The decision by the AFL-CIO to cancel the planned candidates’ forum in Florida this week is bad news for Bernie Sanders.
This would have been the perfect opportunity for Sanders to challenge his sole remaining rival for the Democratic nomination, former Vice President Joe Biden, on the issues which divide them. On all those issues – social security, Medicare for all, trade deals like NAFTA and TPP – Sanders’ views are much closer to those of the unions. Biden’s neo-liberal agenda would have been exposed.
This is now something we are going to have to get used to as more and more events are cancelled in the wake of growing fears about a global pandemic caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus.
With events like the Summer Olympics in Tokyo facing possible cancellation, it seems increasingly possible that the Democratic National Convention, scheduled to open in July in Milwaukee, may itself be cancelled – with some kind of alternative arrangement made.
These changes do not bode well for the Sanders campaign which has relied heavily on mass events, some of which may cancelled under new ‘social distancing’ rules that are likely to be brought into effect.
And furthermore, both Sanders and Biden fall into the category of vulnerable individuals, because of their age, meaning that they are taking a particular risk in meeting voters in large numbers, face to face.
By forcing campaigns to move more and more of their efforts online, the Sanders campaign might also be disadvantaged as mainstream media, even liberal media like MSNBC, remain largely hostile to him. And it’s not only a question of his campaign being outspent online, as Biden and Trump buy up millions of dollars of Facebook advertising. As Mike Bloomberg showed in his brief campaign, online influencers on popular platforms like Instagram are up for hire.
But it’s not all bad news for the left.
The pandemic is making it clear to many that a society’s ability to stop the spread of a pandemic is only as strong as the weakest link. As Rupert Beale wrote this week in the London Review of Books, “The US response [to the pandemic] will be complicated by its lack of socialised healthcare. … People often don’t go to the doctor in the US because they are understandably fearful of the huge costs they may incur.” Not only can’t many Americans afford a visit to their doctors – many can’t afford to take a day off from work, especially if they are displaying no symptoms.
COVID-19 is making the case for Medicare for All better than a hundred speeches by Bernie Sanders.
More generally, the pandemic is exposing the Trump administration as being completely incompetent, as well as corrupt. The US, which Trumps likes to tout as the ‘richest country in the world’ does not have nearly enough testing kits. The aid package Congress just passed, which gives out money to the individual states to cope with the virus, is pathetically small – a drop in the bucket, as several state Governors have already complained.
This pandemic is turning into the worst global health crisis we have seen since the ‘Spanish flu’ which followed the First World War. That time, about one in four people on the planet became infected, and the death toll was in the tens of millions – more than died in the war itself.
It’s not just the Trump administration that is being exposed. This pandemic is focussing attention on systemic problems caused by capitalism itself.
COVID-19 is exposing more clearly than anything else how ill-prepared modern capitalist societies, with their privatised health care and pharmaceutical industries, are for crises on this scale.
The Sanders campaign, and every movement working for social change, will need to adapt to the new reality – and also to exploit new opportunities that arise.
This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.