Covid from a Class Perspective: Is There No Alternative?

May 17, 2020

By Ujwal Punyark

“Capitalist rule cannot allow itself the pleasure of creating epidemic diseases among the working class with impunity; the consequences fall back on it and the angel of death rages in its ranks as ruthlessly as in the ranks of the workers.” – Friedrich Engels [1]


It is now more than a month and a half since India was locked down. Across the country, restrictions on mobility and suspension of work to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus has distressed countless people. Today, most families live on strained means, goods and services are in short supply, unemployment is rampant and industries lie in ruin.

People bear these restrictions and deprivations in the hope that the lockdown will soon be lifted and they can return to work. But for 12.2 crore people [2], largely wage labourers alongside small traders and owners of small businesses, most of whom have lost jobs, savings and their enterprises, there is no such hope left [3]. 

While the country’s entire population has been indiscriminately locked down, all by no means are in the same boat. The comprador big bourgeoisie [4], landlords, the upper sections of the petit bourgeoisie and rich peasantry, in essence the bulk of the affluent classes, bolstered by substantial wealth and savings have ensconced themselves in spacious homes, stocked with food and other supplies barring a few deprivations.

In fact, consumption patterns show a steady shift from purchase of staples to packaged goods [5]. This section, a small fraction of the population, are handling the lockdown with relative ease. Some among them, particularly those employed in the IT and tech industry, work-from-home and continue to earn an income. For these privileged few, the lockdown restrictions have in fact curbed some conspicuous consumption on luxury goods and are likely to result in further savings.

But for the vast majority of the people, workers and peasants, the lockdown has been disastrous to the extent that the threat of starvation supersedes that of infection. Lack of government relief and inadequacy of private relief coupled with a loss of income has pushed countless people into abject poverty. Nonetheless, the popular opinion deems the lockdown as necessary to curbing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, that “there is no alternative”.

Was there no alternative to a lockdown?

Could the spread of the COVID-19 virus be contained without resorting to the world’s largest and most severe lockdown [6]? A glance at the measures taken by countries across the world points to the affirmative.

Opting for rigorous testing, contact tracing and isolating infected persons to curb the spread of COVID-19, South Korea has tackled the pandemic with minimal impact on the vast majority of the people [7]. Despite being one of the worst affected countries during the initial stages of the outbreak, these measures have proven to be remarkably successful.

Sweden has avoided draconian restrictions and urged social-distancing while strengthening their health care system, albeit with less success. Even among the countries that chose to lockdown, gradations emerge with many imposing location-specific or activity-specific partial lockdowns.

China, considered the ground zero of the epidemic, locked down only some parts of the country, notably those most affected. This allowed for rapid mobilisation of resources from unaffected to affected areas which successfully stemmed the COVID tide allowing for China to restart its economy before most others and even lift the lockdown in Wuhan.

While Italy, France, Spain and UK among other European countries have imposed complete lockdowns, imperialist countries have comparatively robust social security, public health care systems and relatively affluent populations even among the working class.

For India, the sudden announcement of lockdown, lack of preparedness and practically non-existent social security has left the most vulnerable people in the lurch. Without income or aid, migrant workers living in towns and cities have preferred trudging back home to the countryside on foot, over railway tracks and along highways. Besides the horrors of travelling distances over a thousand kilometers without food, water or shelter often with families including children in tow, the reverse migration due to inadequate measures in cities have aided in spreading the COVID-19 virus to the largely unaffected countryside [8].

Furthermore, during the lockdown the state administration has been ill prepared, indifferent to the suffering of the vast majority of people and unable to meet demands for contact tracing, quarantine facilities, rigorous and wide testing and medical and personal protective equipment. If this is the Indian reality, it is imperative for us to ask why the lockdown method was deployed despite its blatant unsuitability. While parroting the alarm of imperialist countries and centralising control under the Disaster Management Act of 2005, a one-size-fits-all model has been imposed.

Why does COVID-19 demand such drastic measures?

Communicable diseases ravaging the population is not new to India. Of the one crore people affected by tuberculosis (TB) globally, India accounted for the largest share at 27% in 2018 [9]. Of these 27 lakh people, over 7 lakh were not diagnosed. India also accounts for the largest share of drug resistant variants of TB affecting 1.3 lakh people. Compared to 2017, the number of TB cases in India had marginally reduced by 50,000 while the death toll increased by 30,000 to stand at 4.4 lakh people in 2018.

Why then, doesn’t TB, often termed as India’s silent epidemic [10] which killed over 1.6 times more people in India in 2018 than the COVID-19 virus has killed across the globe till today, drum up the same hue and cry? Unlike the COVID-19 virus, the cure and treatment for TB is even known.

The deafening silence on TB is attributable to a single factor, the class character of the infected. The average TB patient is poor, malnourished and often residing in polluted and congested spaces. In India, the incidence of self-reported TB cases increases 5.5 times between the highest and lowest wealth quintiles, while globally, 95% of TB cases are from low and middle-income countries [11].

The strong links between poverty and TB has led researchers to state that poverty combatting programmes would be just as effective in treating TB as medicines and vaccines. In India, widespread poverty is accentuated by unaffordability of treatment, a consequence of an increasingly privatised health care system. Furthermore, private care leads to improper treatment with studies estimating only 35% of privately treated TB cases being properly handled.

This deadly mix of poverty and privatisation makes India the TB hotspot of the world. When generically classified diseases, the generic classification itself being a form of aetiological class discrimination, like diarrheal infections and lower respiratory infections are brought into the mix, alongside non-communicable ones like Ischemic Heart Disease, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and Intracerebral Hemorrhage, which killed over 11,000 people daily in 2017, the COVID-19 death toll pales in comparison and forces us to question the gravity of response.

In fact, studies have emerged stating that the overwhelming focus on COVID-19 is expected to increase deaths caused by HIV, malaria and TB in low and middle-income countries [12-20]. 

Unlike the above-mentioned ailments, the spread of COVID-19 is socio-economically non-discriminatory and capable of affecting the rich and the poor. In fact, the virus was brought to the Indian shores by persons returning from Europe and the Far-East, neither being regions of off-shore migration for the Indian working masses.

The vector, at least from the Indian perspective, comes from among the affluent and globally mobile who also constituted the largest section of the infected during the initial stages of the pandemic. The class nature of the infected has shaped the response in India. Internationally, too, this reasoning bears out as besides China, it is imperialist countries, notably the European countries, that are bearing the brunt of the spread of COVID-19.

In these countries too, the upper echelons of society brought the virus to their shore, constituted the largest section of the infected at the initial stages and determined the response to COVID-19. It is, therefore, the very real and imminent threat faced by the imperialist countries and the elite of various countries that have shaped the international and India’s response to the COVID-19 virus.

How did the Lockdown come about?

The response of the Indian State to the pandemic has been a disastrous mix of initial under-reaction compensated by dramatic over-reaction.

In late January 2020, the WHO declared COVID-19 as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern as cases were reported in countries neighbouring China. This prompted no reaction from the Indian State. Even as the virus commenced its westward march with cases emerging in Europe and the US, the Indian State remained nonchalant.

Alongside jingoistic celebrations arranged for the visit of the United States President Trump in February, the Indian State was occupied with crackdowns on protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Registry of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR). In the days that followed, besides some half-hearted attempts to screen at International Airports and self-quarantine, measures whose laxity, ease of circumvention and blatant violation saw wide coverage in the press, little was done regarding COVID-19.

In fact, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 virus a pandemic on 11 March 2020, the Indian State remained notably unfazed with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare declaring two days later that the country was not in the midst of a national health emergency [21].

Despite these assurances, urban affluent sections began to exhibit concern rapidly purchasing masks and hand sanitisers. Private social distancing measures and work from home orders were also sporadically introduced among the professional elite. 

It was the Kanika Kapoor incident that broke the ice. A singer with familial ties to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), skirted airport scrutiny with ease on 9 March 2020 on her return from London and proceeded to attend and host numerous social gatherings which were graced by important and vocal sections of the ruling elite including high functionaries of state, members of the BJP, heads of various business houses and members of the film fraternity [22-23].

When she was hospitalised on 19 March 2020 with symptoms of a COVID-19 infection, the real and imminent threat at long last dawned on the Indian State. On the very same day, the Prime Minister announced a one-day Janata Curfew to be observed on 22 March, which was then extended to the lockdown that is currently underway. 

Who does the Lockdown serve?

In towns and cities, workers, be they migrant or permanent residents, live in cramped, congested and unventilated dwellings which often lack sanitation facilities or running water. This negates any possibility of social distancing or preventive measures like regular hand washing. Confinement in such dwellings for long durations are bound to have disastrous physical and mental health implications.

Predominantly residing in rented accommodations, workers and their families are at the mercy of the landlords who threaten eviction when they are unable to pay rent.

Besides these aspects, low wages coupled with the privatisation of the most basic amenities and services renders workers unlikely to possess sufficient savings to withstand weeks or months, often even days without paid work. The paucity of their funds is exacerbated by the meagerness of relief measures undertaken by the State and non-governmental organisations.

Bureaucratic bumbling like linking relief with the possession of identity documents like ration cards has only intensified difficulties in accessing the near negligible relief. Consequently, the working masses in the towns and cities, malnourished and trapped in unhygienic and unhealthy dwellings, have been rendered only more susceptible to diseases and less likely to survive the onset of an infection, COVID-19 or otherwise.

Additionally, the lockdown exposes them to dire levels of starvation and general deprivation. Over and above all this, they also face regular hostility from the police who have been given unchecked powers to harass, humiliate and assault anyone on the streets, even those procuring essential provisions. Meanwhile, there are reports of BJP members using the lockdown to loot workers by overcharging for bus and train tickets coupled with news of anyone questioning their authority being brutally beaten [24].

Summing all these factors, it would not be a stretch to deem the lockdown as not only unsuitable to the working masses but also particularly dangerous for them, from a material perspective as well as in terms of health. 

The working masses in the countryside fare marginally better during the lockdown. Nonetheless, they too are beset by lack of income, food and other supplies. This is compounded by the fact that government orders in various states have prohibited the collection of the food grains left-over after harvest ostensibly to ensure all produced food grain reaches the market.

This not only deprives the countryside’s working masses a valuable source of nutrition but also restricts a time-honoured means by which the peasantry, especially the landless, have attempted to assert their autonomy from landlords and moneylenders.

While social-distancing norms are in place in towns and cities, caste-based discrimination has found a fillip in the countryside with the rural gentry demanding forced labour for harvesting the rabi crops. Usurious control over the peasantry has increased as evidenced by reports of moneylenders mortgaging ration cards against money for travel, medicines and other expenses during the lockdown [25].

Surveys estimate that large swathes of countryside are facing acute shortages of food, with near 70% of surveyed household reducing food items in meals and 50% reducing the number of meals per day [26]. Worst off are the landless and members of marginalised castes and communities as evidenced by news reports of Dalit children forced to eat frogs and grass to survive, the Dalit peasantry is also facing brutal assaults at the hands of upper caste landlords for refusing to work during the lockdown [27-30].

One of the biggest concerns is the breakdown in health services in the countryside. This has reduced vital immunisations for children, curtailed access to treatments for infectious and non-communicable diseases, restricted medical interventions performed on pregnant women and caused a decline in laboratory investigations among other issues. Such developments are likely to have long term impact on the population on the whole, effects of which are likely to unravel in the years to come.

Without money, mobility and medical care, small, marginal and landless peasants will find themselves pushed further into feudal networks of dependency built by landlords and moneylenders.  Nonetheless, for working masses in towns and cities, the countryside with its pre-capitalist relations, kinship networks and “bhai-chara” still represent a measure of salvation apparent from the countless reports of migrant workers braving all odds to undertake torturous and heart wrenching journeys homeward. 

As Krithika Srinvasan, a lecturer of Human Geography at the University of Edinburg wrote [31],

“a ‘non-discriminatory’ virus is very quickly evolving into a disease of the poor because of the response of lockdown and social distancing. Lockdown flattens the curve, but in the process skews the curve in terms of who is affected…… So, when the lockdown is finally lifted, COVID-19 will become firmly established as a disease of the poor, like so many other infectious diseases already are. This is how a pathogen becomes political. This is how health inequalities are created.”

And so, there is more than meets the eye when we hear the slogan “there is no alternative”. It is clear that alternatives are lacking only for the ruling classes. 

Ideology of “there is no alternative”

The slogan “there is no alternative” or TINA, is not a development of the COVID-19 virus. The slogan has been invoked by the ruling classes during crisis to forefront their interests as the only alternative available to the world at large.

Though historically attributed to Herbert Spencer, a leading ideologue of the racist theory of Social Darwinism [32], TINA was first popularised by Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As the Prime Minister of the Conservative Party led government in the UK, Margaret Thatcher employed TINA to advocate deregulation, privatisation, fiscal austerity (tax cuts, regressive modes of taxation and public expenditure cutbacks) and hardline monetarist polices.

Price hikes by Capital to offset the growing strength of workers and militant trade unions in the late 1960s, coupled with increases in commodity prices on account of the two oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 led to inflationary pressures and contributed to a crisis of profitability, notably in the UK and the US. While workers and trade unions were demonised and slandered as greedy, the underlying causes were inevitable failure of Keynesianism to resolve the inherent contradictions of imperialism and monopoly capitalism.

Despite objective conditions being favourable for revolutionary transformation, the decline in the strength of the revolutionary left and the social democratic stranglehold over the organised workers led to capital gaining the upper hand. Furthermore, the weakness of the subjective forces was exacerbated by Dengist revisionism in China, depriving proletarian forces of the support of a powerful socialist country and ally [33-35].

Consequently, the crisis was used to undertake a massive reorganisation in favour of capital and restore profitability. As David Harvey rightly remarked [36],

“Crisis are essential to the reproduction of capitalism. It is in the course of crises that the instabilities of capitalism are confronted, reshaped and re-engineered to create a new version of what capitalism is about. Much gets torn down and laid waste to make way for the new”.

And so, the post war social contract between Labour and Capital in imperialist countries was broken, trade unions were attacked and workers disciplined, Keynesian polices denounced, structural adjustments enacted in the semi and neo colonies, restrictions on the mobility of capital lifted and the welfare state was smashed under the banner of Neoliberalism. 

After nearly three decades of heightened exploitation and immiseration of the working class in the imperialist countries and intensified imperialist plunder of semi and neo colonial countries, facilitated by the increased penetration of finance capital, structural adjustments and the espousal of the polices of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, a new variant of TINA emerged in the slogan “Too Big to Fail”.

For this, the setting was the crowning crisis of neoliberalism in the 2008 financial crisis. Large sums of government money squeezed from the working masses over decades were funneled into big banks, private equity firms, insurance companies and other institutions of Finance Capital [37]. Though their speculative activities were directly responsible for the crisis, these institutions were bailed out based on the rationale that their collapse would doom capitalism and the capitalist world economy for whose functioning they were integral. 

To recoup these funds, the working masses were made to pay through a series of austerity measures that cut social security and public amenities, goods and services to the bone while taxes on corporations and the rich were simultaneously reduced. The world has yet to recover from this catastrophe and the measures instituted in its wake as evidenced in the consistent deceleration in global rates of growth of Gross Domestic Product, trade and more importantly for Capital, in corporate profits [38-41].

This has only intensified capitalist exploitation of the working masses in imperialist countries and imperialist plunder of working masses in the semi and neo colonial countries through a redoubling of the very same measures implemented at the onset of neoliberalism in 1980s. Unadmonished and consequently unrepentant, institutions of Finance Capital have continued their speculative activities leading to global debt levels surpassing that which prevailed before the 2008 financial crisis [42].

On the surface, the ruling classes continue to exclaim that “there is no alternative” to the old forms of rule. However, as warnings flash across the world prophesying a new crisis on the horizon, the ruling classes are subtly crafting a reorganisation replete with fascist tendencies evidenced in the emergence of Capital’s support to various reactionary governments in Brazil, India, Turkey and the US among other countries. 

Crisis of COVID-19

This was state of the world in which COVID-19 emerged, a world witnessing the establishment of authoritarian governments in various countries displaying fascist tendencies, a world where imperialist aggression and inter-imperialist rivalries have heightened, a world running headlong into a new crisis of capital, all characteristics emanating from the inherent contradictions of capitalism at the stage of imperialism.

Rooted in these contradictions, notably between capital`s exponential growth and environmental limit to its growth, COVID-19 is born. Capital’s endeavor to commodify each and everything on the planet, be it people or natural resources disturbs the balance between biotic and abiotic component of the world ecosystem, changes that create mutations in the biotic components as can be witnessed in the current pandemic.

The pandemic is the direct consequence of the commodification of agri-products while the economic geography of capitalism has created linkages, through the agri-product global supply chain, that have carried the COVID-19 virus from the place of its origin to other parts of the world. Capital is COVID-19’s vector. Capital has created a divide between the towns and the countryside, on the global and national level, and capital has created the system by which imperialist powers depend on the extraction and movement of resources from one place to the another [43]. This is the rift between capital and the soil. As Marx stated [44]

“Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centers, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of town population, on the one hand concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil.” 

The pandemic has in many ways laid bare the contradictions of the prevailing economic crisis on account of decades of neoliberalism. That some of the richest countries in the world are unable to provide testing and other medical facilities to the majority of their people to restrict the spread of the virus has indicated beyond doubt the rotten edifice of the privatised healthcare system.

That some of the most advanced countries in the world are unable to muster the manufacturing capabilities to produce the most basic components of testing equipment and protective medical gear, including masks and swabs, has put to shame all claims of technological advancement [45-46].

Those who believe that COVID-19’s exposure of these contradictions will put an end to neoliberalism and usher the establishment of a more humane form of capitalism are blinded by ahistorical delusions.

Never has Capital in any of its crisis induced reorganisations ever emerged to benefit the working masses unless those benefits were extracted at gunpoint. Allusions to the New Deal in the wake of the Great Depression or the post war contract following the Second Imperialist War forget the key factor that yielded concessions from Capital’s miserly grip.

In the former, it was the overthrow of Tsarism by the Russian Proletariat marching under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, a development which wrested a sixth of the world’s landmass from the grip of world capitalism, established the first socialist state and provided a shining example inspiring and motivating the proletariat and all revolutionary forces across the world.

And, in the latter, it was the revolutionary overthrow of the Chinese landlords and the comprador bourgeoisie by a united front of all Chinese revolutionary classes led by Chinese proletariat in the form of the Communist Party of China. This development wrested a fifth of the world’s population away from world capitalism and placed them squarely in the socialist camp while simultaneously laying out the path for revolution in the colonies and semi-colonies.

Revolution in China alongside the establishment of peoples’ democracies in Eastern Europe and an upsurge in national liberation struggle across the world are what forced capitalism in the imperialist countries into the social contract as a concession to ward off the imminent threat of revolution. 

Where are these developments today? Where is proletariat marching forward threatening the ruling classes with revolutionary upsurge and overthrow? Where is the socialist camp to draw support from? In the absence all these factors, to presume that Capital would learn its lesson and correct its course is wishful thinking bordering on delusion.

Capital has indeed learnt some lessons; the intensification of its inherent contradictions shows all too clearly that there cannot be a return to business as usual, that a reorganisation is necessary and is in fact already underway, globally and nationally. Not in favour of the working masses but to tilt the balance of forces further in favour of the ruling classes. 

Reorganisation of Capital on the Material Plane

The lockdowns and various other measures employed by the ruling classes in response to the COVID-19 virus across the world, besides protecting the ruling classes from the threat of infection, is a massive exercise in disciplining the working masses. It squeezes the working masses, depleting their meagre resources while simultaneously enforcing a strict ideological remolding facilitated by various apparatuses of the ruling classes.

Herein lies the basic truth of the lockdown, it is not a means to fight the pandemic but intended to ideologically and materially reproduce the ruling classes. Unable to resolve the contradictions but determined to strengthen its control over the means of production and labour power, Capital shifts the attention towards a global health crisis exposing more clearly the fault lines between Capital and Labour and Imperialism and Oppressed Nations. 

The contradiction between the imperialist powers and the oppressed nations is blatant; we have seen how the US has used the resources of oppressed countries like India in order to tighten its grip over resources.

The medical kits that got transferred from India to the US even as India faces shortages starkly reveals the power dynamic. Snatching crucial anti-malarial drugs under the threat of reprisals from a so-called independent and sovereign India under a stridently nationalist party like the BJP reveals the true masters of the current regime [47-52].

Meanwhile, China too is no laggard in this game resisting calls to grant relief to the onerous debt it has placed on numerous African nations and several other nations constituting parts of its imperialist Belt and Road Project. While, both the US and China continue their imperialist project, the rivalry between them has intensified with the US attempting to use the COVID-19 virus to isolate and weaken the growing threat of China to its imperialist hegemony with various junior partners and lapdogs joining the fray in support of the US.

In India, the State parallels its utter servility to the becks and calls of imperialist masters with renewed and intensifying assaults on the material interests of the working masses and democratic rights of all. In the wake of the immiseration faced by workers over the period of the lockdown, the Indian State has introduced measures that deny workers even the freedom to choose to work or starve.

This has been done through criminalising workers who dared head home, forcibly directing those trapped in towns and cities to worksites on the basis of skill through an order on 19 April and restricting their mobility across states fearing a possible shortage of labour when industrial activity resumes [53].

This was quickly followed by the extension of the workday from 8 to 12 hours in several states [54]. Still unsatiated in the face of these reactionary measures, several state governments have suspended the overwhelming bulk of workers’ legal rights [55] enshrined in law for a period of 2 to 3 years under the rationale that it is necessary to facilitate an economic revival [56].

Notable among the suspension of legal rights are those enshrined in the Industrial Disputes Act and Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, which in effect would de-legalise trade unions. This would deny workers already bereft of rights their basic form of organisation. Several employer associations and industry bodies have petitioned the government to extend this state specific suspension of labour laws on a national scale [57].

Furthermore, as if to rub salt on the wound, news has emerged that the central government seeks to legislate its long pending consolidation of labour laws into four labour codes, one of which has already been passed, via the ordinance route. This would ensure that workers would emerge from the two to three-year period of no labour laws and no labour rights into a future of diluted and vitiated labour laws and labour rights. It would hardly be far-fetched to deem this bonded labour. 

Comparable to the conditions of workers is that of the self-employed. Hawkers, owner-operators of small localised means of transport like rickshaws and auto-rickshaws, those who constitute the semi-proletariat and lowest sections of the petit bourgeoisie, too have suffered immeasurably during the lockdown.

Unlikely to possess savings of any note, these sections have been immiserated due to the lack of income during the period of the lockdown. Even the middle sections of the petit bourgeoisie have not been spared in the State’s efforts to reorganise capital. Small shopkeepers and some sections of professionals have seen their savings disappear during the lockdown. Students particularly have faced the brunt of the lockdown, trapped in university towns and cities due to the abrupt manner by which the lockdown was instituted.

Maintenance of these students, paying for rent, food and other supplies, tasks that inevitably fall to their families due to the paucity of state relief would have further eaten into savings already strained from the lack of paid work. Furthermore, the continuation of classes by numerous academic institutions via online and digital means disenfranchises the overwhelming bulk of the student population, notably those from weaker economic sections [58]. 

Alongside the assault on labour and the petit bourgeoisie, the State has also conducted a more silent and subtle assault on the national bourgeoisie as well. The steadfast refusal to announce or implement any measures for the protection of industry, especially its lower echelons, during the lockdown has pushed countless micro, small and medium enterprises, particularly those of the informal sector into bankruptcy and closure [59-60].

The degradation of the national bourgeoisie, already suffering intensely from the general economic slowdown prevailing prior to the lockdown coupled with disastrous measures in the recent past like demonetisation and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), has a two-fold consequence [61].

It allows for a concentration of productive forces in the hands of the sections of the bourgeoisie that possess sufficient capital to withstand the suspension of economic activities during the lockdown, notably the comprador big bourgeoisie. This trend towards concentration, already a feature of Indian industry, is likely to be boosted on account of the lockdown [62].

The second consequence is that with mass closures and bankruptcy of micro, small and medium enterprises, particularly those belonging to the informal sector, unemployment is bound to rise causing a swelling in the ranks of the reserve army of labour and further dampening workers’ bargaining strength. While government’s efforts to destroy workers’ rights and discipline labour will benefit both the national bourgeoisie and the comprador big bourgeoisie, it is clear that the latter will appropriate the lion’s share of the spoils. 

Vast numbers of traumatised migrant workers returning to their homes, families and communities in the countryside, many of whom according to news reports display aversion to returning to towns and cities for some time, will swell the ranks of the agrarian population [63]. This will increase the numbers of people to be supported by agrarian activities already characterised by surfeit of labour and rampant unemployment and consequently would deepen the control of landlords [64].

Families, already existing on strained means and now deprived of the opportunity for some members to migrate to towns in search of work, will fall deeper in debt and consequently deeper into the clutches of money lenders. Regression in the growth of industry in regions where strong pre-capitalist relations exist only strengthens the latter to the detriment of the peasantry. The State has also used the opportunity afforded by the lockdown to intensify efforts to expropriate land from the peasantry, as witnessed in Punjab where common land was auctioned during the lockdown [65].

Exploitative mining projects have also been exempted from the lockdown via a circular of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare dated 24 March 2020 [66]. Not only has the resource loot and despoiling of land continued unabated, but news reports indicate that over 190 projects have been placed on the agenda of expert panels during the lockdown [67].  With ecological impact assessments being undertaken via video conference, it is clear that the objections and concerns of affected communities, mainly Adivasis and other peasants, will not be heard.

As the bulk of the working masses in India are primarily Adivasi, Dalit and other depressed castes, the immiseration and degradation of workers, peasants, the semi-proletariat and the lower sections of the petit bourgeoisie will certainly exacerbate caste inequalities. Even in the case of police brutality, the lack of social capital among these sections magnifies the propensity to be ill-treated.

Impact of the lockdown on women, evident in increasing cases of domestic violence registered with the National Commission of Women, recalls the firm grip of patriarchy and violence on the lives of women [68]. Moreover, women and children face the brunt of a loss of household income which is exacerbated by the inability to draw upon support from the extended family and community networks. These developments are bound to further entrench patriarchal relations.

Furthermore, the dilution of labour laws notably the Equal Renumeration Act will depress the wages paid to women, heightening the gender wage gap and increasing the exploitation of women. 

The impact of the reorganisation of capital on the Muslims needs to be seen as part of the historical ‘otherisation’ and demonisation of an entire community. From the Supreme Court of India adjudicating in favour of Hindus in the Ram Mandir case, to the abrogation of Article 370 to the promulgation of the CAA, NRC and NPR, disenfranchisement threatens the Muslim community, literally and figuratively.

The vibrant democratic struggle witnessed in the wake of the CAA, NRC and NPR across India, a struggle led by the Muslim community and which withstood numerous attacks from State and non-state forces including a vicious and brutal pogrom in New Delhi in late February 2020, was finally broken using the lockdown. The pogrom specifically targeted North East Delhi, a centre of petty production in the city with a large Muslim population.

Traders, small manufacturers and petty producers, largely belonging to the Muslim community found their shops, workplaces, houses and religious places burned and ransacked by Hindutva mobs amply aided by the police. This left countless Muslims homeless and impoverished in the wake of the lockdown.

The onset of COVID-19 and the lockdown further aggravated the assaults on the Muslim community. Accused of consciously spreading the COVID-19 virus, the narrative of “Corona Jihad” was systematically built by the State and the mainstream media by exclusively focusing on the Nizamuddin Markaz, in exclusion of all other religious gatherings that have occurred before and during the lockdown. Even the Joint Secretary of the Central Health Ministry has participated in the vilification campaign by repeatedly referring to the Tablighi Jamaat in press briefings.

Numerous fake videos and news were circulated maligning Muslims as active COVID-19 vectors prompting imperialist agencies like the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United States Commission on International Religious Freedom to voice concern. Muslim essential service providers faced boycott from citizens, Muslims were denied medical treatment and suffered segregation in hospitals.

Police even took it upon themselves to prohibit mosques from conducting the “azaan” during the month of Ramzaan. The consequences of these actions are bound to have an impact even after the lockdown is lifted, intensifying the social boycott, discrimination and demonisation of the Muslim community [69-72]. 

The attack on the people of Kashmir, must be located within the general attack on the Muslim community and the general attack on all oppressed nationalities, with the whole being greater than the parts. While the lockdown in India commenced on 22 March 2020, Kashmir has been under lockdown since the abrogation of Article 370 on 5 August 2019, causing immeasurable physical and mental harm to the Kashmiri people.

The lack of mobility, scarcity of resources, restrictions on information, disruptions to work and education that people across the country faced during the lockdown has been a fixture in the lives of Kashmiris for the last 10 months. Furthermore, the country wide dearth of medical facilities is even more pronounced in the Kashmir Valley where the doctor to patient ratio is drastically below the country-wide average [73]. This dearth was intensified during the lockdown by the conscious diversion of medical equipment from Muslim majority Kashmir to Hindu majority Jammu [74]. 

Reorganisation of Capital on the Ideological Plane

Among the sites on which the ruling classes reproduces themselves at time of crisis, the ideological sphere is of particular importance. The Indian ruling classes have used the lockdown to propagate their pernicious creed through the State endorsed telecast of Ramayana and Mahabharat glorifying a mythologised Brahmanical past.

The current crop of fascist goons in the fascist Brahmanical organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) were ideologically molded into the Hindutva fold through the same television programmes repeatedly aired through the early 90s and whose viewership has now reached the highest ever number [75]. 

At the same time, the Prime Minister has used the lockdown to enhance the cult of personality that surrounds him with emotional appeals to the populace replete with Brahmanical references and the encouragement of collective activities during the lockdown that coincide with supposedly auspicious dates in Hindu astrology. Mainstream media, already an expert at towing the government line, has even been asked to avoid carrying news that cast India’s lockdown measures in poor light.

Unironically, the Information and Broadcasting Minister spoke of how the press in India enjoyed ‘absolute freedom’ while journalists across the country have been harassed, charged and arrested for reporting on the condition of people during the lockdown.

The judiciary’s class bias and servile attitude towards the government, an ever-present aspect of the institution, has now reached such proportions that it refuses to act as it believes the Executive is more equipped to deal with a crisis. The fig leaf of independence has been shed as witnessed in pronouncements against the media reporting on the fallout of the lockdown and questioning why workers need wages if provided food and shelter [76-80].

While mainstream media and the judiciary are historically institutions of the ruling classes, the lockdown has also witnessed the State’s appropriation of organisations of the working masses. A century and half ago, Engels wrote about the power of trade unions. He said, “as schools of war, the Unions are unexcelled” [81].

Today, these schools of war, instead of urging workers to protest against the lockdown’s appalling conditions and the State’s refusal to bear the responsibility to provide universal relief, have in many cases been coopted to serve as vehicles of relief. Alongside civil society organisations and NGOs, many trade unions have been transformed into purveyors of charity and bourgeois munificence which not only sap workers of militancy and breed servility but also strengthen bourgeoisie’s hold over workers through charity lined bonds of fealty.

These activities in effect absolve the State of its responsibility. The protests and struggle these schools of war have undertaken during this period of unprecedented attack on workers, when workers across the country starve, sicken and suffocate, when workers’ right to return home is restricted, when workers’ rights to living wages, decent working conditions, to an 8-hour workday and all their other hard-won rights are diluted and trampled upon is restricted to pleading petitions and digital bravado. 

Besides these measures, using the COVID-19 induced panic, the State has stepped up its negation of democratic rights. This has been done by institutionalising surveillance through the Aarogya Setu app, giving the police a free reign to beat and bludgeon anyone they think fit, and indoctrinating the populace into condoning these actions as necessary to survive the pandemic [82].

Even worse, the mentality of seeing the entire country as being in the same boat has inculcated an attitude that deems any criticism of the State or any form of dissent as inimical to the interests of the struggle against COVID-19. As a result, the State has been harassing, charging and arresting many activists, particularly those connected with the struggle against the CAA, NRC and NPR and other dissenters. Journalists exposing the fallout of the lockdown are also booked and arrested. Even children poking fun at a minister for improperly wearing protective gear have faced the long arm of the law [83]. 

It is in these actions, the suspension of basic democratic rights and the intensification of attacks and the general immiseration of workers, peasants, petit bourgeoisie, national bourgeoisie, Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims, oppressed nationalities particularly Kashmiris, and women, for the benefit of foreign and comprador big bourgeoisie and the rural gentry comprising of landlords and money lenders, that lurk signs indicating the ruling classes’ wholesale turn towards Brahmanical Hindutva Fascism to handle the crisis emerging out of contradictions inherent in Indian society.

Moreover, it in the unquestioning acceptance of all these actions by the people believing that “there is no alternative” that marks the sheer spread of the ideology of Brahmanical Hindutva Fascism.

This is not to state that Brahmanical Hindutva Fascism is a development of the lockdown but to recognise that the lockdown is being used to spread and deepen its hold on Indian society and dispel any delusion that we will enter a better world when the lockdown is lifted. Capital is reorganising itself, but not to the benefit of working masses. For them, the life and society they emerge into after the lockdown is going to be significantly worse. 

What is to be done?

Today a crisis of an unprecedented nature exists. The onset and onslaught of the COVID-19 virus has exacerbated the crisis already emerging from the inherent contradictions of capitalism. Capital recognises this and seeks to reorganise itself to continue and consolidate its rule. 

While the state of crisis is indisputable, can it be deemed a revolutionary situation? Lenin  spoke of three major symptoms of a revolutionary situation [84],

“(1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes”, a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way;

(2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual;

(3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in “peace time”, but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.”

The ruling classes have recognised the lengthy and drawn out emergence of the current crisis and has been undertaking a change in their form of rule globally. In India, this manifests in the ruling classes’ adoption of Brahmanical Hindutva Fascism. The COVID-19 has merely acted as a catalyst speeding up the transformation.

The suffering of the working masses has grown more acute, immiserated by the long development of the crisis and then dropped into a disastrous situation on account of this pandemic. Hence, Lenin’s first two conditions are satisfied with only the third unanswered. 

To this as well Lenin provides the answer [85],

“The lesson is clear, comrade workers! There is no time to be lost. The first crisis will be followed by others. You must devote all your efforts to enlightening the backward, to making extensive, comradely and direct contact (not only by meetings) with every regiment and with every group of working people who have not had their eyes opened yet! All your efforts must be devoted to consolidating your own ranks, to organising the workers from the bottom upwards, including every district, every factory, every quarter of the capital and its suburbs! Do not be misled by those of the petty bourgeoisie ’who “compromise” with the capitalists…”

The lesson is indeed clear. At this critical juncture when an unprecedented crisis is underway, the need of the hour is an unprecedent unity of the workers, peasants, petit bourgeoisie and patriotic section of the national bourgeoisie in alliance with all non-Brahmanical castes, communities and oppressed nationalities that stand against Brahmanical Hindutva Fascism.

For the working masses, this is the only TINA (there is no alternative) that holds truth. However, this unity cannot be built on the premise of partial gains or bargaining with the ruling classes; it cannot be built by reformism. The ruling classes today cannot be bargained with for two reasons. Firstly, they hold all the cards and secondly, fascists do not bargain, they must either be bowed to or broken.

The fascist nature is unlikely to change in the near future as without Brahmanical Hindutva Fascism the continued exploitation of the working masses cannot be assured. It is with the revolutionary agenda of breaking the back of Brahmanical Hindutva Fascism, of smashing the oppressive State, of overthrowing the ruling classes, that the unprecedented unity and alliance must be forged.

The objective conditions exist, only the subjective forces remain to be mustered, a mustering that must occur with the clear and unabashed articulation of the revolutionary agenda that draws inspiration from the past experiences of revolutionary struggle that India has witnessed like Tebhaga, Telangana, Srikakulam, Naxalbari and the struggle underway today in Central India.

As Marx stated “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains” [86].


1 Engels, Friedrich, The Housing Question, 1872.


3 CMIE estimates monthly unemployment data for April at 23.52%

4 Ghosh, Suniti Kumar, The Indian Big Bourgeoisie: Its Genesis, Growth, and Character, Radical Impressions, Kolkata, 1985.





























33 Berlinski, Claire, There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters, New York: Basic Books, 2008.


35 Glyn, Andrew and Bob Sutcliffe, British Capitalism, Workers and the Profit Squeeze, Penguin, 1972.









44 Marx, Capital, Volume I, ‘Agriculture and Industry’, 1867.





































81 Engels, Friedrich, Condition of the Working Class in England, 1845.



84 Lenin, The Collapse of the Second International, 1915.

85 Lenin, Lessons of a Crisis, 1917.

86 Marx, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848.

1 Comment »

One Response to “Covid from a Class Perspective: Is There No Alternative?”

  1. ananda Says:
    May 21st, 2020 at 10:34

    I thank Sanhati for keeping the Comments space open unlike most other online spaces…so I will try to be substantive and I hope the comments will be carried.

    1. The debates over whether lockdowns work or not is still ongoing. The jury is still out in cases like Sweden and South Korea.


    Communist icons like Cuba also have been following stay-at-home:


    The substantial debate is more around the “when” of a lockdown announcement.

    Also, comparing the demographics-and-healthcare of SK or Sweden to that of India is patently unfair…

    This is not to condone the Indian government’s disaster of a lockdown implementation.

    2. The section subtitled, “Why does COVID-19 demand such drastic measures?”

    Again, this is close to covid-denialism as highlighted in this piece:

    It is true that the poor and the rich were equally vulnerable but in the case of covid, one has to admit the fear of a “new unknown” which seemed like it had the potential to wipe out entire populations, rich and poor. One of the rationales advanced is that the “freeze-in-place” lockdown was executed so India’s rural spaces remain unaffected. Whether that was the intent or not, the fact is that the concerntration of covid has been contained to urban areas. It is now with the return of migrants that rural India is also seeing cases – but one has to acknowledge that covid did not lay India’s countryside to waste…

    3) “In these countries too, the upper echelons of society brought the virus to their shore, constituted the largest section of the infected at the initial stages and determined the response to COVID-19.”

    Not totally accurate. “Ordinary” Wuhanites traveled to places like Australia and Europe and Seattle.


    Their socio-economic profiles have not been published but there are a lot of ordinary, working class Chinese who live and work in “capaitalist” countries and travel back and forth – so the above is not a properly backed conclusion that it was spread by “upper echelons” of society.

    4. “Comparable to the conditions of workers is that of the self-employed. Hawkers, owner-operators of small localised means of transport like rickshaws and auto-rickshaws, those who constitute the semi-proletariat and lowest sections of the petit bourgeoisie, too have suffered immeasurably during the lockdown.”

    I think the left should pay more attention to the so-called “petit bourgeoise” – they are a larger percentage of the “working class” on account of precarity etc…the proletarian class has not much going for it…

    5. “Alongside civil society organisations and NGOs, many trade unions have been transformed into purveyors of charity…”

    Thanks for the courage for saying so. The TUs have been largely absent in this crisis. Is it time to write them off? Will anyone miss them if the govt. finally does ban them…?
    We miss some great TU leaders and their thinking. A Mike Davis single-handedly is producing more intellectual output than all of our current TU leadership, which is largely white-collar…
    They could not forestall the MHA from withdrawing the payment of wages during lockdown order…

    “…the need of the hour is an unprecedent unity of the workers, peasants, petit bourgeoisie and patriotic section of the national bourgeoisie in alliance with all non-Brahmanical castes, communities and oppressed nationalities that stand against Brahmanical Hindutva Fascism.

    The objective conditions exist, only the subjective forces remain to be mustered, a mustering that must occur with the clear and unabashed articulation of the revolutionary agenda that draws inspiration from the past experiences of revolutionary struggle that India has witnessed like Tebhaga, Telangana, Srikakulam, Naxalbari and the struggle underway today in Central India.”

    Herein lies the hypocricy of the left. The need to compulsively include caste unity…the need to keep harping on “Fascist Brahminical Hindutva forces” etc…and then the in the list of revolutionary struggles no Dalit struggle finds mention? No Mahad, no Bhima Koregaon, at least? No mention of Ambedkar/Ambedkarite ideas at all in the entire piece? Why this need for false lip-service?

    And then there is surprise when Ambedkarites don’t trust the Left’s intentions! You make them amply clear each time you reveal what you consider “revolutionary”…how do you expect that cross-struggle unity you hope for, ever?

    At any rate, a very good attempt at pegging the current situation down. We hope for more focused and multiple-marginalizations-aware pieces in the future.

    I think a lot of the epidemiological arguments + the role of capital has been convered in the MR piece, so referencing it can save a lot of ink in trying to explain capital’s role in this pandemic…

    – Ananda

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