Nick J Fox

The media coverage of the Covid19 outbreak has addressed in detail the biological and epidemiological aspects of the virus. Less attention has been paid to the social, economic and political factors that have enabled the coronavirus to produce a pandemic contagion.

Recent research using materialist and more-than-human analysis has revealed the need to address issues such as anthropogenic climate change across the natural/social science divide, both to make sense of the phenomenon and to devise effective policies to counter it. The Covid-19 pandemic is another issue that requires such an approach. How otherwise are we to understand the material interactions between virus and human, or produce comprehensive policies adequate to address this challenge to our society? When explored through such a lens, it becomes clear that the microscopic bundle of genes and proteins that comprises the Covid19 particle only acquires its capacity to produce a pandemic via three aspects of a market economy: trade, cities and travel/transport.

According to Adam Smith, trade is both the outcome and the mediator of the division of labour that characterises post-industrial human societies. Trading established the market-place as a focus in many human settlements. It is perhaps thus unsurprising that a market is believed to have been the location of the first Covid-19 transmission from animal to human host.

If trade is the engine of a market economy, then the hothouse for economic development has been urbanisation. The concentration of human population within industrial and post-industrial towns and cities has ramped up both the production of goods and services, and the market for their consumption. Cities are capitalism’s machines for making money, but in epidemics and pandemics from the Great Plague to the present have also been the epicentres of contagion.

For a trading economy to grow, and hence sustain its capacity to make money, it also needs to continually seek out new markets.  For two millennia, trade routes have enabled goods to be sold at locations distant from their source of production. Over the past two centuries, modern transport infrastructure – from canals and railways to planes and container ships – has served this end, and enabled an exponential rise in movements of goods and bodies, first regionally, then nationally and now globally. But this globalisation of markets has also assured the means for a local outbreak of infection to rapidly disseminate itself, leading on occasions to epidemic or pandemic.

So we need to understand the Covid19 pandemic as both a biological and a socioeconomic phenomenon. The virus is but one part of a broad ‘assemblage’ of human and non-human elements that have established the conditions for epidemic diseases to pass rapidly throughout our species, from medieval plagues to ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic of 1918/19, SARS (2003) and now Covid19.

The pandemic-assemblage
There is a corollary to this. If humans, cities, transport infrastructure, physical marketplaces and a division of labour are all elements within a ‘market-assemblage’, adding a further component such as the coronaviral particle will radically alter this assemblage’s capacities. When a virus infects a cell within a human body, it subverts the cell’s genetic mechanisms, forcing it to produce new versions of the virus rather than its usual proteins and nucleic acids.   In the same way, we can understand what happened when a virus becomes part of the global market-assemblage: the normal functioning of global markets is subverted: in place of trade and profit, the subverted pandemic-assemblage produces contagion.

This happens every year with seasonal flu.  The difference is that Covid19 is 30 times more deadly and there is no vaccine to establish herd immunity.  The consequence?  What we see now happening: workers and consumers confined to their homes, the end to free movement across borders, runs on consumer good stocks, governments forced to support businesses and workers financially, and health and other public service infrastructure strained to breaking point. All as Covid-19 disperses itself worldwide from that starting point in a Wuhan market.

Policy to address two crises
This brings us to the second issue: policy developmentOur recent work on policy assessment has shown that without a full understanding of the factors involved in an issue, policies will be at best inadequate and ineffective, and at worst, counter-productive.  Only when all the variables are taken into account, can we develop a useable policy. Right now, what we are seeing is the frantic responses of governments to what have been considered as two distinct challenges: a public health/humanitarian crisis and a global economic (and possibly in time, geopolitical) crisis.  Politicians have been attempting to develop policies to address both, as if they were separate issues.

However, the earlier analysis of the pandemic makes it clear that these crises are part and parcel of the same phenomenon: the subversion of the global market-assemblage into a Covid-replication assemblage.  A policy to assure the continuity of the market economy will exacerbate the public health crisis; another to protect humans from Covid infection will damage the economy.

So, for example the early ‘contain’ policies (quarantining potential carriers, as was undertaken in Australia and Japan, or an entire region as in Hubei province, China) aimed to sustain wider national and international market-economies, while exposing populations in these areas to infection.  The lockdowns on social interaction in European countries (as part of a ‘delay’ policy) attempt radically to limit new rates of infection that could overwhelm health services and create a humanitarian disaster, but severely constrain economic activity and consequently require massive government financial input to avoid the collapse of the capitalist economy.

The UK’s government policy of a flip-flop alternation between drastic lockdowns followed by a relaxation period for the coming year seems to be an effort to have their cake and eat it, sustaining economic viability while protecting the NHS from huge surges in severe cases of Covid infection.  An alternative assessment of this policy is that it inflicts huge damage to the social fabric, while long-term actually allowing the managed infection of citizens with a potentially life-threatening disease.

Unfortunately, only South Korea adopted mass testing and contact tracing: a policy capable of protecting both health (by isolating infected hosts) and the economy (by keeping disease-free workers active), with impressive results.

Re-engineering the economy
The materialist analysis of the coronavirus pandemic conducted here suggests that now that the Covid particle has become part of the global capitalist market-assemblage, there is no way to resolve both public health and economic crises in parallel.  The virus may eventually be dislodged by a vaccine, or when about 80 per cent of all humans have been infected.  But Covid19 is unlikely to be the last such agent to threaten humans, and the next one could be more deadly still.

The alternative is to re-engineer the social and economic relations of the economy.  It is unrealistic to imagine the wholesale abandonment of global capitalism any time soon, and it is unclear what might be put in its place.  But there are some measures that can mitigate the way a virus such as Covid19 can spread.  These include:

  • Greater regulation of markets locally and internationally, to address hotspots such as live animal markets.
  • More biosecurity measures to control regional, national and international trade, including better tracking of international traders and business travellers.
  • Fiscal measures to encourage localisation of production and consumption, rather than globalisation.
  • Mass testing and contact tracing if an outbreak of a virus occurs in a jurisdiction.
  • Funding of health services so they are run not as just-in-time enterprises with limited excess capacity, but with flexibility to absorb crises such as an epi/pandemic.
  • Establishing resilient support networks for old/vulnerable people if severe social distancing is required in future.

Capitalism is the elephant in the Covid19 isolation room.  Nationally and internationally we need to acknowledge that a market economy has provided the ideal conditions for the coronavirus pandemic.  Now we must act accordingly, to ensure a microscopic virus cannot highjack our social world again.


Nick J Fox is professor of sociology at the University of Huddersfield, and honorary professor of sociology at the University of Sheffield.