A Working-Class Program to Fight the Pandemic

As cases of Covid-19 continue to rise, the capitalist system has proved itself incapable and unwilling to address the pandemic. The result is akin to manslaughter, if not murder, at the hands of this system. We propose measures that need to be taken to address the pandemic.
  • Left Voice | 
  • September 25, 2021

The outlook for the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States and around the world continues to worsen. U.S. cases are reaching levels not seen since peaks during the initial wave of the virus. Daily infections number over 150,000, and hospitalizations and death rates are rising. Deaths are now averaging over 1,000 a day, and 3,400 deaths were recorded on September 16. Many ICUs are nearing capacity, and both Idaho and Alaska have declared statewide resource crises that could lead to healthcare rationing. This wave is seeing drastic increases in hospitalizations in children, which could only increase as children return to school, often without adequate safety measures in place. Though the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant should lead to increased safety measures, it seems that many schools are doing the opposite. For example, the NYC Department of Education (DOE) will actually be decreasing the stringency of measures to keep children safe, such as social distancing, testing, and quarantining. And even though these nationwide numbers are staggering, they could be far lower than the actual number of cases, as a May 1 decision has led the CDC to track only breakthrough infections that have led to hospitalization or death.

Across the globe health care systems are again being strained under the weight of pandemic. Cases are rising in Australia, for example, as hospitals in Sydney set up emergency tents outside hospitals to support surges in patients. In Iran, officials have banned all nonessential travel between cities as the country sees record daily death tolls. As Left Voice has covered, “Across the continent of Africa over the last month, there has been an 80-percent increase in cases, with South Africa alone reporting more than 14,000 new cases in a single day.” While many researchers believe the number to be much higher, data shows there has been “more than 7.4 million cases and 187,000 deaths across Africa’s 54 countries.”

Although the vaccines do not seem to be fully sterilizing, meaning they do not prevent the virus from spreading, particularly with new, more virulent strains of the virus, they have proved effective in preventing serious illness and death. A recent study published in the Lancet found that among the approximately 12,000 patients hospitalized for Covid-19 at one hospital, 91 percent were unvaccinated. Vaccines are available in many of the imperialist countries, but this is not so for much of the world. For example, less than 5 percent of Africans are currently vaccinated. Though the continent lacks vaccines, we see vaccine imperialism continue to play out. South Africa, for example, is shipping vaccines produced in the country to Europe. As much of the world still struggles to obtain vaccines, NBC News reports that “at least 15 million Covid-19 vaccine doses across the U.S. have gone to waste, representing about 3 percent of all doses delivered.” Yet, despite wasting the vaccines they hoard, countries like the U.S. and Israel now plan to provide booster doses. This plan continues despite calls from organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) to hold off to allow others around the world to receive their first vaccine. FDA scientists recently quit the agency in protest and publicly condemned the Biden administration’s plan for boosters in the Lancet.

The capitalist system has proved itself unwilling to adequately respond to the pandemic, allowing cases to rage around the globe, which should be seen as direct violence against the working class. As a result of the system’s unwillingness, Covid-19 variants continue to arise. Research shows that the new variants are spread more easily through the air. Most new cases are due to the highly infectious Delta variant, but Delta could be old news in the near future. The WHO is monitoring a new variant first identified in Colombia called Mu (B.1.621), which could have the ability to evade immunity from previous infection or vaccination. In South Africa a new variant called C.1.2, first identified in May and now in several other countries, could be more transmissible and evade vaccines. In Japan a Delta variant sublineage has been identified, one that could cause more severe symptoms. The rise of these variants will lead only to greater suffering and death at the hands of this system. Engels first coined the term “social murder” in 1845, referring to the capitalist system’s knowingly allowing conditions to continue that led to premature death. The system allowing the virus to continue to spread, mutate, and kill, even though it can provide vaccines and preventative nonpharmacological measures for everyone on earth, should be seen for what it is: social murder.

The pandemic seems to have no immediate end in sight and, based on these data, could significantly worsen. Some models are now projecting that resurgences could continue as far out as 2025. Recently President Biden released his six-pronged Covid-19 action plan, called “The Path out of the Pandemic,” to the U.S. public. This plan does not go nearly far enough to truly address the global scale of the pandemic. It does not remotely address the various facets of the illogical nature of capitalism that have led us to this place. For example, his plan says nothing about rolling back vaccine patents, which leave so many around the world unprotected. Though Biden plans to unveil additional steps to combat the pandemic globally “in the weeks ahead,” these steps will likely fall short. This makes it all the more necessary for socialists to put forward demands that identify and address the capitalist system’s inability to stop the pandemic. The capitalist system continues to prove itself both incapable and unwilling to address the pandemic, leading millions to suffer and die. We must immediately take the response to this crisis out of the hands of the capitalists and into the hands of the working class. Revolutionary socialists must be at the forefront of putting forward demands that end the pandemic and stop the sacrificing of lives of our working class brothers and sisters.

1. Lift patents on vaccines and mass-produce them

Patents on vaccines must be immediately lifted so that they are accessible to everyone who wants one. Priority should be given to those with comorbidities that put them most at risk of complications from infection. Human lives continue to be sacrificed around the globe in the effort to protect pharmaceutical company profits. This cannot be tolerated. In addition, the world’s productive forces must be mobilized to produce vaccines for the billions of people in need around the globe. We must condemn vaccine imperialism, leading sectors of the world’s population to go without vaccines. We must also condemn a system that maintains artificially produced vaccine scarcity to protect the profits of corporations and to keep vaccines from being mass-produced. A new report from Public Citizen even contends that the Biden administration could share the full recipe for the Moderna vaccine with the world, but his administration is choosing not to.

Lifting patents would make vaccine production more transparent, and thus make it easier for the working class to make their own decisions around the safety of vaccines. In giving more people the opportunity to become vaccinated, we must also go far beyond vague liberal notions of providing “more education.” We must start a process of addressing the long history of medical coercion and experimentation by Western medicine throughout the globe. This ultimately means grappling with and dismantling a system of medicine built on racism and white supremacy.

While those endeavors will take time, in the immediate future we need a mass increase in the number of health workers in communities to build relationships with and talk with others to address vaccine hesitancy, along with safety measures to prevent viral transmission. That means setting up thousands more vaccine clinics in communities with low vaccination rates and hiring tens of thousands of health care workers to speak directly to people about the vaccine and its benefits. It means creating health and safety committees in each workplace that can take time to discuss the vaccine, side effects, and reasons to get vaccinated. It also means removing other barriers by giving workers who do choose to get vaccinated paid time off as needed to obtain the vaccine and manage any side effects. This is the path forward to get greater numbers of people vaccinated. These will be the ways to get more people vaccinated, but it will not come from coercion or shaming.

2. Expand Tetris measures (testing, tracing, isolation) 

Because vaccinated people can still spread the virus to others, vaccines represent just one part of the fight against Covid-19. Vaccine-only strategies are thus counterproductive. We must use a multitude of other tools to address contracting and spreading the virus. As part of this effort, socialists must advocate the expansion of Tetris (or testing, tracing, and isolation) measures globally. In the U.S., for example, as vaccination rates increased, public testing sites were closed down to focus on vaccinations. We must institute mass testing wherever and whenever desired. We must also expand the capacity of healthcare systems to not only test for the virus, but also to trace close contacts and isolate those infected so that they do not spread the virus. This would require directly combating neoliberal policies focused on gutting public health systems and instead vastly expand them.

3. Expand evidence-based preventative measures and nationalize all health-related industries under worker control

There must be an expansion in evidence-based preventative measures as part of the Swiss cheese model of addressing viral spread. The productive capacity of society should be mobilized immediately to provide high-filtration ventilation to all areas where the working class resides. Schools must be made safer before allowing children back to in-person classes, especially since schools appear to be driving the community spread of the Delta variant.

Masks should be provided to the public at no cost. As this study shows, public campaigns can increase mask wearing and, in turn, decrease Covid-19 cases. At the same time, while the general public experiences pandemic fatigue, we cannot fall into the trap of repacking stadiums and other venues as variants continue to spread. This will only prolong the pandemic and increase deaths. Getting vaccinated, wearing masks, avoiding large public events — these should be all be seen as working-class acts of solidarity to confront a pandemic that the capitalist system is unwilling to solve.

To produce the supplies needed to stop the spread of the virus and guarantee their free distribution, all health-related industries should be nationalized and put under worker control. As with vaccines, the scarcity of these products results from the irrationality of capitalism. This only further underscores the need for a planned economy in which the workers and general public make the decisions, as opposed to large corporations and the wealthy.

4. Shut down some industries as necessary. The working class must determine the scale of reopenings, not the capitalists.

While the capitalists are pushing for full reopenings, it must be the working class and the public that determines whether it is safe for businesses to reopen. Workers themselves should dictate policies on workplace safety, with input from frontline healthcare workers when possible. Shutdowns should similarly be determined by the working class, and full pay and benefits should be provided by capitalists if workplaces need to be shut down. While periodic shutdowns may be necessary, using racist, murderous institutions such as the police to enforce shutdowns only hurts the working class. For example, in France we see how the police, under the guise of “protecting the public during the pandemic,” commit violence against the working class, stopping buses full of working-class people, targeting immigrants, etc. The police are using the pandemic to openly assault the working class. In our efforts to control the pandemic, we cannot further empower racist, murderous class enemies like the police.

5. Massively expand the number of healthcare workers

To address the pandemic there must be an expansion in the number of healthcare workers. Thousands of community health workers should be trained and hired to go door-to-door in communities and provide testing, counseling, and general care to the public in their homes. As the pandemic began, cities like New York, where hospitals had previously been shut down to cut costs, scrambled to set up makeshift hospital beds for patients. This dynamic is clearly not limited to New York. Hospitals that paradoxically were cutting staff during the initial peaks of the pandemic must be forced to hire employees to improve staffing ratios so that better care can be delivered. At the time of this writing, cops are being used to give out vaccines around the U.S. We don’t need the same people who brutalize poor and working-class people of color — who are most at risk of complications from Covid-19 — to legitimize themselves by distributing vaccines. There must be a mass campaign to educate and train healthcare workers across the U.S.

6. Establish free universal healthcare under worker and community control

While increasing the number of healthcare workers, we must also combat the exploitative nature of the healthcare system as a whole. As part of this process, all testing and healthcare treatment should be free for anyone who needs it regardless of income, insurance status, or immigration status. Beyond making healthcare free for those affected by Covid-19, the entirety of the healthcare system should be nationalized and put under the control of healthcare workers and the general public. This could start the process of combating a system that exists to extract profit from those damaged by capitalism.

7. Maintain rent and eviction moratoriums

As the virus continues to spread, capitalists are pushing for rollbacks of previous eviction moratoriums, even though studies show that they saved lives during the first wave of the pandemic. On August 26 the Supreme Court proved that it serves not the working class but the wealthy landlords and capitalists: ruling against the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) extension of the national eviction moratorium, passed August 3. While some states such as New York and California have passed statewide eviction moratoriums, renters in many states were protected only by the national moratorium. This puts millions at risk of becoming homeless or being forced to live more closely together with family or in shelters, which will only spread the virus. We need national rent and eviction moratoriums to keep the public safe.

8. End overcrowding and homelessness

We must end overcrowding and homelessness. There are more empty homes in the United States than homeless individuals, again displaying the irrationality of capitalism. There needs to be an immediate requisition of hotels, office spaces, and all unoccupied properties to rehouse people and allow them to live safely.

9. Extend unemployment benefits

Congress recently allowed unemployment benefits to expire. This is part of an effort to force the working class back into their exploitative workplaces. There must be an immediate extension and expansion of unemployment benefits for all of the working class.

10. Pass emergency universal paid sick leave

To stop the spread of the virus, we must guarantee working people full pay for the duration of the pandemic, funded by cuts in spending to destructive sectors like the military, along with taxes on the superrich. For workers to quarantine, they require economic security.

11. Put the pandemic response in the hands of the working class, not the capitalists

Whether this means shutting down factories if they are unsafe or closing schools where there is high transmission, doing widespread community testing, or helping to increase mass production of and distribution of vaccines, the working class should be coordinating and controlling the Covid-19 response. If teachers in a particular school district begin to notice a number of positive cases or Covid-19 exposures putting student and staff health at risk, the teachers, along with the school staff, should determine what is needed to keep themselves and students safe. This may mean vastly expanding ventilation and PPE in schools, or it may mean shutting the school down and going back to remote learning. Alternatively, healthcare workers themselves, along with the patients and communities they work in, should be determining the level of testing and vaccines needed in communities. Healthcare workers on the ground battled the pandemic from its beginning and are far more equipped to determine the pandemic response than CEOs who hid in their Florida condos as the pandemic raged. Factories should be taken over by workers producing vaccines so that they can increase production and distribute them to the millions around the world who need them. This will help combat the vaccine imperialism that has led the such inequity in who has access to vaccines — which ironically puts us all at risk by increasing the likelihood that variants will arise that can escape vaccine protection. To address the pandemic, we need the working class to take control of the response, because the capitalist system will allow more people to die.

12. No punitive measures against working-class and oppressed people

As socialists who want to see an end to the pandemic, we should support every effort to expand availability of vaccines and increase the number of people vaccinated. At the same time, we must reject policies that penalize the unvaccinated, such as firings, suspensions, and the imposition of increased health care fees. We can support access to vaccines while opposing punitive mandates, which ultimately transfer the responsibility for the pandemic from the state to the individual and attempt to solve the pandemic by focusing solely on vaccines.

While corporate and government representatives talk about the need for safety measures, we should not forget that hospitals forced health care workers to work without PPE or safe staffing levels, or how, even in the pandemic’s first wave, hospitals were laying off healthcare workers. These officials were silent about safety when meatpacking workers were forced to stay on the job during the deadliest days and as a result suffered some of the heaviest tolls from the pandemic.

In our effort to increase the number of people vaccinated, we must make efforts to address the root causes of vaccine hesitancy. Mandates do nothing to combat the actual sources of vaccine hesitancy, which are often divided along class lines, as well as racial lines. It’s not just neofascist right-wingers who are unvaccinated. Black communities are overrepresented among the unvaccinated, for example, and there are legitimate historical reasons for communities of color to be skeptical of the healthcare system, having been victims of neglect and even brutality by the same system.

In the end, vaccine mandates ultimately strengthen the boss and the state at the expense of the working class and give employers just another reason to target workers under the guise of “noncompliance.” They empower the boss to determine who gets to work. The focus on mandates also allows the state to avoid changing anything that created and continues to exacerbate the pandemic. Finally, vaccine mandates open doors for increased state surveillance, coercion, repression, and domination, as seen in countries like Australia.

Viral spread and new variants result from vaccine-only approaches, combined with the rollback of other measures to decrease transmission (i.e., increasing ventilation, using masks, reducing school class sizes, avoiding large public gatherings) in an effort to prematurely reopen economies to full capacity. We know from previous research that pathogens can evolve, and imperfect vaccination can increase the transmission of dangerous pathogens, which is why focusing on a multifaceted approach (below) that combines vaccination with other preventative measures is so important. As CNN recently reported, “Vaccination alone won’t stop the rise of new variants and in fact could push the evolution of strains that evade their protection.” Capitalists love vaccine-only approaches because they seem like the “quick fix” that does not change systems too drastically and gets things back to “normal,” but they will not be adequate to stop viral spread. As socialists, we must reject such measures because they will only prolong the pandemic.

13. Combat the climate crisis

Besides threatening all of humanity, the climate crisis creates an environment for the working class to become more ill from Covid-19. As multiple studies have shown, poor air quality puts people at greater risk of poorer outcomes if infected with Covid-19. Data suggests that the destruction of the biosphere brings humans more close to sequestered areas of forest environments, increasing the risk of zoonotic infections jumping to humans. Large-scale factory farming also acts to help set the stage for pandemics while contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution. Covid-19 has demonstrated how capitalism serves as an incubator for pandemics. As a result of the system’s functioning, the public is put at risk for more severe diseases that the system itself helped create.

Beyond these concrete measures, there also must be a fundamental adjustment to how we view health globally. Healthcare systems around the world must be forced to move away from systems focused on extracting profit from those whose bodies are damaged by capitalism and toward systems that actually do their proposed “job”: improving the health of individuals, communities, societies, and the environment in which they exist. This means rejecting the concept that individual health care only is to be administered in officially designated healthcare settings. Health starts with how we organize our society. Addressing this pandemic and preventing future pandemics also starts the same way. Public health must be seen as a shared commons extending beyond the individual and beyond national borders. We must not allow it to simply be another space to be further exploited by capitalists.

It cannot be more clear: the capitalist system is willing to sacrifice millions of lives to address the pandemic. Capitalist measures created this pandemic — and create pandemics in general — and they cannot be used to solve the pandemic. This updated program serves to be a starting platform to address the ongoing spread of Covid-19 around the world. However, as discussed in Left Voice’s first emergency program to address the pandemic,

A final resolution to the ills of society will only be possible by overcoming capitalism and building a new society from the ground up. This endeavor can only be accomplished at an international level. A socialist society, where all resources are collectively owned and managed, would eliminate the stark contrast between a propertied class and the overwhelming majority of toilers.

We can even build a society that does not drive itself to extinction, setting the stage for climate collapse by destroying the environment and creating pandemic after pandemic in the capitalist march to human extinction. But that society is impossible to create under capitalism. Ultimately, we must organize as a working class to destroy this system before it creates even deadlier pandemics in the process of destroying us. The points above serve as a minimum set of measures needed to start putting an end to the pandemic and addressing the needs of the working class.

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