The effects of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic are unraveling important truths that can transform into valuable lessons for the working class and other oppressed sectors. Lessons that, given time and the correct circumstances, should become concrete actions.
By Daniel Sugasti 03/23/2020
“We are all in the same boat”, say the governing leaders and the big capitalist news media. If this is true –because anyone can get infected by the virus– the most appropriate image is not one of a rowing team, but of the Titanic sinking, with life boats only for “the first class”, for the rich and the powerful. Because no country has –or will have– remotely enough ICU beds or respirators for all of the most endangered population.
“We are truly at war”, asserted president Trump on Sunday, March 22nd. Against the spread and lethality of this virus, sure, without a doubt. But the leaders approaching this war (the bourgeoisie) are not confronting the enemy as they should, nor in a direct manner. They do it from the commodity of their mansions and with the certainty that if they do fall ill, they’ll be tended to in the best manner.
Besides the recommendations to reinforce hygiene habits, the only measure that is taking any effect is social distancing, or quarantine. However, this is impossible for the majority of the working class, if it does not come accompanied by other measures that’ll guarantee this effectively.
The “stay at home” or “shelter in place” slogan –that many governments have not yet ordained or did so quietly to avoid diminishing the profits of their bourgeoisie– is not applicable for millions of workers around the world, who are torn by the terrible dilemma of being forced to go to work, risking infection, or starving to death.
As always occurs in class societies, in this double crisis, both sanitary and economic –where one feeds off the other–, the proprietary classes will do anything in their reach so that the losses and the dead, fall on or come from the working class. We have here our first lesson. While it is necessary to take individual precautions and organize to counter the spread of the virus, we must not lose sight of the other ongoing war, parallel to the one imposed by the fight against COVID-19: the conflict against the capitalist system, in all its presentations, that has always proven it does not give a damn about the working class. So the struggle is double: against the virus and against the bourgeoisie . It’s them or us.
We constantly hear about the differences in mortality rates among the different age groups. But not much is said about the relation between mortality and class differences, which apparently has not shown its most lethal facet. The pandemic will affect families and individuals differently, depending on the material conditions of each. It’s not the same to be over sixty and in need of a respirator in an ICU when you’re rich than when you’re poor. It’s true that the virus does not discriminate between social classes. But the capitalist States, with their regimes and governments, do make this distinction when implementing measures that affect us directly.
After China, the epicenter appears to have moved to the European continent, where there are powerful imperialist countries with incredibly superior resources to those of semi-colonial countries. We are witnessing an ascending curve of infections and deaths, especially in Italy and the State of Spain. As we write this, the death toll in these countries surpass 6,000 and 2,200 respectively.
But if we consider the political systemic destruction of public health services of both States, dictated by the neoliberal agenda, it is not hard to understand this horrendous situation. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the ICU beds in Italy were reduced by half in the last 25 years: from 575 places for every 100,000 inhabitants to 275 currently. Something similar has happened in the State of Spain. We know that the public health system has suffered from: repeated cuts to its funding, labor precariousness and increasing privatization, process that took a major leap after the 2008-2009 crisis. This explains, among other elements, how the mortality rate, whose average is generally 3.8%, is 6% in the State of Spain and in Italy it is 9.2%. The new virus infected an economy and a health system that was already “immunocompromised” by the deliberate actions of their capitalist governments.
If this is the situation in parts of Europe, the situation in the United States, the most hegemonic imperialist force, is not any more reassuring. With more than 30,000 infected, it has become the third country with most cases. Until now, 400 people have died. And all the conditions are in place for this sanitary crisis to get worse. The main problem is that there is no public health care system per se in the U.S. More than 27 million people in the country are uninsured, a number that has increased during Trump’s governance. A medical consultation for someone without insurance costs hundreds of dollars. Other tens of millions of people are underinsured, that is, that they have a basic plan that often doesn’t cover even a fraction of the cost of a consultation or treatment. In fact, the working class in the United States, especially undocumented immigrants and the poorest sectors, are more afraid of going to the doctor because of economic repercussions than they are of actually being infected by the coronavirus or having any other illness.
So, if this the reality in imperialist countries, what can we expect in semi-colonial countries like those in Africa or Latin America? Well, specialists are categorical when stating that the consequences would be apocalyptic in Africa. In Latin America, the pandemic has not yet reached the levels of China or Europe, but it is beginning to wreak havoc in a much worse structural scenario than that of European countries: poverty and misery; pure and harsh unemployment; informal or precarious labor; rural misery; overcrowding and terrible housing conditions in the urban cities, when there’s even access to housing, are part of the subcontinent’s reality. The coming months will unveil all the existing and cumulative precariousness over the decades.
The truth is that the coronavirus comes to make matters worse in Latin America and the Caribbean. Of their 629 million inhabitants, 30% are considered poor and 10.7% survive in extreme poverty. In 2014, 70 million people were registered as homeless in the region. These are all data from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). The countries with the worst rates of homelessness are Honduras (45.6%), Nicaragua (29.5%) and Guatemala (29.1%). In Haiti, 60% of the population is poor and 24% is considered extremely poor ($1.24 a day).
According to the ILO, informal labor in Latin America reached 53%, affecting about 140 million workers in 2018. On the other hand, though owning the major sweet water reserves in the world, about one third of the Latin American and Caribbean population lack access to drinking water. As far as basic sanitation services go, it is estimated that 70% of homes don’t have access to proper fecal sludge management . The countries with the least access to drinking water in Latin America are: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia .
Currently, over 75% of Latin America’s and the Caribbean’s inhabitants reside in urban zones. In fact, it is the second most urban region in the planet. The problem is the degrading housing conditions. According to the IDB, there is about a 6% housing deficit in the region, not to mention that 94% of the «houses» are not of good quality. Just in Brazil, we’re talking about a shortage of 7.78 million houses, according to data from 2017 .
Moreover, extreme poverty impedes millions from accessing basic hygiene products such as soap. In the middle of this crisis, this is criminal: how do you prevent infection of COVID-19 and other diseases not only without real possibilities of social distancing, but also having to live in crowded, precarious conditions, with no access to drinking water or soap, without basic sanitation? Isn’t this a death sentence for millions of people?
With a global recession nearing –of which COVID-19 is considered a precursor–, the capitalist governments are not worried with saving lives, rather they’re rushing to save the profits of big businesses and banks. This is a well known recipe: when the 2008-2009 crisis blew up, the U.S. government injected 700 billion dollars of public funding to banks and businesses. The European Union did the same, destining 200 billion euros just to save the banking system, at the cost of condemning millions of workers to unemployment, the cold, evictions, death. Now the IMF predicts a recession that is “as bad or worse” than the one at the brink of 2008.
The question, now, is the same: who will pay for this new recession? This is yet to be seen. It will be defined in the class struggle arena, that may acquire new forms of struggle.
For the moment, ILO estimates that, as a minimum, 25 millions jobs will be lost. In the U.S., the Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, informed Congress that he fears unemployment will grow 20%, practically more than double what Trump received when he took over. According to ECLAC, Latin America will suffer a -1.8% contraction of the GDP, that might generate an increase of ten percent in unemployment. Only in Brazil, before the circulation of COVID-19, there were 13 million unemployed.
Latin American governments are following the same lead as Trump and the European Union: saving banks and businesses. In fact, they’re taking advantage of the chaos to deepen their ultraliberal agendas and pressure counter reforms that sell out historic rights won by the working class.
In Brazil, for example, Jair Bolsonaro’s ultra right government not only authorized even more flexible labor laws, authorizing reduced working hours and reduction of salaries by half , he even proposed the suspension, plain and simple, of work contracts, without pay for four months . Their minister of economy, the rabid neoliberal Paulo Guedes, announced a first financial package equivalent to 2.2% of the GDP for “the national economy”, that is, to rescue big businesses such as commerce, tourism, aviation, etc. There is even talk of the possibility of a 1.2 trillion Brazilian reales’ aid from the Central Bank, for the financial market. To paint a better picture, in 2008, the Brazilian banks’ rescue consumed 117 billion Brazilian reales. The problem is that 90% of those resources will be repaid by the very own taxpayers, since they don’t provide much more than measly postponements of some payments, certain facilities for obtaining credit, advancement of acquired benefits, etc. Only 0.2% of that amount will be used directly to salvage homes, though always under the form of immediate assistance: the Bolsa Familia program will be amped by 0.1% and another 0.1% will be used to reinforce the public health system. This is in line with the criminal minimization of the health crisis by Bolsonaro, which he qualifies as senseless “hysteria”, that could generate a catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Brazil. On another note, the Argentinian minister of Economy, Martín Guzmán, announced a series of aids that sum up to 2.2% of the GDP. Of that, 1.63% of the GDP will be destined to public credits, mainly for businesses and other sectors; only 0.6% will be used towards reinforcing public infrastructure and incrementing social assistance .
Sebastián Piñera, who faces the revolution in Chile with fire and blood, announced an economic package plan of 11.7 million dollars, that is, 4.7% of the GDP, destining a great amount to save businesses. It’s worth noting that there is no public health system in Chile, since everything has been privatized during the last 40 years of neoliberalism .
We’re living uncertain times in all terrains. On March 23rd, the pandemic reached more than 300 thousand cases with 100 thousand new cases just in the four days before. It is possible that, at some point during the next few months, the curve of infection by COVID-19 will begin to flatten. However, the effects of the economic and social crisis will be more profound and long-lasting. In other words, if we don’t stop the governments, this global health crisis will become a humanitarian tragedy that will leave a lot more poor than dead by the new virus.
One last consideration. The crisis unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic shows the complete inability of the capitalist system to face the problems of the immense majority of the world population. The images of Italian military tanks transporting cadavers of people, who may have survived if there had been enough respirators and public resources to tend to them, is, among other things, macabre proof of the bankruptcy of this way of production and social organization.
Capitalism is not only incapable. Capitalism kills. This must be crystal clear in the conscience of workers.
The incapability is such that no small amount of superiority preachers of the “invisible hand” of the “free market” started to beg for aid all of a sudden to the “public treasure chests”. State intervention, for capitalists, must be “minimal” to tend to the needs of the proletariat and the poor, and “maximum” when it comes to reducing the risk of losses to their profits.
The conclusion we can draw from the aforementioned is that only anticapitalist measures can face this pandemic and the possible recession that is coming.
A united front of the whole working class is necessary to have the cost of the crisis paid by its creators, the capitalists. We will not pay the piper.
It is time to demand free testing and effective quarantine to protect the lives of everyone. This means defending our jobs and the conquests of our class. Demanding measures like the ban on layoffs and reduction of salaries; for the State to guarantee salaries by attacking the interests of the businesspeople. We need to fight to guarantee a living wage for informal workers and the self-employed, for those who survive on the highs and lows of each day.
We need to fight to guarantee hygiene products, alcohol, face masks, gloves and everything necessary for the protection of families, especially the poor. To guarantee the essential necessities for the protection of medical personnel, who are at the front line against this pandemic. We need to suspend the charging of basic services (rent, electricity, water, gas, etc.) and taxes for working families.
We need to fight to guarantee free, universal, quality, public health care systems. We need to fight to materialize heavy investment in scientific investigation.
To reach these objectives, that are a matter of life and death for millions, there is no other way out, that doesn’t imply attacking the interests, the profits of the greatest capitalists.
A socialist program involves confiscating and nationalizing all hospitals and pharmaceutical industries in private hands; confiscate and nationalize every laboratory and business that elaborate test kits, respirators and medical equipment in general; confiscate and nationalize hotels, leisure spaces, and any other infrastructure that may serve as attention premises for the sick or shelter for the homeless.
They will say this is impossible, that there is no money. Socialists and the working class will reply that this is a lie.
Expropriating the bourgeoisie, socializing the means of production and reorganizing the world economy in service of the lives and meeting the needs of the immense majority of the population, under the democratic control of the working class, there will be resources a plenty. Like not many times in history, the crossroads between socialism or barbarity is set in a very dramatic manner.
In semi-colonial countries, like those in Latin America, ceasing to pay external debt, is an absolutely indispensable measure to fund an emergency plan to save the lives of the working class, not the banks.
The problem was never a lack of material resources, but at which class’ disposition they’re in.
It is no time for halfway measures. It’s them or us.
Translation by: Anastasia Ransewak