By the Editorial Board
Since its introduction, the COVID-19 vaccine has been one of the most contentious issues dividing the working class, with different factions of the ruling class using the issue to pit workers against each other to serve their own political agendas. While the vaccine is a simple way to reduce the chances of severe illness from the virus, the impetus for the ruling class to impose vaccine mandates on workers, including the ability to fire those who don’t comply, is in the interest of capitalist profits, not workers’ health. The imperialists do not want another major disruption to production, and they are willing to strip away a person’s dignity and means of life to accomplish this.
On January 13, the Supreme Court blocked the federal vaccine mandate, in which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would require all workers employed by companies larger than 100 people to either be vaccinated or tested weekly. While the federal mandate was shot down, other vaccine mandates put in place by state governments and private employers are still in effect.
In response to the ruling, Joe Biden said, “It is now up to states and individual employers to determine whether to make their workplaces as safe as possible for employees, and whether their businesses will be safe for consumers during this pandemic by requiring employees to take the simple and effective step of getting vaccinated.” Biden seeks to portray a system that is just looking out for the safety and well-being of its people, but the reality of imperialism is that it prioritizes the needs of the capitalist ruling class at the expense of the people’s needs, and not the other way around.
The section of the ruling class pushing the vaccine mandate does so to avoid expanding public health care and implementing straightforward measures that would protect workers from COVID-19 infection, in particular paid sick days, because this would impact production and profit. If workers could take time off without worrying if they will be able to make rent or feed their families, they would not feel forced into making the decision to go to work with an infection. On denying workers’ basic rights and their economic needs, the factions of the capitalist class are mainly united.
Before the pandemic first spread across the country, US imperialism as well as the rest of the world faced a looming economic catastrophe. The massive economic shutdown which began in March 2020, although it was pitched as a way to eradicate COVID-19, served as a useful opportunity to push the restart button on an increasingly unstable economy.
The current economic crisis is of relative overproduction, where the imperialist system becomes destabilized because it produces more than it can profitably sell—even while society is filled with unmet needs. For example, major commodities, such as steel, had seen a steady decline in prices since mid-2018; natural gas saw a sharp decrease in price in 2019 as well. Now, steel prices have increased by over 200%, and natural gas has nearly tripled in price from a low hit in April 2020, while inflation brings rising prices on consumer goods that hurts workers even more while benefiting the monopolies.
In short, the economic shutdown and mass layoffs served their purpose. The economic measures that were blamed on the pandemic shifted the relative balance between supply and demand, helping prices recover, but the imperialists are not willing to endure another shutdown as it severely disrupted production. Large manufacturers lose millions of dollars every day production is stopped, therefore they now must maintain production to rake in profits from inflated prices. The vaccine mandate is just one tool to ensure this happens. The imperialist monopolies’ fear is not about lost lives of workers but about lost dollars.
Since the shutdown in early 2020, the US State’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic can only be described as genocidal, with over 875,000 dead from the virus. Along the way, it has been the working class that has been forced to shoulder the burden of the pandemic, facing unemployment, dangerous conditions, forced overtime, and stagnating wages. Now, many workers have already been fired for not getting vaccinated, including 33,000 health care workers in New York State during October. Thousands more face potential termination as large companies like Nike and Columbia Sportswear are beginning the process of firing unvaccinated workers. Workers who are fired for being unvaccinated will, in most states, be ineligible to receive unemployment benefits as the firings are categorized as ‘for cause.’
In the United States, around 68% of the population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, with states like Mississippi and Alabama having vaccination (one dose) rates as low as 48% and others in the Northeast above 75%. Democratic politicians have seized on the opportunity to denigrate a massive segment of the population and blame the pandemic on them, with Joe Biden calling it a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
We should not see those who have declined to get the vaccine as enemies who deserve to lose their jobs or their lives, yet in a White House press briefing from December, former business executive and current White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients said, “For the unvaccinated, you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm.” This is just one of the tricks the ruling class employs on a regular basis, turning the people against each other in order to shield attention from their own culpability and unwillingness to provide comprehensive safety and health measures for workers.
The White House says that mainly unvaccinated people will “overwhelm” hospitals, but the capitalist health care system was already “overwhelmed” prior to the pandemic. Capitalist hospitals do not want to pay nurses more and have intentionally understaffed hospitals for decades, a fact at the heart of recent healthcare worker mobilizations. Even the New York Times press monopoly can’t ignore this fact, and recently published an ‘opinion video’ with nurses who asserted that the real cause of the staffing crisis in hospitals is not COVID, but the greed of hospital owners.
Compulsory vaccination is not the silver bullet to stop the pandemic, a fact based in the bourgeoisie’s own science. The vaccine has been unable to prevent widespread transmission, in particular because vaccinated people can carry the virus as well, a fact more pronounced with the Omicron variant. A University of Wisconsin-Madison study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)1 found that the viral load in the nose and throat of vaccinated people is as high as those who are unvaccinated.
It is not a mystery why the people have overall distrust of the imperialist State and the products of monopoly corporations. All things in our society have the stamp of their class, and this includes the vaccines themselves. The vaccines have been developed by pharmaceutical monopolies who signed contracts worth billions of dollars to produce and distribute vaccines for the US government on an expedited timeline. Like all things under imperialism, scientific development and healthcare are driven by profit motives, not innovation or a desire to benefit the people.
Some sections of the ruling class do use the masses’ skepticism to feed the wild distrust of even basic scientific facts, denying all safety measures and health protocols, often to promote their own snake-oil solutions. The imperialist monopoly media sensationalizes the pandemic on all fronts, whether pro-vaccine or against, to drive ratings and to confuse the people, not to provide useful information. The irrationalist section of the ruling class also uses the pandemic as an opportunity to amplify the existing distrust millions of people have of Democratic politicians—using this justified distrust to consolidate support around themselves and the very system that oppresses the working class.
In the face of the deception and browbeating from all sides of the capitalist ruling class, workers need to unite against their common enemies: the imperialist corporations and the State that serves them. Demanding better safety and health measures as well as continued access to the vaccine and testing is not at odds with demanding that workers not be fired for their vaccination status. The responsibility for the failed response to the pandemic, and the massive numbers of lost lives, rests solely with the imperialist ruling class, and workers should direct their anger toward their true enemies and not each other.
1. Shedding of Infectious SARS-CoV-2 Despite Vaccination when the Delta Variant is Prevalent – Wisconsin, July 2021, https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.07.31.21261387v3#disqus_thread
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