Yesong Lee takes a materialist look at some reasons behind the coronavirus spread, as well as the racist and ineffective government responses to the disease, and explains what we’ll need to defeat it.
Currently there are more than 100,000 confirmed cases of the novel (Covid-19) coronavirus, including at least 3,500 deaths across the world. Most cases and deaths have taken place in China where the first infections were found, but outbreaks in Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas are causing more deaths each day.
The origin of the coronavirus outbreak in humans has been traced to a food market in Whuan, China. This news was met with racist responses in the media and online about Chinese people’s so-called “dirty” eating habits. Some images and memes of a bat-eating Chinese woman, which turned out to be fake, were spread on social media.
Capitalism, markets, and disease
Setting aside the question of why eating bats is “dirtier” than eating cows, it is important to note that marketplaces were not that different in the US a few decades ago. If you could see a meat market in New York in the 1920s, you would encounter a similar scene: unregulated processing and sales of animal meat. Food safety standards are a concern in China as in much of the world. But it is not ordinary people’s tastes that are to blame. It is the government’s failure to regulate the industry.
In recent years we have seen a series of outbreaks such as SARS, MERS, and Ebola, where the viruses first developed in animals and transferred to humans. Certainly humans have always contracted illnesses from animals, but as urban areas spread into animals’ habitats, contact between infected animals and other species becomes ever more likely. The huge cities that emerged across the Global South in recent decades make perfect hosts for new diseases like coronavirus. But bosses are interested only in exploiting low-waged workers living in slums and avoid making investments in the healthcare infrastructure necessary to maintain the workers’ health.
China and the coronavirus
China is no exception. China is now the second biggest economy in the world. Their economic growth over the last several decades is based on the exploitation of hundreds of millions of migrant workers who moved from rural areas to cities to live in slums for meager wages with no union rights.
However, the healthcare system in China is overloaded and insufficient. As reported in the New York Times, with a limited number of hospital beds and medical staff in Wuhan, China, people were returned to their own homes to take care of themselves. Even those who were lucky enough to be hospitalized in makeshift beds which had been built over a week after the outbreak say “nobody cares” and describe feeling like they are locked inside the hospital rather than being treated. The health crisis may lead to a political crisis for the Chinese ruling class. The death of a Chinese doctor, who had tried to warn Chinese authorities about the danger of the virus outbreak early on but was silenced and even received disciplinary measures, sparked fury among the Chinese public.
Racist travel bans
Now outside China, many countries have imposed travel bans on those who travel from China and other impacted areas. The fact that 99% of the infection cases and deaths took place in China at the time did not prevent the governments in the US, South Korea, Australia, the UK, and many more countries from imposing harsh travel bans. These kinds of bans were not recommended by health organizations at the time and were imposed for political, not medical, reasons. It would be relatively understandable if developing countries with few resources and limited capacity to address the outbreak imposed these kinds of travel bans. But these countries with advanced economies have much better disease prevention technology, healthcare resources and infrastructure. It is not that they are not capable of providing more health care resources and medical staff to tackle the situation. They are simply not willing to do so.
These governments use travel bans as an opportunity to strengthen and justify their border control. The Australian government’s move to quarantine Australian evacuees in the Christmas Island detention center was not about healthcare. It was a political stunt to prove that it’s “tough on borders”. Anyone on Christmas Island who actually got sick would have to be transferred to mainland hospitals for treatment.
Travel bans in turn fuel the racist sentiment which leads to racist insults and attacks towards those with East Asian appearance. Obviously, when the government and media say the travel of the person who carries virus is the problem, it’s no wonder that those thought to be Asians are targeted by racist attacks. In California, many Asians say their little coughs or sneezes are met by suspicious looks and create panic. In the UK, a Thai man was attacked in the streets by a thug who yelled “coronavirus”.
In the 19th century, many migrants from Asia to the US were subject to invasive and often humiliating medical inspections upon arriving at Angel Island that were not applied to Europeans arriving through Ellis Island. Capitalist states have used diseases as an excuse to control immigration for a long time.
This kind of racism masquerading as healthcare requires a political response. It is crucial to resist the government policies that create prejudice and racism, and demand real solutions to tackle the outbreak. We need to be part of the efforts to build resistance and movement against racism. The international day for elimination of racial discrimination on March 21 will be an important upcoming opportunity to mobilize and gain strength to fight against racism.
Is the US ready to combat the outbreak?
On February 25, the CDC warned that the new virus will certainly spread in the United States, saying “it’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen.” Now the US has more than 500 confirmed cases and several deaths. There have been signs of a community spread on the West Coast, with several confirmed cases in Washington state and Northern California whose infection routes are not clear.
The Trump administration argues that the country is well prepared for an outbreak, but health experts and medical workers in the field feel very differently. National Nurses United is conducting an ongoing survey that as of last week found that about a third of nearly 5,000 nurse respondents said they didn’t have enough protective gear to handle a surge of coronavirus cases. Only 9%said their hospital or clinic had plans to isolate potentially infected patients. Many health experts say the initial White House’s request of $2.5 billion in emergency funds to handle coronavirus was grossly insufficient, though Congress has since approved $8.3 billion dollars. In the meanwhile, the Trump administration has slashed the budget for public health related agencies and programs, including the CDC.
When a community spread starts, the most important step is to confirm infection cases as soon as possible and provide necessary treatment immediately. However, the disturbingly unequal healthcare system in the US makes this much more difficult. The cost of healthcare is so expensive. A man in Miami who had traveled to China developed flu-like symptoms and went to hospital to get a coronavirus test. He was charged $3,270 by the hospital and is now responsible to pay $1,400. One in five Americans has no or poor health insurance. If people avoid medical help because of the cost, there is no way to contain the outbreak. Free testing and treatment of the virus is key to the solution for the outbreak. The Covid-19 coronavirus is another urgent example of the need for a publicly-funded single-payer, “Medicare for all” healthcare program in the United States.
A class issue
The CDC advises the public that they wash hands frequently and stay home when feeling sick. This simple guideline is hard to follow in the US, the only wealthy country in the world which does not require employers to give workers paid sick days.
For people in public-facing, low-wage jobs, staying home from work is rarely an option. These workers are likely to include people who work with the public, such as food servers and bus drivers, or people who work with vulnerable populations, such as assisted-living home staff and people who work in childcare. Already aged care facilities in the US are being disproportunately hit by coronavirus outbreaks.
One study has found that during the H1N1 swine flu epidemic of 2009 at least 3 in 10 private sector workers did not take time off when sick with the virus. This was estimated to cause up to seven million additional infections and may have extended the length of the outbreak.
At a recent picket of a Chipotle restaurant, workers with the 32BJ branch of the SEIU union pointed out that (even with an overly restrictive sick leave policy), workers there are often pressured by management to work while sick, and to work non-stop with no time to wash their hands for hours on end.
All workers who feel sick need to be granted paid sick leave that guarantees living wages during their absence. When schools close due to the fear of the outbreak, parents and caregivers also need to be able to take time off from work to take care of their children.
Health experts expect US healthcare infrastructure will be overwhelmed once the number of patients infected with the coronavirus spikes. At the moment, many hospitals across the country lack safety precaution measures, including isolating sick patients in rooms with special ventilation systems and training staff with proper use of safety gear, which must be prepared as soon as possible.
The government will not accept such demands easily as they run right against the logic of the market and profit. But the working class and ordinary people are entitled to these measures and demands because we are the ones who will be hit hardest by the outbreak. We need to fight the racism that serves only to distract and divide us, and we need a fully funded healthcare system, Medicare for All, and properly enforced paid sick leave in order to contain this virus.