This past week five trillion dollars were wiped off the world’s stock markets, triggered by Coronavirus fears. Working-class people, in the path of the virus, will, however, have far more important concerns.

As the COVID-19 virus races around the globe, threatening to become a pandemic, millions of working people will not only be concerned about their health and their family’s health, but whether this crisis will economically wipe them out. In the U.S. and especially on the West Coast, there is already a reduction in travel and income for many businesses due to cancelled conferences. The economic effects will worsen if schools are closed and other restrictions imposed.

Fifty million people in China are currently under mandatory quarantine, mostly unable to leave their homes and go to work. In Japan, all schools are closed for the whole of March, forcing working parents with younger kids to stay home. It is estimated that the education of 300 million young people has been disrupted across the world. 

The respiratory syndrome has claimed over 200 lives in Iran and is threatening to spread across the Middle East including among desperate refugees in Syria in camps with no facilities. Experts estimate that the disease’s global count will pass 100,000 cases within days.

Worldwide, many hospitals have no test kits or are running low. Respiratory masks and hand-sanitizer shelves are empty at stores. In the areas worst affected by the virus, only those most desperate to work are going outdoors. Many poor countries will see the virus rip through their under-resourced health systems, and poorer neighborhoods in the developed world will be hit hardest. 

How Imminent is COVID-19 in the US?

Here in the U.S., despite the Trump administration’s attempt last week to argue otherwise, the virus outbreak is widening. On the west coast, at the time of writing, the state of Washington has declared itself in a health emergency with 10 reported deaths, and in California 124 health care workers from UC Davis Medical Center are in quarantine. 

The U.S. will be hit twice as hard as other developed nations due to its private health system and its weak regulations on sick leave. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is asking people to do three things: wash your hands, and if sick, stay home and consult a doctor. For millions of low paid workers they will only be able to afford to wash their hands. 

Forty-five percent of Americans have $0 in savings while another 24 percent have less than $1,000. They will think twice about staying home from work. Teachers, food servers, rideshare drivers, and other workers with high contact with people are vulnerable to this relatively highly contagious disease. U.S. employers are not required by federal law to give workers paid sick leave which contributes to more viruses circulating at work than should be the case. Visiting a doctor for the 60 million Americans with no or poor health insurance means weighing that cost verses paying the rent or their student loans. An additional factor in the virus circulating at work is the oppressive bosses’ work culture in the U.S., where you are expected to work until you drop. 

Low-paid workers, especially the under-insured, most often women, and often people of color, will be those least able to defend themselves from this virus and its effects. 

“I urge you to open up the City of Seattle and King County’s emergency funds to guarantee that anyone in our region with a respiratory illness has access to a doctor’s visit without fear of medical bills,” read a public letter to Seattle and King County executives penned by Socialist Alternative Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant. This points to the need to take emergency measures to help working people at the local level. But it is even more vital to take real action at federal level and to mobilize national resources and to provide nationwide coordination.

Yesterday the New York Times editorialized in favor of Congress “mandating that workers receive paid time off if they fall ill, or if they need to care for an ailing family member.” As they point out 32 million private sector workers have no paid sick leave. The U.S. is one of the few industrialized countries without a policy of paid sick leave though some states have passed this into law. While the Times call for paid sick leave in this situation is rational even from a capitalist point of view, the lack of sick leave for tens of millions in itself exposes how dysfunctional U.S. capitalism is.

Trump at the Helm!

The Coronavirus will also fully expose the dysfunctional, incompetent Trump regime. The main concern of the billionaire-in-Chief is the stock market and his re-election. The health and well-being of the working people is at the bottom of his priority list. This is the starting point of his response to the outbreak. 

At last week’s press conference, the president made his position clear: exaggerate and fabricate the successes of containment and, by delegating Vice President Pence to oversee the virus containment, Pence becomes his fall guy. The President contradicted the CDC’s position that Coronavirus is spreading. Trump even argued that a vaccine was on its way soon, something experts have ruled out. Trump’s appointment of Pence, a known science-denier, will add to the anxiety among experts wanting to efficiently address this crisis. 

Suppression of accurate information in China is at the source of the spread of the virus, a similar approach by the Trump administration will undoubtedly worsen the epidemic. However, regimes that tell big lies and get caught, often do this at their own peril.  

It is becoming clearer every day that valuable weeks have been lost when efforts could have been made to contain the virus. This is particularly shown by the lack of testing and the ridiculous limitations on testing. Now the administration says one million will be tested by the end of the week. But as the situation in Washington State shows, the virus has been spreading there for weeks with no hindrance in the absence of any serious national plan for a coordinated response

Xenophobic Republicans 

Unwilling to criticize their own systemic inequality and lack of genuine democratic accountability, it’s in the nature of the capitalist class to seek out scapegoats. The right wing will attempt to whip up a picture of a world hostile to America. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton has argued that the U.S.’ main economic rival, China, may have engineered the virus in a super laboratory. This is a sign of some of the lengths the Republicans in particular will go to deflect blame from themselves. 

Toying with anti-Chinese xenophobia will gain some political traction but is unlikely to hold water with most workers. However, discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans appears to be on the rise. Hundreds marched in San Francisco’s Chinatown this past weekend behind the banner “Fight the Virus NOT the People.” Like climate change, this health crisis requires an international response that is undermined by each capitalist class’ narrow national outlook.

The crashing of stock markets internationally marked the end to one of the worst weeks in the history of the current Republican administration. Which is saying something. Following the failure of the Democratic Party’s impeachment strategy, Trump has been up to his waist in a great purge against anyone resistant to his authority. He named a 29-year-old, John McEntee, to investigate all federal departments for signs of anti-Trump sentiment. Increasingly, the weak president is surrounding himself with incompetents whose main attribute is their complete loyalty to the billionaire. This might work in private business, but it will be entirely counterproductive for a national health care disaster, where Trump seeks to silence health care experts and lead with his own sycophants. 

Why a Private Business Model will Makes Everything Worse

Perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of Donald Trump’s response to the current crisis is his suggestion that Americans buy stocks to help the economy. This shows a deep misunderstanding of the current crisis linked to Trump’s obsession with staying in power, but it also conveys a widely held view among billionaires that what’s good for private business is always good for everyone else. However, this thinking will only worsen prospects for everyone involved.  

The big monopoly companies that dominate the U.S. economy tend to look at disasters as economic opportunities. Their first instinct is money and making more of it.  

Like with the current climate crisis, the capitalists are not only too profit-addicted to come up with a plan, but they are too divided by their narrow interests to work together to solve problems. In a major health crisis like this they will be forced to work together to a certain extent, but where speed and agility are required in a crisis, the business model fails every time. A plan is needed, one which requires the input of health care workers and experts from top to bottom. Under a democratic socialist economy, such a plan to deal with Coronavirus would not include profit taking or protecting the privileges of leaders, but would put working people’s interests first.

What Measures Should be Taken Now

A scientific response to virus outbreaks remains the same today as it has for hundreds of years: isolation and identification, quarantine and then tracing the pathways. The earlier the response, the more effective it will be, the more contained the virus becomes. The COVID-19 is very easily contracted, but without an accurate count of infected people, the death rate is not clear. It appears at this stage to be significantly higher than the normal flu.

While more can be done, we are opposed to the brutal mass quarantine measures imposed by the Chinese dictatorship, where the police have been used ruthlessly against the public.  Many school districts are already considering the possibility of closing down schools. A study by Women’s Policy Research found that workers going to work while sick during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak likely caused seven million more infections than there would otherwise have been.  A wider quarantine would create the demand for public response including emergency measures on par with natural disasters. 

The Federal government must immediately pass emergency measures to protect workers in the period ahead:

  • Paid sick leave for all sick workers and those caring for sick relatives; 
  • No firing of workers choosing to self-quarantine;
  • Economic support, including food, for quarantined households;
  • Free health care – including doctors visits and treatments – for all for the duration of this crisis;
  • Moratorium on rent and mortgage payments & loan collection during the crisis; 
  • Ban on profiteering by hospitals or medical supply companies.

Working-Class Power and A Bernie Sanders Presidency!

The need for Medicare for All immediately is critical. Working people do not need a virus outbreak to convince them. Senator Warren’s wavering support for a national system of healthcare does not match with the urgency of the current epidemic. Nor does it match the crisis in the life of millions of Americans facing health needs they cannot afford. Bernie’s plan includes a massive mobilization of working people to force Republicans and establishment Democrats to pass the Medicare bill. Socialist Alternative would go further in fighting for a democratically-controlled fully public health care system, bringing the hospital chains and pharmaceutical industry into public ownership. 

The implementation of Bernie’s full program for union rights, sick leave and other reforms will be huge steps in the right direction. Sanders has also committed to undoing the privatization and cuts to services that Trump and Democrats before him have done. While Trump has tried to cut funding to the Centers for Disease Control, a Sanders government could begin to draw together resources to respond not only to health crises but to natural disasters which are occurring more frequently due to climate change. But we need more than just a change of government. 

For a sustainable life and economic stability for working people we need deep systemic change. The current economic model prioritizes the interests of the billionaires. Resources blindly follow profit and harm and destroy working-class families in that pursuit. Under capitalism the input of working-class people’s ideas remains generally untapped. Where unions exist, our voices are heard, but primarily, only defensively. Given the huge ecological and future health crises, we need fundamental change in the priorities of this world. 

We need a working-class government and democratic working-class power at all levels of society. The Coronavirus, in essence, is another warning for us about the need to urgently get rid of capitalism. 

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