Our Medievalism

Long-time friends of mine know that I very nearly went to medical school, and close friends may even remember that infectious disease was what interested me. Rare have been the occasions in the last decade that I’ve looked back with any regret on the decision not to follow a medical path, but certainly – in feeling hands-tied to do much about this current crisis – I’ve reflected back on the road not taken (though, of course, the subtlety of poems is often lost in their popularization).

It hurt my heart to read of the teenager in Los Angeles who died of COVID-19-related complications after being denied care because he lacked insurance. Turned away from a private clinic, he went into cardiac arrest en route to a nearby public hospital where he was resuscitated and kept alive for six hours. Now he is dead. I don’t know if it proves my point from yesterday or undermines it, but either way, his death is heartbreaking and unnecessary.

These are the sorts of forces we’re up against: The Koch (now singular) lobbying to defund the CDC but then calling for an early end to shelter-in-place measures; the CDC itself bungling and imploding when we need it most; our kleptocratic President and the disaster capitalists who surround him using the opportunity of the crisis to suspend a century’s-worth of hard-won environmental regulations and give trillions to major corporations (because there is roughly a 10x loan multiplier on the widely reported $500 billion figure) with “no strings attached”; ICE doing what ICE does, even as the pandemic’s impacts in this country intensify; and the administration of Riker’s Island leaving prisoners there to fend for themselves.

Meanwhile, in India, in multiple worrying signs, drones are being used to enforce the curfew; there, like here, prisoners are being forced to produce necessary pandemic-response supplies; in a brutal repetition of the post-Demonetization debacle, caught off-guard by the Prime Minister’s totally-unplanned total shutdown of the country, migrant workers are attempting to walk hundreds of kilometers back to their villages; and a man was “thrashed” to death by police in West Bengal after stepping out to buy milk.

This is the news from the world’s two largest democracies in their first few weeks of what will certainly be (at least; and actually, starting from December, already is) a months-long global crisis, and the worst of the pandemic’s effects have barely yet begun to be felt in either country. Still, there are reasons for hope. In this country, in the face of the massive upward transfer of wealth represented by the so-called “Relief” bill, inspiring alternatives abound, including: Five Principles of Just COVID-19 Relief and Stimulus, the People’s Bailout, and A Green Stimulus to Rebuild Our Economy. A candidate who’s been calling for Medicare for All (or its equivalent) for decades is still running for president (and has consistently been issuing the most thoughtful and coherent responses to the pandemic of any national political figure). And as mutual aid efforts proliferate across a stricken and half-paralyzed New York City, those prisoners on Riker’s are, after all, fending for themselves as best they can, and receiving support from the outside as they do.

Speaking about New York in particular, the crisis that we’re currently leading the country into has pointed to many hopeful ways forward. As I’ve previously mentioned, we’re in the midst of a biking boom. It’s rarely been easier to move freight around the City. And the move to close certain streets to further enable social distancing raises the obvious question: Why would we ever reopen them? And why don’t we close a lot more of them permanently to cars? And what could and would we do with all that space if we finally took it back? This is of what many of us have been dreaming for years, and – as with the sudden evanescence of the “How Will You Pay For It?” question that dogged Bernie Sanders (and Elizabeth Warren) through the primaries, with the almost-as-if-magical surfacing of ~$2.5 trillion dollars (and more like $6 or $7 trillion counting the aforementioned multiple) in a few-weeks time – this crisis has radically accelerated certain transformations and opened up previously-only-dreamt-of possibilities.

Obviously, we – those of us who want to see a sane, just, livable human future on Earth – are losing in many places on many fronts right now – not least, in Washington D.C. on almost everything – but the battle continues over what the lessons from and paths forward out of this mess will be, and I continue to be very focused on not letting this crisis go to waste. I don’t believe it’s necessary to sacrifice our civil liberties to fight a pandemic. I don’t believe that dense, vibrant cities are the problem. I don’t believe that more austerity is the solution.

As Heiner Flassbeck put it in Corona, Politics, and the European Challenge:

So it is exactly the opposite of what microeconomic thinking would suggest: If we break down corporate structures, put people in fear of their livelihoods or even make them actually suffer hardship by making transfers that are too meagre and hesitant from the outset to help maintain the monetary processes of our economy, we will lack both production capacity and demand for the time after the pandemic. If we now generously finance the shutdown, which will not take years but only months, we can then return to the real structures that existed before the crisis.

I don’t know about returning to exactly the same “real structures that existed before,” but the idea that we must use government to cushion the impact on millions and millions of people around the country and the world seems rather obvious to me, while the idea that part of how we could do so is by committing to a Green New Deal, a Green Stimulus, or something equivalent seems downright enlightened. The crisis of this pandemic and the global climate crisis are at once very different, very similar, and inextricably interlinked, and I think there’s a deep elegance in extracting ourselves from the one through beginning to finally address the other.

Coming back around to infectious disease though, the most recent episode of Doug Henwood’s podcast was especially excellent. The first interview, with economist James Meadway, shed light on “the consciousness” that’s been formed by 40+ years of neoliberalism (and relates to why a lot of people just don’t seem to care about our current crisis, or much of anything that has to do with public space and public goods), while the second, with science journalist David Quammen, was packed full of interesting insights about the history of zoonotic diseases. I found Quammen’s outlining of the history of AIDS especially illuminating, so fully did it fly in the face of the received version that I remembered from The Band Played on, among other popular sources. As the COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly spread around the globe, I’ve marveled at the work of scientists in sequencing the genome of the virus and tracking and charting its mutations, and it was with similar fascination that I learned that the roots of AIDS as a human disease reach back to the early part of the 20th century. (To be fair, I’d heard theories to this effect previously, but I’d not been aware that there was settled science on the matter – and a little searching online suggests that controversy remains regarding the exact date and circumstances of the disease’s crossing over to humans.)

I’d been musing if there had ever been anthroponotic diseases (I was sure there had been, and Wikipedia informs me now that there have been many); continuing to think over the almost certain acceleration of the shift of the global balance of power towards China, and East Asia, that this crisis will bring on (Fred Wilson can’t have had COVID-19 in mind, of course, when he made his predictions a few months ago); and hoping that municipal import substitution (a concept I first came across in the later writings of Jane Jacobs) will lead to a revival of New York’s manufacturing economy post-pandemic, though wondering at the same time what form that revival would take as we confront, simultaneously, climate crisis and the gentrification (embodied by Industry City, the Navy Yard, and the Brooklyn Army Terminal) that has so far accompanied next-generation manufacturing efforts in the five boroughs – all this yesterday afternoon in our kitchen with the window, again, open – when from outside I heard a neighborhood conspiracy theorist, known to me, explaining across a fence-line to someone, “You know there is a cure to the disease, right?” That 20,000 people in Rockland County had been secretly diagnosed COVID-positive, but that 150 of them were cured by… I didn’t catch the name of it.

Such is the state of our society, and I see vanishingly little difference between the quack nostrums and snake-oil remedies of old and whatever’s being peddled today by people like our President (perhaps the only meaningful difference is that, today, our superstition is scientistic), and at times lately, if not quite regretting, I’ve certainly at least been reflecting back on the fact that, today, I’m not an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist, and that I feel at a loss as to how I can do more to help turn the tide of all this collective suffering and top-down idiocy.

Be that as it may, I’ve nonetheless been striving to play my part. We are in a position to contribute financially in a modest way, and today donated to the relief fund for workers at a neighborhood family of restaurants; gave a direct gift to someone we knew could use it; and, of course, continued to enjoy the delicious food that our friends at Green Top Farms have been sending us in their #WFHPacks (one or more of which I encourage you to order for next week). Above all, I continue to support my partner’s efforts towards the creation of alternative birthing sites for people due to give birth in the coming weeks and months in NYC on which she, and her multiple collaborators, have made remarkable progress in recent days. Hopefully, I’ll have more on this soon, including ways that you can politically and financially support the undertaking, and in the meantime, again, please do reach out if this is an effort you’d like to get behind.

If this is a bit rambling, that’s the current state of my mind. It’s Saturday and I’ve now been inside for the better part of – I’m not sure. Is it 17 straight days? One quickly begins to lose count. So to everyone out there caught in a similarly-curious limbo – and especially to those facing much worse – I send love and strength for the week ahead and wishes of rest and restoration for what may or may not feel like a weekend.

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