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Posted under: Opinion

How COVID-19 Reveals Our Economic System’s Failings — And What We Could Have Instead

Now more than ever, we need community control of resources.

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We’re just a few months into dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, Congress just passed a $2 trillion stimulus package that benefits corporations and leaves working people out, and the incompetence of the current administration has never been more apparent. However, this historic crisis is much, much bigger than Trump. In addition to being an immediate threat to the lives of many people, COVID-19 is revealing the sinister underbelly of our economic system in an unprecedented way.

As a result of this unfolding catastrophe, tens of thousands of workers have already found themselves without income, and countless small businesses are facing possible bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, our dysfunctional, for-profit healthcare system is failing to provide the response our communities desperately need; the affordable housing crisis that already has millions sleeping on the street or living in subpar conditions means many aren’t able to protect themselves; and greedy, corporate employers are forcing workers to either expose themselves to the virus or risk losing their jobs. 

While many are in need of immediate income, the one-time $1,200 payments that will be sent to many American families as part of the stimulus package are a temporary band-aid, not a real solution.

Things have already gotten really bad, and without an extraordinary shift away from business-as-usual, the ramifications of COVID-19 will continue to have devastating impacts on Black and brown workers, immigrants and other marginalized groups for decades.

The truth is that all of these structural issues and more — which COVID-19 is highlighting and exacerbating at the same time — only exist due to the rampant privatization of resources that should instead be controlled by us. Now more than ever, we need community control over our resources. Our health, in every sense of the word, depends on it.

Some cities have begun to recognize the urgency of protecting our country’s most vulnerable. Following grassroots demands, cities like Detroit have reversed water shut-offs, others have put a moratorium on evictions and some have ensured schools still offer free meals for students who rely on them, showing that some local elected officials are willing to be proactive where the federal government refuses to be. But it’s not nearly enough.

In response to the gaping holes in the effort to deal with the effects of COVID-19, communities are coming together to pool resources and create new support systems. All across the United States, folks are creating mutual aid funds to pay artists, service industry employees and others who’ve suddenly lost all income. Task forces are coming up with creative ways to get supplies safely to those who can’t otherwise access them. Teachers mandated to stay home are offering to teach online classes to keep our kids educated.

While it can be tempting to lift up stories like this as feel-good news, it’s categorically wrong that we’re forced to anxiously scramble to save our communities during a time of crisis and uncertainty in the first place. It’s also unsustainable — which is intentional under our current economic system, where a few wealthy people get to call the shots as the rest of us struggle.

Most importantly though, the community response to COVID-19 — which comes in stark comparison to the corporate tax cuts already being floated by the Trump administration — demonstrates the urgent need for a fundamental shift to the structure of our economy. We know what we need to thrive. And if we have a real say in how our resources are distributed, we can truly make sure everyone is taken care of.

The reality is, corporations have a vested interest in ensuring a lack of community control over our own resources. Wall Street executives profit from taxpayers by charging local governments billions of dollars in unnecessary fees, extracting funds that could instead be used to ensure every resident has a safe place to live and access to education, childcare, and transportation. Key players in our for-profit healthcare system are allowed to jack up prices arbitrarily just to line their own pockets. Greedy developers are able to turn whole neighborhoods upside down within months, driving people out of their homes and letting luxury apartment buildings sit empty.

In the age of COVID-19, corporations are behaving especially badly — from Amazon hiring 100,000 new workers and refusing to slow down production in the thick of urgent calls for social distancing, to airlines who spend over 96% of their profits buying shares already asking for a government bailout, and more. Taxpayers bailed out Wall Street 12 years ago, and only a few already wealthy people benefited from it.

This time, we need to call the shots.

We have community centered solutions to the problems we’re facing, both short and long term. Grassroots activists across the country are calling for a $200 billion Housing Security Fund, a national moratorium on evictions and a national mortgage and rent holiday; and workers’ rights advocates are calling on Congress to mandate corporations provide comprehensive sick leave for all employees, to name a few. 

The main thing standing in our way of dealing with COVID-19 and its impacts in a way that gives us a real path forward is the incredible amount of control that corporations have over our resources, and our economy as a whole. Elected officials need to take back our essential resources — from water to transportation to utilities to housing and more — from the corporations that will otherwise do everything they can to continue extracting money from our communities, even in times of crisis.

In this time of tension and fear, we have an opportunity to reflect inward and realize how much potential we have to change the way this country has been structured for hundreds of years. We can move towards an economic system that guarantees people access to health care, housing, public transportation and child care; where workers have ownership over their health and livelihood instead of relying on the whims of corporations; and where we demonstrate real care and intention towards our most vulnerable neighbors.

At the end of the day, we know what we need to thrive during COVID- 19 and beyond. It’s time for power — and money — to be back in the hands of the people.

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Maurice BP-Weeks, Co-Executive Director of Action Center on Race and the Economy

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