The originality of the economic and health crisis of Covid-19

Dora Longo Bahia. Escalpo Paulista, 2005 Acrylic on wall 210 x 240 cm (approx.)


The exit from the crisis does not depend on the improvement of the rate of profit. It depends on the retreat of the pandemic, that is, firstly on medical advances (tests and vaccines) and then on the effectiveness of government action

The purpose of this contribution is to emphasize, more strongly than is usually done, the absolute originality of the current crisis, namely, its contradictory duality. The causes of the Great Confinement (the Great Lockdown) – as it was called from the IMF’s “World Economic Outlook”, April 2020 – are endogenous to the relations between human society and nature within the scope of capitalism. However, as an economic crisis, it is an exogenous shock to the movement of capital accumulation and the contradictions that it traditionally generates. The exit from the crisis does not depend on the improvement of the rate of profit. It depends on the retreat of the pandemic, that is, firstly on medical advances (tests and vaccines) and then on the effectiveness of government action. The figure below illustrates two fundamental facts. First, the speed and magnitude of the drop in world GDP shown by the red line, which clearly translates the idea of ​​an abnormal shock, which has nothing to do with a usual economic downturn. Second, uncertainties about whether the pandemic will be contained or worsened, expressed by the dotted curve.

Figure 1. The March 2020 economic meltdown and long, uncertain recovery

Coronavirus: a pandemic proper to the Anthropocene era

An article titled “Covid-19, an Anthropocene disease” was published in May 2020 on the website of the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH) [1]. It retraces the history of diseases that emerged in the last 40 years, from the viral transmission of wild animal species to humans, which preceded the coronavirus. I quote substantial passages from it.

First, there is the AIDS pandemic:

“A close and tragic antecedent of Covid-19 was Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) caused by infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). This disease appeared in 1981 and, in 2018, it reached about 40 million people and caused more than 750.000 deaths. HIV viruses are the result of multiple transmissions between species of immunodeficiency viruses that naturally infect African primates. Most of these transfers likely resulted in viruses that spread to a limited extent in humans, until one such transmission – which involved an immunodeficiency virus from chimpanzees in southeastern Cameroon – gave rise to the main cause of the pandemic in humans. Transmission of a virus from a wild animal species to humans is not uncommon. In fact, a high proportion of human pathogens are zoonoses or are of zoonotic origin, before being transmitted only to humans. Since the emergence of AIDS, many other epidemic infectious diseases such as Ebola virus disease, SARS and MERS, to name just the most recent, have been caused by the transmission of viruses from wild animals to humans.

“These transmissions between animal species and from these to humans are not the result of chance. There is strong evidence that ecological changes have led to increased rates of diseases such as malaria, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, Nipah virus and Ebola virus disease in emerging countries. Human activity has been gradually transforming the Earth's natural habitats and ecosystems in a disturbing way, drastically modifying the patterns and mechanisms of interaction between species and facilitating the transmission of infectious diseases between animal species and humans”.

The study quotes Chinese researcher PJ Li [2] who explains that: “For years, attempts by the Chinese government to regulate the bushmeat trade have been thwarted by a powerful LOBBY trade, whose profits depend on maintaining access to the consumption of these animals by a predominantly wealthy sector of Chinese society. To complete the causal chain, scientists' warnings about the potentially catastrophic effects of the possible onset of infectious diseases have rarely been heeded. In the case of the previous SARS outbreak, the bat trade is thought to have brought infected animals into contact with susceptible amplifying hosts such as Paguma larvate(a type of wild cat), at some link in the faunal food chain, starting a cycle in which people were then infected. Li reports that two Chinese SARS experts, Zhong Nanshan and Guan Yi, had warned of the possibility of a pandemic originating in wild meat markets in China and the need to ban such trade practices.”

Underlying the Anthropocene is the Capitalocene

In the study by the NIH researchers, there is something quite unexpected coming from natural science scientists: the assertion that we must go back to the origin of these processes and clearly define what is their driving force, namely: “Consumption of fossil fuels for energy, deforestation and conversion of natural habitats to agricultural land or livestock. These are among the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions and, at the same time, facilitate the emergence of new zoonoses with pandemic potential, such as SARS-CoV-2. The extraction of oil and wood in areas of primary forest involves opening routes in areas of difficult access, encouraging contact between humans and wildlife and facilitating the hunting and consumption of wild meat. The advance of the agricultural frontier to meet current food systems increases the frequency of ecotones, key areas in the emergence of infectious diseases. At the same time, habitat destruction brought about by these activities is the main cause of biodiversity loss, which is also associated with the emergence of infectious diseases.”

Underlying the Anthropocene is therefore the so-called Capitalocene. For Jason Moore, to whom this notion is owed, the Capitalocene is “a way of organizing nature making it at the same time something external to man and something 'cheap', in the double sense that this term has in English: what is cheap, but also the verb 'cheapen' which means to belittle, depreciate, degrade” [3]. The dominant position of Anthropocene theorists is to locate the beginning of this new geological era in the years 1830-1850, the time of the full development of the industrial revolution and the beginning of its internationalization. Jason Moore claims, however, that the turn is much earlier, going back to the plantation economy and a relationship of exploitation of natural resources that goes hand in hand with the massive use of slave labor. The Anthropocene, which should be called the Capitalocene, can “be symbolically dated to 1492. CO2 emissions intensified from the 4th century onwards, but the capitalist way of dealing with nature dates back much earlier” [XNUMX].

New pandemics must hit the planet if deforestation and biodiversity loss continue at their current catastrophic pace. This is the conclusion of reports presented at the end of September to the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity under the theme “Urgent Action on Biodiversity for Sustainable Development” [5]. A US study found that the US currently “invests relatively little in preventing deforestation and regulating the wildlife trade, despite well-conducted research demonstrating a high return on investment in limiting zoonoses, in addition to many other benefits. As public spending on COVID-19 continues to rise, our analysis suggests that the costs associated with these prevention efforts would be significantly less than the economic and mortality costs resulting from responding to these pathogens once they first appear.” [6].

The current world situation and the case of China

Today we are not facing future preventive measures, but a state of affairs in which the resumption of production, consumption and growth is conditioned in the first place by the decline of the pandemic, that is, until we see the commercialization of an effective vaccine and without serious side effects – and, until then, by the effectiveness of measures taken by each government to contain the spread of Covid-19 and allow workers to return to their workplaces. This is the case of China: the starting point of the pandemic, it is also the country where it was most successfully fought (except Taiwan and South Korea). While large countries, including the United States, are still in the first phase of the spread of the pandemic, and others, including important European countries, are facing a new wave that places them along the dotted line in Figure 1, China has recovered growth rates which, according to the OECD, will make it the only economy to end 2020 with a positive annual rate [7].

Figure 2. China, a spectacular recovery

This recovery is due to the success of the health campaign, which deserves to be examined. An article published by an organization defining itself as the American extreme left (very favorable to the Cuban regime and the Venezuelan regime) highlights important political and social factors. He completely ignores the totalitarian characteristics of the Chinese regime (eg the massive repression against the Uighurs), as well as the disregard by the authorities of the warnings about the possible pandemic made by doctors from the end of November 2019. in addition to these aspects with pro-Chinese propagandist characteristics, the type of measures taken to face a pandemic in a country with the demographic dimension of China [8]: “The virus first appeared in Wuhan at the end of December 2019 [9] . In two to three weeks, it quickly spread through the city like wildfire, catching everyone off guard. On January 23, the Chinese government ordered a total lockdown of Wuhan, a city of 11 million people. It was the biggest in history. Two days later, the entire province of Hubei, which comprises a total of 45 million people, was shut down for the next three months in order to completely stop the spread of the virus. The confinement order prohibited all inhabitants from leaving their homes for the next three months. About 580.000 volunteers from rural areas and other cities were mobilized to help people and provide for their needs. As no one could go out shopping, the neighborhood councils [which are certainly confused with the surveillance councils linked to the party] organized these volunteers, who became “problem solvers” for day-to-day tasks. They helped the elderly, organized food deliveries and commuted daily to deliver medicine to families.

Hours after the [strict and prolonged] confinement began, volunteer doctors from across the country began to arrive to assist Wuhan and Hubei. 35.000 arrived between late January and April in Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic. Furthermore, in 10 days, 12.000 workers arrived to build two special field hospitals, Huoshenshan and Leishenshan, with the capacity to treat thousands of Covid-19 patients. The Chinese army has also sent 340 military medical teams (several thousand doctors) as well as logistics teams to Wuhan and Hubei. Many were military medical students in their twenties.

Logistical support was very important for the success in combating the virus. In early January, when the epidemic began, China quickly ran out of personal protective equipment (PPE). Daily PPE needs in Wuhan included 60.000 protective suits, 125.000 medical masks and 25.000 goggles. However, China typically only produces 30.000 protective suits a day. The government acted quickly, most notably by mobilizing state-owned companies across the country to increase existing PPE production and build new production lines. Within weeks, in mid-February, the PPE crisis was over. Every member of the medical team had protective suits. In addition, in order to strengthen testing and early detection capacity, the government quickly mobilized and coordinated the establishment of public and private testing facilities with test kits. So a genetics and testing company called BGI built in a few days the Huo-Yan laboratory, a fully functional Covid-19 testing center in Wuhan, capable of serving tens of thousands of people.”

Outstanding features of the crisis from an economic point of view

Let's go back for a moment to the June IMF report. It reads that the most specific and notable feature of the Great Lockdown is that “the slowdown is profound and felt simultaneously across the world” [10]. The English term is more expressive: “a synchronized, deep downturn”. For those comparing it to the Great Depression in the 1930s, which followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929, it should be noted that no such synchronization occurred. Great Britain and Germany (second industrial power at the time) were only affected in 1931. The crisis of the 1930s was not global in the sense of the current crisis, which develops within the context of the globalization of capital in the XNUMXst century. The USSR was on the margins of the world market, as was China, which was facing a long civil war. Argentina and Brazil managed to protect themselves with trade barriers and reduce their dependence on exports.

In 2020, the very strong synchronization shown in Figure 1 is due to the fact that in a few weeks the confinement was applied in all countries of the world with immediate effects on trade (goods and services). "The fact that the downturn is happening around the world at the same time has magnified the economic turmoil in every country."

The IMF observes that “in most recessions, consumers draw on their savings or rely on social safety nets and family support to cope with their spending; thus, consumption suffers relatively less than investment. However, this time, service production and consumption also dropped significantly. This situation is the result of a unique combination of factors: physical distancing; containment measures that needed to be implemented to slow transmission and allow health systems to deal with the growing number of cases; significant revenue losses; and erosion of consumer confidence”.

Another characteristic of the crisis with very serious consequences is the very uneven distribution of unemployment. “Low-skilled workers who cannot work from home were hardest hit by the labor market shock. It seems that men and women were not affected in the same way by the drop in income: in the poorest sections of the population in some countries, women suffer more from the crisis than men. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that nearly 80% of the world's two billion informal sector workers have been severely affected by the crisis”.

The crisis hit all countries, however, unlike advanced countries, emerging countries face several types of shocks simultaneously. First, the health crisis, which sometimes highlights deficiencies in the health system, and whose severity depends in part on its degree of development. Second, economic shocks, depending on the size of the country and, in particular, its dependence on external demand for its growth. A very strong dependence on a single sector of activity can weaken the country. Third, there is room for maneuver in terms of economic policies – monetary and budgetary – for each country. Finally, the political and social situation can have a significant impact on a country's ability to weather the crisis.

A floating financial sector, safe from unconditional support from central banks

A senior IMF secretariat official posted a study on the organization's blog in June. One of her conclusions is “a marked divergence between financial markets and the real economy: financial indicators point to stronger prospects for recovery than those suggested by real activity. Despite a recent correction, the S&P 500 has recovered most of its losses since the beginning of the crisis; the FTSE index for emerging countries and Africa improved significantly; the Ibovespa rose significantly, despite the recent increase in infection rates in Brazil; portfolio investment flows to emerging and developing countries have stabilized” [11]. The correction mentioned by the author was short-lived. In July, prices rose again. In mid-September, the index dropped again due to investor concerns about the outbreak of the pandemic in the United States and its worsening in Europe, as well as tensions between the United States and China. Some bonds are incredibly overvalued. Such is the case with Tesla, whose revenue grew 5% and its cash flow just over 20%, but whose share price rose 750%. However, the company offers more or less the same products as a year ago, has the same management and operates in the same market. No wonder financial commentators are talking about an extremely dangerous time [12].

Figure 3. S&P 500 Index (March 2019 to September 25, 2020)

It is important to return to the stock market panic issue in March. On February 12, 2020, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) reached an all-time high of 29.551 points. Then investors suddenly opened their eyes to the pandemic. On March 9th, the DJIA dropped over 2.000 points and kept falling, down to 18.321 on March 23rd. The slump was halted by unprecedented intervention by the Federal Reserve (Fed), which rushed to the aid of financial investors. As the New York stock market plummeted with the spread of the pandemic, it moved quickly to provide liquidity to markets, increasing its balance sheet liabilities by 12,4% in the week of March 26 alone, topping the sum of US $5 trillion for the first time in its history. Starting in May, while unemployment in the United States soared week after week, the DJIA index did the same. This mismatch is set to continue, as is the Fed's support for markets. The body's president, Jerome Powell, acknowledged in mid-May that the prospects for jobs were serious, worrying even the The Economist, [13] but insisted that the Fed would continue to take extraordinary measures to support the financial sector. Hence the growing distance between the situation of workers and the middle classes and that of the wealthier class holding shares, not to mention that of the 1% and even 0,1% stratum.

The divergence between stock prices and the “real economy” must be looked at from a second angle. The sharp decline in production and the very high level of unemployment mean that the amount of surplus value appropriated by industrial groups, even increasing pressure on their subcontractors, is low. As Tesla's example shows, stock markets have severed all ties to the real economy and are living in a bubble. Today its functioning is paroxysmal, in the characterization made by Rudolf Hilferding:

“The purchase and sale of interest-bearing securities is a mere change in the private division of property, without any influence on production or realization of profit (as is the case in the transaction of commodities). Gains or losses from speculation, therefore, arise only from differences in the valuation of interest-bearing securities at any given time. They are not profit, a share in the surplus value, but only arise from differences in the valuation of that part of the surplus value which returns to the holders of the shares, differences which, we shall see, are not caused by changes in the profit actually realized. They are just differential gains. While the capitalist class as such appropriates, without equivalent, a part of the labor of the proletariat and obtains its profit in this way, the speculators gain only from each other. The loss of some is the gain of others. Les affaires, c'est l'argent des autres. Speculation consists of exploiting price variations.” [14]

The need for each investment fund manager to obtain differential gains, however small, at the expense of competitors, is even more imperative as interest rates are very low. This fragility results from the accumulation, over thirty years, of interest-bearing capital and dividends [15] to which was added the central bank's policy of supporting banks.

Figure 4: Loan rates and rates on funds deposited with banks in the eurozone

“Learning to live with the virus” in an ultra-polarized, class-divided society

The OECD urges its member countries to get used to living under the threat of the pandemic. The cover of the September report reads that “restoring confidence will be crucial to the successful recovery of economies and, for that, we must learn to live safely with the virus”. Two ideas, therefore, restore confidence and “safe with the virus”. It could mean several things. Let's look at the vaccine issue first. Vaccines that are candidates for licensing are being tested. Phase 1 trials are primarily aimed at verifying the safety of the vaccine, determining dosages and identifying potential side effects in a small number of people. Phase 2 trials explore safety further and begin to study effectiveness in larger groups of people. The final stage, phase 3 trials, which few vaccines reach, involve thousands or tens of thousands of people. They aim to confirm the effectiveness of the vaccine and identify rare side effects that only appear in large groups. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies vaccines in development at different stages of clinical trials. In June, there were seven of them for Covid-19 in phase 3 (five Chinese, one American and one Russian), two in phase 2/3 (one British and one German), thirteen in phase 2 and ten in phase 1 [16 ] Since then, about twenty others have entered phase 1, including that of the Institut Pasteur. Furthermore, between the first family of vaccines and subsequent ones, there is usually an increasing degree of efficacy.

To contain the pandemic globally, we're going to need one or more vaccines, but we're also going to need them in very, very large quantities. It will literally take billions of doses to protect enough people around the world to stop the virus. Even if one or more vaccines in development prove to be safe and effective, no manufacturer will be able to produce more than a few hundred million doses, at least initially. The ideal solution would be for governments to pool their resources to increase the chances of an effective vaccine. “Gone” for vaccines, but it can still be done for production, at least among some countries. Associations such as the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX Facility) and the Gavi Covax Advance Market Commitment (AMC) were created to achieve this. The European Commission also joined [17].

For long months, a safe everyday life with the virus will therefore depend on the measures taken by each government. The results are not very encouraging. The headline of the September 26 issue of the weekly The Economist, says “Why are so many governments getting it wrong? [in the face of Covid-19]”. Here again I quote a long passage: “The return to general confinement, as in Israel, is costly and unsustainable. Countries such as Germany, South Korea and Taiwan have used very accurate testing and tracing to determine specific places of heavy spread. Germany identified slaughterhouses, South Korea contained outbreaks of the virus in bars and churches. If testing is slow, as in France, it will fail. If contact tracing is unreliable (as it is in Israel, where the work is done by the intelligence services), people will escape detection. Governments must reach compromises that make the most economic and social sense. Masks are cheap, convenient, and they work. Opening schools should be a priority, but opening noisy and relaxed places, such as bars, is not. Governments like Britain's, whose mandates change all the time and are circumvented with impunity by their own officials, will have little success. Those that, like British Columbia (Canada), define the principles and urge individuals, schools and workplaces to develop their own plans, will be able to sustain the effort for months to come. When Covid-19 broke out, governments were taken by surprise and raised the alarm. Today they don't have the same excuse. In the race for normality, Spain let its guard down. Tests in Britain are not working, although cases of contamination have increased since July. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, once the most respected public health organizations in the world, has fallen victim to mistakes, misdirection and presidential defamation. Israeli leaders have fallen victim to their pride and infighting. The pandemic is far from over. It will ease, but governments need to pull themselves together.”

Restore trust, but whose? the case of France

We arrive, then, at the restoration of trust advocated by the OECD: but whose? In the case of France, in the context of a general lack of trust – and even distrust of the government in conducting the fight against the pandemic – the unequivocal answer is: business confidence. Thus, a press release from the Presidency of the French Republic on October 1 informs us that at the “annual forum Bpifrance Inno Génération, one of the largest European meetings of businessmen, President Emmanuel Macron sent a message of confidence to businessmen, whose spirit of reconquest is essential to overcome the period in which we live” [18]. Companies will be supported on all fronts. This is the case of 5G, about which Macron declared in the Élysée Palace, before the entrepreneurs of the “French Tech” meeting, that France would “make the turn of 5G”, mocking those who preferred “the Amish model” and the “return to the oil lamp”.

This is the case of the « plan France relance » [France recovery plan], which aims to help companies, as shown in a long article published by the online magazine Basta [19]. In the much-vaunted part dealing with funds for the “ecological transition” there is not a word about public transport and reducing car traffic, but the electric car has full support from the government. To cite one of the many examples given in the article Basta, “companies achieved the implementation of a new long-term part-time activity scheme (APLD) for a total of 7 billion euros, which allows them to reduce the working time of their employees by up to 40%, in a period of 6 to 24 months, benefiting from public money to cover 85 to 100% of wages. Encouraged by the government to sign such agreements “massively”, companies could thus obtain a significant relaxation of the obligation to maintain subsidized jobs: in the end, the employer may not be required to reimburse the aid obtained if it cuts jobs. Suffice it to demonstrate that their business prospects have deteriorated”.

Before the pandemic, the census pointed to more than five million poor people. 5,5 million people already received occasional or regular food aid. That's a million more than ten years ago, beyond those off the record [20]. Thousands of precarious workers, students and the self-employed have joined there. Only 0,8% of the recovery plan is intended to support these people, whose situation has further deteriorated with the combination of health, economic and social effects of the pandemic. Only 800 million euros are planned to finance the increase in the back-to-school subsidy (100 euros more per child for low-income families) and the reduction to 1 euro in the price of meals for scholarship students. “Given that these expenses have already been incurred,” says the article by Basta, "not one more euro should be released to help populations in greater difficulty, while studies show that it would have been enough to use just 7% of the recovery plan (about 7 billion euros) to eradicate extreme poverty".

By way of conclusion

It is therefore not among working people, the unemployed and the very poor that the government seeks to restore confidence. In their case, the injunction to learn to “live with the virus”, combined with the “maintenance of order” methods implemented by successive governments, has a threat value. Power relations are favorable to capital to a degree perhaps never achieved before. It is to be feared that with the approach of winter, the Macron government is betting on the demoralization and discouragement of the workers, as well as on channeling the anger that eventually emerges through the union leadership. But it is not at all impossible for workers to revolt. For this reason, militants must not allow themselves to be dominated by these feelings, however difficult it may be, and also not fall into the traps of sterile internal conflicts.

*Francois Chesnais is a professor at the University of Paris XIII. Author, among other books, of financial globalization(Shaman).

Translation: Ilan Lapyda

Originally published in Cahiers & Revue La Breche



[1] Cristina O'Callaghan-Gordoe Josep M. Antó
See, in the same sense, the article by Alain Bihr of May 20,

[2] Li P. 2020. Untitled. South China Morning Post. [Google Scholar] e [Google Scholar]

[3] Jason Moore released an important book from his scholarly publications on the Internet: Capitalism in the Web of Life, Verso, 2015. In French, it is possible to read what he said in two interviews: Jason W. Moore, «Nous vivons l'effondrement du capitalisme», interview with Joseph Confavreux e Jade lindgaard, Mediapart, October 13 from 2015. Kamil Ahsan at






[9] In his narrative, «Un hiver à Wuhan», Vertical, September 2020, Alexandre Labruffe brings to light the first concerns at the hospital he investigated on December 31st. See also on the website Against China expert Frédéric Koller's article:


[11] Gita Gopinath, Le Grand Confinement gives a worldwide perspective,


[13] A dangerous gap. The markets versus the real economy, The Economist,, May 5, 2020.

[14] Rudolf Hilferding, Financial capital, 1910, French translation, Les Editions de Minuit, 1970, p. 200. Italics are from the original.

[The French of the italics is in the original in German – NT]

[15] I refer to my long article from April 2019:




[19] See also Michel Husson:



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