopen the floodgates of profit. With this fifth wave of infections, however, something seems to have changed in the attitude of the ruling class.
At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, under popular pressure, governments generally adopted a lockdown policy. But their desire to not hurt profits too much meant loose half-lockdowns which left many non-essential industries running. These lockdowns generally came too late, allowed too many exceptions, and ended too soon. Like a sieve, they limited the flow of the virus without stopping it.
So the ruling class changed its strategy and put all its chips into vaccination. But it has now become clear that under current conditions, vaccines will not be enough.
Since the pandemic is by definition global, the only viable vaccine strategy must be international and involve the lifting of patents. However, vaccine nationalism and the extreme greed of vaccine manufacturers, who refuse to allow other manufacturers to use their vaccine technology to enable mass production at low cost, stand in the way of such a solution.
As a result, new variants can develop in less vaccinated countries, and existing vaccines lose their effectiveness over time. Vaccination is certainly essential to combat the virus. But while leaders in the West are lashing out at the unvaccinated at home, they are helping to perpetuate the existence of hundreds of millions of unvaccinated people in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.
Rather than attacking the sacrosanct private ownership of pharmaceuticals, capitalists are turning to a new solution: sweeping the problem under the rug. As with all other problems that primarily afflict working people, they now prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist.
So we have seen in the bourgeois press a multiplication of jovial articles announcing repeatedly, like an incantation, the imminent arrival of the endemicity of the virus. The World Health Organization even says that it is “plausible” that the pandemic will end this year.
These announcements are more about public relations than public health. Endemicity means that the virus becomes a constant presence, like the flu. It does not mean the absence of danger. Malaria is also endemic, with 600,000 deaths in 2020. Not to mention that, while vaccination protects against mortality, it is not yet clear whether it protects against long COVID, a form of COVID that leaves severe disabling sequelae and affects one-third of those infected.
Moreover, as Elizabeth Halloran of the Seattle-based Center for Inference and Dynamics of Infectious Diseases says, “There is not much we humans can intentionally do to move towards endemicity… a lot depends on how the virus evolves.”
And the stage of endemicity has not yet been reached. Yet out of sheer magical thinking, several countries, such as Ireland, the United Kingdom and South Africa, have announced that they will treat COVID-19 as an endemic virus. Spain is talking about a policy of “flu-ization” of COVID. British Columbia Public Health Officer Bonnie Henry said the province will approach COVID “much more like we manage the flu.”
Restrictions and lockdowns limit trade and the ability of capitalists to make a profit. So never mind that the deaths continue to pile up; our leaders want to move on. The new mantra being repeated more and more often by both serious and not-so-serious spokesmen of the bourgeoisie is: “Learn to live with the virus.”
As a result, we have seen many governments prematurely end their fifth-wave lockdown, despite emergency rooms full of COVID patients. In Quebec, François Legault would also like to end the lockdown as soon as possible and keeps announcing the “light at the end of the tunnel”, while in hospitals the beds remain full and the offloading continues.
Following the example of the United States, several provinces, including Quebec, reduced the isolation period after infection from 10 to five days. This decision had nothing to do with science and the fight against the pandemic, and everything to do with the desire of capitalists to get people back to work quickly, even if it means infecting their colleagues in the process.
Of course, we are not in favor of endless lockdowns. But capitalist governments are unable to create the conditions where schools and workplaces can remain safely open. No steps are being taken to actually improve our ability to “live with the virus” safely, such as hiring more teachers, reducing class sizes and installing air purifiers, distributing N95 masks on a large scale, or investing heavily in the health-care system and training nurses and doctors.
And in some places, such as the U.K., the government wants to end free testing. Already, lack of capacity both in terms of the availability of the tests themselves and their processing has meant restrictions on the distribution of tests, for example in Ontario. Sir John Bell, professor of medicine at Oxford University, sums up what is going through the minds of the ruling class: “Spending a lot of money on a testing regime that locks lots of people up and means the economy doesn’t go forward; there’s a significant downside to that.”
The real content of the slogan “Learn to live with the virus” is that the public must tolerate a higher level of mortality and infection. Workers must resign themselves to dying from the virus. We are witnessing a transition to a strategy of collective immunity, at the expense of workers and the vulnerable.
For it is not the capitalists who are at risk. According to an Oxfam study, the poor are up to four times more likely to die from the virus than the rich. Isolated in their large, comfortable homes, they are safe from outbreaks, which are largely concentrated in schools and workplaces. They can afford the best private health care, and don’t have to worry about losing their jobs or losing income if they get sick.
But under capitalism, workers’ lives and health are worth little. Throughout these two horrific years, the logic of profit has stood in the way of any measures that might have stopped the virus or even limited the deaths. Governments have taken all sorts of measures to appear to be doing something about the pandemic, as long as it didn’t cost too much and didn’t interfere too much with the ability of capitalists to make money.
The CAQ government in Quebec has championed these kinds of seemingly drastic measures without any demonstrated effectiveness, such as curfews and taxes on non-vaccinated people. This has only served to erode public patience, reduce support for public health measures and fuel the anti-mask and anti-vaccination movement. Many people wonder why they should to put their social and recreational lives on hold for several months if it does not prevent the virus from spreading.
This skepticism about public health measures, in turn, puts the government in a better position to make people accept “living with the virus.” Government covidiots and anti-vaccine covidiots are two sides of the same coin and feed off each other.
We cannot let the ruling class push the “learn to live with COVID” pill down our throats. The solutions to the pandemic have long been known. There is plenty of wealth in our society to invest massively in health care, personal protective equipment for everyone, distribution of vaccines to the entire world population, etc. It is only the greed of the capitalists that prevents us from ending this nightmare. It is therefore up to the working class to take the reins of society, to build a society where human life comes before profits—the only way to defeat this virus.