The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the pitfalls of capitalism

This health crisis has laid bare the necessity of recalibrating politics outside of the interests of profit and the stock market

The outbreak of Covid-19 is of course natural but its spread and impact is undoubtedly political, exposing the failure of the capitalist market to protect public well-being. The pandemic has exposed the need for tenant’s rights, universal healthcare, and to recalibrate politics outside of the interests of profit and the Stock Market. Not only has the need for these measures been laid bare, but the very possibility of their implementation has been illustrated.

In Ireland, the government’s response has demonstrated that measures previously deemed ‘utopic’ or infeasible are entirely possible when there is a political will for them. Rents have been frozen, and evictions banned for 90 days. In 2018, Solidarity- People Before Profit introduced a bill to ban evictions, which was supported by the majority of the Dáil. However, the bill was blocked with a money message (a form of official approval from the government on spending) in October of the same year.

In 2019, Eoghan Murphy deemed a rent freeze bill from Sinn Féin ‘unconstitutional,’ saying it would damage supply of housing, when the reality is that Fine Gael has an ideological opposition to solving the housing crisis. However, these new housing measures should go further. Nothing has been said about what will happen to tenants at the end of the 90 days, or what will happen to eviction notices already issued. Nor has there been any measures put in place about penalties for landlords who flout these laws.

As well as this, those living in hubs and hotels cannot practice social distancing. Nor can people in Direct Provision, who face overcrowding, and must queue in a canteen for meals each day. These conditions aren’t natural disasters, but a result of policies which have been pursued, or not pursued by successive governments. Therefore, the pandemic should not be used to whitewash Fine Gael. Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris’ public speeches haven’t indicated strong leadership, but their primary virtues at this time are that they aren’t Boris Johnson or Donald Trump.

“The Irish government’s response to the crisis has demonstrated that measures which were previously deemed utopian or infeasible, are entirely possible when there is political will”

Healthcare workers today are putting their lives on the line to care for the sick and are being lauded as heroes by the government. Despite this, two years ago Harris claimed he wished to introduce penalties for nurses who went on strike for better working conditions. Last year, paramedics were forced to go on strike for the right to choose a union of their choice, which the HSE and the government opposed.

Tumultuous capitalist expansion means viruses contracted by human contact spread extremely quickly. Measures necessary to slow the spread of Covid-19 mean that businesses have suspended operations, and countless workers are out of jobs. In countries where Left parties and fighting labour movements have built robust welfare states that check some of capitalism’s worst faults, this will be bad, but not as ruinous. However, in Ireland, numerous businesses have fired staff during the pandemic. For example, the Hilton Garden Inn Hotel fired all workers, while the establishment raked in €20 million last year in revenue alone. This hotel is owned by LRC/Amaris Group, which bought 600 buy-to-let homes across the country from a US private equity fund.

We are currently witnessing how society quickly grinds to a halt without cleaners and supermarket staff. Interestingly we don’t notice the absence of advertising executives or CEOs; it is clear the gross pay of jobs doesn’t reflect their societal importance. Capitalist ideology dictates that the profits capitalists make are a reward for exceptional intelligence, innovation or skill. However, here we see the only thing they have is the money to purchase the intelligence and skill of others.

Profiteering has seen non-essential businesses like Burger King remain open. If fast food workers are deemed essential to the point of jeopardising the health of themselves and others during a global pandemic, why are they only earning minimum wage if wages reflect society’s need based on supply and demand?

When Donald Trump was asked “do the well-connected go to the front of the line?” during an interview about non-symptomatic athletes being tested for Covid-19 while ordinary people waited in line, he replied in the negative but continued: “But perhaps that’s the story of life.” Trump is not a man renowned for his ability to speak particularly astutely on his feet, yet this answer unwittingly captures the logic of a for-profit healthcare system.

Capitalism is a system in which Prince Charles can be tested for displaying mild symptoms of the virus, while healthcare workers on the frontlines cannot. It is a system in which a vaccine for coronavirus (of which Covid-19 is one strain) was developed years ago, but not pursued by pharmaceuticals due to lack of profitability.

“Britney Spears telling fans she would pay for their groceries if they were struggling starkly demonstrates the ludicrous nature of a system in which the Princess of Pop must step in and fill the role the state has left vacant”

Capitalism means Cuba and Vietnam sending doctors to Italy, while America needed Italy to send over testing kits. It means tone-deaf (in every sense of the word) renditions of Imagine from exorbitantly wealthy celebrities who croon about the virtues of ‘no possessions’ to an audience feeling the sharp end of the crisis. Britney Spears’ recent Instagram story telling fans she would pay for their groceries if they were struggling during the pandemic starkly demonstrates the ludicrous nature of a system in which the Princess of Pop must step in and fill the role the state has left vacant, in the wealthiest nation on earth.

Nothing reveals the calculating ruthlessness of capitalism more stark than an editorial launched in the Wall Street Journal mere weeks ago, debating whether potentially saving millions of lives from the virus is worth the damage it would do to investment portfolios. The editorial discussed whether or not to reverse some of the measures taken to slow the spread of the virus, in order to minimize profit losses, saying “no society can safeguard public health for long at the cost of its overall economic health.” The editorial also proposed a rowing back on social distancing in the workplace.

This disregards both human life, and the fact that America could easily afford to freeze rents and give short-term income to all. Evidently even a short-term economy built on need, not profit accumulation, is beyond the realms of possibility for some in the upper echelons of the American Stock Exchange.

Karl Marx famously compared capital to the leeching bloodlust of the vampire, and given the systemic pitfalls the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed, it remains as apt as ever.

Grace Gageby

Grace Gageby is the Deputy Comment Editor for Trinity News and studies English and Philosophy.