Coronavirus, economic crisis and the fight for a new world

To protest the ineffective employer and government response to the coronavirus and demand protections now for nurses, patients and the public, nurses held a national day of action on March 11.
Photo/National Nurses United

 

In the midst of the most important US presidential election in generations, a global economic decline and a global coronavirus pandemic have come together to plunge America and the world into an unprecedented crisis. Tens of millions of us are now struggling to survive.

The crisis, predictably, is bringing out the best in the people of America, and the worst in the billionaires and corporations who run our country.

Ruthless greed and criminal corruption is on full display as the powerful few manipulate the government to help them profit from the crisis and prop up a dying economic system. On the other side, as health professionals battle the coronavirus without proper protective gear for themselves or sufficient medical supplies for their patients, and as families wonder how to feed their kids or if they’ll have a roof over their heads, the people are coming together in every city and town to support each other and to demand that government on every level mobilize all of society’s resources to help the people.

Scientists had warned for years about coming pandemics, yet the billionaires’ political servants have spent years privatizing and cutting back health care and social programs, leaving us vulnerable and unprepared. And when people in high places were told what was coming, they moved to protect their financial interests instead of the people. The Chinese are not responsible for this crisis; the 1% is to blame.

The government’s response to the crisis up to now has been far from what is needed.

A panel of doctors and disease researchers recently predicted that 40 to 70% of the U.S. population will be infected over the next 12 to 18 months. Up to 21 million people in the US may need hospitalization, at a time when the country has only 925,000 hospital beds—less than half the per capita-rate of comparable countries. More than 120 US hospitals have been closed since 2015.

There is also a dire shortage of masks, surgical gowns and eye wear for health care workers. A national stockpile has only about 30 million of the 300 million facemasks needed now for health care workers. The country is also short of ventilators, negative pressure isolation rooms, and intensive care beds, all of which are critical for treating coronavirus patients.

Widespread testing is critical, but it’s not happening in the US. South Korea, a country of 51 million people, was able to contain the virus fairly quickly by widespread testing; the test was fast, and free. South Korea has conducted 3,600 tests per million people, compared to five tests per million in the US. The US government has still offered no satisfactory explanation for the lack of testing here.

The delays in developing testing capability and slowness in instituting control and protective measures have been made worse because of years of underfunding and the dismantling of the public health system, scientific research, and vaccine development.

As USA Today stated on March 2, “In the past 15 years, public health, the country’s front-line defense in epidemics, lost 45% of its inflation-adjusted funding for staff, training, equipment and supplies. The Public Health Emergency Fund, created for such disease or disaster relief, is long depleted. And much of the money the federal government is racing to come up with now to combat the COVID-19 outbreak will be pulled from other, often-dire health needs and probably will arrive too late to hire the needed personnel.”

As of this writing, Trump has signed a bill agreed on by Democrats and Republicans that includes a provision to give paid sick, family, and medical leave to laid-off workers, but 80% of the workforce is not covered by that part of the bill. The legislation excludes workers at big companies like Walmart and Target, whose CEOs appeared with Trump on the day he declared a national health emergency. The bill does provide for much-needed expanded food assistance and unemployment insurance, and for free virus testing, but it doesn’t cover the cost of treatment if you’re sick. And, provisions that would have set safety standards to protect health care workers were eliminated by the lobbying efforts of the American Hospital Association. Also, all of the bill’s provisions are temporary; the bill sunsets at the end of 2020, and the workers will then lose whatever they gained from the legislation.

Other aspects of the government’s response have included a massive cut in interest rates (essentially loaning money for free to corporations and banks), and actions that pumped $1.5 trillion into the financial markets.

And at this writing, the Senate Republicans are putting together another bill that reportedly will cost over $1 trillion, with $500 billion going toward cash payments to individual taxpayers. The bill also includes an airline industry bailout estimated at $50 billion, and a reported $150 billion rescue package for other sectors, such as hotels and possibly restaurants. Some legislators are pushing to prevent any bailout money from being used for stock buybacks or executive bonuses.

Reports indicate that under this bill, individuals would receive only two checks. Most adults making $75,000 or less would get up to $1,200 per check, with an additional $500 for each child. Americans with no income could receive $600 payments. Such short-term payments to workers are ridiculously inadequate given the circumstances.

There is still talk of bailing out the oil and gas industry. In addition, the Trump administration has taken steps to see to it that pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers will profit from the crisis. Private companies working on a vaccine stand to make billions.

We should be under no illusions: the pandemic didn’t cause the economic crisis, it was just the spark that brought the underlying economic problems into the open. The economy was already sliding into a deep recession, and the collapse of the financial markets and a dramatic spike in unemployment was only a matter of time. Even after the pandemic subsides (which experts say will take months, possibly more than a year), the economy isn’t going to “come roaring back” as Trump claims. Things are going to get worse before they get better, and the people need the government to serve their interests, not those of the 1%.

What do the people want and need from the government now?

Their demands at the national level are perhaps best summed up in the comprehensive proposal put forward recently by Sen. Bernie Sanders under the title “An Emergency Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic.” You can see all the details at berniesanders.com/issues, but here are a few highlights; Sanders’ proposal, which he is taking to the Senate, includes provisions that would:

• Give Medicare and Medicaid all the federal funding necessary to ensure universal emergency health care coverage for all, regardless of income or immigration status.

• Cover all health care treatment for free, including coronavirus testing, treatment, and the eventual vaccine. Companies will not be allowed to profit.

• Greatly increase our health care capacity to handle a surge in cases, including by implementing successful virus testing models from other countries; using the Defense Production Act to mobilize resources; utilizing the National Guard, the Army Corp of Engineers and other military resources; and dramatically expanding community health centers.

• Keep health care workers safe by making sure they have the instructions and protective equipment that they need.

• Establish an Emergency Economic Crisis Finance Agency to provide all the necessary funding for fighting this economic crisis. It will cover affected businesses’ payrolls, make zero percent loans and loan guarantees to businesses, finance new construction of factories, emergency shelters, and production of emergency supplies such as masks and ventilators, and create new jobs.

• Provide direct, emergency $2,000 cash payments to every person in America every month for the duration of the crisis.

• Provide emergency unemployment compensation to anyone who loses their job through no fault of their own.

• Guarantee that no one goes hungry.

• Place an immediate moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut-offs, and suspend payment on mortgage loans for primary residencies and utility bills.

• Waive all student loan payments for the duration of the emergency.

• Construct emergency shelter and utilize empty or vacant lodging to ensure everyone is safely housed and has the care they need during this crisis.

• Bail out working people, not corporate executives. Any emergency credit extensions or loans to insolvent companies or industries must come with strict protections and benefits for workers, unions, and customers. No stock buybacks or bonuses for executives will be allowed.

• Prevent price gouging by pharmaceutical companies. As soon as a coronavirus vaccine is developed, it must be sold for free.

• Investigate and prosecute price-gougers and corrupt dealings.

This program is not a substitute for the vital state and local fights that are being waged around issues like health care, hunger, water and homelessness, but it is a solid starting point for what must be done by the federal government, and it must be fought for, or millions will suffer and die unnecessarily because of the virus and the economic crisis. Make no mistake, we, the people, are in a life or death fight with the corporations and billionaires over our survival. The question before us is, whose interests will the government serve?

The good news is that there is a massive movement for fundamental change among the American people. And, as soon as the crisis set in, the movement got to work. In every city people spontaneously formed groups to help ensure the needs of the most vulnerable are met, share information, and make demands for pressuring government to do the right thing. Nurses have demanded that healthcare workers have what they need to do their jobs; auto workers began wildcat strikes to force the auto factories to shut down in the name of worker safety; homeless people have taken over homes; those suffering from water contamination or shutoffs have demanded their needs for water be met; rent strikes began in some cities; demands were issued for free healthcare, and to stop evictions, house the homeless, feed the hungry, free prisoners from the jails and detention centers, and stop deportations and immigration raids. Millions of people see that how we treat the most vulnerable among us sets the pace for how all of us are treated.

The crisis has created an opportunity for the corporations and billionaires to further consolidate their hold on the government and divert even more public resources into their pockets. But it has also created an opportunity for the people. It is exposing the fatal flaws in the existing economic system, especially the health care system. It was an eye-opening moment for millions in this country when the Federal Reserve promised $1.5 trillion to the financial markets overnight, while Congress has struggled to pass thus-far inadequate legislation to help workers. And the corruption among powerful politicians was exposed when it was revealed that several members of Congress, their spouses and investment advisers profited by selling millions of dollars in stock before the markets fell, apparently based on their advance knowledge about the pandemic.

This crisis is awakening millions who have up to now not been involved in politics. People are now getting a true picture of not only how corrupt this profit-driven system is, but that it affects everyone. The crisis is forcing people, as a matter of life or death, to fight for a democratic society and government that serves their needs.

If the federal government can mobilize our country’s vast resources at the drop of a hat to serve the corporations, we can mobilize the same resources to serve the people, and to build a whole different kind of society without poverty or suffering. But we must force the government to serve the people, not the corporations.

The virus may fade away, but the economic crisis won’t. We can’t go back to the way things were before the crisis set in. Out of necessity, people are fighting for a different world, and that fight has now moved to a new stage. In the long run, we need a fundamental revolutionary transformation of our country, which is what this growing movement represents.

Bernie Sanders’ remarks at the recent presidential debate about what we the people face gets at the heart of things. He said, “Our hearts go out to everyone. We need to move aggressively to ensure that every person in this country that has the virus or who thinks they have the virus understands they have all the healthcare they need. … But also, in this moment of economic insecurity, in addition to the coronavirus, it is time to ask how we got to where we are, not only our lack of preparation for the virus, but how we ended up with an economy where so many of our people are hurting, at a time of massive wealth inequality. … It is time to ask the question of where the power is in America, who owns the economy, who owns the legislative process? … Why do we give tax breaks to billionaires and not raise the minimum wage? Why do we pump up the oil industry while a half million people are homeless in America? This is the time to move aggressively to deal with the coronavirus crisis and the economic fallout … but also a time to rethink America, [as] the great country where we care about each other, rather than a nation of greed and corruption, which is what is taking place.”

The future is up to we, the people, and we are rising to the challenge.

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