The battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by a previously unknown coronavirus, is inevitably a battle over how society will change in responding and adapting to the pandemic. This battle mirrors the one over how to confront and adapt to the climate and extinction crisis.
The cliché that “we are all in it together” only covers up that battle in the interests of those who want to maintain the status quo, to maintain their own power and wealth, which is based on exploiting the vast majority of people. Plenty of politicians and pundits who spout that cliché are simultaneously protecting their own class from making sacrifices while heaping sacrifices on people with precarious, low-wage jobs, people who are incarcerated or homeless, people in Black, Latinx, and Native American communities. It is easy to proclaim loftily that the virus does not discriminate, while fortifying the institutional discrimination that hits those groups hardest, and even provoking attacks on Asians and Asian Americans by calling it a “Chinese virus.”
These ideologues lecture us that this time of crisis is not the time to point out Donald Trump’s incompetence, self-dealing, dithering, lies, coverups, and putting Wall Street ahead of the health and lives of hundreds of millions of people. We are supposed to be silent about his sabotage of the apparatus of science, public health, and medicine that is needed to confront the pandemic, and his use of this opportunity to grab more power, intensify surveillance, ramp up corporate welfare, undercut more regulations, and scapegoat immigrants and Asians. We are not supposed to say a word about what caused and worsened this crisis, or about what needs to change fundamentally in our disintegrating society.
In country after country, it took concerted pressure from below to push leaders into taking more than token action or coverups. Variations of that theme played out across the globe, beginning with China:
“One of the keys to COVID-19’s quick spread was the lack of transparency of China’s surveillance state. As the epidemic began in the city of Wuhan, officials played down its seriousness, refused to cancel public events, and persecuted health workers and citizen journalists who told the truth.” (“COVID-19: A world-historic threat”)
ECONOMY COMES FIRST
Over and over, government leaders, corporations, economists, and right-wing pundits prove that their first concern is “the economy,” which means the extraction of surplus value from workers to benefit the wealthy and powerful and their hangers-on at the expense of workers and their communities. The worst may be Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s fascist president, who is being denounced by the country’s governors, even the ones who supported his election, for his cavalier undercutting of their travel restrictions and quarantines, endangering millions. So negligent is Brazil’s government that gangs in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro imposed their own curfews, though their self-interested measures were not necessarily adequate or well thought out. Bolsonaro expressed the basic drive of capital, which is what he represents, when he urged people to ignore public health measures and get back to work.
On the “Left,” Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador is also pushing denial and trying to keep people working for capitalism.
It is a message frequently featured in the incoherent stew babbled by Donald Trump, one of Bolsonaro’s top rivals for denialism and obstruction: keep the economy going, which is more important than saving millions of lives, or: “The cure is worse than the problem.” (By no accident, the Koch family’s mouthpieces are saying the same thing, as is Fox News, while quietly protecting themselves. Like Koch and Fox, other long-time climate deniers and religious Right partisans are using their propaganda machinery to downplay the pandemic, with help from YouTube.) Arizona’s governor even banned localities from instituting their own shelter-in-place orders. Gathering public outrage broke through the demagoguery and forced Trump and his ilk into grudging steps to protect people.
WORKERS STRIKE ACROSS THE GLOBE
That movement from below was revealed most dramatically when spontaneous strikes swept the whole country of Italy, along with mass absenteeism, protests, and prison revolts. (Around the world, prisoners have held strikes and protests.) The strikers demanded adequate health and safety conditions and not to be forced to work in nonessential industries—virtually every industry’s owners claim that it is “essential”—and 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 going to work in unsafe conditions—was forced to make concessions.
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 respirators instead of aircraft parts. In France, auto and shipyard workers struck, as did Amazon workers demanding paid leave, protective equipment, and sufficient space between workers. In Northern Ireland, food processing workers struck against unsafe conditions. However, as the Uruguayan revolutionary Raúl Zibechi pointed out, “The mainstream media that are determined to instill fear hide the immense solidarity among the people from below. Surely because they fear it, because another world dwells there.”
In the U.S., bus drivers in Birmingham and Detroit struck to demand sanitation supplies and safer conditions. They won immediate improvements, including having riders enter and exit through back doors without having to pay fares. Auto workers in nearby Sterling Heights shut down their plant with an in-plant wildcat stoppage, winning significant safety measures. Workers want the plant totally shut down, with paid leave. Before that, workers shut down the paint shop at the truck factory in Warren, Mich., and workers struck an auto factory in Windsor, Ontario.
Uber and Lyft drivers have also been protesting [Edit: see “Uber, Lyft, Amazon workers revolt!“], while the companies are not only doing little to protect them but sticking to their legal fiction that the drivers are not employees, thus blocking their way to unemployment pay. Gig working shoppers for Instacart went on strike today, March 30, as did Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, N.Y. Whole Worker, an organization of Whole Foods workers, called for a nationwide sick-out on April 2. Workers also struck today at a Perdue chicken factory in Kathleen, Ga.
HEALTHCARE WORKERS RESPOND
Hospital workers were already organizing before the pandemic broke out in the U.S., demanding better working conditions and higher wages, as many cannot afford the healthcare they are part of providing to others. 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 at any one time than they can safely handle. That planned shortage of nurses and other medical staff is one of the factors undermining the healthcare system’s capacity to deal with the pandemic. The horrifying, deadly consequences of overwhelmed hospitals are unfolding right now in Italy and Spain, and are only beginning in the U.S. Nurses have begun compiling anonymous reports on terrible working conditions that put both staff and patients at risk.
Homeless families in California have organized themselves as Moms 4 Housing in Oakland and the Reclaimers in Los Angeles to squat in vacant housing at this time of deadly risk for people who live in shelters or on streets, highlighting the fact that real estate speculators are sitting on thousands of vacant residences waiting to flip them for profit—likely more than 40,000 units in Los Angeles alone.
Some commentators have theorized that the pandemic is a blow to capitalism, or to globalization or neoliberalism, while some have theorized that it is necessarily a victory for reaction. Both sets miss the fact that the pandemic is itself a battlefield, the occasion for intense struggles over our future. Participating in this movement necessitates clearing our heads about the nature of these struggles, the meaning not only of what the capitalists are doing but of the struggles from below, and the battles of ideas raging around these meanings.
—Franklin Dmitryev, March 30, 2020