But Who Will Feed the Rats?

A good friend of mine whose parents came to this country from Vietnam during the genocidal US war on that country has been waiting months for his partner to receive a spousal visa so she can join him in Texas. COVID-19 has complicated their plans to be reunited, but he maintains a sense of humor and patience in the face of this hardship, writing, “It’s alright. […] [S]he’s safer there than in the US,” and, expanding on this thought, “[I]n Vietnam no one really messes with the police or wants to die. Here though, people are more selfish and put freedom above safety.”

Critics might claim that his comments subtly vindicate authoritarianism, but I’d say his key point is actually about solidarity, and the divergence between the Vietnamese response to the pandemic and our own in the US could not be more stark. In Vietnam, the disease has thus far been contained, and mortality has been extremely limited. In this country, its spread continues to be explosive, and the death toll is astronomical and rapidly rising.

What more is there to say?

We know what we need to do, and we’re not doing it – or, to be more precise, our kleptocratic, cronyist government is not. Instead, the President and his administration have been pressuring conscientious government employees to “spend millions of taxpayer dollars purchasing a drug that […] hadn’t undergone basic safety testing in humans [when] similar drugs in the same class had caused serious reproductive problems in animals, with animals exposed in the womb born without teeth and with partially formed skulls,” and shielding political allies from justified prosecution.

What more can we do?

The President knows his policies are driving dramatic spikes in COVID-19 cases across much of the country (in fact, he’s bringing the disease to his base), and is, simply, unsurprisingly, lying about this truth.

In NYC, we’ve had empirical evidence since early April that City and State figures on COVID-19 mortality drastically understate the death toll, and yet major media outlets continue to dutifully quote the official numbers (or else roll out “breaking news” that the death toll is higher than officially reported). For example, here’s the New York Post declaring yesterday morning that “Over 20,000 people have died from coronavirus in NYC,” when basic arithmetic suggested the death toll had already crossed 20,000 in the City in April (as this post of mine from April 24th makes clear).

Meanwhile, on a political vendetta against his own world-class Health Department, Mayor de Blasio threatens to bungle yet another key piece – this time, contact tracing – of our pandemic response. As my partner and I can attest personally, the City’s Department of Small Business Services is not doing a very good job of serving small businesses [paywalled]. And the (undocumented) New Yorkers hardest hit by the pandemic continue to be largely left, by governments, to fend for themselves, as this powerful piece by Adriana Gallardo and Ariel Goodman makes clear. (For a moving three-part interview with Gallardo, who just won a Pulitzer, check out yesterday’s Democracy Now!)

Last night, my partner asked, regarding the negligence of the Federal COVID-19 response, “But why are they doing it?”

At first, I failed to follow her meaning, and half thought she was hinting at some deeper conspiracy afoot (eg, the conceivable explanations: That, Reichstag Fire-like, the pandemic – the President hopes – might be used to justify cancellation of the November election; or that class warfare-wise, the people who control the economy are happy to drive the majority of the population into deeper desperation; or that eschatologically-speaking, Pence, Pompeo, and others withhin the Administration are ready for the end of days and see the pandemic as a promising harbinger), but upon clarification, I got it.

It reminded me of a funny interaction we had shortly after meeting, in fact. We were at Corner Bistro with friends, and she asked, seemingly in earnest, “What is Google+?”

And I was like, “I mean, you know, right? Google’s attempt at a social network.”

And she was like, “But what is Google+?”

Clearly, given the failure of Google+, she had a point, and was asking a question that the people at Google probably should’ve asked themselves. As in 2012, so yesterday, her attempt to discern a deeper meaning – in this instance, the motivations moving beneath the surface of public declarations and round-the-clock media coverage – set my mind moving. We know that the reopenings of state economies are, at root, misguided and cruel attempts to salvage already ravaged state budgets. Why, then, are the people in power in DC driving us inevitably into ever deeper national trauma and catastrophe?

Try though I have to discern a deeper pattern at work, I continue to circle back to the explanation I’ve given from the start. Here’s the post, from February 27th, in which I first mention COVID-19:

It seems we’re now living in a pandemic.

As COVID-19 spreads, I have an eerie feeling of watching, in fast forward, the global response to the climate crisis to date. The denials and macho posturing, followed by the panicky responses, are coming from much the same quarters, and I have to confess that – as with anthropogenic climate change – I was slower than I’d like to admit in acknowledging the level of threat posed by this disease. Just as Irene lulled us into a false sense of security about Sandy here in New York, the lessons of SARS and MERS-CoV led me to believe that COVID-19 would be, in the end, contained. Increasingly, it seems like that will not be the case, and as hysteria and profiteerism move to center stage, we witness a disconcerting spectacle that calls into question our social, institutional, and political capacities to deal with the global crises engendered by neoliberal corporate globalization: Suddenly, air travel is our enemy (as if it wasn’t already, from a climate perspective) and just-in-time supply chains look like so many weakest links strung together around the globe…

My focus here will not be a hot take on the novel coronavirus, however; credit to Bill Bishop’s Sinocism, I’d heard before the news broke globally that the virus was spreading in Wuhan (a city that I visited and loved as a collegiate teenager who’d barely had the opportunity before that to leave the United States), and courtesy of the excellent coverage on Democracy Now! of the unfolding crisis (featuring Laurie Garrett), this turn towards pandemic does not come altogether as a surprise.

I’ll admit that if there is one thing I hope to take away from this pandemic personally – beyond hard-earned humility and sense of perspective, and a deepened appreciation for all that is beautiful in life – it is credibility. As I went on to write on March 7th, as I properly shifted to writing about the pandemic:

As with climate crisis, so with pandemic: We’ve waited until it’s too late to do anything at all, and now that the crisis is upon us – and as the rich and the kleptocrats, for the most part, shelter themselves and ask how, from this, they can profit – we’re panicking and scrambling to salvage from the worst-case scenario, something less bad. It’s a worthy goal, and (on the climate side), what I see as my life’s work.

The explanation to which I circle back for the unfathomable cruelty and incompetence issuing from DC centers less on grand plans (though, of course, McConnell and others certainly have those, as the reconvening of the Senate to appoint Federal judges makes clear) and more on opportunism, greed, ignorance, and incompetence. I believe the strategy which has now taken shape among the people in power is to rob and upwardly redistribute to the fullest extent the intersecting crises allow, while making token gestures to the population at large, resting assured that not nearly enough has been given to prevent most working people from being starved, prematurely, back to work. It is a strategy that is already badly backfiring, but has enabled a great deal of wealth transfer, and – from the perspective of people who don’t care at all about mass death of the poor – may yet work out “favorably”.

I started today by quoting one set of text messages, and will end by quoting another – these from someone who, like my partner, owns a storefront business in the neighborhood. On my way home after a short walk last weekend, I heard an alarm going off and took a brief detour to investigate. At the storefront from which the shrill sounds were emanating, there was no visible sign of trouble, so when I got home, I simply left a courtesy message at the number listed on the business’s website. Subsequently, I heard from the owner that “rodents in the basement” were responsible for triggering the alarm, for which she was very sorry. Our exchange culminated in the following texts, from her:

Thank you Tom for your note. Much appreciated. And thank you for letting me know. If anything this crisis has permitted [my business] to be more part of the […] community and I like that. Unfortunately the crisis has eliminated food sources for rodents. Cities nationwide are dealing with this issue. I just wish they would leave the building. Laugh out loud I’m sure you understand and agree. We cannot share the space with them ha ha Ha

And me: “Even the poor rodents getting hit by this thing…”

As the hardship of the rats makes clear, every city is an ecology – not metaphorically, but actually – an ecology which sits in the wider world (which itself sits in the vastness of the universe), subject to biogeochemical dynamics and universal physical laws. We, indeed, actually have to “share the space with [the rats],” although perhaps the current food shortages for urban rodents confirm the obvious, that hygiene and sanitation are more powerful than any poison in combating infestation.

We can be confident that, even handled with the utmost cruelty and stupidity, this pandemic will eventually pass, if with a criminal abundance of unnecessary suffering. Climate crisis, too – handled thusly – will pass in a sense, but not on a human time horizon, and likely not with a lasting human presence on Earth, and while it is awful to have to say it, as eco-fascism and zombie neoliberalism increasingly come to look like not-so-strange bedfellows, I fear that the same callous de facto exterminationist logic at play in the President’s pandemic non-response will move – with geoengineering – center stage in the elite response to climate disruption.

Like the President’s disastrous, failed COVID-19 non-strategy, I think the automate-everything and/or escape-to-Mars fantasy of an increasingly-obviously-villainous Silicon Valley subset is just that – a fantasy, and a puerile one – but such dreams of not having to “share the space” of the Earth with the majority of the human population, in addition to being obviously evil, can lead us towards a cataclysmic dead-end. Just as lies and conflations cost as precious, unrecoverable weeks and months as we failed to confront the pandemic, techno-futurist delusions and Kurtzian ideation can cost us our last chances to avert the worst of global climate paradigm shift.

As a human being, I’m comfortable trying to drive rats out of our cities. As a human being, I’m not comfortable with planetary genocide. Such are the value decisions we now confront. If you think I’m being hyperbolic, just do nothing and wait.

As I wrote above, what I hope to take from this immediate crisis is credibility to address the slower moving, much bigger one unfolding still and always in the background. If you prefer not to wait and see, and you’re looking for a worthy life’s work, I invite you to join me in the struggle to make sure that the cruelty, incompetence, racism, and violence that have characterized handling of COVID-19 in this country are not the touchstones of post-pandemic climate policy. The fight for climate sanity and justice, after all, is the fight of all of our lifetimes.

3 thoughts on “But Who Will Feed the Rats?

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