Commentary: COVID-19 'Shock Doctrine' has begun

Basav Sen, Tribune News Service on

Published in Op Eds

In some places, the need for a collective response to the coronavirus crisis is bringing out the best of humanity, as people and mutual aid groups work to help and protect others.

Unfortunately, some people are already using this crisis to push through devastating changes that will enrich polluters and harm public health.

Take the $2 trillion relief package Congress passed to provide emergency aid to people and businesses facing an economic downturn from the crisis.

There are commendable elements of the bill, such as its expansion of unemployment benefits and its direct cash payments. But while ordinary families get just $1,200 per adult and $500 per child -- a one-time payment not enough to cover rent in many places -- big businesses are slated to get $454 billion in designated relief.

These corporations are eligible for federal loans and loan guarantees, if Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin determines they qualify. Will businesses with political ties to the administration make out like bandits? Do we even need to ask?

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump's Environmental Protection Agency has unilaterally suspended enforcement of critical environmental regulations after a request from the American Petroleum Institute, along with finalizing a cutback on auto fuel efficiency standards.

The EPA is also trying to fast-track a controversial regulatory change that would make it easier to ignore public health considerations when making rule changes. In a pandemic and a recession, these changes will certainly make people sicker.

Similar opportunism is on display at the Interior Department, which is going full steam ahead with handing out more leases for fossil fuel extraction on federal lands, while weakening environmental regulations and sneaking in loopholes that let companies make lower royalty payments.

Several states, meanwhile, are passing bills that would criminalize oil pipeline protests.

The common thread here is what author Naomi Klein terms the "Shock Doctrine" -- the strategic use of a crisis to seize the levers of power.


As the nation copes with job loss, a huge and growing public health threat, and the stress that these bring, it becomes easier to ram through changes that might otherwise have been blocked.

But, amid the coronavirus crisis, there are still powerful signs of protest.

Workers from companies like Amazon and Instacart have walked off the job, demanding better pay and protection. General Electric workers in Massachusetts went on strike, demanding the company retool its factories to make ventilators instead of laying off workers. There are calls for rent strikes by struggling tenants and for moratoriums on student debt collection.

Across the country, more than 800 organizations from all walks of life are calling for a "People's Bailout" that puts the needs of workers, communities, and the environment over corporate interests.

Armed with an understanding of how the Shock Doctrine works, a bold vision of what's possible, and resolute action, movements like these might not just reverse the corporate power grab, but also use the crisis to build a more equitable, sustainable economy for the future.

About The Writer

Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is operated by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



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