Workers, students, neighbors, and the elderly should demand that employers, schools, government, and public spaces uphold COVID-19 safety precautions, and shut down if they can’t keep people safe. Rather than allow COVID to become endemic with minimal economic disruption and an acceptable number of annual losses, a total societal mobilization to eradicate disease is needed.
The sheer number falling ill in December 2021 and January 2022 after two years and 800,000 U.S. deaths is almost inconceivable. Thousands of Christmas holiday flights were canceled; pilots and flight attendants have fallen ill. Hospitals are short staffed—their nurses and employees isolating and sick. In response, changing their guidance two years into the pandemic, the CDC suddenly shortened its quarantine and isolation recommendations from ten days to five, so asymptomatic infected essential workers could report back to work.
Employers are now ordering their workers to report back while contagious, imperiling customers, students, patients, and coworkers. Prior to returning from winter break, Chicago teachers demanded additional safety precautions as school was due to reopen. They voted to transition to remote learning until adequate safety measures were in place. Mayor Lori Lightfoot locked them out of their virtual classrooms, and schools were closed for a week. Protesting inadequate public health protections, students have walked out across the country. Meanwhile, hospitals, clinics and ambulance companies are announcing critical staffing emergencies and forcing staff with COVID-19 to keep clocking in.
So what is to be done?
Some countries claim their efforts at early detection, quarantine and isolation, and treatment have contained the virus. They have neighborhood anti-epidemic committees that coordinate symptom monitoring, quarantine, help them with food and necessities so stricken neighbors don’t want. There are daily temperature checks and monitoring, and coordination with public health officials to identify, isolate and get help and care to those who fall sick.
We need a grassroots popular mobilization against COVID-19. The Biden administration, CDC, and many public health officials, giving in to a rightwing backlash against masks, vaccinations, and science-based safety, have opted to keep the economy open even as millions fall sick, rather than endanger profits. Only concerted effort from workers, community members, the aged, and disabled, can pressure reluctant officials to take the Omicron wave seriously, and push to contain and eventually eradicate the virus. Instead, it seems America has in effect given up on reducing contagion, even as hospitalizations and cases increase exponentially. Vaccinations are reducing deaths, and there is an acceptance of COVID as an endemic risk; students, workers should just show up to class and work despite their risk of infection. For the economy’s sake, the medically vulnerable and immunocompromised lives don’t matter.
A popular mobilization could educate the public on the symptoms of Omicron, to provide testing resources, to isolate and quarantine, to provide proper masks and hand sanitizer, and build mutual aid networks to support working families sheltering in place without adequate sick pay, even as the government fails to act.
At the same time, individuals and organizations should demand federal state and local authorities take action that is proportionate to the scale of the crisis. Public financing and regulation to further rationalize the healthcare system is urgently needed. During this surge in infections, steps are already being taken. A California state legislative committee advanced a Single Payer Healthcare bill last week, and California governor Gavin Newsom has proposed allowing undocumented adults to enroll in Medicaid. The Biden administration has set up a website where US residents can request a free at-home COVID test. This move to federalize diagnostic testing is a step in the right direction.
In addition, treatment should also be free. Government should hire tens of thousands of contact tracers to inform close contacts of infected patients of potential exposure, enforce quarantine and isolation orders, and stop the spread of disease. Healthcare staff should staff airports, ports of entry, and major commercial travel areas instead of an over-abundance of TSA and Customs and Border Patrol. Government should order industry to ramp up production of key items: vaccines, boosters, glass vials, syringes, oxygen, masks, gloves, face shields, and anti-viral drugs. Shelters and long-term care facilities should accept COVID-19 patients discharged from hospitals and to provide care and a safe warm bed. Resources should be distributed based on need, not ability to pay.
Hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare providers have been replacing regular staff with temps and contractors as governments and private companies seek to remain “flexible”. This makes work uncertain, and benefits meager for those on the front lines caring for sick Americans. Instead, all healthcare workers should receive the same benefits as combat troops fighting overseas. They should have their student loans forgiven, and guaranteed paid sick time, workers comp, pensions, and short and long-term disability pay. They are risking their lives to save ours.
In a month and a half, with frightening speeds, the omicron variant of COVID-19 has spread across the world. Protests across the country have demanded safer conditions at work and school. As the surge in new COVID-19 cases peaks, it is time for a popular mobilization against COVID-19; to demand respect for life, adequate safety protections, and accessible health care.