Among the countless distressing news stories covering the COVID-19 pandemic over the past month are the heartwarming ones that focus on what ordinary human beings are doing to help one another during this historic crisis. Many of these “good news” reports have focused on a nation-wide effort by fashion industry labels, domestic apparel manufacturers, and amateur seamstresses to mass-produce the much-needed masks that are in short supply. But what most of the stories are missing is a systemic framework that offers a critical view as to why such an effort is needed in the first place.
In my spare time during the past several weeks of quarantine, I too have been putting my amateur sewing skills to use and churning out dozens of cotton masks for friends and neighbors who are elderly, pregnant, or working as delivery drivers, grocery workers, food bank volunteers and more. The masks are easy to make with a bit of cotton fabric, wire, and elastic, and, while they are not as efficient as medical-grade masks, they help absorb droplets to and from our mouths. My efforts are among countless similar ones that were sparked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting on its website that healthcare providers “might use homemade masks (e.g., bandana, scarf) for care of patients with COVID-19 as a last resort.”
America is built on a mythical sense of work ethos that feeds into our romantic notions of independence and self-reliance. We are drawn to the idea of a meritocracy that rewards hard work and perseverance and we are trained to congratulate ourselves for eschewing government assistance. Such a sentiment was apparent when the head of a Southern California chapter of the American Sewing Guild proudly told the New York Times, “Sewers, we’ve always stepped up and done this thing…We’re made for this time. We’re happy to stay home and sew. And we all have stashes of fabric.”
But America is also the world’s richest nation. Looking beyond aside our inflated sense of national hubris, it ought to fill every single one of us with rage that our doctors and nurses are scrounging for masks and other medical supplies and that a government agency like the CDC is recommending improvised masks. The shortage of supplies is directly the result of a capitalist system so unregulated that it is designed to benefit only shareholders, not societies. States in the U.S. and nations around the world are now desperately competing with one another to buy the much-needed supplies. The Washington Post interviewed state authorities and hospital managers and found, “a broadly dysfunctional system across the United States, with hospitals and health authorities having few options but to rely on largely unknown middlemen whose priority appears to be making a profit as they promise to quickly replenish the nation’s depleted medical stockpiles.” Christian Mitchell, deputy Governor of Illinois summed it up best saying, “It is a dog-eat-dog world out here.”
It took President Donald Trump weeks to invoke the full force of the Defense Production Act which gives the federal government the authority to direct private industry to refocus manufacturing during a national emergency. Trump was loath to do so because, in his words, “We’re a country not based on nationalizing our business. Call a person over in Venezuela. Ask them, how did nationalization of their businesses work out? Not too well.” He failed to mention that the U.S. capitalist system had yielded precisely the sorts of shortage that Venezuelans have been suffering from and that Western media outlets have gleefully blamed on socialist policies.
Last week a woman I had never met reached out to me via social media and asked if I could make some masks for herself and her colleagues. She is an occupational therapist at a nursing and rehabilitation facility in New Jersey and was terrified that the dwindling supply of masks at her workplace would not be replenished. I ought to have felt satisfied that I was able to step in and help but instead I felt a profound sense of outrage and sadness that in this nation overflowing with wealth and resources, a stranger from the other side of the country felt compelled to reach out for help keeping herself and her colleagues and their patients safe from this deadly disease.
Americans have also resorted to crowdfunding campaigns to outfit healthcare workers with necessary protection. One such effort has already raised more than $60,000 in 3 days to cover mass purchases of the coveted N-95 masks for doctors and nurses in the nation. The $250,000 goal of “Masks for America” is being met by small donations from all over the nation likely by ordinary people who might already be feeling the dire financial burden brought on by the pandemic. At a time of record unemployment across the country, we are once more forced to rely on ourselves to protect one another.
But that $250,000 goal could be met effortlessly by any one of the billionaires who have disproportionately benefited from decades of policies favoring the wealthy. Elites like David Geffen who shamelessly tweeted about how he was engaged in “self-isolation” on his $400 million yacht in the Caribbean could divert the tiniest slivers of their fortunes to fund such efforts and barely notice the financial pinch. The money, time and effort that people are spending to equip themselves and each other with protective masks and other supplies are akin to an added tax. And yet most of us do not draw a line between the herculean efforts we are engaged in to keep ourselves alive and the massive stockpiles of cash that Geffen and his ilk are sitting on. Instead, we feel pleased about being able to step in and help one another in times of crisis.
When wealthy elites do expend some of their cash on the massive needs in our society, they expect to be feted for doing so. The world’s fifth richest person, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, is worth a whopping $82 billion and yet is being celebrated for donating a mere $30 million to efforts at researching treatments for COVID-19—equivalents to three-tenths of a percent of his net value.
Our globalized economy that has pushed manufacturing to maximize profits over resiliency, and our obsession with celebrity culture and charity as a substitute for government funding have led us to our current predicament. Such a system is deeply vulnerable to the type of political and economic earthquake that the pandemic has unleashed and dependent on the crumbs that billionaires choose to scatter in our direction.
In such a context, being part of the mass national effort to sew homemade masks has filled me with anger, not satisfaction. And I am not alone. One group of activists in Jackson, Mississippi, with a history of organizing “mutual aid” in the face of government inaction, is connecting the dots. Cooperation Jackson has initiated a small mask-making operation that is also offering employment opportunities to those who are newly laid off. A website describing their efforts explains, “We’ve seen our fair share of hardships and disasters in Jackson the past few decades, from deindustrialization, to the housing collapse, to Hurricane Katrina, and the steady decline of our cities’ infrastructure.” Concluding that “the irrationality of late-stage capitalism” poses “long term threats to our community and to humanity,” Cooperation Jackson has set up what it calls a “mutual aid relief program,” based on lessons learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that focuses on, “the production of masks both to address the urgent call for them and to put our unique set of skills and tools to use in the service of humanity.”
We can and should join the mass effort to care for one another during this unprecedented time of crisis. But if our efforts are not informed by a critique of the injustices that American capitalism has wreaked on us, we are doomed to fall prey to future crises.