Only Class Struggle — Not Culture War Liberalism — Can Defeat COVID
Liberal Rage Against the Unvaccinated
As the delta variant strain of COVID-19 continues to ravage the country (and, indeed, the world), liberals are once again stoking the “culture war” with their attack on unvaccinated Americans. Those who refuse to get the vaccine, according to liberals, are simply too stupid, too stubborn, too enamored with right-wing, anti-vax conspiracy theories, etc. But more than anything, this liberal narrative insists, they are too irresponsible.
It is that right-wing bromide of “personal responsibility,” that makes liberals’ attacks on the unvaccinated so reactionary. Recall that it was Bill Clinton who also invoked the rhetoric of “personal responsibility” when he threw one million people off welfare and gutted the social safety net. In fact, the name of the 1996 bill that did this was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.
New York Times’ columnist, Charles Blow, exemplifies this elitist attitude in an Aug. 8 op-ed titled, “Anti-Vax Insanity.”
“…[T]he simple truth is that all of this could have been avoided,” writes Blow, “if all Americans eligible for the vaccine — and that’s pretty much every adult at this point — had simply chosen to be vaccinated. But they didn’t. They haven’t. They are too dug in, too committed to the lies and conspiracies, too devoted to rebellion.”
… It is a luxury to be irresponsible in a society where others will be responsible for you, where you simply assume that you are safer because others take the appropriate precautions to be safe: You do not need to get the shot because others have.
To be certain, I understand Blow’s frustration. Indeed, I would be lying if I said I did not share some of it, myself. And he is correct: We could have defeated COVID-19 by now if a majority of Americans had simply gotten the damn vaccine. It’s free FFS!
Furthermore, we cannot ignore the fact that the anti-vaccine/anti-science campaign is thoroughly right wing. From the beginning, the Republican Party has treated the pandemic as a joke at best — a minor inconvenience for the elderly and immuno-compromised, at worst. Last summer, Dan Patrick, the Lt. Gov. of Texas, perversely suggested to right-wing “news” broadcaster, Tucker Carlson, that older Americans “step up” and sacrifice themselves for the good of the Almighty Economy. (But remember: “All lives matter.”)
Let us not mince words: The right-wing anti-vaxxers — most of which are members of the petty bourgeoisie — are dangerous and a threat to human health. Curiously, the right seems to have abandoned the concept of “personal responsibility” entirely in the era of COVID-19. In its place, right-wing leaders and elected officials are lauding and encouraging decisions that are, in the words of The Guardian’s David Litt, “objectively selfish” and “harmful.”
And, yes, all of these right-wing nurses (of all people…) protesting vaccine mandates and equating them with “communism,” are patently absurd. As an actual communist, I wish that communism was as pervasive as these people seem to believe it is.
Death by a Thousand Tiny Cuts
However, as convenient as it may be to pin all of the blame for the delta variant on right-wingers and Trump loyalists, the truth is more nuanced. The fact is many unvaccinated people include the poor, people of color, and members of the working class. And many working-class people want the vaccine, but face numerous roadblocks in accessing it, thanks to our uniquely American, “pay-or-die” private health care system.
The majority of unvaccinated Americans are uninsured, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll. They are, likewise, according to Bryce Covert in an Aug. 6 op-ed for the New York Times, “much more likely to be food insecure, have children at home and earn little.”
“About three-quarters of unvaccinated adults live in a household that makes less than $75,000 a year,” writes Covert. “They are nearly three times as likely as the vaccinated to have had insufficient food recently.”
Furthermore, more than a third of unvaccinated Americans are hesitant to get the shot because they do not trust that it is actually free. These working-class people are all too familiar with the practice of surprise medical bills or hidden fees. As a result, they do not trust the U.S. health care system. Can you really blame them…?
Black Americans have an especially strong distrust of medical elites and Big Pharma given the deep-seated history of racism built into the health care system. In a widely overlooked bit of irony, Johnson & Johnson’s emergency FDA approval for its one-shot COVID-19 vaccine coincided with the company’s settlement of a lawsuit brought by 15 states for its role in the opioid epidemic which has ravaged the poorest regions of the country. (Remember the opioid crisis? Funny how we never hear anything about it, anymore.) J&J will pay $5 billion for its role in the epidemic — chump change for the pharmaceutical conglomerate.
The broad erosion of faith in government and social institutions has made political culture ripe for widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories, like the idea that the vaccine makes people “magnetic,” or that it contains a government-tracking microchip. And, again, it is not just those on the right who can be susceptible to these farfetched conspiracy theories.
Lack of Paid Sick-Leave
Finally, many working-class people have not received the shot because they simply cannot get the time off from work. This is especially a problem for single mothers who cannot afford the ludicrous cost of childcare. Many vaccination sites do not allow other people to attend.
(I was fortunate enough to get the shot right at work, since I work at a grocery store. But even then, my millennial coworkers and I had to vie for appointments with Baby Boomer customers who quickly snatched up all the available time-slots. And just a year ago we were all praised as “essential workers,” and “heroes.”)
The United States remains unique among industrial “democracies” in its complete lack of government-mandated paid sick time. Ninety-eight countries guarantee at least one month or more of paid sick leave. And this lack of paid sick time has implications beyond COVID-19. Most countries offer parents extended family leave time after having a child. But the U.S. has no national law regarding parental leave from work. (The Family and Medical Leave Act — FMLA — grants some employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave. But only 60 percent of workers are eligible.)
As Jen Pan, host of the Jacobin Show, puts it, “…For so many working-class and low-income Americans, being unvaccinated is the result of a thousand different tiny cuts all of which are inflicted by our bare-bones social safety net and our incredibly punitive capitalist system that’s set up to make everything as difficult as possible for the poor.”
In other words, if we truly want to encourage more people to get vaccinated, we should be making it as easy as possible to do so. Instead, we have done the opposite. Likewise, castigating and shaming working-class people who refuse to get the vaccine is probably not the most effective strategy. More than 80 million American adults are currently unvaccinated. Surely they cannot all be Trump loyalists.
What About Vaccine Mandates?
I am generally supportive of vaccine mandates. Routine vaccinations are already a requirement for college enrollment, foreign travel, and for many jobs. Contrary to the dictates of the right, there is nothing particularly “radical” or unprecedented about vaccine mandates.
But the issue, again, is one of access. Simply mandating that employees get the COVID-19 shot as a condition of continued employment, without offering them the necessary time and compensation to do so, strikes me as highly punitive.
Again, I am referring specifically the working-class unvaccinated. The petty bourgeois on the right have had ample time, opportunity, and resources to receive the vaccine. But they have chosen not to in an effort to “own the libs.” These anti-vaxxer holdouts are a public health threat to others. They should absolutely be required to get vaccinated. The left should have no sympathy for them.
Capitalism is the Crisis
All of this brings us back, full-circle, to how COVID-19 has brought to the forefront just how miserably capitalism fails working-class people. The pandemic has highlighted — in horrifying and frightening fashion —all of the ruptures, cracks, inequities, and inefficiencies of our cruelly inhuman capitalist system.
Instead of fueling the pointless “culture war,” and blaming the poor for their own economic circumstances, we should be organizing with them and fighting for a socialist alternative. We must continue to push for Medicare for All, federal paid sick time and family leave, and public ownership of hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and all private health care services.
Contrary to popular belief, the pandemic is not over. Far from it. Only class struggle can truly defeat COVID.