COVID-19: Internationalism


Internationalism and COVID-19

Compiled by Cyril James for Science for the People
Last updated: September 13, 2020

How the Crisis Is International

The crisis created by the spread of SARS-CoV-2 is obviously international, in the sense that it has now reached nearly every country and every region in the world. That is, to a certain extent, similar experiences are being shared in response to a common threat in a way that has never happened in human history: changes to daily routines, disruption of economies, and in the diverse regions where the pandemic has advanced the furthest, extraordinary challenges to health care workers and the whole public health system.

The crisis also has its origins in a global system. Although the details are not yet well understood, SARS-CoV-2 belongs to the family of pathogens that spreads from other animals to humans. As explained by Marxist epidemiologist Rob Wallace and colleagues in a much-cited article, “COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital”, the production of food through industrial agriculture has made epidemics and pandemics such as the current one much more likely, as a result of a range of factors linked together in what they call “neoliberal disease emergence”.

Globalization and the Crisis in the South

Though the whole world is facing the same disease, as in all crises under capitalism, the nature of these experiences varies greatly across different populations. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta explains in “History After Covid-19”, “in this crisis, the cliché that disease knows no distinctions of caste or class has been matched equally by the truism that it does. The power to isolate from society itself became a marker of privilege and inequality. From the strength of immune systems to the ability to self-quarantine, to access to medical care, the disease in some ways once again exposed the stark inequality that characterises our relationship to disease.”

Of course this inequality has a global dimension. As Adam Hanieh argues in “This Is a Global Pandemic — Let’s Treat it That Way”, states in the Global South “are inserted into the hierarchies of the world market”. In particular, “since the mid-1980s, repeated bouts of structural adjustment — often accompanied by Western military action, debilitating sanctions regimes, or support for authoritarian rulers — have systematically destroyed the social and economic capacities of poorer states, leaving them ill-equipped to deal with major crises such as COVID-19.” Thus the inability of many states to respond is intimately related to the way their populations have been exploited, in many cases for centuries, by Northern elites.

The pandemic coincides with another, even more serious, crisis, even more directly tied to the global capitalist economy: climate change. Like the pandemic, climate change is affecting populations around the world in very unequal ways. As discussed by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò in “Crisis, COVID-19, and Democracy”, “the climate and COVID-19 crises are combining and compounding on each other. How they interact is, primarily, a question of whom and what the political system chooses to protect. … Our only hope of surviving the wrath of the natural world is wrestling back control of our political one.”

Another consequence of the global financial system is the possibility of states being sued by foreign corporations because they feel their business is being affected by measures taken by those states. As explained by Olivet, Bárcena, Mueller, Ghiotto, and Murawski in “Pandemic Profiteers”, these lawsuits are certain to increase when states are taking drastic measures to stop the virus, resulting in the depletion of many states’ resources when they need them the most.

Unfortunately the global mainstream media often miss this context when they discuss what is to be expected when the pandemic strikes with full force in the South. As discussed by Andrea Filipi and Katrin Wittig in “Let’s Decolonize the Coronavirus”, this is especially true in the case of Africa, for which we’re seeing more of “the persistent discourse about the continent’s destiny to fail”. As with other crises, in these reports Northern countries are called on “to save Africa” and, crucially, “this aid is framed largely as charity, rather than as solidarity”.

Filipi and Wittig also point out the tendency to lump all countries in a region together, often failing to single out the positive instances. As we’ll see below, countries in the North may have much to learn from what is working in the South.

Public Health in the South

The most obvious place to see this gap in countries’ capacities to cope with the crisis is in their public health systems. Even though the pandemic was first centered in Europe, the US, and China, by July its epicenter had shifted to South America, where it is having disastrous effects in several countries, especially Peru, which, by several measures, is suffering some of the worst effects in the world as of late August. As in North America, Indigenous people are disproportionately affected in South America.

The inequality that characterizes the global capitalist economy also means that countries with fewer resources cannot compete with richer countries to obtain the testing kits, protective equipment, and ventilators that are so desperately needed, as Jane Bradley writes in “In Scramble for Coronavirus Supplies, Rich Countries Push Poor Aside”.

Effects of the Lockdown in the South

Devastation in some areas of the Global South is not waiting for the pandemic to arrive in full force, however, as global supply chains are disrupted and people are expected to isolate themselves in settings where this is next to impossible. In some countries, such as South Africa, while they have been praised for taking drastic measures to prevent the spread of the disease, their lack of resources means that these measures effectively “coddle” the small wealthy class but fail to go beyond “coercion” for the vast majority of people.

Among the most vulnerable people are the vast numbers of migrant workers around the world. As revealed by a number of writers, including novelist and activist Arundhati Roy, India provides a particularly horrendous example. Forced to return to their native villages, with little time to prepare and with no access to public transportation, millions of Indians had to make the trip on foot. In other regions, much of the economy relies on foreign labor. This is especially true in the Gulf countries, where foreign labor forms the backbone of the economies. Many of these workers are now unemployed, stuck in crowded, substandard housing and unable to send the checks their families in countries like the Philippines and Bangladesh rely on.

In some countries with internal marginalized populations, the conditions of these people may be exacerbated by the pandemic. The pandemic may even provide cover for governments to increase their exploitation of certain groups. As Robert Swift explains in “Coronavirus Gives Israel the Perfect Cover to Tighten Its Grip Over Palestinians”, the Israeli government is taking advantage of COVID-19 to further its project of “annexation, surveillance, and control over Palestinians.”

During the past year, there have been major uprisings around the world, as people have taken to the streets in countries such as France, Chile, Iran, Honduras, and Lebanon to protest austerity and repression. The pandemic has had complex effects on these movements, worsening the economic crises that led to them in the first place but making it difficult, even dangerous, for people to demonstrate in the conventional ways. While the protests have died down in Chile, in Lebanon they are growing again, as the economic crisis deepens and political elites work to extend their power by providing much needed aid to their constituents. The massive protests against police violence and white supremacy in response to the murders of African-Americans at the hands of police in the USA, beginning in late May 2020, have taken place in numerous countries around the world in spite of the pandemic.

The undermining of food sovereignty, a result of the neocolonial food regime, through the replacement of small farms with  industrial agriculture completely oriented toward export, means that much of the world will likely face a food crisis during the pandemic, as discussed by Colin Chartres in “COVID-19: Food, Nutrition, and the Global Poor” and Walden Bello in “The Corporate Food System Is Making the Coronavirus Worse”.

Finally, the pandemic coincides with other emergencies that were already threatening regions of the world, including wars, and the waves of refugees resulting from them, in countries such as Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Myanmar;  the unprecedented locust infestation in eastern Africa; and economic crises, sometimes exacerbated by US sanctions, such as in Venezuela.

Northern Racism

A further reflection of this inequality, as well as of the racism that persists in powerful circles in the North, was the suggestion by two French researchers that vaccines under development be tested on African populations. As reported by Musa Okwonga in “The French Doctors Who Wanted to Test Vaccines on Africans and Western Medicine’s Dark History”, the resulting uproar may have prevented this from happening, but there is clearly a need to be vigilant in exposing the “colonial instincts of Western medicine”.

Those seeking asylum in the Global North have long faced inhumane treatment at the hands of countries such as the US, Australia, and many of the EU nations. This is only exacerbated now, with COVID-19 raging in detention centers in the US, for example.

At the same time, as Claire Loughnan argues in “‘Not the Hilton: ‘Vernacular Violence’ in COVID-19 Quarantine and Detention Hotels,” the unpleasantness of the brief quarantine experience in “corona hotels” of Australian citizens returning from overseas highlights the serious effects of the long-term detention faced by asylum seekers and refugees in Australia and other countries.

Positive Examples from the South

It should also be noted that in spite of the constraints that imperialism and neoliberalism have imposed on the Global South, we see instructive examples in some countries for how governments can respond effectively to a crisis such as this. A few countries and regions in the Global South have managed to maintain public health systems that are superior to what exists in the US; Vietnam, Cuba, and Kerala State in India are good examples. Whereas tests for COVID-19 in the US now require up to weeks to be processed, Senegalese researchers have partnered with a UK biotech firm to develop tests that will cost less than $1 and take 10 minutes to process.

Internationalist and anti-Internationalist Responses

The Need for an Internationalist Approach

It is obvious that the response to the pandemic must be international. Countries rely on each other for supplies and for expertise, and science in particular does not and cannot function within the confines of national boundaries. In “Only Internationalism Can Beat Coronavirus”, Vanessa Baird argues that countries will simply be more successful in fighting the pandemic to the extent that they rely on and learn from each other. In fact, as Mike Davis argues in “The Monster Enters”, “capitalist globalization now appears to be biologically unsustainable in the absence of a truly international public health infrastructure”.

Health Nationalism and Health Imperialism

Scientists have moved quickly to learn everything they can about the coronavirus: its origins, how COVID-19 spreads, how it can be stopped, and this has taken place across borders, “creating a global collaboration unlike any in history”, according to the New York Times. The same cannot be said for many of those scientists’ governments. Baird and others warn against the rising tide of health nationalism that seeks scapegoats in other nations, religions, or ethnic groups and favors international competition over cooperation.

The US presents the best example of these dangerous trends with

US health nationalism goes hand-in-hand with a sense of exceptionalism based on general ignorance of the role that American hegemony plays in the world and what it costs the nation in the funding necessary to support this massive military project. As discussed by Jeanne Morefield in “‘Never in My Country’: Covid-19 and American Exceptionalism”, mainstream politicians and media rarely question the need for this military funding or imagine how it might be used instead to create a functioning national public health system.

“Perhaps the shock of recognizing the U.S. itself is less developed than our imagined “Third World” might prompt Americans to tear our eyes away from ourselves and look toward the actual world outside our borders for examples of the kinds of political, economic, and social solidarity necessary to fight the spread of Coronavirus. And perhaps moving beyond shock and incredulity to genuine recognition and empathy with people whose economies and democracies have been decimated by American hegemony might begin the process of reckoning with the costs of that hegemony, not just in “faraway lands” but at home. In our country.”

In other countries, especially those with governments of the far right allied with the US, we see other examples of scapegoating, based on the racism and religious chauvinism that they stoke. Mehdi Hasan, in “The Coronavirus Is Empowering Islamophobes — But Exposing the Idiocy of Islamophobia”, explains how the pandemic becomes yet another excuse for Islamophobia in India, as well as in Europe.

Finally, with respect to the international system governing medicines and public health, there is a great deal standing in the way of an equitable global response. As explained in this 2018 report from Amit Sengupta, Chiara Bodini, and Sebastian Franco of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, “the global architecture of governance, trade and economics [is] informed by neoliberal globalization and consequently national decision making and national policies are often subject to global influences.” Thus the public health systems in individual countries are often at the mercy of the WTO, the World Bank, Big Pharma, and donor organizations such as the Gates Foundation. The World Health Organization itself remains weak and ineffectual because of the power exerted on it by rich countries such as the US.

International Solidarity

What would an internationalist response look like? Cuba’s deployment of medical personnel to Italy and other countries is one kind of example at the level of the state.

Progressive organizations and parties should also be demanding (1) a complete overhaul of the global health governance system, as discussed in the report mentioned above, in particular the legal framework governing patents on medicines, (2) the replacement of the disastrous system of industrial agriculture by diversified agroecological agriculture, as called for in this Earth Day anniversary statement from 400 international organizations, (3) the cancellation of Global South debt, as called for by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt.

Finally, the inspiring work of international networks such as the Transnational Institute and La Via Campesina in support of health, food, and housing justice should be recognized and supported. As of late April, 2020, TNI is conducting weekly webinars on different aspects of the pandemic and how activists around the world are responding to it.

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