Death from COVID-19, Collateral Damage, and the U.S. Capitalist-State
By Vince Montes
The concept of collateral damage is the death and injury to civilians or other damage inflicted as the unintended result of military operations. In this conceptualization, collateral damage, similar to the military euphemism for the killing of civilians, is the idea that there is unintentional, but acceptable death, injury, and damage associated with the carrying out a stated goal. However, unlike the goal of winning a war or when this concept is used in an Orwellian way to describe the “unintended” deaths of non-combatants killed in counterinsurgency operations, designed to kill, injury, and ultimately terrorize a people into submission, the death, injury, and destruction of COVID-19 can be seen as collateral damage because it is unintended, yet deemed acceptable, for the continuation of U.S. capitalism.
Amid, this pandemic, state officials and the corporate media have focused our attention on the “war” against the virus and have made questions and analysis about the failures of the market economy and the structure of society too abstract and incomprehensible to understand. What appears to be taking place is that the deaths, injuries, and the disruptions to people’s lives from the COVID-19 virus will be considered but more collateral damage as the needs for industry to get up and running, restore gains to the stock market, and increase profits margins surpass the quality of life in the United States. And lumped on top of this will be the sacrificial frontline healthcare worker and the retail, agricultural, and meat plant workers who have been deemed essential, but are also collateral damage in this crisis.
The idea of acceptable collateral damage in the U.S. predates the COVID-19 pandemic. This can be seen when the state-corporate elite impose the market over the needs of society, causing society to become highly susceptible to not only a multitude of social ills such as high rates in crime, murder, suicide, mental illness, but also susceptible to high rates of heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, anxiety, obesity, liver disease, and cirrhosis. These deaths are due to lack of access to adequate health care and to a failed healthcare system that is based on a bureaucratic rationality, which is driven by economic gain and profit. The common citizen has very little defense against the soft drink industry (obesity, diabetes), alcohol industry (high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon), tobacco industry (COPD – emphysema, and chronic bronchitis, and lung cancer), the sugar industry (obesity, diabetes), the big three U.S. auto industry (pollution that causes lung cancer and respiratory diseases), and petrochemical industry (various cancers) that kill people at alarming rates every day in the U.S. as well as around the world through the integration in the capitalist global economy. These billion-dollar corporations not only receive government subsidies (from U.S. taxpayers) and generous tax breaks but they are collectively culpable in the deaths of approximately 1,630,456 people who died in 2017 from heart diseases, malignant neoplasms (cancer), cerebrovascular diseases (stroke), diabetes. Not listed in the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. is liver disease and cirrhosis, which also killed 47,743 people in 2017 (included in the above total figure).
Is it too speculative to make a correlation between the above industries and their products to the deaths of their consumers, workers, and society at large? Considering exceptions from genetic predispositions, many of these deaths and injuries were preventable, but since people live within a state-sanctioned social environment that worships the above profit/to industries over the social wellbeing of the people, their lives have become collateral damage. Karl Polanyi (1944), a renowned political sociologist cautioned against the dangers that occur when there is an unembedded market superimposed on society, and when the interests of that market (more specifically state and corporate elite) is elevated above the interests of nature and human beings. Of course, these figures are only meant to provide but a sketch of what collateral damage looks like outside of its military use. The figures in this context do not include all of the people diagnosed with the above listed diseases. In 2017, for example, there were 1,688,780 new cancer cases in the United States, which is also ranked fifth in the world behind Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and Hungary. All of these nations have something in common; they are all considered “high-income” nations (read: capitalist nations); and 4 out of the 5 of them emerged from white-settler states (however, Northern Ireland remains a colony), with Hungary being the exception, joining the club after 1989 and received a rapid dose of capitalism.
One can only imagine all of the new cases of heart disease, diabetes, and liver disease and cirrhosis. It is in these figures that one sees how some people have become collateral damage and have developed high comorbidity that overtime, especially with age, have led to compromised immune systems that are incapable of fighting against the COVID-19 virus. Coupled with a healthcare system and a multitude of essential service agencies that have been compromised by the needs of the perpetrators of the market have served to intensify this current crisis.
Consequential, one should not be surprised to discover that the nations with the highest COVID-19 deaths are the U.S. (83,150), the UK (33,263), Italy (31,106), Spain (26, 920), and all other nations being substantially lower than these four. The question is and should be what is it about these capitalist-states (that employ some version of state-intervention in their capitalist economies) that make large segments of their populations vulnerable to this deadly virus.
What is often presented as freedom and as an exercise of free choice is often just a choice between Coca-Cola or Pepsi and either choice can and often does kill you, or a friend and family members. Herbert Marcuse’s (1964) astute observations of the acquiescence of this reality is that an individual’s desire to be free has been psychologically repressed and has been substituted with a series of false needs in which consumerism has come to symbolize freedom and equality, which mask a system that continues to be rooted in oppression and exploitation. It is in this context that such doublespeak like “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country” or that somehow during the COVID-19 crisis “we’re all in this together.” However, a more cynical, and yet more accurate way of looking at this is to say that what is good for GM and all the other corporations (big pharma, included) and the political officials of the state is not good for human life and the environment. In short, their practices enrich themselves and elevate just enough people, who form the middle class, and derive material reward and social and psychological prestige in which they in turn uphold the system as guards (Zinn 1995).
As a result, it is very difficult to accept the latest slogan currently being propagandized by the media amid this unfolding pandemic. Are “we’re all in this together”? For example, do the “good people” of Walmart and Amazon (who are known for their notorious labour practices in the U.S. and the world) and the endless list of big pharma corporations such as Johnson & Johnson, Roche Holding, and Abbott Labs (who are working on vaccines, treatments, and testing) have society’s better interests at heart? The owners of Walmart, the Walton family and the owner of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, happen to be the richest people in the world while the U.S. has some of the world’s highest income and wealth inequality. As we have seen, recent crises have not transformed the structure of society, but have provided the U.S. capitalist-state with the opportunity to not only reaffirm its ideology of unity (e.g., from “United We Stand” to “We’re all in it together”), but to rescue/bailout the financial institution and corporations, provide the pretext for military expansion (China, Iran?), and to perfect its repressive apparatus.
It is true, that neoliberal policies have increased deregulation, changed the perception of how we view the victims of capitalism, and have increased the privatization of essential services as we are witnessing. As a result, neoliberal policies have substantially reduced the concept of a public health system, because it has been made too reliant on the private sector for not only essential equipment (such as PPE and ventilators), but it also depended on big pharma for testing and the development of a vaccine. What should appear quite obvious is the conflict of interest. After all, big pharma answers to their shareholders and is mandated to hold their interests above the public’s interests. In addition, the shrinking or redirection of resources to private sector (and to Homeland Security and/or the military) may have reduced the capacity of such agencies like the CDC, the HHS, NIH and other government agencies to detect and remedy diseases.
Had essential agencies been prioritized they may have been able to detect COVID-19 and not had needed to be informed about it. If it is true that the Chinese government identified its first case of the virus in November and not in December 2019, it is highly conceivable that in the globalized world it had spread to the U.S. around the same time. Is it within reason to suggest that such agencies, that in theory perform essential roles such as protecting the lives of people from health threats, should not be underfunded, re-prioritized, or have key areas of their domain abandoned or farmed-out to corporations? Of course, this logic does not succumb to the rhetoric from the representatives of duopoly party-system in the U.S. by either scapegoating the Trump administration or the Chinese government and the WHO for being culpable in the spread of this virus.
When vital agencies of the state such as the healthcare system or education, housing, employment, transportation are made subordinated to the market, they cease to serve the collective interests of a society. For example, the subornation of the healthcare system to the market means that patient care is seen through the lens of the logic of the market—i.e., the cost-benefit rational bureaucratic model, which pervades decisions and practices—e.g., the creation of the HMO in 1973 was said to have created managed care, mandating a flat fee for patient visits, regardless of time spent, which encourages physicians less time with patients, potentially sending sick patients home without proper diagnosis and treatment. Furthermore, it has also been reported that physicians receive bonuses for adhering to the guidelines of managed care, which has also meant—e.g., vital testing such as MRIs or CAT scans were not ordered. The Affordable Healthcare Act of 2010, which is said to be a godsend to the healthcare industry because it mandates that everyone be insured, and moves the healthcare system even closer to the rational-bureaucratic logic of the “marketplace,” leaving millions uninsured. Even with those having health insurance, people die unnecessarily in this system. According to the findings of research conducted at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, researchers discovered that 251,000 died from “human error” every year in U.S. hospitals. It is difficult to argue against the notion that human error is not responsible for deaths and injuries to individuals under the care of the healthcare system, but these actions take place within a cost-benefit system that pervades the healthcare industry. Of course, the changes brought about by the implementation of neoliberal policies did not only affect the healthcare system but most of what was once considered the public sector.
As of May 13, 2020, over 83,000 people have died in the U.S. from the COVID-19 virus. The people at the highest risk of dying are mostly the elderly with known underlying health conditions. Keep in mind, it is not all elderly people, but those with known high comorbidity such as heart disease, lung disease, cancer, high blood pressure, liver disease, and diabetes that are accounting for most of the deaths. Interconnectedly, the same health conditions outlined at the beginning of this article that were attributed to the state-sanctioned private sector industries that place profit over the well-being of society have resulted in the high mortality rates. As data is slowly coming in, we are learning that in many majority-white countries like the U.S. and in some minority-white countries like South Africa, it is the people from ethnic and racial groups that are the most susceptible to the COVID-19 virus. These are the people that are the most oppressed and exploited and have long been converted into collateral damage in the capitalist-states. It stands to reason that they did the bulk of the suffering with less access to economic resources, poorer health outcomes, and that having the highest mortality rates in the pre- COVID-19 era would translate into being highly susceptible to COVID-19 virus.
When social development is undermined by a blind and selfish devotion to the market and the amassing individual wealth, it will produce collateral damage. After all, the ruse that the market is self-regulating and the lifter of all boats is just a world created by elites and state officials that are prepared to live with its collateral damage. One could argue that it is the vulnerable segments of the population that have little or no defense against the state-sponsored peddlers of toxic products, exploitation, oppression, and polluted environments, making them highly susceptible to the COVID-19 virus. As long as the cost is not felt throughout society, it will not be viewed as a structural problem. However, the casualties of COVID-19 appear to not be completely confined to the most vulnerable with known underlying health conditions. Maybe this will move some people to understand that the market economy is a collateral damage producing machine, and that both versions of capitalism—i.e., the state intervention New Deal model (aimed to restore the collapsed system in the 1930s and to smoothen some of the jagged edges) or the neoliberal variety—are not at all mutually exclusive in producing collateral damage.
What we are currently witnessing is a push to reopen the economy and to establish a new sense of normalcy, which will undoubtedly translate into viewing the dead and injured from COVID-19 as unintended, but acceptable collateral damage because nothing at this point in time suggests that serious structural change is in the works. What instead appears to be at play is an urgency to get the market economy up and running in order to restore gains in the stock market and profits.
Vince Montes is a Lecturer in Sociology and earned a PhD from the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research.