The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

United States:
Covid-19, Partisan Politics and the Flattening of Public Health

Oct 30, 2021

The United States, with all its wealth and with some of the most technologically advanced medical facilities in the world, has racked up practically the worst rates of Covid-19 infection and death among developed countries proportionate to the population. This continues to be true today almost two years after Covid first was recognized in the United States. [All figures concerning Covid infections, deaths and vaccination come from the database compiled by the New York Times, updated as of 10–29–21, derived from the CDC, Johns Hopkins University, state and local public health agencies in the U.S., as well as the World Health Organization.]

At the same time, the U.S. has the worst rate for vaccine delivery (shots in the arm) of any developed country—and this despite the fact that the U.S. early on used its economic preponderance to practically corner the market in vaccines. Six months before vaccinations were even available, Trump bragged that the United States had enough doses to vaccinate fully its whole population, adults and children combined. In fact, it had contracts for at least twice that many, if not more.

The Republican Party had been stung by the 2020 election campaign that placed responsibility for the virus on Trump’s head, and indirectly on their whole party. From the beginning, Republicans had tried to shift the discussion to focus on the difficulties raised for the population by the various public health measures, from the earlier shutdowns, to various restrictions of activity. In recent months, the Republican focus has been on vaccinations and masks. More exactly, they insisted that individuals have the capacity to decide for themselves if and when to wear a mask or be vaccinated and should not be prevented from doing so.

As Covid pushed through still another surge, and the campaign to vaccinate the population ran into headwinds, the Democrats responded by imposing mandates in one form or another, on the federal level, as well as by municipal state governments they controlled. Biden characterized those who were not vaccinated—almost one third of the population older than 12 years old—as selfishly recalcitrant. In other words, the positions of both parties do nothing but place responsibility for addressing the virus squarely on the individual.

In doing so, both parties hide the responsibility of the capitalist system in the spread of this virus, and the complicity of their own parties in that responsibility.

A century after World War I’s deadly influenza epidemic and long after public health science had provided the means of dealing with infectious diseases, how was Covid-19 able to develop to become a latter-day version of the earlier epidemic? This is the problem—as the saying goes, the elephant sitting in the room that no one deigns to notice. The debate between the two parties effectively boils down to electoral calculations—neither of them raises the question of what should be done to prevent the development, perhaps on a more deadly scale, of a future pandemic.

Hypocrisy: Republicans Have It Down to a Science

In recent months, seven Republican governors rapidly pushed “emergency” legislation through state governments that their party controls, the goal of which was to hinder any attempt either on the federal level or on municipal levels to mandate vaccination or the wearing of masks. They quickly clarified their prohibition to include elected school boards, prohibiting them from requiring masks in the schools or even imposing a quarantine in the face of an outbreak. These seven states were soon followed by other states where the Republican party was in control.

Led by Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, Republicans claimed the issue was “freedom of choice,” the right of individuals to choose for themselves, without interference from the government, what is done to their own bodies; to choose themselves whether they will be vaccinated or wear a mask. This is the same party that for the last 48 years has trampled on the right of women to do exactly this: to choose for themselves, without interference from the government, what is done to their own bodies concerning abortion and other reproductive issues. The Republican claim to stand for “freedom of choice” rings hollow.

It also reeks of hypocrisy. Every one of these governors and almost every Republican legislator lined up to be vaccinated—although most did it without any public acknowledgment. Each of these seven governors, with one exception, managed to get the vaccine as soon as it was available—in most cases together with their whole family and extended entourage. Not at all surprising that several of them even cut in line ahead of some of their most vulnerable constituents. (Of course, they weren’t the only politicians who prioritized themselves. Democratic Governor Cuomo of New York, whose administration for months hid the horrific rate of infection and death in his state’s nursing homes, got his shot before most nursing home patients had even heard rumors of a vaccination.)

The Republican campaign, supposedly against only vaccine mandates, in fact boils down to calling in question vaccination itself, these particular vaccines and, finally, all vaccines, including even the basic array of shots against measles and various other childhood diseases.

In reality, the Republicans were simply trudging down a well-worn road the “anti-vaccine” groups had already paved. Yes, the “anti-vaxxers” often tried to scare parents, pushing the myth, for example, that childhood vaccinations had led to a big increase in autism. But they also spoke about “freedom of choice” and “liberty” long before the Republican governors found those terms useful. But the freedom they both talk about is just as much a myth as the one concerning the origin of autism. What they both want is freedom from all social responsibility.

If Republicans had wanted to be clear about their supposed intentions, about their claim that they don’t oppose vaccines or masks, but only mandates, they could have distanced themselves from the “anti-vaxxers.” They did not. By not doing it, they gave the anti-vaxxers a much wider audience.

Finally, it’s not a big jump from the Republican campaign about vaccine mandates to wild conspiracy theories that hold vaccine shots are implanting a computer chip in your bloodstream or modifying your DNA. Some Republicans may laugh privately at such theories, but many of them base their own arguments on theories just as wild: for example, that the CDC has been exaggerating the severity of the pandemic or of the disease itself; that new anti-viral drugs get rid of the need for vaccination; or even that we might do just as well by letting everyone become infected, gaining a “natural herd immunity.”

The Republican Party seems to have calculated that its best chance in the next election rests on stoking such wild theories, pushing the most reactionary ideas. This boils down to gambling, for their own political gain, with the lives of those who listen to them.

Behind the Anti-Vax Forces: The Same Big Money behind Other Reactionary Measures

There is Big Money funding the growing attack on public health measures. For example, consider the Charles Koch Institute, which was funded by billions derived from Koch Industries, a conglomerate making, among other things, paper cups, chemicals, jet fuel, fertilizer, electronics, and toilet paper. Together with Americans for Prosperity, another group funded by Koch money, the Charles Koch Institute has been engaged in opposing masks for children in schools.

It should come as no surprise that foundations known for funding extreme-right causes are funding attacks on public health measures. Under the pretext that they oppose all forms of “government intervention” in the economy, such foundations often support anti-social measures. Koch money, for example, goes into legal campaigns, lobbying and legislative maneuvers to oppose regulations aimed at limiting occupational injuries or environmental damage. Koch foundations regularly fund anti-union campaigns, even paying for billboards to encourage an anti-union vote in unionization campaigns. The Charles Koch Institute is behind the Janus case that went to the Supreme Court, which threw out the right of unions to have their dues deducted from state workers’ paychecks. The legal costs of that campaign were paid by the Uihlein family’s Liberty Justice Center. The Koch Institute has poured money into the attacks on public schools, reinforcing charter schools in the struggle, calling for “school choice,” etc.

Koch money doesn’t stand alone in adding opposition to public health measures to all the other extreme-right causes it funds. The DeVos family of Michigan, through a leader of one of the foundations it set up with Amway profits, has questioned the efficacy of vaccines. DeVos billions also support various so-called “right-to-life” groups, i.e., anti-abortion ones, and “schools of choice,” which have been a way to set up public-funded schools that exclude most students. The Robert Mercer Family Foundation, which lives on money coming from a hedge fund, was one of the first to fund the “open-up-the-economy” movement of 2020, that is, opposition to the long quarantine. It also set up and funded anti-Muslim groups that opposed immigration from all Muslim countries, and it gave money to push the idea that global warming was only an “unproved theory.”

Right along with Koch and DeVos and Mercer money comes money made in a wide variety of very big American corporations, money that traditionally goes to right-wing causes, but which has also flowed into groups opposing public health measures. These include various foundations set up by the Higgins family, using profits funneled out of Vicks VapoRub; as well as the Walton Family Foundation, with money flowing out of Walmart; the so-called “Liberty Justice Center” was funded by the Uihlein family, whose money derived from various industries in Illinois and Wisconsin, including shipping; and the Bradley Foundation, whose funds come from the Allen-Bradley company, one of the early makers of electronics instruments.

Many of these family fortunes, derived from well-known companies, link together to fund reactionary causes. Some, most in fact, fund to reinforce religion. For years, money from many of them, along with money from Big Oil, has streamed into efforts to deny the effects of climate change. Some still fund organizations questioning the reality of human evolution, calling it just another “theory.” More recently, some of them have been behind the push to remove any teaching about slavery and its consequences from public school curriculums. During the protest movement after the murder of George Floyd, a number of them poured money into support for the police, including by pushing the so-called “Blue Lives Matter” trope. And even though they supposedly are “non-partisan,” many of them, including the Bradley Foundation, helped to fund the campaign that pushed the “big lie” that Trump had really won the election.

OneAmericaNews, a competitor seeking to stake out a position more to the right of Fox News, got its chance because AT&T not only provided space for OAN on Direct TV, which it controls, it also provided funding of at least 57 million dollars a month to OAN. Over its five-year contract, OAN will pull down at least 3.5 billion dollars from AT&T.

Since starting up in 2017, OneAmericaNews has pushed conspiracy theories of all sorts to grab its place in the media universe: it claims that Trump’s election was stolen and that the Covid-19 pandemic was exaggerated. It touted, first, hydroxychloroquine, then the anti-parasite medicine for horses, ivermectin. It highlighted the deaths of people like Colin Powell, stressing they had been vaccinated against the virus, thus calling vaccination in question. OAN created a story out of the whole cloth that an 87-year-old man who had been knocked down and beaten by the cops in Buffalo during a Black Lives Matter demonstration was an “agent” sent by “Antifa” to attack the cops. That drew it so much attention, OAN spread the story that “Antifa” was behind the January 6 riots. Several of its reporters were released from duty, while being paid, to raise money for conducting the private “election audit” in Arizona.

These reactionary ideas that just seem to float around today don’t just spring out of the minds of the population, unbidden as it were—they are part and parcel of the same extreme-right view of the world that is funded by Big Money. And that includes opposition to public health.

Biden Reproaches the Population

Biden staked his election on being the Not-Trump candidate in the middle of a pandemic associated with Trump’s reckless social attitudes. Biden claimed he could lead the effort to overcome the virus because he would “listen to the science.” Once in office, he promised that by July 4th, the nation would declare its “independence” from the virus. And distribution of the vaccine was accompanied by talk of 95% efficacy, which people took to mean that 95% of the population were completely protected once vaccinated, if not permanently, at least for a long time.

Someplace between Biden’s “science” and the virus, however, there was a disconnect.

New upsurges came along, worse than the ones that came before. July 4th came and went and the virus was still in control. And new infections, “breakthroughs,” were reported among those vaccinated. The CDC decided not to record all “breakthroughs,” only of those who were hospitalized or died.

Distribution of the vaccine slowed down, then slowed down again. Biden jumped ahead of “the science,” declaring in August, on his own account, that boosters would be given to all fully-vaccinated adults starting in September. His statement may have pleased the stockholders of Pfizer and Moderna—and Wall Street—but it added to the confusion and stories circulating on social media.

With more and more resistance to vaccination, Biden adopted a tougher tone to his rhetoric. His whole position boiled down to this proposition: “WE have a problem, and YOU are the cause of it.”

Blaming those who remained unvaccinated, he moved to institute mandates: first for the military, then for federal workers and people working for federal contractors, then for people working at places that got funding from either Medicare or Medicaid. He called on state and city officials to follow his lead. Many Democrats did. Then he called on heads of private companies employing more than 100 people to issue their own mandates.

The stick behind all these mandates was the threat that someone who remained unvaccinated would be either fired, or at least suspended without pay. Directed against those who work, it had a clear class bias to it.

In fact, distribution of the vaccine itself was organized with the same class bias. Getting a vaccination caused little problem for middle class people, for those whose job situation was stable. But vaccine distribution was organized within a society that places structural barriers for many laboring people. The lower your income, the greater the barrier. Technically, any one could get a shot. Practically, it wasn’t at all obvious for those in somewhat economically precarious situations, nor for those who had the responsibility of caring for children or disabled elders all day long.

Those in jobs without real benefits, which means a very large share of the laboring population, including some working in nursing homes, couldn’t get any time off work to get it. Some couldn’t afford the loss of pay to take off, and they feared the loss of more wages if they developed the side effects that were so widely talked about. Some lived in areas far from distribution sites, requiring transportation many didn’t have. The lack of transportation caused another problem because the biggest sites, rural or urban, functioned as drive-through clinics. During the first half year, at least, vaccinations were given by appointment, and many people had no way to make an appointment, deprived of internet access as many people were. Nor without the internet could they even look up a phone number—if they had known what to look for, since the administration of vaccine, including of appointments, was really decentralized from the beginning and detailed information had no wide circulation. Even after walk-in clinics were set up, lack of internet service meant people had no way to find out where they were or even to know that such clinics existed. Rural areas where vaccination rates are low have been called “medical deserts,” with good reason. There are no hospitals, no clinics, very few doctors.

Those people who archly say that anyone who wanted the vaccine could have gotten it simply reveal their own class prejudices—and ignorance.

This doesn’t even begin to take into account all the reasons why ordinary working people might be distrustful of the vaccine. In this country, with its private and expensive system of medical care, many people have no links to a medical system, and even fewer have a doctor, the same doctor, whom they regularly see—meaning that many had no way to have their questions or worries about the vaccine answered by a medical provider they might trust. According to the Kaiser Health News, the strongest predictor in September, nine months after vaccinations started, of who did not get a shot was who lacked medical insurance.

Yes, Biden said, and reiterated, the vaccine is free. But people have learned a long time ago that there are many other fees attached to “free” medical service.

Many people had already seen how the government, with all its “science,” used them or their families as guinea pigs in experiments, or how it had condemned poor women to sterilization so they wouldn’t bring more people like themselves into the world. Given everything that has happened, for what reason would people who are disadvantaged by this system put their trust in it?

Faced with the loss of their livelihood, some people may now get the shot. Even so, many still have no way to do it. When Biden began to blame the unvaccinated for the disaster that was the spread of Covid, he simply added to popular distrust of and frustration with the whole situation, not simply among the supporters of Donald Trump, but also among those who voted for Biden himself, not to mention among those who in 2020 were already too fed up to vote.

Problems stemming from the way this society is organized not only threw up obstacles for people who might have been vaccinated. Some of those same problems contributed to the spread of the virus. For example, the lack of sick pay: unable to afford to take a day off without pay, people push themselves to go to work when they are sick. It’s well known that this contributes to the spread of “colds” and the flu. Add to that Covid. Another example: how do people find out they are sick with the virus, in danger of spreading it, that it isn’t just the usual bad winter cold—when the country they live in demands cash on the barrel head before it opens access to its medical facilities?

Public health has long known that the way to engage people in a project is to give them information, to meet them where they are, to take the time to fully answer their questions, and, above all, to organize the activity in ways that make it possible for people to join in, in places they know and have easy access to.

But that involves, as the saying goes, boots on the ground. It involves having public health departments that function, that have enough money to hire trained workers and to establish such facilities in every neighborhood. This did not exist when Covid-19 broke out. It does not exist today, almost two years later. In fact, it exists even less today than at the end of 2019.

A Deprived Public Health System

Vaccination was an enormous advance in its time, giving human societies the possibility of escaping from or at least blunting the spread of contagious diseases, some of which carried the possibility to wipe out whole societies. Before vaccines, there were societies wiped out.

Some of the vaccines against Covid that exist in this country and others seem also to be an advance, based on new discoveries about the structure of some viruses. Of course, no one can know for sure what lies down the road. In medical science, like many others, every new step has to be tested and that takes time. And, given the problem of facing an epidemic that requires immediate attention, things can be even less sure. When people say they were worried because this vaccine was developed so rapidly, they aren’t exactly wrong. When others say they feel like a guinea pig, they also aren’t exactly wrong.

But the fact is, in the middle of the epidemic, you have to act, that means you have to make a choice. To the extent that any of us can gauge, this new vaccine is the least bad choice. It may even be a very good one—we can’t know right now. But that’s not the issue. We have to act right now. We have to make a choice. And this is the choice that in the midst of a spreading epidemic that people with experience in this field have settled on. It’s why the militants of the Spark organization made the choice to be vaccinated themselves, and how they explain it to other people.

Having said this, it’s equally important to say that the vaccine is not the end-all-be-all. To put all our hope in the vaccine is to ignore this reality: the spread of the virus was directly pushed along by the way this capitalist system is organized, and by the drive for profit on which it is based. This reality is finally what must be addressed if we are to avoid other disasters like Covid.

First of all, so much of the world today lies in an impoverished state—many whole countries, even parts of the most developed countries. That impoverishment carries with it an opening to the virus, an invitation, as it were, to come right in. This comes right back to the way imperialism has divided up the world, holding peoples in many areas in thrall, forced to work for wages that do not allow them ever to escape poverty. The fact that so many people today who are among the most vulnerable to this virus have not yet been vaccinated, and won’t be able to be for many more months, if not years, speaks to what imperialism has done.

It also speaks to the fact that this world is a whole. As the Delta “variant” shows, what develops anywhere in this world that imperialist trade and travel has cobbled together, can pop up anywhere else, including in countries already protected by a vaccine.

Capitalism today is destructive of human life, here in this country, where we live, and in the whole world which we all inhabit.

Public Health Sacrificed on the Altar to Private Greed

One of the clearest examples of capitalism’s destructive capacities is what has happened to public health in this country. To quote from a July 1, 2020 Kaiser Health News study: “The U.S. public health system has been starved for decades and lacks the resources to confront the worst health crisis in a century.... It faces more cuts amid the virus.”

Concretely, the report details the following spending cuts to public health: state spending per capita, down 16% since 2010; local spending down 18%. Those cuts, along with cuts to almost every other public service, were the consequence of very large shifts in government budgets, allowing corporations and wealthy people to pay significantly lower taxes, allowing banks and corporations to be bailed out or subsidized, allowing the people who speculate with all the money government has created to go right on speculating.

These cuts had consequences, among which were the cuts to public service jobs. Over ten years, 38,000 jobs were cut from public health—the boots on the ground, trained people. But ten years ago, public health departments were already strained past any workable limit. This is why there was no one available to organize the campaign of vaccination in ways that would reach the people most in need of the shots, that is, the most vulnerable. Vaccination teams—private, for the most part—may have gone rapidly through nursing homes because there was a quick profit to be made there. Nowhere else.

What is true for vaccination is true for all the other things public health must do. In the midst of a contagious disease, several things are needed to block its spread: first of all, testing and tracing of people who fall sick: who did they see, to whom might they have passed on the virus? But even today there still is no real tracing, nearly two years after the fact. For months there were no tests, and now once again, hardly any tests, at least the rapid ones that more people could afford. There was not—and there still isn’t—enough protective equipment so that every person working not only in the medical field, but in any vulnerable position could be adequately protected. Simple measures.

And there’s worse. The systems that are used to collect data from health departments and transmit it are old-fashioned. Some are not even digitized. The computer systems that do exist won’t run advanced programs. The networks won’t transmit data rapidly, if at all. In many cases, reports are still entered manually, then faxed to the CDC. In other words, the CDC has very little way to know—in real time in the midst of a spreading virus—what is happening, how many people are getting sick, how many hospitalized and where. What are the real numbers? But without that information in real time the CDC can’t really act—even if it had the forces to do so, which it doesn’t. For the New York Times to compile its running log—which it admits is not at all complete, because many health departments never file reports, or are way behind—it is forced to cobble together information from multiple sources, all of whom have their own way of reporting information, much of which doesn’t exactly match. The New York Times log is just an approximation, perhaps useful for us to have a picture, but hardly useful for someone trying to decide where forces should be put—right now. It takes weeks before these statistics are gathered in a way that allows the CDC analysts to really know what is happening; that is, assuming there are any analysts left to do the work.

When statements from the CDC seem vague and confusing, that’s in part because the CDC doesn’t have nearly the people needed to work on all this vast amount of material created by a spreading disease. Even if it had the best will to communicate completely with the population, it doesn’t fully know the reality. The disease spreads still further.

The result of all these cuts meant that the only answers the system had when confronted with a spreading virus was to lock down, a completely inhumane answer, then to pin hopes on a new vaccine when it was already too late. This vaccine really is a small Ace bandage put on a broken limb. So long as you don’t walk, you might be OK. The lives of 750,000 lost have been recorded in this country, five million in the world, while we still wait on pharmaceutical companies to open their formulas. But no, they restrict them, just like they restrict their own production in order to keep their rate of profit higher. These nearly six million lives were sacrificed on the altar to profit, whose structure was built on top of the destruction of public health and other services. And the casualty count is far from over.

Another report, “Ready or Not 2021,” issued by Trust for America’s Health, concludes, “Without significant financial investment or technology upgrades the public health system could collapse.”

In the real world, it already has.

Conclusion

To draw anything out of the current mess means to ask the question of what must be changed in order to avoid a repeat.

Neither party dares ask, nor does the class, the wealthy bourgeoisie, that they speak for. The same things that got us here are being repeated—on a much greater scale.

Today, Republicans seem bent on eliminating public health agencies of any sort. A report issued September 15, 2021 by Kaiser Health News, details the following attacks: In all 50 states, Republican legislators have proposed bills to curb public health powers; 26 states have passed them, all with both Republican legislatures and governors. A few other Republican governors refused to go along. These laws permanently weaken the ability of public health departments to intervene in the midst of any resurgent disease—measles, for example—not just of the virus. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an advocacy organization funded by money coming from the Kochs and other right-wing billionaires, is behind many of these laws, having written the model and sent it on to friendly state legislators.

As a result of this difficult period for public health, over 300 heads of departments have retired, resigned or been fired by governors for political reasons. Thousands of the ranks in these departments have also quit, often because they have come under attack, including the threat of assault, or even actual assault by right-wing forces. In other words, departments that were already hollowed out are being steamrollered flat.

To this, the Democrats offer no answer. They cannot. They were part of the problem. In 2016, the Obama administration raided two reserve funds that had been set up in 2001 by Congress to deal with medical and health care emergencies. When Covid hit, those funds weren’t there; they had been depleted by the Obama administration to cover a deficit built up from subsidies his administration gave to the biggest corporations.

What conclusion can be drawn? Only this: the disaster which is the spread of Covid—not the virus itself, but its spread—springs from an outworn economic system, capitalism, with its rotting political superstructure, neither of which can be reformed. It will continue on as before, and will continue to do so until the working class finds its bearings again, until at least some part of the class begins to fight to impose its own solutions, bringing other workers in their train. The only hope, 21 years into this century, rests on the capacity of the working class to do that, no matter how dejected it might seem today, no matter how fragmented. What counts is that the working class still has the numbers, it still occupies the most important place in the economy, in the very midst of production—and this gives it, when it does finally begin to move, all the means needed to throw out this stinking system, to build a new one, made in the image of humanity.