by BARRY WEISLEDER
World War I spawned the Russian Revolution, the Winnipeg General Strike, and spurred union recognition. Following World War II, out of the debris of fascism and holocaust, the welfare state emerged. What will be the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic? Qualitatively enhanced social responsibility, or regression to capitalist austerity?
Sombre facts define the dawn of a new era. The current plague, the fourth in two decades, won’t be the last. It plunged the world into a Great Depression. Stock markets tanked. Unemployment skyrocketed. As of April 18, six million Canadians have applied for emergency federal aid. It’s unprecedented.
The reflex of the vast majority of people is to seek remedial action from….who? Giant corporations? Big banks? The Business Council of Canada? No. They expect the government to act, to cushion the blow, to spend massively so that lives may be saved.
Reform-minded journalists, like Erica Ifill and Les Whittington, writing in The Hill Times, separately intoned: “Market fundamentalism is dead. We are all socialists now.” It is a gross exaggeration, to be sure. So then, why does it resonate with millions?
Because capitalism is revealed as a feckless and fraught system that, if it continues, dooms humanity. The private profit world order has shrivelled biodiversity, pauperized billions of people and is speeding the train to climate catastrophe. In response to enormous pressure from below, bumbling capitalist regimes either improvise massive (but inadequate) social income programs and slowly move to restore health care services that should never have been cut, or they just deny pandemic reality.
A case in point is the scandalous situation in long term care facilities. Nearly half of Canada’s COVID-19 deaths occurred in nursing homes, where aged and vulnerable residents live and eat in close proximity to each other, and where staff have been carriers or become infected. At one care centre in Dorval, Quebec provincial health officials forcibly entered to discover many seniors utterly abandoned, de-hydrated, and laying in a fetid swamp of their urine and feces. Quebec and Ontario requested the Canadian Armed Forces to send medical personnel, in an effort to save imperilled folks from a grisly end.
In late April, the Ontario Nurses’ Association won a temporary injunction at the Ontario Superior Court. It gives nurses the right to decide which personal protective equipment (PPE) is needed when working in long-term care homes with COVID-19, and the power to enforce infection control measures, such as keeping residents with COVID separate from those not infected, in places like Eatonville Care Centre in Etobicoke where dozens of seniors have died.
But questions persist. Why is the long-term care sector so unregulated? Why was inspection of facilities so radically reduced in recent years? Was the top priority profit maximization? Is that why most personal care workers are paid low wages, limited to part-time hours, without benefits, without sufficient protective gear, forcing many to labour in multiple settings, even at the risk of spreading disease? Could this infernal arrangement be the result of political lobbying by the major shareholders of Katasa Groupe Developers, which owns Maison Heron in Dorval, or Revera Inc., Extendicare, Centric Health Corp., Sienna Senior Living, and Vigil Health Solutions, just to name a few of the largest players in the field? Moreover, why the hell is any long-term care service in the hands of private, for-profit operators? The sick and the aged no longer produce surplus value. Does that make them expendable?
The demand for nationalization here is obvious. It coincides with the demand for public ownership of major enterprises, including the pharmaceutical industry, Big Oil and Gas, giant banks, and the telecoms. Urgently needed is democratic control of the land development and construction firms (to enable the creation of social housing on a mass scale), monopoly retail chains (for re-distribution of their super-profits), and agri-business (to prioritize healthy food and ecological farming methods). Sharing the trillions in wealth of the huge mining and forestry firms, and reducing the military to a domestic disaster relief and rescue role, will fund free public transit, free post-secondary education, along with a generous reinvestment in public health and schools.
On April 8, the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest circulation daily, editorialized for an “industrial policy”. It pointed out that a commitment to “free markets and unfettered globalization…left Canada scrambling for crucial medical equipment, relying on factories halfway around the world.” The Star rarely misses a chance to wrap its tepid reform policy in the Canadian flag. Really needed is a democratically planned economy, with workers’ control extending from Canada, to the USA and the world. Clearly, the prospect of a global socialist revolution is not imminent. But the idea of it is glimmering on the horizon, born of necessity, as the working class grapples with the pandemic, and prepares for its aftermath.
The present crisis is pregnant with opportunity and danger. Recall that the Chinese character for ‘crisis’ expresses both meanings. On the one hand, emergency measures give Capital and the far-right opportunities to rule by decree, step up racial profiling and confinement, and bolster fascist mob violence (evident in India and the USA). They may make border closures permanent, and violate labour agreements, Indigenous rights and environmental regulations. Depression can be used as a weapon to curb demands for equality, including between the global North and South, and to privatize more public services.
At the same time, the survival of capitalism requires collective action (bailouts, stimulus measures) that business is not normally willing to concede. This creates an opportunity for workers who understand that instead of trying to save the capitalist economy, just to have it repeat the post-2008 scenario, we should fight to transform the economy. We should strive to confront the health and climate crises with democratic and socialist policies.
How? Build on the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit. Act on palpably reduced air pollution by rapidly replacing carbon fuel with green energy generation. See the industrial re-tooling that now manufactures more ventilators and PPE as an irreversible step towards planned production to meet human needs, not private profit. Turn government subsidized research for a COVID-19 vaccine into a publicly-owned pharmaceutical industry. Demand permanent Basic Income for all, regardless citizenship status.
Homeless people are being allocated rooms in empty hotels. Free childcare is provided to front-line health workers in need. Why just now? Good quality housing, food, childcare, education and transit – we now know that these are rights and necessities, not privileges. They must be enhanced, made permanent. It’s time to organize in work places, unions, NDP associations, social justice movements and in local communities to demand rapid progress, to insist on revolutionary change.
The prime directive is simple: We Won’t Go Back!