Capitalism on a Ventilator: The Impact of COVID-19 in China and the U.S

This book review of the crucial 2020 book Capitalism on a Ventilator, edited by Sara Flounders and Siu Hin Lee, first appeared on LA Progressive on 11 August 2021. It is written by Dee Knight. Reproduced with thanks.


As the Delta variant threatens to drag this country and the world back into the abyss of the pandemic, and while the danger of war between the U.S. and China intensifies, it may be good to take stock. Capitalism on a Ventilator can help: it compares the impact of COVID-19 in China and the U.S., in the words of “social justice activists discussing a global choice: cooperation vs. competition.

Capitalism on a Ventilator

Critics claim Ventilator is one-sided – heavily favoring the Chinese response to the virus over the chaotic disaster we’ve lived through in the U.S. In fact, the book re-balances the narrative, documenting major differences. Graphs and pictures tell much of the story: one graph illustrates the contrast in cases during the first 100 days of the pandemic. China’s rate stayed flat while U.S. cases went through the roof.

Another graph shows how Wall Street investments skyrocketed while virus cases exploded. Meanwhile in China, economic concerns were set aside to manage the crisis. Industrial plants abruptly switched from regular production to churn out protective gear, ambulances, ventilators, electrocardiograph monitors, respiratory humidification therapy machines and more. Responding to early infections in Wuhan, “from across China came 1,800 epidemiological teams… to do surveys of the population,” conducting demanding and dangerous door-to-door surveys. In the first month of the virus outbreak, health authorities inspected more than 10 million people in Wuhan: 99 percent of the population.

Capitalism on a Ventilator

The production of medical equipment surged. On January 28, China made fewer than 10,000 sets of PPE a day.

A month later production exceeded 200,000 per day. Test kit production mushroomed from 773,000 kits per day on February 1 to 1.7 million by February 25. By March 31 China was producing 4.26 million kits per day. Two massive hospitals were constructed in ten days to address the emergency in Wuhan, a city of 10 million.

The Chinese government announced the economic hit to the country was not going to define the response. The well-being of the people had to be dominant. Medical treatment for COVID-19 patients was guaranteed, free of cost. A medical insurance reimbursement policy said expenses for medicines and medical services to treat the virus would be completely covered: no patient would have to pay any money.

Capitalism on a Ventilator

The World Bank described China’s rollout of universal health coverage over the last 15 years as “unparalleled” ‒ “the largest expansion of insurance coverage in human history.” The number of hospital beds per 1,000 people (4.34) is significantly higher than the US (2.7), the OECD average (2.9), or the UK (2.5).

Meanwhile back home, while the U.S. population rose from 216 million people to 331 million since 1975, the total number of hospital beds declined from 1.5 million to 925,000. According to the Global Health Security Index, the United States ranks 175th out of 195 countries in access to health care. Two-thirds of U.S. bankruptcies are caused by medical bills. There are more than 30 million people without health insurance. In the first weeks of the pandemic, as more than 26 million people filed for unemployment benefits for the first time, five million of them lost their health insurance, adding millions more to the uninsured. And tens of millions of people who had health insurance could not afford care because of out-of-pocket costs they would have to pay before insurance benefits would begin.

Co-editor Lee Siu Hin says “the fundamental difference between the COVID-19 fights in China and the US is this: China is fighting for the people no matter the cost… On the other hand, U.S. leadership doesn’t care about the people; it cares only about saving the capitalist bottom line…” He adds that a person in the US has a 158 times higher chance of becoming infected and 122 times of being killed by the virus than a person living in China.

U.S. politicians were quick to call the coronavirus “China’s Chernobyl,” Lee says. But comparing the U.S. response to China’s, he says “COVID-19 is indeed the ‘U.S.’s Chernobyl’,” with the highest rate of infected people, the highest casualties, spiraling into economic collapse, and so on. Large portions of the emergency rescue money passed by Congress in spring 2020 found notable beneficiaries. Lee Siu Hin cites an Associated Press report that “as much as $273 million in PPP aid went to more than 100 companies owned or operated by major Trump donors.” The Ayn Rand Institute, dedicated to promoting hardcore capitalism, was approved for a loan of up to $1 million. NewsMax, a conservative website, was approved for a loan up to $5 million. Records show NewsMax CEO Christopher Ruddy donated $525,000 to political committees supporting Trump. (Even while losing the election, Trump continued to reel in hundreds of millions. Is there a connection?)

In March 2020, former U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo told the LA Times “The Chinese Communist Party poses a substantial threat to our health and way of life, as the Wuhan virus clearly has demonstrated.” Pompeo’s “way of life” was summed up by co-editor Sara Flounders: “The relentless drive to reap a profit from every type of human interaction now stands exposed as the greatest danger to the people of the planet.”

China started helping the people of the planet immediately. In March 2020 China was sending by air, rail and sea needed medical equipment to 89 countries around the world. This included test kits, facemasks, protective clothing, goggles, forehead thermometers, ventilators… and medical workers.

In the U.S., governors, mayors, charitable organizations, nonprofit and sister-city groups, as well as major health complexes – faced with inaction and confusion in Washington – made their own trade deals with Chinese corporations to get emergency shipments of supplies. FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) ordered 22 airlifts of supplies from China – but set up their distribution through profit-taking private sector networks. Meanwhile in the streets of cities across the U.S. during the pandemic, dozens of curfews were declared in many cities – backed up by the presence of local and state police and the National Guard. But they failed to deter people from exercising their right to stay in the streets to let their outraged voices be heard. Police killings and random violence in U.S. cities was in stark contrast to the restraint of unarmed Chinese police in Hong Kong during the same months.

U.S. pandemic aid abroad has been modest. A pledge of $62 million from the Agency for International Development was, according to Flounders, “less than what the Pentagon spends in an hour. The $746 billion annual Pentagon budget – much of which is a subsidy to oil and military corporations – consumes roughly $2 billion a day or $80 million an hour.”

Chinese medical teams, medicines and equipment arrived in Serbia with its first shipment of 16 tons. The EU had denied any assistance to Serbia, citing U.S.-imposed sanctions. Chinese aid also helped reduce the impact of U.S. sanctions in Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba. Likewise, emergency deliveries to each African country, and many in Europe, was a lifeline.

None of this got a word of thanks to China from the U.S. On the contrary. The U.S. “pivot to Asia” intensified. Now nuclear-armed carrier groups reinforce missiles that surround China on three sides. This is really nothing new. Right after World War 2, in the Korean war U.S. (and UN) troops pressed all the way to the border with China before being repelled by hundreds of thousands of Chinese opponents. There have been near-disastrous nuclear incidents over Taiwan in 1954, 1958, and now.

From 1835 to 1856 U.S. war ships participated in the Opium War against China – a combined effort led by Britain that imposed a century of humiliation on China. In 1855 the USS Powhatan and British allies seized 17 Chinese ships and blew up another off the coast of Hong Kong, killing hundreds of Chinese and taking thousands prisoner, calling them “pirates.” Similar aggressions occurred repeatedly in 1856, 1859, 1866, 1867 and 1868. In 1912, when Sun Yat Sen established the Republic of China, U.S. troops occupied Tientsin, right next to Beijing. They also occupied Shanghai in 1913, and Beiijing in 1922. They stayed until 1938. In 1927 Brigadier General Smedley Butler docked the 4th Marine Regiment at the Standard Oil terminal in Shanghai. Butler later admitted: “In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested.”

From 1958 to 1974 the CIA Tibetan Program trained thousands of Tibetan Chinese at Camp Hale in Colorado to wage war against the People’s Republic of China. The program included airdrops and support for a low intensity guerrilla war that was defeated by the Chinese forces. A similar effort has been underway in Xinjiang in recent years. Today the U.S. is reinforcing its military encirclement of China through a “Quad” alliance with Japan, Australia and India. Notably South Korean President Moon has declined to participate.

The book ends with resolutions from Veterans For Peace and the San Francisco Labor Council calling on the U.S. government to “reject escalation towards global conflict and instead pursue peace, non-intervention, and cooperation with China and the rest of the world. Veterans For Peace adds that “the homeland of the U.S. is not in any way threatened by anything happening in the South China Sea,” and denounces “the hundreds of U.S. military bases, packed with warships, nuclear weapons and bombers, that have been set up across the Pacific region,” and can be described as a “perfect noose” around China.

All this and more is documented in Capitalism on a Ventilator. Contributors in addition to co-editors Sara Flounders and Lee Siu Hin include a host of authorities:

  • Dr. Margaret Flowers, board member of Physicians for a National Health Program and co-director of the Popular Resistance website;
  • historian Vijay Prashad, director of the Tricontinental Institute; Carlos Martinez, co-founder of No New Cold War and editor of Invent-the-future.org;
  • Margaret Kimberley and Danny Haiphong of Black Agenda Report;
  • K.J. Noh, noted scholar on the geopolitics of the Asian continent who wrote a landmark March 2020 Monthly Review exposure of official U.S. lies echoed by the New York Times and the Council on Foreign Relations;
  • retired San Francisco judge Julie Tang, the former Hong Kong resident who exposed the fraud behind the U.S.-UK campaign for “democracy and human rights” in Hong Kong.

Sara Flounders is co-director of the International Action Center and a leader of the United National Anti-war Coalition.

Lee Siu Hin is national coordinator of the National Immigrant Solidarity Network, and also coordinator of the China-US Bi-National Activist Solidarity Network.

All of the contents of Capitalism on a Ventilator, including photos, graphics and a slideshow, are accessible online, as detailed in the ample “sources” index. This book is an example of a growing trend in which a book’s contents form a gateway to an endless web of information and analysis.

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