We are living during one of the greatest health crises in modern American history. Unlike many other developed countries, workers in the United States lack universal healthcare, widespread sick leave, free COVID-19 testing and treatment, and most live paycheck to paycheck. American workers simply do not have the resources to stay home and take the necessary preventative measures against the transmission of this disease.
In these dangerous conditions, nonessential businesses are being ordered by most states to close in the interest of public health. Yet, many businesses are continuing to operate either with the false premise of being essential or because they falsely claim to have safe work environments for employees. Simultaneously we’ve seen an outcry from politicians supporting the continuation of the economy in spite of the crisis, or at least the shortest quarantine time period possible.
This must be clarified: We cannot return to work. Nor can the many nonessential businesses which are operating now continue to do so. Neither of these things can happen until the deadly pandemic sweeping our nation has passed because these would mean millions of additional COVID-19 cases and hundreds of thousands more dead.
We’re already seeing health resources in central areas such as New York City being overwhelmed as a result of the intensity and volume of new cases. The United States is on track to experience massive shortages of hospital beds, ventilators and other essential medical supplies, and as we experience peak quantities of cases, hundreds of thousands will die. This is the opposite of a situation where we could even afford considering a return to work. Instead, we need universal assistance for the many workers who would otherwise be unable to remain home.
What we’re witnessing with COVID-19 is one of the main instabilities of capitalism: Firms must prioritize short-term profit over everything else. And when the government is run by the wealthy, it will consist of political representatives of these firms who have the same directive. This is why businesses are staying open and politicians advocate for a return to work despite the cataclysmic risks this poses both to long-term economic progress and the lives of working people.
There is a myth that capitalism is based upon the universal self-interest of market actors. But it could be that, from the self-interested perspective of a capitalist, it makes far more sense to have a temporary nationwide industrial halt for a few months in the favor of a strong and healthy workforce in the long term. This simply doesn’t matter because capitalism is incapable of making these crucial long-term considerations.
This same logic explains why the world continues the use of fossil fuels in the midst of a climate catastrophe. It may be to the best interest of capitalists and their lineage to maintain a habitable planet on which they could continue to exploit the surplus value of workers. But this doesn’t matter because in order to maintain one’s wealth and power as a capitalist you need to be invested in the most immediately profitable enterprises regardless of their social effects. And during a lethal pandemic, you must do everything you can to have workers remain at work to continue generating profit.
If the U.S. had a wholly democratic government and economy, this crisis would be far less of a worry. Workers could choose to keep everyone safe by staying home, and the resources to support everyone in this endeavor could be distributed easily. Instead, we live in an oligarchy where the wealthy and their state representatives can make self-interested choices without regard to working people’s health. These wealthy business owners, bosses and politicians are choosing a policy of continuing work because they must prioritize short-term profits. Their structure of power leaves no room for moral or humane considerations.
If the leaders of our economy and government continue to advocate for a murderous, insufficient response to this crisis, it is imperative that we organize direct actions to force the proper one. Either our political and economic leaders organize a national quarantine for the duration of the crisis, we organize the cessation of work until it’s safe to return, or millions of lives are put at risk for profits.
American workers need to reject an unstable economic system which has proven time and time again it does not care about our lives nor our well-being, and there is no better occasion for this than during a massive lethal pandemic.
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Harrison Raskin is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.