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We Won’t Pay for This Crisis: An Emergency Program to Protect Working People

The spread of the COVID-19 virus has caused not only a world health crisis, but may also cause a deep economic depression. The fabric of society is becoming strained to the breaking point, and social, economic, and political catastrophes are already erupting in a variety of forms.

Left Voice

March 14, 2020
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The New York Times

We live in a society in which our very existence is constantly dominated and constrained by the dual imperatives of profit and competition. Everything in our lives, from food and shelter, to education and medical care, is commodified and subject to the rules of capitalism, which prioritizes profit for the few over the health and happiness of the many. This is bad, even in the best of times, but in times of crisis, such as the one we see unfolding before us today, it can have devastating results. Environmental degradation, global warming, pandemic, and economic collapse threaten the lives and well-being of billions of human beings, and capitalism has shown that it is utterly incapable of addressing these problems in the ways that are needed, precisely because such actions would threaten the very system itself. 

This is especially pronounced in the United States, where the working classes have weak safety nets that have been eroded thanks to decades of war, neoliberalism, falling wages, and fiscal austerity. We cannot trust in this government, nor any capitalist government for that matter, to take the necessary steps to avert the horrors of the interlocking crises before us, particularly the problems posed by the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe. Both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are going to look after the interests of the capitalists. No matter how progressive the Democrats paint themselves, the reality is that both parties are responsible for a health system run for the profit of a few at the expense of the misery of the great majority. 

Serious efforts are urgently needed to curb the worst aspects of this crisis and to minimize the health and economic threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Up to this point, the U.S. has proven unable to test even a fraction of the population. Basic supplies like test kits, masks, and hand sanitizer are being rapidly depleted. Meanwhile, hospitals are not equipped to handle the mass scale of patients who may need attention as the virus spreads. To begin to address the problem, hundreds of billions of dollars must be immediately allocated to control the spread of the disease and its resulting socio-economic impact. The massive capital investment of $1.5 trillion announced by the Federal Reserve is only oriented to rescue and temper the financial crisis. As a result of the enormous discontent and criticism of the government, Trump and the Democratic Party had to approve a package that includes an extraordinary budget in order to overcome the crisis. This does not mean, however, that the capitalists are going to touch their profits. Yet we know that only by taking sweeping action — that will inevitably affect big capital — can the health threat be adequately addressed. We need an emergency program coupled with the self organization of working people to confront the crisis now. 

Healthcare for All: Make the Rich Pay 

Our for-profit health care system, which subjects millions of American families to crushing medical debt, is one of the biggest obstacles to getting this virus under control. In order to address this problem we must ensure that all services related to the coronavirus outbreak and complications thereof be free and readily available to all. This includes: immediate free and safe testing for all suspected coronavirus cases as well as free treatment for all workers who experience symptoms related to the virus, including undocumented immigrants. Without such guarantees it is certain that many people will avoid treatment for fear of economic ruin, and thus continue to be vectors for the further spread of the disease. In order to ensure that everyone living and working in the country is unafraid to seek the medical care they need, we must also demand the suspension of laws criminalizing undocumented workers and demand that active ICE enforcement agents cease all activities. This includes an immediate ban from all hospitals or emergency care centers. The activities of ICE create a culture of fear that will only hinder people from seeking care when needed and assist in spreading the virus.

The private American healthcare system is subordinated to the pharmaceutical and insurance industries’ thirst for profits. In this sense, a system structured for profit is not equipped to meet the health needs of millions of people. We must immediately take measures to build a healthcare system that serves all people. While our goal is a universal and free public healthcare system, in the short term it is going to be essential to immediately establish Medicare for All and massively increase public resources so that the entire population receives the testing and treatment needed to stop the spread of the virus. An emergency wealth tax must be passed on the fortunes of the richest 1% to finance the health system and the military budget must be immediately redirected to health, education, and emergency services. Over many years, staff levels have been driven down to as low a level as possible to minimize expenses and maximize profits. We are now seeing the problems with this capitalist process of cutting costs come home to roost as staff are overwhelmed and under-trained for this pandemic. We must immediately allot funds for mass hiring and training so there will be an adequate number of front-line healthcare to combat this pandemic. Nonessential sectors of the healthcare system should be re-trained to provide testing and treatment if necessary. We need safe staffing ratios and adequate training at this time more than ever to appropriately address this pandemic both preventing spread and treating affected members of the public. 

Capitalism is an often inefficient and chaotic system driven by the needs for profit rather than the needs of people. In order  to produce the equipment necessary to address this crisis, nationalization of parts of production will be required. Today, hospitals are privatized and disconnected from each other. In this moment, we need a nationalized network of hospitals to organize care for all of the people who need it. Furthermore, wealthy corporations should not be allowed to profit at the expense of the sick and the needy.  The production of vaccines, surgical masks, ventilators, and disinfectants — as well as all the products, infrastructure, and services necessary to treat the ill — which are currently manufactured for profit rather than use, must be immediately nationalized to ensure that these much needed supplies are produced in adequate numbers and at the cost of production. 

Economic Protection for Working Families 

Working families are going to be hit hardest by the dual economic and health crises posed by the coronavirus outbreak and the ongoing instability and possible collapse of the markets. In order to protect working people from economic ruin, we support calls for the suspension of rent, mortgage, utility, and student loan payments as well as an indefinite moratorium on foreclosures, evictions, and bankruptcies. Such measures, though hardly revolutionary, would ensure that working people who are laid off or lose work will be able to prioritize their health and the health of their families without losing their homes and being put out on the street. 

While authorities are advising workers to stay home if they feel sick or think they may have contracted the virus, many working people cannot afford to miss even a single day of work, much less a full two or three weeks in order to isolate themselves. These workers have no choice but to go to work and could therefore infect others at their place of employment or on their daily commute. This is why a permanent and immediate federally-mandated universal paid sick leave is an absolute necessity for all employees (including those without papers) whether they are part time or full time. 

This sick leave must also be coupled with vigorous support to protect workers from the economic impacts that are sure to hit businesses, both large and small. Therefore, the federal government must immediately make available guaranteed and vastly expanded unemployment benefits for all laid-off workers equal to their current wages. Employees in companies or agencies that are temporarily closed due to the virus must also be guaranteed their regular compensation for the period of the crisis and must be ensured the opportunity to return to their jobs afterwards, whether those workers are salaried or hourly. Some industries, like the airlines industry, will possibly be unable to weather the economic storm without implementing large-scale anti-worker policies and requiring government bailouts. Industries and large firms that lay off, furlough, or cut wages must be immediately nationalized under worker control. 

Furthermore, as public elementary and secondary schools begin to close across the country, it will be imperative that children, particularly the very poor, have access to the regular resources provided by schools and that their parents are provided the support they need in order to provide childcare. Therefore, local governments must take actions to ensure that all children who need it continue to receive regular lunches and that all working families have access to expanded government run food pantries. Family members who are forced to miss work in order to take care of children must be guaranteed job protection and access to full unemployment benefits for the length of school closures. State and federal governments must also expand access to food stamps and relief and provide emergency increases to Food Stamps for all families in need.  

Fight for the Most Oppressed and Marginalized 

The U.S. prison industrial complex is the largest in the world, with over 2 million people locked behind bars. Additionally, over half a million people are homeless, and tens of thousands of migrants and refugees remain locked up in hellish detention centers.  All of these groups risk high infection rates by COVID-19, and may well face increased police-state repression. Already, inmates are being denied access to lawyers as well as adequate information about the spread of the virus. We can only expect that during the national state of emergency, homeless people will be further criminalized for merely existing. Undocumented immigrants will be scapegoated as supposed threats to national security. 

Therefore we demand the large-scale release of prisoners, few of whom have received any semblance of justice in the U.S. courts, and full-rights for the undocumented. The homeless population, too, must receive emergency, high-quality housing. For every one homeless person, there are 5-10 unoccupied residential units. We call for the immediate seizure of unoccupied luxury buildings to provide housing for all.  

Institute Price Controls and Outlaw Crisis Profiteering 

After only a couple weeks of the COVID-19 crisis in the U.S., radical emergency measures are being discussed by large sectors of society. The capitalist government, as well as various industries, have been forced to grant certain concessions: limited moratoriums on evictions; promises that patients will not have to pay for coronavirus testing; assurances that laid-off workers — of which there will be many millions — will receive sufficient unemployment compensation. The scale of the crisis is so great that even the most greedy corporate blood suckers are recognizing that some type of radical response is necessary to prevent society from descending into chaos. Yet, the wealthy elites will aim to offload the costs of the crisis onto the working class and the government, while profiteering themselves. Some companies have already jacked up their prices for items that are in high demand, figuring they can scrape up extra profits. If consumer items become scarce, the for-profit sector will charge whatever prices they think they can get away with, whether it be for food, tampons, or Uber rides. Companies may even attempt to raise prices by artificially reducing supply and causing panic. In a climate such as this, we demand that crisis profiteering be outlawed, and that the government institute price controls to ensure working people can afford basic goods. Companies found to be profiteering from the crisis should be immediately expropriated under worker control. 

No to Police-State Measures

During times of social crisis, capitalist governments typically seek to expand their repressive powers and use mass anxiety for their own ends. In places like Chile and France, where huge sectors of the population have recently taken to the streets to fight for improvements, the health crisis will be used as an excuse to demonize and repress anyone who dares to protest. Fundamentally, the armed forces and police exist to protect private property, not people. Thus, when desperate Black survivors of Hurricane Katrina were forced to enter grocery stores to obtain food back in 2003, they were vilified as “looters.” Local police even shot their guns into the air to stop impoverished survivors from escaping to an affluent white neighborhood. Such is the role of the state.

While recognizing the need for drastic public health measures up to and including quarantines, the working class must firmly oppose the imposition of martial law or any abrogation of civil rights. If and where it is necessary to restrict movement from a health standpoint, such tasks must be controlled by civilian bodies — not armed stormtroopers or killer cops. 

End U.S. Sanctions — Repudiate the Debt — Oppose U.S. Militarism!

Impoverished nations, particularly those struggling with the health crisis, need emergency aid. Yet, U.S. imperialism has played a central role in the underdevelopment of many regions in the world, causing starvation, poverty, and the many diseases caused by scarcity. Each year, millions of people die of hunger — a totally human-made epidemic. Today, as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads globally, the U.S. continues to impose brutal economic sanctions on countries in dire need of assistance, such as Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba. Further, the IMF, World Bank, and other institutions of international capital continue to bleed countries with exorbitant debt obligations. National funds get diverted towards the repayment of these loans, instead of building infrastructure to combat the health crisis.

The working class of the U.S. must stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers around the world and denounce the economic blackmail of weaker nations. There must be an immediate end to sanctions placed on Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba so that they can take urgent action to address the health crisis without U.S. obstruction. Payments towards debt owed to the World Bank and IMF, similarly, need to be cancelled. 

Further, the vast majority of society has nothing to gain from continued U.S. militarism. U.S. intervention will only hinder countries’ abilities to respond to the current crisis. The working class must call for the closure of all U.S. bases, an end to drone strikes and occupations, and the end to military aid to brutal regimes like Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

Trade Unions and Workers’ Organizations Must Take the Lead in the Health Emergency 

By international standards, the U.S. is woefully unprepared for the developing health and economic crisis. Trump’s administration had months to prepare for a health emergency. Instead, he stirred up increased xenophobia while not moving a finger to procure adequate testing kits or expand the public health infrastructure. The so-called “solutions” being peddled by the Trump regime and the ruling class will leave huge numbers of people to suffer and die. Maintaining the rule of the billionaires is more important to them than helping the masses. Even when government agencies are used for the public good, all too often they prove slow-moving, inefficient, and frequently incompetent.

The international working class is the true motor of society: we keep everything going every day. In this moment of crisis, it is high time to use our collective strength to create the best solutions out of the chaos. Unions and community organizations must take the lead in organizing a working class response. 

While placing demands on the government for the allocation of the trillions of dollars it controls for the purposes of human need, we know that Trump and the rest of Washington will almost certainly bungle the federal response. To meet the needs of this crisis, working people must organize themselves in the workplace, in their communities, and throughout society. Workers should begin to elect emergency response committees capable of taking bold action to ensure that the basic necessities of health, food, shelter, and safety are met. Elected safety committees could be formed in workplaces to establish and enforce health and wellness protocols. When necessary, workers should shut down unsafe workplaces, just as Italian workers recently did through strike action.

Furthermore, we need international coordination of workers and oppressed people to address this crisis. Humanity’s existence must be taken out of the hands of capitalists and imperialists and defended democratically by the international working class.

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Left Voice

Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.

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