The Spark

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

Health Disaster and Social Mobilization in Martinique and Guadeloupe

Sep 9, 2021

The following article and its introduction were translated from issue #218, September-October of Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), the magazine of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the Trotskyist workers group active in France.

This article from our comrades of Combat Ouvrier, militants active in Martinique and Guadeloupe, discusses their policy toward the major mobilizations against the immunity pass and vaccine mandate, which President Macron announced in his address on July 12.

There are some important differences between social, political, and public health conditions in the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe and those of mainland France. The demonstrations were larger there relative to the population, and the fourth wave of the pandemic struck later but more severely than in most regions of the mainland.

In these different contexts, Combat Ouvrier and Lutte Ouvrière followed the same political approach, that of expressing the feelings of workers opposed to the government’s policies. This included anger at Macron’s arrogance and his attempts to divert blame for the government’s failure to confront COVID by scapegoating unvaccinated healthcare workers and using the opportunity to try to bring the population under control.

The two organizations have resolutely opposed all attacks against workers, such as the threats of suspension or firing that weigh on the unvaccinated. The preoccupation of both is to seize the interest among workers coming from their own mobilization to raise their class consciousness, showing that beyond the vaccination pass, they are subject to the bosses’ attacks in many areas. The only way to defend themselves effectively is through collective struggle, which is the opposite of the “individual freedom” to get vaccinated or not, as those who try to confine the protests to opposing only the vaccine mandate express it.

Combat Ouvrier and Lutte Ouvrière are opposed to those who, whether through demagogy or reactionary prejudice, fought against not only the vaccination pass but vaccination itself.

Our approach was to address our own camp, the minority of workers who chose to express their discontent by taking part in these demonstrations—coming from the trade union movement, did they have any other choice? However, we did so while distancing ourselves from the reactionary aspects of the movement, notably a hostility to the vaccine itself.

This meant basing ourselves on the discontent, while trying to pull out a perspective that corresponded to the interests of the working class, opposing everything that divided the workers in the movement into vaccinated and unvaccinated.

We carried out our agitation not only against Macron, but against the whole capitalist system, linking it to the anger which has increasingly focused on just the vaccine mandate, trying to broaden it to take on all aspects of big capital’s offensive against the working class.

September 8, 2021

* * * * *

The COVID-19 pandemic took a tragic turn in the French Caribbean starting in August 2021. In Martinique and Guadeloupe, the pandemic, which had been more or less contained until then, brutally accelerated. The infection rate has at times reached 2,000 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. Since then, a decline in infections has been observed. But the hospitals remain full of COVID patients, especially the intensive care units (ICUs). For several weeks, emergency rooms were overflowing. The hospital morgues did not have enough room to store the bodies, and containers had to be set up. Funeral homes had no room. Families were decimated. Out of the 731,000 inhabitants of both islands, the hospitals counted 1,154 deaths between March 1, 2020 and September 3, 2021, or an average of 76 deaths per month. In the month of August, 633 deaths were registered on the two islands, or 8 times as many. And this does not include the many deaths at home.

A Predictable Disaster

In order to relieve the ICUs, some patients were flown by special planes to France. But doctors stated that they were forced to practice emergency medicine, meaning sorting the patients into groups. The most likely to survive were placed in intensive care—this meant younger people with fewer underlying conditions. Many others did not have this chance and died. It is known, for example, that some patients over 70 were sent home or left with basic medical care, lacking available oxygen or the means to administer it. Even when there was enough oxygen, the tubes were often too small to insert the amount needed into the patients’ lungs, lowering the chances of saving them. Many paid for this with their lives. During the first quarantine, the big hospitals in mainland France also had high mortality rates. But in lower proportions.

It must be stated that, in a general sense, the laboring classes of the French Caribbean experience the same problems as those of mainland France, but always worse. This is a constant fact at every level, due to the legacy of colonialism.

Sick people also died at home, since there was a shortage of home oxygen containers.

Certainly, the great majority of deaths affected unvaccinated peoples, as is true everywhere today. Although vaccinated people can also be infected, most are spared from severe forms of the disease.

However, in many cases of death, non-vaccination was far from being the sole cause. There was also a lack of treatment in poorly organized university hospitals. The responsibility did not lie with healthcare workers, who were very devoted to their work. Those to blame were the hospital administrators and their entire hierarchy reaching into the government. In Guadeloupe’s university hospital center, infected patients were often placed in the same rooms as the others.

In the Caribbean university hospitals, there is an enormous lack of staff and supplies. Even in normal periods, basic products like the antiseptic povidone-iodine can run out. Workers and unions have denounced this situation for years. The lack of trained personnel, especially in ICUs, is cruelly felt. The workers are exhausted.

The government hurried reinforcement teams from mainland France to support those of the Caribbean. The professor Louis Bernard, sent from the regional university hospital center of Tours to the university hospital center of Guadeloupe, declared on his return to France: “In more than 30 years of this work, I never saw this in a French department,” and “I still have nightmares about the massive influx of patients, of people waiting on stretchers for 24 hours without proper hygienic measures, of the many deaths in the hospitals.…” He spoke of “public health mistreatment” in Guadeloupe and declared that what he had seen there “would have set off riots in [the working-class Paris suburb of] Seine-Saint-Denis.”

The Population’s Fear of Vaccination

The big majority of the population in the French Caribbean is opposed to the vaccine. They are wrong, certainly, but the fact remains. The authorities knew this for many long months. And the poorest and most financially unstable layers of the population are the most resistant to the vaccine.

Before this deadly crisis started in early August, only 20% of the population was vaccinated against COVID. Today, this rate is closer to 40%.

How to explain that some say they would prefer to die than to “take the vaccine?” For many, it is the vaccine that kills. The influence of conspiracy theories spread on social media has increased and strengthened anti-vaccination beliefs.

An irrational fear of the vaccine exists among the population. But behind this admitted fear, there is also a form of distrust of the words of officials: prefects, regional health agencies, and the government. There is a sort of moral rebellion misdirected against the government’s advice about vaccination. In addition, the population as a whole has become skeptical of almost all problems. It has already been deceived so often that it no longer believes anything. In a similar sense, 70% of the population did not vote in the most recent regional elections because it “changes nothing.” The social situation heightens a general skepticism of the central government. For example, there is a lack of drinkable water, especially in Guadeloupe. The water in certain regions is contaminated with chlordecone, a powerful and very toxic pesticide. This product, banned in the U.S. and in mainland France, was allowed in the French Caribbean for several years longer under the pressure of the rich planters descended from slaveowners.

A Population Victim to Serious Underlying Conditions

The Caribbean population has long been the victim of endemic diseases. This situation has worsened as the population as a whole has aged. It is ravaged by diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, sickle-cell anemia, and prostate cancer also linked to chlordecone, as well as dengue fever, chikungunya virus, and Zika virus.

In Guadeloupe, 11% of the population has diabetes, compared with just over 4% in France. High blood pressure affects 40% of the population (31% in France). In Martinique, these rates are also very high. Furthermore, everyone is not equal in the face of these diseases: poorer people have far fewer means to properly care for themselves than the well-off. With an average 25% unemployment rate, 30% of the population living below the poverty line—practically twice as much as in mainland France—social consequences can be measured in the health of the Caribbean population and its access to medical care.

These underlying conditions have resulted in more severe forms of COVID and in higher mortality rates. And if this has been the case, it is because there was no real public health plan that was bold, general, and permanent enough to treat the population in normal periods. Worse, these conditions were sometimes worsened by the high doses of sugar in products sold by the big retailers, under the pretext that “Caribbean people love sugar.” The August 25 edition of the newspaper Le Canard enchaîné revealed the results of an investigation by the General Directorate for Competition Policy, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control (DGCCRF): “Not only have yogurt and soda usually remained overloaded with sugar, but as a bonus, their consumption is higher. For example, in Guadeloupe, 57% more sugary drinks are consumed. As a result of these higher doses of sugars, 11% of Guadeloupeans and 14% of Réunionese suffer from sugar diabetes, a rate 2 or 3 times as high as in mainland France. In Guadeloupe and Martinique, obesity rates reach 27.8%, compared to 14.5% in the rest of France. Against the background of the COVID epidemic, this increases the risk that a non-vaccinated person will have to enter the ICU.”

This is an example of what the big agribusiness and retail capitalists are capable of in their quest to constantly boost their profits. Making the population addicted to sugar is criminal, but it pays!

And so, on the one hand, the current public health catastrophe was predictable, since these untreated underlying conditions have long fed into a slow-moving crisis.

On the other hand, the lack of foresight and anticipation, combined with criminal cuts made to public health and hospital budgets over a long period, were important causes of the public health catastrophe.

The Movement against the Vaccine Mandate and the Vaccination Pass

For over a month, about thirty organizations, political parties, and associations in Guadeloupe have decided to protest together against the government’s imposition of the vaccine mandate and vaccination passes. According to the law passed on August 5, 2021, these measures are coupled with possible punishments for healthcare workers and workers in general, such as suspension of pay and work contracts in hospitals and companies.

Two nationalist and pro-independence organizations started the common action against the vaccine mandate and vaccination passes in Guadeloupe: the Union Générale des Travailleurs de Guadeloupe (UGTC), the main union in Guadeloupe, and the Lyannaj kont Pwofitasyon (LKP) [a coalition of groups formed in the 2009 general strike]. The participants include: the CGTG, FO, the FSU [all union federations], Combat Ouvrier (our organization), the Guadeloupean Communist Party (PCG), the UPLG (Union Populaire pour la Liberátion de la Guadeloupe), and several other nationalist groups and associations. About 8,000 people took part in the demonstration on July 17. This is an important figure for Guadeloupe, with a population of 376,000. Following this demonstration, no less than 1,000 people have demonstrated every Saturday in the streets of different cities of Guadeloupe. Between these Saturday demonstrations, meetings are held once a week in different cities, with no less than 200 participants each time. The unions have called for a general strike starting September 9 to demand the repeal of the vaccine mandate and vaccination passes.

In Martinique, there were many reactions after Macron’s speech on July 12 announcing these measures. The next day, 200 to 300 people gathered at the prefecture to protest. Then, on July 17, three thousand people demonstrated in the streets of Fort-de-France against Macron’s measures, responding to the call of a nationalist collective of organizations called Matinik Lib.

This demonstration was followed by two nights of riots, looting, and clashes with security forces in the poor neighborhoods of Fort-de-France. Young people in these neighborhoods, with the help of young pro-independence activists, expressed their revolt against not only the vaccine mandate, but also their miserable social conditions.

On July 21, over one thousand healthcare workers and different healthcare unions marched through the streets of Fort-de-France to the regional health agency to present their demands. Other demonstrations took place on July 24 and 31. On August 12, when the Minister of Overseas and the Minister of Social Affairs and Health visited Martinique, more than 200 healthcare workers let them know their anger and demonstrated in front of the university hospital center of Martinique.

However, these demonstrations on both islands quickly turned into anti-vaccine demonstrations. In the words of many nationalist militants and leaders, it is the vaccine that is responsible for many deaths, more even than COVID. Through populist demagogy, nationalist union leaders have channeled the population’s anti-vaccine sentiment and fueled it.

The Position of Combat Ouvrier

Combat Ouvrier has always been in favor of the anti-COVID-19 vaccines, since their release, rightly considering that they are a protection. It recommends that its militants and sympathizers get vaccinated. We are doing this with full knowledge that our views on this point are currently in the minority among the population, including among our workplace comrades.

Our participation in the mobilization against the vaccine mandate and vaccination passes, coupled with serious punishments for workers, therefore has nothing to do with any kind of fight against the vaccine itself.

The enemy is not the vaccine, but capitalism and its colonial variant.

It is precisely the leaders of French capitalism and its colonial variant—Macron, his government, and the capitalists and big bourgeoisie they serve—who want to use disciplinary measures from the public health crisis to bring the working class into line. This is part of the bosses’ constant attempts at imposing on the workers in their companies a mindset to do what they are told.

The nationalist union leaders do not pose the problem in these terms. They are against the vaccine mandate and immunity passes in the name of “freedom,” making it a new subject of the struggle against “French colonialism.” Since the vaccine is a product of imperialism, a vaccine of the whites, it is therefore bad. But are the vaccines against tuberculosis, yellow fever, and tetanus somehow better? We are left in a surreal contradiction. For some nationalists, the fight against the vaccine mandate and vaccination passes boils down to a fight against the vaccine itself.

In its place, they argue for local medicinal practices and plunge into obscurantism. Other nationalist militants, mainly those outside of the workers’ movement, have been frightened by the extent of the disaster and have recently come out in favor of the vaccine.

Combat Ouvrier is opposed to the vaccine mandate and vaccination passes from a class point of view—that of the working class. What is unacceptable is for heavy punishments to hang over the heads of workers. We think that workers have an interest in opposing the military orders of a government holding a club over their heads. Because this is how they will be forced to accept daily exploitation and more pressure later on!

This way of operating, which is the ruling classes’ permanent state of mind, is that of a class dictatorship over the workers. It is this that we reject and fight against.

In particular, Macron and the government want workers to accept a plan of attack against themselves, including raising the retirement age to 64 and reforming unemployment benefits. They want workers to accept all of these reforms, to accept their eternal status as the exploited: more cuts for healthcare and public services in general, massive job cuts in the public sphere, layoffs, unemployment, insecurity, and poor-quality housing.

The government and its top chief have milked the crisis to benefit the big bosses, delivering hundreds of thousands of cuts in the name of doing “whatever it costs” to supposedly confront the crisis. This is why, in the words of the bosses themselves, their business is booming, the situation is good, the stock markets are humming along, and with all the money given to the bosses, France has become one of the most attractive countries for foreign capital!

But there is the other side of “whatever it costs”—what it costs in terms of the suffering of healthcare and other workers, in terms of deaths from lack of care, so that the bourgeoisie can prosper. Many know this cost in mainland France, and even more in the Caribbean and Overseas Departments.

September 7, 2021

On the First Day of the Appeal for a General Strike in Guadeloupe

After months of street demonstrations and meetings, almost all of the unions of Guadeloupe have called for a general strike in Guadeloupe starting on September 9. The CGTG has issued an appeal for an unlimited general strike starting at 9:00 in the morning. The unions are supported by the other political organizations and associations who took part in the campaign against the vaccine mandate, vaccination passes, and sanctions against unvaccinated workers.

On this morning of September 9, a certain number of workers have responded to this appeal for the moment. Employment Office workers are on strike and picketing in front of their workplaces. Arcelor Mittal workers have already been on strike for two days in protest against an attack on their union delegate. They are continuing even harder today. The employees of the medical education institute in Le Moule are on strike, as are the service workers of the university hospital center and 14 hospital establishments. The service workers of the Capesterre-Belle-Eau hospital center have begun their strike and made their protest known by setting up a roadblock in the Saint-Saveur traffic circle. It is possible that the strike will spread to other workplaces. But where it will not be possible to go on strike, some workers are thinking of showing their discontent in different forms.

On Friday, September 10, at 8:00 a.m., a meeting is planned in front of the Pointe-à-Pitre university hospital center with all those who are on strike or who want to express their discontent. On Saturday, September 11, a rally and march are scheduled to begin at the Point-à-Pitre Palais de la Mutualité at 8:00 a.m.

It is true that, in this dark atmosphere in which many workers are mourning the death of a parent or relative, going on strike may not be their main concern today.

But at least a fraction of workers are setting an example and hoping to bring along other comrades in the days to come with their own demands. Their voices will make themselves heard on the ground and over the airwaves. The strikes in progress are already a first response to the government’s attacks in the service of the bosses.

Combat Ouvrier, Thursday, September 9, 2021