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Opinions of Monday, 25 May 2020

Columnist: Aidan Adongo, Contributor

Coronavirus and commodification of health

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Where would we be after the May Day celebrations given the rampage of the COVID-19 virus? What does tomorrow hold for the loved ones we know and associate with? Would the very existence of humanity be so threatened that we would be decimated? Would it be the end of capital and labour or the class struggle? Is it possible that the rampaging effect of the virus could inaugurate a period of fundamental revolutionary changes?

These are troubling questions in troubling times. No doubt, we must find answers to these nagging questions. But we cannot be too sure of what the future portends. Hundreds of thousands of people are being infected by the pandemic on a daily basis and the scientific and medical community has warned that the situation could become grimmer in the coming months if not years. It is important to emphasise i that the pandemic like others before it, has exposed the decadence, ineptitude and bankruptcy of the market system which has been hallowed by politicians over the years as the only god-given panacea to our problems.

The fact is that COVID-19 has not been an exceptional feature of the twentieth century. The Spanish Flu (1918-1920) infected an estimated 500 million people around the world and resulted in 50-100 million casualties. Since the advent of capitalism, unprecedented road building, deforestation, land clearance for estate-type housing and agricultural development have made humanity more vulnerable to pathogens like the corona virus. Such emerging diseases have quadrupled in the last half-century mainly because of the disruption of the ecosystem by human activity. Between 2011 and 2018 the WHO counted no less than 1,483 epidemics in 172 countries.

Those who own the means of production to embark on the building of roads, construction of houses, engage in mining etc. (the capitalist class) and those who own no substantial property (the working class) who make up the vast majority of the world’s population form the two main classes. In this relationship the capitalist class which owns the means of production are the most powerful and would only allow production to take place if it yields profit i.e. if it can be sold in the market place to bring dividends.

The very foundation of capitalism therefore is anchored on the exploitation of the working class accomplished by “the money trick”- the wages system. As the workers have no private property, they do not determine what is to be produced, how it should be produced, where it should be produced and at what time. It denies millions of people their right to life by paying them starvation wages, polluting the environment and cause death-threatening viruses such as COVID-19, SARS and so on. It also discourages food production in order to maintain profit levels and even the treatment of diseases is manacled to the dictates of profit for example the building and equipping of hospitals and the manufacture of medicines. This explains why health workers in Ghana have had to work in permanent distress aggravated by a shortage of test-kits, sanitary equipment, hospital beds and staff as a result of the neo-liberal offensive which has been launched against public healthcare and other public services in recent decades.

Private ownership therefore, is responsible for the character of wealth under capitalism- that of commodities of goods which are produced primarily for sale and profit. This is all pervading even in cases like medical treatment which may seem superficially unconnected with commodity production but in reality very much an integral part of the productive and exploitative processes of capitalism. Hospitals which offer National Health Insurance Schemes for example, appear to offer some relief to poor workers but appearances are deceptive.

The hospitals which treat people are like vehicle repair shops and servicing bays where the machines are human beings which are patched and tuned up to get them back on the road of employment i.e. get them ready for the employer to exploit more efficiently. This argument however is not to create the impression that it is not worthwhile to have the NHIS even if it provides some assistance to people in need. The point being made is that the National Health Insurance Scheme implemented in an atmosphere where the private ownership of the means of production is dominant or where commodity production is motivated by the realization of profit and accumulation of capital cannot be sustainably beneficial to working people. The whole system, therefore, that is root and branch must be overhauled.

We shudder to think of the consequences of the steep falls of stock markets on poor countries like Ghana. Oil prices have sunk to as low as 30 dollars per barrel and China the second largest economy on the planet is set to have its first quarter of negative growth since Mao’s cultural revolution and some experts forecast that world economic growth could slow down to 1% from 2.6% last year which would mean a number of countries going into recession. In Ghana the NPP government is shifting blame for the economic crises in the country to the virus. But this was only an accident which has exposed the ugly sores of capitalism which had been plastered over. Sooner or later the weak capitalist defenses would have had to crumble. From my point of view, the virus was merely an accidental event which is expressing an underlying deeper necessity. The ripple effects of the pandemic will devastate an already weak world economy in spite of the stimulus packages that some people are calling on the Akuffo Addo’s government to extend to businesses and industries. Major industries will witness interruptions in production and unemployment will skyrocket to unprecedented levels.

In the face of this, both the NPP and NDC should be terrified. Any of these parties which comes to power in the next elections would be confronted with the frightening prospects of mass unemployment and intensified class struggles. Throwing food packs in crowded places for people to pick, granting people sick leave conditions and giving small and medium-sized enterprises loans and tax rebates will not come close to solving the problems that the COVID-19 pandemic has unleased. The situation would most certainly lead to the radicalization of the majority of the people. It is probably for this reason that governments are calling for their respective nations to came together to stem the crises by pooling scientific resources and coordinating efforts with the World Health Organization.

There are others who however have introduced an element of Malthusianism into their comments about the virus, revealing the filthy mindset that the ruling class has about such occurrences. When Boris Johnson the Prime Minister of the UK was asked about how the disease could be dealt with he said, “… perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go allow the disease as it were, to move through the population without, taking any draconian measures”. What Mr. Johnson meant was simple: Let thousands of people die without taking any serious measures to ensure that business runs as usual.

In order words, he was propounding the Malthusian idea that poverty, wars and epidemics reflect the world over-population down. As if Johnson and Jeremy Warner a journalist with the Telegraph had planned to publicise this point of view, Warner put it this way: “not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents”. So the wish of the bourgeoisie is that the disease should be allowed to pass through the population, “culling” as many as it can in one go. Allowing the virus to kill as many people as possible for them could get Britain out of the recession faster than other countries who are implementing delaying measures.

The Ghanaian health system is ill-equipped for what is to come. Millions of us without health care insurance could face horrible conditions. The decrepit healthcare system will struggle to deal with the sheer size of the problem that would confront the country. The Ghanaian health system is not in a position to deal with a national disaster on the levels we expect to see because of so many years of criminal neglect. The Ghanaian health system has one focus: the channeling of cash into the pockets of big medical and pharmaceutical companies, and individual bank accounts.

In the last few weeks it has been observed that the measures that have been put in place to stem the spread of the virus have been half-hearted. The hospitals have no plan, no training for personnel, and equipment is sparse. Testing equipment facilities are still few and as a result retrieval procedures are extremely time consuming. The result is that there is no clear cut evidence of how many people have actually been infected in Ghana. No serious measures have been taken to protect ordinary people from health and economic crises, yet bourgeois-oriented people are calling on the government to inject a significant portion of the loan it contracted from the IMF to shore up businesses.

The incompetence of the capitalist class and its hangers-on is in full glare. At each turn, the absolute putrefaction of the ruling class will be exposed; a logical negative progression that would be replicated throughout as the disease spreads.

The task of Marxists groups will be to expose the ruling class and its bogus policies to the wretched of the earth to see. We must show how the interest of the parasitic ruling class manifested in their various political formations, are opposed to the rest of society:

• Beds for patients in hospitals must be dramatically increased and new hospitals setup by completing hospitals or where necessary requisitioning and repurposing empty buildings such as hotels.

• Sick pay must be made possible for all who qualify to have access to it, and the casual workforce must be formalised immediately or be guaranteed benefits amounting to a living wage.

• Parents and carers should be provided with paid leave to look after their children and those affected by the closure of schools.

• Strict price controls must be imposed on all necessary goods. Expropriation of factories capable of producing scarce hygiene products and medical equipment.

• All evictions and repossessions should be blocked and empty buildings being used as vehicles for speculation should be brought under public control to provide accommodation for the homeless.

• All non-essential production should be paused in affected areas in order to prevent the spread of the disease. Workers in such areas should be guaranteed full salary as long as businesses are closed.

• Health and safety measures should be placed in the workplaces for those required to work, with cost borne by companies. If the bosses’ claim that the money is not there, they must be called upon to open their books for a probe. • Such measures should be taken up by the workers whose responsibility it would be to discuss and come to an agreement. If union presence is non-existent then opportunity should be given for the organisation of a trade union and its recognition.

• An immediate levy should be imposed on big business and a call should be made to nationalise the banks in order to direct resources to where they are needed, providing funding to household, small businesses and sectors affected by the shutdown.

• Industries facing bankruptcy should be nationalised and put under the control of the working class in order to protect workers’ jobs and livelihoods.

• Idle wealth of the monopolies should be expropriated in order to fund the emergency measures required.

What is taking place in world history today is the beginning of a period of seismic changes in the social, economic and political order-revolutions and counter-revolutions; the effect of which would engulf the whole world. It is the task of Marxist to draw attention to the inability of the capitalist class to take society forward and patiently explain that only the working class by taking power is capable of doing so.

It would be important to patiently point out that ruling class never solved the contradictions that led to the 2008 world economic crises. Instead it aggravated the problem and pushed it to a point of bursting which is now erupting again. This time round the pandemic will maintain a depressive effect on the economy for as many as two years. But when it ends the situation would not return to normal. The coming decade would be far more tumultuous than the last.

The consciousness of the masses would witness dramatic shifts. Crises and mass unemployment would be the order of the day and draconian measures would be imposed on the working class. First the ruling class would try to stabilize the situation by appealing to nationalist sentiments. Many people will fall in for the appeal for national solidarity and think that the state is acting in the interest of the nation. But gradually it would become clear who is being asked to pay and whose interests are being protected. The masses would be asked to make significant sacrifices for the ruling class. But there is an extent to which they can be stretched. Once this point is reached the rabbit-like docility of the working class would be transformed into the ferocious anger of a tiger. Everything taken for granted by ordinary people would change. The masses would be forced out of their inertia.