May 1st: Lives vs Livelihoods?

May 1st is Opening Day when America starts emerging from lockdown — maybe.

The pressure to do so is immense, and I get it. We are in the midst of a worldwide crisis that working people across the planet are experiencing as a very intimate and personal struggle. Thrown out of work millions have no income and most didn’t have much in savings. There’s no money for rent, mortgage, car payment — and worst of all, no money for food for tonight.

Physical distancing is a critical weapon in the arsenal to stop the spread of Coronavirus. It’s saving lives but killing livelihoods. In a short few weeks workers and farmers, many of whom were already barely scraping by, have fallen off a cliff. More than 22 million people have filed for unemployment in the past month, and that’s just those who’ve been able to get in. Busy signals and crashed websites obscure the real number.

Lockdown is saving lives but killing livelihoods.

The chart above, published in the New York Times, shows just a single week now compared to all weeks since 2000. The chart shows that even the 2008 ‘Great Recession’ is dwarfed by the crisis today. “The nation has not experienced this magnitude of layoffs and economic contraction since the Great Depression,” reports the Washington Post.

Hidden Landmines

The scientific and medical community are urging caution as we talk about ending lockdowns and relaxing physical distancing. They warn that we need significantly increased testing to know it it’s safe to re-open the economy. Harvard University is suggesting that we need 3 times the current rate of testing.

Let’s look at this. About 150,000 tests are being conducted per day in the United States — a nation with 329 million people. Some of these are repeat tests on the same people like doctors, nurses and others on the front line.

But let’s pretend for a moment that (a) each test is a separate person and (b) we achieved this rate of testing way back on March 1st (which we didn’t). Even at that rate, right now today, we would have tested just 2% of the population.

150,000 tests x 50 days = 7,500,000 people
7,500,000 ÷ 329,000,000 = 2.3% of U.S. Population

In reality the actual number of tests is about half the 7.5 million in my little exercise here.  As of today just 3.7 million tests have been conducted.  That’s a lot of tests, for sure. By raw count, we’ve tested more than any other country. Trump is correct on that point, but this figure alone isn’t enough. We lag behind other countries in per capita testing. This means we haven’t tested a sufficient proportion of the population to know the true extent that COVID-19 has penetrated the country. The “invisible enemy” as it’s sometimes called may have hidden landmines scattered everywhere that we will soon step on.

In my opinion, we simply don’t know enough at this time to alter our current practices in any significant way. Most areas around the country report that the curve is flattening. Known cases are still rising, but the rate of increase is slowing. New York City reports declines in COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths — all excellent news! — but, it all comes as a direct result of the lockdown and physical distancing that has been in place there for the past month or so.

Popular meme circulating on social media.

A Guaranteed Income for All Workers

I see the shutdown as a necessary evil — but it shouldn’t be an evil. It shouldn’t be an lose/lose proposition: “Stay ‘safe’ at home but starve to death” versus “Go to work & die of Coronavirus.”

Working people are the backbone of society. We produce everything society consumes. And it’s the sale of these products and services that generates the profit and wealth enjoyed by the employing class. It’s also working people, I might add, that are risking their lives and their families’ lives working as first responders on the front lines of this crisis.

Over 22 million are now suddenly out of work. What do they get? A thousand bucks and change.

This doesn’t even begin to cut it, as any working family can attest. What we need immediately is a guaranteed income for all working families for the full duration of their unemployment. I’ll make a modest suggestion for the moment: Every household should get at least $15 an hour or the family’s actual pre-COVID income, whichever is higher.

I can hear the cries of anguish now. We can’t do that! What about the deficit? Well, I didn’t hear much outcry from these same people when Trump and Congress gave corporations a 40% tax reduction in 2017. In January, before this crisis emerged, the U.S. deficit was on target to reach $1 trillion in 2020. When Mitch McConnell realized the depth of the looming deficit, he had a clear answer: cut Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.

Other voices of anguish have come from people like Senator Rick Scott of Florida who fear that helping working people through this crisis might empower them to consider what kind of life they want for themselves after. In Scott’s perfect world, workers should have precious few options in life.

Are Lockdowns an Attack Against Workers?

There have been increasing protests in different states against their respective lockdowns and Stay at Home orders. These have been fueled the last few days by Trump who’s decided to stir up his base with his ‘LIBERATE’ tweets.


But protests haven’t been limited to states with Democratic governors. Ohio has seen them also against Republican Governor Mike DeWine.

I will always support the right of people to organize and protest even if they violate physical distancing in the process. But I found the focus of the protest in Ohio disturbing. A man interviewed by local news denied the COVID-19 death count. Instead he asserted that people are dying because the government is shutting things down. When asked about the 36,000 people who have died from COVID-19 he insisted “that’s absolute garbage.” He said, “The real data does not support what the media is putting out.” When the reporter said the count was coming from the CDC the man responded, “well then you need to look at the data again because it’s not 36,000 people that have died.”

When asked about hospital overloading in New York he insisted they aren’t overloaded. He said we’re being told the hospitals are overloaded to create panic. Of course he provided no documentation to back up anything he asserted. I don’t know if everyone at the protest shared his views, but I see this kind of thinking too often.

People are free to believe whatever they want. I will the first to say that conventional thinking isn’t always right just because it’s conventional, and I agree the media isn’t always correct or even trustworthy. But wholesale dismissal of everything out of hand — Fake News! Deep State! — leads nowhere good.

What’s needed is healthy skepticism. Information or facts that are used in ways that hurt workers may still be true in and of themselves. The answer is not to deny a fact — not to deny science in this case — but to handle it in a way that serves the interests of working people.

The other day someone told me she thinks the reason for lockdowns and physical distancing is to atomize the working class — meaning all this is expressly motivated in the first place to attack workers. The man I quoted above would probably say the same. I sharply disagree, yet I think breaking up and isolating working people from one another can certainly be a consequence of lockdowns and physical distancing. Being aware of this potential consequence, we can work to avoid it.

The difference in perspective — motive versus consequence — can lead in two opposite directions. One direction will strengthen us, the other could kill us.

Conflict Between Capital & Labor
Over Public Safety

A different friend has explained in conversation that typically when workers are thrown out of work through shutdowns and layoffs it’s part of capital’s drive to buoy profits. That’s not the case in this situation. The businesses that shut production have swiftly faced steep losses and a competitive disadvantage against others who didn’t. The bosses who refused to halt production, like Tesla Motors in California did initially, jeopardized the health and safety of the workers at the plant and the surrounding communities in order to squeeze the largest profit that they can.

A Telsa worker was quoted by Reveal News:

“It’s pretty shady,” [the worker said], “that they would ask people that were working there for so many years to come in and risk their health and their family’s health just so they can make their numbers.”

This doesn’t mean workers don’t want to work. Far from it. This issue is the type of work and the conditions of work.

Embed from Getty Images

General Electric Workers Launch Protest, Demand To Make Ventilators

Union representatives speak to a member of the media outside the General Electric Co. (GE) facility in Lynn, Massachusetts, U.S., on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Protests started after GE announced it would be laying off 10 percent of its domestic aviation workforce, firing nearly 2,600 workers, along with a “temporary” layoff of 50 percent of its maintenance workers. The union wants the company to convert to manufacturing ventilators to help with the Covid-19 pandemic.
(Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Many workers are leading the way in protecting the public from an exacerbated pandemic. Amazon workers at an Italian warehouse held strike actions over Amazon’s push for profits over life & limb. An image from reports on this strike depicts an Italian warehouse worker staying home with the caption “I am staying home, I am not a piece of meat.”

The risks and dangers of this new “novel” virus are uncertain. The rate of its spread is still being determined and will be decisive for the capacity of hospitals to keep up, and social solidarity requires a broad effort to mitigate that spread. It is impossible to contain the spread without it, and the consequences of not doing so are potentially disastrous (as they have been in Italy).

Physical distancing is not at odds with a demand to mobilize the production of ventilators, masks, or even the construction of additional pre-fabricated hospitals. And it’s also not at odds with a demand for long-term unemployment insurance for everyone left out of work for the duration of the pandemic.

A Socialist Example

My friend points to Cuba, as I have as well, which is leading by example — flowing directly from its revolution that placed the working class in charge. Decisions aren’t made based on the needs of private profit.

The government swiftly canceled or postponed almost all gatherings and cultural events to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and encouraged Cubans to stay home as well. At the same time, textile workers have been organized to produce masks, and medical students have begun door-to-door community brigades to check for symptoms across the island.

Cuba also allowed a British cruise ship with a confirmed spread of Coronavirus to dock in Havana after it was refused by the United States, and it assured medical treatment for every passenger on board.

My friend has emphasized that a dangerous pandemic demands broad solidarity and the kind of leadership that only a fighting working class can provide. But in Cuba or anywhere, the protection of elders and the most vulnerable requires mass public efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Summing Up…

Which bring us back here to the U.S. and May 1st. I don’t think we have enough testing to relax the current precautions. When we do, I think it’s imperative that we go slowly and cautiously. The risks of sudden change are too great, especially with the success in containment and mitigation we’ve achieved so far. The steps we take must be guided by science, not driven by reckless political incitement. 

Protest is fine but needs to be aimed at protecting working people not endangering society for a transitory or artificial recovery. If we act recklessly and trigger a new surge, we’ll be right back where we started. Or worse.

No one should be forced to choose between their life and their livelihood.

We need…

  • Massive, widespread and free testing.
  • Free and full medical care for everyone sickened by COVID-19.
  • Production of the essential supplies society needs right now, from masks, gloves, and incubators, to food and common household essentials.
  • Production and work conducted in conditions and following protocols that maximize safety.
  • A guaranteed income for everyone unemployed by the crisis, and continuing for the full duration of the crisis.

The solidarity we build today will keep us alive now and serve us well in the future.

Title image from New York Times, March 26, 2020

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