Essential workers

The virus and capitalist society – Part 2

Of all the capitalist governments attempting to emulate the Wuhan model of lockdown to combat the Covid-19 virus, New Zealand has fared somewhat better than most. It had some advantages at the start – being surrounded by sea, which permitted it easier control over international arrivals as almost all travelers arrive by air. It also had in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern a leader whose level of popular support is the envy of the capitalist world.

New Zeland Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Covid-19 press conference. Photo: NZ Herald

There was no long period of denial and passivity. The government declared a state of emergency on March 25, imposing a sweeping 28-day lockdown-at-home, shutting down tourism and closing the borders to almost all arrivals, banning large gatherings of people including weddings and funerals, closing schools, and closing for at least a month all shops except supermarkets and their courier services, pharmacies and gas stations, and some local convenience stores. At the time the lockdown began there were 205 cases of Covid-19, and the first clear evidence of community transmission had just appeared. The government appears to have acted before the virus was spreading widely in the community. We can’t be sure, because of the extremely limited scope of testing, but as of April 8, circumstantial evidence indicates only a relatively few clusters where community transmission is occurring. The big majority of confirmed cases appear to be among people returning from overseas with the infection, together with some people in their households.

Empty Auckland motorway. Lockdown had high level of voluntary compliance

Unlike many other countries, in New Zealand fast-food outlets, hairdressers, small butcheries, shops selling fruit and vegetables, bakeries, liquor outlets, big hardware and general retailers like Bunnings and Kmart, and even medical practices have shut their doors. (Medical general practitioners continue to function through phone and video consultations, but since this cuts off their source of revenue from charging patients, some have been laid off or gone out of business.) A government subsidy to businesses was offered to discourage layoffs, on condition that they pay at least 80% of the wages of employees idled by the lockdown for 12 weeks, and this has cushioned the economic effects of the shutdown to some degree. (Many immigrants, however, remain excluded from these benefits.) The government entered the crisis with a large budget surplus.

The lockdown, therefore, received wide support and a high level of voluntary compliance. It seems likely that this lockdown will successfully prevent the epidemic from spreading out of control within New Zealand shores, and possibly even eliminate it – for a time. Under the present circumstances – which include the known characteristics of the virus, the thoroughly run-down state of the public health system, that would be unable to cope with the level of infection already seen in other countries, and also the low level of organisation of the working class – this writer believes the lockdown, along with mandated physical distancing in necessary personal interactions, are medically justified measures that should be supported in order to minimise loss of life. This is despite the very high economic cost of these measures, and the strengthening of the heavy hand of state authority that the lockdown entails.

However, it is important to keep in mind the following:

  • Worker at Hutt Hospital with ventilator. Photo: Dom Thomas, RNZ

    The capitalist class and its successive governments bear full and sole responsibility for the shameful running down of the public health system in New Zealand, over a period of decades, by capitalist budget trimming, market-driven decentralisation, and partial corporatisation. There are now 2.7 hospital beds per 1,000 people in New Zealand, compared to more than 12 per 1,000 in Korea and Japan. There are 176 Intensive Care Units in the country, or 3.6 per 100,000 people, compared with 12.5 per 100,000 in Italy. There are about 533 ventilators in the public hospitals, or 10.6 per 100,000, plus a further 247 available in private hospitals. This is just over half the number per capita in the United States. Already, even though there have been very few cases of Covid-19 serious enough to require hospitalisation, urgent treatments and scans for cancer, heart disease and the like have been cancelled as the hospitals gear up for the expected influx of acute Covid-19 cases.

  • The measures adopted in New Zealand fall far short of those adopted in the successful Wuhan lockdown. Wuhan involved a much tighter lockdown of the population, as well as the mobilisation of large numbers of medical personnel, and the mighty economic resources of the whole of China, to build special hospitals and temporary facilities and operate them. Crucially, it also involved systematic door-to-door checks and testing of the city’s population to identify and quarantine all people showing symptoms.
  • Nasal swabs like this are in short supply forcing Auckland doctors to use less effective throat swabs.

    Nothing remotely resembling these measures has been attempted in New Zealand. Everything is staked on the lockdown itself. While the government repeats the slogan “Test! Test! test!” – it is only testing numbers well short of the current capacity of 3,700 per day. There are many reports of people with symptoms, referred for testing by their own doctors, being turned away from testing stations. Just as elsewhere in the world, in New Zealand, despite frequent government assurances to the contrary, testing is hampered by shortages of nasal testing swabs, requiring Auckland doctors to switch to less accurate throat swabs. Healthcare workers are not routinely tested unless they present symptoms. Even in cases of known community transmission, such as in the small town of Matamata, where 61 cases have now been linked to a single social gathering on St Patrick’s Day, there has been no attempt to test the whole community to detect asymptomatic cases. Although there are now a hundred specialist testing sites and test numbers are slowly rising, the slowness to ramp up testing (and tracking contacts of people who test positive) may well prove to be the Achilles Heel of the New Zealand government measures.

  • In cases where large clusters have been found, such as the 72 cases at Marist College in Auckland, the people at risk, in this case the whole staff and 750 students, have been instructed to maintain strict self-isolation – and then largely left on their own, with little supervision or support beyond updates by the school management. (Several people with close links to this cluster have even reported being declined tests.) A similar lack of supervision and support applies in respect of mandatory quarantine of travellers returning from overseas since the lockdown began. Not Wuhan, but the ‘Hurricane Katrina response,’ is the model here (where the authorities gave the order to residents to evacuate as the storm advanced, and then left them entirely to fend for themselves.)

Moreover, even if the lockdown is successful, that can only buy time. At best, it can only delay and slow the infection rate. While delaying and slowing are not unimportant goals in themselves, it still leaves the question of what will happen at the end of the 28-day lockdown period, with the virus still circulating or about to be re-introduced by the next traveller from abroad. It is clear that any prolonged shutdown of economic activity such as the lockdown requires would be equally or more catastrophic than the pandemic itself – as Marx put it in a letter to Ludwig Kugelmann in 1868, “Every child knows a nation which ceased to work, I will not say for a year, but even for a few weeks, would perish.”

At the point when the revival of economic activity is posed, the class character of the crisis will become as abundantly clear in New Zealand as it already is in the United States. Already the discussion is turning to this question. Some ideologues of the capitalist class are sharpening their knives and opening the discussion about who should be saved and who should be thrown to the wolves first – for the ‘greater good’ of the capitalist economy.

New York Nurses protest a shortage of protective equipment, including N95 masks. Photo: Gregg Vigliotti, New York Times

As economic activity re-starts, job safety must be under the control of workers themselves. Worldwide, the death toll is mounting among workers exposed to the infection on the job, and so are actions and disputes, from New Zealand to Zimbabwe, but especially in the US. Health care workers, transportation workers, sanitation workers and others deemed ‘essential workers,’ are demanding that their employers provide safe conditions.

Bus driver in Detroit, Michigan wearing protective equipment. Photo: Seth Herald, AFP

No job should start up until the safety of the workers can be guaranteed – especially through frequent cleaning of potential sources of transmission and adequate physical distancing on the job. Wherever the nature of the work makes that impossible, such as some health care situations, adequate protective clothing and equipment must be provided. No worker should be placed at risk to their health by working, including the health workers treating Covid-19 patients. The fight for safety on the job, under union control, including the right of workers to refuse to work whenever their safety is compromised, will be vital in the coming weeks and months.

Cuban health workers in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Photo: Granma

As in so many different ways, the Cuban revolution demonstrates what is possible on this question. In 2014, a volunteer contingent of 265 doctors, nurses and health technicians from Cuba went to Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia in West Africa to confront the Ebola epidemic then ravaging those three countries. Ebola was a far more infectious viral disease than Covid-19, with a death rate among those infected of up to 90% in some communities. The hospitals had been largely abandoned, because so many of the doctors and other health workers had been infected by their patients and died in the early stages of the epidemic, the rest were afraid to continue. Such were the dangers that none of the three former colonial powers (France, Britain and the United States respectively) even attempted to send medical personnel to assist. With the honourable exception of Medecins Sans Frontieres, almost all aid agencies evacuated their people as Ebola spread out of control.

Red Zone – Cuba and the battle against Ebola in West Africa, by Enrique Ubieta, tells the story of the Cuban medical brigades in West Africa in 2014-15. Newly published in English and Spanish by Pathfinder Press

The Cuban volunteers were well aware of the dangers to their personal safety just by working in that environment. But by working with discipline and organisation, and paying close attention to the safety of every worker, they were able to carry out their task – and return to Cuba eight months later, mission completed, the Ebola outbreak virtually eliminated and many patients’ lives saved, without losing a single worker to Ebola. (One became infected with Ebola and recovered, while two fell to malaria, which was also raging uncontrolled as a secondary consequence of the Ebola-caused breakdowns in health care.)  If it can be done with Ebola, it can be done with Covid-19.

Beyond that, workers need to organise socially and politically to demand that the government mobilise the necessary resources to meet the special health needs of the pandemic, such as for supplies of masks and protective equipment, and additional hospital facilities. (Workers will find creative ways to organise despite the restrictions of physical distancing!)

Mobilising adequate resources includes demanding that adequate resources be devoted to testing for the presence of the infection, tracking and testing of the close contacts of those infected, and providing adequate support to those who have to be quarantined. This has proven to be the key to slowing the spread of the disease and lowering its mortality rate without closing down economic activity, as the example of Iceland indicates.

As the contemptible profiteering and mutual thieving of resources by the most powerful capitalist governments of the world proves beyond all doubt, the competitive capitalist market mechanisms and trade are not just totally inadequate to guarantee supplies, but are downright deadly. The chaos, profiteering, piracy and thieving are not an aberration: this is how the capitalist market works, and has since the beginning of the capitalist epoch. The use by competing capitalist powers of the threat of their military might to obtain favourable market conditions is nothing new. The only difference now is that in the crisis it is impossible to conceal it.

The problem is not any lack of the ability to produce and distribute these necessities. The means to produce masks, gloves, plastic gowns, goggles, swabs, and hand sanitiser are very simple, and already exist in every industrialised country; making ventilators would require a little re-tooling of existing factories, nothing more. These productive forces need to be taken out of the hands of the profiteers and pirates and mobilised in the service of the public, with the workers themselves controlling production rates, safety on the job, and equitable distribution.

The empty cruise ships left idle by the collapse of tourism could be quickly converted from loci of contagion into floating quarantine hospitals. In every city there are clothing factories that could be converted to produce masks and PPE, and alcohol distilleries that could be turned over to producing hand sanitiser. Such moves are beyond the imagination of the bourgeoisie, for whom these capital items are only seen as useful if they can rake in profits – remember, this is the class that chooses to leave 15,000 hotel rooms in Las Vegas empty while herding the city’s homeless to sleep out in a bitumen car park under the open sky.

Covid-19-stricken cruise ship Ruby Princess docked in Australia. Idle cruise ships could be taken over and converted to floating isolation hospitals Photo: Dean Lewins AAP

The many thousands of empty houses – 7% of Auckland’s housing stock – need to be taken over and used to accommodate patients in isolation who don’t need hospital level care, and made available to others whose present conditions of homelessness or overcrowding make the necessary health and hygiene measures impossible to follow. The right of property speculators to wring profits from the housing shortage should not be allowed to trump the health needs of the population!  If prisons cannot accommodate prisoners safely without forcing the prisoners into effective solitary confinement, then those prisoners should be released. A prison sentence should not be a death sentence.

These resources are not only needed in the countries best equipped to produce them, but with even greater urgency in those countries without adequate industrial capacity, and also those such as Syria whose industry has been destroyed by war. The virus doesn’t carry a passport. Elementary solidarity requires that the nationalised factories produce for the whole world.

Once again, the Cuban revolution shows what is possible. In 1959 the impoverished Cuban toilers made a revolution which overthrew a brutal capitalist dictatorship and placed political power in the hands of the workers and farmers themselves. The productive forces of the country – the big sugar plantations and refineries, the mines, and tourism enterprises, were taken out of capitalist hands. Land was distributed to small farmers, the big capitalist operations were placed in the hands of the workers’ state. Faced with widespread emigration of doctors to the United States, Cuba devoted scarce resources to training new doctors. Even while incurring the wrath of its powerful neighbour to the north, including an economic embargo which has prevented Cuba from importing even desperately needed medicines for 60 years, Cuba has developed a health care system second to none.

Cuban medical team arrives in Italy to assist in fight against Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Matteo Bazzi, EPA

Despite the poverty of its own resources, Cuba opened its medical school to train doctors from Africa, Asia, Latin America at no cost, and even some from the United States excluded from access to medical schools in that country by barriers of class and race. To confront the criminal medical embargo, it developed its own biotech industry and its own pharmaceuticals industry, which now co-produces with a Chinese joint venture  a drug that has been found to be effective in China for treating Covid-19 patients with severe symptoms. Today Cuba has medical teams in Italy, Jamaica, and many other countries assisting with their efforts in combating Covid-19. All this stands as an example of international working class solidarity, and of a class that is capable of leading society – in stark contrast with the piracy on the airport tarmac in Shanghai.

In order to make its voice heard and to make these demands, the working class needs to organise itself, both at the level of unions on the job and on the political plane. The working class enters this crisis at the end of a 30-year period of retreat and quiescence, in the imperialist countries at least – and consequently, in a state of disarray, confusion and passivity. (One illustration of this is the near-total lack of protest against the squandering of public funds into the black hole of the share market – from the NZ$900 million handed over to Air New Zealand to ‘save the national carrier’, to the US$2 trillion slush fund handed over to US capitalists with the support of the Democratic and Republican twin parties of capital. Such actions constitute a massive transfer of wealth from those suffering the greatest effects of the pandemic and depression into the pockets of the wealthy.)

The level of union organisation among industrial workers in New Zealand is at historic lows, (somewhat obscured in the statistics by a higher level or organisation among professionals), while the number working under oppressive individual contracts, on a casual, seasonal, “zero-hours” or visa-entangled basis, is very high.  Our class is at this point barely able to recognise our own class interests as separate and opposed to those of the rulers, let alone lead the other oppressed and exploited layers of society. So be it. That is only our starting point, not the end point. The rapidly spreading union actions in the United States indicate how quickly this can change.

In order to enforce safety on the job, workers need to act together, that is, in union, whether that means joining and strengthening existing union organisations or creating unions where none yet exist. And in order to organise, we will also need to defend our democratic rights to read, think, and speak, against state censorship and police, who are already taking advantage of the lockdowns to broaden their powers at our expense. Union organisation is key to mobilising the economic power of workers – and the crisis has revealed in unexpected ways just who is essential in this society – those whose labour in the factories, on the farms, in transportation and retail, in hospitals and aged care facilities cannot be interrupted, even in a crisis. It also reveals just how many of those essential workers are highly insecure minimum-wage and immigrant workers.

The greatest weakness in working class organisation, however, is organisation on the political plane. Across the entire imperialist world of Europe, North America, Japan and Australasia, where forty years ago there were mass parties claiming – truthfully or otherwise – to represent the interests of the working class, today there is not a single one. The Socialist and Communist Parties of Europe, the Labour Parties of the UK and Australasia, are either in their death throes (Labour in the UK), quietly disappearing from the scene (Socialist Party of France), or have transformed themselves into ordinary liberal bourgeois parties, cutting whatever links they once had with the unions (Labour in New Zealand.) As far as I am aware, in all cases they have even relinquished the claim to speak for workers, explicitly presenting themselves as parties of the middle layers (or, to use the wonderfully Orwellian term coined by the British Labour Party and copied by others of the same ilk, “hardworking people.”)  All that is left is a faint memory, in the name Labour or Socialist.

In one sense, this is a good thing.  Those parties, socialist in name but capitalist in programme, had long been obstacles to independent working class political action, and the renunciation of their claim to speak on behalf of the working class will make it easier to shove those obstacles to one side. But that is only true if there is a mass political movement which does speak in the interests of the exploited and oppressed. In the absence of such a movement, workers are forced to act as individuals and follow the lead of one or other gang of brigands. Such a movement for working class political independence has yet to emerge in the imperialist world.

The pandemic has touched off a sudden and deep worldwide depression. But the virus is just the trigger, not the cause. The next post will look at the deepening depression and how workers’ efforts to to defend themselves against the virus is intertwined with the fight against the impact of the depression.

One response to “Essential workers

  1. One major sector of our population is also exempt namely food producers also known as hard to manage farmers.
    Agree about the systematic close down of public health and push for private health insurance. It is a reason for pushing the $40 billion in ACC across to the health system . ACC spends millions on the political lobby and pretends to focus on well being when it has an army of specialists to deny claims by saying they are age related not an accident.

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