Covid-19 and Capitalism: the science and the social/economic context

Michael Friedman interviewed by Bill Resnick

Let’s start with the origins of this pandemic. Where did Covid-19 come from?

For the past few decades now, there’s been an uptick in these emerging diseases, which are products of capitalism’s disruption of the relationship between humans and earth’s ecosystems. There have always been transfers of diseases from animals to humans and probably back the other way too, for example, rabies or the bubonic plague. But, in the past three or four decades, this has increased sharply. Deforestation and the decline of biodiversity have facilitated the threat of these diseases. And we’re talking about diseases from HIV to Lyme disease, to Ebola, to Zika to Hantavirus, and the Coronavirus. 

Where did Covid-19 come from?

What are the challenges to ending the global pandemic?


How should the left respond?

A well-known area of ecology called Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functions and Services began developing about 20 years ago. It studies how biodiversity contributes to various functions that shape an ecosystem. We’re talking about things like carbon storage or net productivity. We’re talking about things like resilience, the ability to bounce back. And we’re talking about things like resistance to invasion by pests and pathogens.

Listen to part 1 of the 2 part original audio Old Mole Variety Hour for April 6, 2020
Listen to part 2 of the 2 part original audio Old Mole Variety Hour for April 13, 2020

Diseases will spread through an ecological community much more easily when biodiversity has been reduced. Biodiversity is being reduced on our planet. We’re faced with habitat destruction, deforestation, contamination of habitats and so on. Many, many species or populations of these species are disappearing.

Biodiversity and the dilution effect

A robust ecosystem includes predators and competitors of animals that are normal hosts for a lot of viruses and bacteria, so there are fewer primary hosts for the pathogen. Diminishing biodiversity then expands the number of potential hosts. Second of all, in diminishing biodiversity you are eliminating alternative, poorer quality, hosts for a lot of pathogens. This is what they call the dilution effect. For example, in the natural environment, Lyme disease affects more than just deer and mice. It affects squirrels; it affects other organisms. But these other organisms are not necessarily the best hosts to the bug. The bug hasn’t adapted as efficiently to these hosts, and so it may not be able to reproduce in them or it may not be able to make the connection with vectors like ticks and so on.

These are some of the ways that biodiversity decline actually enhances the possibility of transmission of these bugs. This is what has happened in the case of Lyme, in the case of Hanta or, perhaps, in the case, which I’ll explain, of Covid-19.

We need a program that’s going to address these environmental issues, while providing economic security, food security, housing security, you know, basic needs for people, and we need to amplify the Green New Deal to incorporate Medicare for all

Organisms that survive biodiversity decline are often opportunistic species. They’re often what we would call generalists, like bats or rats or mice. These organisms proliferate in areas where biodiversity has been reduced, where there’s been deforestation, where human settlements are creating edge environments. So, for example, the deer mice that carry Lyme proliferated in grassy fields in the suburbs that were created when real estate development took place. Hantavirus is a rodent-borne virus in the Southwestern United States and it began proliferating with increased agribusiness and irrigation along with suburbanization and urbanization.

In the case of Ebola, bats proliferated in West Africa where oil palm plantations were put in and replaced forest. So, now you have greater contact between humans and the primary host as well. 

When I lived in Nicaragua, a big problem was that the landowners would push the poor campesinos, the poor farmers, off their land and then they would migrate further into the forest and slash and burn the forest and what we know now is that these type of activities expose people to the risk of contracting various pathogens from organisms that are being pushed into smaller and smaller spaces and with reduced diversity.

We also have to take into account the effects of climate change. For example, the vectors and hosts of the Lyme Disease bacteria are spreading out across the Northern US, now showing up in Michigan and further west 

The Origin of the Coronavirus in China

So, in the case of Covid-19, Hubei Province, where Wuhan is located, has been the most rapidly industrializing area in China for the past century with a very high rate of deforestation. And you have an affected pool of animals, of horseshoe bats, which have been carrying the virus for a long time. The virus has adapted to enter into bat cells and the bats’ immune system has evolved to deal with it. Over time a pathogen often will co-adapt with a host under natural selection, so it doesn’t kill the host, because it’s kind of disadvantageous under most circumstances for the pathogen to be automatically fatal. 

But, when it transfers to other mammals, there is the potential for it to become deadly, to become virulent. 

There are two theories about how bats transferred the virus to people. One is that it transferred from an isolated population of bats (and I should point out that bats have not been properly sampled, so we don’t have samples from all populations of horseshoe bats.) The other theory is that the virus made the transfer to humans earlier, but it hadn’t mutated to its virulent form, so it wasn’t detected. And this could have happened months ago. 

And there’s also a possibility that another mammal, possibly the pangolin, picked up the virus en route, and became an intermediary for transfer to humans. Now, one way this could have worked out is through wet markets like in Wuhan, where there are cages of animals, like pangolins, stacked one on top of the other, live animals. So, basically, you have animals on the top layer defecating and urinating and sneezing and coughing or whatever and infecting the animals below them. And you’re talking about animals that are never in contact with each other in the natural environment.

And then you have people who are managing the animals. We’re not talking about eating bats. We’re talking about being in proximity with animals in the presence of a virus which is transmitted readily by aerosol, by droplets sneezed out or coughed out or in the process of talking, in humans.

Is this virus so much more dangerous than the common flu virus? 

First of all, we don’t know very much about it. Other coronaviruses have been studied, but not extensively. The common cold is a coronavirus, but it is not very threatening and research on it not profitable. SARS and MERSA, two other coronaviruses, were deadly and there had been some research on them. But, these viruses were controlled fairly quickly, so there was less urgency about studying them.

With the present coronavirus, you have a relatively unknown pathogen with what appears to be a significant mortality rate and a high rate of transmission. At this point, we don’t have the information we would need to judge how it compares to the common flu. And everything we do know has to be treated as tentative.

Given that caution, how dangerous and infectious is Covid-19?

The global average death rate, based on confirmed cases and confirmed deaths, according to the WHO, was 3.4%, as of March 3. But this figure is rather meaningless, first off, given the lack of adequate testing on a global level and the efforts of various authorities to cover up the scale of the disease in their countries. I mean, the number of deaths has been seen to be vastly under-counted. Same with the number of confirmed cases. Some 20-30% of cases are thought to be asymptomatic. Many more are mild or not severe enough to require hospitalization, and so may go uncounted.

Mortality rates, transmission rates and prevalence are also functions of social inequality and poverty, so death rates vary greatly from that global average for marginalized and oppressed populations, as we’ve seen in New York, Chicago and elsewhere. Oppressed communities also have less access to testing and authorities in many places are not even reporting demographic data for the disease. 

As we know, the mortality rate varies across age groups. An early estimate by the WHO in China was that the death rate for those over 60 was 3.4% and the percent steadily rose with age so that the death rate for those over 80 was 15%. That was before the Chinese authorities recently increased the number of Wuhan confirmed deaths by 50%. In New York City, 95% of deaths were among those over 44 years old. Almost half were among those over 75. So, the real mortality rate is going to vary from that global average according to the age structure of the population of a given country, as we saw in Italy’s case, where an aging population succumbed to coronavirus at a much higher rate.

Moreover, we may have seriously underestimated the pathological manifestions of Covid-19, leading to an undercount of deaths: it turns out that the coronavirus doesn’t just kill by attacking the lungs, but also presents significant cardiac, renal, neurological and other pathologies, either directly attacking these organs or by triggering a hyperimmune response. A recent Science article noted that deaths due to heart failure, renal failure and disruptions of other organs and systems were initially misdiagnosed, but later turned out to be related to Covid-19.

Covid-19 also appears to be highly transmissible. On average, according to some estimates, each person will transmit to 3.5 other individuals (its reproductive number, R0=3.5). So, you’re talking about an exponential increase in infected people. But, again, transmission rates are determined by factors beyond the innate, biological propensity of the virus, such as crowding, use of PPE, social distancing, etc.

(Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

At this point, social isolation—diluting the human hosts for the virus—is our only defense against the disease. But pressure is building to end social isolation, as the curve of infection begins to flatten.

The curve is apparently flattening in New York, although keep in mind that case numbers and mortality numbers are extremely unreliable, even in New York City and State.

But, New York City and State are NOT the U.S., which is a very large and heterogeneous place: geographically, demographically, economically. So, while case and mortality numbers may be flattening out in New York, they are increasing in urban and rural areas in many other states. There are many areas in the U.S., with large, dense, impoverished, indigent populations and poor or nonexistent public health and medical infrastructure, in which control of the virus is going to be difficult, if, in fact, there is a will to do so. 

Even if Covid-19 is brought under control in the US, will it spike again once social distancing ends? 

This is an extremely complex issue. Researchers are waiting with bated breath to see what happens in China. That country seemed to have reduced their reproduction number to below 1, which means that each case will infect fewer than one other person. However, some countries that brought the virus under control, such as Singapore, are spiking again.

One issue is whether individuals and the population can develop immunity, through exposure to the virus. The verdict is still out on the question of natural immunity. A large study in Wuhan showed that while some people developed antibodies following infection, others did not. One positive aspect is that older people seem to develop antibodies more readily than younger people. On the other hand, development of antibodies does not necessarily mean that we have immunity. 

An earlier study pointed out that the antibodies we generate must bind to the spike protein that permits viral entry into cells in order to neutralize the virus. In that study, a significant portion of those antibodies bound to other viral proteins and failed to neutralize the virus. And this virus is tricky (although not as bad as HIV): it covers itself with a “camouflage” of sugar molecules to trick the immune system. What is more, for some viruses, we retain an immunological memory for a lifetime, while for others, our immune systems retain a memory for a short time, and this isn’t only due to the viral mutation rate, but to the virulence of the pathogen, and other factors. 

What about developing an effective vaccine?

This depends in part on the virus’ mutation rate. HIV and the flu mutate quickly (meaning the surface proteins are altered), leaving our immune systems eating dust. In the former case, the mutation rate is so high (together with extra-viral “camouflage,” noted above) that it has forestalled development of vaccines. In the latter, we devise vaccines on a yearly basis to try to keep up. 

Although Covid-19 appeared at first to be fairly stable, researchers recently discovered that the virus has mutated into two strains, one much more virulent than the other. The virulent strain is the one that has impacted Europe, and then spread to New York, while the less virulent strain affected Asia and then made it to Washington state.

There appears to be consensus among public health experts that without a vaccine, adequate testing and quarantine of infected individuals is necessary to lift social isolation without creating another spike in infections that could overwhelm the healthcare system not to mention causing many unnecessary deaths. What are the challenges facing us here?

The U.S. has opted for a mitigation strategy, principally involving social isolation measures, personal hygiene, and, subsequently some travel and crowd restrictions and closures of worksites and schools, measures which started late and have varied in extent and timing across states. Yet, virtually every country that has managed to bring Covid-19 under control has employed a viral suppression approach. Suppression means rapidly reducing the Reproductive Number to less than one, and keeping it there. Suppression measures include the previous, or more vigorous, social distancing measures, but also curfews, restrictions of movement outside the home, rigorous quarantines of cases and contacts, up to a total lockdown. Extensive and timely testing was the key to the success of these suppression measures.

Accurate measures of numbers of cases and of mortality is necessary both to track and quarantine cases and their contacts, and to conduct random community sampling, in order to identify hot-spots. It is necessary to evaluate whether social distancing is working and to know when to ease it. It is also necessary to calculate the death rate. Testing has been woefully inadequate in the U.S. By the end of the first week in April, the average seems to oscillate around 150,000 tests per day. The most current figure for tests per thousand people for the U.S. is about 12, which places it at number six in the world. Iceland still has the most rigorous testing in the world. 

There are other problems with the tests that need to be overcome. One, of course, is the overly strict criteria for testing, which is largely limited to hospital patients already showing symptoms of severe infection, along with medical personnel (and those with the money or clout to circumvent the restrictions). To be effective, testing would hopefully be applied to identify all suspected cases (anyone who walks into a doctors’ office, as one expert put it) AND sample enough asymptomatic cases to allow for an estimate of their prevalence. For another, at this point, many clinics and labs are running out of supplies, in large part due to lean production of these materials and outsourced, international supply chains. A third is the two-three day turnaround time between swabbing the patient, running the PCR, and getting the results back: a delay that costs lives. For a fourth, this test has a high rate of false negatives: it misses up to 20% of cases for a number of reasons not necessarily related to the test itself.

For another, at this point, many clinics and labs are running out of supplies, in large part due to lean production of these materials and outsourced, international supply chains.

One option is to use antibody tests, which can be done with a pin-prick in a few minutes. These will allow doctors to determine if a person has been infected at some point. In turn, this will allow a better estimate of prevalence in both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals, and a possible assessment of immunity. There are caveats: that such a test won’t pick up antibodies early in the infection, that not everybody seems to develop antibodies, and that not all antibodies confer immunity.

Are there other challenges to ending the global pandemic?

Whatever technical measures are used will inevitably run up against the wall of existing social inequality. Social isolation and lock-downs are not applied on an even playing field any more than the disease itself is “equal opportunity.” To varying degrees, much of the world’s population has been subjected to four decades of declining living conditions or absolute impoverishment as a result of neoliberal austerity and “one-sided class warfare,” on top of the historic dispossession of masses of people in the global south and the inequities of racism in the global north. 

Leaving aside the co-morbidities produced by these oppressive relationships, measures such as social isolation, home quarantines, curfews, contact tracing and even personal hygiene, will have radically different meanings for and impacts on homeless people, families living crammed into in crowded apartments or ramshackle dwellings and densely populated slums, working class families living paycheck to paycheck, people lacking access to clean running water or basic sanitation or adequate food sources. Domicile quarantine is meaningless if you are homeless and can be a death sentence if you can’t get food. It is no surprise that food riots broke out in impoverished parts of southern Italy after that country imposed its draconian lock-down. But, these social conditions also mean that such measures may be ineffective, leading, again, to a resurgence.

Given what you’ve said about the causes of this pandemic, how do you think the left should respond?

I think this provides another argument for an expanded Green New Deal. We need a program that’s going to address these environmental issues, while providing economic security, food security, housing security, you know, basic needs for people, and we need to amplify the Green New Deal to incorporate Medicare for all, universal healthcare, I would say, because both of these are necessary in the short and in the long run to, to prevent and stop these pandemics from taking the toll they do. 

Additionally, we need to protect ecosystems and prevent biodiversity decline and that involves things like agroecological production. It also involves ensuring that people have enough food to eat and aren’t constantly being forced off the land to move further into forests bringing them into contact with immunocompromised animals that are being affected by biodiversity decline.

Yes, it seems to me that if the West wants to save itself, it needs to meet demands by the global south for technology transfer and resources. 

Absolutely. The global south has been subject to what we call ecological unequal exchange for – – for decades, if not centuries, whereby the wealth of these countries flows up north and then the ecological and environmental catastrophes are exported to the south. So, there’s definitely a need for environmental reparations, but this should not let local oligarchs off the hook either, because there is also a huge need for social transformation, including agrarian reform.

Mike Friedman is an evolutionary biologist teaching at the University of Antigua Barbuda in the Caribbean. For the last several years, he’s been studying and writing on the development of dangerous viruses around the planet, including Covid-19. In addition to his scientific writing, he has published several articles in Monthly Review.

Bill Resnick co-founded the Old Mole Variety Hour on KBOO, 90.7fm, Portland, OR. He has written for Socialist Review and Against the Current among others. He also wrote for, edited, and chaired the editorial collective of the Portland Alliance, for 30 years the voice of radical Portland. This article originated in interviews on KBOO radio, 90.7fm, Portland Or.

The transcript was edited by Johanna Brenner.

Why coronavirus hasn’t stopped Hong Kong’s protest movement

Promise Li

For months, protesters, tear gas and riot police have been a regular sight on the streets of Hong Kong. Demonstrations have, at times, numbered over a million. Now, with government officials considering imposing stricter lockdown measures in response to the coronavirus outbreak, Hong Kong’s protest movement faces a new challenge.

Governments are seizing the opportunity to grab power amid the crisis. Hong Kong offers a model for resistance.

Medical workers on strike in Hong Kong, February 2020. | PA Images

It has been over a year ago since the protests began, initially in opposition to a law that would have allowed extradition to China. Since then, protesters have widened their demands to include universal suffrage, self-determination and an end to police violence. The pandemic, which reached the city in January, has forced the movement to rethink not only its tactics – which have involved vast public gatherings – but also its priorities.

Hongkongers are better prepared than most for COVID-19. In 2003, the city was a hotspot for a related strain of coronavirus – SARS-CoV. There were over 5,000 cases and 336 deaths from the disease alone in Hong Kong – only China, where the virus originated, suffered worse.

This time, however, Hong Kong’s infection rate has remained among the lowest globally – although fears remain that the outbreak could worsen. While past experience in dealing with an epidemic has played a role, months of community organising could also explain Hongkongers’s readiness in the face of the crisis. With citizens across the world now turning to mutual aid as a way of helping one another during the pandemic, could Hong Kong be a model to emulate?

Medics on strike 

The outbreak comes at a time when Hongkongers’ faith in the political system is at rock bottom. The curtailment of civil liberties and police violence against protesters has led many to completely lose trust in the government. The state’s response to the pandemic has done little to help restore it. After the Carrie Lam administration announced an emergency subsidy for the construction sector, thousands of workers in the industry soon discovered that they are ineligible simply for failing to clock in for work properly in the past

Disillusioned with their politicians, Hongkongers have come to rely on each other. Late last year, the protest movement encouraged workers to form unions in dozens of sectors. Amid the pandemic, the unions have repurposed themselves to pressure the government. When the first death due to COVID-19 was reported in February, medical workers went on strike for the first time in the city’s history to demand better protective equipment and a closure of Hong Kong’s borders to stop the spread of infection. 

After supplies of face masks in Hong Kong became scarce, the movement’s diaspora networks helped to arrange supplies from overseas. Activists also set up shop in the working-class districts of Tuen Mun and Tai Kok Tsui to provide face masks and sanitisers for cleaning workers, whose lack of protective supplies have left them at high risk for tear gas and now also COVID-19 exposure. 

In more recent months, as conditions worsen in the US, Hong Kongers and Chinese at home and in the diaspora have also worked with activists abroad to provide masks and other resources for medical workers and other at-risk communities from Seattle to New York.

Altruism and opportunism

Hong Kong also teaches us that, especially for communities in need, the instinctual desire for self-sufficiency in the face of government failure can also make people turn inward. Last month, knife-wielding robbers attempted to steal hundreds of toilet paper rolls from a delivery man outside a supermarket in Mong Kok. Some Hong Kong restaurants have also sparked controversy for refusing to serve Mandarin-speaking customers. Both pro-establishment and even some pro-democracy figures have denounced this discriminatory and exclusionary practice. 

While activists should be embedded in this profusion of mutual aid initiatives, we must also not adopt depoliticised models that distract from making mass demands on the state, and even reinforce dependence on private-sector charity. 

The pandemic is not an interruption of movement-building, but its continuation with even higher stakes. 

The myriad kinds of community responses toward the outbreak should caution us from thinking that cooperation and mutual aid are inevitable outcomes in this crisis. Nor do these efforts necessarily build mass movement power against state and capital. At the same time, there is no guaranteed Hobbesian state of nature, wherein self-interested competition is the only law with no room for solidarity. The left must recognise that people are necessarily motivated by their material conditions, and it is up to us to actively support and amplify movement-driven alternatives to address their needs. 

The Hong Kong protest movement’s speedy adaptation to address a public health crisis reminds us that this pandemic is not an interruption of movement-building, but its continuation with even higher stakes. Boris Johnson’s completely ineffectual response to the outbreak in the UK cannot be separated from the Conservative Party’s persistent measures to defund and understaff the NHS. In the US, tenant groups have pointed out that the eviction moratoriums in US cities can barely count as even a stop-gap measure given the nation’s pre-existing housing and homelessness crisis fuelled by unbridled rent increases and retaliation evictions.

Resisting authoritarianism

Governments around the world continue to offer a false dichotomy in response to the crisis. Either abide by draconian measures that exacerbate an ever-tightening state security culture or have resources and aid for communities in need withdrawn.

Mass movement solidarity – as it manifests in tactics from local mutual aid networks to unions – is the best deterrent against further attacks on democracy. Activists must remain vigilant against attempts to curtail civil liberties. The Carrie Lam administration has already tried to use this moment to swiftly arrest several key pro-democracy political figures for participating in a banned rally in August of last year. Hungary’s right-wing PM Viktor Orban was recently granted the right to bypass democratic institutions and rule by decree by the country’s parliament, further normalising authoritarian measures in a global state of emergency. 

The Hong Kong protest movement’s accumulated skepticism toward state power and bureaucracy signals positive avenues for the left. Instead of simply trusting ‘progressive’ administrations and reforms, Hong Kong shows us that we cannot place all our hopes for a better world in existing state apparatuses. Power for change comes from people’s self-organised capacity to take collective ownership over the distribution of public resources. Increasingly, a political necessity rather than idealism as our world moves closer to more large-scale catastrophes induced by neoliberalism. 

Frederich Engels once argued that unions are “schools of war” for workers. Hongkongers’ recent approach to empowering usually apolitical workers to make collective demands on the state through newly formed unions is the best kind of political education for a mass movement, more so than any prescribed ideological platform. While the pandemic is rapidly exposing the toll of years of austerity measures on working-class and marginalised peoples, it also demonstrates the resilience of movements and people’s self-capacity to resist.

This was originally published in OpenDemocracy on April 11th.

Fighting COVID-19: Why and How to Suspend Debt Repayment Immediately

Eric Toussaint

The territorial spread of the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a global health crisis which has created a completely new situation. The human suffering caused by the spread of the virus is enormous. It adds to other public health tragedies that affect, more particularly, countries dominated by major powers and big capital, with the complicity of their dominant classes. Significant amounts of financial resources must be made available urgently, incurring new debts as little as possible.

There is a simple way to free up financial resources: it consists of immediate suspension of public debt repayment. The savings made can then be directly channelled to priority health needs. There are other measures that are quite easy to take to free up financial resources: establishing a crisis tax on the wealthy and very high incomes, imposing fines on companies responsible for large-scale tax evasion, freezing military budgets, putting an end to subsidies to banks and big companies … We come back to the suspension of debt payments because it is in most cases the central lever that can very quickly improve a state’s financial situation.

States may unilaterally declare the suspension of debt repayment on the basis of international law and in particular on the following grounds: State of Necessity, fundamental change of circumstances and force majeure.

States may unilaterally declare the suspension of debt repayment on the basis of international law and in particular on the following grounds: State of Necessity, fundamental change of circumstances and force majeure.

The suffering and the death toll have clearly been aggravated by underfunding of public health in both Southern and Northern countries. States, with very few exceptions, have systematically, under the pretext of repaying debt and achieving a reduction of budget deficit, imposed restrictions on public health spending. If they had rather strengthened the key instruments of a good public health policy in terms of staffing, infrastructure, medicine stocks, equipment, research, production of medicines and treatments, and health coverage for the population, the coronavirus crisis would not have reached the current proportions and would not be developing so drastically.

What has happened in China, where the authorities were slow to take containment measures and increase tests, then in several European countries (Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain), in the United States and elsewhere, indicates what is likely to happen in other countries as the virus continues to spread. In the richer countries, with much more developed public health systems, the combined effects of 40 years of neoliberal policies and the lack of preparedness of public authorities have had tragic effects. It is easy to imagine what this can lead to elsewhere. Countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Asia have begun to be heavily affected by the health crisis.

Urgent action is needed to build the capacity to fight the coronavirus and, beyond that, to improve the health and living conditions of populations.

Governments and major multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and regional development banks have used public debt repayment as a tool for applying policies that have deteriorated public health systems: job cuts in the health sector, precarious employment contracts, reduction of hospital beds, closure of local health centres, increase of health care costs and of prices of medicines, under-investment in infrastructure and equipment, privatization of various health sectors, under-investment by the public sector in research and development of treatments for the benefit of the interests of large private pharmaceutical groups.

Even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic, these policies had already resulted in enormous loss of life and protests by health workers around the world.

Urgent action is needed to build the capacity to fight the coronavirus and, beyond that, to improve the health and living conditions of populations.

The call for suspension or the cancellation of debt payments has come to the fore again in the context of the global health crisis. In mid-March 2020, a dozen former Latin American presidents launched an appeal to this effect (See the english version on https://www.celag.org/la-hora-de-la-condonacion-de-la-deuda-para-america-latina/). On 23 March, a large majority of members of the National Assembly of Ecuador called for a union of Latin American governments to suspend debt payments (https://www.cadtm.org/Will-Ecuador-once-again-set-an-example-of-courage-in-the-face-of-creditors). At the end of March, representatives of CEMAC (Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa, which includes 6 countries) asked for the cancellation of their countries’ external debt (https://www.businessincameroon.com/economy/3003-10143-cemac-ministries-of-finance-and-economy-suggest-cancellation-of-external-debts-to-deal-with-covid-19-and-relaunch-post-pandemic-economies). On 4 April, Senegal’s President Macky Sall called for the cancellation of Africa’s public debt (https://www.en24.news/n24/2020/03/macky-sall-seeks-cancellation-of-debt-owed-by-africa-due-to-coronavirus.html).

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has just published a report in which it warns about the scale of the fateful impacts of the crisis, particularly in economic terms. In a passage of this document, UNCTAD argues, in diplomatic language, that indebted countries should be able to unilaterally and temporarily freeze their debt repayment. It also states that creditors can’t be the ones to decide whether or not indebted countries have the right to suspend debt payments [1].

The call for suspension or the cancellation of debt payments has come to the fore again in the context of the global health crisis.

This is a position that has long been upheld by the CADTM in clear terms. This position is shared by many social and political organizations around the world. Several appeals have been launched to this effect by social movements in Latin America and the Caribbean (http://www.cadtm.org/Call-of-the-indigenous-peoples-afro-descendants-and-peoples-organizations-of), In Africa, where social movements in southern Africa are calling on “SADC (Southern African Development Community) governments to apply a debt moratorium and to devote resources earmarked for debt repayment to rebuilding the public health system and investing in essential social service sectors, including energy, water, sanitation and housing infrastructure, in order to strengthen the capacity of the people of SADC to withstand the impact of the crisis.” (COVID-19 pandemic: Statement by the Southern African People’s Solidarity Network (SAPSN), https://cadtm.org/COVID-19-pandemic-Statement-by-the-Southern-African-People-s-Solidarity-Network). NGOs and coalitions such as Eurodad (Europe) (https://eurodad.org/Entries/view/1547157/2020/03/24/A-debt-moratorium-for-Low-Income-Economies), Latindad (Latin America), Jubilee Debt Campaign (Britain), the Debt and Development Platform (France) also support the need to declare a moratorium on debt payments.

The State of Necessity: a state may waive further debt repayment because the objective situation (for which it is not responsible) poses a serious threat to the population and the continued payment of the debt prevents it from meeting the most urgent needs of the population. This is exactly the situation that many states of the world are now facing: the lives of the inhabitants of their countries are under direct threat if they are unable to fund a whole series of urgent expenditures to save as many human lives as possible.

When a state invokes a state of necessity, fundamental change of circumstance or force majeure to suspend payment of the debt, it is irrelevant whether the debt is legitimate or not.

“The State of Necessity” is a legal concept used by international tribunals and defined in Article 25 of the Draft Articles on State Responsibility of the United Nations International Law Commission (ILC). As explained in the commentary to Article 25, “State of Necessity” is used to refer to those exceptional cases where the only way for the State to safeguard an essential interest against a grave and imminent peril is, for the time being, the non-performance of an international obligation of lesser weight or urgency. Under international law, the destruction of the state as such or the endangering of the lives of persons are two circumstances in which a state of necessity may be invoked to suspend international obligations such as the implementation of agreements (such as an austerity programme between a state and its creditors) and the repayment of debts. [2]

The Student Tribunal for International Dispute Settlement (STIDS), composed of international law students intending to apply their theoretical knowledge to a real situation, issued the following opinion in the case of Greece in 2016: “Greece is facing an extreme financial situation that does not allow it to provide essential medical services to its population, whose mortality is consequently increasing substantially. Accordingly, the Tribunal considers that Greece is indeed in a material situation which constitutes a grave and imminent peril within the meaning of Article 25 of the ILC’s Draft Articles, and that it may therefore legitimately invoke a state of necessity.”

Fundamental change of circumstances: The performance of a debt contract (or international treaty) may be suspended if circumstances change fundamentally beyond the debtor’s control. Case law on the application of international treaties and contracts recognises that a fundamental change of circumstances may prevent the performance of a contract. In the case of the current crisis, in the last two months, circumstances have changed fundamentally:

  • a very serious epidemic is in full swing;
  • commodity prices are collapsing (oil prices have halved in a month) and a whole series of debtor states are dependent on the income from raw materials exports to earn dollars needed to pay off their external debts;
  • economic activity is dropping sharply and very rapidly;
  • the countries of the South are victims of the decision of large companies and investment funds from the North to withdraw their capital from the country to repatriate it to their parent company and put it into a tax optimisation scheme.

Force majeure: the circumstances described above are examples of force majeure. A state may invoke these circumstances which prevent it from executing a contract.

It is fundamental that an audit of the debt with active citizen participation be organised in order to identify the illegitimate, odious and illegal parts that must be cancelled definitively

When a state invokes a state of necessity, fundamental change of circumstance or force majeure to suspend payment of the debt, it is irrelevant whether the debt is legitimate or not. Even if the debt claimed from the country is legitimate, that does not prevent the country from suspending payment. What is fundamental, then, is that the population ensures that the money actually saved by the non-payment of the debt is used to fight the coronavirus and the economic crisis. This implies that people must exercise strict control over the government’s action, that they must mobilize and be ready to express their discontent strongly if the government does not act in their best interests, and be ready to overthrow it if necessary.

Furthermore, from the point of view of the majority of the population, it is fundamental that an audit of the debt with active citizen participation be organised in order to identify the illegitimate, odious and illegal parts that must be cancelled definitively. It is also necessary to audit all state expenditure to check whether it is really justified in the fight to overcome the health, economic and ecological crisis.

Statements by current heads of states or heads of international organizations on the necessity for debt cancellation should, obviously, not be taken seriously. Their sole purpose is to get public visibility. The heads of states will always be able to resort to the excuse that they tried to obtain debt cancellation, but were unsuccessful, so payments will have to continue. As for the IMF, it has used the same old refrain for decades: it periodically states that creditors must cancel part of the debts, but at the same time it says that, as an international institution, it cannot forgo the recovery of everything owed to it. This is not the first time that the most powerful institution has made fine speeches but each time, there has been zero effect on the well-being of the population.

Actions speak louder than words: immediate and unilateral suspension of debt payments

This is the primary means that a state can use to find, under popular pressure and control, the financial resources needed to combat coronavirus and the brutal effects of the worsening global economic crisis.

Indeed, a radical increase in public health spending will also have very important beneficial effects in combating other diseases that are plaguing mainly the countries of the global South

Reorienting debt repayment and other expenditures (military spending, expenditure on luxuries, mega-infrastructure spending that must be abandoned or can be postponed) by giving priority to public health can kick-start fundamental and healthy change.

Indeed, a radical increase in public health spending will also have very important beneficial effects in combating other diseases that are plaguing mainly the countries of the global South.

According to the latest World Malaria Report, published in December 2019, 228 million cases of malaria were detected in 2018 and an estimated 405,000 people died from the disease. In addition, tuberculosis is one of the 10 leading causes of death worldwide. In 2018, 10 million people contracted tuberculosis and 1.5 million people died from it (including 251,000 with HIV). These diseases could have been successfully combated if governments devoted sufficient resources to them.

Other complementary measures could also combat malnutrition and hunger, which destroy the daily lives of one in nine human beings (more than 800 million people worldwide). Approximately 2.5 million children worldwide die each year from undernourishment, either directly or from diseases related to their low immunity due to undernourishment.

Similarly, if investments were made to massively increase the supply of drinking water and sewage disposal/sanitation, there could be a drastic reduction in deaths from diarrhoeal diseases, which amount to more than 430,000 per year (source: WHO 2019).

As a reference point of comparison, as of 7 April 2020, the official estimate is of approximately 75,000 deaths caused by the coronavirus since the beginning of the epidemic in December 2019. It is high time to act, using as a priority the powerful leverage of suspension of payment or cancellation of debt.

It is essential that the various organizations and activist networks mobilize to obtain the suspension of debt payments. We must collectively reflect on new ways to consolidate and broaden our struggle in the current exceptional circumstances.


The author would like to thank the following for rereading the text and/or documentary research: Omar Aziki, Anne Sophie Bouvy, Sushovan Dhar, Damien Millet, Brigitte Ponet, Claude Quemar et Renaud Vivien.

Translation for the CADTM by Sushovan Dhar and Vicki Briault Manus.


Footnotes

[1“UNCTAD has long argued that such standstills should be triggered by the unilateral decision of debtor countries to declare their need to freeze debt repayments temporarily, and should subsequently be sanctioned by an independent panel of experts, rather than creditor organisations.”, see https://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/gds_tdr2019_covid2_en.pdf

[2] This paragraph is excerpted from Renaud Vivien, “How can we question the Greek austerity program, one year after it was signed?” also see :“State of Necessity reflects an international customary rule according to which a factual situation of grave and imminent peril for the essential interests of a State would legally justify a breach of an international obligation by such State as the only means to safeguard such essential interests. The issue of necessity arises within the framework of the ‘secondary rules’ of State responsibility, as a circumstance precluding the wrongfulness of a conduct in breach of an international obligation.”, https://opil.ouplaw.com/view/10.1093/law:epil/9780199231690/law-9780199231690-e1071

Murder by Sanctions

A statement by the National Committee of Solidarity

AS THE GLOBAL death toll from the coronavirus stretches deep into the hundreds of thousands — and while Donald Trump continues his daily grandstanding misleadership, political manipulation and piracy of critical medical supplies, false claims of miracle cures (in which he has personal financial interests), sabotaging his own public health experts, absurdities about “reopening the economy” by May 1, and retaliatory firing of officials who exposed his criminal extortion of Ukraine — other crises haven’t gone away. Quite the contrary.

Among many underpublicized issues are the crippling, constantly tightening U.S. punitive sanctions against “enemy” governments including in particular Iran, Venezuela and Cuba. These sanctions were murderous before the coronavirus outbreak, particularly in regard to public health. Under present conditions, such measures border on genocidal.

It appears that Cuba, which has been under U.S. imperialist blockages for close to six decades, is avoiding the worst impact. Cuba has actually sent doctors to assist some worse-hit countries. (Trump’s near-total U.S. ban on tourism to the island may have been a medical lucky break, although economically ruinous.)  But along with the collapse of oil prices, U.S. prohibitions of financial transactions are particularly catastrophic for Iran and Venezuela.

In the Iranian case, European promises to construct a bypass for commercial transactions in order to save the multi-party nuclear deal have fallen flat. It’s been an almost total, although largely predictable, failure of Europe’s ruling classes and governments to stand up against Washington’s dictates. Desperately needed medical supplies are simply unavailable, especially in rural Iran.

It can be argued that the Iranian regime was irresponsible, complacent and cynical in its early dismissal of the coronavirus disaster – particularly in the religious authorities’ refusal to close the shrines in Qom and mass gatherings there, which appears to have been an epicenter for the pandemic spread to Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

But this says only that Iran’s rulers are (almost) as ignorant and bankrupt as Donald Trump himself – an impossibly difficult standard to match – and that some of its religious “leaders” are as criminal as those godly U.S. pastors who keep their megachurches open, and state governors who call churches “essential services” while forcing the closure of abortion clinics.

In the case of Venezuela, imperial criminality goes beyond even economic sanctions. Following the failure of last year’s abortive military putsch against the Nicolas Maduro government, the U.S. Department of Justice — a title George Orwell couldn’t have dreamed up — chose this moment to indict Maduro himself of drug trafficking.

Never mind, for example, the drug connections of the Honduran president and U.S. ally Juan Orlando Hernandez. The only purpose of the Maduro indictment can be to incite a second military coup attempt, with the incentive of a big reward for his extradition – which would provoke all-out civil war in a country already in a condition of medical and social near-collapse.

Imagine the refugee crisis in such a scenario. Isn’t that just what Venezuela and Latin America need at this moment of a spreading global pandemic for which many of their health services are desperately underprepared?

While the U.S. assault on Iran has a material geopolitical “logic” in terms of controlling oil supplies, Washington’s alliance with Saudi Arabia and other strategic state interests, the anti-Venezuela campaign appears to be driven mainly by rightwing ideology run amok. It’s not a conflict that most of U.S. capital particularly wants or needs.

Nothing about Venezuela (sadly) is a “threat” to U.S. power in its ruined condition. If anything, history teaches us that wars and threats of war driven primarily by ideology are even more dangerous than those based on naked state interest, which are bad enough.

It’s important here to call out the bipartisan U.S. complicity in Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which — long before coronavirus — has destroyed the medical infrastructure serving Gaza’s desperately crowded population.  While imposing brutal sanctions on other countries, Trump and much of the Congress are trying to criminalize the BDS (boycott/divestment/sanctions) campaign supporting Palestinian rights. The looming explosion of the virus in Gaza is an indictment of the so-called “international community” that deserves close attention in its own right.

In the present terrifying global circumstances, the deliberate destruction by sanctions of whole nations’ economies and health infrastructure is not only an attack against the peoples of those countries. It will have a horrific blowback effect on the entire international struggle against a deadly pandemic. The phrase “crime against humanity” has never been more apt.

NYC Teachers Struggle to Educate Online
Bosses and Union Leaders Make It Harder

Marian Swerdlow

Citing the Covid-19 pandemic, NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio proposes over $221 million in NYC education cuts, including pre-K and school budgets (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

By March 8, it was obvious there was widespread community transmission throughout New York City. Teachers on social media and local elected officials were calling for the schools to be closed, but Mayor de Blasio refused to close the schools, saying not a single student had shown symptoms. Some teachers began calling in sick.

Momentum for closure grew over the weekend of March 14-15: plans for an organized sick out on Monday and/or Wednesday were taking shape on social media, active United Federation of Teachers (UFT) members received an email from their President, Michael Mulgrew, saying he had urged the Mayor to close schools, asking them to call or tweet at the Mayor. On Sunday, March 15, the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), a UFT members’ organization, held a video conference call to organize a sick out. 430 people participated. That evening, Governor Cuomo ordered NYC schools to close.

More than one million students attend New York City public schools K to 12, in somewhere between 1,500 and two thousand schools. The UFT has been led by the highly bureaucratized Unity Caucus for the 50 years of its existence, and Mulgrew has been its president for over a decade.

Besides teachers, the UFT represents paraprofessionals, secretaries, counselors and a handful of other titles, a total of more than 100,000 members in the Department of Education (DOE). Aides and food workers are represented by a local of AFSCME DC 37, safety officers by an IBT local, and maintenance workers by at least two other unions.

The governor’s announcement was followed by some confusion, but it was finally decided that students would stop attending school immediately, but staff would report Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, ostensibly so teachers could be trained in remote learning and set up their virtual classrooms. Principals, given little guidance, followed their instincts, and some of them were very bad. Finding themselves on “unchartered territory” unaddressed by the contract, they came down hard on teachers.

In at least one high school, the principal forced teachers to set up their virtual classrooms in one rigid format, and give both the teacher’s Assistant Principal (AP) and the Principal the ability to watch all teachers’ every interaction with students, and even the power to change them, without the teacher’s knowledge. All parental contact had either to be electronically shared with, or sent in a log to, the AP.

One teacher even heard that the Superintendent would make the tenure decision for teachers eligible for it based on his (unseen) observation of their remote teaching. Procedures were set up to hold teachers accountable for their students “signing up” for their virtual classes, even though most of the school’s students are low income, very likely to lack home devices and/or Internet access.

Many other administrators demoralized their staffs, imposing duplicative procedures for reporting both teacher and student attendance, or trying to create regular bell schedules, despite an agreement between the UFT and the CSA, the bosses’ bargaining association, that those are inappropriate for remote learning. Some administrators required the video recording of all student conferences, sending teachers reminders they see exactly when each teacher “enters” a “classroom.”

Instruction in these new ways of teaching was haphazard, disorganized and frustrating, as one Math Teacher described: “First we were told to learn Google Classroom and Zoom. Many of us had never used these before. Then, after we became accustomed to Zoom, DOE said we were no longer allowed to use it.”

In the same vein, a Special Ed Teacher wrote, “I think we’ve all done an amazing job with what we’ve had. But the lack of practical, useful, workable, guidance from the top has been infuriating.” Another teacher reports: “Google Classroom is overrated. Some images and/or text worksheets transfer well while others do not.”

A major problem is that as many as one-third of all NYC public school students have no access to devices or Internet. From a Social Studies Teacher: “Students are supposed to be receiving tech/iPads/Chromebooks the first week. This means that some students are already a full week behind or more.”

A Science Teacher says, “I have no idea what students have or don’t have a tablet/laptop or Internet access to do work.” From an English as a New Language (ENL) Teacher: “A large group of students don’t have laptops, wifi, have to share laptops with their siblings and even have to learn how to use the computer because the only device they ever used was their phone. So our teachers are doing a tremendous job contacting the parents, students to help them apply for the device DOE promised to deliver to them, probably by the end of the quarantine and walking them through the steps how to sign up for Google Classroom, etc.”

A similar problem from another teacher: “Students are not all computer literate.” Another teacher agreed, “Some students do not know how to use these platforms for online learning.”

In what may be a related problem, many students have just checked out. An English Teacher reports their students show a “complete disregard for assignments.” A Science Teacher deplores that “it is impossible to get 100% participation. I have kids who sign on and do no work.” Another Science Teacher worries that “I have students that have not completed any work.”

Distance learning is less efficient or effective. It leads to additional student questions and problems that are harder for teachers to address than in the classroom: A teacher reports he receives “endless technical and assignment-related questions that could be answered with a simple Google search.”

A Math Teacher says, “What can be accomplished in a real classroom in five minutes may need 15 minutes plus another 15 minutes preparing.”

A Special Ed Teacher said, “I spent an hour outside of the typical live availability that I offer each of my classes, walking a student through what would otherwise be a 5 minute task. This wasn’t even an instructional task…”

A Math Teacher concurred: “Now we need to call more students and spend more time to prepare for lessons. It is more time consuming and more demented.”

A Special Ed Teacher reported “I got 43 emails in 2 hours while I was doing ‘live’ availability for students.”

The work day has gotten longer. Teachers are on call 24/7. An English Teacher reports, “a barrage of work coming in at all the times of the day and night. I’m essentially working a 12-hour day with very few resources and support.”

A Biology Teacher says “I have kids sending me work at night and on weekends.” Another teacher reports, “Many of my students complete work as late as 3 or 4 a.m., and when I try to get in touch with them during my hours, 8 to 3 p.m., I cannot.”

Many teachers are doing two full-time jobs: parenting and teaching. One says, “I am working at home as a teacher and at the same time I need to take care of my three boys, whose school is also closed. I am exhausted at the end of every day.”

Another teacher said, “In the midst of preparing lessons for my students, I find my own children sometimes crying because their world has turned upside down.” Wrote one, “The continual shifting focus and switching ‘hats’ between teacher, counselor, tech support, and parent has been mentally so exhausting and mentally straining that I have sought mental health services.”

The bosses mostly make things worse. A Science Teacher wrote, “The administration is coming down on the Assistant Principals, complaining that we teachers are not doing enough. No one knows, and no one is guiding us, as to how much work is acceptable and how much to give. We can’t get any information as to how grades are going to be given. The administration is more worried about keeping tabs on teacher attendance and the hours we are online than in whether actual learning is taking place.”

Another Science Teacher agreed, “They want us calling houses and logging that and maintaining Google Classroom and recording grades online AND attendance.”

An English Teacher says that their administration sends an “overload of emails that are not helpful or pertinent to the actual needs of students and staff; its decision-making is not transparent and communicated last minute and it is micromanaging teacher practice.”

One chapter leader said that districts seem to be competing with each other to see who can utilize the most sophisticated — and most complex and burdensome — Internet platforms.

In at least one school, teachers have stood together and refused to grant administrators access to their Google Classrooms.

Additionally, some key questions remain. Can IEPs (the “Individualized Education Plan” customized for each Special Education student) truly be honored in a remote setting? How will observations be conducted and should they be conducted at all? How will teacher ratings for the year be determined? What will happen to teachers who were up for tenure this year?

All the UFT leadership has done in reply to these questions is write that they will be speaking to the DOE about these matters. The evening before virtual teaching began, President Mulgrew sent all teachers an email that began:

Tomorrow is not going to be easy. Like anything we try for the first time, we will sometimes stumble and make missteps. And always, when we are most counting on our technology to function, there will be glitches. Stay calm and centered, and be patient with both your students and yourselves. We will gradually get better at performing our work remotely as we learn from our mistakes and build on our successes. Remember that your students are feeling great anxiety and stress, too, and what they need most from you now is a sense of calm, stability and support.

The union is working hard with the Department of Education to get it to rein in principals who want to micromanage their staff. That kind of an attitude is so wrongheaded. Now is a time when we must trust each other that we all have the best interests of our students at heart. But if your administration is unduly intrusive or demanding this week, please tell your chapter leader so we can seek to resolve it quickly.

After so much stress, teachers were greatly looking forward to the annual spring break, from April 9 to April 18. Then, Governor Cuomo announced there would be no spring break: he was cancelling it by Executive Order. Adding insult to injury, Mulgrew emailed all members, supporting the Governor’s decision, saying

Governor Cuomo believes public schools can play a critical role in keeping kids engaged in learning at home during this pivotal period so the virus does not have the opportunity to spread more widely in our communities. That is why he is using the emergency powers that he legally has to keep schools open during spring breaks throughout the state.

However, he reassured members that April 9th and 10th, Passover and Good Friday, would be non-instructional days. But by the end of the week, Mayor de Blasio announced instruction would take place on April 9th and 10th as well.

Although Mulgrew made little grunting noises of protest, with this last injury, teachers’ dissatisfaction with their union leadership seemed to reach a tipping point. Commented one, “In the end, though, it has been the union leadership’s lack of support that has been the toughest to stomach. We’re still waiting for retro pay we earned from work we did 10 years ago, and now the governor can unilaterally decide we’re working through the spring break, and the union won’t talk to the DOE about compensation until we’re back in the building?! By then, it’s done. What goes next? Weekends? The summer? Teachers will ‘step up’ as Mulgrew said because they have no choice.”

A Science Teacher complained, “Many feel the union is not doing enough to protect our rights as granted by our contract and are worried if the contract is already being violated, what to stop them from doing more? Many of us are afraid we will lose summer, our May raise, and final October retro payment.”

An ENL Teacher wrote, “I didn’t like the way union handled the whole situation, basically their response came down to, ‘be quiet, be thankful you still have a job, there’s nothing we can change now, blah-blah-blah.’”

In light of these intertwined crises, the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) caucus has been trying to pivot from mainly supporting progressive social justice causes of other groups like students and communities, to include organizing teachers.

This is a difficult moment to do this, because face-to-face discussions aren’t part of the workday now. Few, if any chapters, have ever held virtual meetings. Although chapter leaders, who are elected by their schools, have most members’ contact information, most chapter leaders belong to the Unity Caucus and will toe the Mulgrew line.

Still, MORE is working on a campaign to protect probationary teachers from getting terminated for failing to show adequate growth, arguing the shortened classroom year and the switch to a new form of teaching denied them the same chance to show development as they would have had in a normal year.

MORE is organizing teachers to file grievances, as groups where possible, to get DOE not to count the absences of members for the three days of setting up virtual learning after classes were cancelled, and to give those teachers who did attend during those days additional days in their reserve of paid absences, because the DOE failed to provide safe working conditions during those days.

It has emerged that during that week school officials were withholding information about colleagues who tested positive for Covid-19 from staff at their schools. By the second week in April, it was reported on local public radio that around 25 teachers have Covid-19. MORE has also called upon chapters to organize work slowdowns on what should have been spring break.

Finally, MORE is organizing a growing sentiment that the UFT needs to negotiate a new Memorandum of Agreement to govern working conditions in this new setting, instead of fabricating new rules as they go along, and that this should be subject to a membership referendum like any MOA.

The union leadership has implicitly acknowledged they have no de facto contract: when chapter leaders log on to the union website portal where they submit step 1 grievances, they get this message: “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the online grievance process is suspended. You are encouraged to attempt informal resolutions in the meantime.” Just as everything else has gone online, grievances have gone off line, and, as far as the union bureaucracy is concerned, have disappeared.

Meanwhile, the annual budget process was playing out in a “social distanced” state capital, which led the legislature to completely abdicate its budgeting powers and pass a bill giving Governor Cuomo full powers to allocate state funds unilaterally.

Even before the pandemic, Cuomo had been talking about cutting state funds for Medicaid and freezing school funds at their already inadequate levels. Given inflation and growing enrollments, this amounts to cuts. Now, he has carte blanche, and layoffs of education workers cannot be ruled out.

Teachers have many immediate hurdles, hardships and anxieties. On the horizon are possible layoffs. But they are also aware that in the emergency, hurried accommodations have opened the door for permanent changes, not only the surveillance, but an increase of online learning.

Of course, in the public schools, this won’t take the form of learning from home: for lower grades, schools provide day care for working parents, an important contribution to social reproduction of capitalism. The upper grades perform a social order function, keeping kids “off the streets and out of trouble.”

No, it would take the form of rooms full of kids on screens, with a semi-professional monitoring them: deskilling of teachers. And in NYC, this looms in the context of a union leadership that shows far more interest in “working hard” to seek accommodation with the boss, than in organizing members to protect their interests as workers and as educators.

Marian Swerdlow is a retired NYC teacher and UFT chapter leader.

The Coronavirus Strikes and their Significance, So Far

Dan La Botz

100 workers walk out of the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island on March 28, 2020

Across the United States we are seeing workers walk off the job in wildcat strikes in response to the employers’ failure either to shut down the workplace or to make it safe. The strikes are too few to call them a strike wave, but we should be aware that on their own initiative workers are taking what practically is the most powerful action they can: withdrawing their labor. The strikes are taking place in both the private and public sector, in both unionized and non-union workplaces large and small.

For 150 years workers have struck over safety and health in myriad industries, most memorably in the twentieth century the miners’ strike over black lung. But we have not seen anything exactly like this before, wildcat strikes over health and safety in response to an epidemic, with workers making strong demands on the employers and sometimes winning. And these strikes are taking place in the midst of politicians’ ignorant and sometimes deceitful statements and government failures at all levels, consequently these strikes — even when only directed at a particular employer — have not only an economic but also a political character.

We’re now seeing such strikes in a variety of industries in several states.

  • Declaring that their workplaces were not safe, Fiat-Chrysler workers “pulled wildcat work stoppages at Fiat-Chrysler’s Sterling Heights Assembly Plant (SHAP) in Michigan” in mid-March while workers also walked off the job at Fiat-Chrysler’s Windsor Assembly Plant in Ontario, pressure the big three auto companies (Ford, GM, and Fiat-Chrysler) to shut down the plants.
  • After a coworker’s wife tested positive and the worker had been put in quarantine, in Pittsburgh sanitation workers stopped work on March 25, parked trucks, and blocked entrances to their workplaces demanding masks, better gloves, and a second pair of work boots. The union denied that a strike had taken place and attributed the walkout to a misunderstanding.
  • Workers at the Purdue chicken processing plant in Kathleen, Georgia walked off the job on March 23 demanding that the plant be sanitized. “We’re not getting nothing — no type of compensation, no nothing, not even no cleanliness, no extra pay — no nothing. We’re up here risking our life for chicken,” said Kendaliyn Granville.
  • At General Dynamics’ Bath Iron Works shipyard on the Kennebec River in Bath, Maine, half of the plant’s 6,800 workers refused to show up for work on March 24 after the company revealed that a worker had tested positive for coronavirus. While it is not clear that the union organized the stay-home, the union officers have asked that the shipyard be closed and employees be allowed to go home with pay.
  • A group of mostly African-American workers, members of Teamsters Local 667, went on a wildcat strike at a Kroger grocery warehouse in Memphis on March 27, after a co-worker tested positive for Covid-19. “We really in a hazardous situation and we scared,” Maurice Wiggins, a forklift driver told the press. “Half the workers have gone home. They scared for their safety. The ones that is here, they so tense they scared to touch the equipment.”
  • At the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, about 100 workers, out of a workforce of 2,500, walked off the job on March 30, after a fellow workers tested positive for corona virus. They demanded that the company clean the facility and make it safe.
  • Apparently no workplace is too small for a strike or a sit-in. On March 21, at Crush Bar and the connected Woody’s Cafe and Tavern In Portland, Oregon, 12 workers occupied the premises to protest the layoff of the entire staff of 27. Asked why they sat-in rather than pursue their pay demands through legal channels, Hannah Gioia said, “We do not predict that we can wait out a government agency’s abilities to process this charge. We need resources now,” she said. “Getting laid off is already devastating, but during a public health crisis it’s catastrophic. We are out of options, and we expect this owner to do what is legally required and what is right by us.”

Surely there must be other such strikes and sit-ins that haven’t been covered by the press, and we know there are many other protests by all sorts of workers, particularly important among them teachers and nurses, though we do not include those in this discussion, important as they are. The wildcat strike holds a particular place in the history and theory of the labor movement, as well as today reaction to the bosses and the government during the coronavirus pandemic.

We notice that these strikes involve are both highly skilled and highly paid workers — such as those at the General Dynamics’ Bath shipyard — and also lower paid workers such as those at the Purdue chicken processing plant in Georgia and the bar and restaurant in Portland, Oregon. One can make the case that black workers — Pittsburgh sanitation, Kathleen, Ga., Purdue chick, and Memphis, Teamsters — play a leading role in the strikes. Yet workers at Bath shipyard are overwhelmingly white, while autoworkers are black, Arab, white. No doubt workers of all genders can be found in these protest, and we hear both men and women giving voice to the workers’ concerns. While the central demands are about workers’ health, we can see that already they begin to raise demands about wages, benefits, and working conditions, as well as job security.

What is most extraordinary about these actions is that union officials have not called them. In some cases there is no union. In other cases, such as auto, there is a union and workers are forced to strike against it as well as the company. In certain cases such as the Bath shipyard, it seems that union officials may have tacitly supported the workers’ walkouts, though the situation is unclear. Sometimes these unofficial strikes violate a union’s contractual non-strike provisions or in the case of public employees such walkouts may also violate the law. Yet workers have organized themselves to carry them out with few resources beyond social media and traditional word-of-mouth, in order to protect their health and to save their jobs.

The Two Sides of the Wildcat

Wildcat strikes can be looked upon from two sides. The wildcat strike usually erupts either because there is no union or the union’s leaders have failed to provide leadership to fight the boss. Leftists have sometimes romanticized the wildcat as the authentic expression of the workers’ will, an act that developed spontaneously out of the workers’ resistance to the boss. Some see it as the harbinger of the general strike that will overthrow capitalism and bring the workers to power. At the same time, one has to recognize that workers had to go on a wildcat strike because they hadn’t taken control of their union and couldn’t use the union as the expression of their power. The wildcat is both an expression of workers’ direct power at the point of production, but also a demonstration of their failure — because of the power of the bosses and the labor bureaucracy — to build a democratically controlled union that could express their will.

When workers recognize this, at least in a period of social upheaval, they have in the past sometimes attempted to take power in their unions and turn them into fighting organizations. Wildcat strikes then can become the source of energy that fuels rank-and-file movements, as has been the case in heavy industry of more than century and among public employees for 75 years. The great advance of American workers in the 1930s that led to the founding of the Congress to Industrial Organizations (CIO) and a vast expansion of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) derived from just such wildcat strikes in the rubber plants, the auto industry, among electrical workers and many others. Workers walked out by the thousands, some occupied their plants, while others created mass picket lines, fought scabs and police. Wildcat strikes spread during the depression decade like a virus through the United States, drawing in small industrial shops and retail workers. A similar thing happened in the 1960s and 1970s with teachers and public employees who walked out in illegal strikes to found their unions. Rank-and-file upheavals also transformed the United Mine Workers in the 1970s and shook up other unions as well.

The coronavirus that precipitated the current recession (likely to become a second Great Depression) has become the cause of conflicts between the employers who fight to preserve their businesses and profits and the workers who fight for their health and their lives, for their jobs and their standard of living. We can expect these strikes to continue as the “essential workers,” as their being called, feel their power. As the pandemic — which we should remember is is just now beginning to take off in the United States — expands and as the depth of the economic crisis and its long-term impact becomes clear, the strikes will take on other forms that we cannot foresee.

But we should remember that unemployment, which some see reaching 20 or 25 percent of the workforce, could become a damper on such actions. Historically the rise of unemployment as in 1975 and 1980 has acted to slow or even stop struggles from below such as we are discussing here. Still, if wildcat strikes continue and grow they could propel new rank-and-file movements that rise to seize the leadership of the union and to turn them into fighting organizations of the working class. If that happens on a massive scale, we enter a new era where many other possibilities could appear on the horizon, most important the possibility of independent political action or a working class political party. We should keep our eyes on these wildcat strike movements, support them, hope that they spread and grow, offer our solidarity, and hope that they become movements to democratize the unions and turn them into class struggle organizations fighting for both economic ad political power.

This article appeared on the New Politics website on March 31, 2020 here.

COVID-19: The monster is
finally at the door

Mike Davis

COVID-19 is finally the monster at the door. Researchers are working night and day to characterize the outbreak but they are faced with three huge challenges.

First the continuing shortage or unavailability of test kits has vanquished all hope of containment. Moreover it is preventing accurate estimates of key parameters such as reproduction rate, size of infected population and number of benign infections. The result is a chaos of numbers.

Photo: AP Photo/Kathy Willens. Nurses stand on a hill outside the emergency entrance to Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx borough of New York, Saturday, March 28, 2020

There is, however, more reliable data on the virus’s impact on certain groups in a few countries. It is very scary. Italy and Britain, for example, are reporting a much higher death rate among those over 65. The ‘corona flu’ that Trump waves off is an unprecedented danger to geriatric populations, with a potential death toll in the millions.

Second, like annual influenzas, this virus is mutating as it courses through populations with different age compositions and acquired immunities. The variety that Americans are most likely to get is already slightly different from that of the original outbreak in Wuhan. Further mutation could be trivial or could alter the current distribution of virulence which ascends with age, with babies and small children showing scant risk of serious infection while octogenarians face mortal danger from viral pneumonia.

Third, even if the virus remains stable and little mutated, its impact on under-65 age cohorts can differ radically in poor countries and amongst high poverty groups. Consider the global experience of the Spanish flu in 1918-19 which is estimated to have killed 1 to 2 per cent of humanity. In contrast to the corona virus, it was most deadly to young adults and this has often been explained as a result of their relatively stronger immune systems which overreacted to infection by unleashing deadly ‘cytokine storms’ against lung cells. The original H1N1 notoriously found a favored niche in army camps and battlefield trenches where it scythed down young soldiers down by the tens of thousands. The collapse of the great German spring offensive of 1918, and thus the outcome of the war, has been attributed to the fact that the Allies, in contrast to their enemy, could replenish their sick armies with newly arrived American troops.

It is rarely appreciated, however, that fully 60 per cent of global mortality occurred in western India where grain exports to Britain and brutal requisitioning practices coincided with a major drought. Resultant food shortages drove millions of poor people to the edge of starvation. They became victims of a sinister synergy between malnutrition, which suppressed their immune response to infection, and rampant bacterial and viral pneumonia. In another case, British-occupied Iran, several years of drought, cholera, and food shortages, followed by a widespread malaria outbreak, preconditioned the death of an estimated fifth of the population.

This history – especially the unknown consequences of interactions with malnutrition and existing infections – should warn us that COVID-19 might take a different and more deadly path in the slums of Africa and South Asia. The danger to the global poor has been almost totally ignored by journalists and Western governments. The only published piece that I’ve seen claims that because the urban population of West Africa is the world’s youngest, the pandemic should have only a mild impact. In light of the 1918 experience, this is a foolish extrapolation. No one knows what will happen over the coming weeks in Lagos, Nairobi, Karachi, or Kolkata. The only certainty is that rich countries and rich classes will focus on saving themselves to the exclusion of international solidarity and medical aid. Walls not vaccines: could there be a more evil template for the future?


A year from now we may look back in admiration at China’s success in containing the pandemic but in horror at the USA’s failure. (I’m making the heroic assumption that China’s declaration of rapidly declining transmission is more or less accurate.) The inability of our institutions to keep Pandora’s Box closed, of course, is hardly a surprise. Since 2000 we’ve repeatedly seen breakdowns in frontline healthcare.

The 2018 flu season, for instance, overwhelmed hospitals across the country, exposing the shocking shortage of hospital beds after twenty years of profit-driven cutbacks of in-patient capacity (the industry’s version of just-in-time inventory management). Private and charity hospital closures and nursing shortages, likewise enforced by market logic, have devastated health services in poorer communities and rural areas, transferring the burden to underfunded public hospitals and VA facilities. ER conditions in such institutions are already unable to cope with seasonal infections, so how will they cope with an imminent overload of critical cases?

We are in the early stages of a medical Katrina. Despite years of warnings about avian flu and other pandemics, inventories of basic emergency equipment such as respirators aren’t sufficient to deal with the expected flood of critical cases. Militant nurses unions in California and other states are making sure that we all understand the grave dangers created by inadequate stockpiles of essential protective supplies like N95 face masks. Even more vulnerable because invisible are the hundreds of thousands of low-wage and overworked homecare workers and nursing home staff.

The nursing home and assisted care industry which warehouses 2.5 million elderly Americans – most of them on Medicare – has long been a national scandal. According to the New York Times, an incredible 380,000 nursing home patients die every year from facilities’ neglect of basic infection control procedures. Many homes – particularly in Southern states – find it cheaper to pay fines for sanitary violations than to hire additional staff and provide them with proper training. Now, as the Seattle example warns, dozens, perhaps hundreds more nursing homes will become coronavirus hotspots and their minimum-wage employees will rationally choose to protect their own families by staying home. In such a case the system could collapse and we shouldn’t expect the National Guard to empty bedpans.

The outbreak has instantly exposed the stark class divide in healthcare: those with good health plans who can also work or teach from home are comfortably isolated provided they follow prudent safeguards. Public employees and other groups of unionized workers with decent coverage will have to make difficult choices between income and protection. Meanwhile millions of low wage service workers, farm employees, uncovered contingent workers, the unemployed and the homeless will be thrown to the wolves. Even if Washington ultimately resolves the testing fiasco and provides adequate numbers of kits, the uninsured will still have to pay doctors or hospitals for administrating the tests. Overall family medical bills will soar at the same time that millions of workers are losing their jobs and their employer-provided insurance. Could there possibly be a stronger, more urgent case in favor of Medicare for All?


But universal coverage is only a first step. It’s disappointing, to say the least, that in the primary debates neither Sanders or Warren has highlighted Big Pharma’s abdication of the research and development of new antibiotics and antivirals. Of the 18 largest pharmaceutical companies, 15 have totally abandoned the field. Heart medicines, addictive tranquilizers and treatments for male impotence are profit leaders, not the defenses against hospital infections, emergent diseases and traditional tropical killers. A universal vaccine for influenza – that is to say, a vaccine that targets the immutable parts of the virus’s surface proteins – has been a possibility for decades but never a profitable priority.

As the antibiotic revolution is rolled back, old diseases will reappear alongside novel infections and hospitals will become charnel houses. Even Trump can opportunistically rail against absurd prescription costs, but we need a bolder vision that looks to break up the drug monopolies and provide for the public production of lifeline medicines. (This used to be the case: during World War Two, the Army enlisted Jonas Salk and other researchers to develop the first flu vaccine.) As I wrote fifteen years ago in my book The Monster at Our Door – The Global Threat of Avian Flu:

Access to lifeline medicines, including vaccines, antibiotics, and antivirals, should be a human right, universally available at no cost. If markets can’t provide incentives to cheaply produce such drugs, then governments and non-profits should take responsibility for their manufacture and distribution. The survival of the poor must at all times be accounted a higher priority than the profits of Big Pharma.

The current pandemic expands the argument: capitalist globalization now appears to be biologically unsustainable in the absence of a truly international public health infrastructure. But such an infrastructure will never exist until peoples’ movements break the power of Big Pharma and for-profit healthcare.

Originally published on March 12, 2020
in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal

An ideological war

Jen Roesch

Amazon workers in NYC revolt over lack of coronavirus safety protections

I believe that there is an ideological war going on right now and that the left needs to be prepared to do battle. In the very first days of this crisis, we saw moratoriums on evictions, expedited unemployment benefits, CA housing the homeless in hotels, and prisoners being released in OH. All of these measures showed that the market, profits and our repressive apparatus are not untouchable. This crisis has opened up questions of profit vs human need in fundamental ways.

But now that many of us are in isolation and the economic consequences are being felt — with unemployment predicted to reach 30% — there is an ideological backlash underway. Trump has said that the price may not be worth it. But he is not the only one. Increasingly, the mainstream media outlets are questioning the measures taken, arguing for more “surgical” approaches, saying that the economy cannot withstand this. This has been combined with confusing information on what it will take to fight the pandemic, if what we are doing will “work,” and how long it will continue.

And we cannot fool ourselves that these appeals will not resonate with people who are suffering and economically terrified right now. This is why a left-wing alternative, with a strong and unified message, is so crucial right now. We need to press it on all fronts. Here are my thoughts on what I think that needs to include:

1. The “economy” and fighting the pandemic are only counterposed if we accept the maintenance of profits, individual wealth and privatized production as inevitable. We have the resources right now to continue to feed and shelter people and meet their basic necessities. This could be met through a “shelter-in wage” for the duration of the crisis while freezing rent, mortgage and all debt payments so that wages are solely devoted to necessities.

All healthcare for the duration of the crisis should be underwritten by the government. Meanwhile, manufacturing and distribution firms should be directed by the government to shift all resources to essentials and to ramping up our medical capacity: protective equipment, hospital beds, testing capacity, ventilators and housing for the mildly ill. Those who are deemed essential should be given hazard pay, enhanced safety protections and enhanced labor rights and regulations to protect themselves.

Ultimately, this is an argument for a sharp curtailing of the powers of the banks and private industry and at least partial nationalization of sectors of the economy. It is the only way to meet the scale of the need. But this can be communicated through concrete demands that can make sense to millions of people in a moment like this.

2. The idea that the pandemic can be addressed “surgically” through measures targeted at “vulnerable” populations is a fantasy. It is out of touch with the reality of working-class life. The elderly (which in the context of the pandemic really means over 60) is not a rich, isolated subgroup of the population. They are raising grandchildren after children have died (remember we have a middle-aged death crisis in this country); well over 10 million senior citizens are still working, many at exhausting, low-wage jobs at a places like Wal-Mart; millions of senior citizens live in poverty, including 17% of Latinos and 19% of African-Americans; and massive numbers of the elderly live in multigenerational households where they are cared for by their working children. There is no way to quarantine this population separately; they are embedded in the fabric of our social and economic lives.

Beyond the elderly, this disease also targets a wide range of vulnerabilities — with obesity, existing respiratory illness, high blood pressure and diabetes topping the list. It is a minority of American households that do not have a member with one of these underlying conditions. We haven&sdquo;t yet seen what this virus does to a population as generally unhealthy as ours.

3. Our response to this crisis has been characterized by half-measures taken too late, then second-guessed, driven by the immediate crises presented by our lack of preparation. This has led to situations where we are told it is “too late” for testing to matter and where healthcare workers are told to ration protective equipment because we will run out.

Too frequently, the administrators and politicians have responded by changing the public health message to match the shortages and deficiencies. This is very dangerous precedent from a public health perspective. Instead, we urgently need to get ahead of this. This requires a non-partisan federal commission of the most knowledgable experts to learn from the international experience and coordinate a federal response. This should include the power to make binding recommendations for production needs.

4. Our social institutions and collective sense of social connection have been eroded by decades of neoliberalism. People&sdquo;s tendency to look out for themselves is often a “rational” response to a situation in which no one guarantees your safety, collective power has declined, and you have only yourself to rely on. We urgently need to rebuild a sense of social responsibility to one another — our lives literally depend on our taking actions that are difficult, but necessary to protect the whole.

As much as we might like, we cannot do this through moralism and exhortations. But we also cannot simply abandon the idea that we are responsible to one another. We do have agency. So we need to rebuild a social fabric from the ground up by looking out for one another, sharing information, providing resources and support.

At the same time, we need to articulate demands that make people see themselves as part of a broader collective. And perhaps most difficult, we have to rebuild some sense of collective power. Examples like the Amazon workers in NYC who fought going to work, or the threatened sickout of teachers, or nurses organizing for protective equipment — we need to amplify and expand these.

I saw Starbucks workers arguing that they should be considered non-essential — how do we support this? The more we can score some wins, the more we can build that collective fabric. But this will be hard and not always win. Part of our ideological battle is winning the argument for solidarity.

We need to be clear that arguments for “getting people back to work quickly” or “not letting the economy fail” are really arguments for letting millions of people die. We also need to be clear that there is no “going back” to the way things were. The question before us is whether our society is rebuilt on our terms or theirs. It is both an opportunity and a danger that we haven&sdquo;t seen in decades.

Jen Roesch is a socialist based in New York City.

Covid-19 pandemic: let’s protect our lives not their profits!

Bureau of the Fourth International

Capitalism obstructs fight against Covid-19 (Illustration of the SARS-CoV-2 virus by Alissa Eckert, Dan Higgins/CDC)

The coronavirus pandemic is a dramatic public health problem and the human suffering caused will be enormous. Already, in Western Europe, health systems are on the edge of asphyxia. If it spreads massively in countries in the Global South whose already weak or very fragile public health systems have been terribly undermined by 40 years of neoliberal policies, deaths will be very high.

It is already the most serious pandemic in a century. The number of deaths due to the so-called Spanish flu of 1918-1919, although difficult to estimate, was considerable, striking above all young adults. Its impact was particularly severe coming on the heels of the First World War. The rapid expansion of the Covid-19 pandemic can be explained in particular by the weakening of popular capacity for resistance caused by the neoliberal order and the rise in precariousness, in a context of the increase in international trade brought about by capitalist globalization, generalized commercialization and the primacy of the law of profit.

This new coronavirus was detected as early as November 2019 in China. The doctors and scientists who tried to raise the alarm were initially repressed and silenced. Had the CCP reacted immediately, the danger of an epidemic might have been nipped in the bud.

The policy of danger denial is not unique to the Chinese regime. Donald Trump in the United States mocked this “foreign virus”. Jair Bolsonaro, with Brazil already immersed in the pandemic, declared that “banning soccer matches is hysteria” and challenged laws and guidelines from health authorities to participate in a demonstration against Justice and Parliament. Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom initially advocated “herd immunization” (allowing the virus to spread so that the epidemic freely reaches its intrinsic limits, when some 70% of the population will be infected). He has had to change this callous and dangerous approach. Sophie Wilmès, Prime Minister of Belgium, for a long time turned a deaf ear to any warning. The French Presidency did not replenish the strategic stocks (protective clothing and products…) as soon as the first cases appeared in January 2020. The governments of the little-affected countries in Eastern Europe are not learning the lessons of the health crisis in the west of the continent. The European Union has not been able to organize the most basic solidarity with hard-hit Italy, even though it does not even produce masks in the country… The main reason for this delay is that governments do not want to jeopardize economic activity and the movement of goods, and to devote only the minimum resources to the protection of populations. The desire to continue with austerity policies in the offensive of capital against labour, the spectre of recession, have been stronger than the preservation of people’s health.

Despite the very rapid progress in medical and scientific research, it is too early to predict the evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus: will it be sensitive to the arrival of good weather in the northern hemisphere and will the disease regress? Will it mutate and if so, will it gain or lose virulence? The spread of the disease from China has been on an east-west axis (including Europe, Iran and the United States), where conditions have been favourable. However, the virus is now present in the South as well, where it could multiply, for example at the next change of season, before returning in force to the North. A vaccine will take time to develop. It would be irresponsible to expect Covid-19 disease to die out naturally in the short term.

The virus is spreading very quickly. The ratio of proven cases of infection to the actual number of people affected is unknown in the absence of routine screening tests but its hazardousness is well established. Mortality of the disease may vary from country to country. It is said to be benign in 80% of cases, serious in 20%, including very serious in 5% and fatal in about 2% of cases. The elderly or the sickest are not the only ones in serious danger. Younger and younger people find themselves in intensive care where the epidemic explodes.

The mainstream media and governments focus on the differences in mortality rates by age, but they are careful not to draw attention to class differences and how mortality due to the coronavirus pandemic will affect human beings according to their income and wealth. Quarantine or access to intensive care when you are 70 years old and poor is not at all the same as when you are rich.

There are no antibodies to the new coronavirus in the population. The treatment of the seriously ill is heavy, requiring state-of-the-art equipment and trained, competent medical staff. Failing this (or if the hospital system is overwhelmed), many curable patients are dying and will die. If drastic measures are not taken, if 4 billion people are infected, 80 million people will die.

The Covid-19 pandemic should therefore be taken very seriously by all progressive militant networks, including our organizations. Wherever the epidemic develops, very firm measures to contain it and to protect the populations must be taken, making this a priority above the functioning of the capitalist economy. For all countries the lessons of the those first affected must be learned in order to prepare for its possible development, and to impose real preventive measures on governments.

Strong preventive plans

In most affected countries, because of a lack of preparedness, governments are managing the shortage, sometimes making a virtue of necessity. Where they exist, preventive plans must be strengthened, and established where they do not.

These plans must prepare for the reorganization of the health system as a whole and the mobilization of all necessary resources in the event of an epidemic, and in particular an immediate increase in the personnel of the health services which are already severely understaffed.

Hospitals have been subjected to successive budget cuts, weakened or even privatized, even though they are one of the pillars in the fight against an epidemic, dealing with heavy care. Private services of care, production of medicines and medical equipment must be requisitioned, under public and social control. The Spanish state government has taken the step of requisitioning private hospital beds.

Strategic stocks of protective clothing, hydro-alcoholic gels and screening kits must be established in priority for health and other essential workers and for the most at-risk sectors of the population.

Preventive plans also include medical and scientific research. Here again, however, due to austerity rationales, research funding has been reduced or cut, particularly for coronaviruses. All private companies working in this field must be nationalized under public and social control.

South Korea has shown the usefulness of mass screening tests for understanding the dynamics of the epidemic and intervening as early as possible. However, budgetary constraints have meant that stocks of these test have not been kept up to date even when they existed, creating dramatic situations. In a situation of shortage, the means of protection must be reserved as a priority for health care personnel, who may nevertheless find themselves under-equipped, and their households.

Living conditions must be guaranteed by suspension of rent, mortgage and utility payments. There must be immediate cessation of all evictions, the establishment of shelters with all the necessary facilities for the homeless, the requisition of empty housing so as not to leave people in insalubrious buildings. Those living on the street cannot self-isolate or be in confinement.

The upcoming economic and social crisis, unleashed by the pandemic but prepared by the accumulation of problems in the capitalist economy, should not be the occasion for a further concentration of wealth and destruction of social rights. Rather, progressive forces have to push for solutions based on the redistribution of resources and based on the common good.

Finally, given the soaring epidemic, very strict measures to limit social contact and travel, and thus drastically reduce economic activity, have had to be taken. Plans must therefore include massive aid to the population in order to prevent the rise of impoverishment and to ensure that no one is left destitute in times of health crisis. This must apply both to wage and independent workers. The costs of these restrictions should be borne by increasing taxes on profits and company income, and on the big fortunes.

The vital importance of social self-organization

We must demand that the authorities take all the necessary measures to protect the health and social welfare of the population, but nothing would be more dangerous than relying on them alone. The independent mobilization of social actors is indispensable.

The labour movement must fight for the cessation of all unnecessary production and transport, to ensure that the maximum health safety conditions are respected in the essential workplaces, and that workers’ incomes and contracts be fully maintained in the event of total or partial unemployment. Already strikes have taken place demanding that that workplaces devoted to inessential production, such as cars, be shut down for example in Mercedes Benz, Vitoria in the Basque country. Elsewhere essential workers, in hospitals in France or rubbish collection in Scotland, have taken action to demand better safety conditions.

Local organizations have an essential role to play on many levels. They help to break the isolation in which people can find themselves, notably women, who are likely to find themselves obliged to take on an even heavier burden of domestic and childcare duties during periods of confinement. By combating racism, xenophobia, LGBT+phobia they can make sure that precarious, migrant, undocumented and discriminated minorities are not excluded from the protections to which they are entitled. They can help women for whom confinement means a deadly lock-up with a violent spouse. They can ensure that daily gestures of “social distancing” are respected.

Many instances of grassroots organization at the level of a neighbourhood, a block of flats, with those proposing to help and those needing help (elderly, disabled, in quarantine) making contact, often for the first time, exist in different countries, in Britain, in the Netherlands, in France. In Italy, alongside the practical help, communities have come together to break social isolation and show solidarity through mass singalongs from their balconies.

Social movements must be able to rely on independent medical and scientific expertise to know which measures are effective and indispensable, and encourage international exchange. Doctors and researchers must engage with them.

Finally, the self-activity of the social movement is an irreplaceable democratic guarantee. The authoritarianism of the powers can be reinforced in times of health emergencies, in the name of efficiency. The broadest possible unitary mobilization front must be opposed to this dominant trend.

A global crisis of capitalist society

A pandemic represents a major test for a society. The situation in Lombardy, in northern Italy, is a dramatic illustration of what happens to the dominant order. Lombardy is one of the richest regions in Europe with one of the best hospital systems. This has nevertheless been weakened by neoliberal policies. It is now drowned by the flood of seriously ill patients, to the point that the Association of Anaesthetists in Resuscitation has given the order to sort out patients and to treat only those with the greatest life expectancy, leaving the others to die.

This is not a one-off situation, such as when first-aid workers have to decide after an accident with multiple victims who to treat first, but a systemic failure that could have been avoided if health policy had been different. In peacetime, shortages are making it necessary to use war medicine in which one gives up trying to save everyone! This is a terrible breakdown of solidarity that is taking place in one of the world’s most economically and health-developed regions – and which may happen elsewhere in Europe tomorrow.

A clear condemnation of the dominant capitalist order

The question is not whether the Covid-19 pandemic will “normalize” itself tomorrow, but at the cost of how many deaths, how much social upheaval. This is a recurring question, because we are living in a time of the return of major epidemics (SARS, AIDS, H1N1, Zika, Ebola…). The chronic state of health crisis is today combined with the global ecological crisis (global warming is one of the facets), the permanent state of war, the instability of neoliberal globalization and the financialization of capital, the debt crisis, the rise of precariousness and the disintegration of the social fabric, the rise of increasingly authoritarian regimes, discrimination, racism and xenophobia…

Fighting the health crisis requires concretely fighting the dictatorship of transnationals and pharmaceutical lobbies or agro-industry by opposing peasant agro-ecology and agro-forestry that allows the reconstitution of balanced ecosystems. It requires imposing an urban reform to put an end to unhealthy megacities. In general, counterposing to the logic of profit that of free care: any sick person must be treated free of charge, whatever their social status… Our lives are worth more than their profits.

Ecosocialism represents the alternative to this global crisis of capitalist society. The response to the health crisis should be mobilization in convergence with the other fields of struggle to achieve this alternative. Such a convergence of ecosocialist, feminist, workers’ struggles must have as its goal getting rid of the capitalist system that is killing us and the planet and build a new society.

Executive Bureau of the Fourth International
March 17, 2020

This article appeared on the International Viewpoint website on March 18, 2020 here

Epidemics, working-class self-organization and socialism

K Mann

1946 Oakland general strike

The COVD-19 pandemic and the attendant economic crisis raise big-picture questions of great importance to socialists. Disasters, natural, human-made or a combination of both, such as wars, famines, economic depressions and epidemics, often trigger great political and social crises affecting all areas of life. This brief article offers reflections on the ways that crises have raised the question of the relationship between self-organization and socialism.

Sudden crises lay bare the great contradictions of class society and create both the necessity and the opportunity for the self-organization of daily life. More rarely, they lay the groundwork for revolutionary situations in which the question of Who rules society? is posed. As Lenin explained,

It is only when the “lower classes” do not want to live in the old way and the “upper classes” cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph. This truth can be expressed in other words: revolution is impossible without a nation-wide crisis (affecting both the exploited and the exploiters). “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder

It is often some dramatic event like a sharp increase in food prices, as was the case in France in 1789, military defeat and the possibility of occupation, as in Paris in 1871, or the combined effects of the ravages of war and famine, as in Russia in 1917, that sparks political crises that lead to revolutionary situations. The state as a provider of basic services evaporates in more and more corners of social life, although certainly not as a repressive force.

During times of crisis, ordinary people often step up and provide the essential services that the state no longer provides. They draw on their creativity, occupational skills, work and community ties, and their unions and other organizations to create social structures of a profoundly democratic nature.

In revolutionary situations, popular councils, such as the soviets that arose in Russia in 1917, compete with the “official” government for power. This “dual power” is highly unstable and is resolved quickly in favor of one side or the other. Revolutions succeed when the insurgency represented by the new organs of popular power prevails. When the old regime prevails, counter-revolution ensues.

Workers Self-Organization

It doesn’t take a full-blown revolutionary situation, however, to unleash the capacity of ordinary working people to self-organize. During mass and general strikes entailing the suspension of daily social services, workers themselves organize to assure the functioning of essential social services.

During the Seattle general strike of 1919, for example, workers assured the functioning of daily life. They formed a general strike committee that labor historian Jeremy Brecher called “a virtual counter government for the city.” Food distribution was established, dairy drivers organized milk distribution, and recently demobilized soldiers who had fought in World War I organized a “Labor War Veteran’s Guard” to assure public safety. See Srike! (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2014).

During the mass strikes that took place in Oakland in 1946, in the context of the mass strike wave that occurred in the US after World War II, social services evaporated. Strikers and workers took control of the city and organized basic services. The following account gives a glimpse of both the ways workers organized daily life in the city for the duration of the strike and the atmosphere of joyful liberation that permeated the city.

By nightfall on the 3rd the strikers had instructed all stores except pharmacies and food markets to shut down, Bars were allowed to stay open, but they could serve only beer and had to put their juke boxes out on the sidewalk to play at full volume and no charge. ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama, Lay That Pistol Down’, the number one hit, echoed off all the buildings. That first 24-hour period of the 54-hour strike had a carnival spirit. A mass of couples danced in the streets. The participants were making history, knew it, and were having fun. By Tuesday morning they had cordoned off the central city and were directing traffic. Anyone could leave, but only those with passports (union cards) could get in.

The comment made by a prominent national network newscaster, that ‘Oakland is a ghost town tonight,’ was a contribution to ignorance. Never before or since had Oakland been so alive and happy for the majority of the population. It was a town of law and order. In that city of over a quarter million, strangers passed each other on the street and did not have fear, but the opposite.

Experienced labor and socialist organizers play outsized roles in these situations, providing leadership and promoting broad and democratic decision-making in mass forums.

It is unlikely that the current coronavirus crisis could lead to a total breakdown of public services, utilities and food distribution in the U.S. But disruptions of daily life and the very real possibility of outbreaks that temporarily overwhelm hospitals and health services, at least locally, could stimulate forms of popular self-organization, such as child care, food banks, transportation and clinics, as well as forums where public issues are discussed, debated and voted on. We are already seeing the beginning of this in the form of mutual aid efforts like those formed to organize shopping for elderly people and those with compromised immune systems.

The experience of ordinary working people stepping to the fore and running society can leave an indelible mark on mass consciousness. The powerful logic of collective solutions to social problems will challenge the deeply ingrained notions of bourgeois individualism, the bedrock of capital’s cultural hegemony.

Ideas like nationalizations that seemed impossibly radical one day appear reasonable, possible, even essential the next. Trotsky noted that during the period of breakdown and revolution in Russia in 1917, mass working-class consciousness made huge leaps and bounds in a revolutionary direction in a remarkably short period.

As capitalist governments display their inability to handle deep crises in the interests of all, and workers organize to fill the breach, the genie gets out of the bottle. The “fantasy” of socialism based on truly popular democracy becomes an obvious possibility and even necessity to millions of people.

In the current situation, the contradictions and absurdities of a healthcare system only for some, and an economy that only works for the 1%, will become more evident in the eyes of larger and larger sections of the population. As sick people are denied healthcare, employers resist paying laid-off workers, and landlords demand rents, anti-capitalist measures such as forcing recalcitrant employers to pay wages, converting rental properties to housing coops, canceling debt, and nationalizing airlines, banks and other industries under worker and consumer control will find a broad echo.

Socially communicable epidemics like the coronavirus by nature pose a special challenge to mass democratic action. Mass action involving close physical contact, such as public demonstrations and picket lines, are of course out of the question for the moment. But the same global processes and technological that accelerate pandemics also provide means for virtual interaction, which can provide safe and highly democratic forums for debate and organization. As the pandemic recedes, traditional forms of self-organization will become available again.

The history of popular struggles is that of the creativity of the producers and the oppressed. As working people organize in the face of disaster, collective experiences like those we are beginning to see give glimpses of what socialism could be and the way to get there. In this way, a new and better world is being born within this rotten old one.

K Mann is an activist and Solidarity member living in Milwaukee.