The United States is at a critical moment in the COVID-crisis. This week, the nation is likely to surpass 100,000 deaths and new hotspots in the south and midwest are developing. Forty-two states have either started “reopening” their economies or imminently plan to do so without putting in place essential public health measures to prevent the spread of the virus. As of May 7, more than half of the states that had either reopened or planned to do so (30 at the time) have seen an increase in case counts or positive tests. Public health experts are predicting another round of mass illness and deaths.
President Trump, whose political future is tied to the pandemic and economic collapse, has been encouraging protests demanding the reopening of the economy. This is the latest in a series of mistakes made since China first warned the Centers for Disease Contol of the new virus on January 3. He is putting the economy ahead of public health and risking more than 200,000 deaths by October at the height of the 2020 elections. He seems to fear a recession becoming a depression more than mass COVID-deaths. In the end, he may get both.
Two opposite popular movements are developing. The movement encouraged by Trump is minimizing the pandemic and pushing for reopening the economy. They garnered national attention because of their open display of weapons, which resulted in the Michigan legislature closing down. The other movement is characterized by a wave of wildcat strikes, rent strikes, and a nascent general strike campaign calling for health protection for workers, hazard pay, a basic income during the pandemic, and access to healthcare without financial barriers. This movement is covered only in independent and social media.
The Extremist Reopen Movement
The reopen protests play on the frustration of the restrictions put in place to respond to the pandemic. They shroud themselves with labels of “patriotism,” “freedom” and “libertarianism” but there are indications of manipulation by the Charles Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The pro-business magazine Forbes described the reopen protests as not spontaneous but astroturfing. They report on a security firm’s finding that they come from “various gun rights groups, state Republican Party organizations, and conservative think tanks, religious and advocacy groups.”
Many of the protesters wear Trump red hats and t-shirts. Trump responded by embracing the state-level push to reopen, and even encouraged protests against governors who maintain shelter-in-place instructions, declaring in late April, “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” and “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” When protesters confronted the media, Trump encouraged them, calling the media “nonessential” and “fake news.” He described armed anti-lockdown protesters as ‘great people.’
In Michigan, the brandishing of weapons has been aggressive. Groups such as the Michigan Liberty Militia sent armed protesters inside the statehouse and crowded into the gallery of the state Senate after demanding to be allowed on the House floor. An attempt to ban weapons inside the statehouse was blocked by the Republican-dominated legislature resulting in Michigan canceling their legislative session.
Newsweek reports, “Dozens of posts in private invitation-only Facebook groups called for Whitmer to be hanged, lynched, shot, beaten or beheaded. One suggested crowdfunding sources to hire a hitman to kill her.” These followed President Trump’s attacks on Whitmer. Some legislators wore bulletproof vests to the capitol building and one black legislator was escorted by armed protectors. The armed extremists are in the minority as polling has shown that a majority of Michigan residents support the lockdown measures.
In Wisconsin, Governor Tony Evers’ lockdown order was overturned by a 4-3 ruling by the Republican-controlled state Supreme Court. The Tavern League of Wisconsin posted news of the ruling on its website and said it meant businesses could open immediately. Just hours after the decision, people flocked to bars in Milwaukee without wearing face masks or practicing physical distancing. Some county governments moved quickly to impose their own lockdown rules. Evers said the Supreme Court does not change science and urged people to stay safe at home to protect their families, friends, and communities. There have been reopen protests even though 70 percent of Wisconsinites support the governor’s order.
At protest rallies, people were seen holding signs with swastikas on them. At a May 2 protest in Boise, Idaho, militia extremist Ammon Bundy compared government quarantine measures to the Nazi holocaust and called public health measures “tyranny.” A “Reopen Philadelphia” protest, organized by small business owners and members of the far-right Proud Boys, was held at City Hall last Friday.
These reopen extremists that use fear are a slim minority in the United States. A recent PBS/Marist poll showed broad opposition to the rush to reopen. Results included 85 percent opposed to reopening schools, 80 percent opposed to allowing dine-in restaurants, and 65 percent believe reopening now would be a bad idea. Nicole Hammer, author of Messengers of the Right, said these were protests designed for media coverage, but “The thing to remember about these protests is they’re very small. They represent a small constituency.”
Evidence throughout history shows that pandemics can have second and third waves. Countries that have attempted to reopen have seen spikes and closed down again. During the Spanish Flu of 1918-19, the second wave was worse than the first. We have been warned that a second wave is likely in the fall, during flu season, especially if we reopen too quickly.
The reopen protests are a death choir that is willing to sacrifice lives for the economy. Former Republican governor Chris Christie compared it to World War II when soldiers were sent to battle. He said, “In the very same way now we have to stand up for the American way of life” as we ‘are going to have to’ accept more death to reopen the economy. Along the same lines, Trump issued an executive order under the Defense Production Act to force meat processors to stay open despite the risk to workers’ health and urged states to deny unemployment benefits to people who refuse to return to work.
The Larger Popular Movement Protects Life
People are taking action for the majority view by calling for adequate health protection for workers as well as hazard pay, access to healthcare without financial cost and an ongoing basic income to provide economic security throughout the pandemic and economic collapse.
There have now been three months of a COVID strike wave. The Payday Report has identified over 200 wildcat strikes since the beginning of March. Essential workers in the food industry, healthcare, and transportation are among those striking. The fruit workers strike wave in Washington State has spread to 13 major sites and there is a growing movement of truckers striking nationwide. Truckers disrupted a Rose Garden presentation by Trump blowing their horns as he spoke. Trump falsely told the audience they were supporting him. When sanitation workers went on strike in New Orleans, they were replaced by prison slave-labor but the contractor has since stopped that. The strike is now in its second week.
Amazon, owned by Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest human, is being protested across national boundaries including in Spain, France, Germany, Poland, and the United States. Among the workers’ demands are permanent wage increases and extra break time, two weeks of paid sick leave, and extending the unlimited unpaid sick leave program that the company just ended in the U.S. They want the company to work in good faith with unions and reinstate the workers fired for their activism. As Bezos’ wealth increased by $30 billion amid the pandemic, Amazon ended its $2 per hour hazard pay for workers. One executive engineer for Amazon resigned over the mistreatment of workers.
In the US, 91 nurses have died from treating patients with COVID19, while no nurses have died in Canada. Multiple nurses, doctors and hospital staff have been fired for complaining about the lack of protective equipment. An empty shoe protest was held outside the White House over the deaths of nurses.
Amalgamated Transit Workers Union members across the country have engaged in work stoppages to demand safety in mass transit. Detroit bus drivers kicked off protests on March 17, early in the pandemic, and won all of their demands around health and safety. Birmingham drivers took action on March 23 and went back to work the following day after having won multiple safety measures. In April, drivers in Richmond, Virginia, and Greensboro, North Carolina also won safety measures. Transit workers are now looking to redefine mass transit in the post-COVID era where confronting climate change will be important.
Groups representing workers, immigrants, and civil rights advocates are protesting reopening the economy too soon. As one advocate said, “We will not be guinea pigs.” People want to return to work but they want the economy reopened safely. People’s lives should not be jeopardized for the economy.
These advocates have science on their side. On May 12, two top health officials in the federal government informed a Senate committee that the coronavirus is not contained and that reopening too swiftly is profoundly dangerous. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci warned that “there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control.” Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the current director of the CDC, who was hired by Trump said, “We are not out of the woods yet.”
Deborah Burger, the co-president of National Nurses United (NNU), told In These Times, “We are way premature for opening when the cases nationwide have not gone down but continue to go up,” adding, “We are still experiencing a rationing of personal protective equipment, N95 masks, and other protective gear. We just did a vigil for over 100 nurses who have died.”
Protect Public Health before Reopening
It is a false choice to claim the country must immediately reopen despite the health risks. This is a red herring political maneuver by Trump. We can protect public health and economic security so we can quarantine safely and reopen when it is safe. This includes a public health system in every county that screens and tests for COVID19, traces the contacts of those who test positive and isolates all positives and their contacts until they are clear. It requires a universal basic income until the pandemic and recession are over. And it requires housing for all, universal health care and debt forgiveness. Essential workers must be provided with whatever they need to protect their health during the pandemic. This may include child care and separating them from their families so they can work.
President Trump’s divisive politics may mean the US will have more than 200,000 COVID deaths by the fall and that the recession has turned into a depression. His politics of disposability will result in human sacrifices for a failed restarting of the economy. Already data is being manipulated to falsely lower the number of deaths. For example, Florida is not counting reports from medical examiners. And, the loss of jobs is being underreported. In the end, none of this will hide reality. People will see how the super-rich Wall Steeters once again cheated the rest of us while pillaging Main Street. To prevent this, we need to organize and strike now.
The crises of COVID and economic collapse are triggers for people to demand change as a gateway to a new and better world. The short term demands of public safety and economic security should be followed by longer-term demands for Medicare for all with a community-controlled national health service. After the pandemic and recession, we need to restart the economy in a way that provides economic security for all by confronting inequality and protecting the planet with a Green New Deal. The realities of capitalism have been exposed as the stock market shows its disconnect to the real economy and high unemployment.
The established order has been exposed and this experience will be embedded in people’s understanding of the world. This makes the powerholders weaker than ever before and if we act in solidarity, the opportunities for positive change are great.