The pandemic and the working class: lessons learned to date

7 February, 2021

An assessment of the historical moment we are facing, the lessons of the pandemic and the outlook for what lies ahead, so that we can begin to respond appropriately to what the situation demands from us.

We are facing a slaughter

«Ice Palace» of Madrid transformed in a gigantic morgue during the peak of the pandemy.

It would have taken over 6,600 years of terrorist attacks or 1,400 years of gender-based violence to produce a similar slaughter.

One year later, worldwide estimates speak of more than 2,200,000 dead, five times the total population of a small European country like Malta. This is very likely to be an understatement. In Spain the official figures tallied 61,386 deaths as of yesterday, but during 2020 alone the excess mortality was over 80,000 people.

An enormity that is difficult to bring even into scale. With Spanish historical figures in hand it would take more than 6,600 years of terrorist attacks or 1,400 years of gender-based violence to produce a similar slaughter. Or 20 years of suicides.

The extent of the slaughter in each location is a product of political decisions

The final result is not a matter of individual responsibility, but rather the more social interactions that are allowed (work, public transport, schools, leisure…) the more infections that will occur

The number of infections does not depend on individual responsibility. No matter how well we all protect ourselves, in the case of a infectious disease, contagions occur in proportion to the degree of social interaction that is allowed. The more interactions that are facilitated, the more contagions. Workplaces, public transportation, educational institutions, recreational spaces…

The evolution of the Spanish death toll is a good example: in April, two weeks of total lockdown were enough to reduce abruptly the number of deaths in May and early June. Relatively severe restrictions in March and April initially reduced new cases to almost zero in July. However, the rush to recover the leisure and tourism sector and the lack of decent working conditions in the countryside fueled a second wave of slaughter that grew steadily until November, was relatively curtailed in December by the extraordinary restrictions introduced to save the Christmas sales campaign, and has been on the rise again since January.

The slaughter can be drastically reduced and contained

Practically all governments and national capitals have played during this process an impossible and immoral balance: lives versus capital. In other words: they have chosen to sacrifice thousands of lives in order not to let the companies’ investments die.

If China successfully managed to keep the pandemic under control as of April, it is because it chose to do so. It was not out of humanitarianism or consideration for its workforce. The Chinese bourgeoisie was simply a little less short-sighted than that of the US, Brazil, Argentina or Europe when it came to calculating how to minimize medium-term damage to their production chains.

Paradoxically it may even from their own interests have been counterproductive. That’s what the WHO has been telling them and what the successful Chinese management shows. China has been able to return to a certain productive normality through total lockdowns across whole cities and regions. Their goal was to reduce the impact as much as possible so that they could then, with incidences of less than a single digit, locate and isolate all active cases as they appeared through real large-scale PCRs and quarantines of large groups as soon as half a dozen cases appeared.

China is certainly not doing this for humanitarian reasons or out of a sudden love of the Chinese state bourgeoisie for its workforce. They are showing more than enough signs every day to the contrary. They are doing it because it became clear to them in April that hasty reopenings and half-baked restrictions produced rebounds which disrupted their production chains in a way that threatened to damage capital even more in the medium term. They were only being less short-sighted than Trump, Biden, Bolsonaro, Fernández, Sánchez or Costa.

Vaccination is not a short-term solution

Cover of Der Spiegel. Covid variants increasingly concern European press.

According to Bloomberg, at the current pace, vaccination would reach sufficient scale to overcome Covid in seven and a half years. Entrusting everything to vaccination would take several million people down with it.

After confirming the disaster, the new strategy of Biden, Merkel, Fernández, Sánchez or AMLO is nothing other than to hold on no matter what -and hundreds or thousands die every day in each country- until mass vaccination (75% of the population) becomes a reality and stops the spread without having to impose more shutdowns on businesses.

The problem is that, according to Bloomberg, at the current rate effective vaccination would take seven and a half years and would take millions of people with it. Of course, countries with more concentrated capital will achieve it sooner: in Israel it will be a reality during the next few months, in the US in early 2022, in the EU… at the current rate at the earliest in 2022, in Argentina and Brazil in 2023.

Let’s not forget the causes: vaccination, like vaccine development itself, has been tied to the general principle that saving capital takes precedence over saving lives.

The combined result of the decision not to carry out real lockdowns, of the inability of the bourgeoisie to articulate universal responses and of the subordination of the vaccine to the imperialist interests of each national capital is the emergence of new and deadlier variants.

We have seen it all along the way: during development by prioritizing new technologies that are more difficult to succeed with but could be more lucrative to patent, by twisting the procurement processes of states to turn them into tools to hurry capital accumulation and try to create new competitors by taking advantage of widespread misfortune and finally allowing developed vaccines to be manufactured exclusively by the pharmaceutical companies that patented them instead of freeing up the use of the patents.

The combined result of the decision not to carry out real lockdowns, of the inability of the bourgeoisie to articulate universal responses and of the subordination of the vaccine to the imperialist interests of each capital, is the appearance of new, deadlier variants. According to a Nature, among those infected by the British variant – which in principle would be less lethal than the Brazilian and South African variants – the odds of dying are approximately 35% higher.

Globally, workers have confronted the slaughter by their own means, but it has not been enough

Italy: “DAD (Distance Learning) NO, Vaccines YES”

Since last March we have been following an ascent of Covid strikes around the world. In sectors such as education or healthcare but also in large factories, workers’ demands have been focused on imposing closures and working conditions that would prevent viral spread. In others, demands for minimum life security have been expanding to counter the imposition of (profit) recovery measures at the expense of the workers.

The Covid struggles have not been strong enough to globally upset the strategy of the bourgeoisie, but they have shown a working class that is far from being defeated… although also far from being able to impose its historic way out.

So far these struggles represent the largest global strike wave in 30 years. And yet, despite winning partial victories, they have failed to globally upset the strategy of the bourgeoisie and its governments around the world.

However, they have shown a working class fighting in a practically synchronized struggle for the same thing all over the world: to assert universal interests, life, against the openly anti-human and anti-historical logic of capital. A working class capable of overcoming the atomization exacerbated by the pandemic and the risk of contagion, the most brutal information blackout seen outside of wartime and also capable, in quite a few cases, of overcoming the trade union blockade. That is to say, a working class that is far from being defeated… although also far from being able to impose its historic exit.

What lies ahead, what is to be done?

Strike at Gazprom in Yakutia, Russia, this week.

The urgency of the immediate future makes it even more important to work at every moment on everything affecting the preconditions for the struggles: from the ability to organize discussions in the workplace and neighborhoods, to the organization of solidarity networks. Conditions modified by the pandemic and everything surrounding it during the course of this year.

The immediate outlook is a continuing pandemic slaughter amidst promises of a general vaccination that is not going to become real within a year virtually anywhere. And at the same time the implementation of a series of more or less sophisticated mechanisms to organize the largest transfer of income from labor to capital since the last world war. Among them the Green Deal, changes in hiring systems, pension reform and even housing. And the ruling class is not lying when it claims that capital is in its worst crisis since 1929. The attack that is being prepared against our living conditions is also proportional to the degree of contradictions reached by capital.

That is to say: from the working class’ standpoint, there is still much to fight for during and after the pandemic. The stakes are too high as a class, as a species, and in terms too serious for contributions based on immediate slogans or simple historical perspective to suffice from a militant point of view.

The urgency of the immediate future makes it even more important to work at every moment on everything affecting the preconditions for the struggles: from the ability to organize discussions in the workplace and neighborhoods, to the organization of solidarity networks. Conditions modified by the pandemic and everything surrounding it during the course of this year.