Covid 19 and surplus humanity

Originally published in Counterpunch magazine, May 2020

Human challenge trial launches to study immune response to COVID-19 |  University of Oxford

Amongst all its glistening commodities, one product has defined capitalism above all else: human waste. Superfluous people, not necessary for production, not able to participate in the market, and an ever-present threat to the stability of the system, are – and have always been – the main output of the bourgeois epoch; managing, containing, expelling and eliminating this waste has always been its prime, if hidden, concern. In the nineteenth century, surplus Europeans were exiled, in their millions, to the colonies – to Australia, Canada, the US, Algeria etc – to continue the process of exterminating surplus non-Europeans. In the twentieth century, two world wars functioned not only to destroy surplus capital, but surplus humanity too, in unprecedented numbers. 

But today, for the first time in history, it is a majority of humanity who face redundancy. In 2004, Zygmunt Bauman published Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts. In this short book, he argues that “the production of ‘human waste’, or more correctly wasted humans… is an inevitable outcome of modernisation, an inseparable accompaniment of modernity.” Indeed, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he wrote, “the disposal of human waste produced in the ‘modernised’ and still ‘modernising’ parts of the globe was the deepest meaning of colonisation and imperialist conquests,” as these conquests produced outlets for the export of surplus human beings. As Europe ‘modernised’ itself, throwing people off the land and replacing them with, first, sheep, and then threshing machines, these ‘surplus’ humans were shipped off to the colonies. Thus did the modern European states “seek, and find, global solutions to locally produced ‘overpopulation’ problems.” But this situation, he noted, could only last “as long as modernity (that is, a perpetual, compulsive, obsessive and addictive modernisation) remained a privilege. Once modernity turned, as it was intended and bound to, into the universal condition of humankind, the effects of its planetary domination have come home to roost. As the triumphant progress of modernisation has reached the furthest lands of the planet and practically the totality of human production and consumption has become money and market mediated, and the processes of the commodification, commercialisation and monetarisation of human livelihoods have penetrated every nook and cranny of the globe, global solutions to locally produced problems, or global outlets for local excesses, are no longer available…the volume of human waste [is] outgrowing the extant managerial capacity.” As a result, the world now faces “an acute crisis of the human waste disposal industry”. This issue – what to do with those growing number of souls superfluous to the requirements of modern capitalist production – is “simultaneously a most harrowing problem and a most closely guarded secret of our times.”

The year before Bauman’s book was published, in 2003, the UN published a report entitled “The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements.” This paper noted that almost a billion people – one third of all city dwellers globally – now lived in slums, with this number projected to double by 2020. The causes were straightforward: “The collapse of formal urban employment in the developing world and the rise of the informal sector is seen as a direct function of liberalization. . . . Urban poverty has been increasing in most countries subject to structural adjustment programs,” imposed on the global South throughout the 1980s and 90s by Western-controlled financial institutions. Fragile national economies were forced to open up to heavily-subsidised, high-tech imports against which they had no chance of competing, with entire industries and farming communities devastated as a result. Life in the slums produced by these policies consisted of “the most intolerable of urban housing conditions” whose residents “suffer inordinately from water-borne diseases such as typhoid and cholera, as well as more opportunistic ones that accompany HIV/AIDS.” By the year 2030, the report’s authors predicted, the world’s city dwelling population will consist of three sections, summarised by Mike Davis as follows: “1: .1 billion urbanites—owners, managers, technicians, and skilled information-sector workers—will provide the principal demand for branded international production.2: . 1.5 to 2 billion workers—ranging from Mexican American nurses’ aides in Los Angeles to Chinese teenagers in Guangdong sweatshops—will provide the metropolitan labor-power for the global economy.3: 2 to 3 billion informal workers—at least 2 billion of whom live in classic slums or peripheral shantytowns—will exist outside the formal relations of production, in Dickensian conditions or worse, ravaged by emergent diseases and subject to a menu of megadisasters following in the wake of global warming and the exhaustion of urban water supplies.”In other words – consumers; producers; and those superfluous to the reproduction of capital; the latter by far the biggest group. Of them, Davis wrote that “this outcast proletariat… is the fastest-growing and most novel social class on the planet. By and large, the urban informal working class is not a labor reserve army in the nineteenth-century sense: a backlog of strikebreakers during booms; to be expelled during busts; then reabsorbed again in the next expansion. On the contrary, this is a mass of humanity structurally and biologically redundant to global accumulation and the corporate matrix.” Superfluous to the needs of capitalism, and with “little vested interest in the reproduction of private property,” this class does nevertheless possess “yet unmeasured powers of subverting urban order… the contemporary megaslum poses unique problems of imperial order and social control that conventional geopolitics has barely begun to register.” Fast forward sixteen years to today and it has certainly registered. Frase warns us that “A world where the ruling class no longer depends on the exploitation of working class labor is a world where the poor are merely a danger and an inconvenience. Policing and repressing them ultimately seem more trouble than can be justified. This is where the thrust toward “the extermination of multitudes” originates. Its ultimate endpoint is literally the extermination of the poor, so that the rabble can finally be brushed aside once and for all, leaving the rich to live in peace and quiet in their Elysium.” In the “dystopic robo-feudalism” that is our near future, Ian Shaw writes, “a policy of ‘neo-exterminism’ might be enacted.” 
On December 31st 2019, China alerted the World Health Organisation to the existence of several cases of an unusual pneumonia in the town of Wuhan. Eleven days later, Chinese scientists published the genetic sequence of the virus causing it, identifying it as a new strain of coronavirus. That it was deadly was confirmed by Wuhan’s first death from the virus, reported the same day. On 24th January, a study published in the UK’s leading medical journal, the Lancet showed that a third of China’s Covid-19 patients required admission to intensive care, with 29% worsening to the point where they needed ventilation. The authors made clear the lethal potential of the virus, making comparisons to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic which killed up to 50 million people, and recommended measures be taken to suppress the virus.

Understanding the seriousness of the coming pandemic, the British government convened its first COBRA emergency planning meeting on the outbreak. But underscoring their determination not to fight it, the prime minister refused to attend, as he would fail to attend the next four COBRA meetings that followed; as one senior government advisor told the Sunday Times, “There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there.” A week later, on January 31st, the Lancet published another study on the new virus, concluding that  “On the present trajectory, 2019-nCoV could be about to become a global epidemic…for health protection within China and internationally…preparedness plans should be readied for deployment at short notice, including securing supply chains of pharmaceuticals, personal protective equipment, hospital supplies, and the necessary human resources to deal with the consequences of a global outbreak of this magnitude.” The same day, the Covid-19 outbreak was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation.  Since long before humanity even knew about viruses, the time-honoured method of dealing with them has been to identify those with symptoms, isolate them, and follow up everyone they have been in contact with, today known as “test, track and trace”. These were the measures public health experts had been advocating since the new coronavirus was first identified, and have been used by all countries (such as South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam) that have managed to keep a lid on the spread of the virus and death rates low. As Mike Buckley has pointed out, “WHO advice is abundantly clear, based on existing guidelines and the experience of countries which have successfully contained and turned back COVID-19 and previous pandemics. The essential elements for success are mass testing, the isolation of the sick and those carrying the virus, contacting and testing people who may have been exposed to it, and social isolation to prevent its spreading by people yet to show symptoms. This is not theory, it is fact.”  Yet, in the UK, noted the Lancet in a scathing editorial in March, “they didn’t isolate and quarantine. They didn’t contact trace. These basic principles of public health and infectious disease control were ignored, for reasons that remain opaque… February should have been used to expand coronavirus testing capacity, ensure the distribution of WHO-approved PPE, and establish training programmes and guidelines to protect NHS staff. They didn’t take any of those actions.” Indeed, when the government’s SAGE committee – an ad-hoc subgroup of COBRA tasked with providing scientific advice during an emergency – first commissioned a study on the impact of possible Covid-19 interventions in January, it specifically requested that test, track and trace was not included in the modelling. It was later claimed that this decision was taken because “not enough tests were available”. Yet they had eight weeks to prepare; Vietnam had been able to produce its entire supply of Covid tests domestically in far less time. As Anthony Costello noted in the Guardian, “The UK had been among the first countries to develop a Covid-19 test in mid-January, approved by the WHO, and has an exceptional national research infrastructure,” including a sophisticated pharmaceutical industry, and 130 NHS labs which were never utilised. The idea that it was beyond Britain’s physical capacity to produce the tests it required is utter nonsense; what was lacking was the political will.

Clearly, a decision had been taken very early on that the only tried-and-tested measures of disease control were not to be implemented in the UK. Instead, the UK government seemed determined to follow a policy of what could only be termed ‘let it rip’. As the government’s chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance explained, the aim was “to reduce the peak [of infection], not suppress it completely”. Graham Medley, the government’s chief modeller, elaborated: “We’re going to have to generate what we call herd immunity … and the only way of developing that in the absence of a vaccine, is for the majority of people to get infected”. Robert Peston summarised it as follows: “The strategy of the British government in minimising the impact of Covid-19 is to allow the virus to pass through the entire population so that we acquire herd immunity”. This strategy went into overdrive on March 12th, when the limited testing that had been occurring was stopped, and the advice to travellers coming into Britain from hotspots such as Wuhan and Northern Italy to self-isolate for fourteen days was withdrawn. At this point, noted the Financial Times, “there were fewer than 1,500 confirmed cases in the UK, while in contrast infection rates were soaring in Italy and Spain.” The result, said the government’s Chief Scientific advisor Patrick Vallance, was that a wave of infections were “seeded right across the country.” 

Advocates of the so-called ‘herd immunity’ (aka Let It Rip) strategy proposed that the most vulnerable should be shielded whilst the virus was allowed to flow through the population. Yet in practice, far from being shielded, those most susceptible to the disease appear to have been deliberately targeted. The particular vulnerability of the elderly to Covid-19 had been understood since the study of its first victims was published on January 23rd. Yet the government ordered that elderly patients be removed from hospitals, where they may well have contracted the virus, and sent back to their care homes, where they would inevitably spread it. As one NHS cardiologist told the Telegraph newspaper, “Our policy was to let the virus rip and then ‘cocoon the elderly’. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry when you contrast that with what we actually did. We discharged known, suspected, and unknown cases into care homes which were unprepared, with no formal warning that the patients were infected, no testing available, and no PPE to prevent transmission. We actively seeded this into the very population that was most vulnerable.” When discussing the policy of wilfully spreading the virus, Boris Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings was reported to have said that “if a few pensioners die, so be it.” The cardiologist continued, “We let these people die without palliation. The official policy was not to visit care homes – and they didn’t (and still don’t). So, after infecting them with a disease that causes an unpleasant ending, we denied our elders access to a doctor – denied GP visits – and denied admission to hospital. Simple things like fluids, withheld. Effective palliation like syringe drivers, withheld.” By the start of May, 12,500 care home residents were recorded to have died from Covid-19. Meanwhile, no effort was made to increase the population’s ability to survive the disease by boosting their immune systems. In the 1940s and 50s, cod liver oil was provided free to children, pregnant mums and nurses due to its immunity-enhancing properties; yet in 2020, government ministers made no effort even to promote immune-boosting vitamins or foods, let alone provide them. On the contrary, the government’s lockdown guidelines actively prevented people receiving their daily dose of vitamin D by barring those without gardens from the sun, despite growing evidence of the vitamin’s importance in fighting the disease. 

That people would die, in their tens of thousands, from the government’s policy of ‘wilful neglect’ was painfully obvious, and indeed, was admitted at the time. As countries across Europe were announcing bans on mass gatherings and school closures, Johnson resisted such measures, and instead told the nation to brace themselves for mass death. On March 12th, the day the government formally announced its intention to roll the virus out across the population, Boris Johnson told a press conference that “It is going to spread further and I must level with you, I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” This was at a time when Vietnam – which shares a border with China – had suffered zero Covid deaths, due to their timely implementation of WHO advice.  At the time of writing (17th May) they have still not suffered a single fatality.  Yet, far from being a cause for concern, the coming cull was positively welcomed in some quarters. Toby Young, old friend and fellow Etonian of Boris Johnson, and an advocate of what he calls ‘progressive eugenics’, said in his column on 31st March that “prolong[ing] the lives of a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people is an irresponsible use of taxpayers’ money.” Earlier that month, financial writer Jeremy Warner in the Telegraph had written that “from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long-term by disproportionately culling elderly dependants.” BBC radio broadcast ‘moral philosophy’ programmes debating which patients were more deserving of access to ventilators, the young or the old; the fit and healthy or those with obesity or diabetes. The idea that the sick and elderly should be denied medical care was being pushed further than ever before. 

As the ‘herd immunity’ strategy was greeted with universal horror by public health experts, the government performed an apparent (but only apparent) volte face and pretended it had never existed. Eventually, with infections doubling every three days, and a steadily mounting death toll, calls for action became irresistible. Yet the nationwide ‘lockdown’ imposed on March 24th – with all but ‘essential’ businesses ordered closed and the rights to assembly and association suspended – has been widely misinterpreted. Far from being a belated recognition and reversal of the reckless negligence that had characterised their initial response, it served as a cover for continuing that response but in a way that preserved the integrity of British state institutions such as the NHS.  Once the virus had spun out of control, a lockdown could have served the useful purpose of buying time to establish the basic disease control procedures that should have been implemented from the outset – mass testing, contact tracing and quarantining. But, even during lockdown, the government’s stubborn refusal to take these measures continued. Travellers remained free to enter the country from known hotspots, without testing or quarantining, and no test-and-trace system was put in place. Whilst a symbolic target of 100,000 tests per day by the end of April was announced to placate the media, testing remained at a far lower level until right up to the 31 April, when the target was magically reached by testing tens of thousands of people twice on the same day, a horrific waste of resources when care homes were crying out to be allowed access to testing. The following day, the numbers slumped back down again. Meanwhile the British company delivering test kits for use in Germany told the Telegraph, on April 16th, that it was ready to provide one million tests per week to the British government, but their calls had been unanswered. Those tests that were carried out were not done as part of an integrated programme of virus suppression; they were simply a standalone distraction for the media. To the extent they had any purpose beyond pure symbolism, it was to maximise staff turnout at hospitals (by preventing suspected cases from needing to self isolate) and nothing more. Care homes, who needed these tests the most, remained barred from them right up until the end of April. No system of contact tracing was established. And test results – carried out not by the 130 world-class NHS labs ideal for the purpose, but by the accountancy firm Deloittes – were not shared with local Directors of Public Health or GPs; the entire infrastructure of public health was still being barred from the information which would have enabled them to identify and tackle local outbreaks. A successful contact tracing apparatus could have been set up in three days using the existing infrastructure based around Environmental Health Officers alongside retraining those furloughed in other lines of work, explained public health expert Allyson Pollock, if the political will was there. But it wasn’t. The government only started advertising for contact tracers – via outsourcing giant Serco, to whom it awarded the contract – on May 10th, six weeks into the lockdown. Even now, it remains far from clear whether this is part of a genuine attempt to keep track of the virus or simply an excuse to award a lucrative monopoly to a major government-backed private company in order to help build up its global brand; once again, the existing public health infrastructure necessary for a holistic, integrated response has been cut out of the process. 

Meanwhile the government hammered out a message of “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”. Yet this was more than simply a benign injunction to ensure people avoided picking up or transmitting the disease; it also carried the more subtle message that you should not bother the NHS at this crucial time. People were being made to feel guilty for seeking treatment, especially if they were old. How dare they distract the NHS from its essential Covid work? Old people were told they would almost certainly not get emergency treatment and were pressured to sign ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ orders en masse, whilst the NHS was effectively shut down for all but Covid patients (and, in the case of elderly care home residents, even them). Hospitals were cleared, ‘elective operations’ cancelled and treatments stopped. The emptying of sick elderly patients led to an increase in care home deaths from an April average of 8000 to a staggering 26,000, only 8000 of which were attributed to Covid; the rest very likely a result of the abrupt termination of their treatment. Oncologist Dr Karel Sikora noted that cancer diagnoses were around 5000 in April, down from what would normally be around 30,000. All these missed diagnoses, along with the cancelled treatment for known cases, could, he estimates, lead to an additional 60,000 cancer deaths this year. Thus, both the ‘let it rip’ strategy and the measures supposedly taken in response to it, such as the clearing out of hospitals, have had unnecessary mass death as their result rather, it seems, than their target. That same day the government finally started recruiting contact tracers – four months and 30,000 deaths after it had been recommended by the Lancet – Boris Johnson ordered low-paid manual workers back to work, to be followed by the reopening of primary schools three weeks later. This was in breach of WHO advice, and public health experts were united in their view that this easing of the lockdown without having put in place any system to trace and isolate the virus in was reckless and threatened a second wave of infection and death. As Oxford University professor of epidemiology David Hunter wrote in the Guardian, “the countries that have succeeded in taming their coronavirus epidemics – such as South Korea, Taiwan, China, Australia and New Zealand – … all have in common “test, trace, isolate” as the centrepiece of their strategy.” In Johnson’s speech, however, “what we did not get was any list of the actions in place to pursue and contain the virus….If we take the prime minister’s advice and return to work in large numbers now – and without the ability to test, trace and isolate – then virus spread will increase.” Yet this seems to be precisely the point; as Hunter notes, “emerging antibody data from hard-hit cities such as New York show that, with less than a quarter of the population affected, it would take at least another wave of devastation to get close to the herd immunity threshold.” Far from using the lockdown to buy time to establish disease-control structures, the government appears to be using it as a ‘tap’, not to reduce infections, but to ensure their flow across the population in a timely manner. It is a tap they are now slowly turning back on, and will have predictable, and fatal, results.  

Covid’s results in the Southern hemisphere, however, are likely to be catastrophic. Here, noted World Food Programme’s chief economist Arif Husain recently, “is where the winter is coming, where the flu season is coming. I’m really, really concerned about Southern Africa. Why? Because there’s extreme poverty, extreme malnourishment, to begin with, and poor, poor, poor health infrastructure. There’s already a history of H.I.V., aids, and TB, and they’ve gone through multiple climate disasters. Now you get covid-19 on top of that —what do you think is going to happen?” The WFP’s executive director David Beasley, in a disturbing address to the UN Security Council in April, noted that the Covid crisis had already sparked “the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two”.

Yet Covid itself is only half the story; the lockdown imposed by Western societies is also ravaging the global South. Siegfried Kracauer has written that “the measures provoked by existential fear are themselves a threat to existence,” and this is certainly true of the ‘lockdown’ prompted by the fear of the government’s refusal to tackle Covid. Remittances, which last year overtook foreign investment as the largest source of capital inflows to low and middle income countries,  are expected to drop by $100billion this year, as migrant workers find themselves unable to earn money to send home, money on which millions of families depend to meet their nutritional needs. And the wiping out of demand consequent to the lockdowns is likely to prove equally devastating. As Beasley noted, there is “a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of Covid-19 than from the virus itself,” warning that famines could break out in 55 countries in the worst case scenario, with 300,000 starving to death every day and 260 million ultimately at risk of starvation. “If we don’t prepare and act now,” he concluded, “we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.” “In all,” the Guardian concluded, “shortages are likely to affect a fifth of the world’s population,” some 1.6 billion people.  

And yet there is no shortage. “The world is not running out of food,” one humanitarian worker told the Telegraph. Global food prices have been coming down for several years and we’ve had good harvests over the last few years. The main problem is access.” This is capitalism being pushed to its depraved logical conclusions. People will be wiped out by a lack of food not because there is a lack of food, but simply because their labour is not needed to meet the demands of wealthy countries. 


We are  living through the early stages of a massive extermination event. To deliberately and wilfully allow a deadly virus to rip through the population, fully aware of the consequences for the elderly and vulnerable is beyond negligent; it is the rebirth of colonial eugenics in the heartlands of empire, unprecedented since the foundation of the welfare state. As Bauman noted, with the universalisation of modernity, and the consequent drying up of ‘non-modern’ areas for the export of surplus population, “societies increasingly turn the sharp edge of exclusionary practices against themselves”. The demonisation of the elderly and sick, the ideological war against their right to life, tentatively floated with Cameron’s proposition that obese people should be denied access to the NHS, appears now to have passed a major milestone. Our reactions are being tested; Covid is being utilised as a canary in the mine for our willingness to be abandoned by any pretence of state protection in the face of the coming economic chaos and climate misery. The 1% and their state planners must be very pleased with the results.  Meanwhile, famines “of biblical proportions” threaten the global South, provoked by the gratuitous – because, had public health advice been followed, unnecessary – lockdowns which have strangled global supply chains. Saskia Sassen, in her 2014 book “Expulsions: brutality and complexity in the global economy”, notes that “the move from Keynesianism to the global era of privatisations, deregulation, and open borders for some, entailed a switch from dynamics that brought people in [to global capitalism] to dynamics that push people out”. We appear now to have reached such an extremity of that process, however, that there is a new switch under way – from the containment of those pushed out, to their outright elimination. Already the humanitarian agencies, tasked with keeping a lid on surplus humanity, are warning that their calls for an emergency $4.7 billion to feed those “pushed out” by the Covid response are nowhere near being met. With nativists like Trump in charge of the richest economies already terminating contributions to the World Health Organisation, what are the chances of a newfound love for the World Food Programme emerging anytime soon?

Order, Bauman reminds us, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the condition in which everything is in its proper place and performs its proper function.“ Yet in the capitalist order of the near future, there is no proper place or proper function for the majority of humanity, neither as producers nor as consumers. Asked how he obtained the beautiful harmony of his sculptures, Michaelangelo reputedly answered: ‘Simple. You just take a slab of marble and cut out all the superfluous bits’. Comments Bauman, “In the heyday of the Renaissance, Michaelangelo proclaimed the precept that was to guide modern creation… through cutting out and throwing away the superfluous, the needless and the useless, the beautiful, the harmonious, the pleasing and the gratifying was to be divined.” Today, the ‘harmony’ of the capitalist order can be preserved only by a massive intensification of this “cutting out and throwing away” of the superfluous who, quite apart from being a threat to stability, are an abhorrent reminder of the defects of the system. “As modern times went by,” says Bauman, “an ever larger part of the designing zeal and design-drawing efforts was prompted by the urge to detoxicate, neutralise or remove from sight the ‘collateral damage’ done by past designing.”

And yet, we must always remember, none of this is inevitable. The technical capability to provide the housing and nutritional needs of everyone on the planet has never been greater. Charity has never been more than a sticking plaster, nor intended to be more; what is needed is the realisation of article 25 of the universal declaration of human rights – the right to subsistence. All are capable of making a dignified contribution to the global provision of subsistence, regardless of their economic circumstances, and none should be denied food or shelter simply because their labour is superfluous to the requirements of capital accumulation. A new global movement with this principle at its heart is needed – and needed urgently.