COVID CRISIS, DISASTROUS GOVERNMENT MEASURES AND A PROLETARIAN APPROACH

M Aseem //

It is now more than 4 months since Narendra Modi locked the whole of India down claiming to win the war against Corona Virus in 21 days by ‘Breaking the Chain’ like the victory of good over evil in 18 days of mythical Mahabharat war. Having seen the disaster unfolding in developed capitalist countries, Modi, true to his megalomaniac penchant for taking ‘decisive, strong, spectacular’ actions to establish his fascist ‘strongman’ credentials, had no intention and will for the tedious work of mass education for scientific ways of prevention of infection through adoption of masks and good basic sanitation practices, detection/identification of the infected through contact tracing and public funded free massive virus testing programme, ensuring facilities for isolation of the non-critical infected for the required period and providing necessary medical support for the seriously ill patients.

All this would have required massive investment in public healthcare infrastructure as well as full support and protection for all healthcare personnel, making it necessary to the extent of taking over all private capital owned healthcare businesses in the country. But this goes against the interest of the ruling capitalist class and their neo-liberal economic policies. Hence lockdown was the opportune way out for appearing to do massive effort to contain the disease while, in fact, leaving the people to their own tragic fate stuck in the clutches of profit driven private capital owned healthcare system. Therefore, this fiat of Modi was accompanied by a huge applause from not only the capitalist class but also their lackey middle class who could afford to confine themselves to their well-stocked separate houses or within their ‘societies’ of apartments behind huge gates guarded round the clock by a large army of watchmen to keep them secure and isolated from the risk of infection from the poor working class multitudes living in their filthy and congested tenements. So, they welcomed the lockdown by clapping, beating of pots and pans, lighting candles and bursting crackers. But what was the outcome?

Disastrous Results of Govt. Measures

First and foremost, lockdown snatched away the jobs and livelihood of tens of crores of poor workers and pushed them to starvation and homelessness since workers in capitalism are only paid for their labour power at the minimum wages required for keeping alive and being available to sell their labour power again and again. Therefore, they can never have any reserves or savings which can sail them through without being able to sell their labour power. As the government fiat made them unable to sell their labour power, they were made completely destitute and compelled to leave their filthy urban tenements and walk hundreds and thousands of kilometers with their small children to forage for food and look for shelters in those very villages which they had left earlier, burdened by extreme poverty and exploitation, in search of employment. The hunger and hardships this caused including large number of fatalities has been described earlier. Hence, we will not detail that here again.

Second, though government is carrying huge stocks of food grains through Food Corporation of India– more than 10 crore tons as of now, much of which is destined to rot – it steadfastly refuses to expand public distribution system and make it universal even in this time of distress. Even the free food distribution scheme declared by Modi with great fanfare has not been implemented widely and only 10% of the declared beneficiaries have received any food grains under it, in some states the distribution has been zero. Moreover, though the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which has seen huge demand from poor unemployed in lockdown period, its allocated budget for the full financial year has nearly running out because of this enhanced demand and once the budget is exhausted, it will further increase the distress of the unemployed.  

Thirdly, massively underfunded for long, public healthcare system quickly crumbled under the strain of the pandemic owing to severe dearth of beds, equipment, medicines, skilled staff equipped with protective gear, etc. We have all seen and heard many horror stories of the sick being unable to get themselves tested or get admitted in hospitals and dying on roads or in ambulances trudging between hospitals, having been turned away from one hospital after the other. We have also seen pictures of dead bodies lying next to patients with nobody to remove these or patients crying with nobody to look after them in pain and breathlessness. Even more cruel has been the fate of many non Covid patients in need of urgent care like for childbirth or strokes and needing regular medical procedures like dialysis, radio/chemotherapy, etc. as their regular hospitals were designated as Covid hospitals and no alternatives were provided. Many have died due to not getting periodic treatment on time.

4th, Private sector healthcare industry is indulging in bloodsucking profiteering in the name of Covid. Private hospitals are running extortion rackets in the name of Covid packages costing several lakhs rupees even for patients requiring no ICU/Ventilator support, for which prices have blown up sky high. Many lakhs of rupees are being billed in the name of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) though same kit is used for multiple patients in a shift. On the other hand, non Covid patients are being asked for Covid negative test for each hospital appointment. Regards Covid test, we have already written how private sector labs were allowed to charge Rs.4500 for a test costing less than Rs. 500, to which many hospitals are adding 2-3000 rupees in the name of consultation and handling charges, thus the full price of test goes up to Rs 6500-7500. Similarly, many unproven medicines like HCQ, Remdesivir, Favipiravir, Itolizumab, etc. have been licensed for use in Covid on urgent basis, some of which the pharma companies are officially selling at 20-30 thousand rupees per patient. However, by creating artificial shortages and indulging in black marketeering many are being forced to fork out even more than lakh rupees for these medicines by the hospital-pharma company gangs. The situation is such that, what to say of working class, many middle-class people who supported privatization of healthcare thinking themselves to be secure in private hospitals owing to their health insurance policies are now finding hospitalization beyond their reach.

5th, taking advantage of the pandemic related lockdown and fear among people, the fascist regime has quickened its onslaught on remaining bourgeois democratic institutions, labour and union rights of the working class and democratic rights of the people in general. Many activists and intellectuals have been arrested and all protest movements are being repressed ruthlessly.   

Question of Vaccine

For a viral infectious disease with no effective and proven medicine yet, development of a vaccine remains the most viable option to contain the spread of Covid. Therefore, around 100 candidates had started the race to formulate and successfully test a vaccine first, out of which more than 2 dozen from various countries have reached some stage of trials and therefore considered viable candidates, including 2 from India. World over, as in the past, it has been observed that in addition to much of the research and trial work happening in the public sector research facilities, governments are also allocating huge amount of public funds for pharmaceutical companies of their country to develop a vaccine. For example, US government has already allocated 6 billion dollars to several American companies for this purpose. Similarly, in India much of the research and testing work for Bharat Biotech vaccine is being done by public sector ICMR. However, despite all public research work the vaccines once developed will become Intellectual Property of the concerned private capitalists who will use them to mint huge profits by selling these at high prices. In US, Pfizer which has also received public funding is talking of USD 15-20 dollars per dose while Serum Institute of India which is licensee for the Oxford vaccine has already spoken of approx. Rs 1000 as the price of a single dose. Moreover, we do not yet know whether it will be a single dose vaccine or multiple doses might be required. Hence, we can see the huge amount of public funds and knowledge/technique being transferred to private capitalists to enable them to appropriate huge monopoly profits taking advantage of the current situation of pandemic. That also shows the real exploitative character of equality and freedom in a capitalist ‘democracy’ and the falsehood of wealth creation, i.e., capitals accumulation, being the result of merit and hard work of capitalists.

Uncontrolled Spread of Covid

Despite Centre and State governments trying their utmost to hide the extent of spread of Covid by hiding all information and restricting and denying testing to the needy as much as possible, its uncontrolled spread has been known to all for quite a long time now and India has now become the 3rd most impacted country in the world with more than 16 lakh cases and 35 thousand deaths. The total Covid cases are currently being incremented by a daily average of new Positive cases of more than 50 thousand while average deaths a day have gone above 700. As this number is still increasing at a fast pace, there is apprehension that India might be on the path to become the country to suffer most from Covid.

Having made full throated claims of bringing the Covid pandemic to end through lockdown enforced with brutal police force, the Modi government has now got no options left when its spread is becoming uncontrollable but to increasingly allow economy to function as the cycle of productive capital has been heavily impacted, though some monopoly capitalists are still increasing their wealth through financial operations and speculation. Government did nothing during the lockdown period to curb the disease except facilitating capitalist profiteering. Hence Modi downwards all political/bureaucratic officials are now keeping completely mum as if the pandemic is all over, while suffering and misery of the people is growing all around. Instead they have moved on to inflame nationalistic jingoism through border clashes and religious fanaticism through Temple foundation in Ayodhya to deflect attention of common people from their complete apathy to severe health and economic hardships being faced by the people.

Proletarian Approach to Covid Crisis

In this scenario of intensifying misery and suffering for common people especially working class due to both Covid disease and economic hardships and destitution triggered by brutal lockdown imposed by a completely apathetic government, what should be the right approach for all left, working class formations?  To expose the capitalist system through agitational and mass protest programmes demanding, first, adequate free Covid testing for all, public isolation facilities for all the infected and treatment in public hospitals for all who are seriously sick taking over all private sector healthcare facilities for the purpose; second, employment guarantee or unemployment benefits for all workers; third, free, universal distribution of food grains and other basic necessities by government without requiring any card or registration; fourth, takeover of all vacant houses/apartments/buildings to provide adequate housing to all homeless to enable them to maintain proper physical distancing; fifth, desist from attack on democratic and labour rights and release all prisoners held in captivity for political or petty criminal charges; among others. All forces should have been immediately united for joint mass democratic struggles on these issues.

Instead, some left organisations have focused their attention on ‘exposing’ some sort of design by imperialists-capitalists behind spread of Covid to create fear psychosis among the people to enable them to further strengthen their authoritarian/fascist rule and put down all people’s protest movements. Another trend is to either fully deny the existence of any epidemic called Covid, calling it an imaginary disease caused by an imaginary virus, with people dying, not because of any real physiological problems, but more out of the fear of disease caused by mass hysteria around it or to compare it to other existing diseases like Tuberculosis which might kill more people and, therefore should have got more attention. In their view a mass hysteria on Covid has been created by Pharma capitalists working in nexus with World Health Organisation (WHO) to extract massive profits as we have already described above. Hence, they are focusing more on discussing comparative Infection Fatality Rates (IFR) or Case Fatality Rates (CFR) of different infectious diseases to establish that Covid was never that severe or fatal a disease to have received so much attention and mass hysteria of fear around it.

The point here, however, is not to deny that capitalist ruling class always exploits any opportunity provided by crises of all shapes and hues to, on the one hand, transfer the economic burden of the crisis on the working people in the form of retrenchments/layoffs, lockouts, depressed wages, longer working hours, doing away with safety and basic necessities arrangements,  curtailing of labour and trade union rights, etc., and, on the other hand, create fear mongering among the people taking advantage of which they can encroach whatever democratic rights are still available to the common masses. This government has also done the same through imposing most severe lockdowns and curfews on people anywhere in the world, and by providing massive capital transfers to the capitalist class in the form of various concessions, reduction of tax rates, curtailing of expenditure on public services, massive drive to privatization, etc. The point is also not to deny the massive profiteering and robbery by capitalist class through spreading fear and sell their ‘remedies’ at extortionate prices, which is happening now and the same has been discussed afore.  

The point here, however, is to affirm that the chief aim of the mass democratic struggles of the working class is to expose the unredeemable exploitative and repressive character of the existing capitalist system through whichever problem has gripped the life and minds of the working class, whatever the comparative rate of suffering – lower or higher, it might have in relation to other burdens of the exploited masses. Hence, despite all scientific value of such studies and research from the point of view of medical/public health policy making, that is not the objective of the organisations of proletariat. That is the approach of NGOs or reformists within the existing capitalist system and not the approach of working-class revolutionary formations, whose role is mobilise agitation and protests on the issues which grip the minds of the common people and Covid is the issue that grips the minds of the people now. Therefore, comparative assessment of the damage by Covid or Tuberculosis or other such should not be our agenda, but to mobilise people on problems facing them now through formation of mass struggle committees on the issue raising voice for immediate relief and democratic rights.

Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 4/ August ’20)

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