[News] Either Socialism Will Defeat the Louse or the Louse Will Defeat Socialism

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Thu Apr 23 11:06:37 EDT 2020


https://www.thetricontinental.org/newsletterissue/17-2020-socialism-and-coronavirus/?utm_source=Tricontinental+subscribers+single+list&utm_campaign=4bd499cc9d-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_04_21_04_52&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_bb06a786c7-4bd499cc9d-190726266
Either
Socialism Will Defeat the Louse or the Louse Will Defeat Socialism: The
Seventeenth Newsletter (2020).
April 23, 2020
------------------------------

Español
<https://www.thetricontinental.org/es/newsletterissue/17-2020-socialismo-y-coronavirus/>

Dear Friends,

Greetings from the desk of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research
<http://thetricontinental.org/>.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says
<https://blogs.imf.org/2020/04/14/the-great-lockdown-worst-economic-downturn-since-the-great-depression/>
that the Great Lockdown, which has no end date, could very well lead to a
loss of $9 trillion to global Gross Domestic Product over the entirety of
2020 and 2021; this number is greater than the combined economies of Japan
and Germany. This scenario, the Fund’s managing director Kristalina
Georgieva admits <https://www.bbc.com/news/business-52326853>, ‘may
actually be a more optimistic picture than reality produces’.

There are calls
<https://www.ft.com/content/258308f6-6e94-11ea-89df-41bea055720b> within
Europe for the mutualisation of debt, there are calls
<https://www.ft.com/content/8f76a4c6-7d7a-11ea-82f6-150830b3b99a> on the
global stage for debt moratoriums, and there are calls
<https://cepr.net/press-release/g20-should-call-for-imf-to-issue-3-trillion-sdrs-cepr-economists-say/>
for the IMF to issue trillions of dollars of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs).
But old habits do not die. Germany and the Netherlands do not want
<https://www.ft.com/content/d19dc7a6-c33b-4931-9a7e-4a74674da29a> to bail
out the southern European economies, while the US Treasury
<https://www.ft.com/content/9cb75566-bfd2-4f25-81f7-55780ebdaa3d> and the
creditors <https://www.ft.com/content/4b9266ad-df46-454c-b31f-40b6b7c70fbb>
are not keen on debt relief or the issuance of SDRs. In fact, in the midst
of a catastrophic pandemic, the United States government has decided
<https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-press-briefing/>
to withhold its financial contribution to the World Health Organisation
(WHO).

There are now over 2 million people infected by SARS-CoV-2 across the
world, with deaths increasing, a general sense of gloom falling like heavy
winter snow on our human capacity for optimism.

But then there are sparks of hope, mainly coming from parts of the world
committed to socialism. At the end of January, when most of the world was
cavalier about the news from Wuhan (China), Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyễn
Xuân Phúc assembled a team and began to create measures to tackle the
spread of the virus. ‘Fighting the epidemic is fighting the enemy’, he said
<https://www.ft.com/content/0cc3c956-6cb2-11ea-89df-41bea055720b> at that
time. Vietnam’s government began
<http://www.ipsnews.net/2020/04/vietnam-winning-new-war-invisible-enemy/>
to trace those who might be infected, test their contacts, quarantine
anyone who interacted with them, and bring in the entire medical
establishment – including retired doctors and nurses – to deal with the
emergency. Vietnam’s Military Medical Academy and Viet A Corporation
developed a low-cost test kit based on WHO guidelines, which allowed the
country to begin testing people with symptoms. Crucially, the government
repeatedly cautioned the population against xenophobia. A clever campaign
for public information by Vietnam’s National Institute of Occupational
Safety and Health about the virus and about basic hygiene included a song
and video, which then spawned numerous imitators.

Ghen Cô Vy, February 2020.

Until now, there have been no deaths from COVID-19 in Vietnam.

Last week, Vietnam shipped
<https://www.vietnam-briefing.com/news/vietnam-business-operations-and-the-coronavirus-updates.html/>
450,000 protective suits to the United States and 750,000 masks to France,
Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Within
living memory, the United States, with assistance from its European allies,
dropped seven and a half million tonnes of explosives, including chemical
weapons (napalm and Agent Orange), which devastated Vietnam’s society and
poisoned its agricultural land for generations; this is 100 times greater
than the power of the atom bombs that the US dropped on Japan. Yet, it is
Vietnam whose government and people have used science and public action to
tackle the virus and who sent – in solidarity – equipment to the United
States, where the absence of science and public actions has paralysed
society.

[image: Vladimir Lebedev, Yesterday and Today, 1928.]

Vladimir Lebedev, Yesterday and Today, 1928.

A hundred years ago, in 1918-19, an influenza pandemic swept the world,
traveling on ships carrying troops to and from the battlefields of Europe
in the throes of World War I. At least fifty million people were felled by
what was erroneously called the Spanish Flu (the virus was first detected
in Kansas, USA in March 1918). This influenza followed another pandemic –
in 1889-90 – whose swift diffusion has been blamed on the rapid movement of
humans by steam transportation by sea and land. While the 1889-90 influenza
mainly killed children and the elderly, the influenza of 1918-19 also
killed young adults for reasons that are still not fully explained.

Troops, who, in the words of the poet Isaac Rosenberg, ‘Drained the wild
honey of their youth’ in the mud, lice, and mustard gas of the ghastly
trenches now had to confront the infectious flu at home. As the war ended,
the belligerent countries set up the League of Nations, which created the
Typhus Commission, quickly renamed the Epidemics Commission. Disease was
the close cousin of war, with a volt of diseases – such as typhus, typhoid,
dysentery, smallpox, cholera, and influenza – aflame amongst the
demobilised soldiers. The Epidemics Commission visited Poland, where it
recommended the establishment of a cordon sanitaire to prevent the diseases
from spreading further and worked with the government to create emergency
hospitals and clinics. It was this Commission that would be folded into the
Health Organisation of the League, and – after World War II – the World
Health Organization (WHO).

The young Soviet Republic, established after the October Revolution of
1917, faced the wrath of what was known as *ispanskaya bolezn*, or the
‘Spanish Disease’. By late 1918, the Soviets saw 150 cases per week,
although it was not as much of a problem as typhus, which brought 1000
cases per week to the hospitals. It was because of typhus – caused by lice
– that Lenin said, ‘Either socialism will defeat the louse, or the louse
will defeat socialism’. The young Soviet Republic inherited a broken
medical system and a population in poverty and ill health; civil war,
disease, and famine threatened the total collapse of society. It was in
light of this that the Soviets hastily acted
<https://peoplesdemocracy.in/2020/0419_pd/remembering-lenin> in several
keyways:

*Create a commissariat for public health*. On 21 July 1918, the Soviet
Republic centralised the various health agencies and put Nikolai Semashko
in charge; this was the first such institution in the world (by comparison,
the US did not create a Department of Health till 1953). The Commissariat
was charged with ensuring that health care was a right and not a privilege;
therefore, medical care had to be free.

*Expand and democratise the health sector*. The Soviet Republic hastily
built hospitals and polyclinics, trained doctors and public health experts,
and expanded medical schools and bacteriological institutes. Dr. E. P.
Pervukhin, Commissar of Public Health of the Petrograd Commune, said in
1920, ‘New factories for medicines have been erected, and great stocks have
been confiscated from the speculators in medicines’. The profit motive was
removed from the medical sector.

[image: Lithograph to illustrate the distribution of the Soviet budget,
1930.]

Lithograph to illustrate the distribution of the Soviet budget, 1930.

*Mobilise the population*. Health care could not be left in the hands of
the doctors and nurses alone; Semashko made the case for the mobilisation
of workers and peasants into the struggle to build a healthy society. The
Workers’ Committees to Combat Epidemics were established in 1918 in both
cities and villages; the representatives of these Committees – workers and
peasants themselves – communicated scientific information about health and
sanitation, ensured that the public baths (*banyas*) were clean, and
monitored their communities to ensure that any sign of disease would lead
to professional medical care. In 1920, Semashko wrote, ‘We may say without
exaggeration that the epidemics of typhus and cholera were stopped chiefly
by the assistance of the workers’ and peasants’ committees’. Public action
was an integral part of Soviet health care.

*Strengthen preventive measures*. The Soviet public health officials
believed that more resources had to go towards prevention, whether towards
public health instruction or towards the improvement of the living
conditions of the workers and the peasants. Dr. Pervukhin told a Norwegian
journalist in 1920 that in the Soviet Republic, ‘all dwellings are
nationalised, so no one any longer lives in the surroundings so dangerous
to health which many had to put up with under the old regime. By means of
our grain monopoly, foodstuffs are guaranteed first of all to the sick and
weak’. Better conditions of life and more frequent medical attention would
be able to stop the spread of disease.

No wonder, then, as Dr. Pervukhin said, that ‘We overcame the Spanish
influenza better than the western world did’. Reading these texts shines a
familiar light on the way that Vietnam and Kerala, China and Cuba are
tackling the coronavirus pandemic today; it underlines the gap between the
socialist order and the capitalist order, one with a disposition to put
people before profit and the other lashed to the mast of profit. Reading
Jessica Lussenhop’s magnificent story
<https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52311877> about how the
Smithfield pork plant in South Dakota (USA) refused to shut down when
multiple cases of COVID-19 broke out along their production line, instead
pressuring workers who had little choice but to keep coming to work, tells
you something about the compulsions of the capitalist order in the face of
a pandemic. Tim, one of the Smithfield workers, said he had to keep working
because ‘I got four kids to take care of. That income is what provides a
roof over my head’, COVID-19 or not.

Wednesday, 22 April, was the 150th anniversary of Lenin’s birthday.
Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, along with three publishing
houses (LeftWord Books in India, Expressão Popular in Brazil, Batalla de
Ideas in Argentina) released a free book online
<https://www.thetricontinental.org/books-lenin150/> to commemorate the
birthday. The book, available in English, Portuguese, and Spanish, includes
Lenin’s 1913 essay on Marx, Mayakovsky’s 1924 epic poem about Lenin, and a
short essay I wrote about Lenin’s theory and praxis.

On 24 March, the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o wrote a poem called ‘Dawn
of Darkness’; it was written in response to his neighbour Janet DiVinceno
and offerings by Mukoma wa Ngugi (Cornell University) and Naveen
Kishore (Seagull
Books <https://www.seagullbooks.org/>, Kolkata, India). A few days later,
he shared the poem, a gift for all of us.

I know, I know,
It threatens the common gestures of human bonding
The handshake,
The hug
The shoulders we give each other to cry on
The neighbourliness we take for granted
So much that we often beat our breasts
Crowing about rugged individualism,
Disdaining nature, pissing poison on it even, while
Claiming that property has all the legal rights of personhood
Murmuring gratitude for our shares in the gods of capital.

Oh, how now I wish I could write poetry in English,
Or any and every language you speak
So, I can share with you, words that
Wanjikũ, my Gĩkũyũ mother, used to tell me:
*G**ũ**tir**ĩ* *ũ**tuk**ũ* *ũ**tak**ĩ**a:*
No night is so Dark that,
It will not end in Dawn,
Or simply put,
Every night ends with dawn.
*G**ũ**tir**ĩ* *ũ**tuk**ũ* *ũ**tak**ĩ**a.*

This darkness too will pass away
We shall meet again and again
And talk about Darkness and Dawn
Sing and laugh maybe even hug
Nature and nurture locked in a green embrace
Celebrating every pulsation of a common being
Rediscovered and cherished for real
In the light of the Darkness and the new Dawn.

This darkness too will pass away. The light that welcomes us will not be,
as Ngugi writes, the old light, but a new dawn.

Warmly, Vijay.
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