By now any material on the COVID-19 pandemic will seem like old news. Over the course of nine weeks, the number of cases has exploded from a reported number of a little over 500 cases to nearly two million worldwide, and over 600,000 active cases in the United States alone as of writing this. Life before the crisis seems like a distant memory. For those who are lucky enough to be trapped indoors, time appears to fluctuate between incredible tedium and panic amid isolation. For those of us who are deemed “essential” workers by the necessity to treat sick patients, to provide food and medical supplies, or to transport other workers to their work sites, every day is a gamble with one’s life, with innumerable potential contact points with infected individuals who could be spreading the virus asymptomatically. The phrase “this has no precedent” brings a false sense of relief, as there is plenty of precedent for historically significant mass deaths due to uncontrolled pandemics. The last pandemic that was of the magnitude to leave governments with no recourse but to enforce widespread “social distancing” measures was just over a century ago. The 1918 H1N1 pandemic left tens of millions dead, not just in one wave, but in two, where the second wave had even more dire consequences than the first. Like the 1918 Flu Pandemic, no vaccine exists, and the mortality rate is high. Children are largely spared this time from severe illness or death, but the numbers of severely affected patients over 60 are immense, and the numbers under 60 increase as hospital systems grow stressed by lack of ventilators and intensive care beds. The hardest hit country, Italy, experienced thirteen thousand deaths by the beginning of April, and still has many weeks to go as the curve has begun to “flatten”, bringing the rate of new cases down albeit with a potential for reversal if impatient states and corporations demand workers return to crowded worksites, travelling in crowded buses.
The current predictions for the outcome of this pandemic vary greatly, due to the fact that epidemiology is based on estimating radically different outcomes depending on the actions taken. In the worst of predictions from the team at the Imperial College London, 2.2 million people would die in the United States alone, although this now seems extremely unlikely due to slow and staggered, but still efficacious, shelter-in-place orders. However, the likelihood of a low number of deaths is also effectively ruled out, given that there have already been hundreds of thousands infected, and the rate of infection has yet to subside. The best outcome epidemiology can offer is an alternative where hospitals use contact tracing to identify all persons who interacted with an infected patient and attempt rapid and aggressive tactics to reduce all networks of infected patients from social contact. This type of intervention is extremely powerful, and is overall the least invasive, requiring a shorter period of lockdown and fewer people to quarantine themselves. Given the exponential growth of infections from COVID-19, these tactics are only effective when the number of infections is extremely low. As we have seen in South Korea, where medical professionals acted quickly in isolating patients and tracking down all people they have interacted with, the infection’s spread can be diminished. When the number of infected patients jumps to one hundred, then one thousand, then ten thousand, such intervention becomes possible only through increasingly authoritarian state measures, such as the enforced quarantines and surveillance that China took to identify and isolate COVID-19 patients. South Korea has demonstrated that early intervention has an effect, and China demonstrated that heavy-handed state control also has an effect, but it appears that there is a small window of opportunity to act, and that even strict state measures may bear no fruit when resources become strained, and medical workers themselves become infected or burnt out from impossible work hours and the trauma of participation in a failing system.
The “cure that’s worse”
The prediction industry has since been unable to provide a coherent future narrative. While some right-wing commentators have held stronger than others, it appears that a large swath of the political punditry think denial is a prophylactic against respiratory infection. Most of the remaining political pundits, political scientists, economists, and other standard-bearers for capitalism have been timid in their prognostication. Like any other crisis, this appears unforeseen, and the defenders of capitalism will never neglect an opportunity to claim this is not the fault of their system, but rather it is pure misfortune, leaving for-profit medical systems—including the “socialized” or single payer systems in the world that have the marks of profiteering all over them—as effectively blameless. Some politicians and pundits have argued that the treatment is worse than the disease, but this is wishful thinking among leaders who know that lifting lockdowns would mean catastrophe. Economic devastation is not a certain outcome, and it is possible that the economy could come back with blazing speed under circumstances where normal life could resume. However, when you examine assessments by economists from all over the bourgeois spectrum, one cannot help but conclude that not a single one of these schools of economics has an answer. The reason for this is not that they lack a potential answer, but rather that they simply have never had to formulate a response to a crisis like this one.
The “supply-side” economists’ tool-box has already been spent, with interest rates throughout most countries—already at lows that were creating dangerous levels of corporate debt—at or near zero percent. The argument that the market can somehow rebound simply by making borrowing easier for firms is based on the theoretically weak position that confidence breeds prosperity. Even in a normal economic crisis, where the states of the world want nothing more than for consumer spending to continue to increase, this theory has been disproven by the unmooring of prosperity for the corporation from the proletarian over the course of the last forty years. That former model, one where worker productivity appeared to be tied to national growth, was a symptom of the economic recovery of the previous Keynesian expansion after World War 2. But Keynesian economics, which demonstrated its near inability to stimulate economic growth during the Great Depression, proved a false positive during the Post-War Boom, which turned sour by the 1970s, regardless of how much intervention the state attempted. The Keynesians have again had their moment in the sun in the past few weeks as states have attempted bailouts of varying degrees for corporations and the working class, in order to prop them up for however long the world may be on ice. This shocking resurgence of welfare capitalism has been viewed as an avenue to broach socialism to the masses by the more delirious within the left. Of course, this “socialism” by Trump or Boris Johnson’s hand doesn’t prove a new avenue toward socialism is opening. Instead it demonstrates that these measures are nothing more than a means to prop up an ailing capitalism during a crisis, meant to stymie working class rage, or at the very least to prevent a mortal blow to capitalism. The trouble with these policies of redistribution, nationalization of industry, and even war-time command style economic directives, is that they are designed to get the working class to buy commodities, i.e., increase effective demand, in order to inject more money into corporations, thus to increase hiring and push more money into the hands of consumers. Similar to the supply-side model, this demand side model offers no solution to an economy in which going to the store, to a restaurant, or to the movies is being discouraged.
Still, even with near-zero interest rates and the largest stimulus spending bills ever written being the norm across the industrialized world, economists of all stripes see no easy way out. In late November 2019, before news of the first cases in China caused tiny wavelets of concern, Goldman Sachs released a foolishly optimistic (even by pre-pandemic standards) report on global growth for 2020, amazingly titled “A Break in the Clouds”. Despite many factors pointing to a downturn, the finance researchers concluded that 2020 would see more growth than 2019. At this point in history, manufacturing was already in recession in Europe and the United States, an inverted yield curve—an indicator of future economic recession that will arrive within around 18 months of the inversion—had already been sitting on the shelf for three months. Goldman Sachs’ break in the clouds was a prediction for the best of all possible worlds. And clearly this was not the normal prediction for economists as hints of doom lay on the horizon. Corporate debt, which very well could be this era’s mortgage crisis, has been largely underplayed or ignored by economists, since the paradoxical nature of a rapidly growing capitalist economy dictates that corporate debt is very good, where sovereign states will do what they can to increase corporate debt during periods of downturn. The US corporate debt to Gross-Domestic Product (GDP) ratio, by July of 2019 stood at 74%. Even if there was room for real growth of capital through hiring or expansion of production, of which there is not, this would be a ticking time bomb. Adding to this the fact that many large corporations are using their debt to service their previous debt, and have been doing this for half a decade or more, all evidence points to economic prosperity in the past few years—what in America has been referred to as the “Trump bump”—being executed through financial gimmicks. These “zombie” corporations have been able to prevent bankruptcy through loans to pay off loans, and to maintain their current employment levels. And of course, to add insult to injury, many of these corporations have been using the additional debt to engage in stock buybacks. Firms that repurchase their own stock are able to artificially boost the share value, which can in turn make the company more appealing for future loans from financial institutions. These new loans are again often used to pay off older loans and to buy more stock back. This problem, having been ongoing since no later than 2015, demonstrates that some share of the “growth” in large publicly traded corporations can be attributed to speculation alone, and is not tied to increased value. Now, Goldman Sachs’ optimistic prediction looks humorous in light of the global pandemic. At this point virtually every economist and think tank feels safe predicting a recession. The question has been reduced to how bad the recession will be. Predicting the future state of the economy is known to be an humiliating exercise. Economists have proven to be useless in foreseeing the crisis in 2020, but have been just as useless in predicting far more obvious economic crises. But now that the crisis has already begun, economists are making their best effort to guesstimate a maybe-scenario for economic growth in the next year.
By January, the International Monetary Fund was willing to predict that the global economy, virus notwithstanding, was headed toward an almost-global-recession with 3.3% GDP growth worldwide. A Bloomberg prediction on March 10 placed the likelihood of recession in the United States at 53%, from a comically low 20% likelihood in mid-January. Of course, by early April, it appears that economists and journalists have accepted the title “recession”, even though by definition a recession requires six months of negative economic growth. The dizzying array of predictions of the impact of the pandemic/financial crisis all point to a shrinking economy, at least in the US and Europe. Some guess the US could be facing nothing more than a 6% decline in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which would be the largest decline since 1946, but is still a seemingly minor impact of a nation-wide shutdown that has already led to nearly 16 million workers to file for unemployment in three weeks, with estimates for 15% unemployment in April 2020. Others predict a drop in GDP as high as 9%, and with the Depression low of 1932 being 12.9% drop in GDP, this is an extraordinary number that could have devastating effects on all sectors of the economy. It should also be noted here that the largest sector of the US is services, which constitutes 80% of the US economy. The service sector is by far the hardest hit, with restaurants being shut down by state mandates to allow only take-out or delivery. As of writing this, restaurants have already begun shuttering permanently due to the inability to pay bills and rent.
The financialization of the global economy has concealed some glaring problems with the current state of capitalism. Overproduction of commodities globally has been maintained through various mechanisms, including cheaper labor, cheaper production costs, and a reduction in constant capital in the advanced capitalist countries as capitalists seek to increase surplus value in the face of an ever-declining rate of profit. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, reports from China indicated a manufacturing slowdown that served as a prelude to the crisis that was merely uncovered by a momentary pause in the global economy. Manufacturing had already entered a recession in the United States and in the EU. The weak American manufacturing sector, already reduced to a shell of its former self, has the potential to reach new lows as protectionism takes on new meaning. All that appears to lie ahead is a general sense of dread, although the industrial capitalist class already has a plan of action laid out for the state to bail it out in the event that assembly lines cease and profits dry up.
The treatment: Stimulus and state ownership
Not having the luxury of the optimism of economists, the capitalist states across the world understand the deep crisis that they face. They have understood that a crisis was long overdue, especially considering the lack of any real recovery after the 2008 financial crash and recession. Not only do most members of the working class still grapple with the devastating effects of that crash in regards to long hours, low wages, as well as precarious jobs and housing arrangements, but governments themselves have still been dealing in some form or another with the effects of the crash, such as the ever-expanding debt bubble that hangs over the world capitalist system like the sword of Damocles. In line with all of this, the US government has begun to take several steps to prevent itself from descending into a worst-case scenario crash.
One of these steps is the passing of a $2.2 trillion stimulus package, with the goal of pumping enough money into the economy to save it from itself. It is no surprise that it in many ways resembles the stimulus and bailout measures that were taken during the 2008 crash, although there are some notable differences which will soon be examined. Two of the main components to this package are the $500 billion corporate bailout, as well as checks that will be sent to every American citizen (excluding millions of immigrant workers, and students who were filed as dependents in the past tax year) which, for most individuals, will amount to $1,200, an amount of money that is only a bit more than the 2008-9 stimulus checks. The $500 billion bailout is capitalism’s life preserver. It is exactly the remedy utilized in 2008, where amidst the failings of practically every large corporation and industry, the government, usually so averse to spending any money on programs that might improve the quality of life of working class people, emptied its coffers to save manufacturing and banking giants from going under and bringing the entire economy with them. That capitalism used such a response should therefore not surprise us. Unfortunately for capitalism, however, such measures can only stave off the inevitable.
The 2008 financial crash saw huge firms and corporate entities that were on the verge of complete collapse and bankruptcy rescued at the last second. Banks that gambled and corporations that were reeling from the effects of their own poorly made financial decisions were bailed out by the Federal government with money from the American working class. After this, little action in the form of any sort of legislation was taken to avert such a situation in the future, which one might think would be logical. The only step taken in this direction was the passing in 2010 of the Dodd-Frank Act (only passed under enormous popular pressure for some type of assurance that the economy would not tumble down again as it had done), which was notorious for its weakness and many exploitable loopholes for financial giants (not surprising given the fact that it was written by politicians on Wall Street’s payroll as well as Wall Street itself). As negligible as this legislation is, it was weakened further than it already was in 2018, when reforms to the act were passed that removed significant parts of the bill such as restrictions on banks with assets below $10 billion, as well as exempting banks under $250 billion from regulations meant to ensure that they would be able to withstand another economic onslaught without taking the economy down with them. Much of the bill remains intact, yet it testifies to its weakness that we are in much the same position that we were in in 2008. That is, that the economic giants which control the economy yet again have proven their incompetence and disinterest in wielding their money and monetary prowess for any other purpose than their own enrichment. This unwillingness to even acknowledge or allay the concerns and fears of America’s anxious, precarious, and insecure workforce has yet again resulted in a situation in which corporate entities that possess absolutely obscene amounts of wealth will have to be saved through the generous coffers of the state. These giants did not make any contingency plans in case of another economic crash or recession, and there were no emergency funds set aside in case of such an event. They knew well beforehand that that is a job reserved for those on whom America’s economy truly runs, the working class.
Having recounted this history, it is quite clear then that measures such as this recent bailout of the largest capitalist giants, as well as any future regulatory measures that may be introduced as a way to restore trust in a very clearly broken system, are dead ends. Capitalism is cyclical and this is a very clear and observable fact to even bourgeois academics and economists. This crash was bound to happen at one point or another, however much it has been expedited by COVID-19. However given the fact that there was no real recovery from the last crash for much of the American (and international) working class, this can only mean that not only will this latest fallout be worse than that of 12 years ago, but that the cycle of crashes will occur with higher frequency, and resulting in even greater hardship for the working class.
As mentioned previously, the stimulus checks that are being sent out to Americans are not something new either. Versions of this, albeit smaller, were carried out in both 2008 and 2009 under the Bush and Obama administrations respectively. In February of 2008 during the Bush administration, the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 was passed and enacted with bipartisan support. This bill sent one-time checks of $600 to most working Americans, or those that made under $75,000 per year individually, with an additional $300 per child, and was intended to be a measure to limit the scope of any impending recession with consumer spending (this turned out to be quite ineffective and most people saved their money). The next year, in February of 2009, the Obama administration passed through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 with Democratic support and Republican opposition. Among a multitude of other provisions, this bill sent one-time checks of $250 to Americans on Social Security, those that benefited from Supplemental Security Income, and disabled veterans. The effects of these cash payments were even more negligible than the former and current working class people across the United States continued to suffer dearly after this act took effect.
What this demonstrates is that the new $1,200 stimulus checks are not new, not revolutionary (as some claim), not enough to restore lost income, and have as their sole purpose the stabilization of capitalism. This time is quite similar to past rescue packages, though the primary purpose is no longer to keep people buying and consuming products so that money continues to circulate (although that certainly is an objective). The capitalists class understands that with so many people laid off from their jobs or simply out of work and a stable source of income (as paid leave practically does not exist in the US), that that is a recipe for disaster and an explosion of the pent-up anger of the working class. If people are deprived of their income and means of paying for rent, food, and other necessities, then not only will doing nothing to ameliorate that situation cause incredible damage to the economy, but people will truly realize how little their lives really matter to the ruling capitalist class. That is a situation that they cannot afford, and so after weighing the costs and benefits, they decided to take this course of action as it would better ensure their grip on their wealth and power.
Even discounting the real purpose of these stimulus checks, it should be emphasized how utterly insulting it is that this is the “salvation” given to the working class. It speaks volumes that after losing our jobs, means of income, opportunities to socialize and have fun with friends and families, and having to take strong precautions in fear of our lives and well-being, that we are given a measly one-time payment of $1,200. It demonstrates the profound lack of any connection between the lives of working people and those of the ruling class, whether they be wealthy capitalists themselves or their representatives in the US government. Most working people in America don’t have emergency savings, or at least enough to cover any real event which would warrant emergency spending. For these workers, a single $1,200 check might not get them through May.
The US Federal stimulus with its limited effects is not the full extent of what government intervention will look like as capitalist states desperately throw away their old convictions of austerity and privatization. When all else fails, and the profitability of key sectors of industry become untenable for the foreseeable future, more drastic measures can and will be taken. In the midst of COVID-19 and the shock to the world economy there have been calls for nationalization. In the United States, Trump has stated his hesitations while other state officials argue for various policies. Across the Atlantic, Germany plans to “go ahead with robust capital injections into domestic companies, and with outright nationalizations in some industries.” France has declared it will nationalize key industries hit hard by COVID-19, and Italy has renationalized airlines. For the American left-wing magazine Jacobin, arguments for nationalization are not new. In the past few years, they have published articles arguing for the nationalization of General Motors, fossil fuel companies and pubs. In response to COVID-19 they have published articles calling for the nationalization of Amazon, food delivery apps and airlines. Regarding airlines, this Jacobin author writes, “we need to rethink the role that airlines play in our transportation networks and take them into public ownership so they can be democratically planned to achieve social and environmental goals.” Despite these cheerful words the reality is this is a means to save capital now that profitability appears impossible. Anton Pannekoek a century ago dispelled social democratic confusion of ‘socialization’ when writing, “this socialization replaces private capitalism with state capitalism; the state takes on the task of sweating profits from the workers and giving it to capitalists. For the workers little will change, as before they will have to create an income without labor for the capitalists. Exploitation remains exactly as before,” recognizing, “The suppression of capitalist property and the suppression of exploitation are thus not cause and effect, means and end, they are one and the same thing.” What Pannekoek recognized is that a mere shift into the hands of the state does not do away with the fundamentally capitalist, and thus exploitative, character of production. It is by no means foreign for an industry to be taken over by the state in times of crisis to restore profitability, and this will have to include an assault on the working class. It is not our intention here to argue for or against nationalization, but rather to dispel the dangerous illusion that the state can seize industry to the ends of the working class. Whether managed by state officials, a board of directors, or an individual capitalist, the working class will have to fight for its interests independently.
The left has made its calls for nationalization in the absence of acute crisis and will continue to make these calls if or when the dust settles. There is a storied tradition of leftists viewing the state as a neutral body, completely malleable to the will of the working class, and capable of providing socialism through seizure of private capital and consolidation of said capital into the bourgeois state. Marx challenged these ideas when proposed by Ferdinand Lasalle, and no amount of experimentation with nationalization throughout the 20th century until today, even including recent nationalization under the command of Tory governments, will challenge this dogma. Certainly, the same political commentators who placed all their eggs in the electoral basket will take joy in the compromise that their electoral enemies are now the vanguard of the socialist experiment. Communists would be remiss to wait for the left to criticize these interventions taken by the state, not while the working class, faced with a sense of urgency in its struggle to survive this crisis, fights capital on all fronts.
Inessential “essential” workers
In most places, the response to the current pandemic has included quarantines that shut down any business not deemed “essential”. The idea is to keep as many people home as possible, while still allowing society to function. After all, there are plenty of places that could close for a few weeks without costing any lives. And if those places stay open, more people could get infected–and that would cost lives.
But they can’t just shut down everything. There are some things that you can’t shut down without people dying. So, in every area where a quarantine has been ordered, there is a list of exceptions allowing “essential” businesses to stay open. These include obvious things like hospitals and the businesses that supply them, though there is a lot of wiggle room in that latter category. Transportation and logistics, grocery stores and pharmacies–these are businesses that can’t simply be shut down entirely, so their inclusion makes sense. But there are also some surprising inclusions on the “essential” list. For instance, in Ohio’s Stay at Home Order, dry cleaners are listed as essential. But are they? It’s hard to think of anyone who would die without a nicely pressed suit. Religious institutions are also included in the essential list, for First Amendment purposes. This allows churches to continue in-person services in spite of the rule against large gatherings. Apparently, God wants his followers to spread COVID-19 to each other, so that he can see them all a little sooner.
Another interesting inclusion on the “essential” list is that of financial institutions. Some of the things in that category make sense–people need money, so you can’t just close the banks down. Although it is worth mentioning that people only need money because capitalism works by depriving them of anything that they can’t afford. If we had a more rational society, we wouldn’t need banks at all, much less during a pandemic. But other things that fall under the finance exception are more puzzling. Real estate services are exempt, including appraisers. Is anyone going to die because they can’t get their house appraised right away? It seems more likely that the risk of allowing appraisals to continue is deemed low enough, and the economic harm of shutting them down high enough, that the state considered it an acceptable risk.
In addition to these “essential” businesses that aren’t essential, there are also more subtle cases. For instance, there are many businesses that occasionally do essential work, but spend the vast majority of their time doing work that could be shut down without issue. Many of these businesses have remained open, producing things that are not essential to society, using their exceptions in the Stay at Home Order as a convenient loophole. So, even businesses that are legitimately essential are finding ways to continue doing inessential work. Nor is this limited to Ohio. In New York City, construction work has been deemed essential. And while this might be a reasonable exception, it has allowed some very unreasonable things to happen. For example, there are construction workers building a luxury condominium tower in Manhattan, in the middle of a pandemic. Nothing is in danger of dying without a luxury condo, except the profits of a wealthy developer.
So, why is all of this “essential” work continuing, when it’s so obviously inessential? Why is your boss making you work when your work doesn’t really need to be done right now? Is your boss just a sadistic monster? No. Well, maybe, but that’s not the main reason behind this behavior. The main reason is that staying open and continuing production, while their competitors are closed, is a huge competitive advantage for a business. And given how fierce competition for profit has become, businesses can ill afford to give up any advantage. If a business shuts down, but their competitors stay open, they might go out of business for good. Any given capitalist, if they want to stay in business, can’t be too much more cautious than their competitors. And since there are always a few people being reckless in any industry, most businesses have to follow suit to some extent.
Now, you might think that the solution is for the state to be more aggressive about shutting down businesses that are trying to stay open when they shouldn’t. But the problem is that states face the same dilemma businesses do. States sustain themselves by taxing economic activity. In order to do that, there has to be economic activity, which means that states have to attract capital. But if a state is too aggressive about shutting down profitable businesses, then capital will move somewhere that isn’t. Nobody is going to set up shop in a place where the state’s policy decisions put them at a severe competitive disadvantage. No matter how competent or well-intentioned they may be, capitalists and politicians are bound to pursue an irrational and dangerous response to this pandemic. Capitalism is beyond their control, and as long as it exists, it will keep leading us into more and more catastrophic problems. The working class, on the other hand, will have to act in its own best interest, something that will grow increasingly clear as one’s interests are reduced to staying alive, having access to food, and remaining housed. The capitalist class and the state are pressuring workers to risk their lives in unnecessary ways with concern only over profit margins and with no regard for the health and well being of workers that are compelled by the need for a wage to risk contact with infected persons.
On March 20, Governor Andrew Cuomo banned gatherings across the State of New York and ordered all non-essential businesses in New York City to be shut down. Most of the population has been forced to practice social distancing, with cops patrolling neighborhoods, manning every other street corner to enforce the quarantine. Nearly 20% of police officers in the city have tested positive for the virus, totaling 19 NYPD deaths as of April 10. While we do not mourn the deaths of any law enforcement officers, an important thing to consider is how cops can function as carriers of the virus and potentially infect healthy civilians they come in contact with. If an officer infects someone while arresting them, there is potential for everyone else in the jail cell in which they are being held to also contract the virus.
While the shutdown of non-essential businesses is forcing millions of workers into unemployment, there is an increase in demand for essential workers to meet the needs of capital. Essential workers, especially those in healthcare, retail (grocers and supply store workers), food delivery, sanitation, and public transportation face the risk of infection everyday they are required to go to work.
There is a cruel irony in strict, police-enforced lockdown for non-essential workers and numerous health announcements meant to “flatten the curve”, compared to the outright dangerous conditions in which thousands of nurses and doctors are forced to work. Healthcare workers are the most at-risk among essential workers, since they are obligated to work the frontlines treating the ill. Thousands of nurses and doctors in states like Alabama, Massachusetts, and New York are testing positive for COVID-19. Hospitals have become a site for spreading the illness, especially due to the lack of adequate medical supplies for staff. Workers at an NYC hospital were threatened with job termination if they were found wearing masks unless required to by hospital policy. Although this rule is no longer enforced, the initial threat is just another example of the irresponsible, potentially fatal protocols which are leaving healthcare professionals vulnerable to exposure. Not only are healthcare workers not being provided with proactive testing, state guidelines allow for healthcare workers who lack symptoms to return to work even if they have been exposed to COVID-19. Workers who test positive are also encouraged to keep working if they are asymptomatic, instead of being required to isolate themselves. This poses a huge health hazard, as asymptomatic patients can still be carriers. Hospitals are already short-staffed during the pandemic, but forcing nurses and healthcare providers to continue working after exposure to the virus will only increase the rate of infection among staff, the workers’ families, as well as other immunocompromised non-COVID patients.
The CDC changed its guidelines to allow for the reuse of surgical masks and N95 masks while treating patients. Staff at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York were denied testing even after a nurse died from COVID-19. Testing for staff who showed symptoms were only made available on April 7, after healthcare workers protested outside several branches across the city demanding accessible testing. Although management for hospitals such as Montefiore and Mount Sinai claim to prioritize the safety of their patients and staff, their handling of the crisis is evidence to the contrary. Dozens of nurses and staff members have acknowledged this fact, as they continue protesting for adequate protective equipment and free testing.
The realities of working as a healthcare provider highlight how capitalism shapes how a public health crisis is handled. The lack of medical supplies, testing kits, ventilators, and hospital beds has forced physicians to decide which patients to prioritize, with some hospitals even “bullying” patients to sign “do not resuscitate” orders in an effort to prioritize younger patients who are more likely to recover. Doctors have no choice but to follow hospital regulations and the guilt which comes with making that decision is one that weighs on many physicians’ conscience. In addition to the mental exhaustion caused by overwork, thousands of healthcare providers are struggling to cope with the frequent deaths they witness on a daily basis, many feeling responsible for the patients they are unable to save. The alienation of wage labor, exacerbated by the pandemic, expressed through feelings of helplessness, mental isolation, and even suicidal ideation, have emerged as a mental health crisis among healthcare workers.
In New York, where COVID-19 has hit the hardest, nurses have been protesting outside Harlem Hospital, Mount Sinai, and Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, demanding personal protective equipment (PPE). However, healthcare workers participating in demonstrations are being targeted for speaking out about hospital conditions. A nurse in New Jersey, who was president of the local nurses’ union, was fired for taking an “unauthorized” absence in defense of a fellow nurse who was disciplined for making a Facebook post about COVID-19 exposure at their hospital. The facility’s attempt to cover up potential health risks they were liable for clearly shows hospital leaders’ prioritization of profit over the health and safety of patients and staff, and of course it does not make sense to fire a nurse for an “unauthorized absence” if the facility is already short-staffed. Another nurse at Mount Sinai was fired for expressing her discomfort with treating COVID-19 patients without proper equipment. Mount Sinai explained in a statement that she was fired for “walking off the job without notice” and claimed that they had always provided medical staff with the appropriate medical equipment necessary to safely do their jobs. Neither claim was accurate, as shown by the nurse’s doctor note confirming her anxiety, as well as various accounts of Mount Sinai employees working multiple shifts reusing the same surgical masks and gowns. It is also interesting to note the irony in asking for medical students and retired physicians to volunteer to deal with the influx of hospital cases, while simultaneously firing experienced employees for attempting to organize or for speaking out about their work conditions. This makes abundantly clear that hospital leaders and administration care far more about salvaging their reputations and maintaining a facade of “unity” than actually saving lives.
The level of neglect practiced in hospitals across the city would be considered health code violations if not for the CDC’s change in guidelines, which only serve to protect hospital leaders and for-profit medical facilities that are complicit. PPE such as surgical masks, gloves, face shields, goggles, and hospital gowns are meant to be discarded after single use. It is not a coincidence that there were no reports of any hospital workers who were infected on the job in Hong Kong, where surgical masks were not reused and infection control measures were effectively implemented, compared to the 900+ reported cases among doctors and nurses in Boston. The shortage of PPE has forced healthcare workers to wear surgical masks for multiple consecutive days, accumulating medical waste that could pose a risk for both staff and patients. Nurses across New York City hospitals have no other choice but to wear garbage bags as replacement gowns, while being exposed to coronavirus-positive patients. In an New Jersey medical facility, it was found that the administration kept N95 masks locked in an office for tight rationing, which makes it difficult to obtain one for an emergency. The chief physician executive claimed the masks were locked down because they kept disappearing from hospitals, which would put frontline workers at risk. It may have been a good excuse if not for the administration’s restriction of N95 masks and cover-up of hospital conditions putting healthcare workers directly at risk. The CDC currently endorses hospital regulations which directly endanger staff, so the hospital leaders and management can avoid responsibility for the hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths that could have been prevented with access to adequate PPE.
The barriers posed by capitalism are responsible for the shortage in supplies themselves. For a society based on capital accumulation, manufacturers would not profit if they simply had to give away medical supplies in large quantities to hospitals in need. In fact, many supplies and vital medical equipment can be homemade in 3D printers and mass distributed after assembly. A society based on social production which actually prioritizes the needs of its people would have the resources necessary to prevent the death of thousands–those who may die from complications with the virus, but were ultimately killed by the demands of capital.
Doctors and nurses find themselves at the tip of the spear in the fight against COVID-19, with diminishing supplies of the equipment that will ensure their survival. Prior to the outbreak, nurses were already struggling against poor working conditions, low pay, and under-staffing. Nurses have since made immediate demands for PPE, arguing that they must stay safe if they are going to live long enough to treat incoming patients during the expected surge. Facilities are now required to provide less than the normal amount of protection, as regulations have been loosened due to shortages. It should be expected that medical facilities and the state will proclaim that workers who were once deemed to be of low value, are now suddenly too valuable to the fight against the virus to have the right to make demands. This same faulty logic appears in the arguments against sick pay and worker protections for other workers deemed essential by state decree, such as fast food workers who are tasked with “[serving] the health care heroes on the frontlines.”
Workers in a manufacturing plant outside of Chicago engaged in a walk out after a co-worker fell ill. Like many other workers in similar situations, they have demanded sick pay and adequate quarantine and recovery time. Workers at CapTel provide call centers with text telephone captions for hearing-impaired callers, and during the crisis have seen a surge in workload. In response to the silence of management, they organized a “sick out”, or a coordinated effort to call out sick in response to their working conditions. The sick out tactic has also led to the shutdown of a meatpacking plant in Pennsylvania after some workers had tested positive for COVID-19. Instacart workers have experienced a surge in orders as more people shelter-in-place and online ordering and delivery of groceries becomes popular. Since late March, Instacart workers have been organizing a nation-wide strike making demands for a hazard pay boost of $5 per order and sick pay. Within a few days, Instacart made some concessions, offering “health and safety kits”, sick pay, and a bonus.
What all of these workers have in common is the coercive pressure to maintain a wage in order to survive, clashing with their own need to avoid a deadly disease. Survival is understood in entirely new terms under these circumstances, and this pushes workers to risk everything, as “everything” is exactly what they will lose if they are not provided with basic safety equipment and safety standards in the workplace. In all instances, the employer will feign ignorance about the concerns raised by workers, will provide a patronizing “response” that they place the health and safety of their workers as one of their “top priorities”, and they will try to negotiate a halfway measure between what the workers demand and what conditions they started with. Even in a time of crisis, workers making these demands will be met with animosity and retaliation, as we have seen from the Amazon Staten Island Warehouse walkout and ensuing nation-wide struggle for safe working conditions. Struggling workers will be painted as selfish, while those who stay shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor with no masks and no sick pay will be lauded as heroes. It is a strategy that had success during wartime production efforts, and in those times even the unions sided with capital and against the interests of their rank-and-file members. In many cases, these workers are already being touted as heroes for being willing to sacrifice their own lives for the minimum wage (and perhaps tips). It would not be a stretch to imagine in the months to come that wartime-style propaganda and that the crushing of strikes will occur in countries where even the friendliest of social democrats are in power.
After decades of a generalized assault on the working class, left limping since the great recession of 2008, driven increasingly into gig economy jobs, sometimes living in Uber cars, COVID-19 and the crisis of the boss economy has arrived like an unfair blow. A core condition plaguing our class is working low paying jobs in order to barely afford increasingly expensive housing. Indeed, in the US from 1960–2014 inflation-adjusted rents have risen by 64%, but real household incomes only increased by 18% and since 2000 household incomes have actually begun to fall in inflation-adjusted dollars while rents continue to surge. In the Canadian city of Hamilton in 2018 alone there was a 24% increase in rent, while the American city of Los Angeles has seen a 65% increase in the past ten years, with the national average at thirty-six percent. The stagnation, or decimation, of wages next to rising rents cannot be a coincidence, a blip, something that some policy band-aid could fix. The reality goes to the heart of the fundamental crisis of capitalism, the declining rate of profit. In the face of this crisis there has been a long and generalized assault on the working class. Wages have been driven downwards by a variety of methods, such as the implementation of piece wages common in the gig-economy, next to an overall assault on “the social” wage as austerity has ravaged healthcare. In this situation, flipping properties and gentrification has provided capital a way to make a quick buck, of course with the help of the state. Enter the coronavirus.
With governments around the world initiating social distancing and lockdown policy’s many workers have found themselves effectively locked out of their previous income. In America 6.6 million people filed jobless claims in the week ending April 4, and in the two weeks since that number has jumped to 16 million claims. In Canada, as of March, forty-four percent have lost their job or lost significant hours. In Alberta, a province on the brink since the drop of oil prices in 2014, Premier Jason Kenney has claimed, “I fully expect unemployment in Alberta to be at least 25 percent.” Nationwide, Canada is expected to see 3 million job losses with 50 percent layoffs in the most directly-affected sectors. The devastation of these layoffs can only be fully understood in reflection of the already precarious housing conditions facing so many workers. Data in 2016 showed that of renting Canadians 46% of tenant households have less than one month of employment income in savings and 67% have three months or less. The worst of these numbers are in the maritime provinces with 70% working households in Prince Edward Island having less than a month’s income in savings available. And with Alberta looking at 25% unemployment, as predicted by the premier, over 50% of working households have less than a month’s income available. Despite various emergency measures described as, “vague, non-committal and non-binding rules,” for the working-class rent is coming due, and the savings are running out.
While the largely defeated working class has found itself at the mercy of this crisis, pockets of struggle can serve as a clear reference point for future basic defensive actions. News of rent strikes has become commonplace among headlines. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, rising rents had pushed the necessity of tenants’ struggle across the minds of many workers. At this moment it is unclear what the scope and impact of such struggle will be. But what is important to point out is where there was an existing reference point, a class memory, the working class will be best suited for future actions. It is not a surprise that in Toronto, a city with some of the highest rents in Canada, the slogan “Keep Your Rent” has been plastered on city walls and adorns social media posts. This did not appear in a vacuum. Many tenants in Toronto can draw lessons from the Parkdale tenants’ struggles of 2018, in which a two-month rent strike was organized at a west Toronto high rise after a landlord threatened a substantial rent increase. In Los Angeles, tenants and activists have begun organizing for rent strikes in May, which may have been made easier by one unwitting landlord.
We can never be certain about the direction of struggle, but what is important is that communists aim to put housing in the context of the overall crisis. We must make the connection between the workplace and the apartment complex and situated local reference points to the total struggle of our class, in a situation where for more and more wage workers it is becoming impossible to live in the old way (Marx) and the necessity to organize politically for the revolutionary overthrow of the bosses and their state is no longer a matter of abstract debate. And while two of the most important focal points have been the workplace for those who are identified as essential, and the tenement for those workers that have lost the freedom to sell their labor power for a wage to cover their rent, there are other challenging questions that communists face given the scope and rapid pace of the crisis. While government scraps can perhaps keep the threat of eviction at bay for one more month for some, the working class is left to its own devices in organizing at work and at home as the lockdown drags on and the economic fallout becomes impossible to ignore. Undocumented workers will receive no unemployment benefits, and no stimulus check, and for those still employed, they are not subject to any safety regulations. Shockingly even during this period of lockdown, undocumented workers may still face detainment and deportation in retaliation for speaking out against their situations. Imprisoned workers face near-certain infection with the virus as prison guards become super-spreaders, and prisoners will have no access to the medical equipment necessary to keep them alive once their symptoms become life-threatening. Communists must look to past struggles, and develop new solutions to the limitations that lockdown presents. With avenues of communication restricted and workplace fraternization made more difficult, new rules may mean that the working class will find new ways to demand the immediate and demand the impossible. With states across the world tripping over themselves to create a patchwork of interventions, communists must speak out loudly against the integration of a class movement into the embrace of the bourgeoisie. There will be no return to normal. There will be no state fix for the contradictions of a system built at odds with the working class, and no capitalist solutions to what is ultimately only solvable by its abolition. As the “radical” measure becomes the mundane, the proletariat’s goal of self emancipation will never be accepted, and will always be resisted even by the left-wing of capital as it attempts to declare itself for the working class. In periods of crisis in which all factions of the capitalist class find themselves in unanimous agreement, only then does the class divide become unmistakable.