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What Billionaire Space Flights Mean to Healthcare Workers

While the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage around the globe and climate disaster is destroying the planet, billionaires are taking joyrides to space. Two healthcare workers who worked throughout the pandemic respond.

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Four healthcare workers, including co-author of this article Mike Pappas, stand in scrubs and masks in front of an Amazon warehouse holding signs in support of better wages and safer working conditions for Amazon workers.
Left Voice members Mike Pappas and Tre Kwon with two other healthcare workers at a May 2020 protest at the Amazon fulfillment center on Staten Island, NY

Last month, Jeff Bezos (net worth $209.2 billion) and Richard Branson (net worth $4.7 billion) launched themselves into suborbital space. Bezos traveled on his Blue Origin rocket, while Richard Branson took a similar trip on his Virgin Galactic spacecraft. These privately funded space flights triggered much backlash, leading even bourgeois politicians to respond. For example, Congressmember Pramila Jayapal noted the 11-minute joyride cost over $2.5 million a minute, and said, “Yes, it’s time to tax the rich.” As socialist healthcare workers, we are for massive wealth taxes on the rich, not the measly taxes proposed by Democratic politicians. But further, these billionaire space flights highlight everything wrong with capitalism. They emphasize the need to eliminate this exploitative system and eliminate the ruling class from this earth — not just for a 10-minute space flight, but for good. 

Space Flights While a Pandemic Rages

While the billionaires were taking their joyrides, it might have been easy for them to forget that a global pandemic continues to rage with over 4 million dead globally. As the Delta variant spreads across the globe, cases jumped by 12 percent over the last week. In the past week alone, Indonesia recorded over 350,000 cases, with children accounting for 12.5 percent of infections. There are over 600,000 dead in the United States, with the Delta variant becoming the predominant strain. The working class continues to suffer from a global pandemic and economic devastation that were wholly preventable and controllable. A new study from The Lancet shows that 1.5 million children have lost either a primary or secondary caregiver during the pandemic.

Yet what are politicians doing under these circumstances? Are they taking measures to bring the pandemic under control so the virus stops mutating? No, instead governments are rolling back mask mandates and protections and trying to force people back to work largely at the behest of capitalists, who need to make money. Capitalists have found ways to profit off all these deaths during the pandemic with the world’s 2,365 billionaires have seen a $4 trillion or 54 percent boost to their wealth during the pandemic. Are billionaires putting their gigantic fortunes towards saving lives? Absolutely not; they are focusing on funding space joy rides and buying $500 -million superyachts — giant yachts which literally come with smaller yachts inside — while continuing to focus on maximizing profits from vaccines and refusing to roll back patent protections. 

Compounding Factors Onto Covid-19

Healthcare workers are increasingly exhausted from working to save lives during a pandemic ultimately caused by capitalist dynamics, perpetuated by billionaires like Bezos and Branson. Even before the pandemic, we were watching tens of thousands needlessly die from lack of universal healthcare in the United States. The only response from billionaires has been to try to get in on the robbery that is U.S. healthcare with companies like Amazon and Walmart trying to profit from the pitiful healthcare system. In the U.S. alone, universal healthcare access could have prevented at least 140,000 or 25 percent of all US COVID-19 deaths. Yet insurance companies focused on increasing their profits, which doubled during the pandemic while the working class owes greater and greater medical debt to collection agencies. Adding this medical debt onto already existing economic precarity only causes more distress for patients and families. It is no surprise we have seen a rise of drug overdose deaths by over 30 percent during the pandemic. These are deaths of despair. 

Capitalists help to uphold all the systems and structures within the healthcare system which make doing our jobs as healthcare workers harder. We are tired, demoralized, overworked, and overexploited. We continually experience moral injury operating in a healthcare system and economic system that we know does not care about the health of patients or communities. Then, to add insult to injury, we have to watch two rich idiots take off into space to boost their egos. 

Space Flights During Climate Collapse

Bezos and Branson took their joyrides in the midst of another public health emergency: the climate crisis. Billionaires have touted their space exploits as solutions to impending climate collapse with ridiculous suggestions that polluting industries may be transplanted to space or that humans can colonize space in order to save Earth. Meanwhile, back on Earth, we are currently living the catastrophic consequences of increasingly frequent extreme weather events fueled by unabated extraction and pollution. Just this summer, record-shattering weather events have roiled communities around the world, from the flooding in China’s Henan province that was the result of a year’s worth of rain within 3 days, to the massive wildfires from Siberia to the Western United States, to a heatwave in the Pacific Northwest that resulted in the death of over 1 billion marine animals. The changing climate not only causes immediate death and harm, but has more insidious, detrimental health effects on literally every body system

Worsening air quality raises the risk of pulmonary and cardiovascular disease, a warming planet increases the exposure to vector-borne illnesses, and extreme weather contributes to malnutrition and adverse pregnancy outcomes. Climate science experts predict that we have less than a decade to prevent “irreversible damage” to our planet and climate catastrophe. Farfetched fantasies of space frontiers will not end this existential health crisis and are a distraction from the necessary solutions. Space travel itself emits huge quantities of CO2 and other toxins into the atmosphere, while the companies that fund these private aerospace companies are ever increasing carbon emissions in the name of profit. Amazon’s carbon emissions have increased by 19 percent since the start of the pandemic alone. Billionaires are trying to present themselves as saviors, but an end to capitalistic extraction and exploitation is needed to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis.

Capitalists know they are destroying the planet and do not care, so they are exploring ways that they and their offspring can escape if needed. They already are hiring their own private firefighters as the world burns and preparing their personal disaster bunkers, but the ability to live off the planet they have destroyed is only additional security. When the working class eventually rises up and sharpens the guillotines, the capitalists want to be nowhere to be found. 

Billionaires Profiting from the Militarization of Space

While claiming that space will save us from ourselves, billionaires are vying to privatize and profit from its militarization. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been awarded millions in contracts by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to help manufacture intelligence satellites, rockets, and missile trackers. Blue Origin has been trying to get in on the money, but has been less successful in competing for these public-private contracts than companies like SpaceX and Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s United Launch Alliance. Bezos is likely using his space flights to improve the company’s image. 

By trying to win DoD contracts, billionaires are also working to profit off of one of the most environmentally destructive parts of the U.S. government. With a budget of over $700 billion dollars, — over half of the federal government’s annual discretionary budget — and huge entanglements in the petroleum industry, the Pentagon is one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions in the world. According to Brown University’s Cost of War study, the DoD is the “world’s largest institutional user of petroleum and correspondingly, the single largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world.” The Department’s effect on the climate is even worse when considering the wars fought and military infrastructure created to procure and protect oil. The billionaires’ space exploits strengthen U.S. imperialism and expand its scope to space. The health of our global community and environment depends on fighting against imperialism, but capitalists see space as another place to expand — and profit from — imperialism.

It’s Capitalist Exploitation — Bezos Said It Himself

Democratic politicians like Jayapal would like to focus the debate around cost. She correctly tweeted, “If Amazon paid its workers fairly and did not fight unionization, workers would not be funding the expensive hobbies of billionaires. They would be taking care of their families and living dignified and fulfilling lives​​.” But for Jayapal, it is only about “taxing the rich” and increasing worker pay. To be clear, both of these are important, but by focusing solely on these reforms, Jayapal leaves out the critically needed condemnation of the capitalist system, thereby helping to uphold its dynamics. 

Whether Bezos, Branson, or the next capitalist buffoon rocketing off to space, billionaires’ ability to go to space comes from exploiting their workers. Bezos, for example, can take $2.5-million-per-minute space flights precisely because workers at Amazon have to urinate in bottles to keep up with work quotas. Bezos said it himself after his recent unfortunately safe return to earth from his joyride stating, 

I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all of this. So, seriously, for every Amazon customer out there and every Amazon employee, thank you from the bottom of my heart very much. 

Could there be a more ironic way of explaining Marx’s Labor Theory of Value than this? As healthcare workers, we understand this concept more and more clearly as health has become a commodity to be exploited under capitalism. We see this same situation play out in workplaces: the leadership of the clinics and hospitals we work in exploit our labor, pushing us to see more and more patients in shorter and shorter time. Similar to the factory setting in Amazon where packages and orders must be shuffled in and out, the healthcare system wants patients shuffled in and out as monetary value is extracted from their bodies. This hurts the healthcare of all the public. It reduces patients to objects and dehumanizes them. 

While capitalists exploit workers’ labor to pay for space joyrides, they also want workers to accept their exploitation without questioning or resisting it. To do this, bosses use clever manipulative techniques to maintain that worker exploitation is in the name of a larger social service. This is evident in the healthcare industry. Healthcare workers are alienated from their labor as they take on larger and larger workloads in order to enable the continued shuffling of patients through factory-like healthcare settings. At the same time, capitalists have created a culture of martyrdom among healthcare workers, leading them to sacrifice their mental and physical health in order to maintain this dynamic. Really, no matter the specific work sector, capitalists make profits off us all while they literally destroy the world and destroy lives. Then they laugh at us while they use the profits made off the backs of the working class to have space science experiments.

Billionaires Won’t Change: We Must Get Rid of Them and Capitalism

Some may ask: “What if capitalists suddenly flipped a switch and used their enormous wealth to help people? Maybe we should try to reach their human instincts?” But as the world burns, we have no time to live in fantasy worlds — we know this will never happen. Even if billionaires magically stopped abiding by the fundamental tenets of capitalism necessary for their existence, it would not justify keeping this system. Capitalism is built off exploitation of people and the environment which leads to workers’ suffering and the collapse of life systems on the planet. This system is built off racism and white supremacy. It is built off imperialism to continue expanding its reach globally. There is no such thing as a “good” billionaire. Similarly, there will never be such thing as a “benevolent” or “kind” capitalism.

As healthcare workers we are disgusted and infuriated seeing billionaires go to space while we watch patients die of Covid-19 alone and without their families. We are disgusted seeing this while we watch life systems collapse around us, destroying every living thing on this earth. Witnessing these space flights only strengthens resolve for revolution. As healthcare workers, we know there is no other path — we must eliminate the capitalist system if we care about people’s health and the health of the planet.

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Mike Pappas

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

Kelsey Wilson-Henjum

Kelsey Wilson-Henjum is a Family Medicine physician trained in New York City currently practicing medicine in the Bronx, NY.

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