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The Coronavirus Effect: Pandemic Exposes Structural Violence of US Ruling Class

The inadequate preparation for and callous response to the unfolding health and economic crises puts brutal inequalities and distorted priorities on full display.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) workers in New York City are among those who have been on the frontlines nationwide. While the nation's ruling elite continue to treat workers and the most vulnerable as expendable and disposable, writes Stancil, "the wounds that the investor class have inflected on the U.S. are making it even more difficult to contend with the coronavirus crisis." (Photo: Andrew Cashin / MTA New York City Transit / flickr / cc)

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) workers in New York City are among those who have been on the frontlines nationwide. While the nation's ruling elite continue to treat workers and the most vulnerable as expendable and disposable, writes Stancil, "the wounds that the investor class have inflicted on the U.S. are making it even more difficult to contend with the coronavirus crisis." (Photo: Andrew Cashin / MTA New York City Transit / flickr / cc)

The U.S. power elite’s response to the coronavirus crisis has been delayed, halfhearted, and skewed. In an act of criminal negligence, the Trump administration initially ignored coronavirus throughout January and then Trump referred to criticism of his lethargy on the issue as a hoax in late February before spending the first part of March downplaying the severity of the threat that it posed, thus squandering precious time to adequately prepare. Only in the past couple of weeks, in the wake of the widespread diffusion of COVID-19 and reports that inaction could result in potentially as many as 2.2 million individuals dying in the U.S. alone, has the Trump administration been forced to gradually acknowledge the reality—and gravity—of the situation. 

Nonetheless, even after declaring a national emergency in mid-March, the enormity of the problem still did not stop Trump from indicating his intention to proceed with cuts to the SNAP program and to prevent states from expanding Medicaid coverage, despite the inevitable spike in demand for healthcare resulting from coronavirus. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans blocked a bill that was drafted to provide emergency paid sick leave, one of the measures proven to be effective in reducing the spread of infectious disease and yet something that nearly 70% of low-wage workers in the U.S. (i.e. the people preparing and serving our food) lack. Not to be outdone, when asked what he would do if a Medicare for All bill were to reach his desk as president, Joe Biden refused to commit to signing it due to its “cost” (given Ronald Reagan’s deadly indifference to HIV-AIDS, it should be a much larger scandal that the leading Democratic presidential candidate reaffirmed his commitment to Reaganism in the midst of a public health crisis). During the most recent debate, Biden also referred to the coronavirus-related loss of life in Italy to disingenuously question the efficacy of universal healthcare, as if the death rate would not be worse in an ad hoc, for-profit system

Under any other circumstances, much of the aforementioned absurdity and cruelty would have been unremarkable in the U.S., a reflection of the extent to which the bipartisan commitment to slashing/privatizing social welfare provision and denying basic protections for working people has increasingly become the norm over the past half-century—the neoliberal era in which wealth and power has been redistributed upward while responsibility for well-being and associated risks have been pushed downward to the level of individual households. However, these are not ordinary circumstances, as anyone who has recently browsed the internet or visited a grocery store can attest. For this reason, the power elite’s callousness takes on a new—and even more sinister—significance. Staring down the possibility of 2.4 million to 21 million people in the U.S. requiring hospitalization in a country with less than 1 million hospital beds (and only 45,000 ICU beds) and a national death toll ranging from hundreds of thousands to around two million individuals (figures vary depending on the model one consults), and informed of measures that will reduce suffering, several politicians’ initial response was to shrug their shoulders.

Within the past week. it appeared that the terrifying predictions, which are based on assumptions that few if any efforts are made to combat the pandemic, may have been enough to prod more officials to react with less nastiness and more seriousness. A federal court blocked the proposed work requirement rule that would have deprived 700,000 low-income people of food stamps. Trump grudgingly reversed his position on Medicaid and is now allowing states to increase coverage. And the Senate finally passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. This law provides free testing but disgracefully does not cover the costs of treatment. It also contains loopholes that will unwisely exclude millions of employees from the paid sick leave provisions (51 legislators voted against a rectifying amendment). 

"Rarely is the capitalist principle that profits come before people made this explicit."

Even though the response was still far from satisfactory, there were some signs that the ruling class was relenting to some degree. The main mechanism of economic assistance for working people first proposed by the Trump administration was a payroll tax cut/suspension, which would do little to help U.S. households and is a thinly veiled attack on Social Security. Yet, a week later, he had warmed to the idea of direct cash payments and housing relief on a temporary and limited basis. Many public officials—especially mayors and governors but even, to a limited extent, the Trump administration—began to take important steps to contain the spread of viral infection. These included suspending commercial activity and restricting mobility, calling for immediate (albeit measly) payments to many citizens, and indicating a willingness to use the Army Corps of Engineers to retrofit buildings into hospitals and to mobilize MASH units.  

At the same time, however, there has been plenty of typical right-wing opportunism in the face of this crisis, an expression of disaster capitalism that Naomi Klein has documented under the rubric of the ‘shock doctrine’. One-sided bailouts of the U.S. oil and airline industries are pending, there are revanchist proposals to implement draconian border security and union-busting policies, and investment bankers who are salivating over the lucrative potential of COVID-19 have been pressuring health care firms to increase prices on drugs and critically needed medical supplies. 

And of course, there is the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act recently passed by the Senate. This hotly debated $2 trillion package is tilted heavily in favor of corporate rescue rather than working class relief (with weak terms for preventing stock buybacks, limiting executive compensation, and retaining workers). Thanks to objections from Democratic legislators and progressives who were critical of several measures in the GOP’s earlier iteration of the bill—especially a $500 billion “slush fund” to be allocated at the discretion of former Goldman Sachs banker and current Treasury Secretary Mnuchin—a few significant concessions for workers and small businesses were won, though the benefits are meager compared to what the super-rich are walking away with. Among the biggest changes made during negotiations is a provision barring companies owned by Trump and his family from receiving bailout funds; important, yes, but not exactly a priority for those worried about how to pay for groceries and rent. Just as the battle in the Senate appeared to be nearing its end, three Republicans threatened to delay a vote on the bill because they believe that the temporarily expanded unemployment benefits (an extra $600 per week, which is the equivalent of $15 per hour, for four months) are too generous. They lamented that a person could be paid more while unemployed than while employed. Instead of coming to the obvious conclusion that the existence of poverty wages is unjust, they made the retrograde argument that social welfare will disincentivize working. Bernie Sanders threatened to retaliate with stronger conditions on “the $500 billion corporate welfare fund,” and it appears that this move was effective in getting  the GOP Senators to drop their opposition. 

While the government’s disjointed response to COVID-19 has shown some signs of increased liveliness as the crisis has grown more acute (experiences at the sub-national level vary by state and region), it is still not nearly bold or inclusive enough. The White House’s early nonchalance, continued fickleness, and bias toward powerful interests, in addition to the exclusionary and lopsided character of congressional endeavors thus far, have put more lives at risk and not done enough to address the needs of working households with respect to the economic dilemma. Furthermore, the descent into xenophobic blame games endangers Asian-Americans, and the growing specter of corporate profiteering is unconscionable. 

"The shortcomings that have intensified the destructiveness of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. demand analyses that go beyond Trump’s significant weaknesses."

Even as common-sense public health and economic relief policies have not been pursued vigorously enough, the Federal Reserve has injected trillions of liquidity into the financial system in a desperate attempt to curb distress on Wall Street. This move, which will be repeated on a regular basis for some time, bought a brief reprieve from the economic downturn and garnered zero objections from the countless deficit hawks in Congress who constantly frame their opposition to enhanced human well-being in terms of fiscal responsibility. Of course, this is not taxpayer money, but the inconsistency of objections to state intervention in the economy is still noteworthy, as is the need for a democratic socialization of finance. The rush to reassure CEOs while working people scramble to cope with the threats of contagion and unemployment is disturbing. It is true that the purpose of the Fed’s actions is to limit the potential of a major financial crisis and the cascading effects of a recession, which does benefit ordinary households. However, the asymmetry between reluctant and insufficient concern for the plight of everyday U.S. residents, on the one hand, and immediate aid for the financial sector, on the other, is inexcusable. 

Unlike typical recessions that call for a stimulus package to increase consumer demand and boost employment, this moment of multifaceted insecurity requires keeping as many people as possible safely out-of-the-way, thus necessitating a “survival” package to sustain a growing number of furloughed or unemployed individuals while much of the economy is shut down. Unfortunately, the ruling class’s response to the crisis has recently taken an appalling turn for the worse. Joining a chorus of conservative columnists, Republican officials have started to convey their aversion to prolonged social distancing and the affiliated economic slowdown. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick even suggested that the benefits of reviving economic growth outweigh the costs (i.e. increased deaths) associated with encouraging people to quickly return to working and shopping despite the ongoing public health risks. After his consultation with Wall Street tycoons, the danger now exists that Trump will ignore the advice of epidemiologists and follow through with his call for a premature end to self-isolation. This is a shameless attempt to breathe life into the stock market even though resuscitating accumulation now would jeopardize the lives of untold numbers of human beings. Rarely is the capitalist principle that profits come before people made this explicit.

Overall, the Trump administration has “bigly” mismanaged the response to coronavirus. There is ample evidence of a botched job: the sadistic call forcuts to the budget of the CDC both before and during the pandemic; the inexplicable decision to reject the WHO test that was already available in favor of having the CDC duplicate this effort with varying degrees of success; and the ongoing failure—related to Trump's hypocritical anti-socialist dogma and Hooveresque belief in the power of private voluntarism—to utilize the Defense Production Act to produce needed medical supplies and regulate prices. Ultimately, the fatal choice todelay aggressive testing is inseparable from Trump’s electorally-motivated desire to artificially suppress the number of diagnoses; his doomed attempt to postpone an economic crisis has had the effect of exacerbating diffusion of the virus because contagious individuals had no way of knowing whether or not they were spreading the infection and epidemiologists had no way of tracking the disease. Now, dilly-dallying on a mandate to ramp up production of personal protective equipment and critical medical devices is putting the lives of caregivers and innumerable patients in peril. The latest statements discouraging the continuation of social distancing because it hurts profitability will do the same. Add to this mix the U.S.’s uninterrupted sanctions against Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba, and it is obvious that the Trump administration has demonstrated a tremendous amount of hubris, recklessness, and spite.

The Exposure of Structural Violence

Notwithstanding the Trump administration’sirrefutably dismal reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic and recession, previous administrations would have stumbled as well, owing to the fifty-year long, bipartisan penchant for austerity, privatization, deregulation, and other business-friendly policies that increase the likelihood of poor health outcomes for working people along with environmental degradation. Indeed, they failed to heed warning signs of recognized weak spots and did not respond satisfactorily to Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. That is to name only three prominent examples of recent disasters—which, as Susanna Hoffman and Anthony Oliver-Smith explain, are not natural events but multidimensional processes in which hazardous forces interact with socially produced patterns of vulnerability—that could have been abated and even prevented. 

"Disasters have a way of laying bare a society’s preexisting injustices, and the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the U.S. is exceptionally stratified and inhumane."

The coronavirus situation presents challenges of unprecedented magnitude; preceding presidents would have struggled, though probably not to an identical degree, to confront a health and economic crisis of this scale, too. The current administration’s glaring lack of leadership should not make us lose sight of the systemic nature of the problems. The shortcomings that have intensified the destructiveness of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. demand analyses that go beyond Trump’s significant weaknesses as well as far-reaching solutions that go beyond a return to Clintonism, whose market-driven, anti-welfare policies are implicated in the U.S.’s heightened susceptibility to crises. 

Over the course of several decades, the U.S. has been thoroughly gutted by corporations’ assault on organized labor and the ruling class’s largely successful attempts to thwart public policies (e.g. Medicare for All) and institutions (e.g. CDC) that are meant to curtail the power of capital and to enhance social and environmental well-being. The ensuing deleterious socioeconomic conditions, propelled by Republicans and New Democrats alike, make the U.S. highly vulnerable to disasters of all kinds, including infectious disease outbreaks. At this moment, the wounds that the investor class have inflicted on the U.S. are making it even more difficult to contend with the coronavirus crisis. 

Take, for instance, the drastically unequal—and therefore fragile—healthcare system in the U.S. It is constituted by the combination of a profit-maximizing insurance industry, an employer-based (and increasingly “consumer-driven”) benefits scheme, and an ungenerous safety net that leaves 87 million individuals uninsured or underinsured. Many people are disincentivized from consuming healthcare because to seek medical attention could result in financial ruin. Unemployment is now soaring, which means that millions of people are losing their health insurance during a pandemic. This is preposterous

In addition to millions forgoing healthcare due to the prohibitive costs, the absence of paid sick leave policies in most states and especially in the service sector incentivizes employees in industries that are in close contact with the public to work while sick. Moreover, the relative dearth of paid family leave policies and the prevalence of poverty and malnourishment compel many students to attend school while sick, if only because their caregivers are so exploited that they cannot afford to stay home to provide meals and supervision. Again, the absence of economic rights in the U.S. morphs into gas on an open flame.

Now that more and more schools have closed in an attempt to minimize the spread of coronavirus through social distancing while grandparents are simultaneously quarantining themselves, the lack of paid leave is expected to create a crisis of child care, especially as the demands on frontline workers increase. The crisis of elder care is already implicated in the coronavirus pandemic; the initial vectors of community transmission in the U.S. were a string of nursing homes outside Seattle, where the combination of low wages and skyrocketing rent compelled workers to take jobs in multiple nursing home facilities, thus accelerating the spread of COVID-19. 

Additional weaknesses in basic health infrastructure that are already overwhelming the capacity of hospitals include a shortage of testing kits, ICU beds, ventilators, gloves, gowns, and more. Furthermore—because the profit-driven pharmaceutical industry has a greater interest in manufacturing money-making drugs than in developing life-saving vaccines and treatments—research and development of antivirals is not prioritized under normal circumstances, meaning that now we must wait some time for an effective antidote. Disasters have a way of laying bare a society’s preexisting injustices, and the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the U.S. is exceptionally stratified and inhumane. Indeed, the coronavirus crisis has exposed the pervasiveness of what medical anthropologist Paul Farmer calls structural violence—underlying socio-political-economic arrangements that put people in harm’s way and obstruct human flourishing. 

Trump’s recent announcement that he wants the U.S. to be “open for business” by Easter even though doing so will worsen the already dire coronavirus pandemic is consistent with the capitalist class’s well-established pattern of sacrificing human and environmental well-being at the altar of the market, even if it is much more brazen than usual. Bearing this in mind, it is more imperative than ever for us to insist that our lives are not disposable.

Kenny Stancil

Kenny Stancil has a background in geography and secondary social studies education. A former public high school teacher, he is currently working as a cartographer in Lexington, Kentucky.

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