The Spark

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

Open Up or Stay Masked?

Mar 15, 2021

The following is the editorial from SPARK’s workplace newsletters, for the week of March 8, 2021.

“It is now time to open Texas 100%”—so said Governor Greg Abbott, ending the state mandate to wear a mask in public, lifting all state restrictions on business, and calling for schools to open throughout Texas. “Texans will do the right thing themselves.”

“Not so fast,” said President Biden. His new head of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, put it this way: “I know people are tired; they want to get back to life, to normal, but we’re not there yet.”

That encapsulates the way the issue has been debated in this country for the past year.

There is a reality to both sides of the debate, independent of the many politicians who used it to make a name for themselves.

On the one hand, our health: This virus has been deadly. Over half a million people died in little more than a year. Put this on a human scale: at least one third of the people in this country knew someone who died. Some, more than one.

The risk to our health has been and continues to be worse for “essential” workers, the ones who worked from the beginning to keep society going: nurses, janitors in hospitals, packinghouse workers, grocery store workers, transit workers, and more.

It’s true, all the statistics in recent weeks have shown steady improvement: fewer cases, fewer deaths, fewer hospitalizations and a lower rate of positive reactions on the tests. BUT this downward trend seems to be stagnating. The numbers are as high as they were in the peak last summer, when infections first spread all over the country. So no, we’re not back to normal yet.

On the other hand, the lock-down: Capitalist society responded to the spreading virus by locking down as much human activity as possible, fencing us off from each other.

That lockdown has been brutal. Seniors were isolated, cut off from families and friends. Many lived—and died—alone. Children were tossed out of school, losing academic formation, social development, perhaps even development of their own immune systems, since exposure to others may be what primes it. With “non-essential” businesses closed, tens of millions of families lost a steady income. The threat of eviction hangs over millions of families. Millions more face hunger. Domestic violence shot up. So did murder and teen suicides—attesting to an intolerable existence.

People who continued working were cut off from each other: “masks required” and “socially distanced.”

Those rules hit us in the face everywhere. They may have had a medical function, but they were also symbols of the lockdown’s human cost. We were cut off from normal daily human contact, an essential part of what makes us human. To be deprived of it is not a small, incidental thing.

So, open up or mask up? Put that way, the debate is false because it avoids the basic problem.

Medical science has long known how to contain viruses. Public health has the tools to track and isolate them. Vaccination is not new. Scientists even predicted that we would soon face a virus like this Coronavirus. Yet, nothing was done to prepare. That’s why we are in this mess today.

The public health system was left without resources. Money was drained out of it. Along with money for all the other public services, it flowed into profits for a predatory capitalist class. Tools needed to confront the virus were left to rot, unused. Governors like Abbott and all those before him, Republican and Democrat alike, share in this responsibility. So does Congress, going back years. So do presidents, Biden, Trump, Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, etc.

The responsibility to contain the virus was thrown on us. Up to us to wear a mask. Up to us to fight for a vaccine. Up to us to stand six feet from each other. Up to us to internalize all these rules, to be a moral police with each other. Up to us to wait.

No! If we don’t want to repeat this inhumane and unhealthy choice with the next epidemic that comes along, we have to think now about how to get rid of a profit-oriented system that caused this one. Consider the kind of system we need, the system we could build. Communism.