History doesn’t have to repeat itself. The worst-case doesn’t have to be the case. Trained though we have been by Hollywood disaster flicks and sensationalized media coverage, crises can be averted or well-managed; people do not necessarily turn on each other in times of need (in fact, often, our response is quite the opposite); and possibility is not destiny.
Here in New York, we seem to have averted the most dire outcome foretold. We will not need more than 100,000 hospital beds at once (although demand on our healthcare system has certainly outstripped pre-crisis supply in recent weeks), and the data on deaths and hospitalizations for the weekend provide the first concrete evidence that – in the City, and probably the State – (this wave of) COVID-19 has peaked. That’s wonderful news; true cause for hope, if not yet jubilation; and also provides impetus for sober reflection on what comes next: The long, hard road to recovery, which, of course, will be long, hard, and political.
Our Mayor and Governor continue to predictably bicker, but I’m happy to see governors from across our region coming together to coordinate regarding what comes next. Hopefully such regional coordination creates opportunities to properly tax the very rich in the Northeast as one potential antidote to austerity.
I’ve extensively critiqued Governor Cuomo elsewhere, so will only add here that behind the facade of the marshal pandemic response which he has generalled, powerful interests have clearly been jockeying and maneuvering for advantage. For example, a friend with close ties to a major Manhattan hospital network mentioned the other day that, within the institution, it was well understood that the leadership’s near-term goal was to shift care for all COVID-19 patients to the various auxiliary facilities that have come up in recent weeks so that the network itself can get back to properly making money as soon as possible (the Wall Street Journal reports that New York hospitals are losing hundreds of millions of dollars per month “Battling Coronavirus”), and similar logic may explain the numerous political roadblocks encountered by my partner and other birth workers who called for the creation of Alternative Birthing Sites / Auxiliary Maternity Units: No matter that there are widespread reports of birthing people being provided no PPE at NYC hospitals; of their COVID-19 test results not coming back until after they’ve delivered; of their being sent home with no follow-up (which is to say, if they’d contracted COVID-19 while in the hospital, we would never know it). The point is to make money, and birth is very profitable for hospitals – the more medicalized the birth, the better.
The Brookings Institute – to which I link with reluctance – has a report out quantifying the threat to municipal governments around the country from the CoronaShock. It seems quite likely that, in the footsteps of the individuals, families, and small businesses currently suffering the brunt of pandemic-related financial hardship, we will soon see city and state governments follow. And yet US financial markets have rebounded significantly and had a good week last week. Why? Probably because the investor class now has confidence that they’ll be drinking from a firehouse of Mnuchin-distributed money for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, the national death toll has continued to spike. More than 2,000 COVID-19 deaths were reported in the US on a single day for the first time on Saturday, and there is ample evidence (as spoken to eloquently in this episode of Radio Open Source by Dr. Camara Jones) of the racial inequalities disease mortality is laying bare; COVID-19 is now killing more people per day in this country than do, on average, either heart disease or cancer (the two leading causes of deaths of US Americans), with Black people, in particular, suffering a highly disproportionate toll. A growing number of reports suggest that under-testing and inadequate disease surveillance are driving a significant undercount of COVID-19 deaths in the US, and while there can be little clarity regarding the geopolitics of information warfare surrounding the pandemic – with the South China Morning Post (the independence of which from the Chinese Government has increasingly come under question in recent years as Beijing has continued its attempts to strangle Hong Kong) referencing FAIR – the stalwart US-based media watchdog group – in critiquing anti-Chinese “propaganda” in the US media, while the CEO of the Morning Post does a TED Talk in which he is politic in balancing critique and praise of China’s COVID-19 response, and the New York Times, once again, blames Putin; no headline perhaps sums things up more succinctly than this one, from FAIR: “US Media Downplay Overseas Coronavirus Lessons to Focus on Easter Bunny” – that circumstances globally are increasingly fraught is beyond question.
It now seems clear that Japan’s pandemic response strategy has failed (the title of this BMJ article tells the story: “COVID-19: Japan declares state of emergency as Tokyo cases soar”), and the European Union looks ever more at risk of fragmenting. About the situation in China, I’ve acknowledged my own ignorance. About the situation in India, hopeful signs – like the work of my friend Naman – and humorous – like this baby actually named Covid (!! – for my piece, A Baby Named Covid click here) whose twin was named Corona – must be balanced against the heartbreaking: The suffering of migrant workers during India’s botched and ill-conceived lockdown; the persecution of dissidents; the predictable, incoherent scapegoating of Muslims for the pandemic; the spread of the virus in Dharavi, an early instance of the immense suffering to come in crowded informal settlements the world over.
I have dinner to make, so – as I often do – I turn now to the words of others. Arundhati Roy – who’s written more recently on the crises and opportunities brought on by the pandemic – has a powerful piece in The Caravan entitled “The Graveyard Talks Back” in which she observes:
As India embraces majoritarian Hindu nationalism, which is a polite term for fascism, many liberals and even Communists continue to be squeamish about using that term. This notwithstanding the fact that RSS ideologues are openly worshipful of Hitler and Mussolini, and that Hitler has found his way onto the cover of an Indian school textbook about great world leaders, alongside Gandhi and Modi. The division in opinions on the use of the term comes down to whether you believe that fascism became fascism only after a continent was destroyed and millions of people were exterminated in gas chambers. Or whether you believe that fascism is an ideology that led to those high crimes—that can lead to those crimes—and that those who subscribe to it are fascists.
In the latest newsletter from Tricontinental, Vijay Prashad writes:
Before the CoronaShock, on average 137 women across the world were killed by a family member every day. This is a shocking number. As Rita Segato put it, not only have incidences of violence against women increased in frequency since the CoronaShock; they have also increased in their cruelty, as neo-fascist ideas of female subordination eclipse more enlightened ideas about women’s emancipation. In Argentina, the slogan el femicido no se toma cuarentena, or ‘femicide does not quarantine’, clearly points to the violence that has been inflamed by the global lockdown. In every single country, reports come in of increased violence against women. Support lines are overflowing, shelters cannot be reached.
It is one thing to bang pots and pans to celebrate these [healthcare] workers, and another to accept their long-standing push for unionisation, for higher wages and better working conditions, and for leadership in their sectors of work. Almost all administrators in the hospital field globally are men.
In a good piece in the Monthly Review – which last June ran an article entitled “Superbugs in the Anthropocene: A Profit-Driven Plague” which I highly recommend you read – called “Mystified Consciousness,” the author, Andy Merrifield, writes:
Like in the 1930s, whiffs of fascism are in the air. Demagogic chauvinism is thriving across the globe and tolerance has undergone core meltdown. Nationalism is alive and apparently well. Borders are getting staked out, walls erected, and mass media—especially social media—saturate us with misinformation morning, noon, night, and much of the time in between. Politicians now seem to have a free reign to engage in what Jonathan Swift long ago called “the art of political lying.” Telling the truth does not require great art, Swift warned, not like “salutary falsehoods,” which, he reckoned, need to be carefully crafted. The problem, the author of Gulliver’s Travels noted, is that a lie has to be believed only for an hour for its work to be done. Twitter helps. “Falsehood flies,” said Swift, whereas “truth comes limping after it.”
And further (of the French Marxist Henri Lefebvre):
He returned to France anxious about Hitler yet quietly optimistic that misery would prompt the German working class to do the right thing. International communists believed Hitler a passing phase, something destined to fizzle out, maybe as U.S. and British progressives think of Trump and Boris Johnson as passing phases, destined to fizzle out. Still, in 1932, Hitler received 30 percent of the vote, mostly from the petty bourgeoisie and rural sectors, but a lot of the more privileged workers voted for him as well. Rank-and-file Communists were urged at times by the Party leadership to put their opposition to Social Democrats even ahead of that to the National Socialists, weakening the left opposition to fascism. Social Democrat leaders, like Rudolf Hilferding, meanwhile, seriously underestimated the Nazi threat.2 Many proletarians displaced their angst rightward, acting counter to classical communist texts: once, they had nothing to lose but their chains; now, they had enchained themselves, seduced and manipulated by the National Socialists, betrayed by institutional leftism. “One needed to explain this fact theoretically,” Lefebvre said. Indeed, one does.
And – in this moment – hauntingly:
In our own times, this separation [between society and the self, between the collective and the individual, between public and private life] manifests itself as a glaring contradiction, as both a plague on the public realm and a denigrated notion of individuality—what Lefebvre terms “an individualism against the individual.”
But circling back, I’ll leave the last word to Roy (from her piece on the pandemic):
People will fall sick and die at home. We may never know their stories. They may not even become statistics. […]
But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.
Nothing. Or Almost.
Lockdown may make us crazy; even under this new abnormal, we may suffer from “normalcy bias“; but we must rember who drove us headlong into this disaster, and we cannot forget that, in 1932, the writing may have been on the wall, but no one truly knew that Nazis and Fascists would half rule the world for a time within a decade.
History need not repeat itself: Death to fascism, and here’s to the better world we’ll make.