COVID-19 and the austerity death trap

The rich are going to try to force us back to work — in the middle of a pandemic.

Our government has yet to put in place the basic pandemic mitigation measures you would need to flatten its growth curve — and yet we are already talking about a pivot back to business as usual. Trump has already declared that “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself” and suggested that the measures will be lifted “fairly soon”; Governor Cuomo is speculating about “the pivot back to economic functionality”; and oligarchs like Lloyd Blankfein say, “Within a very few weeks let those with a lower risk to the disease go back to work.

I think that Blankfein’s phrasing gives us a clear preview of the political fight to come. Right now, most Americans are terrified of the pandemic at hand, and they are desperate for the government to put in place basic measures to protect the population. The oligarchs, however, are going to argue that we do not want this. They are (as incredible as this sounds) actually going to insist that Americans want to go to work despite COVID-19, and that government efforts to fight the pandemic are unwanted. Thus the soulless DC bureaucrats must “let” people go back to work.

This may already sound monstrous, but I doubt the oligarchs will stop there. The next step is going to be to make Americans want to risk their lives by denying them the economic assistance they need to survive. Perhaps we’ll get a round of checks or two at first (in exchange for massive handouts to the rich) — not nearly enough to get by on if you want to stay out of the office long enough to avoid the pandemic. Eventually, the young, the healthy, and the poor will want to risk catching COVID-19 at work, because that is the only way they’ll be able to pay the bills. The rich will spin this as a case of freedom-loving entrepreneurs who see opportunity in a crisis, but really it will just be desperate people looking for a way out of a politically manufactured death trap.

The rich are not completely stupid. They understand that the infection will spread if the government rolls back its mitigation measures and lets people go back to work. But rich people can isolate themselves from this disease in ways that the rest of us cannot, and they can also receive medical care that the rest of us can’t, so they are probably right to view the contagion as a personally tolerable risk.

This is what is at stake as poor and working Americans fight for their economic survival during the pandemic. Most people want the government to ramp up its mitigation efforts and to provide generous assistance to those of us who are hiding from COVID-19, which means things like basic income, free health care, and moratoriums on evictions, utility shut-offs, and the like; but the rich want the exact opposite. They will try to rollback restrictions on the economy, and then they will try to ramp up austerity measures to force Americans back into the dangerous workplace. And horrifically, they are going to insist that we want this. If things get as bad as the rich hope, we probably will.