The Pandemic Machine

It would be hard to imagine a better system for spreading an infectious disease around the world than our current global neoliberal capitalist world order, other than – on a more modest scale – perhaps that into which the President and his Administration recently transformed all of our major airports. Imagine it: From all over a world stricken by pandemic, travelers arrive in a confined space where they are held in close quarters for long periods of time before being spun back out to many destinations all across the country. Is it any wonder, then, that “the US is on track to suffer the largest, most explosive #COVID19 epidemic in the world“?

And yet, somehow, according to a recent poll: “A majority of Americans now approve of [the President’s] handling of the coronavirus pandemic”; one can be sympathetic to people’s hardships and still feel that there must eventually come an end to the stupidity. So adept a manipulator is our President though, so utterly without conscience or scruple the Republicans, so totally inept the Democratic leadership, so pliant the corporate media, and it must be said, so god-damned gullible some large percentage of the population, that, for now, that end has not come just yet. Sadly, I suspect it will arrive within a few weeks when the tidal wave of suffering current breaking over New York City crashes down on the rest of the country like the Biblical plague Mike Pence may believe it is, and it – we can hope – becomes impossible for the President to continue to evade responsibility and pass the buck. When every last one of our states (and even the forgotten Districts and Territories) is being ravaged, will he still try to blame the various governors and mayors of the stricken places? Though, of course, by then, he may very well have died himself of COVID-19, given how cavalier he’s been about the risks posed by the disease.

As Laurie Garrett writes on Twitter: “The surge has begun, and NYC is Ground Zero.” Meanwhile, the Post reports: “Coronavirus [is] killing more than a person an hour in NYC”; we knew this was coming, or should have, (I myself wrote on Thursday, March 12th: “Next week will be one of the worst weeks of the century, thus far, in New York City. It is almost a mathematical certainty.”), and yet, how can we not be startled by the swiftness, the ferocity of it.

We just keep repeating: It happened so fast.

From India, my partner and I hear reports from relatives and friends of a vast undercount; a megalomaniacal Prime Minister eager to spin the facts; denialism, conspiracy theories, and quack prognostications circulating widely on WhatsApp. Across the US, the case seems little better as states and municipalities – with a few bright exceptions – mostly wait until it is too late to take any action at all, and then only take too little. We should’ve listened to the reports from Italy, but we didn’t, and now we will pay a very heavy price.

Demonstrably, the Mayor and the Governor are not doing a good job; if they were, we wouldn’t be inexorably descending into this nightmare, and no number of bold statements or stoic press conferences changes that fact, nor does the aforementioned gullibility of some people in the face of a political haircut on the television screen.

If I seem enraged, it’s because I am. It’s because I’m confident that I would’ve done a better job than any of the elected executives in question, but wasn’t in a position to. As I’m finding it hard not to simply give in to my anger and sorrow at this point, a selection of quotes follows that I hope will make my point for me.

From the epidemiologist Larry Brilliant – note that while “legendary” Sand Hill Road (venture capital) firm Sequoia sent a (now-public) note to their portfolio founders and CEOs entitled “Coronavirus: The Black Swan of 2020,” Brilliant declares:

The whole epidemiological community has been warning everybody for the past 10 or 15 years that it wasn’t a question of whether we were going to have a pandemic like this. It was simply when. It’s really hard to get people to listen… 

Yes, this [advice regarding social distancing, self-isolating, and other best practices] is very good advice. But did we get good advice from the president of the United States for the first 12 weeks? No. All we got were lies. Saying it’s fake, by saying this is a Democratic hoax. There are still people today who believe that, to their detriment. Speaking as a public health person, this is the most irresponsible act of an elected official that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime.

And from “Sean Petty, a pediatric emergency room nurse at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx and the southern regional director for the New York State Nurses Association” from an interview with New York’s own Indypendent (the excellent COVID-19 coverage of which, I strongly recommend):

The situation is dire. We are already days and weeks behind the measures Italy has implemented in terms of preventing spread [Italy’s handling of the pandemic has led to some of the most disastrous outcomes seen to date around the world] and they have a better-prepared healthcare system that is massively overwhelmed… 

First and foremost, the federal government has known about the inevitability of this crisis hitting the United States for at least a month. Immediately, they could have developed the capacity for widespread rapid testing, ramped up domestic N95 mask production, increased bed capacity, and possibly even produced more ventilators. We could have made plans to shift healthcare workers where they might be needed most. They could have instructed local governments with clear protocols for closing schools and other public institutions and restricting gatherings. None of this happened in time…

The second biggest danger for healthcare workers is how they are treated when they do get exposed. And here, it’s not just Trump that is failing us. The lack of rapid testing means that nurses should be taken out of commission when they are exposed until they test negative or for 14-days. But Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo have not ensured that this is happening across the board…

In the public system where I work, nurses with known exposures to COVID-19 patients are being asked to come back to work unless they have a fever. This, of course, significantly increases the chances that they are asymptomatically and unknowingly spreading this virus among their coworkers and patients. Until Monday of this week, they also weren’t being tested. And even now — the test takes two to three days to come back, remember — people are still working with known exposure.

And Petty is right about many things, including what the Federal Government knew and when; according to the Washington Post, “U.S. intelligence reports from January and February warned about a likely pandemic” – that, around the same time that the CDC was disseminating a COVID-19 test kit that Business Insider reports “could not differentiate between the novel coronavirus and lab-grade water”.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

Is there any other response? Of course there is, as I’ve written before, in trying to: 1) reduce the harm; 2) care for those urgently in need – medically or otherwise – as this crisis deepens; and 3) strategize, plan, and work towards the better world and different future that it is going to take us decades to build after we come through this. We haven’t hit rock bottom yet, but we are well on our way, and only some sense of the world we want to make – the world it has to be our lives’ works to create, a world which we may, like many freedom fighters before us, have to be willing to die to win – is going to carry us through this. Immense suffering, social fragmentation, and threats to our civil liberties are all likely on the way; how we navigate and towards which North Star will determine the shape of our future.

4 thoughts on “The Pandemic Machine

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