Due to the coronavirus health and economic crisis, more than 30 million Americans have now filed for unemployment in the span of six weeks. This significantly understates the situation. Millions who applied for unemployment weeks ago have yet to receive payments. Millions of gig workers and “independent contractors,” representing over 30% of the U.S. workforce, are still in limbo despite Congress including them in the expansion of unemployment benefits. And millions of undocumented workers have no perspective of ever being able to apply at all.
Widespread fear of being unable to afford essentials like food is already reality for many, as foodbanks face skyrocketing demand and mass shortages. The majority of renters in the U.S. could not afford to pay April rent by the start of the month, and for those depending on stimulus money to afford May rent, millions are now navigating delays and uncertainty around when or if they will see stimulus money at all.
As many frontline workers and others are paying for this avoidable health crisis with our lives, and intense fear of economic disaster grips millions, a debate has opened up in U.S. society around when it would be safe to lift shelter-in-place measures and re-open non-essential businesses.
Trump Eggs on Reactionary Protests
Over the last weeks, a small but very prominent wave of reactionary protests has spread across the country, demanding that the restrictions in place to limit the spread of COVID-19 are lifted. These protests, often taking place outside state capitol buildings or governors’ mansions, have featured slogans such as “live free or die in lockdown” and “give me liberty or give me COVID-19.”
While tapping into very real economic hardship and fears, the rallying cry of these protests is the shocking claim that an increase in COVID-19 deaths is worth the benefits of reopening the economy.
These reactionary, right-wing protests are a clear reflection of the political polarization in society, but they do not represent mass sentiment. In fact, the vast majority of Americans do not believe that it is yet safe to lift shelter-in-place measures. A recent Washington Post poll found that only 1% of people believe that it has already been safe enough to lift restrictions, an additional 9% believe it would be safe by the end of April, and 86% believe it will not be safe until the end of May or much later.
These figures are not a surprise, as states across the country continue to see their highest-ever days of deaths and new cases of coronavirus. More than 20 states now have over 10,000 confirmed cases (8 have over 30,000), even while many of those who are sick are told to stay away from hospitals and forgo testing altogether due to the incapacity of the for-profit health care system to adequately treat this crisis. Increasingly, more and more Americans know someone who has contracted or has died from COVID-19, which makes the current health measures widely popular.
Shelter-in-place orders, which more than 95% of Americans now live under, are necessary under the current state of the COVID-19 crisis only because of the criminal misleadership of the ruling class. As international examples and epidemiological professionals point to, aggressive and widespread testing from the very beginning of this crisis, with contact tracing and quarantines where outbreaks occurred, could have protected the vast majority of those who are sick and who have died from COVID-19. And flowing from this, the necessity of mass lockdowns could have been avoided in the first place.
Despite years of scientific warnings, there was no real plan in place to combat a health crisis of this magnitude. A stark example of the complete lack of preparedness, often pointed to by frontline healthcare workers, is the absurd scarcity of necessary medical equipment to treat those with COVID-19, despite billions of dollars in annual profits going to the very top of the healthcare industry. The profit-based U.S. healthcare system has made this crisis all the worse, necessitating the stark measures that entire sections of the ruling class and big business now oppose.
On the basis of public health and saving lives, there is no question that forcing people back to work and lifting coronavirus measures at this stage is playing with fire. Perhaps the most prominent opposition to recent coronavirus protests has been frontline health care workers themselves, who will treat those who contract coronavirus in the wake of prematurely lifting shelter-in-place orders. There are several epidemiological models, which make estimates about how many people are likely to get sick, need a hospital bed or die from COVID-19, all posing different versions of severity of this first wave of coronavirus in the U.S. Yet all of such models are based on continued shelter-in-place and aggressive testing, as there is broad scientific agreement these measures are absolutely central to preventing an even bigger outbreak.
Trump’s Criminal Negligence
Despite being in direct contradiction to health experts, scientists, and what the majority of Americans see as necessary, Trump has repeatedly supported and encouraged the reactionary fringe protests to lift COVID-19 protections. From his hyperbolic tweets calling to “LIBERATE” swing-states from the grips of shelter-in-place to White House adviser Stephen Moore repeatedly declaring these protestors “the modern day Rosa Parks,” the Trump administration has a laser focus on whipping up a narrow reactionary base, speaking to corporate profits, and instilling confusion around COVID-19.
There’s no doubt that Trump’s priority is to reopen the economy without taking measures that would protect workers from COVID-19. Meat-processing plants have become a hot spot nationally for coronavirus infection, so much so that an estimated 33% of U.S. meatpacking capacity has been destroyed following mass COVID-19 infection of the workforce, forcing more than a dozen plants to shut down. Rather than taking drastic action to produce protective equipment or forcing companies to provide safe working conditions, Trump has now invoked the Defense Production Act, mandating that meat-processing plants reopen and stay open, immediately. This mandate is paired with providing protection, again not for the workers themselves, but to shield companies from legal liability for workers contracting COVID-19 on the job. Meanwhile, meat processing workers have no interest in going back to dangerous work conditions. One even asked of Trump’s plan “I’m still trying to figure out: What is he going to do, force them to stay open? Force people to go to work?” This situation is set up to continue the workplace struggles that have happened throughout this crisis.
Trump’s disastrous approach to the coronavirus crisis has already done enough damage. No doubt the constant spread of misinformation, for example stating from early on that the coronavirus was under control in the U.S. or his recent statement that injecting disinfectant may be an effective treatment, has contributed to the mass fear and confusion around the ongoing health and economic crisis. According to some health experts, up to 90% of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. could have been prevented had Trump enacted social distancing measures just two weeks earlier. Going back to the start of the crisis, the Trump administration disastrously failed to provide the necessary testing resources which could have allowed this to be contained with far less cost to society.
Ruling Class Demands Workers Risk Their Lives
While some sections of big business and the ruling class have recognized that lifting lockdowns now will ultimately make the economic consequences of coronavirus worse, significant sections are in unison with Trump. The leadership of the NRA from early on depicted ongoing health measures as an infringement on the second amendment. Elon Musk, reflecting most baldly the priority of corporate profits, has called to “FREE AMERICA NOW” in opposition to shelter-in-place orders.
In recent days, a series of state governors have rapidly announced the lifting of health measures, reopening many non-essential businesses and forcing workers back on the job in the midst of the pandemic. In Georgia, on the same day as 1,200 new cases of coronavirus were confirmed, Governor Kemp announced the reopening of restaurants, massage parlors, bowling alleys, tattoo shops, hair salons, and movie theaters.
On the same day, South Carolina Governor McMaster openly supported protests calling to lift health measures, and announced the immediate reopening of retail statewide. Florida beaches have been reopened, local tourism businesses such as golf courses and fishing shops are reopening in Minnesota, and Colorado is reopening some sectors such as hair salons.
Under shelter-in-place, ordinary people are facing economic turmoil, as well as enduring negative impacts on mental health due to isolation and fear. This reality is being weaponized by sections of the ruling class, who above all else want to salvage business profits and get workers back on the job, even if it means more COVID-19 deaths.
There is perhaps not a more blatant example of this than the declaration of Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who offered up the workers of Las Vegas to be the “control group” for coronavirus. In an interview with Anderson Cooper, she shockingly stated that such a control group was needed, and she “would love” for Vegas workers to take a placebo vaccine and get back to work, to show whether these measures were effective elsewhere. Yet when asked if she would actually go to the casinos along with workers to form that control group, she replied “Excuse me, I have a family.”
Capitalism Makes this Crisis Worse
The Trump administration and large sections of the ruling class blame the measures being taken to save working people’s lives for the economic crisis. Despite one of the largest corporate bailouts in American history, these forces are fighting to put non-essential workers back on the job, jeopardizing their lives and risking a massive second wave of COVID-19 in the US. No doubt, this has influenced a small section of society to carry out reactionary protests which demand the same.
The cause of the catastrophic conditions facing working people is the for-profit system. As millions of Americans face unemployment, hunger, and housing insecurity, billionaires in the U.S. have increased their wealth by 10% during this crisis. In fact, some of the most prominent billionaires have added literal billions to their net worth based on coronavirus profits. What’s been brutally exposed is a system which protects the wealth of CEOs and corporations above all else.
Rather than atrocious corporate bailouts, all frontline workers should be given time-and-a-half hazard pay along with full pay for those who become ill or have to care for family. Rather than the rich getting richer from this health crisis, we need a full suspension of rent, mortgage and utility bills with no penalty or requirement to pay back landlords or utility providers. And rather than the working class paying for this crisis, we need $2,000 a month government payments to all, paid for by taxes on the billionaires and big corporations.
Two weeks ago, Socialist Alternative addressed the question of how to reopen the economy:
“Of course economic activity needs to reopen at some point, but under what conditions, in whose interests, and how are these decisions made? Representatives of workers in key sectors from manufacturing to education need to have a direct say and veto in this process. Reopening the economy is not just about “flattening the curve” of the virus. It must be linked to a clear strategy, putting the lives and health of workers first, and with real resources to deal with new outbreaks which are inevitable.”
The problem is precisely that the federal government has not presented a credible plan with real resources for how mass testing will be carried out along with contact tracing. It isn’t even the case that the curve has been meaningfully “flattened” in most states. There is no reason for any confidence at this point in the claims that states are “ready.”
No doubt, the wealth already exists in society to provide a lifeline to all during this health crisis. This is why, as socialists, we believe that capitalism has made the COVID-19 crisis infinitely worse than it needed to be. We fight for a system that functions to prioritize the health and well-being of working people above all else.