“So welcome, to the machine.” Pink Floyd
If it weren’t already obvious, it has become even more so during 2020.
Unless you are among the 1%, unless you are in the inner sanctum of those people in positions of power, you are not essential. You are expendable.
On the one hand, this fact is not new. In pre-capitalist societies, the peasants and slaves were wholly expendable. They were cannon fodder. They were mere resources to be exploited to finance the lifestyles of the nobility and royalty. They did not give a fig about the welfare of the peasants. They had an inexhaustible supply of them. Exploit one family to death, and another came along behind to take their place.
This fact remains true under capitalism. In fact, it’s the very engine of capitalism, which also exploits the labor of the poor and middle class to finance the lifestyles of the rich and (maybe not so) famous. The Zuckerbergs, the Trumps, the Epsteins. You know the list.
During this pandemic, the mantra of the ruling class has been: “the economy, the economy.” We cannot sacrifice the economy in order to save a few lives. Their deaths, to this lot, are a reasonable exchange to keep the economy running. For example, in April, 2020, Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said that “there are more important things than living and that’s saving this country.” Yep, that’s a quote. Let it sink in:
More. Important. Things. Than. Living.
Look at the RNC convention (August 2020). Look at the speeches given there. How many of them talked about the pandemic (except when strategically referring to it as the “communist China virus”)? Instead, they spoke — one after another — of the economy, the booming economy, the greatest economy until the virus, and the greatest economy after the virus. The virus does not matter. The lives lost do not matter. The disruption to family life, to social life do not matter. They are all sacrifices to the gaping maw of capital, which cannot be sated.
The administration wants business as usual. It wants stores open, and factories open, and restaurants open, and bars open. In short, all of it. Despite the risk to those working there and to those shopping or dining there. They do not matter. One of the hardest hit industries has been the meat packing industry. Trump declared them “essential workers.” What does that mean? It means that they were exempt from travel restrictions and stay-at-home restrictions. It means that they could not claim out-of-work benefits if they did not go to work. It meant they had to report to a workplace that was (and is) dangerous, all to keep the factories rolling.
Would we really have perished if the meat supply had been interrupted for a few months? Hardly. I haven’t had any meat since 1981, and I’m just fine.
Health care workers were deemed “essential” and sent to work, to tend the sick and dying. And why? Why did they risk their lives to treat their patients? Why do this work when every measure taken by the administration meant that the health care workers were NOT fixing the problem, but that there would be a steady stream of new patients as social distancing orders were ignored, just to keep the economy going. Obviously the health care workers did what they did out of dedication, out of care, out of passion. I do not mean to diminish their contribution or sacrifice. But if the administration cared about them, they would have taken every measure to insure that the stream of new patients would have stopped.
Let’s also be clear that the effect is not uniform. The effects are felt mostly by the working poor, by black and brown communities, and by immigrant communities. Probably all the more incentive to send them back into the metaphorical firing line.
We knew what was happening. We had data. We could see the curve happening in real time. We saw the curve flatten and decline. We knew the correlation between those events. We saw it head back up as stay-at-home and mask orders were rescinded. And why? To keep the economy afloat. Damn the lives lost.
Currently, we are sending our children back to school: our kindergartners, our elementary students, our high school students, our college students. They are all heading back into classrooms and cafeterias and gymnasia. And why? Well, they need an education, right? True, they do, but all the research says they can make that up. They need socialization, right? True, again, and that is more difficult to make up, but it can be mediated. They need to get out of the house, right? True, but why? So that parents can go to work. To keep the economy running.
Data from 2018 show that 76.4 million students would be enrolled in K-college that year. Probably a tad higher in 2020. Current death rates for COVID-19 ranges from .4% to 1.2%. Let’s do some math. At those rates, we would see the deaths of 305,600–916,800 children. And that does not take into account those who would get ill and recover, but would suffer short-term and long-term health effects. We really do not know what the long-term effects will be for children who contract COVID-19.
If you add up the battle deaths suffered in every War in which the US has been engaged, from the Revolutionary War until Desert Storm (11 conflicts in total), we lost 651,031 people in battle. We could lose that many children — or more — in the next academic year. In one year.
And why? Why are we sacrificing these children? To get parents out of the house and back to work. One thing we have discovered is that it is very difficult to work from home while the children are at home. Get ’em out. Get ’em in school. Get the economy rolling.
But why? For one, it’ll guarantee a Trump re-election. His entire campaign is based on an economic recovery. His path to victory narrows significantly without a strong economy. Do not doubt that these sacrifices are not strategic on his part. For another, it will make sure that the elite class will not have to cut back on their third home, or their vacation in Portugal, or their second yacht. Just keep making the money for them. Even if you die. Even if your kids die.
We are all expendable.
Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls.