Covid19 in the Cauldron of Capitalism

by Ellen Isaacs

March 19, 2020

The current covid19 pandemic exposes the complete lack of concern of US capitalism for the welfare of working people. The just do enough mentality that governs public health and health care in ordinary times creates a system that cannot cope with surges in demand. Not only did the government fail to prepare for the emergency that was evident since January, but the fragile health, economic and social situation of so many workers could lead to a poor outcome for millions. The huge racial chasms that divide US workers at all times will turn into differential body counts. Only mass action by workers and students will guarantee that we come out of this alive and ahead.

The Disaster Before the Disaster

It is well known that infectious diseases do more damage to hosts with worse physical health and more stress. With this virus, 80% of those who have died have had other disorders and those with poor nutrition and conditioning also do worse. In good times, over 11% of US households are food insecure. About 120 million US adults have chronic disease, with half of these having more than one. Overall poor health is 15% higher in the poorest as compared to the richest counties, with black, Latin and Native Americans doing the worst of all ( one of many such data sets). Even before the virus hit, 59 percent of adult Americans were living paycheck to paycheck, 44 percent were carrying credit card debt, and only 38 percent had any kind of emergency fund. Any loss in pay or a loss of job would upend their lives.

Those who will be at the absolutely greatest risk are the two million prisoners, where there is no possibility for social distancing, inadequate sanitation, and poor health care. Even worse off will be the 38.000 immigrants in detention, whose only crime is seeking a safer life, in facilities with severe overcrowding and almost no health care or sanitation. Those asylum seekers who have been pushed back into Mexico or Guatemala face even worse conditions. And it is hard to contemplate the devastation that will occur in places like Yemen or Gaza where US foreign policy has already reduced living conditions to uninhabitable.

It is predicted that, worst case, up to 60% of all Americans may become infected, 30 million could require hospitalization and two million could die if even the lower one percent fatality rate is correct. Even if the real numbers turn out to be much lower, the US has under one million hospital beds and under 50,000 intensive care beds, which have ventilators. Already there are shortages of masks, gowns, and swabs and reagents even to process the measly number of test kits.

Millions of workers in agriculture, food factories, transportation, the post office, cleaners, and health workers of all kinds, to name a few, will have to keep working during the epidemic. Many of these workers are very low paid, without benefits, and some are undocumented. Much of their work must be done, but we can be sure that worker safety is not a priority. Even upper echelon health professionals, are not being adequately protected on the job with protective gear or distancing. Millions of other workers have lost their jobs or are furloughed, and will not have adequate income for the necessities of life or access to health care. The $1000 checks that the government may send, even $2000, will do little to mitigate this. The undocumented or those without a stable address won’t even get a check. Many businesses will never recover enough to hire back their full workforce.

It is also interesting to note, that with all the recent attention to Medicare for All, that countries like England with a single payer system are not doing well. They have the same degree of shortages of beds and ventilators as the US, a shortage of CT scanners, and had 100,000 unfilled jobs before the pandemic (NYT 3/19). If the society does not make the health and health care of workers a priority, the insurance system alone in a capitalist society does not solve the problem. If the British have to ration intensive care, you can be sure that race and class will come into the equation, just as they will in the US.

Capitalism Begets Epidemics

What all of this brings home once again is that under capitalism, workers are a commodity, to be used and thrown away, in order to maximize profits. Never is this basic relationship more clear than during a time of national emergency, be it disease or weather or war. In order to minimize the ability of workers to analyze their problems or unite and fight back, divisions by race, gender, and nationality are fostered at every turn. Racist in chief Trump insists on calling the virus Chinese, adding that all of these bad viruses start there, even though MERS began in Saudi Arabia and Ebola in Sudan.

In fact, it is capitalist modes of production that enable mass viral epidemics stemming from animals. The leap between species is facilitated by crowding that pushes marginalized populations closer and closer to the bush and also forces poor people to eat more formerly wild animals. Transmission is also easier between poor people with suboptimal health in crowded conditions, those who usually come into contact with a new virus first. Methods of raising poultry or cattle with similar genomes in crowded conditions also make it easier for viruses to mutate quickly as there is less genomic competition and immune resistance built up in hosts (

What To Do

Never is it more difficult to fight back than when we must keep our distance from one another for our own safety. Nonetheless, many groups are organizing campaigns on social media and by phone to free immigrants and other prisoners; provide free health care; provide worker benefits; end evictions, utility turnoffs, ICE raids; insure workers against furloughs and unemployment; provide housing for all; cancel student debt: close most factories and insure safe working conditions. Others are volunteering to help their at risk neighbors. As the acute threat of the virus wanes, there will be many devastating consequences remaining as the elite will try and return to the status quo and congratulate themselves over cutting some fat out of the system and reaping huge government bailouts. But millions will remain unemployed or underemployed and in prison, without money, housing, health care or hope.

Our job is to use the increased anger and transparency into this system of racist abuse and murder to build even broader and more militant movements, not only to win reforms but to bring about a whole new system run in our interests. That’s what we must be planning now, while we demand that the government give us our due as we build ever stronger movements of our own.

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