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Fighting coronavirus on the capitalist periphery

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

Serbia and beyond

by Anja Ilić

Destroy Capitalism, Save the Planet Anti capitalist messages in Novi Sad, Serbia. Photo: golian99 on flickr

A new pandemic has struck the world, which was seemingly unaware of what had been coming. In a matter of weeks, what was lightly written off as an isolated, Far-Eastern issue has spread throughout the world. Europe has quickly overtaken China in the number of people infected with coronavirus, as well as in fatalities caused by it. The stock markets are in free fall despite the claims, earnest or not, by the governments that they are sparing no effort in order to save both the capitalist economy and the people. However, the incompatibility of these two goals is now on full display.

In an attempt to circumvent this incompatibility, European governments, and the European Union itself, have introduced certain extraordinary measures. For instance, the Spanish government has ordered a requisition – or temporary nationalisation – of private hospitals and healthcare equipment manufacturers. Germany has scrapped its constitutionally protected “debt brake” (Schwarze Null) rule, allowing for the government to spend more money than it has collected. The EU has temporarily lifted its strict fiscal limits and allowed its member-states to inject “as much [money] as they need” in order to keep their economies running.

Despite these “corrective” measures, which had been derided as unimaginable as recently as a couple of weeks ago, the austerity regime imposed upon the working classes of European countries – EU members or not – over the past decade had already taken a heavy toll. Countries on the capitalist (semi-)periphery, such as Serbia, face particular difficulties in dealing with the consequences of the latest pandemic.

A repressive U-turn: the virus can’t be frightened into submission; people on the other hand...

In comparison with Boris Johnson’s or Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic, the regime of Aleksandar Vučić and his ruling Serbian Progressive Party appears to be politically much wiser. A state of emergency was declared on 15 March. Schools and universities were promptly closed, price controls were introduced, and the military was deployed and authorised to help maintain order and intervene into civilian life.

However, the regime had previously made a U-turn in its response to a possible epidemic in Serbia. Speaking at a press conference on 26 February, Vučić surrounded himself with scores of doctors whose principal role was to downplay and even ridicule the possible threat. One such doctor, a paediatric pulmonologist, infamously said that he “can’t believe that a nation which survived the sanctions [and] the [NATO] bombing [...] is now afraid of the most ridiculous virus in human history, which only exists on Facebook”. Just two weeks later, reality compelled Vučić and his medical advisers to stop ridiculing the people and their legitimate fears about the epidemic, and to declare, in Vučić’s own words, “a war against an invisible enemy”.

A declaration of “war” had to be made in order to make up for the previous understatements, and in order to declare a state of emergency. The Serbian legal system clearly distinguishes a state of emergency from an emergency situation. Epidemics and pandemics are explicitly listed as events which warrant declaring an emergency situation, which is regulated by a specific law and can be declared by the government.

A state of emergency, however, is defined within the Constitution and can only be declared by the National Assembly, except when it is absolutely impossible for it to hold a session; in that extraordinary case, the heads of the state, the National Assembly and the government can jointly declare a state of emergency.

And so, the regime used the government’s (initial) decision to ban all public meetings over 100 people as pretext to declare that the National Assembly is unable to sit, and to declare, extraordinarily, a state of emergency. This manoeuvre has had a profoundly political consequence: the government is now authorised to revoke a vast array of constitutional rights for as long as the state of emergency is in effect.

Whose state?

Viewing the state as a neutral, benevolent entity would make its reactions to the epidemic seem entirely justifiable. The propaganda machine already serves this purpose: Vučić is holding daily press conferences, informing the people about new cases, the amount of international help Serbia has received, and, regularly, the endless breaches of quarantine and security measures allegedly committed by a mass of selfish, irresponsible and self-centred people. Activities of these countless uncontrollable individuals are then cited as the reason why the state must impose even more rigid controls, all the while the regime presents itself as a patient, rational and smoothly functioning apparatus.

There is a catch, though: the state is never a neutral actor. In Serbia, as well as in many other countries right now, this is blatantly visible in how the state positions itself relative to big capital. Here, at the capitalist (semi-)periphery, it is even more visible than in the centre: Vučić and the government do not want to make foreign investors angry, because that would risk them moving elsewhere. Since the country’s economy is fatally dependent on foreign direct investment and perpetual indebtedness, Vučić claims he has no power over the private sector. This has, naturally, lead to innumerable breaches of workers’ rights during the epidemic. However, those who are to be blamed – and subsequently fined – for the state of chaos are not the “job-creating” investors; it is the ordinary people.

The state, we see, acts on behalf of a class – and the working class is not the one in charge. Apart from saying that “this is how capitalism functions”, neither Aleksandar Vučić nor anyone in the government admits that there is a class component to the epidemic: they present it as a matter of national unity. Such unity is endangered – even biologically endangered – by the reckless individuals who do not listen to the warnings of the government as much as they should; this in turn justifies imposition of a curfew, which at first lasted for nine hours (from 8 PM to 5 AM), and has in the meantime been extended to twelve hours (5 PM to 5 AM), with a possibility of a full-day extension. If someone breaches the curfew, they are criminally charged, so they either pay a fine (which will most likely go up to 150.000 dinars, i.e. almost 1300 euros per person in a country with the median monthly wage of around 400 euros) or face a maximum of three years in jail.

On the other hand, the only form of “pressure” that the private investors have faced from the government came in the form of pathetic pleas – this despite the fact that they are casually endangering their employees’ health and safety, as well as the health and safety of everyone else. As of recently, these pleas have been accompanied by promises of generous financial stimuli if they act as “good capitalists” and not fire people during the epidemic.

The private investors, however, will never be called out during the press conferences, regardless of the fact that tens of thousands of workers risk losing their jobs if they don’t show up for work; that tens of thousands of workers are not being provided with necessary sanitary equipment; that tens of thousands of workers are not offered paid leave; that tens of thousands of workers are exposed to coronavirus in overcrowded working spaces.

Undisclosed damage report

The repressive U-turn of the state serves yet another purpose, which also has everything to do with class: despite its public proclamations, the regime which presided over almost six and a half years of austerity, and whose many functionaries were actively engaged in the last twenty years of neoliberal restructuring in Serbia, is acutely familiar with the tragic consequences that these processes have had on our public health capacities.

Some estimates suggest that at least 10.000 doctors left Serbia since the beginning of the century. Hundreds of them leave Serbia every year, with a growing trend. If we take into account the ban on employment in the public sector (which is still in force), wage cuts, progressive flexibilisation of medical work and a general decline of spending on healthcare, these rising numbers of medical professionals leaving the country come as no surprise.

In accordance with that, more and more people are compelled to turn to private hospitals, since it usually takes months of waiting to get an appointment to see a specialist in a public hospital. The scope of medication covered by the national health insurance is getting ever-narrower. The hospital machinery is decades-old on average. It is no wonder then that president Vučić did not want to disclose the exact number of respirators available in Serbian hospitals.

While the pace of the newly diagnosed coronavirus cases, and especially fatalities, is considerably slower than in most other European countries – a trend which could be explained, at least partially, by the fact that, until recently, due to a lack of testing kits, only the most “suspicious” cases were tested for coronavirus – the peak of the epidemic is still to come. Thus the state of emergency, as a preferred form of damage control chosen by the regime, covers for the publicly undisclosed damage already done to our health system through austerity and neoliberalisation.

Organising in the time of corona (and after)

From where we stand now, a few things seem certain. First of all, this pandemic will most likely trigger a new world economic crisis, which has been boiling under the surface for a while: even the leading world economies, not to mention the peripheral ones like the Serbian, have been facing low profitability in the productive sector for the past few years. Global indebtedness is skyrocketing, and the only remedy the authorities are offering is to keep servicing the debt by taking out further loans.

As the never-ending crisis of 2007/8 has shown us, this will not work. The global economy has not recovered after the financial sector was (temporarily) bailed-out – but the working class, which had to bear the brunt of the crisis, suffered immensely. This time, again, we face the danger of yet another, harsher cycle of austerity measures being imposed in order to prevent the collapse of the capitalist system.

At the same time, the ongoing pandemic illustrates, day after day, how deeply the austerity regimes and neoliberal dogma have damaged our capacities to fight back as societies. Chronically underfinanced, understaffed and underequipped hospitals cannot even carry out mass testing, let alone treat all the patients infected with the novel coronavirus. This is why every face mask, pair of gloves, testing kit or respirator count now. This is why many countries are reemploying retired doctors to help the ones already overworked and overexposed on the frontlines. This is why these same countries, most notably Italy, have to decide whom to treat, and whom to let die.

This is also why this pandemic cannot end overnight. As the World Health Organisation has repeatedly underlined, only a combination of mass testing, isolation and tracing will suffice in slowing down the tempo of the pandemic and giving us enough time to come up with successful remedies. However, the response of most countries was to exert rigid lockdown measures not accompanied by mass testing, which is a sine qua non in successfully fighting the pandemic.

As shown above, this lockdown is class-specific and thus impotent: fining ordinary people might help “strengthen” the state budget, but excusing the big capital who compel thousands of workers to show up for work amidst the pandemic, so as to keep their precious profits, will not strengthen the public health – on the contrary. And although getting infected with coronavirus and possibly dying of it is, too, a class issue, not even the rich and powerful are safe when there is no collective immunity. Apparently there is such a thing as society, after all.

Thus the realities of fighting this latest pandemic will affect the way capitalism is managed. Broadly speaking, there are three possible scenarios: further barbaric degradation, social-democratic reform, or socialist revolution. The outcome cannot be predicted, since it also depends on subjective forces of working-class organisation and struggle, but we know the objective conditions we will be playing against: the new and profound economic crisis; enhanced state-control and likely proliferation of repressive measures against the people; and further environmental crisis, which will both breed new epidemics and pandemics and cause massive movements of people.

The sheer immensity of the challenges ahead obliges us not to be passive during the ongoing pandemic. Numerous workers throughout the world have already realised this: they are organising walk-outs, warning strikes, and even calling for general strikes (as in Italy), fighting against their employers and the governments who are more willing to sacrifice human lives than to lose profits. Numerous local residents and activists are organising solidarity networks with refugees held incarcerated in barely liveable refugee camps (such as in Greece), demanding they be accommodated in hygienic places and provided with public healthcare. Numerous socialist organisers ought to, if they are not already doing it, engage in solidarity networks, encourage and embolden the workers’ struggles, and start discussing and laying out the plan(s) for the looming systemic confrontation.

The decade we are facing is, in all certainty, the crucial one for the future of humanity. Humanity or capitalism is today’s choice between socialism and barbarism.

Anja Ilić is a Sociology student at University of Belgrade (Faculty of Philosophy) and an activist of Marks21, a revolutionary socialist organisation based in Serbia. This article was written specially for www.theleftberlin.com.

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