Coronavirus: This Quarantine Is Class War

A Beginner’s Guide to Class Struggle in the COVID-19 Pandemic

  • Graphic Francis Williams

A pandemic is sweeping the globe, and we have the other side of the world as a crystal ball through which we can predict the next few weeks if we do not act decisively to curb the spread.

Every company that has ever laid its claws on my email address has messaged to announce what they’re doing to manage their operations during the pandemic.

Since the government advised against all non-essential travel and told people to stay home, many lenders have offered grace periods on loans and mortgages, including the big six banks deferring mortgage payments by up to six months.

It is unclear as to whether additional interest would be charged for use of the deferral option, as it would probably be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

However, many landlords continue to extract rent from their tenants.

When the Régie du logement agreed to suspend eviction hearings on March 15, the Corporation des propriétaires immobiliers du Québec disagreed with the suspension of evictions. It is advocating for a compensation plan for lost profits.

It is important to keep in mind that decisions made before the moratorium on evictions are still in effect, and before the Régie made its statement, CORPIQ was already encouraging evictions for cases of non-payment, virus or no virus.

“While coronavirus is an extraordinary situation, rent remains payable and all payment defaults permit the landlord to exercise their rights at the Quebec Rental Board,” reads a March 13 statement by the landlord corporation.

Some activists are encouraging people who can pay rent to avoid doing so in protest and solidarity. Demands include moratoriums on rent payments and evictions already ordered.

Mortgages vs. renting and class

The disparity between the treatment of renters and homeowners lies fully in a class issue: People buying homes and paying mortgages usually have better jobs that offer more benefits, stability, and maybe even the possibility of self-quarantine.

The above, coupled with a six-month mortgage deferral, seems reasonable to help people weather the storm ahead.

It might also be possible for landlords to find other streams of revenue and request deferrals from creditors.

Renters have no such luck.

What is also worth noting is the class difference between landlords and renters. One group owns property and capital, while the other doesn’t.

One makes a living on the other’s need for somewhere to live, and one makes a living trying to afford a place to live.

Renters often rent because they can’t afford to buy, either because of gentrification, unstable employment, low credit, or simply no means to afford property taxes and a down payment.

It would seem to me like this pandemic is revealing a deep divide between those who can own and those who must rent, and how precarity affects one group so much more than the other.

How can one afford to practise healthy behaviour in a pandemic if they have no home?

“Good jobs” vs. layoffs in service sector

The gaps also become more apparent between job types. Health sector aside, we see a difference in who gets benefits from their employer and who is simply laid off.

A software engineer is more likely to be able to work from home than a barista, a customer service representative, or a bank teller.

Lawyers are providing legal advice online, psychologists can move their sessions to Zoom, and some HR recruiters are working from home as well.

People whose jobs cannot be done from home or whose employers are unwilling to invest in this possibility find themselves feeling less important, like their health and lives are worth less.

Grocery workers and the lady who serves my morning cappuccino at the McCafé on my way to work are on the front lines.

These workers are risking their health and that of their families by being in contact with colleagues and clients who may or may not be practicing good hygiene or who could be carrying the virus, and for what?

We have an entire class of people working precarious, service-sector jobs that are being paid and treated like an expendable workforce.

It leads me to wonder whether we ever left the world of lords and serfs.

“I make coffee and serve food and stuff. […] Yet, in a time of pandemic and isolation I am still required to go into work, to earn a paycheck and pay my bills. Customers still come in and put me and my team at risk, over coffee.” – Twitter User @GrimDarkflame

Some employers aren’t taking it seriously

Coffee shops being open, even as takeout only, is a huge shock to me. Touching PIN pads, handling change, possibly getting items breathed on or coughed on, holding receipts—this is hardly an essential service for the level of risk.

Employers are putting profits over people at a time when we need social cohesion the most.

Stocks have been impacted, profits will be lost; it’s better to bite the bullet than to be responsible for infections or even the deaths of workers.

People buying these services need to stop. By even giving these corporations the slightest profit, you are justifying their operation during this time.

Of course, the responsibility should be on them to protect their workers with more than some feel-good and good-vibes-only measures, but the consumer also needs to make an effort to avoid non-essential human contact.

That includes passing around coffee cups and receipts and giving employers a reason to deploy workers into harm’s way.

Even takeout only options can be risky, as we have seen with a few McDonald’s locations closing.

It’s something to think about if you’re just buying a coffee.

Quarantine is the solution

Letting some people quarantine and not others, or only allowing the symptomatic to isolate themselves, is deciding who is and isn’t expendable.

Quarantine is known to be the easiest solution to ride out this wave of a pandemic, and we have the figures from other countries as a testimony to the efficacy of various levels of social distancing.

An article by the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes the use of quarantine in numerous historical pandemics and attests to its efficacy, despite concerns that it may limit the mobility and freedom of healthy people and make others feel stigmatized. (Link: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/19/2/12-0312_article)

That means the best thing to do is limit leaving the house, be it for work or any non-essential shopping.

Whether or not your employer puts measures in place, you can’t know if your colleagues wash their hands or are isolating themselves in their downtime.

Having to trust others to survive is not easy when people are often selfish, even willing to lie about possible exposure to get elective surgeries, as one Quebec patient did.

The rich have historically been selfish in plague situations—running away and expecting the peasants and servant class to stay behind and suffer or die to guard their homes and wealth

The CEOs of corporations still sending frontline employees to work are probably not facing the same amount of risk as their workers.

They might just be living it up in a mansion somewhere, able to afford testing, treatments, and extra precautions.

People not taking quarantine seriously puts healthcare workers at risk as well. The more risks we take that could spread the infection, the more people end up in healthcare centres, which increases the risk to healthcare workers.

This could also cause an overload to public finances and resources. Private corporations need to be held accountable for this, as the result does create a burden on the public system, which will likely also be expected to bail out corporations and send relief packages to sectors of a struggling economy.

Society’s most vulnerable facing greatest risk

People that have homes have a better chance of not catching the virus if proper protocol is followed.

People who live in crowded rental properties, social housing, shelters, or on the street might not have the same opportunities to stay safe.

Social distancing is a luxury that people in suburban homes can afford more easily, with extra space and better mobility, maybe even a backyard.

Domestic violence survivors already can’t escape easily, let alone in a pandemic.

It is expected that domestic violence rates will rise during the pandemic due to isolation and quarantine offering opportunities for abuse to occur undisturbed and undetected.

Some organizations are already reporting a rise in calls regarding domestic violence, and the saturation of shelters in Montreal even before the pandemic raises harrowing questions about women that are already vulnerable.

Prisons could become hotspots for virus transmission, prompting them to stop allowing visits. This could have ramifications on the mental health of inmates, many of whom might be incarcerated for nonviolent offences.

While news was released about governments injecting relief funds into the economy following market plunges, some American senators and politicians sold off stock with advance knowledge of a market downturn.

Conversely, workers have pensions completely wrapped up in the markets and are seeing their future livelihood endangered—some may even have to consider delaying their retirement.

These workers had no way to know how badly the market would get hit, and they have far more to lose in the market plunge than the rich, who might receive some benefit from the bailouts.

Guilt

People are being told to stay home, and this might create a sense of guilt or shame for those that have to go to work at non-essential service jobs.

Many workers I have spoken to have expressed anger at being risked, though no one was willing to speak on the record for fear of repercussions.

“It upsets me to feel like some people have these ‘important jobs’ where they can work from home and keep themselves and their families safe,” one anonymous service worker confided.

“But when it comes to me, my family and my health don’t matter as much—because I’m just a customer service worker. Some of my clients are calling from the safety of their home to make non-urgent inquiries about their telecom services, and I feel frustrated to have had to trek to the office just for that when I probably could be working from home.”

One Twitter user wrote, “I make coffee and serve food and stuff. […] Yet, in a time of pandemic and isolation I am still required to go into work, to earn a paycheck and pay my bills. Customers still come in and put me and my team at risk, over coffee.”

Accountability going forward

This is a unique event in our history. The way the CEOs and business owners are reacting to this should be remembered.

They should be held accountable for the outcome.

Making employees trek to a non-essential job on public transit or face not being paid is an occupational hazard in these times.

Only offering the bare minimum in consultation with analysts is not a human approach but one that exists to protect capital and the upper classes.

Workers risking their lives to go serve people that are allowed to stay home is the very essence of class inequality.

The lives of some are being risked for the luxury of others.

This is of course nothing new if we think about how the products we use every day are made, among other things.

This remains a perfect time to re-evaluate the system we live under and hold these systems accountable for the harms they cause.

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