Monday, May 18, 2020

The "American Dream" in times of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed, in the most tragic way, the actual essence of the so-called “American Dream”. 

The images from the mass graves in Hart Island, the overloaded morgues, the utter failure of the U.S. health system to protect the people from the pandemic are characteristics of capitalism’s advanced decay. 

At this very moment, the U.S. death toll surpasses 91,000 people, with more than 1,500,000 total cases. In the land of the “American Dream”, everything is measured by the size of your bank account and your wallet. Healthcare is a commodity and available only to those who can pay. If you haven’t enough money even a decent burial seems impossible. 

For decades, the capitalist system cultivated a very attractive image for the “American Dream”, promoting it as the epitome of success and equal opportunities. The reality is totally different. Behind the curtain of capitalism’s “dream” there are millions of poor working class people who face class exploitation every day, there are millions of unemployed men and women, people without social security, homeless minors, marginalized minorities, second and third class citizens, etc. 

The news from the U.S. are indicative of the situation: The Coronavirus pandemic destroyed 20.5 million jobs in April, driving unemployment rate to a post World War II high of 14.7%. According to the U.S. Labor Department, almost 1.5 million workers in the health sector lost their jobs, while hospital employment shurnk by an estimated 135,000 jobs. That happened because hospitals earnings plummeted with the drop in patients’ number and revenue. 

Here is another consequence of the health sector’s commercialization: Hospitals functioning as businesses, based on the cost-profit doctrine, proceeded to mass lay-offs of personnel as long as the number of patients-clients dropped. No profit for the business means unemployment for thousands of people. 

The American Federation of Hospitals estimates the looses at $200 billion for the March-June period, predicting that reimbursements for Covid patients and the $100 billion congressional envelope will be insufficient to cover their actual costs, which can exceed $80,000 per patient if resuscitated with a respirator, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

A significant part of the medical system in the U.S. has completely shut down during confinement, as dentists’ offices have lost 500,000 jobs in just a month, while the disaster is extended to ophthalmologists, psysiotherapists, podiatrists, etc. 

The U.S. health system is an elite system, only for the rich ones, but it is also a huge business from which monopolies are making profits. “The American healthcare system is funded – and enriches many people – by providing very expensive non-emergency exams and operations, and by building giant hospitals based on this economic model”, Professor Howard Markel, director of the center of medical history at the University of Michigan told AFP. 

“Health insurance, both private and public, pays when you put a tube in someone, not when you talk to them” said Howard Markel, while the University of Michigan announced that it would not pay its employees’ retirement contributions for the year to come, due to the drop in revenue at its medical center. 

Refrigerated trucks used as temporary morgues outside
hospitals in New York City.
For many nurses, the “American Dream” offers no better situation than precarious contracts and unstable employment. During the Pandemic things have worsened. “The Covid has made my work obsolete” says a 34-year old nurse from Washington DC, who was responsible for pre and post-operative care. “We haven’t had elective surgeries in two months, when it was the main source of revenue for our service”. 

In the U.S. many nurses are not salaried and are “per diem”, something that allows hospitals to cut staff costs overnight. Everything is calculated on the basis of cost and profit. The nurse from Washington DC is now only working 9 hours a week, down from 36 hours previously. 

Another nurse, 40 year-old Dayna from Florida, mother of four, lost a two day a week teaching job at a university hospital in March and is barely getting any work at the children’s hospital in Miami, where she was previously a regularly contracted nurse.

 “Here in south Florida we don’t have the patients, the hospital can’t afford all of the staff to the on duty and just sit around” she says, adding that she remain on call and had to work on Mother’s Day due to a shortage of staff. She has been an emergency nurse for 17 years and thought the pandemic would mean she’d have more work than ever. But capitalism doesn’t work like that. 

Instead, she’s filing for unemployment benefits, a fate shared by more than 1.4 million of America’s 18 million health care personnel who have lost their jobs since March. 

The “American Dream” has been proved a living nightmare for millions of workers in the U.S. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic became a great opportunity for monopolies and business groups to increase their profits, speculating on human tragedy.