This is a harsh reality: As people around the world contract and spread the novel corona virus COVID-19, low-wage service workers, people of color, and other marginalized people stand to lose the most. They will disproportionately lose their lives, lose their incomes, lose their homes, and lose any financial safety net they managed to squirrel away as this pandemic stretches on through the months.
The richest among us, however, stand to gain. On March 20th it was reported that 4 U.S. senators — from both sides of the isle — who had inside information about the virus, sold off major stock holdings. Similarly, 10 major corporation CEOs stepped down from their posts; Allowing them to legally capitalize on their holdings as well. These events took place before the public was properly alerted.
Since then, Trump’s administration has used this historic public health crisis to allow polluting corporations to operate without EPA oversight, to privatize food-safety inspection duties, and to advance an agenda to rescind regulations that raised fuel-economy standards, among other environmental regulation cuts.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As New York reaches a critical point in their response to the virus due to lack of ventilators, reports are showing that key medical supplies — including ventilators — were shipped from U.S. manufacturers to foreign buyers, and states are in bidding wars over these very supplies.
Let me be clear: While a large part of the problem is that Trump’s administration has seriously mismanaged the crisis, an even larger part is that our system is designed to seek maximum profits without regard for lives. The bidding wars that states are engaging in come at the expense of regular people, but the companies responsible stand to make huge profits. This is not by accident. The environmental regulation cuts, Trump’s delayed response, and these bidding wars are all directly beneficial to major corporations and their stakeholders.
Meanwhile, unemployment claims soar past 10 million in a two-week period, and American workers are expected to make due with a $1,200 check that is simply too little, too late. Let us not forget that the same bill that gives workers their meager stimulus provided massive bailouts to corporations.
While hotels and airbnbs sit empty due to travel restrictions, the houseless are not given private shelter to maintain a social distance — instead they are given paltry “accommodations” such as lines on a concrete parking lot. Poor people are generally less able to work from home, less likely to have paid time off, have worse health due to a range of socioeconomic factors, and will be hit the hardest by this pandemic.
This ratcheting effect — where the poor stand to lose, but the rich have the resources to weather the storm and come out even richer — is nothing new. Thirteen years ago, author Naomi Klein wrote a book called “The Shock Doctrine.” In it, she describes the following:
“the shock doctrine”: using the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks — wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters — to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy.
Klein’s appropriation of the term “shock therapy” is based on the history of the infamous psychiatric procedure, with it’s origins in secretive intelligence agency experiments. She then relates it to the ideology of Milton Friedman — An economist who helped establish the Chicago School of Economics, and one of the most influential people in modern economics worldwide.
The Chicago school of thought is often credited with originating — or at least popularizing — “neo-liberalism”, the ideology of Margret Thatcher, Augusto Pinochet, Ronald Reagan, and every leader in their respective wakes. In the United States, the two parties obviously disagree on several social and regulation issues, but at their core they both agree with neo-liberalism: The ideology of “The Free Market” and economic growth as a means of human achievement.
An example of the shock doctrine that Klein points to in her book is the attempt to kill New Orleans public housing projects in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As Klein put it in an article on HuffPo in 2007:
Readers of The Shock Doctrine know that one of the most shameless examples of disaster capitalism has been the attempt to exploit the disastrous flooding of New Orleans to close down that city’s public housing projects, some of the only affordable units in the city. Most of the buildings sustained minimal flood damage, but they happen to occupy valuable land that make for perfect condo developments and hotels.
This is the hallmark of shock doctrine: neo-liberals taking advantage of a horrific event — a time when people should be coming together to support and uplift those in need — to push through economic policies that anyone with a sense of empathy would outright reject while people are busy dealing with the trauma of said event.
This is only one example. In her book, Klein details all of the following examples from around the globe:
- Pinochet’s coup in 1973
- The Falklands War in 1982
- The Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989
- The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991
- The Asian Financial crisis in 1997
- The war in Iraq 2003
- Hurricane Katrina in 2005
Each of these major crises were immediately followed by deregulation measures and/or gutting of social programs. Since the book was published in 2007, it doesn’t go further — but the examples don’t stop there. Klein has been faithfully documenting them in the years since.
So while it is important that we remain angry at the Trump administration for the way they’ve handled this crisis — let us not take out the branches and ignore the roots of the problem: the way our economic system functions. All of these austere policy decisions come at the expense of the marginalized and to the benefit of the rich. This is no accident, this is by design.
The best thing to do right now is band together, join a union if you still have a job, join a mutual aid network if you don’t, and pay attention to our governments. They attempt to push these through in times of crisis precisely because they know people wouldn’t stand for it during “normal” times — we cannot let them continue to get away with it. Our governments ostensibly work for the people, let’s force them to show it.
It may seem unthinkable at this juncture, but given the fact that across the country almost all “non-essential” workers have been ordered to stay home, we’re actually in a fantastic position to have our political demands met. Strikes are happening, and getting results.
In times of crisis the poor, working-class, and marginalized people must come together and stand against the austerity of neo-liberalism. While they have “power”, we outnumber them by a massive ratio. We’re the ones who work, pay taxes, and keep the gears turning.
Cessation alone won’t cut it, either — we need to radically restructure our system to prevent this from happening again in the future. We can start by pushing for policies that the majority of people support — such as medicare for all. From there, our imperative duty is to build a new system that works for everyone.