The COVID-19 crisis has shown clearly that we live in a system that puts profit ahead of peoples’ lives and health. Workers have been forced to work without proper personal protective equipment and physical distancing. Many non-essential businesses have continued to operate on spurious grounds.
Now pressure is building in many countries across the world for an ‘exit strategy’ from the shutdown. This pressure is not coming from working class people. Everyone, of course, would like to see the end of the shutdown which has had a big impact on the incomes of many, but also causes real issues for people’s mental health.
Despite this, the majority of people have accepted the shutdown and have complied voluntarily with medical advice because we understand the need to protect public health.
The pressure to re-open the economy comes from big business. In the US, Dick Kovacevich, an executive at Cisco and Cargill, summed up the callous attitude of many at the top of society: “We’ll gradually bring those people back and see what happens. Some of them will get sick, some may even die, I don’t know … Do you want to take an economic risk or a health risk? You get to choose.”
Even in Italy, employers have fought to keep non-essential industry open throughout the crisis and has started putting pressure on the government to lift restrictions. In the Spanish state, another place which is at the centre of the outbreak, the government has already conceded to the pressure and re-opened manufacturing, construction and other sectors.
In Britain, some government back benchers are beginning to articulate the need to end the lock-down. With one claiming “Money does not grow on trees!” and revealingly “why should we lock-down any longer than Italy or Spain? Or France?”
In the US, Trump is desperate to get the wheels of capitalism turning again. He worries that China has already started to ramp up production and that they could get a competitive edge over the US in the trade war.
Capitalism is a system based on the ruthless pursuit of profit but also ruthless competition on a national and international level. It is in the interests of big business and capitalist governments to be the ‘first’ to end the shutdown. They pose it as being about the economy and jobs, but to set this consideration against public health is a false choice.
There exists in society the wealth to sustain living standards during a temporary shutdown of normal economic life. The world’s 26 richest people own as much as poorest 50%. On the basis of a redistribution of this wealth we could sustain public health measures as long as needed and ensure workers and the poor don’t pay the price.
Of course a shutdown of the economy and normal life cannot continue indefinitely. There does need to be a real plan to end the shutdown. But it must be one which proceeds with caution on the basis of the scientific evidence and with public health and well-being as the overriding consideration. A critical part of that is a serious approach to mass testing, with the rapid return of results.
We need a plan to re-open the economy on the basis of public need. We can’t leave the decisions up to big business or to the capitalist governments that represent them. Workers themselves should determine what is ‘essential work’, and we should decide how and when to return to work.
The fact that big business is willing to risk the health and even lives of workers to return to profitability is an indictment of the inhumane capitalist system. At the same time, the huge solidarity shown by working-class people during this crisis points to the possibility of a different way of organising society.
Public ownership and democratic control of the key sectors of the economy is needed to ensure a society geared to the needs of the majority, not the profits of a few.
By Conor Payne