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Socialist Healthcare Workers Tell Us How To Fight The Pandemic

Above photo: Doctor Mike Pappas and Nurse Tre Kwon.

Don’t look to Trump or Cuomo to solve the pandemic.

Capitalism has birthed a nightmare. Nearly two million people around the world have already fallen ill as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Hospitals like ours have been completely overwhelmed by the rush of patients. The bodies of the dead are being held in refrigerated trucks. Those who can’t be identified are buried in mass graves. Unemployment may already be as high as 13 percent in the U.S.

It was entirely preventable.

For over a month, Trump downplayed the threat of a worldwide pandemic. Even as his advisors warned that as many as 1.2 million lives could be lost in the U.S. alone, time and again he claimed we were safe from harm. His denial left us totally unprepared to deal with the explosion of COVID-19 cases that came just days later. 

As late as March 24, Trump was calling for U.S. businesses to be reopened by Easter, demonstrating his absolute contempt for the health and safety of workers. Trump’s only concern, from the beginning, was that profits continue to flow into the coffers of U.S. corporations. That’s what he meant when he said, “The cure can’t be worse than the problem.” He wouldn’t jeopardize capitalist profits by shutting down businesses, even if it meant hundreds of thousands of working-class people, or more, would die. As a result of his criminal negligence, that is exactly what is happening now. It is working people in the poorest neighborhoods who are suffering most. Sixty-two percent of COVID-19 deaths in New York City are Black and Latino people. 

The criminality and callousness of the Trump administration don’t stop there. We must also consider the consequences of the administration’s actions internationally. The U.S. continues to maintain a brutal blockade on Iran, preventing critical medicine, equipment and food from reaching the country. It was Trump’s actions, above all, that led to a humanitarian crisis in Iran, where more than 4,000 people have died — the highest toll in the Middle East. And in mid-March, when cases of COVID-19 were already in the tens of thousands around the world, the administration launched a bombing campaign against Iraq. How else can we describe this but barbarism? 

Trump isn’t the only one responsible for the devastation, however. Democrats like Andrew Cuomo have played a major role over the years, overseeing hospital closures and mergers, cutting safety-net services like Medicaid, and bulldozing the way for developers. These actions severely weakened the healthcare system in New York, made people afraid to seek care and raised the cost of living, forcing working-class and poor people to live in ever more cramped and crowded homes and apartments. This was the fuel the virus needed to spread at such a dizzying speed throughout the city and the surrounding suburbs. 

Cuomo and the Democrats, just like Trump, acted entirely in the interests of the capitalist class and at the expense of our health. The media has been effusive about Cuomo’s “leadership” and “decisiveness” during this crisis. They’ve ignored that the Governor was pushing to keep New York businesses open in mid-March. “There is not going to be any quarantine, no one is going to lock you in your home, no one is going to tell you, you can’t leave the city…That’s not going to happen.” His recklessness put the lives of at least tens of thousands of people at risk.

The capitalist class, and their media outlets, have tried to present the pandemic as something that can be fought through individual actions: Wash your hands. Practice social distancing. Stay home! But this crisis wasn’t caused by individual irresponsibility. This emergency was provoked by the anarchy inherent in the capitalist system. The U.S. healthcare industry, for example, doesn’t care the slightest bit about saving lives if it’s not a profitable endeavor. So no attention is paid to preventing infectious disease, even though developing vaccines for these diseases would save the lives of millions around the world each year. As David Harvey notes, “Big Pharma rarely invests in prevention. It has little interest in investing in preparedness for a public health crisis. It loves to design cures. The sicker we are, the more they earn. Prevention does not contribute to shareholder value.” 

Even now, the healthcare companies are making a fortune from this public health emergency. The hospitals, insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, and medical equipment companies will all be paid handsomely for their services, while thousands are dying and hundreds of thousands are sick. Trump made a big show over invoking the Defense Production Act to force GM into producing ventilators. But the company was awarded half a billion dollars to do it! 

From the Fight for PPE to the Nationalization of the Healthcare System

Around the country, there is a severe shortage of masks and personal protective equipment in hospitals. Each day in our hospital, we experience the stress of not having enough or appropriate PPE and knowing that our chances of becoming infected are high. Every nurse and hospital worker across New York that we’ve spoken with reports a similar situation in their hospital. Healthcare professionals are being forced to reuse masks, against safety protocols, or go without masks entirely. It doesn’t just put their own lives at risk, it jeopardizes the lives of their patients, their family members, and everyone they come into contact with. 

Multinational corporations like 3M are securing multi-million dollar agreements for the production of N95 masks, but still won’t produce nearly enough to reach every front line worker who needs them. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The massive production of masks and PPE would be a relatively simple undertaking if the will — or relations of production — existed. Every major factory in the U.S. capable of conversion to PPE or medical device production should be immediately seized and be forced to do so, with workers fully compensated and given the necessary protections to do their jobs. Workers, like the employees of the GE plant in Lynn, Massachusetts, are already demanding it. Furthermore, such an effort could secure employment for the millions of people across the country who’ve been put out of work in the past month. 

But planning on a nationwide scale — let alone an international scale — is anathema to capitalism. As Washington, D.C. nurse, Shreya Mahajan, points out, there are now thousands of nurses around the country who not only aren’t being put into service to care for COVID-19 patients, but they’re getting their hours cut by hospitals seeking to recoup costs from the cancelation of “more lucrative elective procedures.” The system is rife with inefficiencies. 

The only way to overcome this irrationality is to nationalize the entire healthcare system under the control of workers and community members. Workers, — from doctors and nurses to technicians and support staff —  are the ones who run the hospitals each day. We are the ones who are most knowledgeable about the treatment and care of our patients. The parasitic health care corporations and their executives have nothing to offer society. We need a single, free, and public healthcare system in which decision making is done by those most qualified to do so, its employees. That goes beyond Medicare for All. M4A is a progressive demand, and one we should support, but it would still leave the private hospitals, the pharmaceutical companies, and the medical device companies intact. 

Joe Biden cynically argued that Italy has public health care and they’re still experiencing one of the worst outbreaks in the world. But that’s because in Italy, just like in the U.S., the capitalist class has carried out devastating cuts to the system, including the closures of hundreds of hospitals in the past two decades. It’s not because public health care “doesn’t work there,” as Biden says. It’s because neoliberalism has corroded the foundations of the public health care system so much that the outbreak caused a complete collapse. The same patterns were repeated in the U.S., with similar results. Twenty hospitals have closed in New York since 2000. It is no wonder that the hospital system is now dangerously unprepared, with too few beds, too few staff and too little equipment to confront this pandemic. 

Essential Workers and the Class Struggle

We created the COVID-19 Frontline Workers’ Task Force at our hospital to serve as a voice for workers who are putting our lives on the line during this outbreak. Frontline workers don’t just include workers in the healthcare sector, though. They are logistics workers, like the employees of Amazon, UPS, and Fedex. They are supermarket employees. They are subway and bus workers. In New York City, 41 MTA employees have already died from COVID-19 as a result of the city’s failure to provide adequate protection and testing. Another 1,500 have become infected. The only response has been to cut service, which of course has led to packed subway cars — a death trap for employees and the working-class riders who are forced to continue using the subway. This is a city managed by the supposedly “progressive” administration of Bill DeBlasio.

We are battling a public health emergency unlike anything seen in this country in the last century. That’s why we, as Left Voice, have put forward a ten-point emergency program that includes the immediate closure of non-essential businesses, with guaranteed income during the quarantine for all employees. At the same time, all large-scale manufacturers like Ford, GM, and General Electric and to be converted to the production of masks, ventilators, and other critical health equipment and devices. We need immediate testing for all people presenting symptoms of COVID-19 and all those at risk of contracting the disease, like subway workers, supermarket workers, and healthcare workers. 

The Labor Movement and The Need for Political Representation

Even though this crisis has brought tremendous hardship to the working class, there are signs of anger, organization and struggle flourishing across the country. Workers from Whole Foods and Instacart walked off the job to demand better safety. McDonalds workers have struck in several cities for paid sick leave. General Electric employees demonstrated for the conversion of their plant to ventilator production. With unemployment now at its highest level since the Great Depression, we can expect that organizations of unemployed people will arise too. There is an unprecedented opportunity for us socialists to link up with these struggles and take the lead in organizing the labor movement with a combative, class-struggle perspective. 

It is a fight that requires not only labor organizing but political representation too. Over the past year or more, millions of young people around the Bernie Sanders campaign showed an aspiration for a better society. But in endorsing Biden, just as he endorsed Clinton in 2016, Sanders showed his unwillingness to truly challenge the Democratic Party, a century-old party of the capitalist class. It’s the same party that carried out austerity and cutbacks to the healthcare system and to social safety nets while ensuring private health care corporations continue to reap billions in profits. It’s time the working class — employed and unemployed — had a party of its own, a Workers’ Party that will stand up for our interests and not only during election season either. We need an independent party that will intervene in every outbreak of class struggle in the country. Organizations like the DSA must begin to work toward the construction of such a party alongside the unions and other workers’ organizations. The capitalists will ensure that it’s the working class that suffers most from this pandemic. So we must begin to organize, independently of our oppressors, for our own interests, our own health, our own lives.

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