COVID-19 and the new normal
Are we really all in this together?
“If the basics aren’t followed, there is only one way this pandemic is going to go… It’s going to get worse and worse and worse.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on 7/13/20
Six months after the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in the United States, over 5 million Americans have been infected with the virus and over 159,990 have died. These deaths account for 25 percent of global fatalities even though the United States only makes up 5 percent of the world population. Insufficient testing in every state means that the number of cases and deaths is almost certainly higher than official counts. The U.S. government’s response to the pandemic has been more appalling than even hardened cynics expected, and, at every turn, working people have paid the price with the harshest impact being on Black and Latinx communities.
No sober assessment of our current situation is complete without recognizing that Trump is one of the most brutish and incompetent world leaders in modern history. The political handling of this crisis has literally been a risk factor for the disease, as basic public health measures have been rejected by anti-science policy. But even the best of responses does not prioritize human need and leaves us with the false choice of re-open and risk death, or stay closed and risk eviction and starvation.
The bigger picture is one of a country mired in extreme inequality, where decades of austerity have left us without a functioning social safety net, and where virtually every facet of our lives has been shaped for the worse by the constant pursuit of profits above all else. The current for-profit system is not set up to respond swiftly and effectively to the pandemic. Furthermore, at its root, this is a pandemic born of capitalist production. The role of socialists in this moment is to connect the rebellion against anti-Black racism to the ongoing radicalization and polarization in order to ensure that the coming fight for our lives continues to develop an explicitly anti-capitalist character.
A deadly response
The Trump administration has utterly failed to mount a response to the global pandemic. Instead, Trump blamed China for the spread of COVID-19 and whipped up anti-Asian racism among his far-right base to deflect attention away from the lack of any national plan of action. The administration failed to heed early warnings (it’s unclear whether the President reads his daily briefings at all). No action was taken to support public health work abroad or to prevent the virus from spreading to the United States. Once it did, Trump’s strategy has been to downplay the virus, even suppressing testing efforts in order to keep recorded case numbers low while unrecorded cases exploded on the East and West coasts and quickly spread across the country.
Not only did Trump gut the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and other parts of the federal government necessary for a pandemic response, he has largely refused to take decisive, nation-wide action, such as declaring a national “shelter in place” order, instead leaving individual states to fend for themselves. When they did, he attacked governors for declaring their own state-wide “shelter in place” orders, spurring astro-turf, state-level protests against public health. His anti-science approach to the pandemic has politicized even basic safety measures. His followers view wearing a mask as an unpatriotic symbol of dissent rather than an act of common sense. They pack together at his indoor rallies and huge outbreaks follow.
But the incompetency and brutishness of the Trump administration is just one factor in this deadly disaster. Focusing exclusively on Trump misses all the ways in which the logic of capitalism itself has exacerbated this crisis. From its non-existent and insufficient sick leave policies, to its for-profit healthcare system, to its decimated social safety net, the United States is not built to care for its citizens at all, much less during an emergency. It is, instead, equipped to expand the profits of the super rich at all costs. Even attempts to provide aid to desperate households – like the CARES Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by the President in March – are reconfigured into lavish giveaways for big business. As record numbers of Americans file for unemployment, fail to make rent, and line up outside of food pantries, America’s billionaires saw their wealth increase by $308 billion in just the first two months of the crisis.
It is now clear that COVID-19 is spread primarily through airborne microdroplets and that indoor environments are most dangerous for people to congregate. However, this has not stopped politicians from re-opening manufacturing, retail, meat plants, and even restaurants and bars despite the very obvious risk of exposure to workers. Instead, corporations like Disney have normalized legal disclaimers stating that “by visiting Disney World you voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19” as they encourage masses of people to visit their amusement parks.
Profit over people
To date, guidelines from the National Institute for Health include two treatments for COVID-19 that have been shown to be effective: the antiviral remdesivir and the anti-inflammatory drug dexamethasone. Over 1500 studies are underway to better understand the virus and develop new therapies. Unfortunately, drug research and development is beholden to the interests of our for-profit pharmaceutical industry. Although there was much fanfare when remdesivir was released, it can best be described as a moderately effective treatment, shown to reduce the average time of recovery from COVID-19 from 15 days to 11. However, it has not been shown to affect mortality, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.
The development of remdesivir is a textbook example of the pharmaceutical industry using government funding to turn a private profit. According to Public Citizen, the federal government paid at least $70 million in both direct and indirect subsidies to bring remdesivir to the market. At the end of June, the patent holders for remdesivir announced their pricing: the U.S. price for a five-day course will be $3,120 and developed countries other than the United States will pay $2,340. Many of the sickest patients will require a 10-day course, doubling the price. While the cost will be lower in developing countries (approximately $400-$500 in India), this is still obscenely expensive for a medication that can be manufactured for less than $1 a vial.
However, until there is a vaccine, the most effective way to flatten the curve and reduce mortality has been shelter-in-place orders. Cities like San Francisco that were among the quickest to shutdown and last to reopen have had among the fewest cases and mortalities of any major city, and thus far have been able to avoid surges that leave hospitals overwhelmed. However, inadequate testing and contact tracing in the early stages of pandemic in the United States meant that local and state governments were playing catch-up around containment of community spread with disastrous results. And the federal government hasn’t even attempted to coordinate a response – even something as simple as data standardization and sharing.
Are we all in this together?
The U.S. response to COVID-19 has reflected the priorities of the ruling class. While corporations and wealthy individuals have received trillions of dollars through CARES Act (via tax write-offs) and PPP loans, low and middle-income individuals have received a one-time payment of $1200 and now expired $600 per month expanded unemployment benefits.
Major cities are bracing themselves for a looming housing crisis as CARES Act 120-day temporary eviction moratorium came to an end on July 25th. We have already seen tenants self-organizing against eviction proceedings in Brooklyn and Denver. According to Emily Benfer of the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, 20-28 million people face eviction between now and September. San Francisco — the most expensive housing market in the country — recently passed an extended eviction moratorium till January 2021. But a moratorium will not be sufficient as those who have lost work/income due to COVID-19 are unlikely to be able to pay back rent when and if they do resume work. Only the cancellation of rent will prevent millions of people becoming unhoused in the coming months.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities anticipates that state budget shortfalls could be the largest on record (an estimated $555 billion for 2020-2022 fiscal years). Without federal funding, this will mean cuts to the very services that are most needed during a pandemic: health, welfare, housing, education, and public infrastructure.
Years of defunding of education and welfare programs have left cities unprepared to provide basic services, let alone meet the current economic and social crisis. Schools are being asked to reopen in the fall, despite unsafe, under-resourced conditions. Fortunately some unions—like UTLA—have set a lead around demanding that schools cannot reopen until adequate funding and public health considerations are met. Hopefully this pressure is generalized across the country or else tens of thousands of children, teachers, and families are going to die from COVID-19.
Prior to COVID-19, our healthcare system was the shame of the world—spending twice as much as other rich countries with lowest life-expectancy and highest infant-mortality rates. Between February and May, an estimated 5.4 million people in the United States have become uninsured due to job loss—40% higher than in the 2008/9 recession. COVID-19 has dramatically raised the stakes in the fight for universal health care as basic public health responses have been thwarted by a right-wing executive who puts profits above human life.
According to the CDC, there have been 98,851 COVID-19 cases among health care personnel and over 500 deaths. This has sparked real concern about the sustainability of this essential workforce. In April, Dr. Lorna Breen—a top ER doctor in New York City who was infected by COVID-19—died by suicide. Her sister Jennifer Feist believes Dr. Breen suffered neurological impairment from COVID-19 before returning to work in “the most horrific, unimaginable conditions”.
Viruses such as COVID-19 could become a more frequent phenomenon. Global capitalism is a system of eco-destruction that creates epidemics and will continue to do so if unchanged. Most of the new pathogens that infect humans are zoonotic, meaning that they jump the species barrier, from wild monkeys or bats, or from domesticated chickens or pigs, and the destruction of ecosystems means this barrier is becoming thinner. A globalized and deeply interconnected world means that a single local outbreak can become a pandemic in a matter of weeks. The proximity of humans to domestic animals and factory farms creates Petri dishes for new pandemics.
While the COVID-19 virus does not discriminate, the burden of this disease does. The pandemic has brought to light the immense inequalities that determine who becomes sick, who lives, and who dies. Black and Latino residents of the United States have been 3 times as likely to become infected with COVID-19 than their white neighbors across state and regional lines. This is largely due to the concentration of these groups in service and production jobs where they are at increased risk of exposure as these jobs cannot be done remotely. According to 2018 Census data, 43% of Black and Latino workers are employed in service and production jobs, compared to 1 in 4 white workers.
Black and Latino workers are also more likely to be incarcerated where COVID-19 outbreaks are among the worst in the nation. Political decisions have exacerbated the crisis in prisons. In California, over 100 inmates from an overcrowded men’s state prison where hundreds had tested positive for COVID-19 were transferred to San Quentin Prison without adequate testing. San Quentin previously had zero COVID-19 cases but now accounts for 1,331 of the state’s 2,318 active COVID-19 prison cases. Twenty-two prisoners have died as of the writing of this article, forcing Governor Gavin Newsom to green-light the release of thousands of prisoners.
Indigenous communities have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19 around the world. In the United States, the Navajo Nation has seen over 8,000 cases and 300 deaths. The effects of COVID-19 are magnified by high poverty and morbidity rates, as a result of historic genocide and resettlement. In the midst of this crisis, President Trump decided to have a 4th of July rally at the Mount Rushmore monument that stands on sacred land stolen from the Lakota.
Fighting for our lives
COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. Fortunately, the uprisings for Black Lives has brought national attention to systemic racism and the role of the police in maintaining racial economic order. This movement has already seen victories, including defunding police departments, getting cops out of schools, and kicking the cops unions out of the labor council in Seattle.
It has been the single largest social movement in the history of the United States. Significantly, in the past year we have also seen the emergence of a global youth-led climate justice movement, which shares many similarities with the latest wave of protests for racial justice. They both represent a global youth radicalization borne from the horrors of capitalism and the inability of politicians to respond to the needs of the 99%. Both are driven by a deep recognition that nobody is coming to save us, a sense of having been backed into a corner. The rise of these movements also follows on the heels of the historic teachers’ strike wave of 2018, which spread across states and cities from coast to coast.
The potential to weave these movements together with complementary demands is enormous. Throughout the country, cities and states are preparing to use COVID-19 as justification for imposing austerity budgets on residents who cannot take more cuts to their underfunded schools, their crumbling public infrastructure, or to the already non-existent social safety net. The movement for Black Lives presents us with at least a partial solution, which is growing in popularity: defund the police and invest in the people. This would help to fund education, pay for universal health care, cancel rent, and implement the robust testing and contact tracing programs that would make reopening in the absence of a vaccine a reasonable proposition instead of a death sentence for thousands.
Of course, these demands are extremely expensive. While defunding police departments is absolutely necessary, it will not be sufficient to address the extreme inequalities we face. If we want to see fully funded education, Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, reparations, and providing housing for all, we will have to tax the richest 1% who have actually gotten richer during the pandemic. Here, our task as socialists is crucial. We must emphasize the connection between capitalism and these current intersecting disasters to make sure that the coming fight for our lives continues to develop an explicitly anti-capitalist character. As long as we have capitalism, we will have oppression, exploitation, and environmental destruction.
Socialists must be prepared for a coming period of intense crisis, conflict, and political struggle as the ruling class and politicians who support them try to make us pay for a crisis they enabled. We have to build a movement powerful enough to resist all attempts to lay the blame on working class individuals and instead recognize that the mass of humanity is suffering for the enrichment of the few.
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Glenn Allen, Jessica Hansen-Weaver, and Dayna Long View All
Glenn Allen is a licensed health-care worker and longtime Chicago area political activist.
Dayna Long is a member of Madison Area Democratic Socialists of America.
Jessica Hansen-Weaver is a licensed clinical social worker in San Francisco specializing in community mental health. Jessica is currently organizing with DSA's Health Worker’s Collective which is attempting to bring together workers across all health disciplines to collectively fight for a system that values people over profits.