This coronavirus is a new, highly contagious virus now spreading throughout the world as a declared pandemic. It causes a respiratory infection that can be deadly or cause permanent lung damage.
It has a long incubation period and people without symptoms can infect others. So, in addition to the danger to individuals, waves of infection will overload health care capacity, leading to a higher fatality rate from COVID-19, as well as high “collateral damage” of anyone else who will need medical attention.
No vaccine will be ready for at least one year and a viable “cure” is unlikely. Therefore, the best approach from a medical and public health perspective will be slowing the rate of transmission through frequent thorough handwashing, avoiding large crowds, not touching your face and recurring periods of quarantine to slow the spread.
Slowing the spread limits the extent to which hospitals are overloaded during each wave of infection, providing time to increase medical capacity by building new hospitals, training workers and manufacturing equipment.
However, the reality of these vast and prolonged quarantines leads to a severe economic crisis: disruptions in production and consumption, high unemployment, especially in some industries like hospitality and service, extreme uncertainty on the stock market and a freeze on investment.
In addition to a global pandemic, we are faced with a global recession (or worse). I am sure many of us are affected by work disappearing overnight and the terrifying uncertainty of what this year will bring.
So far, the political response in the United States has juggled these two realities, doing a terrible job at both. President Donald Trump has at various points attempted to deny the crisis, shift the blame, and invoke xenophobia and racism.
This week, he shifted towards abandoning the recommendations of all medical experts, instead aiming to “get the country back to work” in mid-April, which will lead to an explosion of infections.
Congress, including the Democratic Party leadership, has taken advantage of the crisis to arrange corporate bailouts and to ram through a laundry list of items that strengthen the hand of corporations.
The coronavirus is a natural phenomenon, but the danger it poses is a social disaster. By this I mean that the number of people who suffer and die depends on social priorities. The coming year will be an intense struggle over those priorities.
As socialists, in everything we do, we have to point out that capitalism has failed to prioritise human lives over profit and that we need a radically different kind of society. Our response needs to fight for people’s immediate needs while also pointing to the necessity to fundamentally transform this system and build a socialist world.
In the US, the lack of a national medical system and universal healthcare leaves us poorly equipped to coordinate and handle the medical aspect of the crisis. Hospitals are understaffed and under equipped. Currently, the lack of basic protective gear for healthcare workers (and other frontline workers) is a national scandal with deadly consequences.
In addition, capitalism privatises the responsibility for socially necessary public health measures, shifting it onto individual workers.
As we know, millions of households live paycheque to paycheque. So this is really an impossible decision for many of us: stay home to protect yourself and public health, but then you don’t have money for food and rent.
We need immediate, broad, universal relief programs to eliminate this Catch 22. Here in Chicago, the Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA’s) elected local councillors have led by putting forward bold proposals, and nationally, DSA congresswomen and Senator Bernie Sanders have done the same.
Without action, the disease will hit vulnerable populations the worst. This means both individuals who are more at risk (due to age or health conditions) all over the world, but especially in poor countries, communities without access to advanced health care, people crammed into dense slum-like conditions, prisoners, homeless people, Native peoples, and so on.
Our response has to emphasise that nobody is expendable, and the needs and lives of vulnerable people, the poor and oppressed are more important than corporate profits.
Finally, the reality of a global pandemic and global recession should make it obvious that we are all in this together and only a response of international solidarity makes sense for workers and oppressed people. However, the ruling classes of various countries will do everything in their power to instead drive competition between countries, nationalism and racism in the crisis. We must demand cooperation across borders, an end to deadly sanctions, support the fight against racism and the rights of immigrants.
In all of these struggles, our main tool is the strength of workers' power. Today, even in these extraordinary circumstances, workers are taking action to organise for health and safety on the job, organising neighbours for tenant rights and a rent freeze, and other important fights.
Any gains for workers will not be won by sympathy from the ruling class, but through struggle.
[Isaac Silver is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in Chicago. This article is based on a talk he gave to new DSA members.]