- March 11, 2020
There is no good time for a pandemic, but some historical moments are definitely worse than others. The coronavirus has erupted in a world dominated by nationalist rightwing populist politics with an authoritarian/fascistic tinge, many of which draw their support from fears and phobias about globalisation, or ‘globalism’ as the far-right call it, that are steeped in xenophobia and racial/cultural paranoia.
Even in advanced industrial democracies, the virus is likely to increase the strains and stresses on public health systems already weakened and deprived of staff, resources and essential equipment after more than a decade of austerity programs and the even longer neoliberal abandonment of the public sphere. In the United States and in the UK, we are now obliged to look for leadership to politicians who have repeatedly demonstrated an almost sociopathic indifference to the welfare of their populations, and an aversion to detail coupled with a deep-seated hostility towards any indications of expertise or independent thought emanating from within their respective governments.
In country after country, populist nationalist movements of the right are either in power or close to power. Whatever their differences and specific features, all of them share the same chauvinist antipathy towards international cooperation, treaties, organisations and any other mechanisms or institutions that supposedly limit their ‘sovereignty’ and ‘freedom.’ Most of them draw their emotional power from the fear, hatred and suspicion of foreigners, refugees, immigrants and anyone else coming from the ‘outside’.
All of these attitudes are likely to be exacerbated by COVID-19, and exploited by the governments and movements that have sustained themselves and come to power on a wave of toxic, selfish and exclusionary nationalism. In some countries this is already happening. Our understanding of the virus is also being shaped by the same partial and conflicting torrents of information and misinformation that have corrupted our politics.
In an age in which there is often little difference between the paranoid conspiracy narratives coursing through social media and the pronouncements of world leaders, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate fact from rumour, and reach a realistic assessment of the nature of the threat we all face.
In the last week alone, I have heard or read people variously claim that the coronavirus is not particularly serious; that it will kill millions of people; that it is nothing worse than a bit of flu; that it will kill ‘only’ the elderly or those suffering from underlying health problems. I’ve heard Boris Johnson, the Teletubby Churchill, suggesting that we may just have to ‘take it on the chin’ and let the virus run through the population, or ‘ take all the measures that we can now to stop the peak of the disease being as difficult for the NHS as it might be’ – without saying what these measures were.
I’ve heard Matt Hancock assure a Question Time audience that the British government was liaising with supermarkets to ensure that food would be delivered to people in self-isolation – an assertion that was denied by supermarkets the next day.
The virus has also produced an even more serious outbreak of verbal diarrhea than usual from the President of the United States, who has variously dismissed the coronavirus as a negligible piece of fake news, blamed it on the Democrats, and also on Obama, while also taking a little time to brag about how much he knows about it and how much he has it under control. This week Trump tweeted
there are still some very bad, sick people in our government – people who do not love our Country (In fact, they hate our Country!)The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant.
As always, the Monster’s disciples have lined up to support him. Rush Limbaugh, still working hard to justify the Presidential Award for Freedom that Trump gave him in January, has moved from dismissing the virus as a common cold, to arguing
Just as a hurricane is exaggerated and built-up, lied about before anybody knows its true strength and nature in order to advance a political agenda ― i.e., climate change ― coronavirus is being used to advance the agenda.
According to Limbaugh, this ‘agenda’ is aimed at making Trump look bad, by blaming him for any coronavirus deaths. Limbaugh is giving his opponents too much credit, because it really isn’t necessary to do anything to make Trump look bad. He does most of that himself, because he is bad, catastrophically, shamefully bad, and his dilatory response to the most serious national health emergency since the 1918-19 flu epidemic is no exception.
It’s been clear from the beginning that the only thing that matters to Trump is getting re-elected, and that he only sees the coronavirus through that prism, so it’s no surprise to find him and his supporters playing it down, while also seeking to blame his political opponents whenever this becomes impossible.
But conspiracy theories are not limited to the right. In the last week it’s been suggested to me twice by leftist friends and acquaintances that the virus could have been invented by Big Pharma in order – you guessed it – to make money from selling the vaccine.
No doubt pharmaceutical companies will one day make a lot of money from doing just that, but that does not mean that they ‘manufactured’ the virus – unless, like the alt-right, you believe that the world is being run by a small cabal of amazingly evil and clever people who are not only willing to do something like that, but are also capable of doing it without being detected.
Other ‘theories’ – and that is all they are – have suggested that COVID-19 is actually a ‘weaponised pathogen’ that escaped from a Chinese government bioresearch facility in Wuhan City. The same article connects this hypothesis to the advent of coronavirus in the US, noting that ‘Pandemics have also been used to chip away public freedoms’.
This is a common method of certain conspiracy theories, known as ‘joining the dots’, which easily makes the leap from what might be possible to what is actually happening, and paints in its own ‘dots’ before connecting them. Whatever else he is doing, there is no evidence that Trump is ‘using’ the coronavirus in this way – which doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t if he got the chance.
Take away the ‘dots’, the conspiracy theories, the scapegoating and the political distractions, and there is no doubt that we are faced with a major public health emergency that is not like anything else we have ever seen. There has never been a time when entire countries quarantined themselves to reduce the speed at which an epidemic can spread.
Already the coronavirus has pushed the global economy to its biggest crash since 2008, and we may yet see more of the same. In China, Italy, and other countries, unprecedented emergency measures have now been imposed or voluntarily embraced. If anyone doubts the seriousness of the threat we face, they should read this searing testimony from an Italian doctor.
Over the next few months we may be in the midst of a pandemic that will force us to change our expectations about where we travel, gather, work, and shop, how we interact with each other and meet with our friends and families. Already we have seen alarming episodes of panicbuying, hoarding and stockpiling, which apart from their inherent selfishness are in some cases actually inhibiting the ability of hospitals to act against the disease by depriving them of face masks and anti-viral sanitisers.
Most importantly, a lot of people may die, and they will be mourned. And many, many people will become sick, who will need the help of their friends, families and neighbors to get through.
In the end this catastrophe will pass, but in the meantime we should be able to look at what is happening in the face, to concentrate on the facts and not the hypotheses and conspiracy theories that suit our preferences. We should be able to recognise this crisis, to discuss it rationally and collectively, to take advice from scientists, doctors, and experts, not mountebanks – even when they bear the title of president.
We should not succumb to panic or hysteria. We should not think only of ‘our people’ and allow the fascists and the demagogues to turn us against the designated ‘others’. We should not seek to keep out imagined ‘plague carriers’ with barbed wire, walls, and border guards.
We should not abandon the weak, the poor, and vulnerable. We should show solidarity, humanity, and empathy, both within and beyond our borders, and act together for the common good and in our common interests.
Because there are some events and episodes in history that we can’t choose or escape from, but when they happen we can at least decide on our response to them, and try to act in accordance with our better instincts.
If we can do this, then we will get through this tragedy, and we may find ways to do it that do not leave our societies transformed into something even worse than they were when it first burst upon us. Like the characters in Camus’s The Plague, we need to ‘learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise’, and do what we can to prove that true.