In the pages of the Jacobin and elsewhere, the historian and social critic Mike Davis has addressed the societal problems associated with COVID-19, and the ways in which governments and social movements should try to respond to them. Accurately enough, Davis describes the current public health crisis as a monster fuelled by capitalism. The conservative counterrevolution that started with Ronald Reagan influenced dramatically the capacity of American hospitals to cater for patients during epidemics and medical emergencies. The lack of adequate safety equipment, and the more general inability of the American health system to address major crises, were known and openly acknowledged since at least the publication of the US government’s ‘National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza’ in 2005. The problems associated with the US response to the most important public health crisis of our generation become even more pronounced if we take into account the relative success of countries such as China or even South Korea.
Although Davis’ proposal to ensure Medicare for all echoes the attitudes of the American left, his opposition to reopening the economy creates numerous questions. The creation of more than 3 million new unemployed in the United States, and the return of the UK economy to the 1980s, show how destructive the lockdown has been. The extent to which restrictive policies were necessary, and the extent to which they produced positive results, will be debated by historians and public health researchers. Suffice it to say quarantine constitutes something of an historical exception within modernity, and seems more attuned to the spirit of the Middle Ages. Of course, the discussion about reopening the economy or not is organically related to how one conceptualizes the ‘economy’. If by ‘economy’ one understands the ways in which the few prosper at the expense of the many, it makes sense to oppose its reopening. If, on the other hand, one sees the economy as a system for the fulfilment of basic human needs, revitalising it is absolutely essential. Under current historical circumstances, one should look for a definition that lies between the aforementioned ones, and relates patterns of work to patterns of consumption. Conceptual problems aside, the public debt crisis that the lockdown either created or accentuated in many countries will disproportionately affect the poor.
Seeing health and the economy as opposites does not make sense in the medium term. The activist and former research director of the Canadian Autoworkers Union Sam Gindin is closer to the truth when arguing that the historical peculiarity of the current capitalist crisis is that the state tries to restrict the economy instead of intervening in order to revive it. The only positive outcome of the COVID-19 crisis is that, as Gindin points out, it has brought about a revolution in political discourse in favour of the welfare state and public health systems all over the world.