From the non-human, values-free perspective of the COVID-19 virus, our bodies are nothing but convenient vehicles for its reproduction, expansion, and vitality. The same is true of the market, which demands a constant supply of human bodies to replicate wealth and value—for some more than others. Workers’ bodies are more crucial to sustaining the market than the bodies of those who oversee and benefit from it the most. While Americans fear the Corona-19 virus, and have taken unprecedented measures to halt its ability to spread, they have blindly venerated the market, rarely questioning its excesses, caprices, and demands. In discussing the market’s ups and downs, pundits and financial experts even anthropomorphize it, talking about what the market “likes” and “dislikes.” It is perhaps more accurate to say that Americans deify the market, which, like the ancient god Baal, is ever-ravenous for more human sacrifices, feeding primarily on underpaid workers lacking health benefits and job security. Workers, as we are all discovering, are America’s actual wealth creators, not hedge fund managers and Wall Street bankers, and it is they who stand to lose the most—including their very lives—during this pandemic.
Two weeks ago, when the US health system’s lack of resources and personnel began to spark anxieties, and the financial distress of average Americans started to loom large, Congress and President Trump wasted no time in pouring $1.5 trillion into a stock market in free-fall. After briefly bouncing back, the market soon plunged again. This week, as fatalities in New York City skyrocketed and medical workers across the country decried the lack of crucial protective gear and ventilators, President Trump and Republican politicians seemed much more concerned about the economy than the safety of the American public. Interviewed by Fox News on March 23, Republican Lieutenant Governor of Texas Dan Patrick called on older Americans to quit self-isolating, and to sacrifice themselves to keep the economy going. Meanwhile, Republican senators have balked at extending unemployment benefits to struggling American workers, and are very unhappy about sending paltry $1200 one-time checks to average Americans who have neither savings or jobs.
In one of his daily press briefings on the COVID-19 crisis (briefings that have replaced his self-aggrandizing campaign rallies), Trump proposed lifting social-distancing directives early, speaking in faux-sentimental tones about his desire to see “churches packed on Easter Sunday.” Trump is not known for church-going, and his behavior, first as a businessman and husband, and now as president, contravenes the most basic Christian teachings, but framing the possibility of returning American life to normal in religious terms gave Trump a perfect opportunity to appeal to his Christian fundamentalist base, masking his real concerns that a plunging market will undercut his chances for re-election in November.
The imperatives of the market stand in stark opposition to the preservation of public health, partly because health care has itself become a key component of the market over the last 30 years. Neoliberal economics (itself a quasi-religious ideology) has elevated the needs of the financial sector above all other concerns. COVID-19 is revealing the dangers of dismantling the State and the public sector. The privatization of health care, education, the infrastructural grid, transportation, and the media, and the concomitant dramatic transfers of wealth from workers to shareholders since the 1980s, has left the US defenseless in the face of a novel virus. There is scarcely any branch or division of American governance that has not been twisted or broken by the delusions and cruelties of neoliberal economics. Scant public oversight and regulation of the private sector—banking, finance, corporations, insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies—has utterly eviscerated the social contract.
Those who have benefited the most from neoliberalism’s cannibalization of American society have become billionaires and millionaires, and it is they who are now protesting the loudest against slowing down the economy. Losing a billion dollars in the coming months cannot actually harm America’s greedy elite in the long run. Meanwhile, workers who have not seen their wages keep pace with the skyrocketing costs of living for decades, who cannot afford to pay rent in most American cities, nor send their children to good (private) schools, nor absorb the costs of just one health emergency or the expenses of car repair, are expected to get back to work as soon as possible to rescue a market economy which has only abused and misused them for decades.
The collapse of public institutions is also evident in the broken links between the federal and state governments. Governors of many states appear on television daily to beg the federal government for basic funds and critical equipment for hospitals and health care workers. The vertical integration of governance from the national to the state level has been torn asunder, pitting governor against governor in a vicious competition for scarce ventilators and protective gear.
Meanwhile, billionaires like Jeff Bezos, who owns the Whole Foods Market grocery chain, Amazon.com, the Washington Post newspaper, and several luxurious homes in the United States, demonstrate no patriotic spirit at this time of dire need. Bezos is keeping his workers toiling in dangerously crowded stores and warehouses on minimal salaries. He could make a huge difference in his adopted city, Washington, DC, by infusing millions of dollars into our hospitals and crumbling transportation system, but he and others of his elite class lift not a finger when their fellow citizens face unprecedented peril. The wealthiest Americans have attained the status of demi-gods for a wide swath of the public. Gone are the days of Andrew Carnegie and the Rockefellers, robber barons who nonetheless funded libraries, hospitals, museums, and schools.
An irrational demonization of government has gone hand-in-hand with religious fundamentalism, anti-intellectualism, and anti-unionization policies for decades in states like Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Indiana, and Arkansas, where Trump’s approval ratings remain highest. Trump might decide to ignore the pleas of public health experts and lift social distancing directives in the coming week, but fortunately, the federal government lacks the power to enforce the crowding of churches, shopping malls, stadiums, and movie theaters at the state and municipal levels. America’s most populous states—New York and California—are headed by Democratic governors who will keep quarantines firmly in place and take their orders from the respected immunologist and physician Dr. Anthony Fauci. Poorer and less populous states in the nation’s south and heartland might follow Trump’s lead by encouraging people to get back to working, shopping, and church-going. Infection and fatality rates will inevitably rise dramatically in these states.
COVID-19 has revealed the extent to which neoliberal ideologies and delusions have successfully destroyed the fabric of American life, the public sector, and the integrity of our national and local governance institutions. But neoliberal institutions are impotent to destroy a tiny virus with an immense appetite. The Republican party could well lose a significant part of its base—not to political competitors, but to death—in states it depends on most to deliver the presidency to Donald Trump. Darwin award winners don’t vote from beyond the grave. At the end of the day, COVID-19, not President Trump or the giants of Wall Street, will determine America’s near-term future and the results of the upcoming elections.