As of March 28, there are over 600,000 global cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) infection, and nearly 30,000 deaths. New York has rapidly become the center of coronavirus infection in the United States, with over 45,000 of the country’s 110,000+ coronavirus cases and over 500 deaths. This reflects that New York has been more aggressive in testing than most other states, but also the fact that the state, and NYC in particular, is the most dense city in the country as well as a global destination left highly exposed by the uncontrolled outbreak.
While Donald Trump’s criminally negligent handling of the crisis — including dismantling and defunding key pandemic-fighting institutions — helped open the floodgates to the spread of coronavirus in the U.S., the reason why it is so frightening is because of the massive inequality reflected in all aspects of society including health, politics and economics. It is also specifically due to the massive cuts to social services, including health provision, that have occurred at the local level under both Republicans and Democrats.
We encourage you to read International Socialist Alternative’s analysis of the fundamental weaknesses in the global economy and social system that the pandemic has exposed, and read Socialist Alternative’s new political program to combat coronavirus and the recession here. You can also watch Socialist Alternative’s Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant’s livestream explaining why we need a new worker’s party and a democratically-organized, socialist future to meet human need and restore our environmental, political, economic and social world. Below, read more about developments in New York.
In New York, as of March 22, 100% of the “non-essential” workforce was forced by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo to stay home, with schools across the state closed. The decision came after several confused days of increased “closures,” at first 50%, then 75% of all “non-essential” workers. Cuomo, eschewing the more accurate “shelter in place” moniker, has placed the state on “PAUSE” (Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone). But the “pause” forced by the mishandling of coronavirus in the country’s leading economic engine cannot easily be undone.
Millions of workers in New York have been affected. Economist James Parrott has said the city is likely to lose as many as 500,000 jobs in businesses that cater to tourists and transportation, and the total could be higher when all is said and done. There are 465,000 leisure and hospitality jobs in the city, and 350,000 retail jobs. The owners of sports and entertainment complex Chelsea Piers furloughed 1,500 employees in the first week of the general slow-down in the city. The landmark Strand Bookstore recently laid off 188 employees, 89% of their staff, according to Gothamist. Several restaurant workers in Socialist Alternative have been laid off, with no clarity on when they’ll be going back to work. Adding frustration to a horrible situation, the state’s unemployment benefits website crashed due to the huge influx of cases.
With no Broadway shows, which generate over $1.5 billion in revenue annually, Garment District tailors are unemployed, marketers have no shows to promote, and performers are of course without work. The Met Opera laid off all of its union staff, including technicians, musicians, and stagehands. Mutual aid networks have sprung up to maintain income for those who’ve lost gigs, yet it isn’t nearly enough to keep entertainment workers going for months, especially those who were formerly on solid union contracts.
With air travel in free fall, Unite Here Local 100 has estimated that at least 2,400 of its workers in concessions and catering at LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark airports have been laid off without severance. More than 1,200 of these laid-off workers were employed in restaurants and stores operated by OTG at La Guardia — a company whose senior executive, Lawrence Schwartz, is a close ally of Governor Cuomo.
The labor movement must play a much greater role in this moment. Unionized workers who stand up for their rights send a powerful signal to many other workers who are sent to work without sufficient protective equipment, or despite not even being essential workers.
Until yesterday, construction workers were still on the job across the city, building luxury condo towers and going up and down elevators on sites 20 at a time. Due to massive pressure, including from workers who rightly saw this as dangerous, all construction sites except those which are directly related to building new hospitals and dealing with the crisis have finally been shut.
One community in particular has already sustained serious devastation from coronavirus: the Chinese-American community, clustered in major centers in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. These communities have been reeling for months with many customers staying away after the coronavirus started to break out in China. Jing Fong, a large and popular dim sum restaurant in Manhattan “temporarily” closed and laid off its entire staff of 180 employees.
Restaurateur Chris Westcott has said the current situation made it more difficult to plan than even in the days after September 11. “With 9/11, we hit bottom almost immediately,” he said in a New York Times interview. “Now, we’re still waiting to hit bottom.”
Following a deeply mishandled lack of testing by Trump’s Center for Disease Control (CDC), as well as an inability to effectively quarantine the virus in its early stages, coronavirus is now widespread in New York. This is exactly why “social distancing” and work-from-home measures are now necessary to “flatten the curve” and reduce the rate of new infections. On March 23, the Trump Administration’s coronavirus coordinator, Dr. Deborah L. Birx, said that New York’s rate of infection showed that the virus has been spreading for weeks in the city.
Like elsewhere in the country, health care workers have been without personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, gloves, and gowns. Of serious concern has been the lack of ventilators, which Trump sat on his hands for weeks and asked nicely that industry make more of. Finally, Trump ordered General Motors to make ventilators under the Defense Production Act, after squandering more valuable time. Yet again, Trump’s incompetence or perhaps sheer disdain for regular people will lead to thousands of preventable deaths. Compare this to Bernie Sanders, who demanded the president use the DPA to ramp up ventilator production over a week ago. This is yet another reason why Bernie should continue to stay in the race and have a platform to give voice to what working people need.
After much pleading, Trump granted Cuomo’s request for the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA to begin construction on four temporary hospital sites in an effort to address imminent hospital capacity issues, including 1,000 beds at Jacob Javits Convention Center and 750 more across three sites in Long Island and Westchester. These enormous new facilities suggest the scale of the coming wave of hospitalizations.
Tragically, one nurse treating coronavirus patients, Kious Kelly, has died in the line of service. Kelly worked at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, a public hospital serving the working class and poor of America’s most diverse borough. This same hospital received media attention just days before, when nurses were seen on social media using trash bags as protective gear, due to the lack of PPE. One staffer at New York Presbyterian hospital said, “There’s a sense of desperation and panic and abyss in my colleagues’ eyes that I’ve never witnessed.” Two hospitals have started constructing makeshift morgues to prepare for the worst.
All registered nurses in New York have been asked to “enlist” in the state’s effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus, as part of an emergency executive action that could ultimately send registered nurses to hospitals and new temporary health care facilities. For his part, Mayor Bill de Blasio pleaded on a phone call with Trump and Mike Pence that medical supplies could run out in a matter of days.
Once more, Trump’s dereliction of duty has compounded an already grim situation of the New York establishment’s own making. As the Indypendent has detailed, hospitals have been closing in droves in recent years, with the state losing a staggering 21 hospitals since 2003, 15 of which were in the city. The number of beds fell from 74,000 in 2000 to 53,000 in 2020, and there are 1,000 fewer nurses. The most high-profile of the hospital closures was no doubt St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center, which was demolished in 2012 at the end of the Bloomberg era. “St. Vinny’s,” which nobly served droves of gay men and poor people during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, was razed for a glittering new condo development with private gardens, underground parking, a 25-meter-long swimming pool and a golf simulator. Today, the frenetic construction of make-shift hospitals is happening because New York’s elite have valued profits over people and hollowed out our healthcare system.
Some of those same elite have fled the city to their homes in the Hamptons, on Long Island’s eastern shores, despicably spreading the virus and hoarding fresh food from local supermarkets. It is a raw reminder that billionaires are the true hoarders in society. What a contrast with working people like nurses and grocery store workers who’ve banded together to get through this.
NYC public schools are closed until at least April 20, and Mayor de Blasio has suggested they could stay closed until the end of the current school year. In their place, 93 regional enrichment centers have opened across the city for children of first responders, transit workers, health care workers, and other “essential” workers. Since millions of children rely on schools for nutritious meals, 435 schools continue to provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner for kids in NYC.
De Blasio dithered for several weeks over whether or not to close the schools. In the end, he was pushed by unionized teachers in the UFT who threatened a lawsuit before he capitulated. Tragically, on March 23, the city confirmed that a 36-year-old Brooklyn principal died due to complications from coronavirus, marking the tragic first known death of a public school staff member connected to the virus.
With April 1 approaching, the rent can’t wait. Although Cuomo has claimed he has “taken care of the rent issue,” by issuing a 90-day moratorium on evictions and mortgage payments, rent debt will still pile up for hundreds of thousands without further action. As many as 40% of all New Yorkers won’t be able to afford their rent after having been laid off due to the coronavirus, with women and people aged 18 to 24 the hardest hit.
Cea Weaver, a leader of the Housing Justice for All coalition that helped pass tenant-friendly reforms last year, said, “It’s time for the state to disallow landlords from collecting rent….Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers will lose jobs and income that they will not recover for a long time. Rent payment owed or accumulated during the length of this crisis should be canceled. Period.” Yet Cuomo has refused to take this action, no doubt informed by his big-dollar donors from the real estate and landlord lobby.
Washington-based socialist truck driver and candidate for Congress Josh Collins, launched a petition which now has over 2,000,000 signatures calling for governors across the country, including Cuomo, to suspend rent, mortgage, and utility payments for two months. The petition has gained an enormous echo and around 200,000 signatures are in New York. This shows the willingness of workers to use any organizing tool at their disposal to fight back. Collins also participated in the Kshama Sawant international town hall, linked to here.
Cuomo has burnished his reputation as a leader, particularly in light of Trump’s criminal mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak. It will go down in history how Trump fired his entire pandemic response team before the crisis, and kicked the CDC out of the National Security Council. Trump could have begun to use a functioning test from the World Health Organization in early February, but didn’t; and he could have allowed private hospitals and labs to quickly develop their own coronavirus tests, but didn’t. Even as the U.S. fell behind, Trump leaned on his oldest strategy — deny, deny, deny — which in the end will have led to thousands of preventable deaths. As recently as March 10, Trump said, “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”
Coronavirus reflects the tremendous rot at the base of the capitalist system when it comes to jobs, health care, education, and housing. Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative believe that the crisis reveals in living color that we need a democratically-organized, worker-run system of production for human need, not corporate greed. Other socialists, like New York State Senator Julia Salazar, have pointed out that the state already had a $6 billion budget gap, and the deficit will only grow with the economic pain of coronavirus. Cuomo would like workers to forget that in January he proposed balancing the budget by cutting Medicaid — health care for low-income and disabled folks — rather than raising taxes on Wall Street and rich property owners, as Salazar has proposed instead.
Another socialist New Yorker, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has urged full employment programs, rent suspension, and other measures to ensure workers are protected. These measures are necessary, but Socialist Alternative would go even further. This crisis could be more akin to a world war than the 2008 financial crisis, and the framework of capitalism is shaken to its core. AOC is right to say that the virus has revealed how, “All of these issues have never been about ‘How are you going to pay for it?’… All of these issues were really about a lack of political will and who you deemed to be in an emergency or not.”
While capitalist politicians are now taking extraordinary measures to put money in people’s pockets and intervene in the economy, this does not mean they have suddenly started caring about our lives. They have no choice but to take measures to prevent complete collapse. But their overriding priority is restoring the banks and corporations to “normal functioning” so they can get back to making money and screwing the rest of us.. Their priority is airline executives, not restaurant workers and renters. When we consider that coronavirus is actually a part of the ongoing climate change crisis, it becomes clear: We need a system change; we need socialism.
We are not hopeless, even as we are quarantined at home. Socialist Alternative has shifted to online organizing and we are looking for new members ready to discuss why this rotten system has led us down this dark path, and how we can fight our way out for the future we deserve. Please check out our new political program to combat coronavirus here.
The optimistic case suggests New York crawls out of this in a couple of months, with massive pent-up demand for life as normal. But even that only happens if the government starts effectively fighting the virus while supporting workers and small businesses. The pessimistic case says the virus doesn’t peak until June, over-leveraged companies go bankrupt, and the globe tips into a depression. In either case, we urge you to get organized to fight for a socialist world.
The Prime Minister of Italy recently admitted, “After the coronavirus, nothing will be as before. We will have to sit down and rewrite the rules of trade and the free market.” Socialists say: End the tyranny of a system where billionaires get bailouts and pay nothing, while grocery workers, nurses, restaurant workers and everyday people suffer without consideration for our basic needs and the ability to live a free, dignified human life. When we come together, there is nothing workers can’t do. Unite to stop the coronavirus, and fight together for a socialist future!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted March 28th on the national Socialist Alternative website and may be viewed here.