Khalid Zaka: A historic perspective on COVID-19

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      COVID-19 rose in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December 2019, and by January 2020, it had hit Hubei province like a tidal wave, swirling over China and rippling out overseas.

      A pandemic has since been declared, but not for the 24,600 who die every day from unnecessary starvation, not for 3,000 children who die every day from preventable malaria, and not for the 10,000 people who die every day because they are denied publicly funded health care.

      One of the worst plagues in human history that is largely forgotten now was the Spanish flu. British science author Laura Spinney mentioned that “between the first case recorded on March 4, 1918, and the last sometime in March 1920, it killed 50-100 million, or between 2.5 and 5 percent of the global population, a range that reflects the uncertainty that still surrounds it. It was the greatest tidal wave of death since the Black Death, perhaps in the whole of human history.”

      There are many conspiracy theories regarding the origin of COVID-19. Did this virus naturally originate like many others in nature, or did a third party launch it for particular motives and results? Seting aside these theories, a historical perspective on pandemics is summarized in the following paragraphs. 

      In their book Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture and Health, Richard C. Lewontin and Richard Levins establish a link between pandemics and changes in society, population, use of land, climate change, nutrition, or migration—i.e. from slave-owning to feudalism and from feudalism to the capitalism.

      This is a remarkable and rational point of view to be discussed, developed, and put forward.

      According to the historical data, the plague erupted in Europe for the first time in the sixth century during the decline of the Roman Empire under Justinian. Europe suffered from social disruption and declining production.

      The sanitary facilities of the great ancient cities were crumbling; under those circumstances, when the plague was introduced, it swept through the population with devastating effects.

      The plague reappeared in the fourteenth century during a developing crisis of feudalism, causing a population decline even before the epidemic became widespread.

      In thier book, Lewontin and Levins also mentioned the narrowness of the theory of public health. This public-health theory lacks an appreciation for the ecology of all species interactions and the evolutionary change that occurs in disease organisms. They maintain that there is a need to establish a dialectical relationship between the part and whole, instead of only looking into the part (i.e. the germ or virus).

      Although Europe and the United States are the most developed and prosperous parts of the world, these have also been the worst hit by COVID-19. A lack of testing equipment and facilities, personal protective equipment, and overwhelmed medical facilities have raised questions regarding their capabilities to handle and manage the pandemic.

      The current deterioration and lack of public health facilities in Europe and the U.S. can actuallly be linked to the collapse of socialism in Russia and China.

      That's because during the Cold War era, the elites of Europe and North America provided social securities and public health facilities for their people to showcase capitalism and to counter the public's affinity for socialist ideology.

      When socialism collapsed, the capitalist elites started taking back social securities and privileges. The neoliberal policies geared up during the Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan periods in the U.K. and the U.S., respectively.

      The spread of COVID-19 has shown the capitalism's vulnerabilities regarding the management and cure of diseases. Capitalism's lack of capacity to safeguard humanity from pandemics is related to its neoliberal development model.

      The prevalent view is that the  spread of capitalism would lead to worldwide prosperity. The available data, however, does not support this point of view.

      There has been an increase in the gross domestic product across the globe; but the available information indicates that GDP growth does not benefit the poor.

      While global GDP per capita has grown by 45 percent since 1990, the number of people living on less than $5 a day has increased by more than 370 million. Why does growth not help reduce poverty? Because the yields of growth are very unevenly distributed.

      Another central aspect of capitalism is that it cannot survive without endless growth. However, many species on Earth, including humans, cannot survive the surging catastrophe of climate change caused by unchecked growth.

      The main cause of climate change is our current social and economic system— capitalism—because it is based on unending growth. There are some who think that capitalism can be reformed. But it is wishful thinking that it can be can exist in some steady state.

      The dialectical approach to addressing the question of diseases and recurring pandemics is to analyze the class question.

      In the absence of understanding the class question, some may blame poor hygiene conditions of ordinary people as a cause for the spread of diseases. Some may portray it as "God's will," whereas in real terms in the past, the inequality and poverty inflicted by the master and feudal lord’s exploitive rule is the main factor responsible for the spread of diseases.

      It seems that the neoliberal model of development has once  again exposed humanity to a pandemic and has rendered humanity helpless. This leads to the fundamental question: what is to be done?

      The following may provide some insight into what needs to be done. Jason Hickel narrates this story in his book titled The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and Its Solutions.

      “Imagine you are standing by a river with steep banks and bends that forth with dangerous rapids. Amid the noise of rushing water, you hear a faint voice crying out for help, and notice a figure struggling against the waves. A strong swimmer, you summon your courage and plunge into the water, managing to drag the person to safety just in time. While recovering on the shore, you noticed yet another figure drifting into peril. Refusing to watch them die, you plunge in yet again. But minutes later, you catch sight of yet another, and another. Unable to save them all, you rush to find your friends and assemble a team, and together, you dedicate yourself to rescuing people from the river. But as the hour slog by and the disaster shows no sign of abating, it strikes you that perhaps your efforts would be better spent running upstream to find out why so many people are falling into the river in the first place.”

      Hickel is very right in raising this question: "Why are so many people are falling into the river? Why is the neoliberalism development model unable to eradicate poverty, the root cause of diseases and pandemics?"