The Next Wave: Capitalism’s Covid Crisis

by Marc Rome, published on Socialist Action, April 28, 2022

Capitalism is a death cult!” seems to pop up every so often on social media, and it’s apropos: political and economic leaders at every level of society seem resigned to mass death by Covid-19. A death cult is defined as “a religious group that requires demonstrations of faith involving the risk of death.” The point is to not strictly interpret this definition as it applies to today’s macabre reality, but to highlight that mass death is synonymous with capitalist rule. It could be said that the late Madeline Albright, former US Secretary of State and purveyor of mass death, succinctly captured the system’s cold essence. When asked whether the 1.5 million Iraqis killed by the US military during a war based entirely on falsehoods, she simply stated, “It was worth it.”

In the last two years since the coronavirus pandemic began its global death march, US capitalism has decided that nearly 1 million killed by a virus of their own making (the capitalist origins of covid are taken up in this author’s previous article), too, are worth it. Light 500 candles when the death toll reaches half-million and get on with the next half-million. Profit above all!

In a world in which the true global Covid-19 death toll is 18.2 million, capitalism today bears a striking resemblance to how it appeared upon its arrival over 300 years ago: “Dripping from every pore,” to borrow from the Communist Manifesto, “with blood and dirt.”

According to a recent study, average life expectancy for white people has declined by 1.13 years during the pandemic. For Black and Latino people, it has declined by 2 and 3 years, respectively.

As dominant ideologies generally pervade mass consciousness, the anti-vaccination movement and adjacent co-thinkers, too, have embraced this suicidal and racist ethos, influenced by myriad social and political forces, chief among them the profit motive and its consequent hyper-individualist capitalist culture.

For a significant layer of US society, there is also a sense of powerlessness and anxiety in the face of neo-liberalism’s steam-rolling through the last vestiges of collective minded action modeled by the Russian Revolution in 1917, the militant US labor movement of the 1930s and 1940s, and later, by the global radicalization of the 1960s and 1970s. For a generation that has experienced unmitigated victimization by a political economy of capitalist throw away culture, which doesn’t exclude the expendable worker and decimated small businesses outmatched by corporate power, their sense of abandonment and betrayal by the system and its subservient political machine is palpable. Each election cycle, the outcome of which, no matter which wing of the two-party system prevails, fails to address their lived experience of economic precariousness, attendant despair driven addiction epidemics created by Big Pharma, and the normalization that physical and mental health crises should be managed individually through privatized health systems, often at great financial cost, which continue to mount as free covid testing has expired for the 31.1 million without health insurance. To expect mass acceptance of solutions—be they health related or otherwise–promoted by corporate controlled governments is to ignore the utter failure of these very governments to solve, let alone effectively manage generalized crises. The covid crisis is no exception.

From Trump’s Science Advisor Paul Alexander stating that, we want them infected,” for their strategy of achieving herd immunity; to so-called progressive Alexandra Ocasio Cortez grimly heralding victory of legislation that funds covid-related funerals (in stark contrast to her refusal to the fight for Medicare For All); to the decision by governments at almost every level to drop virtually all covid protective mandates; to the January 20th Supreme Court decision that killed a national (albeit incomplete) vaccine mandate; and the Democrats decision to drop $15.6 billion in covid related funding in the recent $1.5 trillion dollar federal spending bill, the most powerful political institutions and leaders have made it clear that there will be no quarter for the masses suffering the Covid-19 crisis.

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and Biden administration advisor, spoke for the entire capitalist class who chafed at the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) 10-day quarantine for covid positive workers–which reduced the number of productive (read, profit making) work hours–when he voiced his support for the 5-day quarantine period to “get people back to work faster.” A preprint scientific article concluded that 1 in 3 people are still infectious after 5 days, but Fauci and the CDC simply ignored science that didn’t serve their corporate masters.

Even Randi Weingarten, president of the nation’s second largest teachers’ union, American Federation of Teachers (AFT), who opposed distance learning for covid safety, genuflected before the altar of the all-mighty economy, and then offered as sacrifices teachers, students, communities, even the entire society! “Kids, our society, our communities need very much to do whatever we can to create normalcy,” she said in a January New York Times opinion piece, “Whether it’s kids learning, whether it’s isolation issues, whether it’s the economy.”

More recently, Fauci raised the white flag on April 10th and assured the privatized health care barons that a socialized, collective, public-health-response based approach the ongoing crisis was a dead letter. Individual health choices, as before, are the order of the day.

“[Covid] is not going to be eradicated and it’s not going to be eliminated. So, you’re going to make a question and an answer for yourself, for me as an individual, for you as an individual. What is my age? What is my status? Do I have people at home who are vulnerable that if I bring the virus home there may be a problem?”

Airline industry bosses could not have interpreted Fauci’s statement as anything but the opening they’ve been waiting for. Following an unsuccessful bid last September, they renewed their calls to end the mask mandate on planes, and US District Judge Katheryn Mitzell– a Trump appointee, whom the American Bar Association deemed as “unqualified” for having only 8 years of experience practicing law–promptly delivered a decision in their favor. Her ruling struck down the CDC mandate for masking during travel, which includes not only airlines, but all other forms of mass, public transit. Biden quickly abided by the ruling and said that for those traveling by way of plane, train, or bus, it was “up to them” to wear a mask. Cold comfort for bus drivers whose ranks have fallen victim to the virus in 10 states or to the 220 Amalgamated Transit Union workers dealt a similar fate.

The US Justice Department has appealed the mask mandate ban, which could eventually end up before the Supreme Court where it faces a court that has already struck down Covid-19 vaccine mandates. A ruling upholding the mask mandate ban would further undermine an already weak, and arguably obsolete CDC who have demonstrably caved to the prerogatives of the ruling rich.

The rash jettisoning of nearly all Covid-19 safety measures at the behest of corporate giants and governments at all levels is beyond disconcerting considering the recent tsunami wave of Omicron (B.A.1) variant. At its crest in January, daily cases several times surpassed one million and average case counts lingered at 800,000/day for weeks. Covid hospitalization reached the highest number since the pandemic began, causing severe strain at hospitals across the country, exacerbated by staffing shortages for front-line health care workers falling ill. In some cases, nurses who tested positive were being forced to come back to work even before their quarantine time has expired. From late August through mid-March, the US daily death toll was never less than 1000. For two weeks, when Omicron was at its worst, between the end of January and early February, daily deaths were as high as 3900 (February 4th).

Meanwhile, the B.A. 2 Omicron variant has driven increased case counts in the U.K. and elsewhere. China, a global leader in controlling the virus, has recently experienced its worst wave since the pandemic began; similarly in South Korea, where daily caseloads broke records: as of March 12, they exceeded 380,000. Currently, more than half of US states are experiencing B.A.2 fueled increases in case counts, which are still evident even as public testing infrastructure winds down, due to the aforementioned gutting of covid funding by Democrats in Congress.

Myriad factors will dictate the severity of the next covid wave: immunity afforded by previous infection, protection from infection-plus-vaccines, and other mitigating factors communities may take such as masking, distancing, and isolating. But one should not rest the laurels of a previous Omicron infection, which results in less robust immunity compared to previous variants.

With only 44% of the population having received a booster vaccine, the end of virtually all other mitigating covid safety precautions, and hospitalizations on the rise, the current relatively low daily death toll in the US will begin an upward trend.

Is Omicron the final variant?

A recent piece in the New York Times made a scientifically sound case for the continued evolution of coronavirus, which points toward perilous health and safety outcomes for workers and communities globally. The prediction outlined in that piece has been confirmed: the current surge in cases in New York City is driven by two new Omicron sub-variants. A new virus subtype has been found in China. The question remains if Omicron and Delta will decline as dominant as these or another subvariant take hold in a world that is only 58% fully vaccinated. With 395 million confirmed global cases, and at least double that number, the virus has ample hosts to infect, mutate, and lead to more deadly outcomes.

Vaccine apartheid– globally, 70% of rich nations are fully vaccinated while among the poorest nations it is a mere 5%.–is a major factor in why the virus has become endemic. As Marxist thinker and epidemiologist Rob Wallace pointed out in the Socialist Action webinar, Covid and Capitalism, the global inequity in vaccine distribution has allowed “variants to emerge in a way that will subsequently allow pathogens, the virus, to escape vaccines that we have in place.” Thus, new variants, like Delta and Omicron, won’t necessarily originate from parts of the globe–India and South Africa, respectively—that are largely unvaccinated; the wide-open playing field afforded to the virus in an unevenly vaccinated world created the conditions in relatively highly vaccinated New York City to also become a viable petri dish for new variants.

The type of global response needed to mitigate mass suffering by covid has been hampered by the by the dominance by the top 0.01%, including The World Health Organization (WHO), which began on the basis of, “an open medicine model,” according to Rob Wallace, through which “prophylaxis would be freely distributed throughout the world. [Bill] Gates went in there with American and European pharmaceutical companies and put a kibosh on that.” Philanthropists, including the Bill Gates Foundation, have exerted profound control over NGOs globally, like the WHO, which is 70% funded by capitalist foundations. “Gates imposed what’s called a Covid-19 Act Accelerator, which is ostensibly going to distribute vaccines at discounted prices to 20% of the poorest nations,” continued Wallace, “but based entirely on the intellectual property rights model,” ensuring that patents will remain intact to protect their profits. Freely sharing an essential tool to protect the world from the virus, especially the most vulnerable, is anathema to billionaires.

US vaccine mandate and organized labor

Last summer, when national vaccine mandates were being implemented, there was a glimmer of hope. The Occupational Health and Safety Agency officially presided over the since stuck down mandates for 83 million private sector workers, 10 million public healthcare workers, and 3.5 million government workers (a recent ruling has reinstated the vaccine mandate for government workers), there was reason to believe that the worst outcomes of the pandemic could be avoided. Polls showing that the vaccine mandate had a 60% national approval rating were still more reason for optimism given that covid vaccines remain an effective modality against severe disease and death.

Labor was stepping up, too. The 2.1-million-member Service Employees International Union came out in support of universal vaccination. Teachers in Chicago, San Francisco, and Oakland launched modest, yet critical mobilizations demanding covid safety for student, teachers, and their communities, winning some safety concessions. Students in New York City and Oakland staged walk outs and protests demanding more safety.

Yet, a sizable minority of labor cried foul and opposed the mandate. Some said it violated their personal autonomy; others sited religious beliefs. Still others called them a violation of union contracts, outraged that management imposed a scientifically iron clad safety measure. These unionists countered that the mandate was a change in working conditions which required bargaining in “meet and confer” discussions between the union and management. Vaccine resistant workers didn’t win the first battles, but their demands are now the order of the day and enjoy the backing of the US capitalist class.

In retrospect, this moment of historic defeat for worker safety was predicted by glaring absence of any mass mobilization of consequence by organized labor to demand health and safety for all workers. Labor misleaders have stood by for over 2 years, failing to act on the slogan of “an injury to one, is an injury all!” while thousands of their members perished and millions more are at risk.

CDC vs The People’s CDC

In February, the Center for Disease Control drastically changed the way in which it described and measured the pandemic and, thus, fundamentally altered how the powers-that-be would orient to it in terms of threat, precautions, and mitigation. Community Transmission has been replaced by Community Spread. Behind the simple change in terminology are new metrics that disallow for true scientific analysis of the pandemic and have, overnight, transformed what was previously considered high transmission into a low transmission scenario. Currently, up to 2 times the number of cases/100,000 previously considered high is now deemed low.

Whereas Community Transmission models pegged 50-100 cases/100,000 people as “high or substantial”; Community Spread sets “less than 200” as acceptable, so long as hospital metrics are low.

The People’s CDC, a group of highly trained, principled scientists committed to a true socialized public health response to the pandemic, detail the failure of the CDC’s guidelines as being

“at odds with a public health strategy that would aim to keep you and those around you safer and minimize risk during the ongoing pandemic. The CDC is telling us that we, as individuals, can afford to bear those costs. And it’s telling us the institutions that should be helping us – our government, our workplaces, and other institutions – can’t afford to help us. And worse yet, the people who can least afford to pay the costs will pay the highest ones: The new guidance ignores the wellbeing of those most vulnerable communities who have been most affected by COVID, including the immunocompromised and disabled, the pregnant, those with lower incomes, those working in higher-risk jobs, indigenous, Black, Latinx communities, the unvaccinated, including children, the elderly, diabetics, and others with chronic diseases. It thus further shifts the burden of responsibility onto vulnerable people to fend for themselves, and to make difficult, constantly changing risk assessments. These recommendations do the political work of trying to convince the public that this pandemic is over.”

Covid, class, race, and disability

The already yawning wealth gap made was made even more obscene during the pandemic. In the US alone, billionaires saw their incomes surge by $1.7 trillion dollars (62% richer) while workers lost jobs in the millions, unemployment benefits were cut off, and household debt surged by $1 trillion. As of February 2022, in California alone, “740,000 renter households–overwhelmingly low-income households who experienced job and income losses during the pandemic,” according to State of Waiting: California’s Rental Assistance Program on the Eve of Expiration, “owed their landlords an estimated $3.5 billion in back rent.” BIPOC communities, disproportionately housing insecure before the pandemic, are even more so today.

Against this backdrop of economic, social, and racial inequity are covid death rates that disproportionately affect working class people. A preprint scientific article concluded that “age-adjusted COVID-19 deaths rates were 5 times higher in working class vs. college graduate adults 25-64 years old. Working class Hispanic, Black, and Indigenous men suffered the highest burden of COVID-19 mortality, while college graduate white women experienced the lowest death rate.”

Another study by the Kaiser Family Foundation reached similar conclusions.

Disparity in covid mortality rates is most evident among the AIAN population (American Indian and Alaska Native). In Montana, indigenous people comprise 1/3 of all covid deaths, even though they make up only 5% of the population. However, the racial disparity in Covid deaths among people of color is closing, in part due to narrowing gaps in vaccination rates among BIPOC people compared to white people.

The Black Coalition Against Covid recently published a report highlighting the that “harsh realities of COVID-19 were superimposed upon generational systems of disadvantage.”

According to The State of Black America and Covid-19, A Two-Year Assessment,

“the deep-seated history of marginalization and discrimination against Black Americans underlie inequities in education, employment, housing, nutrition, credit markets, health care, and the carceral system. The COVID-19 pandemic took advantage of these cross-sectoral inequities to hamper health-promoting resilience in the face of the global pandemic.”

“Black Americans recently experienced the highest rate of hospitalization for any racial/ethnic group since the inception of the pandemic. During the week ending on January 8, 2022, the hospitalization rate for Black Americans was 64 per 100,000. This was the highest weekly rate of any race and ethnicity at any point during the pandemic. This is more than double the highest weekly rate (26 per 100,000) seen in January 2021. This occurred during a time when major media messages touted that the COVID-19 variant was significantly less severe than previous versions.”

Prisoners–disproportionately BIPOC housed in inhumane, crowded conditions—have raised demands throughout the pandemic, which were systematically ignored, for a reduction in the prison population to prevent the overcrowding that allows Covid-19 to more easily spread. Their intentional neglect has raised questions of whether eugenic ideology was lurking beneath the surface on these modern day plantations.

Far from being a shameful moment of our past, eugenic philosophy is alive and well in the twenty-first century,” writes Laura I. Appleman​, Van Winkle Melton Professor of Law and University Research Integrity Officer at Willamette University. Her piece in HPHR thoroughly documents the fatal disregard for highly vulnerable people, including residents of nursing homes, people in psychiatric hospitals and mental institutions, and people with Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities living in congregant homes. Some were even used as test patients for experimental covid treatments.

Paradoxically, the US is witness to perhaps the largest disability wave since the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but it has garnered very little attention while looming in plain sight. Nearly 25% will experience Long Covid, a disability recognized by the American with Disabilities Act. Twenty-one million or more people have been compromised. Beset by brain fog, breathing problems, crushing fatigue, cardio-vascular irregularities, and other debilitating symptoms, they are robbed their ability to earn a living, forcing them to turn to a frayed US safety-net whose disability claims backlog is at least 750,000. Those lucky enough to have their claim processed and accepted may receive the maximum disability benefit from SSI/SSP of $1040.21/month, which creates an impossible scenario in today’s increasingly unaffordable housing market where the median cost of a one-bedroom apartment is $1216.00 (2019), to say nothing of the those whose income is essential to provide for family households.

For collective action

If the all-permeating nature of capitalism creates in the social soil fissures defined by race, class, gender, and disability, Covid-19 has seeped into these cracks, opened them wider, dug them deeper. It has made more visible to anyone willing to bear witness all which the market ignores, deems expendable, and will readily sacrifice: working people in all their beautiful rainbow colors, genders spectrums, and abilities. Crisis of such world-altering magnitude can be stunning and demobilizing, but they also can be an opportunity to imagine a better world that can be won when the systems’ very victims bridge the gaps between them and unite in collective actions to win demands, which, in these Covid-weary times are worth fighting for:

  1. Free universal health care.
  2. Universal vaccination.
  3. Free testing, systematized contact tracing, fully paid isolation for the infected until they test negative, and free treatment for anyone infected by covid.
  4. Decrease in number of work hours with no decrease in pay in order to allow people disabled by long-haul covid to continue to earn a wage adequate to meet the cost of living.
  5. Modern, dignified, and accessible housing for all that costs no more than 10% of one’s yearly net income.
  6. Emergency funding to train and hire health care, public benefit workers, and other essential workers to fill staffing shortages paid living wages plus hazard pay for the duration of the pandemic.
  7. Emergency funding to train and hire culturally competent community health workers to go door to door to administer vaccines, provide PPE, and to educate people about covid and covid-safety, with a focus on poor, working class, disabled BIPOC communities.
  8. Covid-disability benefits at a living wage, pegged to the cost of living.
  9. Rebuild the public health system.
  10. Stop over-crowding among the incarcerated. For Covid-safety, abolish the prison system!
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