Beyond Cabin Fever: The Left Confronts COVID-19

Grand Lake Theater Oakland Marqee
Marqee of the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, California, celebrating a double bill consisting of the end of the Coronavirus and the end of Donald J Trump. Photo Credit: Ted Franklin / SCNCC
Ted Franklin | System Change Not Climate Change | March 30, 2020

“Let the virus not infect our souls,” pleaded the message on the church sign in my neighborhood. 

“Let the virus not stop our organizing,” I silently responded. One of the few recognized excuses for leaving home under the San Francisco Bay Area’s self-isolation order is to get outdoor exercise so I continue to walk and wonder how we who are organizing for radical change are to proceed when many of us are confined to quarters and struggling to consolidate our shopping lists and study our instructions on how to avoid the virus without the wipes, Purell, and Lysol that flew off the shelves before we get ours.

Humor can help get us through.  “Six feet apart or six feet under.” We need humor, don’t we? Colbert gave up after a lackluster monologue from his bathtub. Trevor Noah has given it more of a go and seems to be hitting his stride keeping us amused. But the Left needs more than humor and survival techniques. We have an irresistable itch.to respond to calamity with social solidarity and action, to build the new society out of the ashes of the old.

My own Green New Dealish projects have taken some giant stutter steps. As civil authoriities issued procalamation prohibiting parades and public gatherings, I was working on organizing for an Earth Day Climate Strike demonstration with Labor Rise for Climate, Jobs, Justice & Peace (the local affiliate of Labor Network for Sustainability), Sunrise Movement, Democratic Socialists of America, and Youth vs Apocalypse.  Earth Day is April 22. By all accounts, Earth will be at the height of the pandemic on April 22. Our march through San Francisco, and Climate Strike activities around the world will have to be “virtual,” using new forms of mass action we will have to figure out as we go.

Another project I was working on at the time of the shutdown was attempting to launch a modest campaign to fight for free, public, green, and massively expanded public transit within my local DSA chapter. There is a real social movement growing around transit.  See Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators, an anthology edited by Judith Delheim and Jason Prince, and Kafui Attoh’s essential Rights in Transit: Public Transportation and the Right to the City in California’s East Bay.

When masses of people are avoiding public transit like the plague, generating interest in such a campaign is not an easy sell. It is nonetheless necessary.  The deadline for strong worldwide action to avert climate catastrophe has already arrived.  A radical Green New Deal that includes a revolution in transportation is the only sane way to rebuild our economy after the coronavirus has passed. Over two-thirds of humanity is projected to live in urban areas by 2050 and the right to mobility has become an essential prong of any Leftist program for building a just society. It's a great cause, but a difficult one to promote when the busses BART trains are empty.

As the coronavirus impinged on organizing efforts and forced face-to-face meetings into the Zoomosphere, I began to suffer from information overload caused by too much attention to the 24-hour news cycle which now includes visits to major newspaper websites. Increasingly, I began to seek out perspectives from fellow leftists as an alternative to the dysfunctional dystopia of the mass media.

I found a lot.

Over 14,000 people watched a brilliant livestreamed conversation between Naomi Klein, Keeanga-Yamhatta Taylor, and Astra Taylor on Thursday.  Last night, I caught a video with 91-year-old Noam Chomsky who is self-isolating in Tucson, Arizona. “It’s a colossal market failure,” Noam told his interviewer, Srećko Horvvat, one of the co-founders of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025. “This is so shocking that you don’t know how to describe it.  Germany can’t help Greece, but Cuba can help European countries.”  I clicked on another link and listened to Greek economist and former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, another co-founder of DiEM25,talking about the economic and political impact of the virus.

I’ve been seeking out ecosocialist analyses of the pandemic because it now seems inevitable that a sharp and painful recession is underway. The ever thoughtful MacArthur fellow, activist, scholar, and prolific author Mike Davis has shared some thoughts on Jacobin at Mike Davis on Coronavirus: “In a Plague Year”. Fifteen years ago, Mike Davis wrote the book The Monster at Our Door – The Global Threat of Avian Flu: in which he warned of a viral catastrophe brought on by the combination of globalized capitalist development, ecological devastation, and the neoliberal gutting of public services.  Tuesday afternoon, March 31, Haymarket Books and Verso Books will be cohosting Capitalism is the Disease an online teach-in featuring Davis.

Monthly Review, one the world’s leading ecosocialist theoretical journals, has provided a valuable daily newsfeed through its zine MRonline as well as a deep dive in the form of an article by Rob Wallace, Alex Liebman, Luis Fernando Chaves, and Rodrick Wallace entitled COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital.  Rob Wallace is an evolutionary epidemiologist and author of Big Farms Make Big Flu.  An interview with Rob Wallace also appeared on Ian Angus’s online journal Climate and Capitalism.  The journal has long been on my list of key inputs for ecosocialists.

Kamran Nayeri, a fellow ecosocialist I met through System Change Not Climate Change, has published an essay entitled The Coronavirus Pandemic as the Crisis of Civilization on his blog Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism.  Nayeri has staked out a position critical of anthropocentric ecosocialism. He argues that infectious diseases present a fourth existential threat to humanity along with climate change, the Sixth Extinction, and nuclear holocaust and that the antidote to all four threats is ecocentric ecosocialism.

The always prolific Counterpunch has been on overdrive with over a dozen substantive articles each day presenting a range of takes on the coronavirus crisis. The Progressive (one of the few current left publications that was around during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic) has also been posting frequently. Jacobin has included articles such as Coronavirus Can Be a Death Blow to Neoliberalism – If We Organize while reminding readers that a presidential campaign is still going on and Joe Biden Is Wrong About Single Payer and Coronavirus.

A common theme of leftist commentary is that the spread of COVID-19 and its impact are being exacerbated by the failings of our economic and political order and the savage inequalities it fosters. Many point to the role of neoliberal bashing and smashing of government in creating a perfect storm of broken public health systems and chaos in the economic fallout from the virus. Others debunk the claim that COVID-19 “affects us all equally” by analyzing the ways in which the pandemic is having vastly different impacts based on class, race, and gender.

Asian-Americans have experienced violent physical attacks by "patriots" egged on by Donald Trump's identification of the "China virus."  Racism in America is always ready to take off its mask in a crisis. For deeper understanding, a racial solidarity group in Oakland, California recommends reading When a disease is racialized - by Edward Hon-Sing Wong ffor the Lausan Collective, Racism, borders, and the coronavirus by Yesong Lee for Marx 21, and Social Contagion by  闯 Chuang. By the time the virus has run its course, it seems certain that the toll -- in both health and economic terms -- will turn out to be greatest in communities of color.

The risk of contracting the virus at work varies greatly according to occupation and working conditions. The New York Times created a bubble graph (The Workers Who Face the Greatest Coronavirus Risk) showing how different types of workers may fare with exposure to disease on one axis and proximity to others on the other axis.

Lawyers fair well on both counts. Among those with both high exposure and close proximity are nurses, personal care aides, flight attendants, and paramedics.

“Health care workers are at the greatest risk – they can encounter diseases and infections daily and typically work in close proximity to one another and their patients,” says The Times.  “Many are already under quarantine because of exposure to the virus.” In the early weeks of the pandemic, at a single nursing home in Washington State, at least 70 employees fell ill.

Outside of the medical world, the danger of contracting the disease at work has fallen most heavily on those whose economic existence is most precarious.  In Brazil, more than 38 million workers in the “informal” economy – 41% of the labor force – are unable to follow guidelines and have no safety net to fall back on. The situation here in the United States is similar for gig workers.  From musicians to Uber drivers to street vendors, the pause in economic activity is devastating. Immigrant households are hard hit, especially those led by women whose jobs cleaning homes and hotelrooms, waiting tables, and working in retail have vanished.

But low-wage workers lucky enough to keep their jobs in the midst of tsocietal shutdown are exposed to danger in many workplaces.  The progressive political blog The Stansbury Forum is planning to publish narratives of 500-700 words from workers who interact with the public and are still on the job, about working during a pandemic.  They are soliciting accounts from those with eatery jobs (counter, servers, backend staff), sanitation workers, sex workers, outreach workers, law enforcement, salespeople, organizers, campaign workers. The Forum has already published Fear at Work by bookstore worker Kurt Stand describing the nervous anxiety he and his do-workers experienced in the weeks before the store closed, leaving them “safer” but unemployed.

Meanwhile, those of us who are under orders to stay at home are counting on many workers – warehouse and grocery workers, truck drivers and delivery people -- to stay on the job.  Few of them have the option of staying at home unless they want to lose their jobs. Many do not have adequate paid sick leave since none is mandated by law.  Many workers are left to figure out as best they can how to keep themselves and their families safe.  Describing the challenges facing truck drivers, a Cincinnati TV station reports, “Some of the COVID-19 pandemic’s most essential workers are having a hard time with the most basic things, like finding food or a clean restroom.

Work actions have begun. On Monday, Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, N.Y., and Instacart grocery delivery workers at sites across the country walked off their jobs demanding increased protection from the virus at work and improved sick leave policies.

"Actions speak louder than words," Instacart worker Sarah Polito told National Public Radio. "You can tell us that we're these household heroes and that you appreciate us. But you're not actually, they're not showing it. They're not taking these steps to give us the precautions. They're not giving us hazard pay."

Whole Foods employees are planning a national strike for Tuesday over coronavirus concerns.   Walkouts Spread as Workers Seek Coronavirus Protections reports Labor Notes, a newsprint and online clarion published by and for dedicated rank-and-file union activists.  Labor Notes has added Organizing in a Pandemic: Labor Notes Reoruces, a webpage providing news and views focusing on Labor’s confrontation with the pandemic. Among the recent articles is a chilling account by RN Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, New York Nurses Are Living a Heartbreaking NightmareSolidarity Is Our Only Chance sets forth longtime labor activist Jane Slaughter's proposed demands for the moment and the need for a collective working class campaign to win them.

On many fronts, activists across the country and around the world are responding to the crisis and grappling with the magnitude of the tasks before us. The Sunrise Movement has organized Sunrise School, an online community for young people whose schools have been closed, and recently conducted a four-day Crash Course on the Green New Deal and the Coronavirus.   Labor Network for Sustainability has brought together representatives of labor, climate, and social justice groups to collaborate on a platform of demands to pursue at the national level.  The People's Bailout, endorsed by over 100 organizations, is organizing lobbying of Congress to insist that bailout legislation include:  (1) health protections that cover all people, (2) direct aid to those in need, (3) rescie for workers, not corporate executives, (4) investment in a regenerative economy, and (5) protection of democracy and voting rights.Democratic Socialists of America, an organization in which I have been active, has issued a statement Now is the Time for Solidarity and is circulating an excellent petition for a working class solution to the COVID-19 crisis but we all know that statements and petitions are only meaningful if we build a movement that can bring them to bear. The work that is happening in DSA chapters and working groups across the country is inspiring, yet something bigger still is needed.

Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal proposal is the only plan put forward by a presidential candidate that comes close. Adapting many of the components of the Green New Deal as an answer to three converging crises:  the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting recession, the climate emergency, and extreme inequality, a growing coalition has put forward an important initiative under the rubric A Green Stimulus to Rebuild Our Enconomy: An Open Letter and Call to Action to Members of Congress

As Naomi Klein has explained so well, a crisis like the pandemic can be exploited by the powerful to increase their stranglehold on society--a phenomenon Klein has dubbed "disaster capitalism." But a crisis can also present an opportunity for liberation and human progress. To ensure the latter outcome, we will ned to unite masses of working people around the demand that our society’s recovery plan take the shape of a Green New Deal that puts people and the planet ahead of capitalism and its pathological worship of profit.