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How Racist Capitalism Fuels COVID

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Long before Donald Trump, racial capitalism had doomed North America’s attempt to meet the challenge of the Covid pandemic. Yet in the middle of the pandemic when Black Lives Matter protests broke out, it seemed reasonable to demand the impossible – an end to profit-driven white supremacy. These two pivotal events graphically reveal our competing realities.

Why did advanced capitalist countries, after fair warnings from a history of earlier pandemics, respond to this time around first with denial, followed by ignorance and panic, resulting in chaos, fragmentation, and now a deadly second surge in cases?

As a Health Worker and Nurse…

I became angry with the “We are all in this together” hype when I looked around the ICUs in my major high-tech Washington, DC hospital. I am proud to work with staff truly fighting for our patients’ lives. But in gentrified Washington, now a majority White city, just about every Covid patient was Latino or Black. My union battles management for more single-use N95 masks that we are forced to reuse for days, because there is no national plan to provide personal protective equipment.

Why don’t media images illustrating super-spreader events show immigrant Latino and Caribbean farmworkers, Somalis working in slaughterhouses, Haitians staffing nursing homes, or the hundreds of thousands of poor people stuffed in prisons?

Moreover, why is the West denying the successful strategies and logistics by African and South-East Asian countries who still have dramatically limited pandemic transmission, illness and death while we experience a deadly second and third surge?

The Covid crisis is an opportunity to undo White supremacy. Understand that our focus on Sweden’s experiment instead of studying Africa’s proven strategies to manage the Covid pandemic is how White supremacy deploys information. We need to discard the assumptions that our white civilizational heritage delivers the gold standard. We ought to recognize capitalist and imperial intent that lurks behind the glorification of White heritage and accomplishments.

Another Approach

If we look at African and the SE Asian countries, we see national mobilizations guided by prepared plans and a willingness to act – together.

What can Palestine teach us? Palestine limited Covid death rates to half of Israel’s and Canada’s, and 1/5th of the US – despite Israel’s active sabotage of their health care services and killing of their health care workers.

Decades of public health defunding through austerity budgets has been prosecuted by neoliberalism, a predatory capitalist ideology that attacks the core value of government services and social solidarity. Margaret Thatcher famously proclaimed, “There is no society – only individuals”.

Anti-capitalists can use the pandemic to mobilize against neoliberal agendas of undermining, then privatizing public health care, imposing private insurance and selling off public medicine manufacturing, while simultaneously cutting taxes and free access. We must de-mythologize a system where billionaires plunder $2.75 trillion during the pandemic from our work and our communities. In the meantime millions of Americans go hungry, and cannot afford running water to wash their hands or flush their toilets, and public health departments are forced to operate on a shoestring.

Ironically, the pandemic crisis gives us a glimpse of the possibilities of a just economy. After shutting down, nations suddenly panicked and spent billions (indeed trillions) to rescue their stock markets and economies. People received survival money. Evictions for those unable to pay their rents and mortgage defaults were suspended. Public transportation was free. All this without bankrupting our economy or rocketing us into inflation. Lesson learned – austerity economics is a predatory capitalist weapon.

Now is the moment to attack centuries of punishing racial capitalism that has so jeopardized Black, Indigenous American and Latino lives with higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and kidney disease – the “co-morbidities” that turn Covid infections so deadly. Poor and racialized communities are systemically toxified by the other co-morbidities: polluted air, water and soil.

Individualism and the Spawning of Distrust

We now end up sacrificing ‘unproductive’ seniors. Society is not expected to prevent or treat illness – it is the individual’s responsibility. Propaganda blames our ‘personal behavior’ for Covid surges.

Neoliberalism’s class war tactics have us distrusting public health officials and scientists. Not surprisingly health officials and scientists distrust us.

“I am troubled by just how little the health profession has done to address the persistent misperceptions arising from the nation’s history.” Writes – Reed V. Tuckson – Former Commissioner of Public Health for Washington, DC. “This should be the last time our society has to struggle against the legacy of the past as we fight persistent disparities in health outcomes and tackle this pandemic and the challenges to come.”

Given our history of racist, colonialist and sexist medical practices, to say nothing of funding greedy pharmaceutical corporations, perhaps we ought to see how easily neoliberalism motivates the individualism of Covid-deniers, anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers.

A radical way out of pandemic conditions demands a just and effective response: –

  1. Directed help to communities and essential workers at risk. We as a caring society owe them support if they refuse to work in an unsafe workplace, and adequate pay and protection when they do work.
  2. Demand the West cancels African debt. Due to predatory lending practices, Africa owes $500 billion in Western debt. In 2019, many African countries spent more money servicing their debts than they did on health.
  3. Abolishing prisons and immigrant detention is medically and socially healthy.
  4. Stop the refusal to spend on school safety measures such as ventilation and extra staff, and oppose jerking kids, parents and teachers around with politically decided in-class vs. online teaching mandates.

A Failure to Learn

In my hometown Montreal, Quebec, a perfect storm of profiteering, austerity and racism contributed to one of the world’s highest Covid-19 death rates. Almost 80% of Quebec’s five thousand Covid-19 deaths during the first surge were Montreal area nursing home residents – almost all were White.

A large percentage of nursing home staff are immigrants working at bottom wages without adequate personal protection such as N95 masks or sick leave. Because both private and public employers did not want to pay them benefits guaranteed with a full-time position, many worked part-time in different facilities. These policies spread Covid throughout facilities, then to their families, and into their immigrant communities.

Only enormous pressure on the Quebec government forced it to grant bonuses, delayed pay increases and some extra hiring for nursing home caregivers. But without any long-term commitment, bonuses were rolled back, officials denied the crisis, staff quit or are quarantined, and nursing homes are once again besieged by Covid disease.

Learning From Failure

Contrast us to S.E. Asia and Africa whose national and collaborative planning and deployment reinforces collective responsibility. Both experienced failure and tragedy after the SARS and Ebola pandemics swept their respective regions.

Despite being at or near the epicenter of the novel corona-virus outbreak, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and South Korea are mastering the pandemic. Their shut down measures are less calamitous then ours.

After suffering from the SARS pandemic, they developed national plans. They built robust national public health systems including testing and contact tracing, clear and unified communication, and control over distribution and pricing of essential medical equipment like testing supplies and masks.

In January, they took seriously the reports of a new coronavirus outbreak from Wuhan China, while Western governments failed to mobilize.

Borders were controlled for people entering from hot spots. Fever and symptoms health checks sprouted up at transit points, schools, workplaces and public buildings.

South-East Asian countries have a culture of masking in public that has proven to limit influenza transmission. Taiwan distributes masks to all residents and prevents price gouging.

When people are quarantined, many countries support those in need with food and money.  Contact tracing and quarantine surveillance is thorough. However, the state’s surveillance on people quarantined or locked down – using integrated government departments, cell phones and even CCTV face recognition in China – easily reinforces authoritarian control.

By employing multiple tools and strategies, South-East Asian countries can flexibly adjust to changing data and circumstances. Shutdowns do happen, but more selectively according to the data and science – not by panic and politics.

Superior African Organization

In February, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) convened an emergency meeting with all 55 continental health ministers to agree on a strategy on preventing transmission and mitigating community spread to avoid overburdening the already stressed healthcare systems.

Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo learned painful lessons from Ebola. “The response to an outbreak should begin and end at the community level,” Claude Kasereka, a surgeon from the DRC explained. “Training local leaders was much more effective for communicating the message than using untrusted outsiders.”

African countries that have so far are outperformed the global West, benefited from national preparations and high mask usage as well. They already had rapid-response teams, trained contact tracers, logistics routes, and other public-health tools and protocols in place.

Those that did not have staff in place at the beginning of the pandemic such as Uganda, Ethiopia and South Africa, devoted tens of thousands of people to do thorough contact tracing and city surveys to detect Covid-19.

Rwanda used local leaders to identify vulnerable members of communities affected by shutdowns and provided them with food and financial relief. Ethiopia reduced rents by 50%.

Perhaps with the West in mind, Professor Michael Hawks points out that , “Disorganized and conflicting messages from polarized political leadership leads to population mistrust of public health messages. And they have to be tailored to local understanding.”

Amara M. Konneh of Liberia explained that health authorities there “engaged pop stars to compose jingles and songs with health messages.”

“The continent of Africa reacted aggressively,” claims John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa CDC. “We have evidence to show that that helped a lot.”

“We’ve seen that in an epidemic, one day can mean a lot,” Sabin Nsanzimana, of the Rwanda Biomedical Center says in the New Yorker.

How well did our different systems work? Use this updated chart to compare us and them.

But in the Global North our deeply embedded structures of systemic racism and capitalism need to be overcome if we are to develop a coherent collective response to ensure safe and equitable health outcomes.

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Scott Weinstein, RN is an intensive care nurse, who works in DC, and lives in Montreal. He is a member of the National Nurses United. He volunteered with the Red Crescent in Palestine, co-founded the Common Ground Health Care Clinic in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and helped coordinate health care at the public Hôpital d l’Universite d’Etat d’Hait after the 2010 earthquake.

Contact: scottmtl@protonmail.com

Scott Weinstein, RN is an intensive care nurse, who works in DC, and lives in Montreal. He is a member of the National Nurses United. He volunteered with the Red Crescent in Palestine, co-founded the Common Ground Health Care Clinic in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and helped coordinate health care at the public Hôpital d l’Universite d’Etat d’Hait after the 2010 earthquake.

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