It seems pathogens, let alone humans, are more than enough to expose the fragility of capitalism; other than fake news, racism and a plethora of conspiracy theories. The macroeconomic impact of COVID-19 (also known as the Corona Virus) has transcended the national and international boundaries. The global supply chain has been significantly impacted, as China (the epicentre of the virus’ outbreak) is the biggest manufacturing hub. The crashing of the stock market, and the falling demand are few of the many symptomatic non-physiological implications of the pandemic.
Furthermore, as Slavoj Zizek points out, the pandemic has led to the return of ‘capitalist animism’, where social phenomena like markets are treated as living entities. Apart from thousands of human fatalities, the media is now focusing on how the markets are ‘getting more nervous’, which signifies how we are enslaved by the market mechanism where everything seems to fall like a pack of cards amidst the virus outbreak. Moreover, it has also brought questions pertaining to public health once again to the forefront.
The rampant privatisation of healthcare has put forth serious questions in combating public health crises such as the coronavirus pandemic. The primary purpose of economic activity pertains to production, distribution, and consumption of commodities. As public health is attributed as a commodity subjected to a competitive market place, there is a necessity now to protect universal programs and rights that can challenge the non-uniform effects of the market.
Furthermore, when markets seep into non-material aspects such as public health, it manifests the very idea of buying and selling as problematic. Thus, it subsequently becomes more and more intricate to bifurcate economics with moral questions.
When public health is treated as a good, it becomes problematic; when a good is ‘purchased’ or ‘sold’, its predominant motive is to seek profit from it. Markets are now seeking new avenues other than material possessions and have subsequently commoditised activities as well. It is pertinent to note that before allowing the market to value a good by means like need or merit, it becomes crucial to decide what kind of good it is and how its value is decided.
Commodification is an indispensable adjunct of neoliberal policies within a capitalist structure, where a society’s economy precedes the society itself; governments use neoliberal crises both as a pretense and a prospect to privatise public services such as health and education, thereby loosening its social safety net. This subsequently leads to deregulation of markets and re-regulation of citizens. However, in the interest of ‘the good’, citizens are subjected to ethical and public concern when scarcity threatens the society’s well being.
The United States, the torchbearer of capitalism, stands testimony to the failure of the public health system. There are instances where citizens are not able to get the coronavirus tests done, and one of the patients was charged $3,100 just for the test. Moreover, the optimum number of test facilities are not available to tackle the outbreak. When healthcare is privatised, the barometer for prioritisation of resources relies on what kind of allocation maximises profits, especially in the case of private property.
Paul Verhaeghe, in his book What About Me?, points to an instance when a doctor replaced psychiatry beds with cardiology beds in his hospital. The beds allotted for cardiology are not by need or the number of patients, but according to the profit they generate, since cardiology beds are more profitable than psychiatry beds. The profit in the stated case is a determining factor rather than the disease profile.
In its 2016 report ‘Neoliberalism: Oversold?’, the IMF admitted that some liberal policies, despite delivering growth, have led to an increase in inequality. The apparent intervention of the market to allocate public health, education, natural resources and other social goods reflects that market values are sluggishly seeping into conventionally governed non-market norms — the transfer of public sector enterprises to private leads to the conversion of social rights as marketable objects. The conventional economic perceptions are unable to acknowledge that there is more to life, more to an economy than the market and the progression of the market might mean the diminution of something else.
The idea of public health is attached to ‘publicness’, thereby meaning that the rationale of privatisation of public health cannot be more oxymoronic as the crisis of COVID-19 does not limit to individuals; it is fundamentally a public concern. The notion that pathogens attack devoid of their intrinsic geographical and territorial biases calls for better national public health systems, as well as a global healthcare network.
Such a network can have a centralised development of medicine and vaccines, with a pool of funds contributed by all the countries. These medicines and vaccines should be publicly available either for free or at subsidised rates. Such a setup shall make medical facilities available to all, irrespective of ones’ ability to pay. The COVID-19 in 2020 should serve as a reminder that such new outbreaks can only be contained through efficient and inclusive public health systems that are not commodified.