The global pandemic and the international class struggle

By Mark Buckley

The Covid-19 virus is a naturally occurring phenomenon.  But its spread is a function of the political and other choices made by governments.  Ultimately, these choices are an expression of the different forms of society that co-exist internationally and the class struggles within and between them.

That the effect of the virus is determined by political choices based on class interests is highlighted by the fact that it is the major imperialist countries in the West which have among the highest per capita death tolls in the world, alongside their complete neoliberal lackeys such as the Brazilian government.

It is often claimed that poverty, violence, oppression, ignorance, belief systems, and other facets of human life are natural or even inevitable.  By contrast, Marx and Engels taught us that the history of all societies is the history of class struggles.  The current trends in the spread of the virus are part of the global struggle between classes, and a rather intense form of it.

Just as growing layers of the international movement to prevent catastrophic climate change realise that the fight for climate justice and to save the planet is bound up with the international class struggle, so socialists should understand the fight to suppress the virus in a similar vein. 

What the geographic spread of the virus tells us

Currently, just under 2.6 million people worldwide have died from the virus, which makes it easily the worst pandemic for a hundred years.  It is the type of death toll more usually associated with a war.

The first, most revealing fact in characterising the spread of the virus is shown in where it is spreading.  It remains the case that the global epicentres for the spread of the virus are in the rich, Western societies, the main heartlands of imperialism. This can be shown in Fig.1 below.

Fig.1 The Rich, Western Epicentres of the Global Spread of Coronavirus

In the most recent global data 2.59 million deaths have been recorded from Covid-19.  It is an astonishing fact that these are concentrated in the richest countries in the world, not the poorest.  As the chart shows, if the cumulative death toll of just the United States, the European Union and Britain are taken together, they account for over 1.2 million of the global total.

This means that the richest countries in the world, who account for 11% or 1 in 9 of the world’s population are responsible for 46%, or almost half, of the global death toll (840 million people out of a global population of 7.476 billion).

Clearly, this has nothing to do with the available resources in the richer countries.  It is directly associated with the repeated political choices of the governments of those countries.  This can be further illustrated if the South American countries are included, as unfortunately their most populous country by far Brazil and others are under the sway of the neoliberal ideas that dominate the rich, Western governments. 

The comparison between South America (422 million) and Asia (4.463 billion) is stark.  In the most recent data there have been 396,000 deaths in Asia as shown in Fig.1, compared to 464,000 deaths in South America.

To be comprehensive, Fig.2 shows the world and major regions on the basis of deaths per capita.  Britain is included separately as the worst example of all among the rich, Western economies.  The world average is 332 deaths per million.  Both Asia and Africa are well below this level at 88 and 79 deaths per million respectively.  South America has registered 1,114 deaths per million, while the European Union death toll is 1,258 and the US death toll is 1,584 per million respectively.  All of these are outdone by Britain at 1,837.

Fig.2 World, Regional and UK Covid-19 Deaths Per Million

Policy-driven death tolls

It is not necessary to establish where the virus first originated to demonstrate that the very different outcomes on death toll are driven by political decisions. The virus has been circulating globally for a year or more and all governments have had the opportunity to respond as they see fit. 

China is marginally the most populous country in Asia and by far its biggest economy.  Therefore its response to the crisis is decisive in the region as a whole.  The British Medical Journal recently showed that there were no excess deaths in China at all outside Wuhan during the crisis.

In the current political climate, many commentators understandably feel under pressure not to extoll the achievements of China.  But it is important for socialists to face reality squarely.  The ability of the Chinese authorities to suppress the virus outside of Hubei province and the city of Wuhan in particular, is the most remarkable achievement of all in suppressing the virus.

In fact, some important observers have not been deterred.  Prof. Anthony Costello is a member of Independent SAGE in Britain and has pointed out that the response Anhui province disproves the claims that it was not possible in countries like Britain to suppress the virus. It should be noted that there have been just six deaths in Anhui, and that it is a neighbouring province of Hubei.

In general, countries with far more limited resources than the Western imperialist countries have achieved much better results in preventing deaths. In the first instance, this is because the most decisive weapon in suppressing is lockdown, and that this requires very few resources.  The most important factor here is that government policy and popular opinion and behaviour all work in the same direction, what the Communist Party of China called a ‘whole of government, whole of society’ approach to suppressing the virus. 

Of course, in the poorer countries where households are very large, or housing conditions are very poor, lockdown efforts are hampered. But these tend to delay the effects of lockdown, not block or reverse it.

But the importance of lockdown rather than material resources could only explain a narrowing of the death tolls across countries in different income groups.  They cannot explain why the rich countries are the worst.

The explanation for this appalling fact lies in the political ideology of the governments in the Western imperialist countries which is neoliberal and the expression of that policy in the pandemic which has been broadly, ‘put business first, well before public health’. 

Led by the US and Britain, whose own neoliberal projects have gone further since Reagan and Thatcher than the other imperialists, they were late to lockdown, have repeatedly eased lockdown measures too early before the virus could be suppressed, and compounded these with ensuring the public health response was utterly compromised by the needs of big business.

The somewhat better approach of Australia and Japan in this regard does not invalidate the general argument on the imperialist countries, but the experience of SARS in Asia, the example of near neighbours, and the importance of regional trade all played a part in their adopting much better policies than the Western imperialists.

What is revealed by who is dying?

The character of the crisis is even more starkly revealed in examining the social categories who have been allowed to die in the rich Western countries.  Essentially, these are disabled people, migrant communities, ethnic minorities and poorer workers.

As many scientific observers have noted, inequality was a major driver of health inequality including lower longevity in the richest countries long before Covid-19, via poor housing, higher-risk jobs and the inability to work from home, poor access to healthcare and other factors. 

But allowing the virus to continue to spread has enormously deepened those inequalities to the extent that now many others speak of the Covid-19 becoming a ‘disease of the poor’.

As a result, it is estimated that globally the vast numbers of people living in extreme poverty will have risen rise by over a hundred of million over a short period, as shown in Table 1. Below, which is a series of calculations based on IMF data and forecasts.

National, verifiable data is not available for the US as a whole.  But a series of analyses of individual cities or states do give strong parallel indicators of similar trends. Other research paints a slightly different picture, with greater deaths for Black and Latino Americans.  But the overall pattern is the same, the poor and low-paid workers, the disabled and elderly and Black communities and migrant communities are most vulnerable from the virus.

Table 2. Risk Factors for Covid-19 Deaths in New York City

The same pattern is true in Britain, especially if Asian households and communities are included. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that the death toll for Black men is more than times their white counterparts.  For Black women this rate is more than three times and this huge disproportionality recurs across different ethnic communities.

In attempting to search for underlying causes the ONS not unreasonably try to control for lower incomes, more manual jobs, poorer housing, health status and so on.  But this statistical analysis is revealing by omission.  These factors account for the vast bulk (though not all) of the disparity in death tolls.

But this is a damning indictment of the totality of racism, which affects every key aspect of life, leading to poorer health in general. The unchecked circulation of the virus massively exacerbates. 

Taking these various factors into account it is possible to summarise them in the following way:

  • Globally, the pandemic is having the effect of pushing a hundred million people into extreme poverty
  • In the Western imperialist countries the virus is becoming a disease of the poor
  • Across the same countries, ethnic minorities and migrant communities as well as disabled people are hugely disproportionately hit by the continued spread of the virus
  • It is clear that class politics, both globally and within countries, is driving the spread of the virus. This is a ruling class offensive against the poor, low-paid workers and ethnic minorities, while disabled people have been left to die in huge numbers.


On both sides of the Atlantic vaccines have been described as the cavalry. Native Americans and many more hundreds of millions in the Global South will not find that a comforting analogy.

In reality, the Western imperialist countries have increasingly defaulted towards a vaccine-only policy, as lockdowns are abandoned at some arbitrary date and effective test and tracing systems have become increasingly neglected. 

Yet none of the countries that have successfully suppressed the virus did so with the aid of a vaccine, and did it through rigorous lockdown, test, trace and isolate regimes.  The vaccines themselves have tended to have a high degree of efficacy.  But the duration of their effectiveness may be no longer than 5 or 6 months (see Public Health England study), the scientists cannot be certain as the vaccines themselves have understandably been rushed out.

If so, they cannot possibly be the sole or even only tool to combat the virus, as vaccinating a very large proportion twice a year would require the creation of an additional health service.  Most fundamentally, a vaccines-only policy simply allows mutations to develop, as they have done in the countries where the virus has been allowed to circulate freely. For survival, the virus mutations naturally develop in more transmissible, more infectious and more deadly forms.  They also develop in vaccine-resistant directions where large parts of the population have been vaccinated.

The reliance solely on vaccines has also led the Western imperialist countries to hoard the supplies of vaccines. The World Health Organisation describes this as a ‘catastrophic moral failure, that will keep the pandemic burning’.   According to Duke University Global Health Innovation Center high-income countries have now purchased 4.6 billion doses of vaccine, far in excess of their total populations.  The worst recorded offenders are the EU, UK and Canada, while the US is not recorded because it has only recently resumed partial co-operation with international monitoring bodies.

By contrast and amid much fanfare, the international agency for cooperation on vaccines and immunology COVAX reports just two deliveries of batches of vaccine to Ghana and the Ivory Coast, with a combined total of doses of just 1.1 million. Outside of Morocco (which launched an enviable immunization campaign in February), only 260,000 people across the entire continent of Africa have received a vaccine.

The Ivory Coast supplies were provided the Serum Institute of India, which has also supplied some countries in the Caribbean.  Together, three countries in the world have provided the vast majority of all vaccinations provided to the Global South, whether donated, or provide cheaply or at cost prices. 

In ascending order of delivery, these are India, Russia and China.  The widely-quoted figure is that they have provided 800 million vaccine doses to other countries across the world.  The contrast with the 1.1 million provided by COVAX is striking.  In response, Western commentators accuse China and Russia in particular of ‘vaccine diplomacy’, a bizarre accusation.

In reality the top ten private pharmaceuticals companies in the world include Johnson&Johnson, Novartis, Pfizer and AstraZeneca, the main Western vaccine companies.  These four alone have a stock market capitalisation of US$750 billion. They are integral to the Western capitalist system, and there is no intention of them acceding to widespread demands to waive patent rights on the vaccines. 

For capital, the crisis is seen much less a threat, much more as an opportunity.

Let no good crisis go to waste – increasing exploitation

Ever since the neoliberal period was ushered by Reagan and Thatcher at the beginning of the 1980s the central project for the ruling classes of the main imperialist powers has been to increase the rate of exploitation of the workforce in an effort to boost profits which had begun to nosedive in the early 1970s.

This is also their central aim in the current crisis.  As a result, it is not simply that public health cannot be the priority, but the crisis itself must be used as an opportunity to increase the rate of exploitation.

This is being achieved in numerous ways to varying degrees across the imperialist countries and beyond.  The measures used include lengthening the working day either through additional unpaid hours, or conversely through cutting paid hours and demanding the same amount of work in less paid time.  There is ‘fire and rehire’ under worse terms and conditions, the casualisation of work, pay cuts instituted by governments who clearly hope to make them permanent, pay freezes, tax increases and loss of rights at work.  The social wage has also been reduced through cuts to government spending on public services, much of this largely disguised by the huge fanfare surrounding subsidies to business.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that by the end of 2020, 114 million workers worldwide had lost their jobs, while another 140 million had their hours reduced. At the same time the ILO estimates that workers lost $3.7 trillion in pay in 2020, which is approximately equivalent to the size of the German economy, as highlighted in a previous article on this website

This assault on workers’ pay and conditions is concentrated in the largest capitalist economies. The ILO estimates that American workers were the biggest losers, with a fall of 10.3% in their incomes, but that the ‘high-income’ countries as a group saw the biggest decline in workers’ incomes (pay and benefits). All of this is underpinned to the return of mass unemployment in the imperialist centres, recreating the ‘reserve army of labour’ identified by Marx and used to depress wages and weaken workers’ organisations.

This offensive and its locale is not accidental.  Huge hand-outs are provided to business, while the new Biden administration refuses to implement a promise to implement a $15 an hour Federal minimum wage.  The British government has offered £300 billion in business subsidies, and £37 billion largely to government donors for almost entirely useless measures to ‘combat’ the pandemic, and a huge tax giveaway to business in the latest Budget.  Macron in France is struggling to push through his ‘labour reforms’ amid union opposition, and even the cautious Chancellor Merkel might use the opportunity for long-desired privatisations.

These are all mechanisms designed to increase the rate of exploitation, to divert a great portion of the social surplus to business and ultimately to increase the rate of profit.  The pandemic is used as a cloak to disguise the essence of policy in the rich Western countries.


Wars and revolutions are the sharpest forms of class struggle, literally life and death matters which can pose the question of which class rules. Below these are struggles such as the current global pandemic, in which a huge class offensive that has been launched by the capital class in the Western imperialist centres. 

In order to increase the rate of exploitation they have no compunction about letting millions of people die, either in their home countries or in the Global South, or letting up to a hundred million more people fall into extreme poverty. They are content to let the poor, disabled people, migrants and ethnic minorities bear the brunt of the death toll and the economic offensive.

Many countries are resisting this drive, through strong effective measures to protect their own populations, their refusal to hoard vaccines and instead share them internationally, and in providing a sustainable basis for global economic recovery.  At the core of those groups of countries are the countries trying to construct socialism, led by China, Viet Nam and Cuba.  The regional government in Kerala has also won widespread praise in socialist circles.

Workers and the oppressed in the imperialist centres should know who their genuine allies are in this fight, and remember that their enemy is their own ruling class.