Would you die for Wall Street?

April 22, 2020
Health workers protest outside White House
Protesters honour nurses who have died from COVID-19, and demand better protection for health workers, outside the White House on April 22. Photo: Amirah Sequeira

The grim news from the United States is a chilling reminder of just how dangerous the COVID-19 pandemic is.

It is also a reminder that those in charge of the richest and most powerful country in the world have blood on their hands, despite President Donald Trump’s gaslighting efforts.

We know that the coronavirus does not discriminate between rich and poor, but that those who do not, or cannot, follow life-saving advice to social distance or isolate are at the highest risk.

Not just the homeless and the poor, but frontline health care workers are at the highest risk because they are severely over-stretched and under-resourced.

At least 46 nurses have died from COVID-19 in the US. The National Nurses United union even had to organise a protest in front of the White House on April 21 to highlight this injustice.

The nurses were only asking for an emergency “temporary standard” to be made law so that they could be provided with the personal protective equipment needed to save their own lives.

It’s like being sent to war to become cannon fodder. It is the equivalent of being told that you are expendable.

The nurses union estimates that the US will need 3.5 billion N95 respirators.

It’s hard to fathom that health workers have had to organise a safe-distanced protest to highlight this obscene injustice.

The fault lines of an economic system geared to meet the 1% are being shown up, and it is a potent reminder of just how cruel and unjust the profits-first system is.

Meanwhile, some of the biggest banks on Wall Street have been demanding that their traders go back to work. New York State, home to Wall Street, is one of the US hot spots of the coronavirus outbreak.

Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo has been resisting that pressure, warning that, “What we’re doing here, as a general rule, determines our future … This is cause and effect on steroids.”

He has also restated that people of colour are disproportionately being asked to put themselves in harm’s way because they make up 41% of frontline workers, 45% of public transit workers, 57% of building cleaning-service workers and 40% of healthcare workers.

In other words, going back to “normal”, means putting already marginalised sections of the population at greater risk.

But that does not phase some people.

The anti-social and quasi eugenic notion — promulgated by the Institute of Public Affairs in Australia and more recently by economist Gigi Foster on the ABC’s QandA program — is that herd immunity is the best way to deal with the virus and so we all need to get back to work immediately for the sake of “the economy”.

Whose economy, by the way?

Wall Street banks are even prepared to sacrifice their own traders, it seems, because they own a form of life insurance that benefits the corporate owner of the policy — in this case, the banks, not the employee or their family.

If that sounds ghoulish, it's because it is.

As the calls to “get back to work” become more shrill, we should insist that it can only happen when safeguards are in place and in a cautious, life-affirming way.

As health workers in Australia have pointed out, the virus infection curve has been flattened precisely because the majority of people have understood the dire health and social implications of letting the virus rip and accepted the isolation restrictions.

We’re only just on the life raft, warned public health and vaccinology expert Jodie McVernon on the same QandA episode. “We’re at a point where we’re in control of the situation, and there is time for this complex societal discussion.”

There should also be no going back to normal after this pandemic: with capitalism’s extreme brutality once more completely exposed, now is the time to insist that people come before profit.

We need to build economies that are organised around life, rather than around making billionaires even richer. This is a public conversation we need to have.

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