March 2020 Seoul Korea virus (AP)
Workers in Seoul, South Korea, clean the streets. (AP)

By ERWIN FREED

The coronavirus has been recognized as a pandemic. As of March 13, about 1700 people in the United States have contracted the illness, according to the news media, and 41 have died. Globally, over 125,000 cases have been reported with over 4200 deaths. The disease, which spreads easily and often has no symptoms, is bringing the global economy to an almost universal slowdown.

The complete lack of centralized health-care infrastructure and 50 years of relentless austerity have made the United States a potential powder keg for this pandemic. For over a month after the outbreak had started, getting tested for COVID-19 was virtually impossible. Social media sites are filled with horror stories of people with symptoms and doctors’ recommendations to be tested facing hours of bureaucracy and no resolution.

Given the virtual absence of testing for the first two months of the disease’s spread, the real number of infections is guaranteed to already be significantly higher than what is so far recognized. In contrast, countries with more effective responses rolled out massive measures to test on a nationwide scale, with procedures like drive-through tests and thorough evaluations of close contacts for positive subjects.

The United States has been especially slow to respond to the outbreak. Official statements on the situation have ranged from outright lies to confusing misinformation, leaving space for competing incorrect narratives to take root. Over the last two days, the number of confirmed cases has risen by 40 percent, yet states like Connecticut still have major roadblocks to even basic measures like testing.

In respect to the economic impact, the coronavirus is merely a trigger for a longer-term build-up of capitalism’s crisis tendencies, specifically with regards to corporate debt and speculation. Nevertheless, the effects are being felt viciously by the working class.

Layoffs have already begun in several industries, including event planning and hospitality and among port workers on the West Coast. They will likely multiply many times over by the time the virus dies out. For those not yet unemployed, hours are being slashed, as people choose to self-quarantine and avoid public spaces.

Less than half of workers in the lowest half of the income distribution have access to paid sick time. At least 8.5% of people living in the United States are uninsured, and those who are insured still risk high costs for any interactions with hospitals, urgent-care units, and other medical establishments. One of the first people to be tested in the United States for Corona, Osmel Martinez Azcue, was left with a $3270 bill, and despite being insured, was made to pay almost half of it.

Many companies are halting travel for professional workers and instead implementing work-from-home where possible. However, shifting office work away from the office leaves cafeteria and other service workers without a job. With weekly unemployment benefits for those who can qualify ranging between $235-$631, many people stand to immediately fall behind on living expenses as their workplaces are shuttered.

Social distancing and a general slowdown of work are necessary to combat the spread of the virus. Italy’s complete shutdown, too late to stop the death toll from spiraling upwards, is a stark example of what happens when normalcy is maintained. Hospitals are completely overwhelmed, to the point where a manual was drafted by an Italian medical college on whom not to treat—i.e., to let die. The criteria are age and prior medical conditions.

Closing the door

Hospitals have been closing at a rate of at least 30 per year in recent years for reasons of profitability and indebtedness. Urgent-care facilities and other market-approved alternatives have left the country with a falling number of hospital beds in the case of an outbreak such as we are likely to experience. In Philadelphia, for example, Hahnemann hospital was closed in late 2019, and all of its beds and equipment were sold just two months ago. Mercy Hospital is also slated to be closed this year. Both facilities largely serviced working people and people of color, as is the case for many hospitals that are not bringing in the necessary revenue to be considered “sound investments.”

All levels of schools have begun to close their doors in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease, but the decentralized and unplanned closures have shown a burning light on how many people are dependent on school lunch programs and university housing to survive. There is no immediate solution to either problem being proposed by governments, although some commentators have suggested increasing SNAP payments by an undisclosed amount or requiring schools to continue to serve lunch. Neither school systems nor the states are offering child-care services for parents who need to continue working.

Trump’s xenophobic response

As we go to press on March 13, Trump is reportedly considering declaring a national emergency, which would free up $42 billion in potential grants to the states. But that is too little, too late—after years of cutbacks to funding for the Center for Disease Control under both Obama and Trump. A month ago, just as the coronavirus was taking hold, Trump slashed the budget once again for the CDC, as well as proposing deep cuts in Medicaid benefits for the poor.

As the effects of the virus on the U.S. economy became clearer this month, Trump initially planned on a $9 billion expenditure to help prop up businesses hit by the corona-driven slowdown. However, the deep drop in stock prices soon caused the administration to push the Federal Reserve to sign onto a $1.5 trillion package of low-cost business loans and asset purchases. The effort, which at the time of writing has pumped $300 billion dollars into financial markets, has had almost no effect on the drop in stock prices.

Trump’s proposal for a $900 billion reduction in federal payroll taxes would do very little to help working people, and likely be used as an excuse to cut social spending after COVID has passed. However, $900 billion could be used for immediate construction of new hospitals, expanding existing and recently closed hospitals, and retooling factories to provide necessary goods produced at union wages and made free to the public.

On March 11, Trump went further, framing the disease as a “foreign virus” and announcing to a national TV audience a plan to close the country’s borders to travelers from Europe. In a tweet, the president continued his xenophobic language as he touted the construction of his wall on the border with Mexico as an effective way to deter the virus. He recently said at a rally that “the Democrat policy of open borders is a direct threat to the health and wellbeing of all Americans. … Now, you see it with Coronavirus.” Of course, his remarks are actually aimed at immigrants, and the Democratic Party has been as nearly as fervent as he has been in increasing repressive measures at the border and building the deportation machine.

Like Trump, right-wing politicians and pundits all around the world are using the crisis to call for stricter border controls and a rollback of immigration. The Russian fascist theorist and activist Alexander Dugin has argued that the coronavirus is the death knell of “globalization” and “liberalism.”

Due to the fact that the first cases likely began in Wuhan, China, fear over the coronavirus has been able to fuel anti-Asian racism. Incidences of violence are growing and the spread of anti-Asian and anti-Chinese prejudice has become so great that there is already a full Wikipedia article on “Xenophobia and racism related to the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic.” New York City has been a hotbed of outright assaults against Asian and Asian American people, with several recorded instances.

Rick Santelli, an editor and pundit for CNBC Business News, reflected a disgusting and too common sentiment when he said on air that it might be better if everyone got coronavirus. The reality of this thought is that millions of people in the United States and abroad would die. The inclination to trivialize injury and death of elderly and disabled people is a symptom of capitalist ideology, which demands strict regulation of labor power. People who the system has deemed unproductive are also deserving to die, in the eyes of capital.

Incarcerated people and detained immigrants have been forced into conditions that leave them completely exposed to outbreaks in prisons and jails. At the same time, prison labor is being used to manufacture goods which “normal” functioning capitalism can no longer provide, like hand sanitizer.On the other hand, disabled people are pointing out the fact that the measures currently being taken in a matter of days, e.g., online classes, were previously deemed impossible.

The working class holds the keys

Capitalism has repeatedly shown itself to be incapable of keeping working people safe and healthy. The conditions that have helped to spread COVID-19 are primarily the products of capitalist austerity, environmental destruction, and anarchy. While the response to the coronavirus has been more conscious and well executed relative to the much greater crises of climate change, homelessness, and malnutrition—and even other diseases like tuberculosis—still the capitalists continue to prioritize one thing, the dictatorship of private property and profits.

Organized labor has begun to fight for demands that can keep the working class alive and fighting past the crisis. The labor movement in Chicago, spearheaded by the Chicago Teachers Union, have led the way, and unionists in other areas are urging similar measures to come up with a plan of action. To date, however, these demands are being made on citywide or regional bases and leave the basic cause of the emergency untouched.

One step that the labor movement could take is a national online conference open to all workers on forming a program to address the virus. Making a serious effort to protect the rights of all workers, including low-wage, unemployed, and incarcerated, and being willing to use the strike weapon to do so will have an incredible impact on the status of unions during and after the coronavirus epidemic. Service industries and empty office buildings could be “retooled” as emergency housing for medical responders, infected people if hospitals run out of beds, and community kitchens.

The need for a political body that is capable of reaching across industry and state lines points directly to the burning necessity of forming a mass labor party, which could pose major demands and organize to win them. A labor party with a militant program of action would be able to expose the capitalists and their politicians’ vacillations, lies, and inhumanity, while pointing to the need for a revolutionary workers’ government to put the necessary measures fully into effect. Necessarily anti-imperialist, the party would take up the demand to end U.S. sanctions against Iran, which are exacerbating the effects of COVID-19 in that country and killing hundreds, if not thousands.

At the moment, a mass labor party does not exist in the United States, let alone one with a revolutionary program. In the meantime, trade unionists can fight for big democratic inter-union meetings to come up with a workers’ response to the coronavirus pandemic. We offer the following demands as a contribution to the dialogue:

  • Public control over housing to provide housing for all who need it; a moratorium on evictions and utility shutoffs.
  • Nationalize the health-care, medical production, pharmaceutical, and nursing home industries to offer free quality medical care and medicines to all.
  • A massive and fully funded program of scientific research on methods of treatment and vaccines.
  • Redirect funding for the military and construction of the border wall toward health-care needs—specifically, coronavirus research, prevention, and care.
  • Unlimited sick time and unemployment pay for all workers, with full wages.
  • Restorative justice for incarcerated people!
  • Amnesty for all immigrants!