COVID-19: Neither Trump nor Cuomo: Healthcare Workers on How to Fight the Pandemic

We need a single, free and public healthcare system in which decision making is done by those most qualified to do so, its employees, says Dr. Mike Pappas. That goes beyond Medicare for All.

The author, Doctor Mike Pappas, left, and Nurse Tre Kwon.

By Mike Pappas
Left Voice

Capitalism has birthed a nightmare. Nearly 2 million people around the world have already fallen ill as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Hospitals like ours have been completely overwhelmed by the rush of patients. The bodies of the dead are being held in refrigerated trucks. Those who can’t be identified are buried in mass graves. Unemployment may already be as high as 13 percent in the U.S.

It was entirely preventable.

For over a month, President Donald Trump downplayed the threat of a worldwide pandemic. Even as his advisers warned that as many as 1.2 million lives could be lost in the U.S. alone, time and again he claimed we were safe from harm. His denial left us totally unprepared to deal with the explosion of Covid-19 cases that came just days later. 

As late as March 24, Trump was calling for U.S. businesses to be reopened by Easter, demonstrating his absolute contempt for the health and safety of workers. Trump’s only concern, from the beginning, was that profits continue to flow into the coffers of U.S. corporations. That’s what he meant when he said, “The cure can’t be worse than the problem.” He wouldn’t jeopardize capitalist profits by shutting down businesses, even if it meant hundreds of thousands of working-class people, or more, would die.

As a result of his criminal negligence, that is exactly what is happening now. It is working people in the poorest neighborhoods who are suffering most. Sixty-two percent of Covid-19 deaths in New York City are Black and Latino people. 

The criminality and callousness of the Trump administration doesn’t stop there. We must also consider the consequences of the administration’s actions internationally. The U.S. continues to maintain a brutal blockade on Iran, preventing critical medicine, equipment and food from reaching the country.

It was Trump’s actions, above all, that led to a humanitarian crisis in Iran, where more than 4,000 people have died — the highest toll in the Middle East.

And in mid-March, when cases of COVID-19 were already in the tens of thousands around the world, the administration launched a bombing campaign against Iraq. How else can we describe this but barbarism?

Healthcare-cutting Cuomo. (Flickr)

Trump isn’t the only one responsible for the devastation, however. Democrats like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo have played a major role over the years, overseeing hospital closures and mergers, cutting safety-net services like Medicaid, and bulldozing the way for developers. These actions severely weakened the healthcare system in New York, made people afraid to seek care and raised the cost of living, forcing working-class and poor people to live in ever more cramped and crowded homes and apartments.

This was the fuel the virus needed to spread at such a dizzying speed throughout the city and the surrounding suburbs. 

Cuomo and the Democrats, just like Trump, acted entirely in the interests of the capitalist class and at the expense of our health. The media has been effusive about Cuomo’s “leadership” and “decisiveness” during this crisis. They’ve ignored that the governor was pushing to keep New York businesses open in mid-March.

On March 17, he said: “There is not going to be any quarantine, no one is going to lock you in your home, no one is going to tell you, you can’t leave the city…That’s not going to happen.” His recklessness put the lives of at least tens of thousands of people at risk.

Unionport, The Bronx, during pandemic, March 21, 2020. ( Bebo2good1, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The capitalist class, and their media outlets, have tried to present the pandemic as something that can be fought through individual actions: Wash your hands. Practice social distancing. Stay home! But this crisis wasn’t caused by individual irresponsibility. This emergency was provoked by the anarchy inherent in the capitalist system.

The U.S. healthcare industry, for example, doesn’t care the slightest bit about saving lives if it’s not a profitable endeavor. So no attention is paid to preventing infectious disease, even though developing vaccines for these diseases would save the lives of millions around the world each year.

As David Harvey notes, “Big Pharma rarely invests in prevention. It has little interest in investing in preparedness for a public health crisis. It loves to design cures. The sicker we are, the more they earn. Prevention does not contribute to shareholder value.” 

Even now, the healthcare companies are making a fortune from this public health emergency. The hospitals, insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, and medical equipment companies will all be paid handsomely for their services, while thousands are dying and hundreds of thousands are sick.

Trump made a big show over invoking the Defense Production Act to force GM into producing ventilators. But the company was awarded half a billion dollars to do it. 

From the Fight for PPE to Nationalized Healthcare  

Around the country, there is a severe shortage of masks and personal protective equipment in hospitals. Each day in our hospital, we experience the stress of not having enough or appropriate PPE and knowing that our chances of becoming infected are high. Every nurse and hospital worker across New York that we’ve spoken with reports a similar situation in their hospital.

Healthcare professionals are being forced to reuse masks, against safety protocols, or go without masks entirely. It doesn’t just put their own lives at risk, it jeopardizes the lives of their patients, their family members, and everyone they come into contact with. 

Multinational corporations like 3M are securing multi-million dollar agreements for the production of N95 masks, but still won’t produce nearly enough to reach every front line worker who needs them. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The massive production of masks and PPE would be a relatively simple undertaking if the will — or relations of production — existed.

“The parasitic health care corporations and their executives have nothing to offer society. We need a single, free and public healthcare system in which decision making is done by those most qualified to do so, its employees.”

Every major factory in the U.S. capable of conversion to PPE or medical device production should be immediately seized and be forced to do so, with workers fully compensated and given the necessary protections to do their jobs. Workers, like the employees of the GE plant in Lynn, Massachusetts, are already demanding it. Furthermore, such an effort could secure employment for the millions of people across the country who’ve been put out of work in the past month. 

But planning on a nationwide scale — let alone an international scale — is anathema to capitalism. As Washington, D.C., nurse, Shreya Mahajan, points out, there are now thousands of nurses around the country who not only aren’t being put into service to care for Covid-19 patients, but they’re getting their hours cut by hospitals seeking to recoup costs from the the cancelation of “more lucrative elective procedures.” The system is rife with inefficiencies. 

The only way to overcome this irrationality is to nationalize the entire healthcare system under the control of workers and community members. Workers — from doctors and nurses to technicians and support staff —  are the ones who run the hospitals each day. We are the ones who are most knowledgeable about the treatment and care of our patients.

The parasitic health care corporations and their executives have nothing to offer society. We need a single, free and public healthcare system in which decision making is done by those most qualified to do so, its employees. That goes beyond Medicare for All. M4A is a progressive demand, and one we should support, but it would still leave the private hospitals, the pharmaceutical companies, and the medical device companies intact. 

Joe Biden cynically argued that Italy has public health care and they’re still experiencing one of the worst outbreaks in the world. But that’s because in Italy, just like in the U.S., the capitalist class has carried out devastating cuts to the system, including the closures of hundreds of hospitals in the past two decades.

It’s not because public health care “doesn’t work there,” as Biden says. It’s because neoliberalism has corroded the foundations of the public health care system so much that the outbreak caused a complete collapse. The same patterns were repeated in the U.S., with similar results.

Twenty hospitals have closed in New York since 2000. It is no wonder that the hospital system is now dangerously unprepared, with too few beds, too few staff and too little equipment to confront this pandemic. 

Essential Workers & Class Struggle 

MTA New York City Transit personnel perform sanitize an R-160 train in the Coney Island Yard, March 3, 2020. (Marc A. Hermann, MTA)

We created the Covid-19 Frontline Workers’ Task Force at our hospital to serve as a voice for workers who are putting our lives on the line during this outbreak. Frontline workers don’t just include workers in the healthcare sector, though.

They are logistics workers, like the employees of Amazon, UPS and Fedex. They are supermarket employees. They are subway and bus workers. In New York City, 41 MTA employees have already died from Covid-19 as a result of the city’s failure to provide adequate protection and testing.

Another 1,500 have become infected. The only response has been to cut service, which of course has led to packed subway cars — a death trap for employees and the working-class riders who are forced to continue using the subway. This is a city managed by the supposedly “progressive” administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

De Blasio. (Flickr)

We are battling a public health emergency unlike anything seen in this country in the last century. That’s why we, as Left Voice, have put forward a 10-point emergency program that  includes the immediate closure of non-essential businesses, with guaranteed income during the quarantine for all employees.

At the same time, all large-scale manufacturers like Ford, GM and General Electric and to be converted to the production of masks, ventilators, and other critical heath equipment and devices. We need immediate testing for all people presenting symptoms of Covid-19 and all those at risk of contracting the disease, like subway workers, supermarket workers and healthcare workers. 

The Labor Movement & Need for Political Representation

Even though this crisis has brought tremendous hardship to the working class, there are signs of anger, organization and struggle flourishing across the country. Workers from Whole Foods and Instacart walked off the job to demand better safety. McDonalds workers have struck in several cities for paid sick leave. 

General Electric employees demonstrated for the conversion of their plant to ventilator production. With unemployment now at its highest level since the Great Depression, we can expect that organizations of unemployed people will arise too. There is an unprecedented opportunity for socialists to link up with these struggles and take the lead in organizing the labor movement with a combative, class-struggle perspective. 

It is a fight that requires not only labor organizing but political representation too. Over the past year or more, millions of young people around the Bernie Sanders campaign showed an aspiration for a better society. But in endorsing Biden, just as he endorsed Clinton in 2016, Sanders showed his unwillingness to truly challenge the Democratic Party, a century-old party of the capitalist class.

It’s the same party that carried out austerity and cutbacks to the healthcare system and to social safety nets while ensuring private health care corporations continue to reap billions in profits. It’s time the working class — employed and unemployed — had a party of its own, a Workers’ Party that will stand up for our interests and not only during election season either.

We need an independent party that will intervene in every outbreak of class struggle in the country. Organizations like the DSA must begin to work toward the construction of such a party alongside the unions and other workers’ organizations. The capitalists will ensure that it’s the working class that suffers most from this pandemic. So we must begin to organize, independently of our oppressors, for our own interests, our own health, our own lives.

 Mike Pappas is an activist and medical doctor working in New York City.

 This article is from Left Voice.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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4 comments for “COVID-19: Neither Trump nor Cuomo: Healthcare Workers on How to Fight the Pandemic

  1. AnneR
    April 17, 2020 at 15:07

    Yes, this country, like all others, needs a free at point of service, publicly owned national healthcare system – without any profiteering “health” (read greed) insurance aspects nor a pharma industry that makes gazillions because this country’s politicos in the WH and in Congress won’t control the prices charged (Obama, if I recall right, was, how shall I say, on Big Pharma’s side). And no more profiteering companies staffing emergency departments – the doctors and nurses in emergency should be part and parcel of the national healthcare system.

    Frankly, from my experience of my husband’s last days – in a teaching hospital (try to avoid those if you are on the HMO Medicare or simply Medicare) – and after reading his and my own medical records, I have zero confidence, zero, in the US medical profession, whether at PCP or specialist levels.

    To exculpate the doctors and other medical professionals of being money-making oriented is to ignore reality. Not that all doctors are so minded, but I would aver that the majority in the US are. (And if I remember clearly – aging not helping – the AMA, at least a decade or so ago, was completely against a publicly owned, single payer, nationalized health service; you know, a genuine service, a true health service.)

  2. dean1000
    April 17, 2020 at 10:49

    Exactly what is needed – a non-profit healthcare system where decisions are made by the people working in the system.
    Single payer national healthcare is such a system. It will not be run by the government. Politicians are not qualified to prescribe an aspirin and they know it. So it will be run by doctors and nurses on a daily basis.
    In this crisis don’t lay-off the health insurance workers. Lay-off the CEO’s they don’t know how to process the claims.

    China is blamed for a slow response. I suspect there was an initial denial, although not as long as in the US and most of Europe. Initial denials will continue in countries where the appropriate medical people in government do not have quaranteed access to national TV to warn or advise the public about an infectious virus. Meteorologists do not need permission from politicians to warn of hurricanes or tornados. Qualified medical personal should be as free to warn of possible epidemics and pandemics as meteorologists are to warn of hurricanes or storms.

  3. Kurt McNally
    April 17, 2020 at 09:26

    Could it be that along with all the suffering and death that this virus has brought it will also be our greatest wake up call. It has provided this moment, a true opportunity for reflection into our broken society. A society that was more concerned with profit over progress, a society that built bombs instead of beds, missiles instead of medical suits, a society that celebrated soldiers instead of sanitation workers.
    Maybe this brutal virus will be our slap in the face that awakens us from our dreams of exceptionalism and forces us to look at the real nightmare that America has become.

  4. rgl
    April 16, 2020 at 23:02

    Capitalist doing what Capitalists do.

    What is criminal is that it takes a pandemic to underscore the shortsightedness not only of the political class, but also of the medical community. The folks that run for-profit hospitals, in the main, are in possession of the MD designation.

    It isn’t ‘just’ the political class. The medical profession – the ones that run the Health Management Orgs – are just as culpable as the political class. The docs and the nurses that perform their duties on the ward are the real heroes here. I will listen to an MD on the floor of a clinic or a hospital long before I listen to the medical ‘suits’.

    You wanted to make scads of cash. Well, I suppose you’re making it. Premiums are going to rise after all, aren’t they. Because HMOs did not take into account a pandemic when they set their premiums.

    You wanted Capitalism. Well, you got it. Live with it. Or not.

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