Around two weeks ago, when the first wave of closures — the schools, the ballgames, the bars — began to roll across the country, a clock began ticking in my head. How long will it be, I wondered, before some rich person goes on TV and starts quacking about “getting the country going again” because they’re losing money?
Flash-forward to this past Sunday morning, and wouldn’t you know it, some self-satisfied capitalist was on one of the cable networks arguing that “low-risk,” low-wage workers (who are the economy even as they seldom benefit from the economy) should go back to work and just let the virus “burn through” their ranks.
He labeled them “low risk” because the workers he referred to are younger and allegedly less likely to fall deeply ill if infected, but new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that about 40 percent of COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization are between 20 and 54 years old. That is not a small number of patients.
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Under vastly different circumstances, perhaps it would have been possible to argue for a different path of action than dramatic physical-distancing measures, following from the idea that to develop a herd immunity to COVID-19, a certain number of people have to contract it and recover (assuming we are even capable of developing an immunity, which is not yet confirmed). To even countenance this idea, however, we would need a robust and fully functional health care system to aid in the recovery process.
In point of fact, the U.S. health care system lags far behind much of the developed world. Even countries with strong systems, such as Germany, are at risk of being subsumed by COVID-19 for the same reason the U.S. system is perhaps days away from collapse: The for-profit commodification of health care itself has thoroughly denuded the ability of those systems to react to this crisis.
“Germany is home to one of the most modern, richest and most powerful health-care systems in the world,” reports Der Spiegel. “The coronavirus is mercilessly exposing the problems that have been burdening the German health-care system for years: the pitfalls of profit-driven hospital financing. The pressure to cut spending. The chronic shortage of nursing staff. The often poor equipping of public health departments. The lag in digitalization.”
Yet the absence of a health care infrastructure capable of absorbing and treating thousands of patients — even “low-risk” ones — did not stop Captain Capitalist from going on TV and suggesting that maybe it’s about time workers started feeding the beast again. The machine is groaning for lack of lubrication, see. Can’t shut it down and be kind to each other, share our vast yet vastly imbalanced resources, and simply be for awhile until this thing runs its course, saving lives every step of the way. There’s no money in it.
On Sunday night, in yet another Twitter rant, Donald Trump indicated he may be edging toward ignoring the advice of the experts and lift the social distancing strictures intended to thwart the spread of COVID-19:
WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2020
There’s money to be made elsewhere, to be sure. “Over the past few weeks, investment bankers have been candid on investor calls and during health care conferences about the opportunity to raise drug prices,” reports Lee Fang for The Intercept. As media outlets focus on individuals hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer, the real money hoarders are leaning into this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to peel massive profit from a desperate land.
Partnership for America’s Health Care Future (PAHCF), a major health care industry lobbying group that is stoutly opposed to Medicare for All, launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign last week to push back against any effort to fix our broken for-profit system. This comes on the heels of insurance industry efforts against waiving costs for COVID-19 treatments.
Meanwhile, mayors and governors are screaming at Trump to use the Defense Production Act, a law that allows the president to essentially nationalize privately held portions of the means of production in order to churn out needed materials. Those mayors and governors need ventilators, masks and coronavirus test kits. They needed them a month ago. Trump has invoked the law, but he steadfastly refuses to actually use it.
Why? Because we have reached the apotheosis of Ronald Reagan’s most rancid gift to the nation: “Government is the problem.” This pestiferous ethos, voiced during Reagan’s first inaugural address, has become holy Republican writ over the course of the last 40 years.
Now, in Trump, it has its greatest champion. Trump is refusing to let government influence business, even in this moment of life-and-death crisis, because the advisers who have his ear worship at the altar of Reagan. For them, right-wing ideology and the profit margin are more important than your life, or mine.
Of course, there is also an angle to be played. “In declining to actually make use of the Korean War-era production act that he invoked last week,” reports The New York Times, “Mr. Trump is also avoiding taking personal responsibility for how fast the acute shortages of personal protective gear and lifesaving equipment are addressed.”
And then there is the currently stalled $1.8 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, which hit the reef in Congress over the weekend. Democrats are balking at the Senate GOP’s version of the bill because it is far too top-heavy with financial assistance to corporations and lacks sufficient assistance for working families.
The main sticking point, however, is a $500 billion slush fund included in the bill, which was originally a $208 billion slush fund until the lobbyists dogpiled the process. This money would be disbursed by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, presumably at the behest of Trump, with no oversight.
“The Treasury Department would have broad discretion over where the money would go,” reports The Washington Post. “President Trump already has said he wants the money to be used to rescue the cruise ship and hotel industries, making his preferences clear, but at a press conference on Sunday refused to say whether his own hotel properties would apply for the funding.”
Natch. These fellows never, ever, ever miss an opportunity to loot the till.
And therein lies the rub. The priority of the people (for the most part) is to stay safe, to get well if they fall ill, and to do what must be done to eventually return to some semblance of a normal life. The priority of the capitalists is to get the money machine going again, to take full advantage of the crisis in the name of profit, and to defend their well-staked financial turf from any reforms that may be proposed in the aftermath.
U.S.-style capitalism is also a virus, and it has infected every aspect of this situation. Worker safety, insurance coverage and costs, medical preparedness, and vital supplies — even the bill intended to rescue the country from some final financial calamity: All have been perverted and disrupted by the profit motive that never, ever, ever sleeps.