Image: Miguel Bruna/Unsplash

Earlier this year, I posted a piece on in which I claimed that the global COVID-19 pandemic, though devastating for humankind, has not been nearly as pernicious as the social and economic plague of global capitalism.

Many readers of this essay disagreed with my hypothesis, some quite vehemently. They thought I was exaggerating the harmful effects of capitalism and minimizing the harm of the coronavirus. 

Such comparisons, of course, are invidious, if only because capitalism has been the world’s dominant economic system for more than a century and a half, while COVID-19 has been scourging the planet for less than a year.

We are currently enmeshed in a titanic clash between two global forces in which most human beings consider capitalism to be the hero and COVID-19 the villain. This belief is inevitable, given that the virus indiscriminately infects and kills the most vulnerable among us, while the preventive and curative efforts are conducted by valiant nurses, doctors and other caregivers who are funded by capitalist corporations and governments.

Little attention is given, however, to exposing the main reasons why many people succumb to the coronavirus while the majority escape or survive it. All of the most debilitating effects clearly stem from the colossal poverty, inequality and preventable diseases that the capitalist system inflicts on millions of disadvantaged people — many of them children.

A report by UNICEF last year on “The State of the World’s Children” warned “at least one in three children under five — or over 200 million — is either undernourished or overweight. Almost two in three children between six months and two years of age are not fed food that supports their rapidly growing bodies and brains.”

Capitalist pandemic’s victims

Globally, under capitalism, according to the World Health Organization, 15,000 children under five die every day from poverty, hunger and preventable disease. At the same time, 2,000 billionaires hold more wealth than the 4.6 billion poorest people in the world. In Canada, one in eight households struggle to raise their children while living in poverty, many dependent on food banks to keep food on the table.

We live under a warped economic system in which “free enterprise” corporations obsessively pursue profits for the rich and powerful at the expense of the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants. Through deforestation, strip-mining, overfishing and other forms of looting and pillaging, they have rapidly been depleting non-renewable resources, and in the process raising global warming levels to a perilous degree. 

Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of the best-selling The Sixth Extinction, warns that the current unfolding extinction, unlike the first five, is being caused “solely by humanity’s transformation of the ecological landscape. It’s an extinction event of our own making.”

She didn’t explicitly add that humans have brought this catastrophe on themselves by permitting the capitalist system to inflict it on them. But it was certainly an unwritten implication. 

In any event, the big corporations’ demolition of the planet, its climate and wildlife was undeniably rampant before the coronavirus pandemic struck. A recent study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences bleakly exposed the extent of this “free enterprise” carnage:

  1. The world’s seven billion people constitute just 0.10 per cent of all living things, but since the dawn of civilization have caused the extinction of 83 per cent of all wild mammals and half of plants, while livestock kept by humans abound.

  2. Farmed poultry today accounts for 70 per cent of all birds on the planet, with just 30 per cent being wild.

  3. About 60 per cent of all mammals left on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, while 36 per cent are human and just four per cent are wild animals.

  4. The destruction of wild habitats for farming, logging and development has precipitated the start of what many scientists consider the sixth mass extinction of life to occur in Earth’s four-billion-year history, this one being caused almost entirely by human activities.

  5. Three-quarters of the world’s food today comes from just 12 crops and five animal species, which leaves supplies vulnerable to disease and pests that can sweep through large areas of monoculture.

Capitalism trumps science

As usual, however, this momentous scientific study received no more serious attention from our business and political leaders than did all the previous warnings. Why not? Because to take the protective and restorative measures the study recommends would require a drastic switch from profitably plundering the planet’s non-renewable resources to unprofitably preserving them.

That, in turn, would entail a more equitable allocation of wealth and a sharp reduction in global poverty and inequality. Horrors! It would actually mean scrapping the entire global capitalist economic system!

What are the odds of the neoliberal corporate and political elites voluntarily abandoning their obsessive accumulation of wealth and power? Realistically, not a chance. Not even to prevent the looming mass extinction. Not even to preserve their own lives and those of their children. That’s how deeply the capitalist system is embedded among the world’s business and political rulers.

The only thing that might possibly dissuade them from resuming their planetary pollution and the eventual obliteration of humankind would be a stronger counterforce — one that would curb industrial toxic emissions and thus ongoing global warming.

COVID-19’s slowdown of many CO2-emitting industries, and its curb of pollution by heavy road, sea and air traffic have reduced smog and provided a relatively fresh and clean atmosphere.

However, mild climatic improvements have come at the terrible cost of human infections, lives, mobility, jobs and social contact. The best remedy for such a pandemic is obviously to find and administer an effective vaccine. But, when that happens, will our political and business leaders have learned the lesson they should from such a widespread affliction?

Will they take firm and immediate steps to avert another such global scourge that was clearly spawned by global poverty, hunger, inequality and distress? Or will they reactivate the appallingly brutal and iniquitous social and economic capitalist system that preceded COVID-19?

If so, the next global pandemic launched by an irate and impatient Mother Nature will be even more excruciating and hard to endure than the current coronavirus.

Only if enough valiant and dedicated progressives rally behind a global campaign to dump capitalism in time to avert another pandemic will humankind survive.

And all is not yet lost. There’s still a ray of hope that such a dramatic global reprieve will be mobilized.

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer’s apprentice, reporter, columnist and editor of that city’s daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.

Image: Miguel Bruna/Unsplash


Ed Finn

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer’s apprentice, reporter, columnist, and editor of that city’s daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist...