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Mike Davis: Workers Face “Sophie’s Choice” Between Income & Health as 50 States Reopen Amid Pandemic

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All 50 states will be at least partially reopened this Memorial Day weekend, as the U.S. death toll from the COVID-19 outbreak tops 95,000 and some states prepare for a surge in cases. We’re joined by historian and writer Mike Davis, who says in Jacobin that “Reopening the Economy Will Send Us to Hell.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: All 50 states will at least be partially reopened this Memorial Day weekend, as the U.S. death toll from the COVID-19 outbreak will top 100,000 and some states prepare for a surge in cases.

We’re joined now by a guest who says, “Reopening the Economy Will Send Us to Hell.” Mike Davis is writer, historian, author of a number of books, including Planet of Slums, City of Quartz and The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. His new book is Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties. He’s joining us from San Diego.

Thanks so much for being with us and staying all night up to do this interview, Mike. Why don’t you start off with that very provocative headline of your piece, “Reopening the Economy Will Send Us [All] to Hell.” Why?

MIKE DAVIS: I didn’t choose the headline. But let me put it this way. I think a lot of listeners will remember the novel by William Styron called Sophie’s Choice. The movie version, Meryl Streep won the Academy Award for it. But in the story, a young mother, Sophie, arrives at Auschwitz with her two small children, and she begs the sadistic Nazi doctor to spare their lives. And he says, “Well, I’ll spare one life, but you have to choose; otherwise, I’ll kill them both.” Americans, tens of millions of Americans, have had to make that choice or will soon make a choice like that.

The Washington Post poll of several weeks ago, where they polled people who were essential workers and have worked through the duration of the pandemic, and a third of them report that either they have a dangerous preexisting condition, or someone in their household has. So, it is obscene and criminal that this choice, this impossible choice, between income for people who have to meet their mortgages, people who are desperate to put food on their table, and to choose to work and, on the other hand, bring disease home to the people you love, or to yourself. This is, of course, a totally artificial situation.

Trump, of course, refused to use the Defense Production Act to compel the manufacture of protective masks and other gear, which other countries did with great success. Taiwan, for instance, turned over to the military the production of the masks. And in three weeks, they had increased production tenfold. But here, of course, we had to leave it to a mad scramble to try and find private-sector suppliers. Every hospital, every state, every city is competing with each other. But now he’s used the Defense Production Act to force food processing workers back into plants, where they work in the cold, long hours, literally shoulder to shoulder, and where the infection rates are almost as high as nursing homes and prisons.

And why haven’t the Democrats, why haven’t we progressives, starting in March, have launched a national campaign about workplace safety and the rejection of this idea that ordinary people have to do a kind of self-triage, them and their families?

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, at the same time, you have massive corporations, like Amazon, billionaires in this country, who are making a massive killing now, a massive profit, increasing their wealth by some 15%, the latest report from Institute for Policy Studies, Mike.

MIKE DAVIS: Well, I mean, we thought we lived in one of the most unequal countries in history. But, of course, inequality will be far greater by the beginning of next year and next winter. Ordinary Americans went to bed one night, and they woke up, looked out the door, and it was 1933. And the policies that are being pursued right now, of forcing people back to work, of using the threat of removing unemployment insurance, or of even prosecuting people who don’t go back to work because it’s unsafe, for unemployment fraud — the fact that in Texas, Iowa, Ohio, in states that put on these sites where employers can anonymously report workers who haven’t appeared for work, so that they’ll know that their unemployment should be cut off. Public sector, local, state, county governments, who, like the rest of us, actually live in the moment, the —


MIKE DAVIS: — evidence — yes.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have a minute in this part of the interview, and then we’re continuing with Part 2. But you have said that global capitalism can no longer guarantee the survival of the human race. Elaborate on that in this last minute.

MIKE DAVIS: OK. In four ways, it’s become a threat to human survival. It can’t guarantee food security or increase the output of food by the 50% the United Nations says is necessary to feed humanity 20 years from now. It no longer creates jobs or guarantees people income or a meaningful social role. It cannot decarbonize the economy or, at the same time, allow the poor countries, which didn’t create the greenhouse gases, to make the great adaptations that are necessary for their survival. And finally, we’re the midst of a revolution in biological design: genomics. It cannot translate this biological revolution, the enormous potential that exists now, into public health, either in this country and, of course, even less around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us. Again, we’re going to post immediately today Part 2 of our interview with author and historian Mike Davis. His new book, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties. We will continue with Part 2 of our conversation, talking about socially distanced protests around the country.

A very special Happy Birthday to Mike DiFilippo! That does it for our show. And a deep appreciation for all the team that works around the country, working on this show. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us. Stay safe.

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