The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the inadequacy of our public health and emergency response infrastructure, leaving the heaviest burdens of our distress to fall unevenly, but predictably, along fault lines of race, class, gender, and disability while the Trump administration performs with alarming negligence and incompetence. While it’s necessary to hold leadership accountable for these failures of the COVID-19 response, the more disturbing truth is that we are experiencing failure by design.
In her bestseller, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein popularized the term “disaster capitalism” to describe how University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman and a generation of free market ideologues have repeatedly seized on crisis (natural and engineered) to slash the social safety net, bust labor unions, and impose austerity economics – what we now call neoliberalism. From the 1973 U.S.-backed military coup in Chile to the war in Iraq, refugee crises to climate catastrophes, market crashes to global health pandemics, emergencies create opportunities to advance agendas previously deemed politically impossible. For all that crisis reveals, it also conceals – providing cover for profiteering and positioning corporations, autocrats, oligarchs as our saviors. As Klein keenly points out, disaster capitalism and disaster authoritarianism often go hand-in-hand.
On the global stage, governments from Thailand to Turkey are detaining journalists, activists, health workers, and anyone else who criticizes official handling of the pandemic. Hungary’s Victor Orbán has used COVID-19 as pretext to seal national borders, declare an indefinite state of emergency, and rule by decree. Disgraced and ousted Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has used COVID to block the formation of a new government, suspend the judiciary (delaying his own prosecution), and give security services the power to track residents – including Palestinians – by their cell phones. Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte has given himself special power to ban and punish whatever he deems to be fake news.
Here in the U.S., anti-democratic forces are moving under the cover of COVID to grab power and market share. We bear daily witness to the spectacle of states competing with each other (and the feds), driving up prices for critical ventilators and personal protective equipment while the regime stands idly by and – worse – withholds life-or-death aid based on political loyalties. According to Trump, “When somebody’s the President of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be.” The Department of Justice has asked Congress to pass legislation authorizing judges to suspend constitutional rights, including indefinite detention – a power we haven’t seen since the Civil War. Trump and his media echo chamber have racialized the pandemic as “Chinese virus,” reviving yellow peril memes and facilitating a spike in anti-Asian violence.
Whistleblowers at companies like Amazon, where dangerous conditions leave warehouse workers highly vulnerable, have been fired. So has the Inspector General. While the taxpayer-funded $2 trillion relief act provides temporary unemployment insurance and augmented paid sick leave to many, it does nothing to recognize gig economy workers as employees entitled to benefits or address food insecurity, and the legislation excludes those undocumented workers so vulnerable to economic and health crises. It does, however, include a $500m corporate bailout package, essentially a slush fund headed by Treasury Secretary and former Goldman Sachs executive, Steve Mnuchin. Forewarned elected and appointed officials dumped stock and reporting to uncover the prospectors is just getting started. In just three weeks, more than 16 million people filed unemployment claims. Without massive structural changes to the social contract, these trillions of recovery dollars will at best resuscitate our unjust and unsustainable economy and tattered democracy.
In the U.S., as elsewhere, the main drivers of disaster authoritarianism are unregulated capitalism; religious nationalism/theocracy; and racial & ethnic nationalism.
In the current struggle to resist disaster authoritarianism and build real, multiracial, feminist, and religiously pluralist democracy Political Research Associates continues to do what we do best:
Produce high-quality, meaningful analysis that separates signal from noise to expose anti-democratic strategies and trend lines;
Collaborate with organizers, advocates, journalists, and philanthropy to co-develop social justice strategies; and
Lead and partner on high-impact narrative and advocacy campaigns.
In response to the current and ongoing COVID-19 emergency, here are a few ways PRA is pivoting some of our existing work to address critical challenges and needs:
Cramped quarters and poor health conditions leave incarcerated populations especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and a third of the country’s incarcerated population reside in jails administered by 3,081 country sheriffs (who are 99% men and 95% white). PRA is a national research leader on “constitutional sheriffs” – law enforcement officials at the forefront of racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim profiling and incarceration. Along with ICE, these sheriffs are the Trump regime’s front line for anti-immigrant policing and deportation. PRA is providing targeted research and education for our national advisory group and advocacy partners leading the fight for decarceration and challenging the 550+ sheriffs at the vanguard of the far right in law enforcement.
Reproductive freedoms are under assault, with lawmakers this month in Texas, Ohio, Iowa, Alabama, Oklahoma, Indiana, North Carolina, Kansas, and Kentucky working to declare abortions “non-essential,” elective surgery. These blocks follow on the heels of the “heartbeat bans” passed in 2019 and earlier this year. Preparing for a potential post-Roe near future, PRA has launched an investigative project on the significant overlap between the abolitionist wing of the anti-abortion movement and the Patriot movement, a loose association of organized militia members and so-called sovereign citizens, who are united by their deep distrust of the federal government. They are attempting to establish Raleigh, North Carolina, as a “Sanctuary for the Unborn,” and PRA’s project will support NARAL of North Carolina and educate organizers around the country about this new threat.
The far right is both inciting its followers and engaging in a bigoted call-and-response with the Trump administration, and PRA researchers are monitoring how provocateurs like Anne Coulter are consolidating anti-Chinese slurs, broader anti-Asian resentment, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories into COVID-19 currency for right-wing media consumers while outlets like American Renaissance are waxing nostalgic for the Chinese Exclusion Act with unmasked white nationalism. Anticipating a further spike in antisemitism, as is common during economic recession, PRA is preparing a guide for economic justice campaigning in times of antisemitism and we have partnered with People’s Action, Bend the Arc, and Justice is Global on rapid-response communications.
Just as COVID facilitates private sector price gouging on vital health equipment by pandemic profiteers, it also provides opportunities for Christian Nationalism in the form of religious discrimination in emergency care. PRA is watch-dogging such creeping Christian Nationalism. The stridently anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim Samaritan’s Purse, run by evangelist Billy Graham’s son Franklin, is running a field hospital in New York’s Central Park. One in six hospital beds in the country is already within a Catholic facility—rising to more than 40 percent of beds in some states. When hospitals are religiously run, the hospital, individual medical provider, or even employers and managed care plans can legally deny healthcare based on professed religious or moral beliefs.
We feel deeply for those suffering and those most at risk, including the essential workers who are providing the basic needs and healthcare that allow the rest of us to remain at home. We thank you for caring for one another and wish you safety and good health.
Stay the course with PRA. In a time of information oversaturation, we have curated a list of resources from our researchers and partners to keep you engaged, informed and empowered while staying safe at home.
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