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During a briefing on March 19, Donald Trump likened the fight against the coronavirus pandemic to a military conflict. “It’s a war,” Trump said. He went on to describe himself as a “wartime president.” The analogy is a familiar one. Both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders also talk about the current crisis as the equivalent of war.
The metaphor is worth pursuing. If we are at war with the coronavirus, then the front-line soldiers are the workers who are putting their lives on the line by providing essential services. First and foremost are hospital staff, led by doctors and nurses, but including everyone needed to keep the full infrastructure of the medical system functioning.
Beyond hospitals, even communities under lockdown require an army of workers: the staff of grocery stores and pharmacies, the staff needed to keep supply chains functioning (warehouse workers, truckers, delivery people), sanitation workers, and innumerable other blue-color positions. As my colleague John Nichols notes, “The battle to get ahead of the coronavirus curve is so serious, and so demanding, that the list of working-class heroes grows with each passing day.”
The war on the coronavirus is already taking casualties. The New York Post reports that staff at Mount Sinai West were blaming the coronavirus death of assistant nursing manager Kious Kelly, age 48, on the poor equipment at the hospital. Photos have circulated on social media of nurses at the hospital using black plastic bags as homemade protective gear. “Kious didn’t deserve this,” a nurse told the newspaper. “The hospital should be held responsible. The hospital killed him.”
According to The New York Times, “Early research shows that health care workers are more likely to contract the coronavirus than the average person and, when they get it, to suffer more severe symptoms. Many doctors are already rationing the protective gowns, gloves and masks that are necessary to keep them safe.”
As a result, many doctors are taking extraordinary measures like drawing up wills and naming those who should take care of their children in the event of death. “There are a good number of people who are going to die here,” Dr. John Marshall, the chairman of emergency medicine at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, told the newspaper. He added, “Health care workers will be part of that number.”
It’s not just doctors and nurses who are putting their lives at risk. There have been a string of cases of Amazon warehouse workers contracting Covid-19. This issue is causing strains in the company because these workers don’t get paid sick leave. They can take unpaid days off and keep their job. This is a policy that obviously endangers workers by creating an incentive for those who are possibly sick to stay at work.
Amazon tech workers, who are encouraged to work from home, circulated a letter on Wednesday complaining about the policy. “Even as office workers are asked to work from home, Amazon’s measures to protect FC [fulfillment center] and DC [data center] workers, as well as shop floor workers at Whole Foods, have ranged from inadequate to openly negligent,” the letter noted.
The rising tide of protests reinforces the idea that we are in a war. While patriotic mythology portrays the sacrifice of soldiers as purely idealistic, the simple reality is that heroic suffering allows ordinary people to make greater demands on society.
The sacrifice of African American soldiers in the Civil War strengthened the case for abolition, a pattern that recurred in subsequent wars when black veterans often cited their service when fighting for civil rights.
The American welfare state was shaped by widely shared sentiments about the debt society owes to soldiers, evident in the pioneering pensions given to Union soldiers of the Civil War, the GI Bill after World War II, and the health care provided by the Veterans Administration.
During the First World War, British Prime Minister Lloyd George promised “a habitation fit for heroes” (which the press shortened to “a home fit for heroes”). He was referring to providing housing for returning soldiers, but “a home fit for heroes” has wider resonance. It’s a demand for social change to justify the sacrifices of war.
In the current fight against the pandemic, the fault lines of class conflict are already evident. Conservatives are very well aware that the working class is in a position to make larger demands.
A counterrevolution against these demands is already coalescing. Four Republican senators tried to resist the provisions in the coronavirus bill that expanded unemployment insurance.
Amazingly, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham even made the argument that some nurses would take the opportunity to avoid work, saying, “If you are a nurse’s aide making $15 or $16 an hour, you are on the front lines here. A lot of doctors’ offices are going to have to roll back because elective surgery is not a source of income for a bunch of doctors. So you are going to have all these well-trained nurses, they are going to make $24 an hour on unemployment. You are literally incentivizing taking people out of the workforce at a time when we need critical infrastructure supplied with workers.” Graham didn’t consider the possibility of paying more money to nurses, who even he admits are essential.
The impulse to thwart the empowerment of workers can be seen not just in Graham’s words but also in the larger structure of the Senate bailout. While it did provide a one-time payment to ordinary Americans as well as a decent increase in unemployment insurance, the bulk of the bailout followed the traditional pattern of providing easy money to large corporations while not binding them in any meaningful way. The impact of this bailout, then, was to preserve the social status quo, with the existing bosses still having domination over the economy.
The open question is how long this status quo can last. American workers are putting their lives on the line every day. An army can make heroic sacrifices, but if it feels badly treated badly, an army can also mutiny.