The COVID-19 pandemic has been – widely, earnestly – characterized as “unprecedented” and a “black swan event”; coming from people who are neither specialists nor in power, these characterizations are innocent enough, but from politicians, business leaders, prominent journalists, and others who possess both the ability to shape popular understanding of reality and the capacity to change that reality at scale, such claims are irresponsible at best, and dishonest at worst. Either way, they do not reflect the truth, and fuel a dangerous false narrative that the threat of pandemic took the world by surprise. The US invasion of Iraq was no more a “mistake” than pandemic – with its catastrophic corollary consequences – was “unexpected,” and so, while another Marquez title came in for a lot of riffing upon in the early days of COVID-19’s spread beyond China, I believe that my Marquez-derived title above does more justice to the facts.
(Housekeeping note: From a professional standpoint, summer started yesterday for me, and I hope to take more of a my life back from the Internet, so these posts – like today’s – may focus primarily, in the next few months, on highlighting what I’m reading. Today, I’m going to share a bunch of excerpts from Mike Davis’s 2005 book, The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Influenza, but before I do, briefly: Yesterday, I went for another walk with my friend the climate scientist, and he mentioned that reporters have been asking him to make the connection between the nationwide uprising for racial justice and climate crisis; that he, like I have, has found all the talk of a “climate virus” and “a pandemic of racism” clumsy at best (I’d go so far as to say most of it is risible and destructive of the power of language to meaningfully describe and differentiate phenomena); and that, although he’s generally a buoyant person, this particular question has filled him with profound despair in view of the situation in which we find ourselves in the United States more than 400 years after the initiation of the European settler-colonial project here.)
What connections can meaningfully be drawn to connect struggles against climate crisis, pandemic, and white supremacy? At a level so broad as not to be terribly useful, they are all driven by capitalism. In a more immediate historical sense, they’ve all been exacerbated by neoliberal corporate globalization. From the standpoint of discourse, activists and academics have warned about the threat posed by all three for at least decades if not centuries. From the standpoint of politics, all three threats have been largely ignored by people in power, save for brief periods of exception to this rule initiated by popular pressure. From the standpoint of the future, if we want to have one, all three issues, and others related to them, will have to be addressed in a coherent fashion that will require a comprehensive reworking of the structure of the world. I see many hopeful starts in this direction – in the form of the Green New Deal, the Poor People’s Movement, and Black Lives Matter in this country, for example. (I’m not a big fan of Bruno Latour’s, but when he writes of a new orientation in politics towards “the terrestrial,” I think he’s rightly theorizing a new political positionality that can unite movements for racial justice, climate justice, environmental justice, anti-militarism, anti-imperialism, etc., etc. in a way that overcomes the current fragmentation of the Left, globally.)
Anyway, more on that in the future, perhaps, but for now, Mike Davis (all photos are drawn, chronologically, from The Monster at our Door; page numbers available upon request):
Going back at least to SARS, the WHO has been forced to play politics with powerful national governments – including China’s – in attempts to operate effectively in responding to outbreaks of infectious disease.
We all know from life experience that just because you gambled once and won, it doesn’t mean you’ll win again.
As in 2003, so today, the dread looms of the disproportionate impact COVID-19 will have on countries of the Global South, even as we’ve already seen the disproportionate sickness and death suffered by poor, Black, brown, and Indigenous communities in hard-hit Global North countries.
Smart societies, like smart people, learn from their mistakes and close shaves and adjust their behavior accordingly.
The words of the former Coordinator of the WHO’s Global Influenza Programme regarding lack of vaccines and antivirals “when the next pandemic starts” have been proven true.
Thank goodness COVID-19 is not as deadly as the avian influenza (H5N1) upon which Davis’s book centers, but note that, in 2005 (and before) experts were already predicting mass mortality from a pandemic caused by a novel zoonotic virus.
Republican administrations (like the Bush II Administration criticized above by the Lancet) have been worse than Democratic ones in the US, but the decay of our public health infrastructure (and public goods and infrastructures more broadly) has been secular over the past 50 years.
Hospitals overwhelmed; healthcare workers infected; vaccines not even in production, but altogether lacking; critical services collapsing – in New York City in March 2020: Check, check, check, and check.
Why weren’t we prepared, then?
Nationally, as globally, we are still at “the beginning of a pandemic,” and we should remain vigilant and behave accordingly.
Garrett’s book was published in the year 2000. Here we are 20 years later, after sitting around at home on the Internet for two straight months, if we were lucky.
The same concerns which were foregrounded by public health professionals in 2005 regarding the threat posed by pandemic flu to populations in Sub-Sahara Africa (where resources and public health infrastructure are very limited and the existing burden of chronic/infectious disease, very high) remain relevant today.
We should remember that – in addition to being a Right-wing, born-again zealot and ideologue – George W. Bush is also a war criminal and, as such, should be brought to justice, not fêted by Ellen Degeneres and Michelle Obama.
The notion continues to haunt me that another pandemic could start any day. It could start now. It could have already started, and we might not yet know about it, but even if we are spared the horror of two simultaneous pandemics, the case remains that there is reasonably high likelihood we experience another COVID-19-like event globally, and perhaps something much worse, before another decade or two has passed.
The struggle to reconstruct the world and reclaim a just, livable human future on Earth is the struggle of our generation and the through-thread that connects climate action, with pandemic preparedness (and prevention), with the work of abolition and towards racial justice. Either we do it all, simultaneously, as we build a new global politics and polity, or we fail, and the world burns (and coughs, and chokes, and hemorrhages). When seen through the broken glass of our current political lens, such a call seems untenable, necessitating as it does the unification of our kaleidoscopically fragmented movements, but reframed through an understanding, at once novel and ancient, of who we are, the discontinuities and incongruities resolve themselves into a radiant and unified whole in answer to a simple question: Are you for life on Earth, or are you against it?