It’s probably safe to say the year 2020 has been unlike anything we have seen in our lifetimes, even for people who marched against Jim Crow segregation and the U.S. war on Vietnam . We’re witnessing – and part of – a militant, multinational uprising in cities around the world. The police lynching of George Floyd and so many before him may have been triggering event, but fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly fueled the fire.
Tens of millions of people are out of work in this country, with no clear future, and government ineptitude or indifference is exposed for all to see. “American exceptionalism” has taken on a new meaning as European countries ban travelers from the U.S. in order to safeguard their own people. The whole world is watching as people die and “the greatest country on earth” appears paralyzed in the grip of a pandemic it should have seen coming.
The novel coronavirus was discovered in China in December 2019, and the first case recognized in the U.S. was on January 21. Since then, the world has watched an endless stream of news reports showing a government unable or unwilling to deal with a serious threat. One iconic image is that of nurses wearing plastic garbage bags as protection to serve in overwhelmed hospitals. (Contrast this with video of Chinese workers so covered by protective gear they could be in a science fiction movie, calmly going about the business of protecting their community.) The results of this breakdown have been deadly. An unofficial survey conducted by National Nurses United has found that 939 nurses have died as a result of treating patients with COVID-19.
In late February, the first U.S. deaths were reported in Washington state. Since then more than 125,000 people have died in this country, about a quarter of the total half million fatalities around the world. The numbers are staggering, given that this country only holds 4.25 percent of the world’s population. This troubling ratio calls to mind the staggering numbers of people locked away in the U.S. mass incarceration system, which holds roughly one in five people imprisoned worldwide.
How did we get here?
China was widely condemned for its “authoritarian” response to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic. In retrospect, it appears they did the right thing. Other socialist countries such as Cuba and Vietnam have also had effective systems in place to minimize the threat. Cuba, continuing a longstanding tradition, has sent medical teams to assist in more than a dozen countries around the world.
Even almost all capitalist countries have fared much better than the U.S. Obviously Donald Trump’s anti-science magical thinking can be blamed for tens of thousands of deaths, but his lies and transparent lack of concern cannot fully explain the nightmare unfolding for all the world to see.
The blame can be shared by Democrats as well. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, presented in a heroic light by corporate media, encouraged people to go out in crucial early days of the pandemic. Mayor Bill DeBlasio kept New York City schools open and waited before eventually closing public schools. Democratic National Committee Chief Tom Perez pushed voters to in-person primaries in an effort to push through Joe Biden’s nomination regardless of the consequences.
Workers in most of the other wealthy countries did not lose health care or face financial ruin, thus softening the impact when societies shut down to fight the pandemic. In contrast, the U.S. government has had no clear policy. In an effort to maintain low numbers and encourage businesses to reopen, Trump has opposed and blocked testing. As a result, we have no clear understanding of the crisis. He has also refused to use the Defense Production Act to order manufacturers to make the equipment needed to save lives. In addition, he has encouraged his supporters to publicly gather to “liberate” cities.
The lack of coordinated federal action has resulted in a chaotic struggle with governors across the country bidding against each other for limited supplies. Officials even deliberately mislead the public, discouraging use of masks. Later, Dr. Anthony Fauci acknowledged that officials did this to keep the public from buying masks needed in hospitals. The drive to generate profits regardless of consequences has led to bizarre situations, with health care workers furloughed or laid off by hospital administrators looking to improve their bottom line.
Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has exposed this country’s systemic racism. Roughly one in four fatalities have been of African Americans. In late June, a survey by APM Research Group, associated with the American Public Media Group, found that 68.5 Black people per 100,000 had died as a result of COVID-19. That number for Indigenous Americans was 43.2; and 31.2 for Latino. The corresponding number for the white population is 28.5. The report finds that if they had died at a similar rate as white Americans, at least 15,000 Black, 1,500 Latino, and 250 Indigenous Americans would still be alive. The prison system has also been hit hard. The Marshall Project reports that 48,764 people in prisons have tested positive for the disease as of June 23.
Racism also can be seen in police response in New York City, where videos showed police politely encouraging white people in Central Park to wear masks. At the same time, they were tackling unmasked Black residents elsewhere in the city.
COVID-19 has also revealed stark class divisions. Grocery store workers, delivery worker, and many others have always been essential, even if the ruling class considers them expendable. When workers at Amazon warehouses and elsewhere protested unsafe conditions, they were fired. As a result, the country has seen a wave of militant worker strikes. Meatpacking plants have had some of the worst outbreaks, with a June 12 article by ProPublica citing more than 24,000 cases across the country. In glaring contrast, Nancy Pelosi showed off her freezer full of expensive ice cream in a tone deaf late night television clip. This, at a time when reports of long lines at food pantries were in the news.
In the U.S., the serious medical crisis was made far worse as tens of millions of people lost their jobs, many of them losing their health insurance at the same time. Congress, in a predictable replay of the 2008 financial meltdown, rushed to bail out Wall Street and the corporate world. Billionaires saw their total wealth increase by more than $583 billion. In contrast, some but not all workers received one payment of $1,200. Increased unemployment benefits will cease by the end of July. Moratoriums on evictions have not been accompanied by rent cancelation, so the country faces a huge increase in homelessness when accumulated months of rent come due. In addition, the supplemental $600 per week unemployment benefit will expire at the end of July.
What does the future hold?
As could be expected, states that opened up for business are starting to pause and backtrack as numbers spike. Dr. Fauci, who had cautioned against hasty reopening, has warned that we could see 100,000 new cases a day. The corporate news media focuses on individual responsibility rather than deep systemic problems. Fortunately the protests that began after George Floyd was murdered have not led to more infections, at least in part because the vast majority of people wear masks and the protests are outdoors. Given the government’s catastrophic profit-driven response and the lack of a vaccine, it’s possible this pandemic is only in its early stages.
Weeks before George Floyd was killed, the world saw Trump and Congress giving trillions of dollars to Wall Street and the capitalists rather than protecting workers and saving lives. The unprecedented militant uprising across the country has shaken the ruling class. If rents are not canceled, and unemployment benefits run out, we can anticipate a renewed upsurge of protests taking shape. The struggle has just begun.