A Crisis of Vast Unknowns

Against the Current, No. 206, May/June 2020

The Editors

AS THE FULL scope and horror of the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, two realities confront us in the United States — which is now the world leader in confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths, even while emerging conditions are incomparably more horrific in much of the Global South. First, this is a public health, economic and environmental crisis that would seriously challenge the most competent, clear-sighted, effective and well-prepared national political leadership. Second, that’s not the political leadership we’ve got, by a long shot.

We are acutely aware that the rapidly moving situation as these lines are written will look enormously different by the time they’re in print. Our society and the world have entered a crisis of vast unknowns, potentially involving tens of millions of deaths and a global Depression.

Most important to state at the outset, the class struggle isn’t “self-isolated” or quarantined. Protests, wildcat strikes or stay-at-homes, and other acts of resistance have broken out among the front-line fighters for our lives and their own — medical workers, grocery store workers and deliverers, Amazon warehouse workers without basic safety protection, bus drivers and more — and the vast “gig economy” work force. These signal the start of the fight that will be needed if working people and communities of color aren’t ultimately to be burdened with the full cost of a looming and unfolding disaster.

Amidst the government’s colossal corporate bailout packages, there are a few concessions for the vast majority — enhanced unemployment pay, some paid sick leave, the $1200 emergency payment — at least for those who can get through the administrative chaos. These fragile protections are a hint of gains that are possible if they can be preserved and extended.

The reality of race in America isn’t on lockdown either. Statistics are inadequately compiled, but every reporting city and state shows death rates among African Americans at nearly three times their proportion of the population.

National and Global Emergency

The mess that Donald Trump and his army of sycophants made has brought irreparable harm, including potentially hundreds of thousands of lives. The spectacle of the government’s own medical experts — and the embattled state and local authorities — scrambling to compensate for federal indolence is simultaneously comical and terrifying.

All that damage is done, and Trump’s daily rambling, shambling, dissembling pronouncements and direct in­citement of his base to defy emergency health measures only make matters worse. But there are deep systemic issues in this still early phase of a global crisis.

The ultimate human cost of the pandemic can’t be known at this time — whether it will be only severe, or extreme, or possibly apocalyptic. Will tens of millions die globally, and millions in the USA — or luckily only some hundreds of thousands around the world and tens of thousands here, or somewhere in between?

The extent and duration of the economic collapse is a grim prospect, but another unknown. Trump’s promise of a short recession followed by a “fantastic reopening” is less likely than a more protracted downturn, possibly on the scale of a global Depression. Financial markets fell, over just a few weeks, by the 30% or so that would have been expected over the course of a recession that was looming already before the coronavirus outbreak. Their continuing wild gyrations tell us only that “the market” doesn’t know what to expect.

The stability of political institutions is in question. Authoritarian regimes (India and Hungary in the lead) are trampling basic human and democratic rights. Here in the USA, what would the November election look like if the virus infection rate curve hasn’t “flattened” well before then? What new dirty tricks or voter-suppression schemes might emerge in states controlled by the right wing?

The potential for violent social panic can’t be totally discounted if the public health crisis is protracted. The ugly, violent harassment of Asian Americans walking the streets could become more systematic attacks on targeted (Chinese, Asian, or immigrant) communities if ignorance and desperation turn toward finding scapegoats.

Trump’s  “Chinese virus” ravings and calls to “liberate” states with Democratic governments may be calculated to energize his base, rather than to incite mob action. But that kind of demagogy is a notorious enabler of the nativist and white-supremacist menace that’s grown under the auspices of this repulsive administration.

We don’t have to imagine full societal breakdown to envision the potential bankruptcy and disappearance of millions of neighborhood businesses, restaurants, non-chain grocery stores and the like.

That’s an acute issue, for example, in Detroit where the metropolitan area accounts for 83% of Michigan’s death toll. Will food deserts in our cities become even more severe? One commentator on CNBC suggested that at the end of the pandemic, the only retailers left might be Amazon, Walmart and Costco. That might be the logic of capital concentration in an extreme crisis, but is it a place where we’d enjoy living?

A Diseased System

Conventional coverage treats the coronavirus pandemic as an external shock to the system, something like an asteroid striking the earth. Quite the contrary, it’s very much embedded in the functioning of the system itself.

What’s technically called the “SARS 2–CoV-2” pathogen, like the avian and swine flu, HIV, SARS, MERS, Zika and Ebola viruses of recent years, as well as  the 1918 flu virus and probably the more familiar viruses of distant origin, are the result of animal-to-human transmission. That the current one began in a Wuhan live market is a happenstance that tells us nothing about where the next one comes from.

These outbreaks are a product of both the way present-day industrial agriculture is organized with mass concentrations of animals in the most horrific conditions, and increasing human encroachment into the natural habitats of nonhuman animals with which we share the planet. Already in the 19th century, many thinkers including Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were concerned with the consequences of the capitalist transformation of agriculture and destruction of nature, so it’s not as if the problem suddenly jumped up.

Meanwhile, the escalating crisis of the medical system is the inevitable product of applying the “lean production” and “just-in-time” regimens of today’s production system, together with the stripping of social budgets under the prevailing global regime of neoliberal capitalism.

That’s why the backup supply of N95 masks in the United States depleted in a previous epidemic wasn’t restored. It’s why it wasn’t only Trump’s stupidity, although that didn’t help, dictating that we don’t want “extra doctors and nurses” when they aren’t immediately needed, as if trained medical personnel are produced like auto parts on demand.

We are left with doctors and nurses — thousands of whom are DACA recipients in danger of deportation! — reusing personal protective equipment in ways that were never intended, with retired heath care workers returning to the front lines. Ordinary people are performing miracles of community mutual aid and solidarity.

The system’s bankruptcy, not only Trump’s arrogant ignorance, lay behind the cynical dismantling of the cross-agency pandemic response unit the Obama administration had constructed. The neoliberal neglect of elementary public health practices is not only in America: The British National Health Service was resource-starved under successive Con­servative party governments. Italy’s medical service was cut for years, just in time for the coronavirus disaster.

Focusing on the U.S. situation, the urgent necessity of universal health coverage and Medicare for All has never been so obvious — except of course to the insurance industry, the political establishment, and in particular Joe Biden, who scolded Bernie Sanders that “they have that in Italy, and it didn’t help.”

That some 87 million Americans remain uninsured or underinsured — before the sudden mass unemployment crisis — has a lot to do with why hospital emergency rooms were already stressed prior to the coronavirus emergency, and why so many people in this country have inadequately managed conditions like diabetes, asthma and coronary disease that contribute to making COVID-19 all the more deadly.

The lack of adequate medical care for tens of millions interacts, of course, with the prevalence of poverty, pollution, shortages of rural medical resources, and other consequences of inequality that aggravate the crisis. In Detroit, the Water Department has cut off thousands of poor homeowners. The Michigan governor has ordered an emergency restoration of service, but for the bureaucracy that turns out to be a complicated process.

Even worse impacts face the most vulnerable populations: those in the overcrowded prisons and immigrant detention centers, survivors of domestic violence forced to “shelter in place” with their abusive, sometimes murderous, partners or the 11 million undocumented immigrants who get nothing from the multi-trillion dollar relief bill and may be terrified of seeking medical care.

Looking Ahead

The prospects are unimaginable for many nations in the Global South — countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In India, migrant workers are starving as they walk hundreds of miles home. In Brazil, the pandemic-denying lunacy of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in defiance of his own government experts is beyond comprehension. There are absolutely desperate circumstances facing refugee populations — in Syria, on the U.S.-Mexican border, in Bangladesh with the Rohingya flight from Mynanmar — or the situation in Gaza, the world’s largest open-air prison where there isn’t even clean drinking water.

For imperialism, the coronavirus crisis is no occasion to “shelter in place” — exactly the opposite, it’s a moment to unleash greater class and race violence on the world’s poor. The U.S. government’s murder-by-sanctions policies haven’t abated. Washington’s squeeze has tightened on Iran, where the import of medical supplies is crippled by the twin scourge of sanctions and collapsed oil prices. The U.S. Justice Department’s indictment of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro ramps up Washington’s attempt to foment a military coup and civil war in that shattered country.

On the other side of this immediate crisis, the class war at home will be hardly less brutal. Right now relief packages are desperately required, but soon the public will be lectured that those trillions of dollars thrown at bailing out the Boeings and other distressed corporations must be “paid for” — by austerity for the working class and non-affluent population, of course.

The capitalist class, whose blind pursuit of profit and stock market gains did so much to create the present misery, will insist on society drawing all the wrong conclusions. Don’t even think about Medicare for All now, let alone nationalizing (horrors!) the pharmaceutical industry whose profit drive is essential to developing and marketing the critical vaccines and therapeutic drugs for this pandemic and the coming ones.

Don’t raise taxes on the corporations and the rich at the time when their “enterprise” is required for the economic recovery — or at any other time for that matter. And above all, this is no time for action on climate change and the environmental collapse. How can we even imagine indulging in a Green New Deal when our most precious airline and oil industries are going belly-up?

An alternative course will have to come from an aroused working-class public — and it must be global, expressing outrage over a system and government policies that universally fail to meet basic human and ecological needs.

The resistance of those heroic frontline workers, for their own sake and ours, can be the start of mass, anti-austerity social solidarity. We don’t want to predict here the outcome of a long, bitter struggle. As a statement by the National Committee of Solidarity early in the crisis stated, the present pandemic and economic crash “is not (fortunately) the end of civilization, nor is it (unfortunately) the end of capitalism.”

Having said that, the world that emerges afterward will look considerably different in ways that significantly depend on social movements and political intervention. Whether, when and how that response emerges is among the greatest of unknowns.

May-June 2020, ATC 206

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