A people’s response to Covid-19

We place no confidence in the anti-science, climate-change deniers of the Trump administration, the pathetically inadequate for-profit U.S. health care system, or Big Pharma and Wall Street to address the Covid-19 (novel coronavirus) crisis. The truth is that only a socialized health care system that provides equal access and quality care for all, regardless of ability to pay or immigration status, can address this situation, which is causing fear and anxiety for millions of people. 

The Affordable Care Act of 2010 actually imposes financial penalties on those unable to afford health insurance; an estimated 27 million people still have no coverage. That’s not counting the millions more undocumented workers, and those whose coverage is so minimal as to be useless. The infrastructure required to contain and treat outbreaks such as Covid-19 exists in countries like China and Cuba, but is sorely lacking in the United States, the richest country in the world, where the disparity of rich and poor is also greatest.

In New York, workers at Chipotle restaurants have held picket lines and walkouts to protest the company’s refusal to honor sick days. In Ohio, police in riot gear attacked University of Dayton students with tear gas and pepper balls on March 11, when they protested being abruptly evicted from student housing as the college shut down. Housing activists in Boston rallied on March 12 to demand a moratorium on evictions.

In Baltimore, community organizations led by the Peoples Power Assembly held a news conference and rally on March 7 to outline a people’s response to the Covid-19 crisis and demand action from city officials to protect the poorest and most vulnerable. Two days later in New Orleans, activists from the Hospitality Workers Alliance disrupted a mayoral press event, demanding that workers be provided with paid sick leave, health insurance and free testing for the virus.

In Chicago, Augusta, Ga., and several California cities, National Nurses United held rallies at hospitals on March 11 to protest new CDC recommendations rolling back protections for health workers and patients.

Given the potentially life-or-death consequences, it’s no wonder that workers, students and communities are starting to take action across the country. What is urgently needed is to unite these local initiatives into a broad national movement whose demands address all the urgent needs of the workers and oppressed.

Can’t wait for November elections to respond

For an effective response to Covid-19 to succeed, it must involve the leadership of health care workers and members of the affected communities at all levels. The response to the Covid-19 crisis cannot wait for the outcome of the November elections.

As workers, organized and unorganized, unemployed and underemployed, Black, Latinx, Asian, Arab, Indigenous and white, undocumented people, women, LGBTQ2S people, students and youth, prisoners, homeless and disabled people, we must apply all forms of pressure to force the government to take the necessary measures for control and treatment of Covid-19, while ensuring that anti-Asian racism, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination against our communities or attacks on other countries are not substitued for real solutions. 

If the government fails to respond, what can be done? We must be prepared to take direct action to protect our class and communities, including taking over health care and other facilities in cooperation with health care workers and their unions, requisitioning medications and supplies, distributing food stores, and imposing a moratorium on rent and layoffs.

We must demand that all candidates for the U.S. presidency and other elected offices, as well as current elected officials, take a clear position. In particular, Bernie Sanders, who advocates Medicare for all, and the Sanders 2020 campaign, which has the most progressive stance on health care of all the Democratic and Republican campaigns, should be encouraged to participate on this question. 

  • We will not allow local, state or national “emergency declarations” to be used as an excuse for repression: for banning protests and strikes; nor for increasing the police occupation of Black and Brown communities; for jailing or deporting immigrants; or for the deployment of the National Guard or other military forces to prevent “looting,” that is, the liberation of the necessities of life and health from profiteers.
  • We demand that the U.S. government institute cooperation and assistance to other countries fighting the spread of Covid-19. We have seen how the Trump administration used the outbreak in Wuhan to score political points against China while sitting on its hands and doing nothing to assist in stopping the spread of the virus either here or abroad. This is unacceptable. The Covid-19 crisis is an international crisis and solving it requires international cooperation. 
  • Iran is suffering a severe outbreak and its efforts are being hampered by U.S.-imposed economic sanctions. All U.S. sanctions and blockades against other countries must be ended, including against Cuba, whose exemplary health care system and popular mobilizations in response to natural disasters are recognized as some of the best in the world.
  • In December 2019, the U.S. Congress, including most representatives and senators of both the Republican and Democratic parties, voted to give President Trump a $130-billion budget increase for the Pentagon. We demand that this money be rerouted from the bloated U.S. war machine to the international effort to stop the Covid-19 crisis and to create the infrastructure to deal with future pandemics. The many university research and development programs that operate in cooperation with the U.S. military industry should be repurposed for prevention and treatment of Covid-19, to save lives now and to improve the response to outbreaks in the future. 
  • Before President Trump silenced health officials and abruptly subordinated them to Vice President Mike Pence on Feb. 26, the Centers for Disease Control issued some advice to the public concerning Covid-19. One was for people to stock up on at least 2 to 3 weeks’ worth of nonperishable food items in case of a Covid-19 outbreak. But how many of us can afford to do that? More than three-quarters of U.S. workers live paycheck to paycheck, while a significant share of U.S. households would not be able to pay for an unexpected $400 emergency. Outrageously, this “advice” was given as the Agriculture Department is poised to deny SNAP benefits (food stamps) to 700,000 people beginning in April and to decrease the benefits of millions more. The USDA rule changes must be suspended. Nationwide, about 20 percent of the population suffers hunger or is in imminent danger of going hungry. The government must provide adequate food to the entire population, regardless of ability to pay.
  • Another piece of CDC advice was for workers to be prepared to stay home from work or telecommute. But how many workers really have that option? Millions do not even have access to paid sick leave. As a recent article by the Economic Policy Institute states, “The CDC recommendations all seem well and good but how does someone with no paid sick days or insurance cope?” The Homeland Security Act gives the president the right to declare a “major disaster,” and allows the president to provide unemployment benefits to anyone who becomes unemployed because of it, including anyone unpaid because of sick leave. Declaring a disaster allows the president to tap the Disaster Relief Fund, which contains billions of dollars.
  • For Covid-19 to be contained and treated, people must be able to seek out and access health care and other resources. How can migrant workers and refugees do so when they are threatened with arrest and deportation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol agents? There must be an immediate, unconditional end to deportations. The tens of thousands of refugees caged by the U.S. across the country must be released and provided with adequate housing, health care and other necessary resources to live a healthy life. So too must the ever-growing population of homeless people, including families, and those housed in substandard, overcrowded and unsafe conditions. There must be a nationwide moratorium on evictions starting immediately. This would not bring down the economy. In fact, it would be a boost to the economy in general.
  • What about the prisons? The U.S. has by far the largest prison population on earth, with some of the worst conditions, particularly when it comes to health care. Communities disproportionately affected by mass incarceration and the prisoners themselves must be put in charge of determining the necessary measures to adequately protect them.
  • According to Wall Street and the corporate media, the dramatic drop in the stock market was caused by fear of Covid-19. But the profit system has been teetering on the edge of a recession for at least a year. Mass layoffs or wage cuts cannot be allowed to take place by blaming the virus. The government must institute an immediate moratorium on layoffs and wage cuts. 

These are just some examples of the measures that are required. Others will surely be raised and must also be addressed. Labor unions, community organizations, activist groups and socialists should take the lead in organizing people in every workplace, school and neighborhood to fight for these demands. 

On March 11, the city of San Francisco and the state of Washington banned “large gatherings,” while Washington, D.C., recommended cancelling or postponing any events of 1,000 people or more. The town of New Rochelle, a suburb of New York City, has been put under a containment zone for 14 days by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who deployed the National Guard there.

Of course, many organizations, both mainstream and in the progressive movement, have postponed public events and closed event spaces to help contain the spread of the coronavirus. This is laudable. But the time may come soon when the risks of not taking action are greater than the risks of mass gatherings. And even after the current crisis is passed, workers and communities will likely have to fight to maintain and regain their right to protest, strike and organize.

The money, people-power and technology exist to respond to the threat of the Covid-19 outbreak and future dangers to the health and well-being of the people. But those resources must be taken over and mobilized by the people and for the people, not for the interests of the profit-hungry 1% who have shown time and again that they don’t care if we live or die.