COVID-19: Chaining the masses to spare capital

The new measures the Quebecois bourgeoisie is putting in place in reaction to the resurgence of the epidemic, and notably the ones accompanying the recent passage of three regions of the province – including Montreal and the Capitale-nationale – into “red zones” according to the new color code adopted by the authorities, essentially consist in restricting as much as possible the freedom of the popular masses while preserving that of most capitalist enterprise, particularly those which play an important role in the province’s economy. Far from meeting the threat posed by the second wave, these measures are minimal (despite the noisy complaints of bar, restaurants, theaters and cinema owners and despite the egoistic whining of artists temporarily denied their occupation) and do nothing to address the heart of the problem, which is the intensive continuation of economic activity in the province, including daily attendence at school of children to allow their parents to go to work.

Despite the half-measures adopted by the bourgeois power, half-measures mostly targeting ordinary people’s personal life, millions of workers and students will continue to see each other daily, which will necessarily contribute to the exponential spread of the virus throughout society. In putting certain regions on “maximum alert”, the bourgeois authorities appear to strike hard, but in reality they are doing almost nothing to prevent the virus from causing another disaster, except for limiting activity in peripheral sectors of the economy and restraining “superfluous” movements of proletarians. Aside from the fact these half-measures will not suffice to meaningfully slow the spread of the epidemic and protect people’s health, we must underline how unjust they are to the masses. Indeed, the authorities are ordering workers to isolate and cease all form of social activities while forcing them to keep working and send their children to school, revealing how little value is given to the lives of proletarians in bourgeois society compared to that given to capitalist property.

The color code: a tool to protect Quebecois capitalism

The adoption by the Quebec government of the regional four-stage color code in early September showed that the bourgeois authorities were aware the second wave was imminent, notably due to the end of summer vacation and the reopening of all schools in the province (a decision aiming to allow the greatest amount of proletarians to go to work, contrary to the prime minister’s claim that it is an objective in itself, or even the main objective of the governmental strategy). Despite appearances, this color code did not serve to make the fight against the epidemic more efficient and to contain the second wave. It simply served as another tool for the ruling class to manipulate the masses, to try to “frame” the chaos caused by the acceleration of contamination and above all, to protect the capitalist economy of the province by pushing back as much as possible the eventuality of more important lockdowns – while limiting them to specific regions should they occur.

Since its adoption, the color code is adding to the confusion and opacity of the government’s messages. Instead of making all the data the public health administration possesses available to people, and instead of directly enunciating the concrete measures the government intends to adopt at each step, the authorities are using these useless categories as a form of intermediary “information” hiding the real information. With the color code, the daily news reported by the media until now didn’t cover either the concrete progression of the epidemic, nor the tangible measures the authorities intended to operate. They were content to announce that such and such region was going to change color, a cosmetic change which implied no mandatory action by the authorities (they reserved themselves the right to act however they wish without the population being informed of the objective criteria their decisions are based on). In the last weeks, the bourgeois power has thereby given the impression it was in control of the epidemic despite doing almost nothing to limit the spread of the virus. In turn, the government reinforced the message it adressed to proletarians (that they must limit all their “personal” social activities) and justified the new constraints placed on the people, without hampering the function of the capitalist economy.

Here is how Health minister Christian Dubé summarized the objective of the new color code at the time of adoption: “With this new system of regional alerts and interventions, our government has found the right balance: insuring maximum protection of people’s health, while reducing to a minimum the impact of the measures on our society and economy.” In other words, contrary to what was done in March-April, the government policy now consists in acting to limit the spread of the virus without going beyond the framework imposed by the necessity of maintaining and resuming the accumulation of profits in the province. Consequently, this policy consists in attacking everything superflous to capital (such as small reunions between family or friends) while omitting more robust and efficient measures to fight the epidemic, those same measures that had managed to “break” the first wave! Above all else, the bourgeoisie wants to spare the sectors where the working class creates a large quantity of plus value; that is to say, the sectors (manufacturing, construction, natural resources, etc) that compose the large industry. For that matter, in the potential measures laid down in the four stage alert system, we find neither the complete shutdown of schools and daycare, nor that of factories and “non-essential” construction sites, and this even in the maximum alert level. In addition, if closures happen, they must be “selective” and be limited to specific regions or zones so as to not excessively impede in the national economic recovery, instead of affecting the entire province as was the case in spring.

This is in fact what we have been seeing since the start of September: the government is reinforcing constraints on the masses – that it has been accusing for weeks of being responsible for the resurgence of the epidemic -, while giving free reign to capitalist businesses to continue their activities. Proletarians are ordered to stop everything except work and school, which are likely the two places where the virus spreads the most. In fact, this was confirmed on September 29th by the Montreal public health director when she revealed that this week, of the 88 outbreaks identified by the health authorities, more than three quarters were situated in… workplaces (38) and schools (30), this last sector even constituting the greatest number of new outbreaks. Also, the few shutdowns imposed recently only affect a part of the province, while the epidemic has never been so generalized over the province. Worse even, these half-measures constitute the highest level in the government’s “system of regional alerts and interventions”!

A new tacit understanding betwen the ruling classes at the international level

The current tactic of the Quebecois bourgeoisie is to impose the largest restrictions on the people to limit as much as possible the spread of the virus in the context of economic recovery, which is to say very little. In doing so, the bourgeoisie accuses the masses of being responsible for the resurgence of the epidemic to divert away from its own actions. But most importantly, contrary to what happened in the previous phase of the crisis, the bourgeois power is now ready to let the virus spread in the masses with almost no barriers and cause much more sickness and death than in spring if it is necessary to preserve Quebecois capitalism.

If, in March, the Quebecois bourgeoisie did not hesitate to decree an “economic pause”, it is because there was a unified movement of lockdowns on a global scale insuring it wouldn’t be put at a disadvantage in international competition compared to imperialist bourgeoisie competitors (American, French, German, etc.) who took the same measures. Also, since the lockdowns were generalized, the Quebecois bourgeoisie did not want to be the only one to see its economy suffer a health crisis on a massive scale: therefore, it had to put in measures as robust as its competitors to “flatten the curve”, despite the major incovenience it posed to capital. But now, the truce is over. Greed has pushed the ruling class to restart production and exploitation to get ahead of its adversaries. And now, a new tacit understanding reigns between the different national bourgeoisies: all are ready to suffer, alone, the social, economic and political consequences of an exponential progression of the virus within the population of their respective country, or at the very least the consequences of a progression far beyond that of last spring. Instead of the lockdown adopted during the first wave, they have all tacitly agreed to adopt a more or less laissez-faire approach until a vaccine eventually allows the end of the crisis.

In other words, it is a true mass contamination program which the ruling classes have accepted to put in place, knowing their competitors will be affected more or less the same way. Obviously, each bourgeoisie is trying to play their cards right and hopes to see the epidemic ravage their adversaries more. This explains why stronger measures will be taken temporarily here or there. In countries most heavily hit, where the health crisis will reach extreme proportions, the government might be forced to impose a more severe lockdown, as was recently the case in Israel where another national lockdown for three weeks was decreed. But this changes nothing to the fact the general policy pursued by world governments is nothing like the one of March-April. We need only compare the recent decisions of the bourgeois authorities to those taken during the first wave to be convinced of this.

In Quebec, when the government announced three regions were going “red” on September 28th, 751 new cases of COVID-19 were detected by public health authorities throughout the province. At that point, there were a total of 212 people hospitalized, with 37 in intensive care, as well as 5 585 confirmed “active cases”. However, on March 13th, when the governement announced the shutdown of schools, daycares, cegeps and universities in the whole province (which are significantly stronger measures than what we are seeing now), only 4 new cases were detected in the province, for a total of 37 people officially infected – and no one hospitalized – since the beginning of the pandemic! Two days later, when the government closed gathering sites like bars, gyms and cinemas as well as restricted capacity to 50% inside restaurants, the province only had 69 people officially infected since the start of the pandemic. And on March 23rd, when the “economic pause” was decreed everywhere in Quebec – notably causing important shutdowns in the construction and manufacturing sector -, only 345 new cases were detected in the province, which additionally recorded only 67 people hospitalized, with 31 in intensive care, and 1 110 confirmed “active cases”. Moreover, the highest number of new cases detected in one day since the beginning of the pandemic was 1 104 on April 15th. However, we are already approaching this number on September 26th with 896 new cases.

Some are saying the high number of cases recorded the last few days is entirely due to the massive increase of tests done by the authorities. Consequently, they assert the epidemic is not necessarily more advanced now than it was before. However, this theory doesn’t hold water if we take the time to make the necessary comparisons. For example, the number of cases detected (55) during the week of March 9th corresponded to 2.1% of the number of tests done (2 608) during the same week. However, the number of cases detected during the week of September 21st (4 750) correspons to 2.47% of the number of tests done (191 674)… But these proportions must be taken with a grain of salt, since the testing policies (which we can only appreciate qualitatively due to the limited information made public by the authorities) have constantly been modified since the beginning of the pandemic. For example, until March 30th, tests were primarily directed at travelers presenting symptoms of COVID-19, at hospitalized patients presenting symptoms and at their contacts, which likely increased the chances of positive tests. During the month of April, tests were directed primarily at hospitalized patients, healthcare establishment personnel and residents of CHSLD’s where multiple outbreaks had occured, which can explain, in part, the heightened proportion of positive tests during this period. But, an expanded testing policy directed towards “community transmission”, as seems to have been adopted during the month of September, implies a lower probability of detecting infections. On that note, the Ministère de la Santé et des Services Sociaux announced on September 28th that it wanted to “optimize” testing and “prioritize” people presenting symptoms or who were in “close contact” with a confirmed case, specifying that in the current context where “Quebec is seeing an important resurgence of cases and community transmission is accelerating, it is essential to prioritize tests with a better probability of finding cases” and that “access to testing could be refused to people not part of a prioritized group”. As we can see, it is difficult to use the percentage of positive tests to evaluate the progression of the epidemic, since the evolution of this percentage can simply reflect changes in testing policy. Nevertheless, the fact the virus is spreading more than ever at this moment throughout society in general, outside of healthcare establishments, is extremely preoccupying.

That said, we only need to compare the number of ongoing hospitalizations now to the same number when the authorities declared the “economic pause” to see the second wave is much more advanced now than was the first wave when lockdown started in March. As we have said, the day the transition of multiple regions to “red” was announced, there were 212 documented hospitalizations linked to COVID-19 in Quebec, while there were none when all schools were closed on March 13th and when there were only 67 when government ordered the shutdown of all “non-essential” businesses on March 23rd. Just in the week of September 21st, the province saw a larger number of new hospitalizations (140) than there were in total on March 23rd. In fact, until March 21st, the number of ongoing hospitalizations in the province was inferior to 20 every day. On the other hand, on September 29th, 35 new hospitalizations were announced (while on March 23rd, the government was announcing 21). And despite all this, the ruling class is doing next to nothing to stop the spread of the virus. Worse still, while the second wave is just starting, three regions (totalling 5 million of the 8.5 million inhabitants of Quebec) are now at the maximum level of alert supposed to correspond to the most strict measures!

When we observe what is happening elsewhere in the world (notably in Europe and the USA) where the second wave has also started, we can see the measures taken are also much less severe towards large companies than the ones taken last spring. Like in Quebec, these measures mostly target “useless” gatherings, as well as establishments like bars or restaurants, with schools and most businesses staying open. In France, where authorities have also declared four levels of regional alerts, some departements in “reinforced alert zone” (including Paris, Lyon, Toulouse and Nice) have just taken the limit for large gatherings from 5000 to 1000 (!) while imposing a limit of 10 people on small gatherings. Also in these “reinforced alert zone” departments, sports clubs, venues and gyms are now closed, and bars must close at 22:00. Only two french departments (the Aix-Marseille metropolis and Guadeloupe) are affected by more restrictive measures: bars and restaurants are closed for two weeks. In Spain, inhabitants of the region of Madrid recently received directives to not leave their neighborhood except for absolutely necessary reasons such as… going to work or bringing their children to school. In the U.K, bars, pubs and restaurants must close at 22:00, remote work is encouraged and weddings are limited to 15 participants. In the U.S.A, where the second wave hit earlier than elsewhere, the states most affected like California and Florida did not impose a new complete lockdown when cases started to increase again during summer: only some establishments like bars and restaurants were temporarily closed again. In short, everywhere the second wave has started, they are letting the virus infect the population!

The next weeks will be marked by class struggle!

The new tactic of the bourgeoisie, as well as the monstruous second wave it is provoking, are likely to generate an even greater social instability than last spring. The unequaled chaos in the healthcare system, the growing danger in workplaces, the sick and the dead which will accumulate and the unjust character of the repressive measures targeting proletarians will exacerbate the anger of the people against the government and the bourgeois State. The bourgeoisie is conscious of this, and it is clear it is preparing for every eventuality. Particularly, it will speed up the pace further and further to find an end to the crisis(which the arrival of a vaccine should provide) to avoid sinking in another major political crisis.

On the other end, the struggle of workers against the irrational actions of the bourgeoisie, against the murderous economic recovery it is operating and against the lack of sanitary measures to face the epidemic will manifest in more open forms. And this resistance, no matter the form it will take, will be completely legitimate. Protecting the economy would make sense for the proletariat in a socialist society, where the means of production would be its own and where the fruits of its labor weren’t appropriated by a minority of ultra-rich. But under capitalism, the economy doesn’t “belong” to everyone: the economy is private propery, profits and the limitless accumulation of money in the hands of the bourgeoisie! So, when the government talks of protecting “our” economy, what it is really talking about is protecting the interests of capital. And to protect these interests, capitalists force proletarians to expose themselves to the virus, sacrifice their health and, in some cases, die. But the masses will not take this abuse quietly. The class struggle is bound to sharpen in the upcoming months.