The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly changed the world. So far, 44,000 Canadians and 1.04 million people in the United States have died from the disease. The capitalist class demonstrated that it would consistently prioritize the private profits of big business over the safety of workers. But COVID-19 is only the most glaring, recent example of capitalism’s mismanagement of infectious disease prevention. Lurking around the corner is an outbreak of another virus, monkeypox. 

Monkeypox was identified in 1958 when there were outbreaks among monkeys kept for research. It is similar to smallpox, so much so that the vaccines for smallpox offer some protection against monkeypox. People who catch monkeypox develop a painful rash as well as other symptoms including fever, chills, and exhaustion. The fever usually comes first, then the rash a few days later. The rash is contagious until fully healed. To give a scale of the devastation caused by smallpox, it is estimated to have killed 300 million people since the year 1900. It was declared eradicated in 1980 after a concerted global vaccination campaign, but not before those 300 million people had died. 

There is reasonable cause for concern. Monkeypox variants can emerge that have greater capacity to spread from person to person or cause more severe disease. The CDC admits that there exists a variant of monkeypox that is more likely to be severe in children under eight, but affirms that this variant is not the cause of the current outbreak. It is not clear how the outbreak will evolve, but it is known that the emergence of different variants increases with more people getting infected. Every infection provides monkeypox with an enormous number of replication cycles. The indifference of the capitalist class therefore permits the ongoing and generally unstifled growth of the virus’s genetic diversity. 

The Canadian government is attempting to manage the threat with a small number of vaccine purchases. Canada privatized its vaccine production capability decades ago, leaving production in private hands and limiting its supply. As with COVID, the Canadian government’s ability to distribute potentially life-saving vaccines is again determined by the profit margins of private pharmaceutical companies.

A CBC article on the topic cites the chief public health officer of Canada, Dr. Theresa Tam. “Tam said more than 99 per cent of MPXV [Monkeypox] cases in Canada are in men and the median age of those infected is 35,” the CBC reports. “Late last month, the PHAC [Public Health Agency of Canada] urged gay and bisexual men to practice safe sex and limit the number of sexual partners, in an effort to slow the spread of the virus among sexual networks.”

The Canadian government’s framing of the problem is of a disease restricted to a particular demographic: men who have sex with men.

Some provinces have responded by giving the vaccine only to those who meet very specific criteria. In Manitoba, eligibility is limited to men with any of the following criteria: being recently diagnosed with chlamydia, gonorrhea, or syphilis; having two or more sexual partners within the last 21 days, patronizing a bath house, having anonymous sex within the last 21 days, or engaging in sex work. All of these criteria are extremely personal details and it would not be surprising if some LGBTQ people miss out on the vaccine because they did not want to give information about their sex life to the state, or because they did not want to sit through an embarrassing appointment getting interrogated about who they have slept with. In not-so-distant history, the capitalist state was explicit in targeting and oppressing LGBTQ people in various ways. Any incentive for people not to be vaccinated can only help spread the outbreak. The only conclusion to draw from all of this is that governments do not want to pay to vaccinate people against monkeypox, either because they do not take it seriously, or because they do not care about who it is infecting.

Tying the virus to a vulnerable group is a tactic to downplay the potential danger of the virus. When the HIV/AIDS outbreak was developing in the 1980s, it was pejoratively labelled a “gay disease” and it took a long, difficult struggle by gay rights activists for the Canadian and U.S. government to alter course. 

It is factually true that men who have sex with men are getting infected at a higher rate, but the virus is spread by contact (not just sexual contact) and every single person who comes into contact with other people, especially nurses, physical therapists, and caregivers, risks getting sick. Young children are also at high risk. While infections are low is exactly the time to vaccinate the population to stop the spread. 

Decades after the AIDS crisis, advertisement after advertisement can be seen on many downtown billboards for expensive, highly profitable antiretroviral medication regimens. These drugs do prevent HIV from progressing to AIDS and prevent disease spread, but whether you can afford them depends on where you live (as some provinces cover the cost and others do not). Despite the availability of medications that can control disease, the HIV infection rate among Indigenous people, homeless people, drug users, and gay men remains high. The capitalist state is willing to exploit workers into destitution, then neglect their health problems. This is what capitalism offers us: the working class sinking further into disease, despair, and poverty in the shadow of empty luxury condos. 

Producing enough vaccines for the entire country would come with costs, which the capitalists would prefer the state spent on subsidies, tax cuts, and other handouts to bolster their profits. Instead, they will allow viruses to linger, develop new variants, and be a continual threat to the health of working class people. Health officials like Dr. Tam justify these cost-saving decisions with arguments about “limited supplies” that are said with a veneer of professionalism, but these state officials are defending the financial interests of the capitalist class. To them, the potential, or the reality of tens of thousands of people dying in a pandemic is the cost of doing business.

To ensure that pandemics are taken seriously and that new diseases are identified and eradicated promptly, we need a reorganization of society. We need to nationalize the large, highly profitable pharmaceutical companies and massively scale up vaccine production, running the nationalized industries under democratic workers’ control. The only way to achieve this is through a socialist revolution, putting these decisions in the hands of the working class.