Struggle for a people’s agenda amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Statement from ILPS in Canada
April 2, 2020

The International League of Peoples’ Struggle Canada (ILPS – Canada) calls on its members and allies across Canada to join the call to address the urgent health and peoples’ economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus COVID-19, and reject the handouts to the corporate sector and their attempts to profit from this crisis. Under capitalism, the ability of people to withstand crises brought about by global health and economic shocks has eroded significantly. What is on the table for the people are mere band-aid solutions designed to sustain capitalism by meeting the critical needs of the workforce, not to address the fundamental economic crises caused by imperialist machinations and aggression.

The Health Crisis

There are currently over 1,300,000 cases in more than 200 countries, with at least 71,000 deaths (as of April 6, 2020). Some of the countries with the highest case-loads (US, Italy, and Spain) are G7 or advanced capitalist economies whose health infrastructure has been ravaged by neo-liberalism making them unprepared and incapable of the rapid reaction required in the current crisis. Already at this early stage of the outbreak, these supposedly advanced capitalist economies are seeing a rising death count, hospital emergency rooms over-run, the rationing of care and critical medical supplies/equipment. Front line health workers are being put at risk due to the lack of supply of personal protective equipment, and we are seeing high rates of transmission to frontline medical staff. In Italy, it is reported on April 2 that 63 doctors have already died from COVID-19. Canada has fared only slightly better to this point, with 15,500 infections reported.

Mass testing, which is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and was critical to the control of the disease in South Korea, is essentially non-existent in most developed economies due to a lack of testing supplies. Public health in Canada has been crippled by decades of cuts to our health care public health systems under Liberal, Conservative and Social Democratic neo-liberal regimes at the federal and provincial level. These health austerity measures have impacted on our public health systems and left us unprepared and largely unable to respond to the current health crisis.

The pandemic, and the economic crisis in its wake, has been badly managed because of the ideological straitjackets of neoliberalism. The “austerity” of neoliberalism over 40 years has led to cuts in available health services and other services for the people which are required to solve the current health crisis.

While individual responsibilities like washing hands and social distancing may help, it is totally inadequate in handling large-scale threats. Many countries, such as the United State, depend too much on secondary and tertiary health care and not on primary preventive health care.

The neo-liberal model has dire and lethal consequences. Our front-line health workers are left over-burdened and unprotected by governments by decades of starving the public health budget. The monopoly of big pharmaceutical transnationals has led to more profitable pharmaceutical needs to maximize their profit (i.e., specific diseases), and are not geared towards public health needs such as testing, tracing, containment and curative services.

The desperation of governments to contain the virus has led to an increasing reliance on policy and military action, instead of medical attention. These include lockdowns, curfews and curtailing of civil rights.

The Economic Crisis

The inability of capitalist governments to execute a coherent health strategy in the face of the pandemic has produced a grave economic crisis. Huge swaths of the world economy have been effectively shut down, and workers either laid off or sent home to implement physical distancing strategies between individuals in the hope of breaking chains of disease transmission.

The effective ending of economic activity across large swaths of the economy has produced both panic on financial markets, but also new opportunities for ‘disaster capitalism’ as massive bailout packages have been approved by governments throughout the G-7 and around the world to prime the pump of capitalism.

Authorities in many capitalist countries are desperately seeking to stimulate their failing economies by pumping billions of dollars into their countries’ corporate sector in a desperate attempt to prevent deep economic recessions. In Canada, this has meant $81 billion in the first tranche of corporate bailouts and income support measures. In the United States, the government has put $2 trillion into the economy, and the lion’s share is supporting corporate bailouts.

In some countries, decades of tax cuts and consequent government service cut-backs have led to huge public debts and budget deficits. There is now so little room to maneuver or respond to any kind of economic shock, and trusted strategies for economic stimulus like interest rate cuts are no longer a solution as they are already down to record low levels as a result of previous measures to stave off capitalist crises.

Neoliberal stop-gap measures are merely laying the foundation for a post-pandemic economic crisis, as new debt loads on national governments will dictate new austerity measures to pay the bills. Cuts to public expenditure will increase pressure to privatize core social services such as health care and education. Without addressing the fundamental contradictions of capitalism, all countries will be caught in a vicious spiral downwards.

The great danger is that the economic crisis provoked by COVID-19 will most likely lead to darker more violent forms of oppression under capitalism. Fascism is capitalism in crisis, it is capitalism in its most desperate and violent form. It uses the most modern weapons of violence and repression in its attempts to stop social change to save capitalism by crushing and destroying those who resist. It is the defender of private property, of rent, interest and profit, of austerity and neo-liberalism. It is already evident in some of the responses to the crisis, such as in the Philippines where the entire country is under military lockdown.

Imperialism and the COVID Crisis: Business as Usual?

Despite the crisis triggered by COVID-19, imperialist aggression remains unchanged. Canada has responded to the UN General Secretary call for “an immediate global ceasefire” so humanitarian aid may reach countries affected by COVID-19. Canadian Forces troops and reservists have been asked to be prepared to distribute humanitarian aid to provinces affected by COVID-19 and to enforce quarantine measures if necessary.

Canada, however, has continued to participate in military exercises organized by NATO in Europe and continues to engage in arms production. Instead of increasing military spending at the pressure of other NATO, arms-related production in Canada could be converted to the production of human necessities such as medical equipment and housing modules.

At the same time, Canada’s foreign policy has made life worse for vulnerable people in countries most affected by COVID-19. It is currently imposing sanctions on Venezuela and Iran, which makes access to medical care difficult in those countries. Iran, in particular, has been one of the hardest-hit countries by this global pandemic with over 60,000 cases being reported. Canada continues to be a strong supporter of Israel, which continues to launch military action in the Gaza Strip and maintain its blockade which has already devastated the capacity to provide health care to a captive population. Five thousand Palestinian prisoners crammed into unsafe and inhumane Israeli prisons are particularly vulnerable to infection.

COVID-19 will also shape Canada’s foreign policy towards China. While Canadian hospitals have said that they are facing a shortage of critical medical supplies for frontline workers facing the current crisis, conservatives in Canada are also looking at imposing sanctions on China and are viewing recent Chinese medical aid to Canada with suspicion.

It is clear that the imperialist agenda prevails in this global health and economic crisis faced by people all over the world.

The Burden of COVID-19 is not Equally Shared

The COVID-19 crisis has differential impacts on various population groups across Canada. Vulnerable to the virus are the unemployed, the homeless and the working masses who have low incomes and poor access to health care and medical facilities. The current strategy of social distancing directly impacts these groups. Homeless people, in particular, are unequally impacted by social distancing strategies, as their sources of access to the internet and phone are cut off as community centers and libraries are closed down. The homeless are left with no place to go as soup kitchens and drop-in centers are closed. In most jurisdictions, the homeless also face expanded police powers and intensified harassment as social distancing measures such as restrictions on the assembly of more than five people produce legalized attacks on shelters and tent cities.

As of April 2, the government has received 2.13 million Employment Insurance (EI) claims. Many in the first wave of people who lost their jobs are the highly vulnerable retail, restaurant and service industry workers who survive on minimum-wage jobs.

In an environment of mass layoffs renters, another group that is severely impacted by the COVID-19 Crisis. According to the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives 3.4 million Canadians provide shelter through paying rent to landlords, of this group 46% have less than one month of savings. The first wave of people who lost their jobs are in the highly vulnerable retail sector including restaurant and service industry workers who survive on minimum wage jobs. Canadian households have already been experiencing record debt levels prior to the COVID-19 crisis, and the recent job losses and economic slowdown will further add to the debt load as people are forced to borrow to buy food, medicines and other essentials.

Women also face added risks in the COVID-19 quarantine or social distancing environment. The loss of acquired rights like socialized child care and public schooling is keenly felt by women, as children are now back in the home full time due to the closure of almost all education and social services. Women in high- risk abusive situations now face the prospect of being locked down with their abuser in isolation for long periods of time, adding to the health risks of the pandemic.

Rather than supporting these most hard-hit populations by providing direct economic and social support, the government response is shaped by its driving imperative: not the health of the people but the ‘health’ of the capitalist system. Thus ‘supports’ to low-wage workers will be funnelled through ‘wage subsidies’ to businesses, and in British Columbia, the NDP government is providing its ‘support’ to renters in the form of government cheques which go directly to landlords.

ILPS Canada calls for sustained, pro-people solutions to persistent economic crisis under capitalism. In the short-term, there is a need for critical supports, such as guaranteed incomes and universal access to testing and treatment that gives priority to vulnerable groups and communities. In the long term, those in power should be held accountable for the health crisis. Governments have long safeguarded the profit-making of corporations through corporate bail-outs, tax cuts and austerity measures that harm people. The people must now unite and exercise their collective action for health care and other services and against corporate greed and imperialist policies that are anti-people. Ultimately, public ownership of economic resources and economic control by the working people of production and wealth, are the safeguards from global health and economic shocks.

ILPS is calling for a global day of action on April 15, 2020, both on-line and off-line, to put our demands forward on COVID-19.

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