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Capitalism Is a Virus: Interview with Two Socialist Healthcare Workers from New York

As thousands die each day, bodies are piled into mass graves — these are the surreal images coming out of the world’s dominant imperialist power. This situation was by no means inevitable, but it was prepared by decades of neoliberal policies, as explained by nurse Tre Kwon and Dr. Mike Pappas from New York, members of Left Voice.

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Illustration: Sou Mi

This interview was originally given to Révolution Permanente, the French sister site of Left Voice. It was published in French on April 12.

What have the responses by Trump and the federal government looked like? Can you tell us more about the emergency bills that are being passed? What about the Democratic Party?

Mike Pappas: The government was far too slow to respond to the crisis. Despite warnings from around the world, the completely incompetent human occupying the presidency made no effort to contain the spread of the virus. Over the past weeks to months, Trump has gone from calling the virus a “hoax” by Democrats, to comparing it to the flu, to accepting that the virus was spreading, but downplaying its severity, to now starting to admit that the death toll that could rise. This initial denial is key because it led to an indeterminate number of people becoming infected with the virus and spreading it to others. Networks like Fox News—which may be more accurately referred to as national corporate propaganda networks— manufactured doubt among the populace about the seriousness of the virus. This also led the general public to not take adequate steps to protect themselves. “Stay at home” policies in many states may be necessary, but they also have a political dimension by discouraging collective action and atomizing the working class. Furthermore, in many cases, such policies strengthen the repressive apparatus of the state, which are obviously extremely problematic.

Tre Kwon: The White House and Congress agreed on a bailout worth $2 trillion. Of that, more than half a trillion dollars will go to large corporations — with $60 billion just for the airlines. In comparison, only about one $125 billion is going to health care. Ten million workers have become unemployed since the crisis began — and these numbers only include people who have applied for unemployment benefits, and therefore does not include millions of undocumented workers. This is the largest wave of job losses since the Great Depression. The United States lost 12 million jobs from 1930 to 1932 … as many as we saw today in two weeks!

Every U.S. citizen is supposed to get a check for $1,200 — but in places like New York City, that is less than many people pay for rent. Without a rent freeze, that money is just a subsidy for landlords. It is not clear when this money will actually arrive, either. This limited subsidy is being denied to the millions of undocumented workers in the United States — workers who pay taxes but are getting no support. Quite the contrary, the deportation agency ICE is continuing to arrest so-called “illegals” in the midst of the pandemic, and in contrast to hospitals, they are getting sufficient protective gear from the government.

The federal government has failed to prepare for a pandemic like this. Trump is trying to shift the blame to the states. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, for example, referred to the federal stockpile of ventilators and other desperately needed equipment as “our stockpile.” Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act from 1950, which would allow the government to direct industry to produce essential supplies. But nothing is happening yet. General Motors, for example, demanded $1 billion to manufacture ventilators, and we are reaching the peak of cases, but GM has not produced one single ventilator.

The Democratic Party, spurred by senator and former presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, added some points to the bailout against the worst forms of corruption in the bailout. Now airlines are not supposed to use bailout money to buy back stocks, and Trump’s own businesses are not supposed to get funds. In general, however, they agreed with this trillion-dollar bailout of large corporations. They have not offered any kind of alternative. That is a big part of Trump’s rising approval rating right now — there are no other proposals on the table. In some ways, he is positioning himself to the left of the Democrats. He talks about everyone getting $1,200, while Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is calling for “means testing.”

The United States is one of the predominant capitalist countries in the world, yet its health care system has not been able to meet the needs of the crisis. What have been the biggest shortcomings?

Mike Pappas: There are so many issues that could be addressed. One is that the U.S. was extremely delayed in adequate testing protocol for the population. Though there was a WHO-approved test that a great number of other countries had already been using, the United States opted to develop its own test, likely so a U.S. corporation could benefit from the government contract to produce it. This in itself delayed a move to a mass-testing protocol, but in addition, the CDC initially sent out faulty test kits that had to be recalled. By the time the United States even ramped up its capacity for widespread testing, there was already community spread of the virus.

It’s important to note that a large benefit of testing we have seen in countries such as China and South Korea comes with quarantining known COVID-19 cases and tracing close contacts who may also be infected. Doing this requires a robust public health system with the physical ability to track a large number of cases. The United States does not have such a system. Instead we have a health case system that is dominated by private, for-profit corporations or entities labeled “not-for-profit,” which still function as for-profit corporations. This had led to a completely disjointed system that cannot track disease spread in this way.

That was at the start of the crisis in the United States. Now what we are seeing is a pandemic that in areas like New York City will likely see a peak number of infections in the coming weeks to months. The U.S. health care system is already becoming completely overrun by the pandemic. Nurses in New York City, for example, were threatening to strike over poor staffing ratios last year before a pandemic. Despite the pleading of frontline health care workers, hospital administrations — who continually strive to drive down costs to increase profits no matter the cost — refused to respond. One can only imagine what a working situation is now like during a pandemic.

Staff fighting the pandemic on the frontlines lack adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), and hospitals are running low on ventilators. The capitalist system has been unable to adequately respond to this demand and ramp up the production of essential supplies and equipment. This is why Left Voice is calling for the immediate nationalization of the health care industry and a wartime mobilization of production of essential supplies.

What are the links between the spread of COVID-19 and capitalist health policies?

Mike Pappas: This crisis serves as a glaring example of how detrimental are the market policies that capitalists continually claim benefit everyone. As far back as 2016, the Obama administration produced a report based on lessons from fighting Ebola that noted the likelihood of global pandemics. Again in 2019, a simulation by the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services, called Crimson Contagion, modeled a global pandemic. Now, if we lived in a country with a functioning public health system that worked to prepare for and prevent disease, one would expect, based on this data, that hospitals would begin preparing for such scenarios. Instead, hospital systems opted for “just in time” scenarios of obtaining supplies, because purchasing supplies in advance was not a cost they were willing to bear.

Market mentality also has an effect on the funding of public industries. In a society where the market reigns supreme, the idea is there should be less government interference, which means the budgets of public industries must be cut. For example, as reported by The Intercept, the Trump administration not only shut down the National Security Council’s global health security unit but also cut funding to organizations, such as the CDC, that focus on preventing global diseases. Instead of funding public research and development, the capitalist mentality that has colonized all aspects of our society has signed off a large amount of research to private corporations that would rather put money into developing the next blockbuster “me-too” drug instead of developing therapies that would protect the mass of the population.

We see how capitalist ideology has helped create this crisis when evaluating hospital staffing. For some time, leadership has worked to cut staffing as much as possible since this is simply seen as an extra expense that threatens the bottom line. This puts them in a far worse situation when it comes to responding to a pandemic. Now we see hospital administrators scrambling to find staff. Because of staff shortages, administrations are telling staff to expect to be exposed to the virus and to work until they develop symptoms. This will lead the illness to spread quickly.

While the government has not prepared the health care system, the capitalist state has also made the public more vulnerable. Complete destruction of a social safety net is essential to the functioning of the capitalist system. It is advantageous to capitalists to cut unemployment benefits, paid sick leave, etc., as it puts the working class in a more precarious and vulnerable position. The more vulnerable the public is, the easier it is to exploit them in the workplace because they are desperate to keep a job. The United States is the only country in the world without mandatory paid sick leave. This is unconscionable in a country that allows one man to accumulate more than $100 billion in net worth.

This precarity has helped facilitate increased spread of not just coronavirus but also other illnesses in the United States. Take norovirus: the CDC has reported that infected food workers cause about 70 percent of reported norovirus outbreaks that hit the general public. They also document that one in five food service workers has worked while sick with vomiting and diarrhea, the typical signs of norovirus. Workers in the United States must continue working even while sick. So it is not hard to see how coronavirus spread like it did in the United States. Workers must work regardless of how sick they are just to survive.

Ultimately capitalism has made the public more vulnerable to the virus and left institutions unable to respond. Coronavirus is really just a warning, though, of what is to come if we don’t mobilize to oppose this system. The amount of death and suffering we can expect from coronavirus will pale in comparison to what will result from pending climate collapse. As capitalists continue to destroy the environment — 100 companies are responsible for more than 70 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions — we will see increasing emerging illnesses, global conflict, starvation, and death. This is why it is so crucial to respond to this crisis with methods that directly oppose the capitalist system, which has put us in this situation.

This crisis also shows that health care and public health must be viewed as something greater than what happens in the clinic or hospital. As this crisis rages throughout the world, the Trump administration is working to roll back Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards so that companies can further pollute the air and water we all need to survive. As The Intercept has reported, 2.2 million in the United States could die if coronavirus goes unchecked. Increasing air pollution will put people at greater risk from coronavirus complications. It is no coincidence that residents of the Bronx, historically affected by systemically racist policies, including ongoing disproportionate environmental pollution, are twice as likely to die from coronavirus. Early studies are now unsurprisingly showing that people of color, specifically Black people, may be contracting and dying from coronavirus at a disproportionately higher rate. Examples like this show why the question of health and well-being goes beyond the traditional health care setting.

What social and economic measures should be taken in the United States to stop COVID-19?

Tre Kwon: It has been shown in country after country that the most effective strategy for controlling the pandemic is mass testing and contact tracing. We saw these measures prove effective in countries such as South Korea, for example. Efforts to combat the virus also involved isolation and quarantine, but they were able to avoid general “stay at home” orders. In cases where there is already community circulation of the virus, such as the United States, “stay at home” policies are necessary, but they should also be accompanied by mass testing and cluster isolation. The issue is that countries like the United States have drastically cut funding to the public health sector over the years, so there is not necessarily the capacity for the adequate measures of testing and isolation that needs to occur. It is also advantageous to push “stay at home” advisories without testing because the government then does not have to put as much pressure on the private sector to produce tests en masse.

Mike Pappas: The current health care system in the United States is focused predominantly on extracting profit from sick bodies damaged by capitalism. Health is secondary to profit accumulation, period. We need a health care system that equally provides care for everyone, because that makes us all healthier. For coronavirus, under a more progressive socialist health care system, everyone concerned would ideally be able to obtain testing and treatment without fear of economic ruin. As I and Tatiana Cozarrelli note in our piece “Capitalism Is an Incubator for Pandemics. Socialism is the Solution,” if hospitalization or quarantine was needed, “a patient and family would be able to focus on what was best for their health instead of worrying whether a hospital bill would destroy them economically.”

The way to address the problems we are seeing is to break the rules of capitalism. We see this happening to some extent as capitalist governments around the world realize that industries cannot and will not respond appropriately to this crisis. Governments around the world, such as Spain and Ireland, are nationalizing hospitals to better address the crisis. If measures such as these are not taken, capitalists have shown time and time again they will sit back and let people die as they wait for the best opportunities to maximize profits.

More tangibly, Left Voice released a 10-point emergency program that discusses immediate steps we believe must be taken to address the pandemic. We believe the public needs to mobilize to demand measures such as free health care for all, emergency universal sick leave for all, and the nationalization of all health-related industries under democratic workers’ control. Both patients and health care workers should control the health care system and its functioning, not rich CEOs and boards of directors. This will inevitably lead to better outcomes for everyone, not just a wealthy few.

As health care workers in New York, what are your working conditions at the hospital?

Mike Pappas: Working conditions from setting to setting vary. In some settings staff are given one N95 mask and told they are to use that for one to two weeks until the mask becomes “soiled, moist, or damaged.” In other settings staff are given PPE that they are to use for the entire day. Regardless of the setting, it is pretty universal that staff are short on PPE. There are other shortages in necessary supplies such as ventilators, IV bags, syringes, etc. A lack of ventilators when patients need them to survive means an inevitable increase in deaths.

Staff are working long hours and are constantly exposed. Health care settings are not routinely testing staff for coronavirus even though it is known that many with the virus can be asymptomatic carriers. While it will never be admitted, this is partly because management, already in dire need of staff, fears that too many staff would test positive and have to leave.

Workers throughout New York City are fighting back, though. Nurses, physicians, and other frontline workers are planning actions at hospitals throughout the city to denounce the current situation. Nurses at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx recently staged an action to call attention to their poor working conditions. The Frontline Workers COVID-19 Task Force, which includes myself and others, recently staged an action at Mount Sinai Hospital to call attention to the lack of PPE, poor infection control and isolation protocols, and inadequate provisions of sick leave. We called for zero tolerance of employee retaliation for speaking up. Frontline workers refuse to stand for these conditions any longer, and we are rising up.

This crisis also shows that the capitalist way of organizing the workplace will never give us what we need. Hospitals have been woefully inadequate in providing basic needs like PPE for their frontline workers, while the CEOs of the same hospitals are hiding in condos or mansions in Florida. We need immediate nationalization of industries put under direct, democratic workers’ and public control. Both patients and health care workers should control the health care system and its functioning, no rich CEOs and boards of directors. This will inevitably lead to better outcomes for everyone, not just a wealthy few.

Can you tell us more about the wildcat strike movement and the persistence of the class struggle in the crisis?

Tre Kwon: The number of strikes in the U.S. has been growing in the past couple of years. Last year, thousands of nurses at New York City hospitals were fighting to get better staffing ratios. Our strike was sabotaged at the last minute by the bureaucratic leadership of our union. But we are seeing now how important our demands for more nurses were.

The United States, where very few workers are in unions, especially in the private sector, has seen a small explosion workers’ actions against the crisis. Workers at different Amazon warehouses around the country are demanding protections against the pandemic — at one action in Staten Island in New York City, one of the organizers was fired by the company. Amazon owner Jeff Bezos has made an additional $6 billion since the beginning of the crisis.

There have been similar actions across the country, such as 1,000 workers in a Colorado meatpacking factory walking off the job, or sanitation workers in Pittsburgh demanding better protections. Workers in the automobile industry shut down the Big Three auto manufacturers with wildcat strikes — after their union leaders had refused to close down the factories. The most progressive action we’ve seen, however, was certainly the General Electric workers in Lynn, Massachusetts, who are demanding that the company begin manufacturing ventilators instead of shutting down plants and laying off the workers employed there.

What is the policy of the Democratic Party’s left wing? Are the activists who organized around the Sanders campaign playing a role in these new processes of class struggle? What are the possibilities for revolutionaries in this new situation?

Tre Kwon: Last Wednesday, Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign in the Democratic Party’s primary. For the last year, the leadership majority of the Democratic Socialists of America, who are close to Jacobin magazine, have been promising that Sanders could win the nomination. Just six weeks ago, they proclaimed that the Democrats were “Bernie’s Party now.” But the party’s establishment reasserted itself and coalesced around Joe Biden.

Sanders and other “socialists” in the Democratic Party will now campaign for Biden — a politician with a long record of working with segregationists, defending credit card companies, and imprisoning Black and Brown people. That is why the Sanders campaign is playing no role in the fight against the coronavirus. Sanders’s central demand for Medicare for All is progressive, but it falls far short of the kind of emergency program that would be needed to mobilize all available resources against the pandemic. The whole Democratic Party, including Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, voted in favor of Trump’s $2 trillion bailout for corporations.

This opens up an interesting scenario for revolutionaries. The rise of “millennial socialism” in the United States led to the explosive growth of the DSA. All that energy was channeled into the Sanders campaign. You even had a number of groups that consider themselves revolutionary socialists jumping on that reformist bandwagon. Now tens of thousands of people who campaigned for Sanders for months are going to be wondering about alternatives. Some of them might be demoralized. But faced with the next crisis of capitalism, many more will radicalize. Now we need to build a socialist Left in this country that builds off all the energy of the new workers’ struggles, and that connects them with a perspective of an international socialist revolution.

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Tre Kwon

Tre is a writer and editor for Left Voice. She is a nurse and member of NYSNA.

Mike Pappas

Mike is an activist and medical doctor working in New York City.

Révolution Permanente

Our French sister site, part of the international network of La Izquierda Diario


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