By Edwin Bai, Age 17
How many people have died as a result of capitalist policies? Capitalism is still rarely questioned in mainstream American society, and the deaths that occur under the system are often attributed to corruption, poor management, or, ironically, communism. That deaths from starvation, vaccine-preventable diseases, and lack of clean drinking water are widespread and affect entire continents show that the problem is not corruption or poor management, but rather the system itself. This then begs the question: what exactly is the death toll under capitalism?
To define what can be considered deaths directly caused by capitalism, we must first understand how the system endangers lives. Under capitalism, essential goods are privatized, which leads to an imbalance in the distribution of necessities such as food, shelter, and medical care. If you don’t have the money to purchase said necessities, you die. If producers of such necessities decide it’s not profitable enough to sell to poor countries, this is reflected in their mortality rates. Furthermore, there is an incentive not to distribute essential resources for free. According to Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, capitalism relies on self interests and the profit incentive to maintain social stability. Giving away resources without a profit motive contradicts this key idea.
According to a research article published on Elementa, the current production rate of crops can produce enough food for the expected global population of 9.7 billion in 2050. This, along with an article in the New York Times that claims that humans waste 1.3 billion tons of food each year, suggests that the current model of food production is capable of feeding the current population of almost 8 billion. We should be able to feed every person currently alive; yet the annual death rate due to malnutrition seems to turn this statement on its head. According to WorldHunger.org, over 3 million children die from undernutrition every year. But feeding the hungry and the poor in underdeveloped countries is simply not profitable for capitalists.
Furthermore, “about three million people around the world die from vaccine-preventable diseases,” with a majority of these deaths resulting from a lack of immunization, as stated by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
It’s not like pharmaceutical companies don’t have the ability to distribute vaccines to underdeveloped countries, as there are vaccine distribution organizations that can assist them with the tasks, nor are pharmaceutical companies short on money to produce vaccines. According to Statista, pharmaceutical companies made around $425 billion in domestic revenue in 2020 alone. Millions of needless deaths could be prevented from occurring in poor countries, but it doesn’t happen because it’s not worthwhile for capitalists driven by profit.
In response to president Biden’s agreement with the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines, US pharmaceutical companies lobbied against the president to protect their own intellectual property. According to CNBC, this decision by the WTO would allow poorer nations to increase production of their own vaccines, which would help countries around the world combat COVID-19 more effectively without relying on pharmaceutical companies who raise the prices of their vaccines unfairly. In fact, in a report by The People’s Vaccine, Pfizer sold individual vaccine doses at $6.75 to the African Union, when each vaccine dose costs less than $2 to make. COVID-19 has taken the lives of over 6 million people and infected hundreds of millions more, yet this time of crisis, pharmaceutical companies continue to exploit the desperation of countries simply trying to protect their citizens, all the while racking in substantial profits.
After two years of debate over the vaccine patent waiver, the WTO eventually adopted the Ministerial Decision on the TRIPS Agreement in 2022, which resulted in a waiver of patent rights on vaccines.
Lack of clean drinking water is also a source of high, preventable death tolls. According to Our World in Data, unsafe water sources are responsible for 1.2 million deaths each year, while Water.org claims that 771 million people lack access to clean drinking water. Freshwater is indeed becoming a scarce resource. According to the BBC, water supplies are declining everywhere around the world, and the demand for water is increasing as the population grows. While we do currently have enough clean water for everyone to use, this may not be the case in the near future, partly due to water management corporations who seek to drive profit.
For example, in California–one of the hardest drought stricken regions in the US–almost 2,000 wells ran dry after it suffered its worst drought in 1,200 years. Evidently, the state needs to regulate its water consumption, which it has started to do by passing a number of laws.
As recorded by Los Angeles Times, the most recent water law in California prohibited overwatering yards, cleaning cars without a shutoff nozzle, and watering grass within two days of rain. California has taken steps to address the drought at a personal level, but corporations have other ideas as to what to do with clean water. Rather than contributing to the efforts of conserving water or distilling saltwater, corporations in California find it more profitable to redirect water to their almond farms. Not only are almonds incredibly water-costly, as stated by PAESTA, but the almond industry has raked in an annual profit of 11 billion dollars. In fact, almonds alone take in 10%of the state’s freshwater, 80 million gallons that could have gone to California residents. Corporations would rather use water on profitable expenditures rather than provide for the people of the region who desperately need the resource.
According to The Atlantic, people drink an average of 7,242 ounces of water annually, about 57 gallons. If we were to redirect the water used by almond corporations to people in the US, we would be able to provide over 1.4 million people with clean drinking water for a year. Because of corporations, our much needed water is redirected into projects that benefit only the richest few while hundreds of millions are left without the necessity of clean water.
As reported by Bloomberg, Nestle made$7.7 billion worldwide in 2015 from selling bottled water, with $343 million coming from its operations in Michigan. However, Nestle pays next to nothing to create its product; in Michigan Nestle only pays $200 for the water it bottles. Privatization and commodification of water by companies like Nestle facilitate contaminated water, the rising price of water, and water shortages throughout the US. In 2003, a judge ruled against Nestle citing data illustrating how the three years of water extraction by the company led to a significant depletion of the area’s streams and wetlands, proving Nestle created the water shortage.
When a shortage of a commodity occurs, its prices go up, limiting access. A shortage of clean water could lead people to seek other water sources that could cause disease or even death, a pattern evident within third world countries. With the amount of money water companies like Nestle possess, it wouldn’t be difficult for them to construct water distillation plants in impoverished nations. They could help solve the issue of water scarcity, but instead, they focus on garnering profit, and allow millions of people to die each year.
Though capitalism has been touted as the most successful economic system and is praised for pulling millions out of poverty, the reality is much less glamorous than what capitalists would have us believe. In modern society, we have more than enough resources for everyone on Earth, yet there remains widespread starvation, deaths from vaccine preventable diseases, and shortages of clean drinking water. We are able to provide for everyone, yet we choose not to because abandoning the pursuit of self-interest and profit to work towards the greater good is contradictory to the central ideas of capitalism. With this in mind, it may be time that society transitions into an economic system that redistributes resources more evenly.