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2022 Must Be the Year the Left Proactively Shapes the COVID Agenda

We must regain our bearings and adjust our organizing demands and strategies to address a permanently changed world.

People gather for a protest demanding Pfizer and wealthy nations make the COVID-19 vaccine and treatments more accessible at One Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza on July 14, 2021, in New York City.

As we head into the winter holidays nervously checking news about the Omicron variant and rising COVID-19 case numbers, let’s take a moment to think of how a more just society might handle the coming weeks.

Schools and many workplaces would offer remote options for the final week before Christmas to slow the spread just before people gather with older relatives and immunocompromised loved ones. Airports and bus stations would have free rapid tests for all passengers traveling for the holidays. Finally, of course, pharmaceutical companies and wealthy nations would have been forced to share vaccine supplies and formulas with the rest of the world, which probably would have prevented Omicron in the first place.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in that society, but rather in one that hoards vaccine supplies, and in which leaders like New York Gov. Kathy Hochul urge workers to be forced back into offices even as they anticipate that hospitals will be pushed to the breaking point by the coming COVID spike. It is because of this greed and short-term thinking that the U.S. is now entering a fifth wave, and the dream of eradicating COVID is dead — despite the astonishing success of scientists in quickly developing effective vaccines.

The personal depression many of us are feeling about another holiday season being ruined is matched by the political gloom that comes after a year of our expectations being steadily lowered. As frightening as the first year of COVID was, it was also a time of hope and new possibilities — fueled first by Sen. Bernie Sanders’s insurgent presidential campaign, and then by the summer’s historic movement for Black lives uprisings. It was common to hear talk in the mainstream press of how the pandemic revealed the need for deep structural changes, and President Joe Biden’s first stimulus bill — the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan — offered hope that the country’s political leaders might actually do something for once.

Since then, however, Biden has reverted to the inadequate centrism that has marked his entire career. While the new administration has thankfully not continued its predecessor’s daily stream of misinformation about masks and fake cures, it left in place many of former President Donald Trump’s most disastrous COVID policies, including:

Finally, there have been Biden’s proclamations that the pandemic is over and his gaslighting about how well his administration has handled the pandemic, even as the death rate under Biden’s watch has been as bad as it was under Trump. Mass death has become so normalized among the political class that the Biden team seems genuinely confused that in the midst of a historic plague, more Americans aren’t happier about some positive economic statistics.

The ruling class may be impatient for us to get over it already, but for many Americans, the profound questioning of priorities that started in 2020 didn’t stop in 2021. Instead, it has shifted from collective political movements to individual life choices. Record numbers of people have quit their jobs in 2021 for many different reasons, from seeking higher pay elsewhere, to taking an early retirement, to deciding that contagion risks have made already lousy jobs unbearable, to programs like the American Rescue Plan and eviction moratoriums allowing some to save money on child care and transportation by staying home. The so-called “Great Resignation” is the culmination of five decades of declining working-class conditions on and off the job, and it offers a glimpse of the societal upheaval waiting to be unleashed when just the slightest hint of an actual social welfare state removes the immediate threat of hunger and homelessness.

The resulting labor shortage has had numerous effects: from massive supply chain backlogs caused by unfilled truck driving and warehouse positions; to higher wage growth as employers are forced to offer raises to fill positions; to worrying impacts on hospitals and schools where already overstretched workers are leaving in droves. It’s a period of sustained chaos, but also the first moment in generations when the power of workers is making itself really felt, and when workers aren’t silently bearing the crisis but shoving it back in the bosses’ faces.

The left has an important role to play in giving voice to this moment when U.S. workers for the first time in generations are asserting that life is more important than a miserable job. We can help organize some of these individual actions and tie them to a set of policy demands that strike a blow against right-wing nationalism while putting Democrats on notice that we are not as willing as they are to accept a million deaths.

But to do that, we have to regain our bearings. The left has struggled to respond to COVID since those initial months in 2020. Hard questions like vaccine mandates and school closures have divided us, while more unifying and crucial demands such as ending Big Pharma’s vaccine monopoly haven’t garnered enough organizing. Most of us were demobilized over the last year as we watched the agonizing process of the Democrats’ once-promising Build Back Better bill undergo death by a thousand Joe Manchin shrugs. Of course, like everyone else, we’ve also been ground down by two years of grief, anxiety and depression — and hoped that the vaccines would end the pandemic and allow us to return to previous organizing work.

Now that we know that’s not happening, it’s time for a reset. In that spirit, I offer these resolutions for the new year.

  1. We will accept that COVID is here to stay. We will do our best to stop being disoriented by each new variant and spike, and adjust our movement demands and organizing strategies to address this permanently changed world.
  2. We will not give in to fatalism and stop fighting to reduce the virus’s spread. We will never accept the normalization of mass death. The fact that we will not eradicate COVID doesn’t mean we stop striving to protect the immunocompromised and elderly, and those of us who feel more protected by the vaccines should be wary of how little we know about the effects of long COVID and the possibilities of future vaccine-resistant strains.
  3. We will put the spotlight back on the massive concentrations of wealth that should be deployed both to protect us from COVID and to increase the minimal pay and staffing levels that are driving workers to quit. There was much media coverage when billionaires increased their wealth by almost $4 billion during the first nine months of the pandemic, but that attention has faded even as billionaire wealth grew even faster in 2021. Then there’s the three quarters of a trillion dollars going to military spending every year, none of which will protect us from a disease that has killed more Americans than every single war of the 20th and 21st centuries combined. Everyone should know that the entire world could be vaccinated for the extra $25 billion that Congress just tossed to the Pentagon for no apparent reason.
  4. We will put our heads together and come up with an easily understandable Green New Deal-style framework for COVID justice that shows that public health can’t be separated from economic, racial and global equality. Taxing the rich; sharing vaccines with the world; free and abundant rapid tests; disability coverage for those with long COVID; freeing the incarcerated; universal paid sick leave… The list could go on forever but we cannot make lists forever, so we will need public debate and strategic thinking.
  5. We won’t be spectators. There were many great proposals in the Democrats’ original budget reconciliation bill crafted by Senator Sanders, but few grassroots attempts to try to mobilize protest as those proposals were ruthlessly plucked out one by one by centrist Democrats. Next year may be a major election year, but we can’t afford to let the Democratic Party shape our COVID agenda. In 2022, we have to reorient and give voice to all those straining to resist the push in both parties to make previously unthinkable levels of death become the new “business as usual.”
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