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However Briefly, COVID Cured Us of Capitalism

Issue 279

During the worst of COVID-19, we saw another world was possible.

Nicholas Powers May 8, 2023

Just in April, 1,327 people died of COVID-19 in a week. Or 189 per day. Or eight per hour. Think of it. By the time you sit on the subway with a coffee and check your phone, somewhere, eight people struggle to breathe. Until they can’t. Eyes dim. Faces go hard and gray. The heart monitor blares in the room. And we just left the train. 

The COVID virus is very much alive, leaping from cough to cough, infecting people. The “story” of COVID is dead. It is not in the headlines. It is not on our faces in the form of masks, or in our wallets as a vaccine card. We are not scared of being infected or spreading it to others. We have “gone back to normal.”

The danger of “going back to normal” is that we sacrificed the poor, the old and the sick. We also sacrificed the lessons learned from the quarantine. Another world is possible. We experienced a brief collapse of neoliberal politics. Capitalist hyper-individualism was replaced by the social good. Free-market fundamentalism was replaced with a brief universal basic income. The worship of wealth was replaced by the dignity of front-line workers. 

We live street socialism; packed on top of each other, we sacrifice our desires to keep the city moving.

During the quarantine, we took back time. Instead of the ­9-to-5 rat race, many of us experienced open-ended afternoons, art and long conversations. When George Floyd was murdered, we took back the streets. And when the election came, we took back our democracy. 

The treasures of life, revealed suddenly, were quickly shut closed again by the very Democrats we elected. The Build Back Better Plan proposed by President Biden would have deepened social welfare. It was tanked. Then the President urged us to “return to normal.” Now, the right wing tries to finish the job, demanding spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. In order to fight the push of the right, we have to remember the COVID era for what it was, proof that another world is possible. 

Masks On

“Am I going to get Covid? Am I going to die?” 

The question rang in our skulls, as we panic-shopped for masks in the early pandemic months. At first, wearing a mask was about saving ourselves. When you scored one, it was like winning the lottery. 

When packets of masks appeared on bodega counters, fear subsided and the reason turned from ­self-preservation to saving other people. That’s it. That’s why we did it. And in doing that one act, we upended a generation of hyper-individualism. 

Very few New Yorkers I know liked wearing them. No one wanted hot breath blowing up in their eyes. Or plucking them out of back pockets, dirty and covered with lint. Or the pinch of the strap. 

The masks became a symbol of communal sacrifice for the greater good. In doing that one act, we flattened the curve. We saved the lives of people we’d never meet. 

Maybe, it was inevitable that New Yorkers donned the mask. We live street socialism; packed on top of each other, we sacrifice our desires to keep the city moving. On the subway, we generally give seats to the old or pregnant, kids or the sick; we give to performers. When COVID hit, we wore the mask for the same reason. Care. 

New Yorkers are not nice, but we’re kind. The real legacy of 9/11 is when faced with danger, we look out for each other. 

Show Me the Money

“What are you doing with your stimulus check?” I asked my friend. 

“Buying a tiger and a lot of meth,” she said. 

We laughed and got back to talking about bills, rent and how grateful we were that student-loan payments were suspended. 

On Zoom, on phone calls, on text messages — the neighborhood was abuzz that the federal government’s stimulus checks had hit. It shattered an ideological consensus that had been in place since President Reagan said in his 1981 inaugural, “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem.” Free-market fundamentalism sold us a story that only by privatizing life down to the last atom could the magic of the markets make wealth trickle down to the people.  

Shredding welfare was the go-to tactic. Reagan used racist dog whistles like the Black “welfare queen,” an updated urban Sambo basically, to incite white racial grievance. Attacking government became the default mode. Even Democratic presidents like Bill Clinton cut welfare and funded more cops. 

The neoliberal agenda of shrinking government wasn’t ­really challenged until President Obama’s Affordable Care Act notched a minor reform victory for the uninsured. Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign further discredited it. But it wasn’t until COVID hit and those stimulus checks were sent that many of us felt for the first time the immense power of the federal government to make life easier.

The stimulus checks were not radical. The stimulus checks were a conservative tactic to stave off social collapse. Which is why both Democrats and Republicans are united in “returning us to normal” as quickly as possible. Lest we forgot the day when the wealth we made for the wealthy rained back into our lives.  

A Hero’s Welcome

Clapping, loud cheers, the clanging of pots and pans greeted nurses and doctors. Around the world, during the deadliest months of COVID, people celebrated front-line workers. COVID forced us to replace celebrity worship with gratitude to workers for keeping us alive. Stranded in our homes, we saw who kept us going. It was the delivery men, the local bodega family, the nurses and doctors getting us oxygen when COVID squeezed our lungs like dirty rags. Many toiled in obscurity, but during the quarantine, they came home to a hero’s welcome. 

The media-driven fetish of wealth created a culture of class voyeurism. Think of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or The Kardashians — parades of obscene wealth highly publicized to make it seem attainable. 

When COVID swept across the earth, it destroyed lives but it also destroyed, briefly, a way of life that in the end was deadlier than the virus. It cured us of capitalism.  

Now we are back on the 9-to-5 treadmill. The heroism of workers is in the rear-view mirror. We’re speeding up again to the next disaster. 

Collateral Damage

The COVID pandemic turned the world upside-down. We lived for a moment, outside of capitalism, and loved it. But that miracle is so bound up with suffering and millions dead in the United States and millions more internationally. Such terror makes it hard to save what is worth saving. 

We need to. If we are to survive Global Heating. We need to recreate free money, free time and solidarity but not because we are faced with an apocalypse. We need to do it because we care for each other.  

That’s why it’s vital to remember those dying from COVID now. They have quickly become the collateral damage of capitalism, an expendable group thrown away so we can “go back to normal.” But business as usual is catching up with us. Soon, all of us will be “collateral damage” of droughts, storms and food shortages.  

It doesn’t have to be that. Another world is possible. We know. We lived in it. 

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