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In recent weeks a series of protests have spread across Canada in defiance of lockdowns, masks, and other preventative measures in place to stop the spread of COVID-19. These demonstrations have provided an outlet for various fascists and conspiracists who have used the opportunity to claim that they are the defenders of freedom—at the same time preaching anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, and all kinds of bigoted garbage to their newly acquired audiences. While the numbers at these rallies are relatively small (in Toronto, the hundreds gathered for an anti-mask rally on May 15 were dwarfed by the thousands who came out on the same day to show their support for Palestine) it is nonetheless a movement that demands some attention.

It is easy to dismiss the protestors as “covidiots” without taking the time to understand how anti-mask and anti-lockdown sentiment has taken hold. But to do so would leave the majority of protesters in the hands of the far right. The labour movement cannot afford to let this happen. Governments have offered nothing but half-measures and flip-flopping, cracking down on individuals while doing little to nothing about the main vectors of spread. It is no wonder that frustration, confusion, and mistrust of government are the results. Instead of simply writing off anti-maskers, the left must offer an alternative explanation of what has gone wrong and an alternate form of resistance, one based on a socialist platform of nationalizations, paid sick days and workers’ control. Instead of merely deriding anti-lockdown protests, the left must understand their root cause: that they have grown out of the inability of capitalism to deal with the present health crisis.

An opportunity for the right

In the last month there have been anti-mask demonstrations in Barrie, St. Catharines, Kelowna, Saskatoon, and other cities across the country—not to mention a two-day anti-lockdown rodeo held in Alberta and a march attended by 25,000 people in Montreal. By and large these demonstrations have occurred without any pretense to social distancing or use of masks, garnering the criticism of health officials who rightly see them as hotbeds for the virus.

Speakers at these events—including Maxime Bernier, founder of the right-wing People’s Party of Canada—have called for Canadians to rebel against COVID-19 restrictions however they can. Bernier himself has flouted health recommendations by crossing provincial borders, going as far as Saskatchewan, to speak at these events—seeing, perhaps, an opportunity to sweep into his constituency conservative voters who feel betrayed by their governments.

But Bernier is not the only figure on the right who has recognized an opportunity. Paul Fromm, a well-known neo-Nazi in Canada, has been a fixture at protests in British Columbia and Ontario. Chris Saccoccia, a social media influencer who is known for posting antisemitic and racist material—he has even used his social media presence to praise Adolf Hitler and to deny the Holocaust—has gained a following by travelling across the country telling people to break health measures. And in Alberta, Kevin Johnston, who achieved notoriety by losing a $2.5-million case for defamation and for promoting the hatred of Muslims, has renewed his influence by denying the existence of the pandemic. Now he is running for the mayor’s office in Calgary.

The prominence of the far right at these rallies, as well as the presence of conspiracy theorists such as QAnon, demonstrate a certain rejection of the status quo. Many politicians and those in the media blame internet echo chambers and the “rabbit hole” of social media algorithms for the rise of these rallies. However, this alone does not account for the number of people the rallies can mobilize. Most of the people attending them are not fascists and they are not conspiracists; they are simply angry.

To understand why, we can’t look to Paul Fromm or Kevin Johnston for answers; instead we need to look to Doug Ford, François Legault, Jason Kenney and the interests they represent: the interests of capital.

Hypocrisy and half-measures

Back in February, while cases were still relatively low in Ontario, public health officials nevertheless insisted that a prolonged province-wide lockdown was necessary to prevent infections from spiraling out of control. Failure to do so, they warned, would mean a third wave and a third lockdown. And what was Ford’s response? To ease restrictions, putting into motion a preventable disaster that cost the lives of hundreds of Ontarians. By mid-April, when the province was setting new records for its highest daily cases, Ford fulfilled public health’s prophecy by closing schools and announcing a new “stay-at-home” order; i.e. a third lockdown for a third wave.

Similarly, in Quebec the National Institute of Public Health (INSPQ) warned Legault’s government against opening the economy in March, predicting that it would similarly lead to a third wave. When Legault, like his counterpart in Ontario, tested the prediction, the INSPQ were proven correct. However, Legault’s reaction to this was not to reclose the economy and close workplaces, the source of the majority of the spread in Quebec, but rather to clamp down with a curfew. While in Montreal public transit was packed every day with working people, and businesses of all sorts were given free rein to put their employees at risk, a person could be given a fine of more than $1,000 for sitting alone in an empty park at 8:01pm.

Like Legault, Ford also left a majority of the economy untouched, including an Amazon warehouse in Brampton which was linked to the infection of 600 employees. Clearly, for warehouses, offices, construction sites, etc. it was business as usual.

For his part, Jason Kenney has also waffled on COVID-19 restrictions—prematurely reopening Alberta’s economy in March, only to be forced to re-close schools and patios a couple of weeks later when cases skyrocketed.

As Ford, Legault, and Kenney continue to insist on individual accountability, their dear friends in big business are given free reign to spread the virus and maintain profits. Is it any surprise that workers, youth and struggling small proprietors, on whose shoulders the supposed blame for the pandemic is being placed, are repulsed by the hypocrisy? Apparently the only acceptable “covidiots” are the ones protecting big business!

However, the phenomenon of anti-mask rallies, and the prominence of the far-right within them, should not be taken as a sign of the “rise of the right” or as a general shift in public opinion in that direction. Rather, it is part of a polarization towards both the left and the right, accompanied by a collapse of “the middle”, as the patience of regular people towards the present system is exhausted and they turn to anti-establishment voices for an explanation. Herein lies the problem: as people are repelled by the hypocrisy and half-measures of the current governments, where is the left?

Where is the left?

Throughout all of this the organizations of the working class have been quiet. The NDP mobilized no resistance to Ford’s reckless reopening of the economy and has limited their activity to legislative work, proposing motions like the “Stay At Home If You Are Sick Act”, simply to be voted down at Queen’s Park. Québec solidaire has not even offered clear opposition to the curfew implemented by Legault and the CAQ, instead hoping for a “democratic debate” which they would go into without any clear position. In Parliament there is no genuine resistance to speak of.

The labour unions and their leaders have simply fallen in step behind their governments. As governments fumbled and infection rates rose, labour leaders offered no plan to defend the lives of the working class. The Quebec unions have remained silent on the issue of the curfew after supporting its implementation in January. In Ontario, some labour leaders have even gone so far as to propose collaboration with these governments. Smokey Thomas, the president of the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union (OPSEU), which represents 180,000 workers, released a statement of support for the Ford government, criticizing “armchair quarterbacking”. All this does is provide a left cover for governments to continue to put the profits of large corporations before the health of working people. As of now there are no major workers’ organizations proposing a militant resistance to these capitalist governments. Ultimately the ones who pay for their complacency are the workers, and some pay with their lives.

As regular people are politically polarized, the ones who are currently shouting the loudest are the far right, crying “freedom” with one breath and “ethnostate” with the next, while the left is too afraid of its own shadow to take genuine action. We cannot afford to be complacent. Now is the time to be bold.

For a genuine socialist program

Over the course of the pandemic, big business has lived lavishly. The Canadian billionaires have gotten $40-billion richer and the amount of money sitting idle in corporate bank accounts grew to $1.5-trillion. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, has raked in $74 billion—all the while cracking down on unionizing workers and making the company’s warehouses a breeding ground for infection. Clearly it is not in the interests of profit to guarantee the safety of the greater part of society.

The half-baked strategy of “policing the pandemic” must be brought to an end. Individual accountability can no longer be used as a mask to disguise the systemic causes behind the spread of COVID-19.

Non-essential businesses must be closed until vaccines can be distributed and the pandemic dealt with, but this should not entail mass layoffs of workers like we saw during the first wave last March. Working people should be sent home with no loss of pay, their wages to be paid for from the profits already reaped by the pandemic profiteers.

Essential businesses, such as delivery services like Amazon, should be nationalized and placed under the control of their workers. Decisions regarding safety, as well as the general working conditions, should be made by the people actually doing the work and not by management safely hidden away in their offices.

Most importantly, workers must have the right to refuse unsafe work without the threat of penalization. These work refusals must be supported by the labour organizations and taken up in a unified charge against the recklessness of current governments and the corporations they have helped to enrich.

While people all over the world are suffering so that business can thrive, the far right cannot be left to carry away those people whose patience has run out with the status quo. What is needed from the labour movement in this period of polarization is a genuine left alternative with a socialist program and a solid foundation of ideas.

Friedrich Engels once said: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition into socialism or regression into barbarism.” With the polarization we see before us today, both roads lie open. It is up to us which one we take.