Source: The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette

Canada entered this week facing a horrifying stage in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Until recently, efforts focused on “flattening the curve,” whereby health authorities insisted on “social distancing” and mass testing to relieve the strain on hospitals. These efforts have largely fallen short. While B.C. and Alberta seem to have had some success in limiting COVID-19’s spread, Ontario and Quebec’s cases are now growing at a more or less exponential rate. In the country as a whole, cases are now doubling every five days—one of the fastest rates in the world. Hospitals must now prepare for the worst. 

This has created new, although entirely predictable, challenges. Hospital staff complain of being woefully unequipped to deal with the influx of cases. The shortage of medical grade masks has been particularly acute. Ontario nurses are required to use only one mask per shift at certain hospitals. Normally they would use five or six. In Quebec, nurses are forced to sanitize and reuse masks due to the shortage. 

In doing so, the virus is given a greater ability to spread, both to patients and other hospital staff. Many nurses have already fallen ill with COVID-19. Others have taken to sleeping in their cars at night to prevent spreading the virus to their families.

The situation may yet get worse. Ontario and Quebec are both under a week away from running out of certain types of protective equipment. 

Global competition

Despite Trudeau’s pleas, Canadian industry has so far proven unable to meet the demand for hospital equipment. As such, different levels of government have turned to the world market, namely China, to make up the shortfall. However, here they encounter hundreds of other buyers, each competing for the same limited supply.

The results have been predictable. Prices for masks, gowns and ventilators have all ticked up in recent weeks, as manufacturers look to profit by selling to the highest bidder. Wealthy buyers are favoured, while those less endowed are left searching—regardless of their need. 

As such, many countries have come up short. Ottawa has ordered roughly 20 million gowns and six millions masks to meet Ontario’s needs. As of April 6, none of the gowns and only 129,000 masks had been delivered. Quebec is in a similar if not worse position. 

Faced with an unforgiving market, many countries have resorted to “extra-market” measures to acquire equipment. On April 3, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the Minnesota-based company 3M to halt all shipments of masks to Canada and Latin America. The order has since been rescinded due to public backlash, although Trump has yet to clarify if it will extend to other U.S.-based companies. 

Countries have also resorted to more covert means. Germany has accused Trump of “modern-day piracy,” after a shipment it purchased from China was appropriated by U.S. officials during a layover in Thailand. Quebec is reported to have sent a plane to China to pick up masks, only to learn upon arrival that they had never left the factory—presumably because some other buyer had offered a better deal at the last moment. 

‘Self-sufficiency’

In light of this trend, many in Canada have looked to “self-sufficiency” as a possible solution. If other nations aren’t able to provide us with what we need, they reason, then we should rely only on our own industry.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has suggested that his province should never have to rely on a foreign country or company ever again. Quebec Premier François Legault has gone further: arguing that his province should wean itself off all agricultural imports, positing that Quebec’s greenhouses may be able to make up the shortfall.

Their philosophy is shared by others. Chief among them is former newspaper magnate Conrad Black, one of Canada’s leading proponents of economic nationalism (and a fan of Trump’s). In a recent National Post article, he wrote: 

It is time for Canada to return to being a grown-up nation, to jettison this government’s insane energy policy, and certainly to ensure that we have and can produce what we need in medicine and medical equipment and supplies. As every serious statesman in the world since Richelieu has known, countries have durable interests; the constancy of friends fluctuates.

Black is not entirely wrong. Lord Palmerston once said that “nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests.” The behaviour of countries during the COVID-19 pandemic has validated Palmerston’s observation like never before. The “community of nations” has been revealed as no more than a community of robbers (or pirates), with each national ruling class looking to climb on top over the backs of the others. 

But how can “self-sufficiency” be obtained? Canada, more than other developed nations, is highly dependent on foreign trade. Trade represents 32 per cent of Canadian GDP, compared with 12 per cent for the U.S. The logical implication of Black’s words are increased tariffs, subsidies, and other methods that limit trade—i.e by protectionism

Protectionism for who?

Ford, Legault and Black are all trying to capitalize on an understandable sentiment among the population. Why do we have to rely on a U.S. or Chinese company for masks? Why should we let Trump leave us hanging? Can’t we produce what we need here in Canada? 

This honest protectionism or desire of the working class to be “self-sufficient” can take on an entirely progressive character. Their concerns reflect a desire to defend themselves against the uncertainties of the global market and their submission to the U.S market in particular.

However, as we’ve explained elsewhere, Canadian industry so far seems incapable of fulfilling this task. Moreover, were it to do so, production would still be operated in the interest of profit, leading to extortionate prices for consumers, delays, etc.  

The only way production for need could be guaranteed was if all Canadian factories capable of producing equipment were seized, placed under democratic workers’ control, and integrated into a broader plan of production to combat the pandemic. From there, Canada’s workers could then appeal to their counterparts in the U.S. and Latin America to do as they have, pooling their resources for maximum effect. If this is called “protectionism,” any socialist would have no problem offering it their enthusiastic support.

However, this is not the “protectionism” being advocated by Black, Ford or Legault. These individuals are terrified by the prospect of large-scale nationalization, let alone workers’ control. Their protectionism is not designed to satisfy the needs of working class people, but to satisfy the interests of Canadian corporations. The introduction of tariffs, subsidies, etc., however extreme, is done only on the condition that private ownership of the means of production remains intact. By implementing their proposals, all of the problems of the global market would then be replicated, albeit on a national and not an international scale.  

Taking this course would be short-sighted, even from a capitalist standpoint. Protectionism in Canada would rapidly lead to protectionism elsewhere, as countries look to defend their home markets. Moreover, it is not a competition Canada is likely to succeed in. Trudeau’s response to Trump’s order denying the export of masks was not to retaliate, but to negotiate. Why? Because he knew it was not a fight the relatively puny Canadian capitalist class could win.  

Black often boasts of his “deep” knowledge of history. He should know then that it was protectionism that turned the 1929 crash into the Great Depression. However, that may not prevent the ruling class from taking that path again, as recent actions show. The German philosopher Hegel once said “we learn from history that we do not learn from history.” This is proving true insofar as it applies to the ruling class.

Socialist internationalism

The cutthroat race over protective equipment has exposed the notion of “solidarity between nations” for what it is: an empty lie. However, receding into economic nationalism is also no solution. 

In truth, no nation alone has all of the resources to combat COVID-19. Machinery, products and research must all be exchanged to provide an effective response to a global pandemic. The problem is not trade as such, but the rapacious form it takes under capitalism, which in turn is amplified by the limits of the nation-state. 

In resorting to protectionism, one form of capitalism is simply replaced by another. However, it is capitalism itself, and not this or that form, that is ultimately to blame.

The solution is therefore not economic nationalism, but socialist internationalism. In a global planned economy, resources could be instantly redirected to where they are most needed, instead of simply being sold to the highest bidder. Production could likewise be rapidly retooled to manufacture necessary equipment, using the combined talent and capacity of the global workforce, not just that of this or that nation. The tools to combat COVID-19 exist: they are merely hamstrung by private property on the one hand, and the nation-state on the other. These impediments must therefore be removed. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis. It requires a global solution.