By Ben Heili
The COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity for ruthless plunder by the rich. It could also be a catalyst for our side.
The year 2020 is not going as planned. Because of COVID-19, people cannot safely gather together in groups. Other safety concerns, real or pretended, have mostly taken a back seat to social distancing and supporting medical workers and other crucial jobs. These new political and social boundaries are both an opportunity and a threat as we work to broaden human rights. The window of what seems possible is wide open right now. We have the chance to make good changes permanent, but repressive regimes and large corporations worldwide also see this as a chance to advance their agendas. The virus has robbed us of our ability to gather, but people are finding other ways to be and work together. There will be opportunities to fight to make temporary gains permanent. But we need to learn to organize on this new turf.
COVID-19 has rattled our economic and political system to the roots, and the bullshit is starting to shake loose like rotten fruit. Signs are appearing everywhere, in good and bad ways. Parts of our system that go to great lengths to oppress or profit or deceive are dropping away for now. In many places, people who were jailed for minor probation violations or because they are too poor to pay bail are being allowed to live at home during the crisis. A few Italian men with a 3D printer fabricated $1 replacements for an $11,000 medical valve to save lives. When the company holding the patent for the valve sued them for helping in an emergency, it was ridiculed on a global scale. Human need is starting to come first in a lot of ways that it hasn’t in recent memory. Meanwhile, by fighting to preserve April’s so-called election, the Republican Party of Wisconsin has dropped all pretense of caring about the lives of anyone but themselves and their donors.
In the first year of the presidential campaign, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and friends spent much time and effort defending the private health insurance system. Our current system makes healthcare an individual responsibility, though the circumstance of needing healthcare makes a person more likely to fall short of paying for that care. Centrist democrats support that philosophy, but the virus has laid bare its flat falsehood. Healthcare is not an individual issue and it never has been. A person’s health is more tied to luck than personal responsibility. People have already died of this virus solely due to lack of coverage.
The gig economy was built on bullshit. Uber’s business model for its entire existence has been to ignore laws, pretend they are not ignoring those laws, run immense deficits, and eventually build a monopoly. It pretends its drivers are not employees, even in the face of laws specifically designed to make it act responsibly. Startups have replicated that business model all over the economy. Gig employers have bloated themselves on venture capital but kept their workers on the edge for years. The new situation has shifted this landscape greatly as well. Gig workers, though their app bosses claim they are not employees, are now eligible for coronavirus unemployment benefits. Instacart workers (who have become essential workers on the front lines as people stay home) have struck for benefits and safe working conditions.
There are people out there using the new rules of the game to concentrate unjust power further. Three major new factors reduce accountability for such actions: first, it is unsafe to gather for mass protest. Second, the biggest news story of the century is crowding out almost all other reporting. Third, emergency power can be invoked to justify all sorts of unjust acts. Viktor Orban has already gained dictatorial power in Hungary. Just a few examples of such acts: Amazon is likely to monopolize the gains from the death of many retail businesses. The Trump EPA is using the crisis as an opportunity to loosen environmental regulation once again. With opportunistic timing, the Trump administration is enacting cruel federal termination policy by taking land from the Mashpee Wampanoag people (against whom, not coincidentally, Trump has clashed recently due to business conflicts). This act demands a mass protest that cannot safely materialize in this moment, and the news cycle will have flushed it away by the time this article is published. ICE and CBP continue raids and detention policies that will literally have genocidal results when the disease reaches their already inhumane facilities. In general, this is the type of moment where strongmen can emerge to finish off dying democracies. The worst prospects for the next year are terrifying.
Because of the forces of concentrated capital, the bailout bill congress passed was predictably weighted in favor of large corporations. It did not come close to addressing the human needs that will continue through this crisis in the coming months. Joe Biden has changed his position on healthcare for this one disease, but maintains his defense of insurance companies. For coronavirus, he says, treatment should be covered. But for the person who needs chemotherapy, it’s tough luck. Maybe they should have chosen to catch the emergency disease if they wanted coverage. For the people laid off from their jobs specifically because of a public health crisis, well, they might lose their insurance. It is impossible to try to map consistency onto the old worldview while we are in the throes of a deadly pandemic. But as the powerful work to maintain the brutal system that compounds this crisis, other ideas are emerging. Governments and average people are suggesting and implementing solutions that were nowhere near the realm of possibility months ago: rent strikes, nationwide mail-in voting, mailing monthly support checks to every person, and more.
Regardless of the actions of congress and the president, new things are being written into the American psyche throughout this collective trauma. Many people are mobilizing to help one another out. Crucial workers whose value has been invisible to many people are now being seen as emergency first responders, rightfully gaining hazard pay and paid time off in some places. Most importantly, cracks are more visible than ever in the “human nature” argument that doubters always pull out against collective action. Mr. Rogers famously said, “look for the helpers.” I’m looking, and I see a lot of helpers around. If we come through this crisis by taking collective responsibility for our shared humanity, the new normal will have great potential for positive change. However, to beat out self-consolidating capital will take the conscious effort of many to strengthen and multiply our natural impulse to help one another.
How our world comes out on the other side of this dark time will have a strong influence on the way we approach the climate crisis, which still somehow dwarfs the huge crisis we face now. Will we weather this as individuals, or together? Will we find ways to organize for our rights and our needs, or will the oligarchs be able to show us outright just how expendable they think we are? Will the door of possibility open or close? We must answer these questions now, through our own actions.