Capitalism and viral respiratory infections

The exploitation of health and the production of disease

How a viral epidemic is used to ensure and secure capitalist reproduction at the expense of the people.

TEXT BY A. A. Magnani

Michael Borremans, Red Hand Green Hand (2), 2010. Oil on canvas, 38 x 52 cm, Private Collection ©

President Macron during his 16th March address to the French people solemnly repeated six times the phrase, ‘We are at war.’1 President Trump described himself ‘a wartime president.'2 In the same vein, the general secretary of the UN in one of his recent comments to the press said with insistence, ‘We are at war with a virus,’3 and his colleague at UN’s WHO is constantly invoking war references in his numerous media briefings.4 Politicians and scientists alike along with the media are rather liberal in the use of war rhetoric for the current circumstance.

Yet, wars since their inception are waged only between political entities. In our lives we have encountered very many, be it illegal, unjust, unjustifiable and devastating, that have caused and still do, pain, suffering, destitution and death. People do not wage wars, they suffer from them and from those who declare them. Moreover, wars are much more significant epidemiologically than any virus has ever been.

Besides, wars cannot be waged against biological entities. Viruses do not kill or wage wars. What they may or not do is engender infection and consequent disease to which immune systems, public health policy, medical treatment and social practice may respond.

In this article we will address what is for us the most important point that emerges from the WHO declared SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

State power with its ideological apparatus is always centred towards assuring and securing at all costs the conditions of the reproduction of the underlying mode of production. Public health policy and decisions and medical scientific research serve therefore the same purpose. In our case, the reproduction of bourgeois power and the capitalist relations of production.5

Kazuo Shiraga, Chiyusei Seibokukan 1961, oil on canvas, 130 x 195 cm, Collection Axel Vervoordt ©

The SARS-CoV-2 virus does not represent a biblical affliction or an inclement natural phenomenon but on the contrary the false pretence of a providential state to health. When it is itself along with its experts that knowingly and aggressively have been mystifying it and repressing it.6

All the currently available data and studies justify neither the intensity of the control measures imposed on the global population (more than 2 billion people worldwide live under some sort of state-imposed house confinement7) as the only available incontrovertible tactic8 nor the incessant terrorising of public opinion by the media, experts and politicians as to the unprecedented virulence and pathogenicity of SARS-CoV-2.9 The heretics to the consensus are summarily and with vengeance ostracised.1011

The experts and their statistical projections arrived at through epidemiological modelling lack credibility.1213 They are speculative, biased and limited.1415 As is the case with all similar abstractions. In the previous instances of viral respiratory (or not) infection outbreaks, all and without exclusion, macabre estimates were proven wrong. VCJD, swine flu, SARS, MERS and their severity was criminally exaggerated.16 Even the actions of WHO at the 2009 outbreak, censured by public opinion, were criticised by the Council of Europe as “one of the greatest medical scandals of the century”,17 due to its collusion with the pharmaceutical industry and state actors.

In other words, there are truths and truths. Some are more objective than others and certain can lead the people to catastrophe and the upper classes to gain.1819 When epidemiologists20 recognise the ‘iatrogenic pandemic of panic’ as an instance of the tendentious entanglement between scientific-commercial-bureaucratic networks, then blind reliance on reductive epidemiological theory and policy as unquestionable fact is at least suspicious.21

Pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical interventions have limited quantifiable results.22 Pharmaceutical interventions are lucrative23 and non-pharmaceutical confer authority and admiration.24 Yet, neither is as efficacious as it is maintained.25 There is not enough evidence to support this claim. The immediate apparent purpose of the imposed measures of control seems to be to disguise the inadequacy of the health infrastructure (and not to protect public health), which is unrelated to the perceived severity of the infection.26

SARS-CoV-2 is a public health issue27, blown out of pathophysiological proportions, as a global security risk, to disguise the failure of capitalism to produce health, all the while the enemy is exploited so as to prove otherwise and, of course, in expectation of a profit (i.e. be it opportunist corporate and/or economy-wide reorganisation) and more control; the ‘war on terror’ biologised.

Capitalism and its medical theory produce infirmity, disease and suppression.28 SARS-CoV-2 is slowly becoming the ultimate justification, by producing consent through violence, of any and every hardening of capitalism’s reactionary evolution. Declaration of state of emergency, suspension of labour law, calls for suspension of habeas corpus, instances of stigmatisation, discussions of compulsory medical interventions (i.e. vaccination) are all proof that SARS-CoV-2 is more than a virus.29

Viral infection presented as an implacable natural phenomenon masks the severity of capitalism’s own virulence. You are more likely to die from capitalist relations of production, its medical treatments or the consequences of its public health control measures than a viral infection.

Viral infections are tackled by a dynamic interaction of immune, technological, social and ecological systems. Neither by movement control measures nor research for wonder biotechnology. Viruses do not disappear. ‘Humans and bugs have evolved together over hundreds of thousands of years; epidemics have always been a part of this shared history.'30  As to SARS-CoV-2, “[w]e will be living with this virus indefinitely”.31 What is to be done therefore?

Gino De Dominicis, Tentativo di volo, 1969. ©

How epidemiological problems and epidemics are understood depends on the theoretical constitution of our societies. Under capitalism epidemiology is mostly understood reductively, in monocausal aetiologies and approaches; in one word, metaphysically. Epidemiology as risk leads to viruses as security threats, and therefore suppression is prescribed: pharmaceutical, medical, social, economic and so on and so forth. If you thought that the TINA narrative pertains only to economic measures, you are mistaken: it is relevant to all aspects of human existence under capitalist relations of production.

We contend these approaches produce nothing but misery. An epidemiological theory that takes into account integrated levels of dialectical interaction (see for example ecosocial epidemiology) is one that may greatly contribute now to people’s health. Social epidemiological frameworks that address social health challenges better than myopic mainstream and repressive epidemiological theory should be pursued.32 Health seen not as a state but a dynamic condition that factors in multilevel forms, be it biological, social, ecological, immunological and so on, allows people to pursue it without metaphysical obscurity informing its and its science’s responses.33

Lest we forget, capitalism unwillingly creates the conditions of its supersession. Thus, while there are some possibilities of addressing ill health, they are limited by the same social conditions from which they have risen. Health for the people, on the contrary, within capitalism still remains fictitious.

Put simply, viral infections such as COVID-19 should be addressed by producing comprehensive conditions for health (as much as possible within a capitalist mode of production) and then letting the immune system do its work,34 work that it has been preparing to do since LUCA, some 4 billion years now, came to be. In all, “the best defence of science [and the people] under reactionary attack is to insist on a science [and health] for the people.”35

A. A. Magnani writes mostly about philosophy and the human sciences. Occasionally he writes short stories.

  1. https://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2020/03/17/nous-sommes-en-guerre-face-au-coronavirus-emmanuel-macron-sonne-la-mobilisation-generale_6033338_823448.html[]
  2. https://www.npr.org/2020/03/22/819672681/trump-tries-on-the-mantle-of-wartime-president?t=1584963123381[]
  3. https://www.rte.ie/news/world/2020/0319/1124205-un-chief-global-recession-of-record-dimensions-likely/[]
  4. https://www.newindianexpress.com/world/2020/mar/19/coronavirus-is-enemy-against-humanity-who-chief-tedros-adhanom-ghebreyesus-2118521.html[]
  5. See Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon and The class struggles in France, 1848 to 1850, and Lenin, State and revolution.[]
  6. See Lesley Doyal, What makes women sick and The political economy of health[]
  7. https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2020/03/24/epidemie-due-au-coronavirus-dans-le-monde-un-ralentissement-des-nouveaux-cas-en-italie_6034184_3210.html[]
  8. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/mass-testing-school-closings-lockdowns-countries-pick-tactics-war-against-coronavirus and https://science.sciencemag.org/content/367/6484/1287[]
  9. In Italy according to the Higher Institute of Health (www.iss.it) on a statistical sample analysis, only 1.2% of patients infected were with no notable comorbidity present at the time of infection. Yet, we have no data as to whether their cause of death is conclusively attributable to COVID-19. As a matter of fact, there are no studies whatsoever available to our knowledge where the cause of death of patients with COVID-19 is attributable to complications caused by this disease only. Of the almost 16,000 worldwide deaths, we have no data as to their actual cause of death; it seems that all, contrary to established practice, are reported as due to COVID-19. See for a clarification on how medical science records deaths and how to understand the numbers:  https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/The-evidence-on-Covid-19-is-not-as-clear-as-we-think and here https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/how-to-understand-and-report-figures-for-covid-19-deaths-[]
  10. https://www.bmj.com/content/340/bmj.c2912.long[]
  11. https://steps-centre.org/publication/pandemics-wp/, p. 20[]
  12. https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/17/a-fiasco-in-the-making-as-the-coronavirus-pandemic-takes-hold-we-are-making-decisions-without-reliable-data/?fbclid=IwAR0HcQI9C1hyZ05974lhsXaU9yGPQTceRqSV9yIvsG_Ge7AWNe6LPeoy0sg[]
  13. https://www.statnews.com/2020/01/30/limited-data-may-skew-assumptions-severity-coronavirus-outbreak/[]
  14. http://www.lse.ac.uk/accounting/assets/CARR/documents/D-P/Disspaper60.pdf[]
  15. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1017%2FS1745855209990111[]
  16. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/apr/29/swine-flu-mexico-uk-media1 and https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/06/coronavirus-hype-crisis-predictions-sars-swine-flu-panics and https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/sep/30/birdflu.jamessturcke[]
  17. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130128104633.htm[]
  18. See https://www.routledge.com/Epidemics-Science-Governance-and-Social-Justice-1st-Edition/Leach-Dry/p/book/9781849711029[]
  19. https://www.bmj.com/content/340/bmj.c2947 and https://www.bmj.com/content/340/bmj.c2912[]
  20. https://www.bmj.com/content/340/bmj.c3065 and https://www.bmj.com/content/332/7544/786[]
  21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25032342[]
  22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6993921/ and https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cca/doi/10.1002/cca.2965/full[]
  23. https://www.genengnews.com/virology/coronavirus/catching-up-to-coronavirus-top-60-treatments-in-development/[]
  24. https://jech.bmj.com/content/63/7/589.2[]
  25. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/1471-2458-7-208 and P. Foster, To pandemic or not? Reconfiguring global responses to influenza, pp. 39-45[]
  26. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/primary-health/declaration/gcphc-declaration.pdf and https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/12/world/europe/12italy-coronavirus-health-care.html[]
  27. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/20/coronavirus-who-says-health-systems-collapsing-this-isnt-just-a-bad-flu-season.html[]
  28. see Ivan Illich’s Medical Nemesis[]
  29. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/25/mobile-phone-industry-explores-worldwide-tracking-of-users-coronavirus and https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/25/brazil-rio-gangs-coronavirus and https://verdict.justia.com/2020/03/15/lock-us-down-suspend-habeas-save-the-nation and https://francais.rt.com/france/72861-covid-19-gouvernement-desosse-code-du-travail[]
  30. See Dry and Leach, Epidemics: science, governance and social justice[]
  31. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/367/6484/1287[]
  32. See Krieger, Epidemiology and people’s health[]
  33. See Singer, Anthropology of infectious disease and Carosella, Pradeu, L’Identité, la part de l’autre: immunologie et philosophie[]
  34. https://www.genengnews.com/news/study-shows-how-mild-coronavirusis-infection-is-beaten-by-immune-response/ and https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0819-2[]
  35. Levins, Ten Propositions on Science and Antiscience[]