Covid and Capitalism: Mass Vaccination or Mandate for Mass Death

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On July 4th President Biden announced that “independence from a deadly virus” was on the horizon. Pointing to the possibilities of mass vaccinations, he proclaimed, “America is coming back together!” While vaccines have proven to be effective at preventing mass death by Covid-19, capitalist created divisions have been compounded by the pandemic and are now more deeply rooted. Along lines of race, ethnicity, sex, gender and class, the world is more divided. 

Over the past 18 months, the wealth gap between the 99% and 1% (closer to 2.94 E-7 of the global population) are as yawning as ever. The world’s 2300 billionaires made 4 trillion dollars more than the previous year. Meanwhile, the numbers among the poor are projected to grow by one hundred fifty million and even as high as five hundred million. This is another grim iteration of disaster capitalism: what is perilous for the masses is profitable for the few.  

In the United States, health disparities that historically fall along lines of deep social inequities became predictors for how the pandemic has disproportionately affected Black, Latino and Native populations, who experience virus related illness and deaths at rates 3-4 times higher than white people. For women, burdened with the compounding oppressions of sexist and gendered wage gaps, there are mounting unpaid workloads. Their primary role in social reproduction is growing for having to care for children at home when schools across the country close to in-person learning in order to protect teachers, students and their families from the virus. Left without a socialized system of affordable child care, millions of mothers have few choices but to leave their jobs to be at home with their children. Today, 1.8 million fewer women are employed than before the pandemic. The Shadow Pandemic of violence against women is a hidden part of the ongoing crisis. 

With recent arrival of the Covid-19 Delta variant—which ripped through India last October, killing tens of thousands—and accounting for 83% (and rising) of new virus cases in the United States, illness and deaths are now at levels not seen since February. With only 49% of its population fully inoculated, the country finds itself divided along existential lines in which the vaccine is a major determining factor for who will survive an infection and who will become severely ill and die.

CDC and WHO Strategies

The United States Center for Disease Control and its international analogue, the World Health Organization, similarly describe how the virus is transmitted, and have come closer together on how to combat the pandemic. Both have basically agreed since the onset of the Covid crisis that the virus is transmitted through respiratory droplets. Only in the past several months have they recognized that transmissions occur, also, and likely predominantly, through smaller virus filled respiratory particles called aerosols. These can remain suspended in the air for relatively long durations, especially in poorly ventilated spaces, something that the broader scientific community has suggested for at least a year. However, neither emphasize the likely primacy of aerosols as drivers of transmission, leading to false sense of safety in poorly ventilated indoor public spaces. 

The CDC recommends mass vaccination as a solution toward protecting people from the virus, but has only recently added a recommendation for masks to be worn indoors, regardless of vaccination status (for “high transmission” areas only). After the rapid rise in Covid cases driven by the Delta variant, they walked back previous unscientific recommendations that face coverings, physical distancing, and avoiding crowds were unnecessary in the midst of a mass vaccination campaign. By comparison, WHO recommendations have been more consistent and scientifically sound. Their website states that “safe and effective vaccines are a game-changing tool: but for the foreseeable future we must continue wearing masks, cleaning our hands, ensuring good ventilation indoors, physically distancing and avoiding crowds.”

National Nurses United, the largest nurses’ union in the United States, denounced the initial CDC guidelines in a May 14th press release, condemning their rollback on Covid protection guidance.

“This newest CDC guidance is not based on science, does not protect public health, and threatens the lives of patients, nurses, and other frontline workers across the country,” said NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN. “Now is not the time to relax protective measures, and we are outraged that the CDC has done just that while we are still in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in a century.

“CDC issued this new guidance even though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) emergency temporary standard mandated by President Biden’s Jan. 21 executive order has been delayed for two months. This lack of protection compounds the dangers that nurses and other essential workers continue to face on the job,” Castillo continued.

NNU cited several issues with the CDC’s guidelines, chief among them are: 

  • Unanswered questions about vaccines, including how long they offer protection and other factors that can impact efficacy.
  • Gathering infection data of vaccinated people only if they die, a method that will leave huge gaps in tracking how the virus behaves over time and under various conditions among the vaccinated.  
  • Lack of emphasis on transmission by aerosols, which factored into curtailing and ending indoor mask recommendations.
  • Disproportionate harm that the guidelines will cause to Black, Indigenous, and communities of color. “There has been so much inequity in the vaccine rollout and racial inequity in who is a frontline worker put most at risk by this guidance. The impact of the CDC’s guidance update will be felt disproportionately by workers of color and their families and communities, said NNU President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN.”

In light of recent Covid developments, the frontline workers of NNU are today’s Cassandra metaphor. 

No Fast Way out of the Pandemic Without a Mass Vaccination Program

In a preprint of a peer-review study in China, researchers noted that the viral load among individuals infected with the Delta variant were over 1200 times higher than the original strain. The increased virulence is attributed to a mutation in the viral spike protein—the target for the most effective mRNA vaccines– which attaches itself to human cells and begins a process of replication and proliferation to infect as many cells as possible. More infectious—and to some degree vaccine and antibody resistant–variants preceded the rise of Delta. Gamma or P.1, a harbinger of Delta, was initially detected in a mere 13 cases in the Amazon rainforest in December 2020. It quickly spread throughout the Brazilian state of Manuas, where 2 months earlier 76% of the population of 2 million were previously infected with the original virus variant. This, in itself, raises many questions about protections that natural antibodies offer and the possibility for natural herd immunity.  In short, Covid-19 has been wildly unpredictable thus far and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Prudence begs a commensurate public health approach.

Vaccines, according to National Nurses United, are “one critical component of a comprehensive public health program that also must include universal masking in all settings [not limited to high transmissions areas of the country only], tracking breakthrough infections, distancing, screening and testing, contact tracing and case isolation, ventilation, and for health care workers, optimal, single-use PPE, safe staffing, the ability to quarantine, proper isolation of patients, and more.”

A joint statement by 57 leading medical associations, including the National Medical Association founded by Black doctors in 1895 due to their racist exclusion from the American Medical Association, urges a vaccine mandate for the entire United States medical community.

Just months away from the nation’s schools set to open in-person learning for millions of children who are not yet eligible for the vaccine, the risks are mounting. Even the most optimistic timelines put results for Moderna’s vaccine trials for children to be released sometime this fall. A vaccine roll-out for children will happen sometime after.  

The CDC, in light of the rapid emergence of the Delta variant, recommended that all school children, K-12 wear masks while in school, walking back a previous, and again, unscientific recommendation that fully vaccinated children could go to school mask-free.

Thus far, children have been largely spared from the worst outcomes of previous viral variants. But, in Indonesia they are dying by the hundreds as the Delta variant devastates the archipelago, making it a global virus hot-spot. More than 150 children died by the virus in just one week in mid-July, half of which were under 5 years old.

According to scientifically peer reviewed journals, the vaccines most widely used in the United States, manufactured by Pfizer/BioNtech and Moderna, are upwards of 91% and 94%, respectively, at preventing severe disease. Currently, nearly 99% of all severe Covid-19 infections and deaths are among the unvaccinated. While relatively rare, breakthrough cases, in which vaccinated people are infected, are becoming more common. In these instances, cases tend to be mild or asymptomatic. But, it also suggests that vaccinated people, while themselves protected against the worst outcomes of the virus, can still transmit the virus, meaning a vaccinated population does not also protect the unvaccinated.  

Covid vaccines were never touted as 100% effective; no vaccines are. Yet, their efficacy can be summed up by the trend over the past 8 months since vaccines have been available: 95-99% of all virus-related hospitalizations and deaths are among unvaccinated people. These are senseless, preventable deaths.  

Crisis of Leadership

With Delta at their doorstep, 18 Republican-led states have prohibited proof of vaccination for entry in public places or travel. Texas has prohibited schools from requiring any student or teacher to wear a mask or be vaccinated.

Some mayors in Florida are pushing back. Miami-Dade County is requiring masks for indoor settings, and in Orange County the mayor announced that all 4,200 non-union County employees will be required to show proof of the first dose of vaccine by August.

Other states, and even the Federal Government have gone further. California Governor Newsom has mandated vaccination or weekly testing for 238,000 state workers and upwards of 2 million healthcare workers in public and private settings. Mayor DeBlasio has also issued an order requiring similar rules for all public sector workers in New York City. The mandates in New York City have been met with lukewarm and fairly isolated resistance by 1199SEIU East, a union that represents nearly 200,000 front-line healthcare workers in New York City and Long Island. The union considers the mandate a change in the terms and conditions of employment enshrined in their contact and, therefore, must be bargained over.

Meanwhile, President Biden has announced that millions of federal workers will be required to show proof of vaccination or, similar to NYC and California, submit to weekly virus testing. Guidelines for federal workers would also require social distancing, masking and travel restrictions for unvaccinated employees.

Piecemeal vaccine mandates by some businesses like Google, Tyson Foods, local bars, restaurants and some 400 schools and universities have led to marginal increases in the overall national vaccination rate, but it’s not enough. Protecting only half of the country’s workers, while allowing flexibility for the boss and the governments they control, is a mandate for mass illness and death.  

Without a successful mass vaccination program, the world is unlikely to achieve herd immunity (upwards of 85% of an entire population). Thus an unprecedented level of coordination is needed in order to cover the vast majority of workers, including those who earn a living outside of the public sector, as well as the unemployed, homeless, incarcerated and detained people in public and private institutions. Coordination at this level is inimical to the capitalist system. Not even 4 million dead (and rapidly rising) have imbued the owners of the vaccine with any sense of moral obligation to be part of the solution to this crisis. Instead, the pharmaceutical industry has tightened its grip on patent rights that protect their profits. Meanwhile, rich countries have bought the lion’s share of the most effective vaccines to the point that millions of unused vaccines are expiring in the United States and going to waste. These, combined with other systemic failures have rendered COVAX, the WHO vaccine equitability program, a failure: only 0.3% of global vaccine supply have been administered in developing nations, and 84% of the total 3.97 billion vaccine doses have gone to rich nations. Globally, 6.8 billion people are not fully vaccinated and 5.7 billion people in the world are without even a single dose. The staggering number of hosts left to infect and re-infect lends credence to the prediction by epidemiologist Rob Wallce that the future of the virus “is bright and shiny.”

In keeping with the precautionary principle and applying it to an unprecedented public health catastrophe, only a general vaccine mandate—one free of charge, culturally sensitive, equitably administered and with medically necessary exceptions—can keep the most people safe and stop the unmitigated march of virus-deaths, which has led to a the largest decline (1.5 years) in life expectancy in the United States since WWII. In underdeveloped parts of the globe, life expectancy has declined as much as 2-3 years. 

Pyrrhic victories over nature and the origins of Covid-19

Was the world caught unawares by the rapid emergence of Covid-19 or is this moment the bitter harvest of seeds sown long ago?

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man.”

Capitalism is motivated, per se, by profit and treats the natural world’s limited resources only as a source of raw materials for labor to process into wealth. It attacks nature in order to increase the productive capacity of land and water resources to enrich the rulers of the world, a tiny minority of super-rich people whose interests are completely antithetical to those of the majority working and poor people, who suffer most from capitalist excesses and pay with millions of lives lost.  

The rulers of antiquity, the Bezos’s their time, in Mesopotamia and Sumaria, were highly advanced in certain regards and presided over the world’s earliest civilizations, class based societies that stand as marvels of human social creativity. A Fertile Crescent of thriving irrigation and agricultural systems sustained the enslaved and the corvée, whose labor built these societies and created surplus value, the main source of dynastic wealth and power for millenia. Lacking a scientific understanding of vast systems and temporal dynamics, their designers could not have understood the implications of altering nature as they did. What allowed these civilizations to thrive also led to a protracted process of cropland salinization, attendant food system failures, together exacerbating untenable social contradictions and, thus, contributed to their decline.

In modern-times, spurred by an incessant and inherent quest for profit, the capitalist mode of production has generated commodities far beyond what is socially necessary and generates massive waste and pollution. The very drivers of the capitalist economy—from fossil fuels, petro-chemicals and agricultural and industrial food systems chief among them—hasten a disaster that threatens complete and total collapse of all life-sustaining planetary systems.

Capitalism and covid are kindred spirits: both are driven by a tendency to expand and a propensity to leave a wake of mass deaths. 

Humanity is already witnessing, beginning perhaps in 1950, the planet’s 6th mass extinction phenomenon throughout the Earth’s 4.5 billion year existence, and it’s driven by the capitalist mode of production, which has literally defined a new geologic age: the Anthropocene. 

Big Banks Make Big Flu

“What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” –Bertoldt Brecht

Finance capital, the globally preeminent economic power and main driver of neoliberalism, supplies the initial massive sums of money to giant, multinational agribusinesses to purchase more and more land in order to increase productivity, crush competitors and dominate global food markets.

According to epidemiologist Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu, “Under neoliberalism’s free trade push, global circuits of capital multiply in distance and connectivity. Landscape production is increasingly defined by relational geographies wherein what happens in a local landscape is tied to capital accumulation in countries halfway around the world that supplied the finance driving deforestation and development.”

In the United States, finance capital, accounting for 40% of corporate profits (a previously unheard of percentage. In the 1970s, it accounted for only 11%) defines, more than ever, the way in which productive agricultural land is exploited for profit. The results have been devastating, from the decimation of indigenous groups and small landholder/farm communities to increased slash and burn type land-grabs that encroach further into the densely forested and species diverse wildlands where zoonotic (able to jump from one species to another) viruses like Covid-19 are born. Simultaneously, vast swaths of previous carbon sinks become the source of massive carbon emissions, lighting the fuse of not only the climate crisis, but also the powder keg of future pandemics. Meanwhile, constantly rising CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels are driving global temperatures into record breaking territory year-after-year and have led to more frequent fires that burn larger and larger areas, further decimating wildlands as virus sinks.  

Previous epidemics, such as SARS1 (Covid-19 is also referred to as SARS2 due to sharing structural similarities to its viral cousin), MERS, Ebola, and now SARS2, have a common origin: wild mammals such as palm civets and various species of bats that only relatively recently have come into contact with human food sources since the increased marginalization of buffer zones between farmlands and wildlands and between wildlands and modern human populations, as the food commodities and the communities from these marginal (ecologically speaking) places make their way to central, urban markets. 

Presented with species diverse forests and jungles, and also a fairly small number of potential hosts, a zoonotic virus born in wildlands also tends to die there quickly. Whereas, species homogeneity–like the densely packed feed lots synonymous with capitalist meat production, or densely populated cities and workplaces–allows a virus to replicate rapidly. Thus, they are given millions of chances to mutate and adapt for optimal regeneration and longevity. 

Marx, unfortunately overlooked for his insights into questions of ecological sustainability, made an observation in the third volume of Capital that is apropos the pandemic predicament and also points a path forward. “The moral of history is that the capitalist system works against a rational agriculture, or that a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system, and needs either the hand of the small farmer living by his own labour or the control of associated producers. The only possible freedom is that social man, the associated producers, rationally regulate their exchange of matter with nature and make these exchanges spending the minimum force and in conditions most respectful and most consistent with their human nature.”

We have a world to win! We have nothing to lose but our chains (and coronavirus)!

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