[It is in our power to decide how to meet this crisis.  We could
deepen divisions and set off on the fool’s errand of building
“Fortress America.” Or we could use it to build community, forge
solidarity, revive internationalism, renovate democracy. ]
[https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE LABOR 

 CLASS AND THE CHALLENGE OF COVID-19  
[https://portside.org/2020-03-19/class-and-challenge-covid-19] 

 

 Joseph A. McCartin 
 March 16, 2020
Working-Class Perspectives
[https://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/2020/03/16/class-and-the-challenge-of-covid-19/]


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 _ It is in our power to decide how to meet this crisis.  We could
deepen divisions and set off on the fool’s errand of building
“Fortress America.” Or we could use it to build community, forge
solidarity, revive internationalism, renovate democracy. _ 

 , 

 

COVID-19, the coronavirus that is spreading across the world, is
wreaking havoc on working people and their families.  Weeks after it
burst onto the world scene, the end of this deadly threat is still not
in sight.  Although it is clear that its death toll will not begin to
approximate that of the lethal 1918-19 worldwide Spanish Influenza
[https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html] epidemic,
early indications are that COVID-19 could end up inflicting even more
economic and political damage than that earlier pandemic.  Its impact
is likely to reveal with deeper clarity than we have seen in a long
time the class lines that divide our society and the true costs of
decades of deepening inequality.

There is no escaping the class dimension of the COVID-19 outbreak, for
working people are most likely to be affected by both the virus and
efforts to contain its spread.  The way they earn their livings
necessarily exposes many workers to the risk of contracting the
disease.  Some—such as nurses and homecare workers—put themselves
at risk on the front lines caring for those who are ill. More
than one-third
[https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-nursinghome/seattle-area-nursing-home-unable-to-test-65-workers-with-covid-19-symptoms-idUSKBN20X01R] of
the 180 workers Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington, the
Seattle-area nursing home where 13 patients died of COVID-19, appear
to have contracted the virus.  Other workers—including flight
attendants, teachers, and food service workers—work in highly
interactive settings where the virus could easily be contracted and
transmitted.  If they do contract the virus, working-class people are
more likely to die from it because they disproportionately experience
one of the underlying medical conditions
[https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/high-risk-complications.html#who-is-higher-risk] that
makes COVID-19 much deadlier than the flu: heart disease, diabetes,
and lung disease.   Moreover, if they feel ill, U.S. workers are
more likely to delay seeing a doctor either because they lack health
insurance or have high co-pays that discourage them from getting
treatment.

Efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 also have a class
dimension.  As the Chinese and Italians found, workplaces provide
natural nodes of virus transmission.  In order to restrain the spread
of COVID-19, the Chinese government adopted strict quarantine
measures
[https://www.npr.org/2020/02/29/810334985/as-new-coronavirus-cases-slow-in-china-factories-start-reopening] that
prevented nearly 300 million migrant workers from returning to their
jobs after Chinese New Year celebrations, shuttering that nation’s
manufacturing economy for three weeks.  Italy did the same. 
Fiat-Chrysler closed
[https://www.ibtimes.com/coronavirus-update-fiat-chrysler-automobiles-close-four-italian-plants-over-covid-19-2938287] its
Italian plants as the virus spread.  Manufacturing and service
workers worldwide cannot “telework” as many white collar or
professional workers worldwide are now beginning to do.  Hourly
workers are far more likely to lose income than salaried workers
during the coming weeks of “social distancing.”  The relief bill
[https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/6201?s=1&r=88] enacted
by the House on March 14 guarantees sick leave to only 20 percent
[https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/14/opinion/coronavirus-pelosi-sick-leave.html?] of
American workers according to the _New York Times_.  Those still
vulnerable include independent contractors or gig workers.  As San
Francisco Uber and Lyft driver Steve Gregg
[https://time.com/5802661/coronavirus-cancelations-workers/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+time%2Ftopstories+%28TIME%3A+Top+Stories%29] explains,
he is “not in a position” to stop driving despite suffering mild
panic attacks over his fear of infection.  He must work to support
his family.  Too many workers like Gregg are still in the position
where they must decide between personal financial ruin and
accelerating the spread of a deadly pandemic.

In their classic 1929 study _Middletown_, Helen and Robert Lynd
observed that the class lines separating working-class from
middle-class neighborhoods in 1920s Muncie, Indiana, were most
visible before dawn
[https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.156473/page/n67/mode/2up/search/dawn]:
working-class homes were first to switch on their lights as their
occupants rose to face the workday ahead, which started earlier than
the 9 to 5 days of the “business class.”  In the weeks ahead, the
class lines that divide today’s America might become most visible
around who must still venture out to work and who can work from the
safety of home.

Yet crises can also be opportunities.  For forty years, Americans
have been subjected to the drumbeat of libertarian market
fundamentalism, the endlessly repeated allegation that government
action could only worsen problems.  “The nine most terrifying words
in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here
to help,” Ronald Reagan famously joked
[https://www.reaganfoundation.org/ronald-reagan/reagan-quotes-speeches/news-conference-1/] in
1986.  Who’s laughing at that line now?

Crises like the current one have a way of exposing the bad faith of
unclad emperors and their minions.  If the impacts of just wars,
depressions, and epidemics tend to be differentiated along class
lines, they also give the lie to ideologies rooted in atavistic
individualism.  While they demand expertise and intelligent
leadership, crises of this kind cannot be resolved by “dear
leaders” who issue dictates.  Both their courses and their
consequences transcend the individual; they demand mass mobilization
and collective action on behalf of the common good.

Although we have not chosen this moment, it is within our power to
decide how to meet it.  We could deepen divisions and set off on the
fool’s errand of building a “Fortress America,” as our
wall-obsessed president urges by cynically labeling the contagion a
“foreign virus
[https://time.com/5801628/donald-trump-coronavirus-foreign/].”  Or
we could use it as an opportunity to build community, forge
solidarity, revive internationalism, and renovate the crumbling
edifice of democracy.

Working-class culture and workers’ movements have long carried
within their DNA the antidote to what now threatens us.  The COVID-19
pandemic reminds us of the timeless truth of the principle once
popularized by the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, the
largest workers’ organization in nineteenth-century America: An
injury to one must be the concern of all.  If we embrace that
time-honored ideal, not only can we reduce the potential lethality of
COVID-19, we can begin to build a world more resistant to future
plagues.

_Joseph A. McCartin is Executive Director of the Kalmanovitz
Initiative for Labor & the Working Poor
[http://lwp.georgetown.edu/] at Georgetown University._

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