As of the time of writing daily counts of new coronavirus cases in the state of California are topping 40,000 a day. Hospitals have run out of ICU capacity in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. Southern California has developed a plan to ration care away from the sickest with the least chance of survival. Nurses have sounded the alarm over patient safety as the Department of Public Health began granting waivers to hospitals allowing them to increase the number of patients ICU nurses can treat at one time. Ambulances are backed up outside hospitals with patients waiting up to 7 hours to enter. Californians have sacrificed personally and financially for months. Our schools, libraries and other public services remain closed. Yet public officials and the ruling class in California and across the country seem to have no pandemic strategy to offer the population beyond constant blame for the disaster. California has fared worse than most developed countries not due to a lack of compliance from the population, but because Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom and state officials are beholden to the broken logic of capitalism that puts profit above human life.
Mainstream Media Myths
To save money and avoid blame for their own incompetence, state officials have invented a series of myths that shift blame for the surging pandemic onto working class Californians. The popular media myth that the current surge is primarily caused by “pandemic fatigue” is false. The current surge in California actually dates to about October 20th, several weeks after restrictions on high risk businesses like indoor dining, gyms and movie theaters were eased by state and local governments. The number of ordinary people going to bars and restaurants was extremely small, even during the October relaxation. To the extent people did visit these venues the government’s re-opening of such places no doubt sent the signal that they were safe despite the absence of a robust testing apparatus in the state to immediately identify and respond to any new increases in cases. Individual behaviors such as avoiding indoor gatherings have remained relatively constant since June and have trended downwards since early November. Mask wearing has also held consistent at over 95% since June. There was no increase in non-compliance at the state level in late September/early October that could have set off the current wave. In fact the data shows that the rate of people staying home except for essential activities and exercise has been steadily increasing since October.
The very idea that most new cases are caught at private parties and gatherings also appears to be false. Ironically, poor contact tracing means only poor data exists to examine the source of most infections in the U.S. However, studies from other countries indicate that the largest number of cases are caught from housemates or at work (as in this recent study from Switzerland). Other studies (like these from Japan or the UK) have not shown private gatherings as a statistically significant source of infections at all. Low income neighborhoods in the U.S., where Black and Brown people working low paid, essential jobs are disproportionately concentrated in crowded housing, have seen starkly higher rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths than more affluent areas.
The state government has refused to implement policies that could reduce transmission at work or in homes such as: provision of PPE to work places (including retail and healthcare), safety inspections at job sites, closing of non-essential businesses with full compensation for workers, and providing quarantine hotels to keep people who test positive from infecting their housemates. It is likely that the new strain of the coronavirus, found originally in the U.K. and now identified in a number of states including CA has contributed to the new surge as well. If proper measures like widespread testing and genome sequencing had been in place, we could have been far better prepared to catch and curb the circulation of this 50% more contagious strain.
Saving Money, Losing Lives
No amount of good behavior on the part of individuals acting alone can defeat the pandemic in the absence of a coordinated, well organized response. Ultimately the Governor of the richest state in the country has prioritized saving money by keeping businesses open rather than paying workers their lost wages. This has failed disastrously.
A number of countries (e.g. New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam, Taiwan) have achieved real control over the virus through a combination of consistent, effective testing and contract tracing, and rapidly responding to any rise in cases with targeted lockdowns. Both the California state and U.S. national governments have been an abject failure at all of the above virus reduction measures. Without a nationalized plan to allocate funds and produce needed medical supplies like PPE or ventilators, pandemic control was left to state and county governments with no new funds available. Meanwhile the for profit healthcare system, which makes decisions based on profit rather than human need, has closed and understaffed hospitals for years.
Failed Testing Apparatus
In California testing is done by an uncoordinated patchwork of private health insurance companies and county health departments with test results processed by a similar patchwork of for-profit and university labs. One estimate puts testing in California at 84% of what was needed at the beginning of the current surge. That percentage is almost certainly far lower now. Testing and contract tracing are only effective if done within 1-2 days. Many COVID testing sites are openly admitting average wait times are as much as 7 days. I personally waited 7 days to hear back about the (fortunately negative) test of a relative in my household bubble. Many in-home health workers who had had contact with this relative continued to visit other in-home patients until they heard about the test results. Imagine how many vulnerable elderly and chronically ill people could have been infected during that week if the results had been positive? The CDC does not even require quarantine unless someone has been in contact with a confirmed positive case.
Despite early promises to do everything necessary to defeat COVID, Governor Newsom squandered early opportunities to bring the virus under control by failing to rapidly build an efficient testing and contact tracing apparatus. California was praised in the early days of COVID for being the first in the nation to issue lockdown orders in hard hit counties and get the virus under control. But while other countries that locked down when cases were at a similar level (e.g. New Zealand) and built robust testing apparatuses have achieved near eradication, in California cases began to rise almost immediately after re-opening in June. This confirms that testing was so poor the state had no idea how many cases were actually circulating or where these people were being infected.
Lockdowns On, Lockdowns Off
Recent attempts at re-introducing lockdown measures have been a disaster. In an attempt to avoid paying workers or small business owners their lost wages, state officials have left nearly all of retail open as cases surge. What useful measures have been introduced were introduced far too slowly, letting the virus surge for weeks before each minimal change was made. The current “stay at home” order only went into effect after ICU capacity was below 15%, virtually guaranteeing that hospitals would run out of space given that the need for ICU care happens about a week after symptoms begin and 2-3 weeks after a new case is caught. Recent lockdowns in Europe have made clear that closing all non-essential retail brings cases down far faster (e.g. France in November) than merely closing high risk businesses like bars and pubs (e.g. Germany in November).
The current restrictions are also completely inconsistent with the best science currently available. Low risk activities like children’s playgrounds and socially distant, masked, outdoor visits were banned but all of indoor retail was left open despite indoor spread being 20 times more likely than outdoor spread. Multiple state officials have stated that it is dangerous to leave your home for any reason (clearly false since there are plenty of outdoor activities which involve no contact with those outside your household), except apparently to do indoor Christmas shopping.
The few restrictions under the current shutdown are often not being enforced by county law enforcement or followed by state officials themselves. Both California Governor Gavin Newsom and SF Mayor London Breed were caught attending indoor, maskless dinner parties at the French Laundry, a restaurant known for serving $300 per person dinners to the super rich. This did nothing to strengthen confidence in how seriously state leaders have been taking pandemic protocols.
The Way Forward
The solution is clear: a full lockdown of all non-essential businesses and indoor activities accompanied by full compensation for workers and small business owners until cases drop dramatically and the testing and tracking system is substantially improved. A genuinely safe reopening of schools should be prioritized above reopening non-essential retail. The current stimulus bill just approved by congress will not supply enough aid to cover worker compensation and improved testing. Plenty of money is out there, however. Since the start of the pandemic the top 10 global billionaires (including California-based billionaires like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Larry Page) have added $400 billion to their wealth. Just this money alone could help finance a second stimulus bill for the entire country.
The roll out of the first approved coronavirus vaccines has been a welcome relief and represents some hope in what has been a disastrous year. Unfortunately, so far the process has been chaotic with many doses left undelivered or unused and the majority of essential workers and vulnerable Americans not yet offered the desperately needed vaccine. The state government should not wait around for the federal government to fund coronavirus relief, testing and well organized vaccine distribution, but move immediately to save lives with a robust unified plan to bring this pandemic to an end and give working class people the true health and economic relief we need.
Socialist Alternative demands:
- Immediately institute a tax on billionaires to fund universal workers compensation during lockdown and make widespread testing available for free to everyone.
- Return to “Phase 1” lockdown (shutting down non-essential businesses) with consistent, clear and scientifically based protocols to get the new surge under control.
- Fully funded, unified, well-organized public system of testing and contract tracing to substantially boost the number of tests done per day and the speed with which test results are returned.
- Massive aid to overwhelmed hospitals to expand their capacity to treat patients and roll out vaccine distribution.
- State government to temporarily take over hotels and use them to house all unhoused people and those who test positive and cannot safely quarantine away from housemates or family members.
- Use the Defense Production Act to direct industry to produce needed supplies like vials for vaccine distribution
- Bring the logistics network under temporary public ownership to ensure the speedy and organized distribution of newly authorized vaccines
- A rapid transition to a Medicare for All healthcare system that guarantees high-quality, free healthcare for everyone.