What Is the Coronavirus Really Changing?

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Have the courage to speak up and act, America

W.J. Astore

On the surface, our lives are changing.  We’re staying home.  We’re practicing social distancing.  We’re wearing masks when we go out.  Many of us have lost jobs and maybe our health insurance as well.  People are suffering and dying.  I don’t want to diminish any of this.

Yet how much is really changing?  Two of my dad’s sayings come to mind: the more things change, the more they stay the same; and the rich get richer and the poor, poorer.  The latter saying defines our coronaviral moment.

The Trump/Congressional stimulus package favors corporations, banks, financiers, and other forms of big business.  Ordinary people will be lucky to see a one-time $1200 check, maybe not until this summer.  Once again, the trickle-down philosophy rules.

The stimulus bill itself is a grab-bag of special interest legislation.  Did you know there’s a “provision in the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package [that] allows Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to seek congressional approval to waive parts of the federal law protecting students with disabilities”?  Crises are always a good time to attack the most vulnerable while extending the privileges of the most favored.

Meanwhile, truth-tellers are being vilified or punished.  Did you hear that “Dr. Anthony Fauci has been given added security after receiving threats”?  His “sin” has been to tell the truth about the perils of COVID-19, thereby contradicting all the spin and happy-talk of the Trump administration.  That pisses off the most fanatical of Trump’s cult, leading to threats against a medical doctor who’s trying his best to save lives.

Speaking of being punished, consider this report: “The Navy removed the captain of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, saying an outbreak of the virus aboard his ship had ‘overwhelmed his ability to act professionally.’ Days earlier, Capt. Brett Crozier had sent a letter asking for help, using an unclassified email system.”  According to Reuters, the move could have a “chilling effect on others in the Navy looking to speak up about issues they are facing at a time when the Pentagon is withholding some of the more detailed data about coronavirus infections for fear of undermining the perception of American military readiness for a crisis or conflict.”

Here’s what Navy Captain Crozier had to say before he was relieved of command: “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset – our sailors.”

Crozier made two “mistakes” here: he cared too much about his sailors while highlighting the uncaring nature of his chain of command; and he dared to say “We are not at war,” when the accepted wisdom is that America is always at war (how else to justify gargantuan “defense” budgets?).  By embarrassing a callous and mercenary military abetted by the Trump administration, Crozier had to go.  And as he left his ship for the last time, his crew chanted his name in a rousing sendoff.

Today’s final lesson to illustrate how “the more things change, the more they stay the same”: the story of Christian Smalls, a brave Amazon manager who spoke out against unsafe conditions at a fulfillment center.  For his honesty, Smalls was fired by Amazon, which then considered smearing him as not smart or articulate in a leaked memo.  Smalls just happens to be Black, so Amazon resorted to racist words (not articulate, not smart) to imply he had nothing to say of any value.  Interesting that Smalls worked for Amazon for five years but only became dumb and inarticulate when he began to protest unsafe conditions related to the spread of COVID-19.  I watched Smalls in an interview, and he made a great suggestion: stop clicking and buying from Amazon, America.  That’s the only language Jeff Bezos understands.

I’ll close with some words of wisdom from one of my readers.  This is what she had to say:

No reason to complain however, we are the lucky ones.  As with all pandemics, it will be the poorest and weakest in the pecking order who will bear the brunt.  People in countries engulfed by war, refugee camps, metropolitan slums, prisoners in overcrowded prisons stand no chance against this medieval plague.

Excuse my French: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The Bitter Logic of Capitalism

My Mom and Dad both worked in the candy factory in my hometown.  They knew the demands of hard work and low pay
My Mom and Dad worked in the candy factory in my hometown. They knew the demands of hard work at low pay

A friend of mine knew the big wigs at a leading manufacturer of agricultural equipment back in the late 1960s.  He recalls reading an article back then in the Wall Street Journal about the company being sued for the deaths of farmers.  The gas tanks on some of their tractors were exploding because they were on top of the engine and could overheat.   My friend recalls walking in to the office of the chairman and CEO of the company and asking him if as a result of the case they were relocating the gas tank.  The CEO replied they were not because that would be more expensive than fighting and settling the lawsuits.

That’s the logic of capitalism in a nutshell.  The bottom line has no ethics.  If you can save more money by settling lawsuits rather than reconfiguring an unsafe design, why not do so?  A few maimed or dead farmers is a small price to pay for added profit.  Right?

My father told me a similar story about the lack of empathy the rich have for the little people of the world.  In the 1940s my dad worked grueling shifts in a candy factory, where conditions were as demanding as the pay was low.  Several of the guys got together to demand a raise from the owners.  When the time came to approach the owners, some of the guys lost their nerve, but not my dad.  He told the owners that he deserved a dime per hour pay raise.  The owners agreed to a nickel, followed by another nickel bump in the future.  My dad agreed.

A month later one of the owners told my dad that the nickel pay raise was really stressing the company.

As my dad ruefully observed to me, all of the owners died millionaires.  For my dad, the moral to the story was “That the rich have no sympathy or use for the poor.”  That could stand as the moral to both of these stories.

Capitalism may be a great way for a lucky or plucky few to make lots of money, but its calculus is often bitter to those on the receiving end of its flawed products and feeble wages.  And if you don’t believe me, just ask all those fast food workers looking for a fair shake in today’s economy.  Or all those minimum wage workers running hell for leather in huge fulfillment warehouses to meet the needs of Amazon.com.

The rich may have no sympathy or use for the poor, but the rest of us need to hold the big wigs to account, else the legacy of uncontrolled capitalism will continue to be bitter.

W.J. Astore