In the major imperialist countries, the new coronavirus has already killed tens of thousands of people and affected the health of hundreds of thousands more. In Europe and North America, almost 200 000 people have officially been killed by the virus so far. Yet, despite this already terrible toll, the real health catastrophe has been averted. Thanks to the containment measures adopted in extremis by the various capitalist states, only a tiny fraction of the population has been infected by the virus – which gives an idea of the devastation that the pandemic still has the potential to cause. But already, the bourgeois states are doing their utmost to revive their national economy and put an end to the containment measures. While it was still possible to limit the damage – despite the late and deficient response of governments to the pandemic – the bourgeoisie is once again leading the popular masses straight into cataclysm. In the name of capitalist profit, hundreds of thousands of workers are being sent to the slaughterhouse.
The ruling classes have launched a large-scale propaganda offensive to make the people accept the 180-degree turn taken by the governments and to convince the proletarians that the end of containment is desirable and safe. In Quebec, this offensive, which had already begun some time ago, has intensified in the last few days. Last week, the Legault government announced that achieving “natural herd immunity” is now an imperative public health objective and a national necessity. In essence, this meant the government would end the containment so that about 70 per cent of the province’s population would be infected with the virus. The “natural immunity” strategy had been denounced by many epidemiologists in mid-March when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his intention to use it. They were referring to scientific work published by Imperial College London, which indicated that the virus would cause 510,000 deaths in the United Kingdom and more than 2 million in the United States without containment measures. In Quebec, if we do the math, we are talking about several tens of thousands of deaths with the adoption of the “natural herd immunity” strategy.
Premier Legault’s identification of this objective marked an important change in his speech. The government, which until then had insisted on the extreme danger of the virus and had constantly urged people to remain confined to their homes, was now openly asking people to come out and get infected! The screen behind which capitalist interests were hiding, that of public health and the defence of the “general welfare”, was now deeply cracked. Although the government’s “moral authority” had been considerably tarnished with the fiasco in the CHSLDs, this screen still allowed the government to claim to act in the name of the health of the population. It will now be increasingly difficult for it. Although the provincial authorities tried to correct the situation this week by officially abandoning the objective of collective immunity – while keeping exactly the same program to reopen the economy – the masks have fallen off. Despite his “warm” way of expressing himself and his sympathetic allusions to the tooth fairy, François Legault, like any bourgeois politician, is in fact driven by nothing but cold interest, selfish calculation and the brutal demands of economic competition.
In fact, the change in the discourse of the Quebec government coincided with the beginning of a new phase in the game of inter-imperialist competition, a game in which the Quebec bourgeoisie participates and which has shaped the current crisis from the beginning. While the various capitalist states had implicitly agreed to a truce in mid-March to adopt defensive measures against the virus, the pressure to revive national economies is now being felt on all sides. States and national monopolies, in competition with each other, are now engaged in a race to reopen businesses and monopolise markets. Each national bourgeoisie struggles not to fall behind its adversaries and not to find itself “out of step” with the others. In spite of the extremely serious health consequences that will necessarily accompany the end of the containment measures, capitalist governments, without any consideration for human life, are pressuring the proletarians to return to work. Whereas the previous phase of the crisis was marked by the struggle to prevent the virus from spreading and to limit the damage caused by the pandemic, the new phase which is beginning will be marked by an acceleration of the contagion and by the sacrifice of a large number of workers. In other words, in the coming weeks and months, we are going to see considerable loss of life among the working classes of the world.
The Legault government’s 180-degree turn reflects the interests of Quebec capitalists: restarting the profit machine, regardless of the consequences on the health of the population.
Two weeks ago, the Quebec government had already ordered the revival of residential construction as well as certain other sectors of the economy. With the announcement on April 27 and 28, 2020 of an economic recovery plan and a timetable for the reopening of daycare centres, primary schools and businesses in May, there is no longer any doubt that the Quebec government’s management of the crisis has entered a new phase. The government is now facing a difficult headache: it must convince the public that the situation is under control, that there is no risk in sending children back to school and that there is no risk in returning to work either. In other words, he must call on the population as a whole to do exactly the opposite of what they have been ordered to do in recent weeks, which is to stay at home and avoid contact with other people. For the government, this is not an easy task, since what was previously asked of the population was based on the obvious: the epidemic was not controlled and the virus was dangerous. And the truth is that, as we are about to go back to work, the danger has not diminished in the slightest. In fact, it is even greater than before, since there are now many more infected people in the population! While only a few days ago the Prime Minister was hammering that we should only leave our homes if it was absolutely necessary and that those who did not respect the instructions would have deaths on their conscience, he now says that we must “deprogram” and gradually resume normal life!
This complete reversal of course arouses incomprehension and amazement among the popular masses. For many proletarians, the new directives also provoke anger – a perfectly legitimate anger. But in fact, if one has not been fooled by the government propaganda of the last few weeks, what is happening now is simple to understand. Contrary to appearances, the economic pause and the containment measures put in place in March were not intended to protect the population. In fact, they served no other purpose than to prevent a major economic disaster and to protect national capitalism. The aim of every capitalist state was to prevent too many dead and too many sick at once, which would have caused an immense shock to the national economy. But above all, each bourgeois state sought to avoid being the only one to suffer the health consequences of the pandemic. Thus, all the governments in Europe and North America implemented more or less the same program at about the same time. Quebec and Canada were no exception. The containment measures, moreover, came only at the last moment, in a purely defensive manner, when the various national bourgeoisies reached a tacit agreement to take a momentary pause (whereas a response motivated by the need to protect the population – a socialist response – would have come much more quickly and would have been offensive in nature). Now that some states are beginning to revive their economies and end containment, all others must follow suit so as not to be left behind in the economic struggle. The result of all this is that the masses are now being pushed to the precipice. On the scale of human history, this is a complete aberration. In several decades, it will become clear that the adoption by the various bourgeois governments of the current economic recovery programme was an act of barbarism without name.
As everywhere else, it is nothing but profit that motivates the Quebec government’s choice to reopen schools and businesses. The government tries to hide it by invoking all sorts of far-fetched, incoherent and senseless pretexts: imaginary deterioration of “mental health”, domestic violence, beaten children, poor children deprived of the breakfasts provided to them at school, etc. To hear Premier Legault and Director of Public Health Horacio Arruda speak, there would be so many beaten women and children in Quebec (and what’s more, confinement would be responsible for this) that it would justify playing Russian roulette with the health of millions of people and sacrificing the lives of tens of thousands of proletarians! For that is what it is all about: with the resumption of economic activity, the government is sending masses of workers and their children to be contaminated by one of the most dangerous viruses (and whose consequences on human health are the least understood) to have spread in the country in recent history. In short, this is probably one of the most criminal decisions ever made by a government in Quebec. Infecting a large segment of the population was the government’s stated goal just a few days ago, before it turned around and abandoned the strategy of “natural immunity” after being criticized by federal authorities (who did not find this pretext subtle enough for them). The Legault government has now changed its justification, but its concrete actions – and the result they will have – remain exactly the same. That said, the fact that the Premier of Quebec has contradicted himself in such a major way and in such a short period of time clearly shows the extent of his lies. Let us say it again: it is only to revive the accumulation of profits that the government ordered the economy to reopen. Moreover, the reopening of schools, which has been synchronized with the reopening of businesses and factories, has absolutely nothing to do with any concern to ensure children’s learning (one wonders what kind of learning it will be possible to make them do under the current conditions), but everything to do with the need to allow proletarians with children to go to work. This is why secondary schools remain closed – teenagers being able to stay home alone while their parents are at the factory. Regarding battered women and children, the government portrays proletarian families as a kind of feudal and medieval caricature where violence and abuse are the norm. There is domestic violence in Quebec, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the current pandemic and, more importantly, it does not affect the majority of society. The government simply laughs in the face of proletarians when it uses this reason to justify a decision that will endanger the health and lives of all workers. As for the bourgeois state’s sudden concern for “mental health”, this is obviously an insult to intelligence. What counts is not the “health” of the conscience or of the “soul”: what counts is real health, physical health! No one dies simply by staying at home. No one suffers any objective after-effects. On the other hand, many people will die or become seriously ill after contracting COVID-19 because of the completely senseless decisions of the bourgeois state.
The objective of “natural herd immunity”: the banner of a reactionary programme to be fought without restriction
Of all the nonsense put forward by the Quebec government to justify economic recovery and the end of confinement, the adoption of the “natural collective immunity” strategy was the most revolting. The logic behind this strategy is this: in the absence of a vaccine, we have no choice but to let the virus infect close to 70% of the population so that its spread can stop and society can return to normal functioning. The strategy advocated by the Quebec government even consisted in taking charge and planning the contamination of the population, starting with children first! The fact that the government seriously defended such a thing should eliminate any doubts that might remain in the heads of proletarians about the objectives that bourgeois authorities are really pursuing at the moment (as well as about the real nature of the bourgeois State, whose anti-popular and reactionary character has rarely been so clear). To hear the defenders of the strategy of “natural herd immunity” speak, one wonders why humanity took the trouble to invent vaccines in the course of its history, when it was so simple to let viruses spread in populations to develop herd immunity… and cause millions of deaths! We must long remember those who, like Horacio Arruda, Gaétan Barrette and the Quebec Pediatricians Association (!), publicly defended this measure straight out of the Museum of Horrors.
The manoeuvre by the Quebec government executive was so crude that it provoked a direct reaction from federal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Unreservedly denouncing the goal of “natural collective immunity”, Trudeau made it clear that this was not the way to proceed in the coming months, contradicting the statements made by the Quebec premier a few hours earlier. How do we explain this apparent contradiction between the Government of Quebec and the Government of Canada? The answer is simple: Trudeau is simply a better tactician and a more skilful manipulator than Legault is at the moment. Realizing that openly asking the population to get infected was not the best way to ensure obedience (and that it might instead inflame the anger of the masses), Trudeau opted for another method. Placed before the same necessities as the Quebec government and having the same will to revive the capitalist economy as he did, he chose to do so using other arguments. In any case, in the worst case scenario, the federal government knows that it will be able to use the hard way: an end to government assistance to workers, economic pressure and, as a last resort, the use of repressive methods. That said, the pressure was so great that François Legault was forced to openly abandon the concept in his April 27 press conference and fall back on the “social reasons” for the reopening. The Quebec premier’s speech is now in tune with that of the federal government. But despite this change in rhetoric, the concrete decisions made by the Quebec government are exactly the same as they would have been if the government had continued to use the concept of “collective natural immunity”. This shows not only that the new excuses put forward are worthless, but also that there was no fundamental contradiction between the Government of Quebec and the federal government.
In addition to Prime Minister Trudeau, several bourgeois specialists, such as Dr. Caroline Quach-Thanh and Dr. Howard Njoo, publicly denounced the strategy of “natural herd immunity,” claiming that science had not yet demonstrated that the antibodies that one develops after contracting the virus are actually protective, nor how long this hypothetical protection could last. These arguments, although true, are far too conciliatory of the reactionary agenda of the bourgeoisie. Even if it were shown that the antibodies developed by the human body after being infected with the virus provide lasting immunity, the program to deliberately expose the population to the dangers of COVID-19 would still be no less criminal! Thus, recent events show that despite all the knowledge they possess, bourgeois scientists, doctors and specialists, when they stray from their field to make pronouncements on society, find it difficult to say anything other than what corresponds to the interests and objectives of the ruling classes. Conversely, we see that the revolutionary camp must firmly grasp all the sciences and all the knowledge they contain, otherwise revolutionaries risk being blinded by bourgeois discourse with a “scientific” veneer.
Moreover, the episode of “natural collective immunity” shows that there is a lot of “social science” in epidemiology (since there are many social dimensions to the phenomenon being studied), which, under current conditions, means that epidemiologists will tend to solve the problems they work on by responding to the interests of the dominant social class, the capitalist class. The notions of “social distancing”, “community transmission”, “flattening the curve” and “non-saturation of the health network” are notions that were developed in research centres, university faculties and international organizations following the experiences of major epidemics (e.g. SARS) in the early 2000s. They are based on the assessments and general conclusions drawn from these experiences. What was at the heart of the reflections from which these concepts emerged was the following question: How can we maintain society as it is today, i.e., bourgeois society, in the event of a pandemic? The concept of “natural collective immunity” is one of these notions. It is therefore a piecemeal element of a much broader program to ensure the reproduction of capitalist society – a society at the heart of which lies the contradiction between Capital and Labour (which means, in the present situation, between profits and workers’ health). If the application of this programme has made it possible, initially, to really protect the health of a large part of the population, it now leads to the sacrifice of thousands of proletarians to ensure economic recovery at all costs.
The dangers of the pandemic are far from over. The real disaster is still to come. The objective now being pursued by public health is clear: to spread the deaths over time and prevent them from happening all at once. In the end, if this goal is achieved, there will have been about the same number of deaths, but capitalism will not have been “too” destabilized. But even this goal, already ultra-reactionary in itself, may not be achieved. Indeed, there is no guarantee that the end of containment and the resumption of economic activity will not provoke a second wave of contagion even more dazzling and devastating than the first. Let us remember once and for all: health considerations do not dictate recent government decisions. What dictates these decisions is only the need for the various bourgeois states in competition with each other to revive the accumulation of profits. In this implacable economic struggle, each adversary will force the others to advance even faster towards disaster and put the lives of even more proletarians in danger.