II. The true pandemic war

April 29, 2020

From the May-June 2020 issue of News & Letters

Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2020-2021: Shattered by pandemic, world needs new beginnings in revolutionary activity, thought

Introduction: Deep crises demand a path to liberation
I. The failed pandemic response and the fetishism of the economy
II. The true pandemic war
III. Pandemic sets in motion the latent economic collapse
IV. What to do in the face of compounding crises—medical, economic, political, and the philosophic void

…Continued from I. The failed pandemic response and the fetishism of the economy

A. The capitalists’ class war

Officials pontificating about a wartime situation did not mention the raging class war, as rulers exploit the emergency to impose reactionary agendas and grab more power and money for themselves, and working and unemployed people fight back with strikes and other actions.

Nurses in front of White House April 21 hold photos of co-workers lost to coronavirus. Photo by Joe Flood

The $2 trillion March 27 coronavirus stimulus bill hardly contained enough relief for workers to maintain them as a workforce to be exploited, let alone continue living as before. Republican senators unsuccessfully objected to granting a measly extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits, fearing that such riches would make people too lazy to come back to work. Meanwhile, Congress devoted nearly $1 trillion to bailouts and loans for businesses, not counting tax breaks. Much of that will go to industries like the airlines, which recently raked in profits by cutting staff, piling up work on those left, crowding and gouging passengers to create hellish conditions for flight attendants—and yet instead of using that money to prepare for a rainy day or invest in more humane conditions, they lavished more than $45 billion on stockholders and executives since 2015.

While few demands will be made of companies getting bailouts, such as making the airlines commit to keeping their promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the administration is still making working-class people jump through hoops to get a few food stamps or other benefits.

Capitalists have tried to stretch the classification of “essential” businesses to keep exploiting labor for profit, from fashion factories to gun shops. Hobby Lobby defied orders to close in several states, endangering their employees and customers. That’s the company run by a right-wing religious activist who got the Supreme Court’s blessing to deny his workers access to birth control because of his supposed devotion to life. Similarly, Jerry Falwell Jr.’s reactionary Liberty University defied state orders by reopening and exposing students to the spread of the virus—all to resist the ultimate evil of having to refund room and board to students.


Coal mining companies, now ruled essential, called for Congress to prop them up by cutting the tax used to support miners with black lung disease—one of the conditions that make people much more vulnerable to COVID-19—as well as funding for cleaning up abandoned mines. The oil and gas industry has been more successful in winning deregulation and blocking climate measures and aid to renewable energy. The Environmental Protection Agency has effectively given industries a pass on pollution during the pandemic, as has the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Authoritarians like Trump quickly used emergency powers to push through top items on their wish lists, suppress dissent as did India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in forcing news media to parrot the government line, and even close down Parliaments as did Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Hungary passed a law enabling tyrannical Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree.

Violating international law, Trump used emergency powers to turn away asylum seekers at the border, and tried to ban all immigration, an ideological action that has nothing to do with protecting anyone. He pushed a rule to weaken federal employees’ unions and to shield his coronavirus task force from having to testify to Congress. He used the pandemic as cover to fire Michael Atkinson as Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, for bringing to light the whistleblower complaint that exposed Trump’s extortion of Ukraine.[1]

Smaller state dictators launched their own abuses, such as the governors of seven states banning abortions,[2] spouting the lie that they are “nonessential” medical procedures, and complaining that abortion clinics use masks and gloves. They had no complaint about ICE soliciting 45,000 N95 surgical masks on March 20 and using N95 masks to conduct raids on immigrant communities at a time when frontline medical personnel can’t get enough.

Wisconsin Republicans used their state’s primary as a dress rehearsal for using the emergency to deter voters, especially African American, especially in November’s national elections. They were supported by a ladder of partisan courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled absurdly that allowing a few extra days for mail-in voting was a greater threat to democracy than forcing voters to expose themselves to the virus by voting in person, especially in cities with large Black populations, where the number of polling places was drastically reduced.

Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are blocking proposals to protect voting this year from disruptions caused by quarantines. Trump told Fox News that with voter protections, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Several states are using this opportunity to pass laws criminalizing protests against fossil fuel infrastructure, a trend that began after water protectors in South Dakota sparked worldwide opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

It is not only China that ramped up its already pervasive surveillance. Countries from South Korea to Israel took steps in that totalitarian direction, which is being pushed in the U.S. too, adding to the already massive apparatus erected after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks[3] Beyond surveillance, Trump’s loyalist Attorney General William Barr secretly asked Congress to allow suspension of some constitutional rights, including indefinite detention without trial, with the pandemic as excuse.

The lack of preparation, the authoritarian and regressive measures, the favoritism for a few, the impoverishment and oppression of the vast majority, are a taste of how capitalism will deal with future disasters sparked by the climate and extinction crisis. It does not have to be this way, but in order to respond to the ecological and social breakdowns in a human way, we need to establish a truly human society, and abolish the current anti-human social structure. That is implicit in all the struggles from below.

B. Subjects of revolution fight back

And to Mr. Bezos…You think you’re powerful? We’re the ones that have the power. Without us working, what are you going to do?
—Chris Smalls, Amazon worker fired for leading a walkout

In country after country, it took concerted pressure from below to push leaders into taking more than token action or coverups, beginning with China. That movement from below was revealed dramatically when spontaneous strikes swept the whole country of Italy, along with mass absenteeism and protests. The strikers demanded adequate health and safety conditions and not to be forced to work in nonessential industries. They protested years of cuts in medical staff and resources. The Italian government—which initially ordered a lockdown except that every factory worker was classified as “essential” and had to keep working in unsafe conditions—was forced to make concessions. In Italy and around the world, prisoners have held strikes and protests.

Syafiq Haiqal bin Supaizam participates in online global climate strike, April 23, in Pasir Gudang, Malaysia. Photo by Syafiq Haiqal bin Supaizam

Refusing to sacrifice their lives on the altar of the economy, workers are looking out for each other and demanding the workplace be made safe for them, that the economy be reorganized around the needs of human beings, not capital. If the business is nonessential, why not produce goods or services that meet vital needs? In Spain, workers at Mercedes and Airbus struck, pointing out that producing cars and airplanes is not essential. Airbus workers volunteered to convert their factory to make desperately needed ventilators. GE workers protested in Boston and Lynn, Mass., to demand conversion of their idled jet engine factories to make ventilators.

Infection of McDonald’s workers in Los Angeles sparked a walkout on March 5 that by April 9 spread to more than 30 fast-food chain restaurants throughout the area and San Jose. Workers demanded what the companies should have provided: masks, gloves, soap, hazard pay, and paid sick leave. Across the U.S., more than 700 fast food workers went on strike during that period.

Hospital workers were already organizing before the pandemic broke out in the U.S., demanding better working conditions and higher wages, so that they can afford the healthcare they provide to others. On Jan. 28, 8,000 hospital workers in the Swedish Medical Center chain in Seattle walked out on a three-day strike over staffing and other issues. The chain had over 900 vacancies. At scores of hospitals and clinics, staff are organizing to demand equipment and safer conditions. Nurses have long engaged in struggles against hospitals that do not hire enough nurses and force those on the job to look after more patients than they can safely handle. That planned shortage of nurses and other medical staff is one factor undermining the healthcare system’s capacity to deal with the pandemic. The deadly consequences of overwhelmed hospitals are unfolding now in Italy and Spain, and are beginning in the U.S.[4]

At press time, more strikes are breaking out and will continue to do so in the U.S. and internationally.

Other struggles persist despite governments exploiting the crisis to block protests, moving more quickly to impose lockdowns than to find needed medical supplies.

The movement of youth worldwide centering on climate strikes, which has grown too powerful to ignore, temporarily moved to mainly online protests. In addition to three days of online events April 22-24 for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, there will be social-distanced protests across the U.S. on April 23, designated Stop the Money Pipeline Day of Action. In places like Chicago, they will target the biggest financial backer of fossil fuels projects, JPMorgan & Chase, demanding an end to all such funding.

In Canada in February, repression of First Nations resistance camps by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, with sniper rifles and other weapons, sparked blockades and protests from Victoria to Halifax that shut down offices and train lines. (See “Canada on trial,” May-June 2020 N&L) The Unist’ot’en camp under attack was set up in 2010 to block the construction of pipelines that would carry climate-busting tar sands oil and fracked gas to the coast for export.

Even after the pandemic was declared and large gatherings were cancelled, pipeline companies went ahead with construction, risking devastation of First Nations communities. They run “man camps,” large temporary trailer parks or dormitories, long linked with surges in sexual violence against Indigenous women. Their structure makes them prone to become centers of pandemic contagion, in areas that already lack healthcare. “It’s like bringing smallpox blankets in,” said Faith Spotted Eagle of man camps planned for the Keystone XL Pipeline construction, which has been stopped for now by a court order.

As the pandemic was brewing, International Women’s Day (IWD) this year still saw larger marches, greater militancy of women participants, events in new places, and attacks against them that escalated significantly from previous years. IWD demonstrations followed the Women’s Marches gathering hundreds of thousands in the U.S. and worldwide, drawing in new women three years after they began. As the vast majority of teachers, healthcare workers, cashiers and fast food counter workers, women have been at the forefront of many of the strikes of the past two years, as well as the organizing for a living wage. These are disproportionately women of color.

While 2019’s uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East gave rise to the label Second Arab Spring, the spark of the first Arab Spring has not been extinguished in Syria. The pandemic worsened the humanitarian crisis of Syrians, 11.7 million of whom need humanitarian aid. One million of them have been pushed into Idlib province in crowded tent camps under harsh conditions and scarce supplies of medicine, food, water, even soap. Deadly attacks on Idlib province by Russia, Iran and the Bashar al-Assad regime are not just a matter of the regime trying to reclaim lost territory. They are an effort to silence the idea of freedom as if it too could be murdered. For years those Russian and Syrian forces have destroyed hospitals and clinics in the Free areas. In Idlib, with the province under daily fire, demonstrations continue, raising slogans like, “The revolution is an idea and you can’t kill an idea.”

C. Pandemic class war reveals the social structure

Our labor has been considered essential. Our health has been considered negotiable and our lives are considered expendable.
—Seth Rosenberg, New York subway operator

What comes into view is the actual structure of labor, production and class divisions that characterizes globalized capitalism. Contrary to trendy illusions that industrial capitalism has been superseded by an information economy or the centrality of immaterial labor, the indispensability of not only healthcare and child care but manual labor comes to the fore: in factories, farms, construction, cleaning, transportation, delivery and logistics. In addition to doctors and nurses, these are the workers the capitalists have been most determined to keep on the job.


The economy runs on the back of the lower and deeper sections of the working class. The majority of these essential workers are paid less than a living wage, have skimpy benefits if any and therefore poor healthcare, little job security and often don’t know if they will get enough hours to get by. A great many are left out of the sick leave provisions of the new CARES act. As in normal times, they are treated as disposable: called in to work in unsafe conditions and having to fight for proper protection. From Walmart and Target to cleaners of empty WeWork buildings, from California farmworkers to New York transit workers, at least 68 of whom had died as of April 21, going to work becomes a life and death question.

Who these essential/disposable workers are reveals another structural aspect of our class society: Black, Latinx, undocumented and women workers are pushed into these precarious jobs of hard labor. The work of social reproduction, paid or unpaid, is largely done by women. When paid a pittance, it is usually done by women of color or immigrants. Consequently, women, Black and Latinx people, and immigrants are at the forefront of labor struggles, including Fight for $15.

This skewed hierarchy is reflected in the racialized class nature of the punitive institutions that warehouse people in homeless shelters, prisons and migrant concentration camps. Mass incarceration has become an integral part of the political and economic system, and serves as part of the disciplinary and scapegoating machinery and as centers of concentration and spreading of disease. Its hateful, punitive nature is seen in how even people who have not been convicted of anything are denied healthcare, such as when doctors were blocked from giving free flu vaccinations to child detainees in San Ysidro, Calif.

The same groups of people are the ones least likely to be able to stay away from work and public transit or to stay away from other people in crowded institutions. They are the ones most likely to have suffered water or power shutoffs and to be on the wrong side of the digital divide. Homeless and incarcerated people may not even have access to soap.

The structure extends globally, as most countries depend on the world’s 244 million migrant workers, poorly paid and often with no effective legal rights, and now at great risk of infection. In the two most populous countries, India and China, the migrants are mainly from within the same country but oppressed just the same.

China pioneered the “get back to work” demands with its drive to reopen factories, highlighting the fact that production did not disappear just because capitalists in North America and Europe moved most manufacturing to low-wage “developing” countries. What that global redivision of labor means is sharply revealed by the very real threat of starvation faced by millions of people in poor and “middle-income” countries as the capitalists in imperialist countries, who are the ones who call the shots, suddenly cut off orders for their production—abandoning garment workers in Bangladesh and migrant workers in India and Thailand.

Continued in III. Pandemic sets in motion the latent economic collapse

[1] That extends the pattern demonstrated in “Trump after Impeachment,” March-April 2020 N&L.

[2] See “The torture of abortion bans” by Terry Moon, May-June 2020 N&L.

[3] See “Rampant U.S. surveillance slouches toward totalitarianism” by Franklin Dmitryev, Jan.-Feb. 2014 N&L, which warned during the Obama administration, “The machinery of counter-revolution grows in reaction to the specter of revolution, forming the apparatus ready-made for a new, high-tech fascism.

[4] For more on these and other labor struggles, see articles on page 3 of this issue, and “Pandemic as Battlefield” by Franklin Dmitryev, newsandletters.org, March 30, 2020.

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