The covid-19 pneumonia pandemic has already afflicted more than 145,000 people and killed 5,000. After a rapid spread in China this January, the essential characteristics of the disease emerged clearly: high contagiousness, relatively low mortality (3-5 per cent of those infected) concentrated in the over-50 age group, and a high probability (17.5 per cent) of producing a condition requiring intensive care in order to survive the disease.
After decades of erosion if not dismantling of public health systems, a disease capable of generating mass hospitalizations means a direct threat of health system collapse. And collapse means increased mortality. Not only that of people with Wuhan’s pneumonia, but also that of people suffering from other illnesses as a result of the collapse of the care system. That is why, from the beginning, the Chinese experience made it clear that only through early measures of mobility and public sociality restriction, including in particular workplace closures, could the epidemic be contained.
The few countries whose authorities decided to take such restrictive measures before accumulating thousands of cases (Singapore, Hong Kong) managed to stop the spread. However, Great Britain and the United States seem to have chosen to leave their population at the mercy of the epidemic. Italy, Germany, France and Spain, despite having thousands of cases, delayed taking the necessary measures in order to keep the productive apparatus running.
What the coronavirus reveals
The covid-19 pandemic is exposing the permanent disaster that capitalism is today: hospital structures overwhelmed by default, emergency services eroded by “anti-crisis policies,” housing in which three and sometimes four generations have to live together with little space… and states that give priority to keeping capital accumulation running rather than closing down workplaces, even though they know they are putting a large number of workers at high risk of contagion from a serious disease.
The main lesson that the development of the epidemic must teach us as workers is that the threats we face as a class are global: the virus, like the crisis, knows no borders, and what happens in each place affects the rest. There are simply no national solutions. Even “coordination” cannot be expected; the interests of individual national capitals prevent the ruling classes from providing truly global solutions. They will always have an incentive to “wait a little longer”, to call us to “get on with life” first and then to “individual responsibility”… as long as they do not lose their competitive edge.
It’s not a question of “individual responsibility” or “unity”
When companies are closed and absence from work is paid as leave, “individual responsibility” will begin to mean something. Meanwhile, they try to pass the buck by keeping us working despite increasing the danger of further spreading disease. Waiting until the last moment to close, however much they disguise it, will only increase the number of infections and deaths. In countries where the virus has begun to spread and there are cases of community contagion, there is no other option but to close down all non-essential production, carry out tests, ensure the distribution of medicines and food for everyone and consider the time spent in home confinement as time off work.
The calls for “unity” while mourning in advance the “loss of loved ones” that thousands of families are already suffering, are a call for us to accept our own sacrifice to keep the national capital running. You only have to listen to the employers’ organisations calling for lower taxes and redundancy facilities instead of hospital beds, increased recruitment and resources, to see where the real priorities and concerns of the European bourgeoisie and its governments lie. The needs of capital – producing profits no matter what – are placed above universal human needs even in the middle of a health crisis. When governments consider that their measures are not about correcting the years-long abuses made to the health system but to put patches on them while allocating funds to “help the treasury” of the companies, to ensure that they do not close down, they are making it very clear what the “sacred anti-viral union” means: to increase the spread and the deaths among working families in order to reduce the consequences of the epidemic on national capital.
Not closing factories and workplaces, even when they become hotbeds for the spread of the coronavirus, is tantamount to sending workers to be infected with a serious disease. To offer temporary or total dismissal as the only alternative is criminal blackmail. Physical integrity and life are basic human needs. We have reached the point where we have to fight, in the middle of a global health crisis, to impose the most basic necessities of life on the needs of capital – let us work, until our deaths if needed, in order to produce dividends – and fight against trade unions that are happy to have us sent home – without pay.
The workers’ response
When governments could no longer downplay the severity of the disease, it became clear to more and more workers that governments were putting workers and their families at risk. In Italy, a wave of dozens of “coronavirus strikes” is jumping over emergency laws and trade union containment. Similar strikes have broken out this week in Belgium and Britain, and there is growing tension in workplaces in Spain and France, leading in more than one case to temporary strikes to impose basic health security measures on employers.
Spontaneously, the response of the working class is taking place in the same space as the crisis, the only one in which it can take place: the international one. And on a plane that opposes and clearly expresses the antagonism between the most basic and universal human needs – life and physical integrity – and the demands of capital – to keep working to produce dividends and profits.
It is clear that workers are the only social class whose interests represent universal human needs, unlike the ruling class which only wants to save its own national business. Under the “coronavirus strikes” is the only social force that represents a hope for the whole of humanity by affirming the primacy of human life over the agony of dividends.
What is to be done?
The “serenity” and “individual responsibility” that governments from Trump to Sanchez are calling us to is that of a “sacred anti-viral union” with the same class that dismantles and erodes health care systems, the same class that prioritizes “economic impact” over the risk and needs of the workers they want to send to work without complaint.
But if the spread has multiplied it is because the priorities of each country’s bourgeoisies and their governments are focused on maintaining social order, preventing their national capital from being devalued, and trying to keep production “normal” by inertia. Their ideal is that we should uncritically obey the dictates of each moment and not worry or criticize but remain “united” as long as they deem necessary to the production of profits. We cannot accept this. The risk for working families and the general population is too high. That is why it , it is time to go on strike in all workplaces not engaged in essential production to ask for:
- The closure of all non-essential production and the implementation of general confinement.
- Reversal of all dismissals, both permanent and temporary, and compensation as medical leave for workers throughout the period of confinement.
- The extension of testing to the entire population with symptoms.
- The urgent reinforcement of medical and health teams, and the setting up of a large enough number of emergency structures and hospitals to allow the monitoring and isolation of patients at risk.