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Capitalism: How COVID-19 Emphasized the Horrors We Already Knew About

For this article, it is first important to understand what exactly capitalism is. The definition from Investopedia (yikes, already) is “an economic system in which private individuals or businesses own capital goods.” Though, I feel like that definition lacks the power nuances that are really essential to the functioning of a capitalist society (but coming from a site called Investopedia, what can we really expect?). I like to think of capitalism, yes, as an economic system, but also as a social structure built on the backs of exploiting marginalized communities and that serves to keep those in positions of political power (read: wealthy, white) in power. Capitalist structures of power, wealth, and influence is what the United States, and the world, functions on. It’s a set of values that are so deeply ingrained in our minds, in the ways our societies function, and in the ways we act- so much so that we can’t even imagine not living in a society where the wealthiest 20% of the US population controls 80% of the nation's money.

Right, well we could rant on and on about what capitalism is or isn't, what it means for communities like ours, and which of our woes can be attributed to it (almost all of them). But what does that have to do with the COVID-19 virus and the pandemic we’ve been living through for a year and a half now? One need not look far for a connection- and there are several.

COVID-19 Vaccines and Global Inequalities

Global vaccine distribution is an area where the power dynamics created and maintained by capitalism are glaringly clear. It's no secret that the United States government, usually a leader in hoarding resources and/or bartering for them, is generally not very proficient at allocating resources after disasters. Especially in an ethical manner- take for example the lack of resources distributed to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017. However, with COVID-19, the government was awfully quick to buy 600 million vaccines in February 2021, enough to fully vaccinate the entire remaining US population. Could this be simply because our new administration wants to quickly and efficiently vaccinate everyone in the US so that we might return to some normalcy? Not likely.

Other world powers, like Russia and China, have emphasized their efforts in delivering vaccines to countries outside of their own. However, these seemingly beneficial actions of generous donations have obvious political motivations, supporting the exact capitalistic agendas that were discussed earlier- those that have to do with gaining and maintaining power and wealth. Russia has mostly donated vaccines to countries in eastern Europe and central Asia, and China has also given vaccines to countries with which they might want to have a better political or economic relationship with. So why hasn’t the United States also sold or gifted vaccines from our own surplus stock to other countries that need them?

That seems to be a solid question here, as we know there is always some sort of political strategy behind why capitalist countries like the United States hoard resources (again, see Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria- the strategy there was a racist push against US citizens who can't even vote for President and against renewed calls for statehood of the island.) The following graph from The New York Times shows vaccine distribution globally, where nations shaded darker have distributed a greater number of vaccines. The image really exemplifies the point here about the United States ensuring success for themselves at the expense of other much less fortunate countries. It’s worthwhile noting that this is not even considering vaccine distribution among marginalized communities within the United States, which can be an entirely different conversation.

The New York Times

COVID-19, The Climate Crisis, and Capitalism

In addition to the exploitation of marginalized populations, capitalism also functions off of the exploitation of land and nature. Due to the rapid nature of climate change caused by human actions, the start and initial spread of COVID-19 was likely linked to deforestation that causes animals to venture closer to humans.

The climate crisis and the COVID-19 virus are unavoidably linked. Contagious diseases and damage to the environment go hand in hand, and they also go together with capitalism. Beyond what we already know of the effect of big corporations and billionaires on the environment, the global economic markets which contribute to the capitalist structure worldwide are rooted in the climate crisis. As stated by Jeffrey Frankel, both viruses such as COVID-19 and climate change are “problems that markets cannot handle on their own, because people who sneeze without a mask or who pollute the air do not bear the full consequences of their actions.” In other words, they are issues (like many others) that cannot be solved with the money that capitalism idolizes.

Lockdown and Quarantine: Essential Workers

When the world went into lockdown in March 2020, people across the world were told that, unless their jobs were essential, they should stay home in order to contain the virus. However, as nations across the world came out and went back into lockdown or quarantine, it became more and more apparent that there are issues in who is considered an “essential worker” and who can really afford to “stay home and quarantine.” As stated by P. Alston, “the pithy advice to “stay home, socially distance, wash hands, and see a doctor in case of fever” highlights the plight of the vast numbers who can do none of these things.” Or also, those who the wealthy exploit in order to make a profit off of their capitalistic ventures.

As highlighted starting on page 10 of this issue, farmworkers are one sector of workers that were considered essential- they were required to return to work even when the rest of the nation went into lockdown. However, they were not given proper PPE, they were not made aware of the risks behind COVID-19, and many undocumented farmworkers were still being deported while at the same time being called essential workers.

This shows that the exploitation of “essential workers” during the pandemic goes hand in hand with the exploitation of marginalized communities necessary in order for capitalism to function. The example of farmworkers is simply another example that has been emphasized thanks to the conditions COVID-19 has provided us.

This article has just provided three basic examples of the ways that COVID-19 has emphasized the global inequalities caused by capitalism. It is not comprehensive, and many more arguments can be had on the topic. However, it cannot be ignored the intersectionality of the issues presented here, all with a common thread: capitalistic values that run the world.

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