A few weeks ago, I read an article by the well-known economist Jonathan Portes concluding, “Covid is for Christmas, while Brexit is for life.” Whatever one’s views on Brexit, I thought at the time this was a silly line to take. It looks a lot sillier now, as the new Covid Omicron variant looks set to rampage.
As Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, writes in the Guardian, two years after the original virus began to circulate in Wuhan, “We remain closer to the start of the pandemic than the end.” This is the truth that the capitalist mainstream has been trying to evade.
Boris Johnson represents an extreme version of this evasion. He has relied on a combination of vaccinations and the high level of infections made inevitable by dropping most restrictions back in the summer to achieve herd immunity. Now he is confronted with the reality that, as Edward Luce of the Financial Times put it, “There is no such thing as herd immunity in one country.”
So why have the leading ruling classes found it so hard to deal with Covid? After all they command huge resources. There are two reasons.
The first is that capitalism treats nature as simply an object to be manipulated, a reservoir of raw materials.
The greater the destruction of nature by capitalism, the more they resort to technological fixes. We can see this with climate change.
Rather than dismantle fossil capitalism, the main ruling classes are betting on the emergence of technologies that will mitigate the damage it is causing.
Vaccines are another technological fix. Don’t get me wrong—the rapid development of effective vaccines against Covid-19 is a tremendous scientific achievement that has saved many lives. I can’t wait to get my booster.
But nature is a complex of dynamic processes of transformation. This is true at the macro-level of this inconceivably vast multiverse of which our planet is a tiny part.
It is also true at the micro-level where viruses emerge and seek to propagate themselves by colonising as many cells as possible.
It was therefore quite predictable that natural selection would throw up genetic variations of the Sars-CoV-2 virus better at bypassing the barriers erected in our cells by the vaccine. Indeed, this was predicted by many experts.
And it seems that in Omicron one such variant has arrived.
Here we come to the second reason. Marx said that humans interact with the rest of nature chiefly through their labour. But this relationship is itself structured by the dominant relations of production. These are the class antagonism created by the exploitation of wage labour by capital and the competitive struggle between rival firms and states.
This means vaccines are produced for profit—Pfizer, the dominant producer, expects to see revenues over £21 billion from its version next year.
An investment analyst calls the Pfizer vaccine —actually developed by the German company BioNTech—“a once-in-an-epoch economic windfall.”
Moreover, the distribution of vaccines reflects the hierarchy of wealth and power in the world. The wealthy states have grabbed vaccines for their own citizens and left the virus to flourish in the Global South.
According to the Financial Times, “So far, 66 per cent of people living in G7 countries have had two vaccine doses—in Africa, only 6 per cent.
The number of people in high income countries who have had booster shots is almost double the number in low income countries who have received first and second doses.”
This gigantic inequality creates conditions in which new variants can incubate. They may develop in unvaccinated individuals, perhaps particularly those with weak immune systems. The high number of variations in Omicron may allow it to bypass the immunity conferred by past infection or vaccination.
The moral of all this isn’t just that, as the UN says, “no one is safe until everyone is safe.”
It’s that capitalism is toxic, and we can only really be safe when we get rid of it and reset our relationship with nature.