The devil’s trade-off: public health or ‘the economy’

The virus and capitalist society, Part 3

As the capitalist rulers around the world move towards lifting the lockdown conditions imposed to halt the spread of Covid-19 disease, they are debating among themselves how far and how fast to proceed. The political pressure to line up with one or other tendency in this debate is high.

At present the ‘slow and cautious’ tendency is dominating both decision-making and the public consciousness in most countries. A recent poll in New Zealand taken just after the government extended the lockdown period, showed public support for the Lockdown measures adopted by the government to be at the incredible level of 87%, which the pollsters described as “feeding into a sense of national pride.” In the US, this tendency is mostly identified with Democratic Party state governors such as New York governor Andrew Cuomo.

The ‘get the economy started again’ tendency is identified in the US with a group of six Republican governors in Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee who have announced plans to lift or ease the lockdowns in coming days – as well as US President Trump himself, who uses the slogan “The cure can not be worse than the problem itself.”  At this stage, this tendency is mostly being presented in the media as an isolated bunch of irresponsible right-wing crazies and anti-science nuts – including the President. The round of public protests against lockdown in various states won little support  – and in some cases were met with counter-demonstrations by health workers.

People wait in their cars at Traders Village for the San Antonio Food Bank to begin food distribution. Photo: AP

That will change. Worldwide, the present discussion is still heavily conditioned by the massive government subsidies to businesses to delay firing workers. These subsidies have partly cushioned the economic effects of the slump – for now. Since the cushioning is somewhat less in the US than in Europe or Australasia, the debate there is more intense. In the US, the rest of the world can see its future: the staggeringly long lines for food parcels – and the protests. There are presently 26 million unemployed, many of whom have yet to receive any relief payments, and that number is still rising in great waves.

Auckland’s Spark Arena has been turned into a giant foodbank. 
Photo: RNZ

In New Zealand, despite a higher level of cushioning, demand for food parcels has surged. Newshub reported that 100,000 people are relying on food handouts each week. Queenstown, a tourist centre which only a few weeks ago was one of the wealthiest regions in the country, with real estate prices eclipsing even those in Auckland, is today a ghost town, with 30% unemployment as the entire tourism and hotel industry has closed down. Many migrant workers, locked down in that high-rent town, are unable to renew their visas and are excluded from the provisions of the wage subsidies.

But dire as the situation is already for working people across the globe, from India to the United States, the full impact of the economic crisis has not even begun to be felt. We will only be able to judge how deep the depression will go after the government wage subsidies come to an end, and the full force of the slump of the capitalist market is felt, and over a period of weeks and months all its concatenations, feedback loops, and chains of mutual causes and effects are played out.

As the economic slump worsens, the political forces that favour lifting of the lockdowns will gain more support, and can be expected to become the dominant current of opinion. Lockdown measures will be dropped before very long, irrespective of the course of the pandemic. The bourgeois ideologues are already preparing us to accept the inevitability of more deaths.

Some of the more crass bourgeois commentators publicly place a dollar value on human lives. Economist Gareth Morgan came under heavy criticism for placing the value of $10,000 on a human life, and for arguing on that basis that the economic losses caused by the lockdown are too high to justify it.

Economist Gareth Morgan’s tweet rating the value of a human life at $10,000

But such crude calculations underlie all the capitalist class’s discussions of this subject. “Essentially, we’re trying to figure out what our society is willing to pay to reduce the risk of mortality,” said W. Kip Viscusi, an economist at Vanderbilt University and one of the leading experts on these calculations.” (And a selfish class interest lurks behind that term ‘our society’). Never has the truth of Marx’s statement in the Communist Manifesto been clearer: “[The bourgeoisie] has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value.”

More commonly, the discussion is couched in terms of saving the maximum number of lives – as a prelude to an “ethical” discussion of whose lives are a little more expendable!

Prominent political commentator Matthew Hooton (NZ Herald, 3 April 2020) warned of the dangers of an extended lockdown as early as April 3, posing some “extremely difficult ethical questions… of intergenerational fairness.”

“Protecting the elderly is undoubtedly an important virtue,” Hooton writes. “But it is not the only ethical issue [the Prime Minister] must weigh up… an extended lockdown must materially compromise a whole generation of our 5- to 17-year olds… The social and economic costs of our teenagers and 20-somethings then facing a longer-term downturn, where no one is hiring and launching a small business is implausible, also matter. So, too, the interests of those soon to be born whose earliest years will be blighted by economic stress.”

Foreseeing runaway inflation if government support to business must be extended, he continues, “But, inevitably, inflation benefits those who own physical assets such as houses but devastates those trying to save, massively entrenching the intergenerational inequality.” Hooton concludes, “It may be repulsive to express it explicitly, but a protracted suppression strategy would materially and perhaps permanently damage the lives of the 2 million New Zealanders under the age of 30 to briefly maintain the life expectancy of some thousands of people in their 80s.”

Pundit Chris Trotter responded: “rephrasing Hooton’s argument even more repulsively: At what point do we let Grandpa die, so that we, his grandchildren, can have a crack at the sort of life our grandparents and parents were able to live?”

But Hooton is not alone. Similar sentiments have been voiced by Grant Guilford, Vice-Chancellor of Victoria University in Wellington. “Put simply, public services can only be as strong as the business community that supports them… we should not lose sight of the fact the lockdown is creating both short-term and long-term detrimental effects on health and wellbeing… Were the impacts on younger members of society who bear the brunt of the financial consequences appropriately weighed against the interests of the elderly members who carry the highest health risks?” Guilford asks.

New York First Responders were issued an across-the-board Do-Not-Resuscitate order for any patient without a pulse. Photo: Taidgh Barron NY Post

With little fretting about ‘ethics,’ hospital bosses in Italy decided that “It may become necessary to establish an age limit for access to intensive care,” while New York state authorities issued an across-the-board Do-Not-Resuscitate order to emergency First Responders for any patient without a pulse. This was necessary, they explained, “to protect the health and safety of EMS providers by limiting their exposure, conserve resources, and ensure optimal use of equipment to save the greatest number of lives.”  This is all for the common good, of course, of course! The New York order was rescinded after angry protests from the paramedics themselves.

It is worth recalling that the right wing of capitalist politics are not the only ones to frame social and political tensions in terms of conflict between generations. The foremost promoters of this false and reactionary idea have been liberals, such as the much-lauded environmental activist Greta Thunberg and the Green Party MP Chloe Swarbrick.

Nor is it only the ‘lift-the-lockdown-now’ tendency in the discussion which is suggesting whose lives need to be sacrificed in the interests of the greater good.

I have lost count of the number of times I have seen smug references in social media to ‘morons’ and ‘idiots’ attending the anti-lockdown protests in the United States, often coupled with the hope that these people will succumb to the disease themselves, or will die by injecting themselves with disinfectant, as suggested by US President Donald Trump.  One popular meme features a picture of Charles Darwin, the biologist who formulated the theory of evolution, saying ‘Shh- I’ve got this’. The only possible interpretation of this meme is that the death of people who follow bad advice from Donald Trump and other capitalist figures is to be welcomed – or at least would be a bit of a laugh – because that will rid the human race of such ‘morons’ and thereby improve the human genetic stock by Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest.’  (Among other things, this meme is an insult to Darwin).

Eugenic meme being circulated on social media by supporters of lockdown measures. The meme welcomes the possibility that people may die after following bad advice from capitalist leaders and authorities, on the basis that this will rid the human race of ‘right-wing, disinfectant-imbibing morons.’

There was a time, not so long ago, when such eugenic ideas were universally decried by liberal thinkers. I am sure most of those circulating this meme would be horrified to think that they are promoting eugenic ideas. But it is precisely through humour such as this that such morally repugnant ideas enter the discourse. From there it is only a short step into the stinking swamp of capitalist morality.

Workers should turn their backs on the sordid debate between the ‘nows’ and the ‘laters’ and reject the devil’s trade-off between ‘health’ and ‘the economy’ entirely. Neither side in this debate is concerned with preservation of human life, both are solely concerned with the quickest possible resumption of capitalist profit-making – their disagreement is purely a tactical one. Behind the classless abstractions which form the terms of their debates lurk more sinister class realities: When they talk about ‘our society’ they mean the interests of the capitalist class. ‘The economy’ is their term for the process of capitalist profit-making, in which economic activity by working people producing to meet human needs is entirely a secondary matter. The devil will take both our health and our jobs, and much more besides, if we let him frame the terms of the discussion. For the working class, the question is not when the lockdown is lifted and economic activity resumes, but under what conditions we return to work, and under whose control of safety.

New York bus driver wearing mask. Nearly 100 transit workers have died of Covid-19, including 68 in New York. Photo: Jeenah Moon, Reuters

Capitalist governments around the world imposed lockdown measures not in the interests of public health, but in order to minimise the disruption to capitalist profit-making. They demonstrate this every day by their total lack of concern for the health of ‘essential workers’ who are required to work during the lockdowns: some of the most deadly clusters of cases in the US have been among transit workers in New York, and meat and poultry processing plants far from the big cities. At least 68 transit workers have died of Covid-19 in New York alone. In the Indian subcontinent, given the desperately crowded state of much urban workers’ housing and poor sanitation, there was little possibility of lockdown measures actually halting the spread of the disease – in fact, the lockdown set in motion a mass migration from the cities to the villages which could only worsen the spread. And it is the same motivation, the drive to resume profit-making, which will lead those same governments to lift the lockdown at some point.

India’s lockdown set in motion a mass migration which could only worsen the spread of the disease. Photo: Time

In order to confront the crisis – both the pandemic and its associated economic crisis – workers need to break with capitalist political leadership and defend their own class interests. This includes, as a matter of necessity, reaching out in solidarity to the ‘independent contractors’, farmers, small proprietors ruined by the economic slump, and other middle class layers.

The following is a starting-point – and only a starting-point – for acting in defence of our class in face of the combined assault on our jobs and wages, our health and safety, and our class solidarity.

  • Recognising the centrality of the question of safety on the job during the pandemic, to support actions by bus drivers, retail workers, health workers, and others demanding protective equipment and safe conditions of work, including barriers and physical distancing. No worker should have to risk their life in order to work! No worker should be fired for speaking out about inadequate safety protection!
  • Demand workers’ control over safety and production – time after time, the employers have proven unwilling and unable to ensure safety of workers on the job, and time after time government safety agencies have proved to be creatures of those same employers. Safety must be placed in the hands of committees elected by the workers themselves, through their unions. Such committees will need to regulate hours and pace of production too, both in the interests of the workers – where in factories like the meat and poultry plants pace of production is inseparable from safety – and to ensure that production meets human needs. They should reach out to farmers to collaboratively organise distribution of farm produce that the capitalist market leaves to waste. Where necessary, workers safety committees should also take responsibility for public safety in their place of work.
  • Demand that the government implements a scientifically-based programme of public health measures to combat the pandemic, commandeering whatever factories and machinery are needed to produce the materials, and whatever hotels are needed for quarantine purposes. This should be centred on sufficient testing for the disease, including random testing in affected communities, and tracking and tracing of contacts of infected individuals, together with mandatory, supervised and supported quarantine of infected individuals, along with frequent sanitising of public spaces and workplaces. These measures have proven most effective in countries that have adopted this approach. Where appropriate and necessary, it should also include temporary stay-at-home orders and border restrictions. Avoidable deaths – disproportionately workers – are demoralising and disorienting to the working class.
  • Organise unions and strengthen existing unions. Use them to resist the bosses’ assault on workers’ wages and conditions, and to defend workers victimised for fighting back. No wage cuts, no victimisations! Demand emergency relief for all workers thrown out of work by the lockdown measures or the slump, or unable to work because of unsafe conditions in their workplace. No worker should be forced by economic need to jeopardise their safety. Every farmer or small proprietor ruined by the slump should likewise receive a guaranteed minimum income.
  • Demand an end to the bailouts of big business. Instead there should be a massive programme of public works to provide jobs – at union pay scales – rebuilding the run-down health facilities, repairing neglected infrastructure, constructing desperately-needed housing.

Through fighting along this class axis we can unify ourselves, build an alliance with other exploited layers impacted by the crisis, and prevent our class being torn limb from limb. In the process, we can most effectively act to minimise the loss of life and permanent damage to health caused by the pandemic.

The next post will look at the economic crisis that caused the pandemic.


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