After months of shying away from taking more aggressive measures to vaccinate the population, President Biden announced a wide-ranging series of mandates on September 9. The directives, which come in the wake of the highly contagious Delta variant, will apply to some 100 million workers—two-thirds of the US adult population. This is a marked shift from the administration’s prior efforts to vaccinate the population against COVID-19.
Mass vaccination is absolutely necessary to curb the spread of the disease, and millions of Americans undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief at this news, since the majority of the population is vaccinated and wants to move past the pandemic. But capitalist governments across the world have criminally mismanaged the pandemic from the very beginning; it is therefore important to draw a balance sheet of Biden’s plan. Above all, we must ask: who can be trusted with ensuring the public’s health and safety?
“The common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”
When vaccines became widely available in the spring, the end of the pandemic was said to be just around the corner. Vaccine rates were rising, and consumption of goods and, in particular, services rose in turn. The bourgeois press was delighted at signs of a rebounding economy, and summer 2021 was supposed to be the long-promised “return to normalcy.” Riding this wave of optimism, the Biden administration set a goal of getting 70% of American adults at least partially vaccinated by July 4.
However, by mid-summer, vaccination rates started to stall. The target of 70% vaccination was met a month late, in August, and as of mid-September, only 54.7% of the population is fully vaccinated. In response, the Biden administration, as well as state governments, tried various strategies to increase vaccine acceptance through public campaigns and efforts to connect people with smaller clinics and personal doctors, rather than mass vaccination facilities.
Meanwhile, the Delta variant continued to spread, causing another major wave of COVID-19 across the country. Currently, about 140,000 new cases of COVID-19 and an average of 2,000 COVID-19- caused deaths are reported each day. But most concerning to the capitalist class was the new surge’s effect on the economy, as it became clear that the Delta variant gravely threatens the promised “swift recovery.”
Understanding the political risks, Biden clearly hesitated when it came to implementing a vaccine mandate to stop the pandemic. However, as Marx famously put it, the bourgeois state is “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” It is undoubtedly in the common interest of the capitalist class to vaccinate the population for one very simple reason: so the working class can carry on the work of generating profits, uninterrupted by the inconveniences imposed by the global pandemic. After months of vacillation on mask mandates, hundreds of thousands of lives lost, emergency approval of three different vaccines, and eventual full approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the administration issued a vaccine mandate.
As the New York Times succinctly summarized on its front page the day after Biden’s announcement: “New Threat Compelling the President: A Sagging Economy.” For its part, corporate America wholeheartedly welcomed the announcement. Vaccination mandates will save lives, explained National Association of Manufacturers CEO Jay Timmons, but they are also an “economic imperative.”
Too little, too late
Biden is pursuing various legal avenues to mandate vaccinations against COVID-19. To begin, the federal mandate will require all government employees under the executive branch to be fully vaccinated, including all companies under contract with the federal government. Workers in this category will have no option to test out of the requirement. These same guidelines have been extended to healthcare workers if their workplace receives any money from Medicare or Medicaid.
Additionally, businesses with 100 or more employees must require their workers to be vaccinated or require weekly testing for those who refuse. A number of major companies, including CVS Health, Goldman Sachs, and Chevron had already adopted their own corporate directives. Others, like Walmart, Disney, and Google followed suit shortly after Biden’s announcement. The President has enlisted the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to draft an emergency temporary standard to enact this requirement. Moreover, businesses must provide paid time off to workers receiving the vaccine.
This is a bold use of the 51-year-old OSHA, which grants the federal government the power to intervene on matters of “grave danger” to workers. Yet, how many “unprecedented” events such as the rise of Delta variant have occurred since March 2020 without a similar federal intervention? In the eyes of public health experts and many ordinary Americans alike, this mandate comes as too little, too late. As with other capitalist governments across the world since the beginning of the pandemic, Biden only acted once the problem was already out of hand.
On the surface, the mandate appears to be a blueprint for ending the pandemic—but it raises many questions. For example, who will actually enforce the mandate? As Jim Tankersley explained to the New York Times Daily Podcast: “OSHA doesn’t have nearly enough inspectors, regulators to go to every large job site in the country and see if they’re implementing this. It’s a lot like putting up a new sign for a reduced speed limit. You probably don’t have the police resources to have a … police car on the road every day, checking every driver’s speed.”
Defending the rights and safety of two-thirds of the US working class is an immense task. Many employers refuse to pay for PPE and weekly COVID tests, so they will either enforce vaccinations without an alternative, or workers who are still skeptical will have to pay for PPE and COVID tests out of their own pockets.
In addition, how will OSHA enforce the provision mandating paid time off for workers who get the vaccine? How many workers will be forced to use their limited sick or PTO days against their will? How many will have to get the vaccine without paid time off? Even if there is a system for filing a complaint, many workers will lack the time and the energy to do so. As long as the mandate is carried out by the bosses, there will be major shortcomings, loopholes, and violations of workers’ rights. Moreover, while the majority of the working class works for large or medium-sized companies, tens of millions work for smaller companies not affected by the mandate.
In the past, vaccines were not a contentious issue. However, one important feature of the current crisis is the unwillingness of millions to get the vaccine, a relatively widespread phenomenon in the US. A Pew Research Center study from February 2021 found that three in ten Americans said that they probably or definitely would not get vaccinated. In June, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that out of those who were unvaccinated, three in ten would get vaccinated once the FDA gave one of the previously emergency-authorized vaccines full approval. However, as of August, 90 million Americans were still “on the fence” about getting the vaccine.
This is a complex, non-homogenous group with varying reasons for hesitancy. A combination of religious superstition, low scientific literacy, general mistrust of the establishment, and hatred of the Democrats in particular has caused widespread hesitancy as well as outright vaccine rejection among groups such as white Protestant conservatives, who form an important part of the Republican base. In addition to the political posturing of Republican leaders, fear and skepticism specifically around the science and approval process of the vaccine has increased hesitancy and distrust in the state. In addition, the US government and medical institutions have a hideously racist history of medical experiments on Black and Latino people, which understandably fuels hesitancy among oppressed minority groups.
So vaccine hesitancy cannot be neatly decoupled from the overall collapse of trust in institutions that has accompanied the crisis of capitalism on a world scale. A recent Edleman poll of 27 countries found that 57% of respondents believe that the government leaders are “purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false.” It is no surprise that institutions like the CDC and the FDA, not to mention the federal government as a whole, are viewed with deep suspicion.
Nor has the United States’ dismally underfunded public school system prepared Americans to understand the approval process, with 61% of the population having low or medium scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, academia has played the role of gate-keeper for scientific information and methods for decades. Until the production of a COVID-19 vaccine, most Americans had no concept of how the FDA worked, how vaccines were created and tested, nor the technological advances that have been made in this field in recent years.
The breakthroughs in mRNA technology over the last few decades made it possible to develop the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines in record time. Researchers have studied the potential for mRNA vaccine technology for over 30 years, relating their work to prior research on influenza, HIV, and SARS-1. Furthermore, governmental agencies like the National Institute of Health—which was already preparing for a Spanish Flu-style pandemic—can leverage the federal government’s capacity to purchase massive quantities of drugs. All of this accelerated the production process.
Without access to this context and information, many see this new efficiency as suspicious and negligent. On top of this, capitalist governments bankrolled these privately owned drugs with billions of public dollars, further fueling the lack of confidence. Of course, it is true that under capitalism, scientific institutions are not pure or “neutral” bodies. In fact, Dr. Peter Marks, the FDA’s top vaccine regulator, was recently involved in personally maneuvering to fast-track approval of an unproven Alzheimer’s treatment. Instances such as this are why we need to liberate science from the profit motive. However, this does not mean that every single decision made by such bodies is incorrect. The capitalists are impelled to use facts and data to manage their system, and vaccine approvals require the highest possible safety standards, as they are not only given to sick people, but to healthy individuals as well.
However, hatred of the establishment and the complex nature of the vaccine development process creates a perfect storm for skeptics who see all of this as corruption and collaboration between science and the government, with the preexisting anti-vax movement already positioned to lead the charge. Liberals blame widespread ignorance and misinformation as the cause of the problem, and to be sure, there is plenty of misinformation circulating. But it is only in the context of widespread rejection of the status quo that such campaigns can actually take root. Riding on the coattails of Trumpism, the right wing has taken full advantage of this via the emerging market for non-vaccine COVID solutions.
Notably, podcaster and comedian Joe Rogan, who previously discouraged the vaccine, recommended Ivermectin (a horse dewormer) based on his experience treating his own bout with COVID-19. A far-right physician’s group, American Frontline Doctors, charges customers $90 to connect them with providers who can treat them with COVID “treatments” like hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin.
On the political front, without clear answers being given by the labor leaders or a mass working-class party, the far right has cynically tapped into the hesitant layer to gain support around this issue, presenting vaccines as a matter of “personal freedom.” Republican politicians from Texas, Florida, South Dakota, and beyond have voiced their outrage against the President’s mandate, and several Republican governors had already moved to ban mask mandates. As Texas Senator Ted Cruz put it, “Freedom is good policy and good politics.”
And although many Republican politicians brandish the language of personal freedom and denounce vaccine and mask mandates as unconstitutional, every Republican governor is vaccinated. But the Republican Party is a whole different beast from its pre-2016 counterpart, and “medical freedom” has morphed into hypocritical, anti-vaccination posturing. This crudely shortsighted approach is a striking reminder of how much the US ruling class has degenerated in the epoch of capitalism’s death agony.
The Republicans’ open attacks on public health come as workers in their states actively fight against these bans in their workplaces. Teachers are on the frontlines of this fight, for instance in Massachusetts and Arizona. While these governors argue that they stand for the freedom of the American people, teachers and other workers in the very same schools are fighting for their lives against these politicians.
Private property and the profit motive are clearly to blame for this mistrust of potentially lifesaving advances. Capitalist competition impeded the development of vaccines during the pandemic. This led to three different vaccines being marketed in the US, which three different companies will profit from. This opens up a new problem regarding efficacy and treatment. For example, a recent study concluded that the Moderna vaccine is likely more effective than the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against Delta (effectiveness of Moderna’s vaccine dropped to 76% in July from 86% in early 2021, while effectiveness of Pfizer’s dropped to 42% from 76%).
The anarchic capitalist system will not be able to address these developments efficiently. For that, we require a nationalized, democratically run pharmaceutical industry, which would pool the research and resources currently being hoarded by private companies, often at the public’s expense.
For workers’ control over vaccination and reopening!
Decades of lies, crisis, academic elitism, and declining confidence in capitalism have created a healthy level of distrust when it comes to the government and even science, but this has been turned on its head. We cannot rely on either capitalist party to responsibly and effectively vaccinate the population. Organized labor and the working class as a whole must take matters into their own hands. Only bold socialist measures to unify the working class and unchain science from the profit motive can end this pandemic and prepare effectively for the next one.
All major pharmaceutical companies should be expropriated with their research and knowledge published openly and shared without commercial secrets or exclusive patents. Public ownership under workers’ control is the only way to ensure the best use of medical knowledge to treat and prevent COVID-19 and its variants.
To begin building consciousness and action towards this end, the labor leaders should call for committees of workers’ safety to be formed in every workplace. These committees would democratically determine the requirements to ensure the workers’ health and safety, including worker-enforced vaccine and mask mandates, routine testing, quality PPE, and other safety measures—all at the expense of the bosses. If the companies refuse to pay, they should be expropriated and run in the public interest as part of a rationally planned economy.
The divide between workers who have been vaccinated and those who are skeptical can and must be overcome. But this can only result from a united struggle against the capitalists, their parties, and institutions. They are the ones responsible for the conditions and misinformation that lead to these divisions—all to protect private property and their own power within society. The united working class has the power to bring the entire economy to a halt. If this power is systematically used, we can radically transform the situation.