Lessons from COVID 19: How did we get here?

COVID 19 will be a disastrous milestone.  The pandemic leapt out of a hole mostly dug over five decades by the richest people and corporations in the world.  Ironically they are the least likely to be hurt by it.  Like the world wars and the great depression and great recession, it will leave a changed world in ways we can imagine and ways we cannot yet foresee.  In a world of huge wealth and enormous scientific progress, how did this happen and take us so much by surprise? 

A huge part of the answer lies in the nature of capitalism.  What many, especially the wealthy few have claimed, is that capitalism is the source of our prosperity.  It has turned out they were wrong.  It has really been a growing source of destruction of our health, our climate, our sense of fairness and our democracy.  With COVID 19 capitalism has fueled a new disease into a wildfire of illness and death.  We need to learn what we can from this terrible time so we can begin to shape a better world.

As Chris Winters, the senior editor at Yes Magazine pointed out, “It turns out that a deregulated capitalist economy with no real leadership isn’t the best model to fight a global pandemic.”  The captains of industry and finance did not leap forward with a plan to fight the pandemic.  Faced with a sharp economic downturn they leapt forward to demand that governments protect them.  The same governments they derided, smeared and lied about for decades.  The same governments they have strangled with their demands for tax cuts and threats to move elsewhere if they didn’t get them.  The same governments they starved for revenues by often illegally hiding their obscene wealth in tax havens.  Examples of corporations and the wealthy 1% without tax havens are as rare as unicorns. 

We dug a hole over five decades driven by the incessant demands of the super-rich for ever larger slices of the pie.  One huge slice of that pie they devoured was the piece that should have fed health care.  So what was the result of not having the funds to spend on healthcare and how did it impact the COVID 19 crisis?    I am going to ignore the low hanging fruit like the Harris and Ford governments in Ontario or Canada’s ‘government shrinkers’ Paul Martin and Stephen Harper and of course the appalling Trump administration  in the United States with their enthusiasm to cut public healthcare spending.  Let me focus closer to home in Nova Scotia, Canada.

We have a government dedicated to a public policy of austerity that has worked nowhere in the world.  For decades we have had a shortage of nursing home beds and many of the available beds are in ‘for profit’ private sector nursing homes.   The argument is that if the private sector owns the homes government debt will be lower.  Government still controls the number of beds by limiting the number of beds it will approve but the long run costs are higher.  The result is far fewer beds than we, especially in Nova Scotia need.

The pressure in ‘for profit’ homes is always to keep profits as high as possible.  Far too often that means too few staff and poorly paid staff.  It often means hiring part time staff to keep wages and benefits minimal.  It means hours and wages so low staff often need to work in more than one nursing home, a practice which has become a death dealing disaster.  It too often means as many seniors as possible in each room.  It means inadequate equipment and often no pandemic plan.  This is where many of the most pandemic vulnerable in our society live.  It is where the death toll is highest across the country.

But the shortage of nursing home beds had another devastating impact.  There are long waiting lines to get a nursing home bed.  The result is the usual flow of patients through the system is blocked.  Emergency rooms cannot shift patients to speciality wards like cardiology, or surgery because those wards are unable to send patients to general wards or regional hospitals because the general wards or regional hospitals cannot send patients to nursing homes.  And into this inefficient mess healthcare workers wait for a surge of COVID 19 victims

The cost of a bed in emergency is much greater than one in a specialized ward.   The cost of a general or regional hospital bed is less than in a specialized ward in a major hospital.  The cost of a nursing home bed is the least expensive of all.  The lack of beds that cost a few hundred dollars a day is filling up beds that cost thousands of dollars a day with patients who need much less care.  The cost of this inefficiency would have been better spent on planning for a pandemic in line with the recommendations made after the SARS epidemic.  Some of the tax cut and tax haven money should have been used to build publicly owned or not-for-profit nursing homes.

We are a province where doctors, nurses, para medics and home care workers have all been denigrated by provincial leaders over the past five years.  As a recent provincial Minister of health put it, “Why are we paying home care workers $18.00 an hour to wash dishes?”   If the minister of health does not even understand what homecare workers do it is no surprise they are greatly undervalued.

COVID 19 arrived in Nova Scotia after years of growing emergency room closures across the province and a severe doctor shortage.  It is compounded by a shortage of nurses.  That in turn was compounded by an equipment shortage including ventilators, hospital quality masks and personal protective equipment. The majority of our healthcare workers are women, many paid less than male colleagues or in low paying work.   The doctors, nurses, support workers, home care workers and janitors who willingly put their lives at risk, live in unnecessary, often desperate, fear. 

But what about the super-rich who benefited from the tax cuts and tax havens?  Well they always have the option of private hospitals they can fly to.  For them, they can work from home in spacious quarters and their wealth, while perhaps a bit diminished, remains, and no doubt many are scheming how to gain back their losses and more.  No losing jobs or homes or ability to buy food for them.

But that is not the end of how capitalism fuels COVID19.  It has produced enormous and growing inequalities of wealth.  The poor are more vulnerable to the pandemic because they are paid less, experience more difficulty affording good food and housing, transportation or affording their medications.  They are less able to self-isolate.  For indigenous people, their health care is especially weak since much less is spent on it per capita than non-indigenous care.  Blacks and people of color and religious minorities too often face discrimination in housing, education and healthcare.  Transportation makes accessing health care harder for the poor.  

Capitalism also has its favoured occupations and races.  It does not result in good incomes for retail workers, janitors, homecare workers, etc.  Corporations often finds devious ways, like contracting out and/or the threat or reality of offshore sourcing, to pay even less.  COVID 19 hits low income people much harder than any group except seniors.  Incomes for racial and religious minorities and especially our indigenous people are among the lowest in the country.  Having said that, let us remember that the vast wealth of North America was built on the foundations of slavery and the theft of indigenous lands. 

Many people in low paying jobs are the people who likely to have to stay at work during a pandemic either because their work is essential and/or they have little or no savings.  They are also the least likely to have their employers provide them with personal protective equipment or safe work settings during a pandemic.   Again, profit drives far too many decisions.   In worker owned work places decisions are not made this way.

Some will argue that many businesses did good things to respond to the pandemic and that of course is true.  Businesses are not all the same.  Small, medium and family businesses are much less likely to behave with a singular fixation on maximum return to shareholders.  That is why some restaurants, after they closed, raised money to prepare takeout meals for truck drivers for free.  Why another small business began manufacturing plexiglass protective barriers for other small businesses for free.  There are many more examples.

Even in big corporations, not all senior managers are solely profit driven.  Most want to do what is ethical and most would like to help build a better world for their families and communities.  But in capitalist business structure, operated in the interests of investors, when push comes to shove, a single bottom line is where the rubber meets the road.  Next quarter’s results and the Milton Friedman, billionaire capitalist culture define winners by their dedication to profit.  The result is to blunt altruism and caring.  When profit decides your next promotion, or perhaps even your job, making decisions for the good of humanity becomes painful.  Even good people rationalize corporate bad behaviour.

Yet another characteristic of global capitalism has been an important driver of COVID 19.   Corporate globalization drives corporate growth.  To operate on the global stage, it is much better to be big – very big.  The bigger you are:  The more easily you can swallow smaller competitors and achieve market control;  The more easily you can drive supplier prices down;  The more easily you can move an operation to an area with even lower wages, weaker pollution laws or easily corruptible governments.  Even more important, your lobbyists can pressure governments and your lawyers can play a role in writing the “free” trade deals designed to serve the rich and powerful.   

The existence of these global supply chains has had a major impact on how fast this new virus spread.  It has also posed major difficulties for a rich country like ours to obtain personal protective and other equipment needed to protect our people.  Imagine what the result has and will be for people in poorer countries or refugee camps who have little clout in the global bidding war.  It has also touched off a price escalation as governments try to protect their citizens by bidding up the cost of equipment from companies beyond their borders.  Good for corporate profits but not for our healthcare system.

The government of Canada, in response to the supply chain problem, has approached a series of industries and many have stepped forward quickly to provide personal protective and hospital equipment.  It would have been much better and saved many lives if this had been the situation for the past decade.  Will Canadian suppliers be more expensive?  Will they pay living wages?  Did foreign supply chains pay living wages?  What will the profit margins be?  Will we return to “free” trade after the crisis has passed and put ourselves back in the same position again?

What about US suppliers?  Surely if we agree to global supply chains we should not have to accept their irresponsible disruption by an administration covering up its massive failures by putting lives in other countries at risk. 

The same enormous power that has driven down taxes and protected tax havens and promoted self-regulation has driven global supply chains.  The result is why 20% of the Trump administration’s initial COVID response plan benefited the top 20% of income earners.  It is why a huge portion of Canada’s COVID response plan will go to the oil industry with the result of accelerating climate change.   If the goal is to get those unemployed by the pandemic back to work, World Bank studies show: it takes an investment of more than $190,000 to create one oil industry job; between $75-80,000 to create a job in solar or wind; $60,000 per job for retrofits; and under $40,000 per job in mass transit.  Will the COVID disaster become an excuse for throwing away more money on tar sands production? 

Is fear of the pandemic going to be used by the owners of capital to fuel a great leap backward?  Will our governments continue to be hijacked and stripped of their power to protect us?

The COVID 19 pandemic gives us so much to think about and raises many questions.  Can democracy improve the response in a time of crisis?  If this is not the last “new” virus or bacteria humanity will experience, what are some of the things we need to change to make it better the next time.  If organizing our world around capitalism does not work well what are the alternatives? 

I hope to grapple with these and other questions over the next few weeks.

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