From the January-February 2021 issue of News & Letters
by Buddy Bell
In the U.S., the first publicly broadcast injections of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines brought a needed feeling of hope. Dr. Richard Bates of Alpena, Mich., drove three hours to personally pick up the vaccine allotted to the medical building where he works. “Seeing our staff with tears receive the vaccine was an unbelievable experience, much like delivering a new baby and handing that baby off to parents, who have just spent months…thinking and dreaming and placing their hopes in that baby.”
TRUMP’S INDIFFERENT VACCINE ROLLOUT
Sadly, the pace of the rollout has been slow and mired by a volatile mix of poor planning, profit-centered thinking and discrimination, added in with President Donald Trump’s indifference. Three weeks after the first vaccines were approved, only 2.6 million doses had actually been used. At that rate, it would have taken years to vaccinate even half of U.S. residents.
Worldwide, a rat race ensued. High-income countries cynically cut deals to gobble up the expected vaccines well into the future. An unwillingness to pause drug patents will inhibit the development and manufacture of more drugs, more quickly. Low-income countries will be delayed from starting vaccinations, or will be thrust into the arms of despots, now that Russia, China and India have all begun to roll out their home-team vaccine with no third-phase trial to test effectiveness. These vaccines have met widespread distrust, cloaked as they are with each national leader’s never-ending effort to shore up his own domestic legitimacy.
Likewise, President Trump’s moldering necrosis after the election signals that Operation Warp Speed was for him only a strategy for holding onto power. Just as there was very little federal effort exerted to prevent the virus from spreading through the population, not a lot of direction or help has come from the federal government regarding the logistics of getting first and second vaccine doses into the arms of actual people, and especially the people most at risk. This daunting task was dumped on the states with no direction and miserly financial aid.
Before Trump belatedly signed a Dec. 2020 stimulus bill which provided $8 billion for pandemic response, the states could only count on getting a combined $350 million in federal help, meaning that they had to start small. “This is not how you handle the biggest health, economic, political and social crisis the country has faced in decades,” said Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health. “The notion that states can efficiently stand up new infrastructure is a fantasy.”
The holidays saw a sluggish start. Although pharmaceutical companies, regulators, and medical administrators knew for a long time that the vaccines would likely be approved and distributed around the end of 2020, there were no plans made by government or by private industry to give medical staff more overtime pay and holiday pay so they could (temporarily) remain on the job and—to quote a Dec. 24 order from Texas Health Commissioner John Hellerstedt—“administer their entire vaccine allotment with all deliberate speed.”
RECOMMENDATION FOR PRISONERS IGNORED
Injections for nursing home residents were delayed by the Trump Administration’s insistence on working through private drugstores CVS and Walgreens, a program that wasn’t prepared in advance. Some governors overruled Trump by mobilizing the National Guard: in the words of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, “to take some of the load off Walgreens and CVS.”
The American Medical Association recommends that prisoners be in the 1A vaccine priority group, but only six states have placed them in the first category. The CDC failed to make the same recommendation, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons is using their first allotment to vaccinate staff. The rate of positive COVID-19 tests in prisons is four times the general average, and the background negligence of prison staff has been exacerbated during the pandemic. Shortages of soap and hand sanitizer have required the prisoners to wash their hands with shampoo, then toothpaste. Obtaining disinfectant to clean common surfaces has also been difficult or impossible.
After 1A, most states intend on prioritizing their elderly populations for vaccination given that advanced age means increased risk of infection and death due to COVID-19. However, low-income people experience increased risk, yet they enjoy no similar prioritization. Despite what congressional Republicans—who slashed unemployment and blocked a $2,000 stimulus—might believe, this isn’t about buying a big screen TV but a life-and-death question of whether a household can afford food and water bills and rent, to be able to shelter in place through the pandemic.
Tomas, a worker at a Chicago lamp factory, contracted COVID-19 and recovered, but he still struggles to make up the loss in pay since, like many low-wage workers, he has no sick leave. “At work, they don’t help you. You have 10 days off and then after that you have to return to work. They don’t care about you or how you’re doing. Nothing. They just care about you getting back to work.”
IN A PANDEMIC, DISCRIMINATION = DEATH
And the U.S. is a long way from fully acknowledging that women, Black, Native, Latinx, Asian-American, LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities experience institutional discrimination (per CDC study: in health care, housing, education, criminal justice, and finance), which results in increased risk of COVID-19 infection and death. People in these at-risk populations lack a commensurate prioritization in the vaccine rollout.
Vulnerable workers in the meatpacking, agriculture, warehouse, delivery, and transportation industries may soon benefit from sporadic prioritization in a handful of states. Overall, cold disdain predominates on workdays, when workers are met head-on by the extremely rigorous anti-humanist onslaught of private monopoly capitalism advancing toward state capitalism.
The past year of intense human crisis has seen small businesses flounder and fail, leading to mass loss of jobs. The very largest corporations have taken advantage to seize market share and service it with fewer employees. Amazon workers carry scanners that time their progress and encourage competition among coworkers. A year-end deregulation of the trucking industry cut drivers’ rest period and extended the driving day by two hours.
In meatpacking factories, those who do the shoulder-to-shoulder work of prepping meat have seen at least three increases in the USDA’s maximum line speed since 2018. Obama Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (coming back with Biden) pushed for the same trigger-happy deregulation in 2010. “Our backs hurt when we go faster, we’re humans,” said Luis Miguel Santiago Torres, a 30-year-old slaughterhouse worker in Baldwin, Ga.
WORKERS STRUGGLE AND STRIKE
In Kern County, Calif., farmworkers went on strike for workplace protections in June as COVID-19 infections ballooned throughout the state, infecting dozens of workers at Primex Farms who were initially prohibited from wearing masks. The non-union shop promptly hired new workers without telling them about the infections. Veronica Perez is a striker profiled in Mother Jones: “They use you until you can’t give any more of you—and once you have a problem, they’ll get rid of you like you’re nothing.”
Strikes for better working conditions have been more and more important every year. Worker-activists of the Eight Hour Leagues who launched a transatlantic campaign from St. Louis in 1888 knew that constant extensions of the working day were ravaging their bodies. Had they not succeeded, the factories of that time would have used up three generations of labor power in the span of one. Today, not only is the working day creeping back upward, but constant speed-ups are needed so companies can extract more surplus labor within the same working day. In sector after sector, workers are expected to do an eight-hour job in four. This has led to increased injuries and deaths, workers fainting on the job and waking up in hospital beds.
All the liberal theoreticians can say is that thankfully these unskilled workers still have a job—perhaps one that offers plenty of overtime pay at that; now just bring back social safety net protections and that’s sublime. But the real answer to this alien, frantic, life-draining nature of work in today’s world is to remake the workplace—and all of society—from the ground up. Making a new beginning requires us “to surmount the antithesis, and [to surmount] looking at what is and what happens as contradictory to what ought to be and happen” (Hegel, quoted in Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom, p. 287).
It should be crystal clear that the present system failed the world over, and in the most deadly way, to care for those of us who inhabit it.
NATIONALISM & GREED WORSEN PANDEMIC
On Oct. 16, high-income countries blocked a World Trade Organization initiative to pause pharmaceutical patents for COVID-19 vaccines. Vaccine-maker Pfizer is no stranger to patent litigation. In Feb. 2019 they sued to prevent Korean firm SK Bioscience from releasing a generic alternative of Pfizer’s pneumonia vaccine.
Mustaqeem De Gama of South Africa was adamant that the world needs more doses of COVID-19 vaccine, faster: “What this waiver proposal does is it opens space for further collaboration, for the transfer of technology and for more producers to come in to ensure that we have scalability in a much shorter period of time.”
It’s urgent for low-income countries to get vaccinations at a level where herd immunity will eliminate most of the risk of COVID-19 transmission. So far, lockdowns and economic losses have led to famines and a sharp increase in starvation, with 10,000 additional children dying of hunger per month, compared to pre-pandemic levels.
If impoverishment persists, United Nations projections for the next few years include 13 million additional child marriages, two million more girls enduring genital mutilation/cutting, and 15 million more unintended pregnancies. More people will suffer and die from malaria, polio, and AIDS the longer health services remain bottled up in stopping COVID-19’s spread.
Tragically, many of the same countries who naysayed the pause on patents are hoarding most of the expected future vaccine volume up to the end of 2021. “If we do nothing it’s going to be well into late 2022 or early 2023 before even half of the low-income countries are vaccinated,” explained Niko Lusiani, of Oxfam.
While the U.S., U.K., Canada and France will have enough vaccine many times over, other countries must scramble to get into the game. The CEO of Moderna reportedly used this sense of desperation as a bargaining chip, warning European nations not to drag out negotiations. A September Oxfam communique reported that Moderna wanted to charge some countries $35 per dose.
This bidding war, combined with the reduction in circulating vaccine supply, will spell disaster for COVAX, an international fund to purchase vaccines and give them to countries that would otherwise be unable to procure them. Hoarder countries have been cynically donating to the fund on one hand even as they undermine it on the other. The Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom, has warned: “I need to be blunt: The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure, and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.”
On Jan. 6, paramedic Daniel Reyes spoke to Reuters in Mexico City as he waited to load a patient with COVID-19 onto an ambulance. “The whole system is completely saturated. There’s no room in the public or private hospitals….We’ve been like this for three weeks now.”
As countries flail in a second global wave of infections, Mexico has joined Brazil, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, UAE, Morocco, Egypt, Nigeria, and many more who now hope to purchase doses of CoronaVac/Sinopharm from China, despite the lack of transparency surrounding these vaccines. A worker at a Chinese state-owned oil company reported in October that he and his coworkers had been compelled to sign a confidentiality agreement before receiving the shot. “For us, they can’t make any guarantees. This is us making a sacrifice for the nation.”
Serbia, Brazil, Bolivia, and Guinea are among the countries ordering doses of Russia’s “Sputnik V” vaccine. Within Russia itself, “there is a disbelief in official information, by default,” said Denis Volkov, a researcher in Moscow. “On the one hand, we are happy that we are first. But we won’t get it ourselves—let it go through the trials.” Indeed, only 38% of Russians have been willing to get a vaccine that Vladimir Putin has touted since August but not yet taken himself.
MODI KOWTOWS TO NARROW NATIONALISM
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who once proclaimed to the world that this will be “India’s century,” appeared to kowtow again to narrow nationalism. On Jan. 2, the ruling BJP party pushed to approve an Indian vaccine made by Bharat Biotech for domestic use, right after two previous rejections on Jan. 1 and Dec. 31. Minutes from the meetings revealed that the medical panel told Bharat its vaccine would need to undergo more trials in order to demonstrate effectiveness. The panel preferred to approve only a generic alternative of AstraZeneca’s vaccine being manufactured in India, but then reversed course after a BJP party leader complained. In Chattisgarh, health minister TS Singh Deo said the Bharat Biotech vaccine was “rushing into general use before trials are complete… This may also jeopardize the valuable lives and health of our citizens.”
The cheap, public relations character of the COVID-19 response in country after country is a true reflection of how state power under capitalism strips the human individual of their dignified nature and replaces it with a commodity nature. This is to say, a human is something to be used up, or something to be kept alive so it can be used up.
But there is more to human life than to get used up. For our society to go back to normal would be unthinkable—that normal is what got us here. Humans have a mind and a body to think and to transform the world and move within it. We want to choose how and for what reason we work. Only then does work become the self-development of our innate interests and talent, what the philosopher Karl Marx called our “quest for universality.”
Instead of relating to other people as things to be used up, we yearn to relate on a human level, to see oneself reflected in the life and dreams of another and cooperate to build the conditions that offer our best chance at contentment and happiness.