by Jeff Mackler and James Fortin, published on Socialist Action, May 21, 2020
Over the past several weeks, daily new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. have remained in the 22,000–25,000 range. By June 1, it is estimated that the number of deaths each day will rise to 3,000. Yet all 50 states now have begun lifting socially-protective measures aimed at containing the coronavirus, planning to “re-start” the U.S. economy – primarily by sending workers back to work. Why is this, and what really should be done?
The foundational basis of the U.S. capitalist economy is the profitable exploitation of human labor, without which the economy falters. To date, an unprecedented 36 million have filed for unemployment insurance. Nearly half of the entire U.S. workforce is without a job. In this context, the current drive led by U.S. capitalism’s twin political parties to send workers back to work is not only understandable, but absolutely necessary, regardless of the cost in human lives.
Profits are in a severe free fall not seen since the Great Depression that began in 1929. Accordingly, the back-to-work imperative being promulgated by the ruling class and its political parties offers both an ostensible “scientific” rationale as well as an economic bludgeon. On the one hand, while there is virtual unanimity in the scientific community – even in its operations under profit-first capitalism – that any premature generalized return to work today can only lead to increased death rates, U.S. capitalism and its counterparts around the world are in the process of “experimenting” with formulas wherein workers can more or less safely, they insist, return to work.
On the other hand, workers are being beaten back to work by the termination of the government’s token and short-term relief measures, and the soon-to-expire extension of temporarily enhanced unemployment benefits. Old employers not hiring you back? No worries, there is always a part-time, temporary, low-benefit job in a grocery store at a whopping $10 or $12 an hour, with the added value of a food bank waiting line. Tens of millions of workers, who live paycheck-to-paycheck, not to mention the tens of millions that have been excluded from any relief, will be expected to bend to necessity and risk their lives to survive.
Return-to-work “science” and “success formulas”
Formulas for reopening schools around the world include often-contradictory guesstimates about whether to begin with elementary age children, allegedly less vulnerable to COVID-19, or to start with secondary school students. The latter are said to be more capable of adhering to the various social distancing and protective gear regulations being used to lessen the spread of the disease.
Here, the concern of the ruling rich is significantly more focused to free up home-bound parents to return to the workplace than it is to the education and safety of students (or for that matter, the health of their parents). Needless to say, the often symptom-free youth, multiple tests notwithstanding, will daily return home to live with parents and other relatives who can only be subjected to further infection.
Whatever the adopted formulas, whichever charts and graphs and however many regulations will be employed to send students back into populated schools and workers back to workplaces, they are calculated in the context of a deadly virus that continues to infect and kill additional multitudes around the world, daily. These actions have a counterpoint: the present and critically necessary social distancing and quarantines that save lives. The so-called flattened curve or current plateau of new infections in the U.S. represents a statistical assessment of COVID-19 at its height. The notion that a level of safety has been achieved when their charts record 14 consecutive days where there is no increase in the daily number of new cases is sheer demagogy.
By comparison, in China, eleven million people are being tested in Wuhan, where the pandemic is said to have originated –the entire population of the city – as even a handful of new cases poses the threat of yet another major outbreak. In the U.S., in contrast, the percentage of tested individuals is closer to three percent! And the reported number of new cases every day stands close 23,000. Recent data from major Latin American cities, previously thought to be relatively free from the virus, indicates that across the continent infection and death rates parallel, if not exceed, the worst examples in the U.S. and Europe.
In New York, the state with nearly 25 percent of the nation’s deaths, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo alternates between cautioning against any early re-opening of schools and businesses, to daily speculation that a gradual if not generalized return to work is on the horizon. Ever vacillating, Cuomo’s recent appearance with leading billionaire charter school advocate Bill Gates, saw Gates pontificating about the great advances in technology that might be brought to public education itself, that is, virtual, stay-at-home education. In consequence, the sale of hundreds of “unnecessary” city school buildings might offer a profit bonanza to New York City’s billionaire real estate tycoons. Perhaps even living teachers would in time be deemed unnecessary! For now, however, Gates’ dream of technology-driven education without schools or teachers is a mere hint of what the future holds. But disaster capitalism knows no limits.
Disaster capitalism and the coming second wave
In the few countries where the curve of new infections has significantly dropped no one denies that, absent an effective vaccine made available to the entire population, anything resembling a generalized return to work can only result in a second, if not third wave of infections and deaths, perhaps worse than the present wave. Top scientists, from the Trump administration’s epidemiologist expert, Anthony Fauci, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield, to World Health Organization officials, attest to the fact that any premature return to work would likely result in a second wave that could again overwhelm any nation’s medical system to a degree that would dwarf the horrors associated with the present wave. The ruling class response to this obvious scenario? Yes, true enough, they state repeatedly, but we have to get back to work. Without an effective and available vaccine, perhaps in 12–18 months, if not several years from now, there is really no alternative, they say, but to carefully re-open the system, and to manage the re-opening to minimize the “inevitable risks” – that is, the consequent and massive loss of lives.
“Management of the risks” operates with the unstated premise that the slow and ever-progressing spread of the coronavirus would take its toll in lives BUT would leave ever-increasing proportions of the population with an alleged – but yet to be proven – “natural” immunity. Indeed, this theory has been initially called into question. A May 16 Associated Press dispatch read:
“Five sailors on the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt were sidelined in Guam due to a COVID-19 outbreak. The five have tested positive for the virus for the second time and have been taken off the ship, according to the Navy.”
The AP dispatch continued:
“The resurgence of the virus in the five sailors underscores the befuddling behavior of the highly contagious virus and raises questions about how troops that test positive [and then recover from the disease and then test negative twice, according to the report] can be reintegrated into the military, particularly on ships.”
Herd immunity as a virus management tool
Perhaps the most scandalous proposal to manage the virus came from Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister. Herd immunity in a sane scientific world is a result of massive, society-wide vaccinations (which are currently unavailable). The vaccination of 80 to 90% of the population provides widespread immunities that stop the viral spread. The most important example of this is found with immunocompromised children who cannot be vaccinated but who can safely participate in a school environment where everyone else is immune.
Perverting the scientific basis to this concept of herd immunity, however, Johnson blatantly proposed that all citizens in the United Kingdom simply return to work and let the virus take its course without a vaccine. Eventually, in Johnson’s playbook, as more people came down with COVID-19 and then recovered, the population as a whole, by some future date, would develop the necessary virus antibodies. Getting to that point of societal immunity, however, would call for massive numbers of deaths – otherwise mitigated through quarantine and social distancing – while waiting for sufficient societal antibodies to take hold. Johnson’s quick fix for getting people back to work was met with enormous public push back and that particular idea was dropped.
Johnson’s ready acceptance of a quickened and intensified death count to manage the virus has been matched by his cohort in the White House, President Trump. Throughout 2020 Trump has attempted to minimize the pandemic by demonstratively refusing to wear a mask and challenging the death and infection data presented by the scientific community. While avoiding the brash acceptance of increased deaths to quell the pandemic as Johnson has done, Trump tacitly follows the same line in his aggressive push to “open the economy” by supporting right-wing, gun toting protestors who clamor for the right to go back to work, and in his repeated statements that, “Vaccine or no vaccine, we are back.”
Meanwhile, Tyson Corporation’s food magnates have virtually forced their unvaccinated, largely immigrant workers, who they describe as their “team,” to stand elbow-to-elbow, with co-workers literally vomiting on the animal disassembly line. Stricken with COVID-19 in slaughterhouses where over 1,000 have tested positive to date, the working conditions of these workers vividly illustrate capitalism’s wholesale disregard of health in favor of profit.
Trump praises Tesla’s chief’s return to work order
President Trump’s recent praise of billionaire Tesla chief Elon Musk’s defiance of an Alameda Country order banning the re-opening of the Fremont, California Tesla plant stands as a glaring example of a reactionary president who publicly approved the violation of a county health regulation aimed at protecting workers from the deadly consequences of returning to work. Musk publicly challenged California officials to arrest him. None did.
One can only grimace at Trump’s nod of approval to the small-scale armed protests at the Michigan statehouse, or for the threatening AK-47-armed thugs at a Texas tattoo parlor, where a handful defied state closure orders in the name of defending civil liberties. This is the same Trump who declared that “There were good people on both sides” when armed fascists in Charlottesville attacked peaceful demonstrators.
Trump’s atrocities were compounded when “liberal” California Governor Gavin Newsom declined to intervene at the Tesla plant on the grounds that enforcement of the state’s ban on returning to work was to be left to local county administrations. “Liberal” Alameda County, with the highest Democratic Party registration rate in the state – 90 percent – sent a handful of Fremont police to monitor Musk’s compliance with the county’s health and safety regulations. Newsom, as well as all previous Democratic Party majority legislatures, had previously gutted Cal-OSHA (California Occupational Safety and Health Administration), which refused to set foot on Tesla’s Fremont property. Today, Cal-OSHA has less than 200 inspectors plus one doctor and one nurse to monitor the working conditions of 18 million California workers. The result? Multi-billionaire Musk – whose worldwide Tesla non-union operations, including in China, exceed the combined wealth of the present U.S. Big Three automakers, Ford, General Motors and Fiat-Chrysler – got off scot free, with a handful of cops supposedly deployed to monitor its massive assembly lines.
Science under capitalism
Today, the Trump administration has assigned two figures to lead the government’s “Warp Speed” drive to find an effective vaccine for the coronavirus. GlaxoSmithKline’s former chair of vaccines, now venture capitalist, Moncef Slaoui, will lead the scientific aspect of the project, along with four star General Gustave F. Perna, who will serve as the project’s chief operating officer, preparing in advance for the manufacture and distribution of a hoped-for vaccine that is proven to be safe and effective. Slaoui served as chair of the board of the Moderna pharmaceutical giant.
While it appears from Trump’s belated announcement of Operation Warp Speed that this government-led project, perhaps the first of its kind in this field, will consult and collaborate with all private corporations in the endeavor to avoid wasteful duplication of efforts, it remains to be seen if the search will be based on a collective effort as opposed to the usual secretive research and development projects where profits and patents go to the victor. In the same vein, while the Trump administration and other major capitalist nations with the necessary resources to find a vaccine have indicated their willingness to share such a discovery with all nations, to date there have been few indications that the research process itself will be an internationally coordinated and collective effort, as opposed to being conducted in the traditional competitive capitalist profit-first mode.
Trump’s Warp Speed vaccine pursuit exposed
Trump’s insistence that his Warp Speed vaccine project had been on the mark early on was contradicted by Rick Bright, the Trump-fired whistle-blower director of the government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).
“If we fail to develop a nationally coordinated response, based in science, I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged, causing unprecedented illness and fatalities,”
Bright told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health on April 26. Bright continued in his testimony,
“Time is running out. The window is closing to address the pandemic because we still do not have a standard, centralized, coordinated plan to take our nation through this response.”
Bright’s stunning remarks, almost immediately characterized by Trump as emanating from “nothing more than a really disgruntled, unhappy person,” stood in sharp contrast to Trump’s deceitful assertions that his administration had been on top of the COVID-19 pandemic from the beginning. “Our window of opportunity is closing,” Bright warned again.
“The undeniable fact is there will be a resurgence of the COVID-19 this fall, greatly compounding the challenges of seasonal influenza and putting an unprecedented strain on our health care system…Without clear planning and implementation of the steps that I and other experts have outlined, 2020 will be the darkest winter in modern history.”
Closing hospitals during a pandemic
The ongoing economic meltdown now occurring during the pandemic has exposed multiple contradictions in the economic system, pointing to the irrationality of capitalism itself and the need for socialist solutions. Working people in the U.S. continue to lose tens of millions of jobs, and with those lost jobs comes the further loss of health insurance tied to their employment.
The spectacle of impending massive hospital closures at a time when the need for expanded medical facilities are on the order of the day will shock more than a few. The American Hospital Association (AHA) reported that hospitals are losing an estimated $50 billion a month. 134,000 hospital employees were among the estimated 1.4 million health care workers who lost their jobs last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hospitals reported seeing between 40 and 70 percent fewer patients from late March through early May, many of them scheduled for profitable services like orthopedic surgery and radiological scans. These services, operating in the context of today’s largely privatized medical institutions inexorably tied to giant insurance company conglomerates, provide services that include knee replacements at $175,000 each and multiple leg fracture repair at $220,000!
The decline in revenue is expected to be especially high among hospitals that have commanded these high prices from private health plans, like the Mayo Clinic. Sixty percent of the Mayo Clinic’s $11.6 billion annual patient revenue came from privately insured patients. Just three percent was derived from those on Medicaid, the system of national health insurance for those requiring financial assistance. The rest came from patients who were either were covered by Medicare or paid their own costs.
In short, at a time when low-cost universal healthcare, a virtual norm with regard to the healthcare systems of most advanced capitalist nations, is desperately needed, the very nature of the profit system may press less profitable hospitals to close down due to profit losses, according to the AHA, and to terminate jobs of countless workers in the industry. Well aware of the financial dilemma facing this profit-first and increasingly monopolized industry, the government’s initial $2.2 trillion bailout package included generous billions to the profit-gouging corporate hospital elite.
Destroying food as the unemployed seek food banks
As the 1% exposes its focus on profits rather than health, we observe the irrational closure of hospitals in the face of a pandemic and increased need for health services. Similarly, as the ruling class allows the unemployed to go hungry because it is not profitable to feed them, our society must watch the mind-numbing juxtaposition of willful destruction of livestock and milk dumping together with blocks-long food bank waiting lines.
The U.S. produces massive food surpluses, more than enough to feed the entire population. Yet, working America is increasingly characterized by food insecurity. Even before the influx of millions of newly unemployed people, one of five working adults and one in three children existed in this tragic food-deprived state.
Rather than destroy food or cease “unprofitable” food production, supermarkets can and should be opened with food free to all. Rather than close “unprofitable” hospitals, free, quality healthcare can be provided for all as well, and hospitals previously closed should be reopened for public benefit. And rather than tolerate a pharmaceutical establishment that shuns open, collective, and coordinated work in favor of secret operations to be first to patent and monopolize production of vaccines for profit, we should nationalize the pharmaceutical industry to the benefit of all humanity.
The urgency and rationality of socialist solutions
In all these matters, simple socialist solutions, like free health care for all, free food for the hungry among us, and free guaranteed housing for the economically displaced through no fault of their own, are within the technological and financial reach of present-day society. But they are denied to the majority by the twin parties of capitalism. Instead, the Democrats and Republicans offer no solutions other than more of the same – massive tax cuts for the rich, ongoing transfer of wealth to the top 1%, unending war spending of dollars that could be used to save lives, instead of extinguishing them. Indeed, the entire electoral season has been largely eclipsed by a crisis for which both capitalist parties are joined at the hip in allocating unprecedented waves of trillions of dollars largely to capitalism’s corporate elite. The ruling class is exclusively responsible for the horrors facing untold millions of workers who had been pushed to the edge before the COVID-19 pandemic and now whose lives are increasingly in free fall. What socialism offers is the rational alternative.
Jeff Mackler is the national secretary of Socialist Action. He is also Socialist Action’s candidate for U.S. President in the 2020 elections and he was the Socialist Action candidate for President in 2016. Mackler founded Northern California Climate Mobilization, is a longtime teacher and union activist with the American Federation of Teachers in Hayward, California and is director of the Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal.
James Fortin is a staff writer for Socialist Action newspaper and a member of the Socialist Action editorial board.