If more than half a million people in the United States were murdered by an evil cult, the leaders of which said that they would keep killing thousands a day to satisfy their rapacious urge for power and money, what do you think the response would be?
The last US mass casualty event that came close in scale was the 2001 terrorist attacks, when some 3,000 people were killed in a single day. The reaction after 9/11 was swift and dramatic. The entire country was put on a war footing. No resources were spared. All levels of government decried the loss of innocent life and mobilised for the response. The corporate media denounced the evil masterminds of the attacks and the detestable, radical ideology that motivated them.
Congress passed the Patriot Act, which was used to justify a mass surveillance program over the entire population to find anyone remotely sympathetic to the murderers. A special facility at Guantánamo Bay was established to jail and torture anyone in the world perceived to be involved. Hundreds of thousands were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as more than 1.5 million troops were rotated through those countries over the next two decades. All of this, allegedly, was for the safety and wellbeing of US citizens: to make sure that the World Trade Center deaths would not be in vain and to prevent such a loss of life ever happening again.
We know that there was a great deal of bullshit and lies in the response, that the terrorist attacks were used as a pretext for wars that sections of the political and military establishment were intent on waging anyway. But still, you might think that, if there were a series of mass casualty events claiming the lives of up to 4,000 people per day over eighteen months, the official tally reaching 650,000 with no end in sight, then every level of government in the United States would mobilise resources in an unprecedented way to stop the carnage, right?
What we have instead witnessed are state and federal governments, Republican and Democratic alike, allowing the coronavirus to become endemic in the population, because they value corporate profits more than human life. And the very same media and other capitalists institutions that stood as one to denounce the twisted ideology of the masterminds of 9/11 do little but sympathise with or even valorise the compositors of the “learn to die with the virus” narrative.
It’s not just the United States. The response has been similar around the world. Britain lost 70,000 civilian lives in all of World War Two. More than 130,000 have perished so far in this pandemic. France has lost more than 115,000, Italy nearly 130,000, Spain more than 85,000 and Germany more than 90,000 each. More than half a million are dead in Brazil, more than 440,00 in India and more than one-quarter of a million in Mexico. All of these figures are official counts, and are likely to be undercounts.
“Although the official number of deaths caused by COVID-19 is now 4.6 million [globally], our single best estimate is that the actual toll is 15.4 million people”, the Economist estimated at the beginning of September. “We find that there is a 95 percent chance that the true value lies between 9.4 million and 18.5 million additional deaths.”
Nowhere has the response come anywhere close to the frenzy after 3,000 people were killed on 9/11. The nature of the government has made little difference. Far-right, centre-right, liberal and centre-left administrations, with a handful of notable exceptions, have all shown that their loyalties are one and the same. When the conflict emerges between making profits and saving human life, invariably lives have been sacrificed.
There have been half measures here and there, and belated lockdowns or mask mandates in several countries when the hospitalisation and death rates got so high that the capitalist economy was being battered anyway. But at each opportunity, any serious attempt to bring community transmission under control has been abandoned to allow businesses to resume making profits.
And the states with the worst outcomes have often been those with the most wealth. The enormous resources at their disposal—resources that are outlaid in the blink of an eye to launch a war, to give as handouts to the rich, to fund corporate welfare and company tax cuts—have simply not been deployed on a scale that would come close to addressing the challenge.
It’s not a case of unfortunate errors and miscalculations. In almost every country, politicians and the media have attacked as enemies of freedom those advocating measures to bring the death rate down decisively. They have again and again tried to downplay the seriousness of the situation and accused their opponents of overreacting.
Why? Because unlike an event like 9/11 in the United States, or some of the other terrorist attacks in Europe that in some instances have claimed only one or two lives, all obvious responses to the pandemic involve significant and ongoing spending on the health and welfare of workers and the poor—areas on which the rich and powerful have spent decades cutting spending.
If governments were to engage in mass public spending to protect the lives and livelihoods of the majority of the population, it would only raise the question: why can’t the health and wellbeing of working people be prioritised and made “the norm”, instead of the trillions spent on war and squandered for big business tax cuts?
Try as they might, it is difficult for politicians and their corporate media and big-business backers to leverage the pandemic for nefarious ends like war, corporate tax cuts or attacks on social spending in the name of national unity. They cannot credibly blame China (not that it stops them) or “radical Islam” for the overflowing hospitals and morgues. It’s down to them, and they know it. Instead of doing much about it, they just try to butter everyone up to accepting that the excess deaths is just part of the new normal about which little can be done.
Almost the entire world over, the ruling class response is to rely almost exclusively on the vaccines, from which their friends in the pharmaceutical industry will make billions of dollars, to put an end to the worst of it. Yet the rich countries have bought up the lion’s share, meaning that the virus will continue to devastate poor countries. And, as we are seeing with the Delta variant, relatively high adult vaccination rates do not create herd immunity. In Britain, for example, 89 percent of people over the age of 16 have received a first dose and 80 percent are fully vaccinated. Yet more than 8,000 people are currently hospitalised and the average daily number of COVID deaths is more than 130, which would translate into nearly 50,000 over the next year if they don’t bring it down.
“Every one of the victims who died on September 11 was the most important person on earth to somebody”, US President George W. Bush said several months after 9/11. Well, the same is true for every one of the millions who have died in this pandemic. Where are the calls to honour them by fighting like hell to prevent the next thousand casualties, let alone the next million or more?
An earlier version of this article was published in the print edition of Red Flag in February.