Susheela Mahendran, Mugo Muna and Eleonora Roldán Mendívil
The assertion by politicians that all are equally affected by the coronavirus is far from the truth.
COVID-19 is raging throughout the entire globe, and all politicians of the bourgeois establishment are effectively telling us: “we are all affected,” “stay calm,” and “we have it under control.” There are obvious differences between the authoritarian answers, of governments like the Kenyan, Indian and Peruvian, the liberal answers of countries like Germany, or the massive downplaying by the US government. However, there is one thing all countries have in common: the pandemic hit immigrant populations, the poor, and Black and Brown people the hardest.
In the USA
The USA had ample time and resources to structure its response to the virus, after its first officially confirmed case on January 21. But, by April 12, the US had the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths globally. As the virus spread, the governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, called the coronavirus “the great equaliser.” However, it is a fantasy that the virus affects people equally regardless of class, ‘race’, or immigration status. Data from the New York City health department showed that “the death rate from COVID-19 for Black and Latino New Yorkers is roughly twice that of white New Yorkers.”
Some are quick to blame the death rate in certain communities on the “lifestyle” of the people living there. However, as Democracy Now reported, the “greater number of underlying health conditions, such as diabetes and asthma, lack of access to testing and healthcare, and poor conditions in public housing” are helping the coronavirus spread.
The racial disparities are not only limited to New York City. The reports from Richmond, Virginia show that all of the deaths in the city were of African American citizens despite the fact that less than 50 percent of the population is Black. In Louisiana, most of the deaths were from the African American community despite them accounting for only 32% of the population.
We cannot act surprised that neglected, underfunded, and vilified communities are being ravaged by a public health crisis. The reality of the situation is that this pandemic is just another crisis to add on to the already crippling burden of neoliberal, racist policy throughout the United States. The pandemic has proven to affect some communities more than others and continues to show the consequences of a racist capitalist system that hurts us all.
Who gets to stay at home?
One of the starkest divides of the pandemic is seeing who gets to stay home and be bored versus who has to show up at work despite the risks involved. With an overall ability to work from home of roughly 30% as of the data from 2018, many workers in the US don’t have the types of work that lets them be on their computer in their pyjamas and avoid the virus safely.
The US Bureau of Labour statistics shows that “Thirty-seven percent of Asian Americans and 30 percent of whites said they could work remotely. But only 20 percent of African Americans and 16 percent of Hispanics said they had that ability,” which shows that some of the groups that have faced the most consistent marginalisation in the United States have no choice but to be physically present at work.
Due to the lockdown and the lack of a comprehensive human-centric economy, the types of layoffs happening tend to impact racial minorities more than other groups in the United States. According to Data for Progress, 45% of African Americans have lost their jobs, lost hours at work, or have been put on leave, compared to 31% of white respondents. This disparity makes sense when you see that Black and Latino communities are over represented in industries like Transportation, Hotels, Landscaping, and Restaurants. The economy cannot protect these communities when it is clearly staked against them.
The other side of racial disparities are the reclassification of so-called unskilled workers as essential workers. Previously, supermarket workers were people to be pitied but now we find ourselves dependent on these individuals during the crisis. In the epicentre of the crisis, 75% of the frontline workers, as defined by the NYC government, are people of colour. Frontline in this case means Healthcare, Public transit, Grocery Stores, and Building Cleaning Services. So not only do Black and Brown essential workers have precarious, badly paying jobs in the first place, also they are now more likely to bring the virus home to their families. In addition, from health workers to all other branches of sectors, essential workers have to deal with a lack of protective gear, for weeks now. Management, that is more geared toward maximising profit (e.g. most minimal staff possible) per store, does generally not consider workers’ “well-being.” In addition to the thousands of individuals picking and packing our food everyday. People previously derided for their immigration status, criminalised and terrorised by immigration authorities, are putting themselves at risk to pack meat, fruit and vegetables for the rest of the country.
While the virus may be affecting certain communities differently, the pandemic makes a strong case of removing the profit motive from healthcare in the US. If the healthcare system was geared toward the best outcome for all people regardless of economic background, then the crisis would not be so deadly for the most vulnerable – working class Black and Latino people. Better yet, the notion of healthcare should expand beyond just when people walk into the door of a hospital. If we thought of creating a health system that helps people achieve the best for them nutritionally, medically, with sufficient pay, and adequate living conditions then maybe we could actually be prepared when things start to fall apart.
Germany is widely considered a stable, welfare state with open arms for refugees. Ever since Chancellor Angela Merkel did not close Germany’s borders in the summer of 2015, the world has hailed her for her “anti-racism.” In reality the conservative politician of the Christian Democratic Party only decided to keep the borders open to avoid the likely scenario of German police officers shooting at refugee children and their families, seeking refuge from war and poverty from places previously equipped with weapons from the German war industry (like Syria, Afghanistan or Kurdistan). Dead refugee children at the border would not have been helpful for Germany’s PR.
With the first positive case of Coronavirus in the southern state of Bavaria on January 27, Germany has slowly taken lockdown measures that can be understood as quite liberal. With cases jumping to over 1300 confirmed cases on March 10, the local governments started taking some measures, like closing cultural establishments. By March 14, schools and day care centres were closed in most federal states. Employers were asked to close down their businesses and allow workers to work from home, if possible. Since Germany is a federal state, all so-called health and security measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 were quite different from state to state.
Additionally, the German government has offered a variety of loans for big and small businesses and direct cash payments for previously registered freelancers. For German white-collar workers, the pandemic has not had a major impact on their lives. However, for all other workers, Coronavirus is having a devastating impact economically and psychologically.
Immigrants most affected – also in Germany
In Germany, as in other parts of the globe, the sectors doing all essential work toil under precarious working conditions. Immigrants in Germany and their children and grandchildren (about a quarter of Germany’s population) make up a disproportionate amount of the essential worker sectors. Of those legally employed workers with a foreign nationality, 31.9% work in building cleaning, 31.7 % in food production and processing, and 31.1% in the meat industry and agriculture, as Ramsis Kilani recently pointed out in one of the few articles in German on the effects of the pandemic on migrant communities in Germany. This does not take into account non-white German citizens, as polls do not ask for the category ‘race’.
Further, immigrants earn on average down to half of what Germans earn in the same job, with the same qualification. The risk of living in poverty is twice as high for immigrants and their descendants in Germany as for people without a migration history in their immediate family.
This risk increases for those who belong to the Coronavirus risk group of people over 64 years of age. In this age group, 31.4% of people with a so-called migration background are affected by poverty. Kilani concludes: “By comparison, the figure for non-migrant Germans is 11.5%. In 2016, more than a third of the homeless people recorded had a migration background. Almost half of the unemployed have a migration background and because they are self-employed more often than average, the crisis has made many migrants unemployed virtually overnight.”
And of course, the detention centre system for refugees in Germany, where those seeking protection are forced to live with up to 12 people in one room for months and years under conditions unfit for human living – even before Coronavirus times – has become one of the hotspots for COVID-19 to spread rapidly amongst the most vulnerable layers of the population in Germany. Guarded by private security companies, and at times dozens of police officers, quarantine measures have been forced upon whole detention centres across the country, without respective healthcare or social distance measures for the refugees inside.
The hazards of being a migrant worker
Poor migrant workers from the Global South, or the European periphery (like Eastern Europe) are some of the most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide. In India, for example there are more than 40 million migrant labourers out of its population of 1.3 billion people, who move from small villages to bigger cities to find work. Mostly they work in the essential sectors such as construction, domestic work, textiles, transportation, mines, or agriculture. Indian capital highly relies on this mobile, rural labour force. Migrant workers contribute enormously to the national income. These jobs which are seen as undignified and that have been referred to lower caste people for centuries, are essential and the very fundament for capitalist mega cities like Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata. These migrant workers mostly toil under very harsh working and health conditions, where they face discrimination, racism and human rights abuses on a daily basis. Little is done to ensure health or work security for them. During the COVID-19 crisis, migrant workers in India are especially vulnerable, suffering immensely during the repressive lockdown since March 24. People lost their income, cannot pay rent, and go hungry.
Thousands are walking thousands of kilometres on foot back to their villages of origin, since all public transport has been suspended. Scenes of rural migrants forming caravans from the cities to head back to rural areas, amidst the fear of starvation, have multiplied all over the world, like in Peru.
In Germany, immigrant workers are disproportionately found among the poor, as explained above. In the agriculture sector, 95% of the 300 000 seasonal workers are foreign nationals. Hundreds of thousands of Eastern European labourers work in the German health sector and in the construction sector. The majority of the care workers are employed in home care, but are not statistically recorded – many working without a legal contract. As an article in the German language Lower Class Magazine from April 12 stated:
“The Federal Statistical Office has calculated that in 2017, [immigrant workers will make up over 30% of cleaning staff, almost 30% in food production, over 20% in warehousing, building construction and delivery, and almost 40% in system catering […], compared to slightly over four percent in journalism, 3.7 percent in the justice system, and around three and two percent respectively in finance and administration.”
With the official border closures, the German healthcare, construction, and agriculture sectors face a massive shortage of cheap workers with low unionisation rate (those who capitalism likes the most). But, the establishment politicians and the lobby of the agriculture industry in Germany have found ways to satisfy the needs of German capital by flying in Romanian workers, who are considered “healthy” and not in the risk group of COVID-19. A TV report On April 26 showed how agriculture industrialists are willing to put workers’ health at risk by cramming them up in crowded bunk-bed facilities, and keeping their passports to avoid the workers from leaving their workplace.
Poor migrant workers worldwide, from Eastern European workers in Germany to Indian or Peruvian rural migrant workers, indeed do have different realities, but their jobs are all physically demanding, mentally exhausting and, poorly paid. Their workday is characterised by discrimination and disrespect from their co-workers, bosses, and clients. Because migrant workers are particularly difficult to unionise (due to language barriers and the often informality of their working conditions), there is a lack of a strong lobby or a perspective of collective resistance. Thus, this strata of the working class can be easily put under pressure, and if needed replaced in no time. Because these people are at the frontline, they are at greater risk of infection.
Racism on the rise worldwide
The Global North is reacting with xenophobia and racism to the pandemic. Traditionally the West has treated epidemics and natural catastrophes as problems caused by “the others”, by Black, Brown and/or queer people in “exotic,” far away and under-developed countries. For example, in the 1980, when HIV/Aids was ravaging though the United States, the virus was perceived as a disease of homosexual, queer, Brown and Black folk.
Ebola has been connected to anti-Black hate crimes in Western countries. Firstly, confirmed in 1976 simultaneously in two places (in Nzara, a town in South Sudan and in Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo), Ebola outbreaks have occurred intermittently in tropical regions of sub-Saharan Africa until 2013. Another example is the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) Virus (SARS-CoV) outbreak in 2003 that was generally associated with East Asian bodies despite affecting 26 countries including Canada and Singapore.
Scapegoating racial minorities is a strategy in a postcolonial, imperialist world. In world history, we have seen this phenomenon quite often, for example after 9/11, where the whole Muslim world was held accountable for Islamic terrorism.
Now during the current pandemic, it was first East Asians and people appearing East Asian who bore the brunt of racist media coverage, discrimination (like, not being allowed to step into a doctor’s office), verbal and physical abuse. All over February and March, reports from countries like Germany, France, Australia, Great Britain and the US have shown a steep rise in anti-Asian racism worldwide. But soon after, also other racial minorities were targeted; racist slurs being combined with “Corona” when attacks on Black and Brown folk have happened. Now that China is reopening its economic and civil life, it is Black people – migrant workers, residents and students – who have been arbitrarily targeted by their landlords, the local government and neighbours in China.
Also, in colonial tradition, two French doctors have discussed publicly on French TV testing COVID-19 vaccines on African people first, igniting a huge shitstorm on social media.
What do we learn?
A global pandemic doesn’t create inequality and racism. It only enhances it on a massive and brutal scale. The current situation could be a wake-up call for workers in all of these crucial sectors, to understanding their position as an essential labour force – as the multiple health worker and teacher strikes all over the world in the past months and years have shown over and over again. It is the people in the key sectors of the economy, who create essential parts of societies’ wealth and can thus, withhold their labour power and force the capitalist production to its knees.
f the world economy is critically based on cheap, dirty and physically exhaustive labour, then the same workers have a powerful collective potential and opportunity to destroy this system. The ugly bases of capitalism like racism, sexism, violence and exploitation will keep existing after the Coronavirus crisis and poor (migrant) workers will keep on being over-exploited and over-represented amongst the most precarious and most vulnerable strata of society.
Now, more than ever, it becomes clear that privatisation of resources, companies, hospitals etc. is lethal. The socialisation of hospitals, healthcare systems, pharmacy industries and big companies needs to be one of the first steps to counteract this crisis.
Also, demands of worker-controlled healthcare branches, as well as the stopping of all deportations and the legalisation of all people, wherever they happen to live are key demands pointing to a socialist society, where a democratic planned economy – not the deadly “free market” – will be able to provide everyone with all their basic health, educational and cultural needs, no matter what status.
This article is an extract from a longer paper that first appeared on Karibu (www.Karibu.org.za).
Susheela Mahendran is a political scientist, artist and free journalist based in Kolkata, India. She has been a regular contributor to Lower Class Magazine, Klasse gegen Klasse and Die Freiheitsliebe. She co-organised Berlin’s inaugural Anti-Colonial Month in 2019 and is active in internationalist, socialist-feminist spaces.
Mugo Muna is a Kenyan American data analyst by day and a 2D animator by night. He is one of many activists who helped to organise Berlin’s inaugural Anti-Colonial Month in 2019. He has given talks on the relationship between surveillance and colonialism.
Eleonora Roldán Mendívil is an activist, scholar and educator working on racism, gender issues and capitalism from a Marxist point of analysis. She has published in Junge Welt, Neues Deutschland, Analyse & Kritik, Lower Class Magazine, Klasse gegen Klasse and Revista Crisis amongst others. She co-organised Berlin’s inaugural Anti-Colonial Month in 2019, has been active with the International Women’s Strike and is now helping to build up an internationalist, socialist-feminist organisation in Berlin/Munich.