A Case of the Pandemic Blues

The following essay was written by author and Bioneers Senior Producer J.P. Harpignies about the COVID-19 pandemic. While calling on the history of past crises and the following trends of elite, corporate profiteering, he reminds us this form of “disaster capitalism” is not inevitable. What happens next is up to us.

Author J.P. Harpignies

I was in a bar/music club long ago (so long ago cigarette smoke filled the air and no one thought anything of it) when the musicians on stage introduced their next tune as an old song from the 1920s or 30s called The 1919 Influenza Blues. I still remember some of its striking lyrics: “It killed the rich, killed the poor, and it’s gonna kill, kill some more.” At that point I had never heard of the 1918/1919 “Spanish Influenza,” but, stimulated by the reference, I found some books on the topic, and I was stunned to discover what an extraordinarily devastating global epidemic it had been. I was surprised that such a massively impactful event, one that had killed perhaps a hundred million people, more than any such previous episode, had been largely erased from the collective memory. It had killed far more people than World War I, but that war was still widely taught in high school history curricula while the outbreak was at best a footnote.  

That episode is of course far more widely known now; epidemiologists always hold it up as the reason for their anxiety and hypervigilance when a new flu strain emerges. It is the specter that hangs over every new disease outbreak, because if such a lethal and contagious strain emerged and spread once, it is likely that at some point it will happen again. It’s why Swine and Bird flu and SARS and MERS, not to mention Marburg and Ebola and Zika, Dengue, and Lassa Fever, beyond their very real horrors, elicit even deeper fears initially; the fear that one of them could be the one to unleash a new 1919.  

So while this current pandemic is shocking and bound to have enormous effects on our society, it’s certainly not a surprise. For one thing epidemics have been with us since at least antiquity, from the Antonine Plague in ancient Rome, to The Plague of Justinian that wiped out nearly half of Europe’s population in the 6th Century, and of course the one most etched in our historical memory, the infamous 14th Century’s Black Death, to hundreds of more localized episodes such as the 1616 New England Epidemic that killed up to 90% of the Wampanoag People, to countless outbreaks or endemic diseases around the world, including malaria, smallpox, measles, cholera, yellow fever, and typhus, that have killed millions and millions for centuries, as well as HIV (which has killed more than 30 million globally).

This COVID-19 crisis also wasn’t a surprise because U.S. governments in recent decades have done scenario planning for just such a possibility. From 2005 to 2017 an office in the Department of Homeland Security working with analysts and supercomputers at a number of national laboratories have repeatedly generated detailed analyses of what was likely to happen to transportation systems, hospitals, and social cohesion, if a pandemic hit the country. This even continued the first year of the current “administration” when some civil servants ran a simulation called “Crimson Contagion,” but of course Trump’s hatred of expertise and science led his clique to ignore that work and discontinue the government’s longstanding efforts in this domain.

All that said, there is no denying that this is an immense crisis that will have profound impacts on nearly all of us. While we in the industrialized world have far better medical systems and social infrastructure in place than our ancestors who had to deal with earlier outbreaks did, we are perhaps not as well psychologically equipped to deal with this type of upheaval, because we in the U.S. and Europe and Japan and some other “developed” economies, have, by and large, lived since WWII in an abnormally tranquil period. Yes, there have been a number of brutal wars, but they’ve been on the periphery of the power centers not in their core. Yes, there has been plenty of injustice and inequality and racism and sexism and poverty and alienation and social strife, and the whole thing has completely depended on the unsustainable, perhaps ultimately suicidal burning of fossil fuels, but still, for those relatively privileged populations of the industrialized world, the past 70+ years have been atypical of most human history. It’s been a period free of foreign invasions on home soil, of bloody civil wars, of major famines or plagues.

This led some analysts a few decades back to declare that we had reached “the end of history,” the final triumph of “bourgeois democracy,” a hybrid of “free” markets and at least somewhat of a social safety net, a model that would surely now spread globally and usher in a golden era of peace and prosperity (yes, feel free to snicker). But History, for better or worse, doesn’t seem to have taken kindly to being told it was over. We are now in a position in which we had best try to shape some history or we will just be its victims, because while the climate emergency is without question more existentially threatening to the human enterprise in the medium and long term, this crisis may be the most jarring in a very short amount of time of any in most of our lifetimes. 

There are still many things we don’t know about COVID-19, and I’m not a virologist or public health expert, so I don’t dare make any predictions about its ultimate toll, the number of possible spikes or “waves” of infection. What is clear is that its economic and social impacts are likely to be immensely consequential. This is likely to be far more destabilizing than the financial crisis of 2008/9, and how we react to it will determine the shape of our social order for decades to come. 

One thing is certain: many of the richest and most powerful corporations, financial institutions and individuals will attempt relentlessly and tirelessly to profit handsomely from the crisis, in what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism,” the use of a major social disruption to swoop in and, in Baron Rothschild’s phrase, the core creed of Wall Street: “buy when there’s blood in the streets.” We saw this in the outcomes of the financial crisis as the biggest banks and companies emerged stronger, with ever more concentrated wealth and power, while many working and middle class homeowners were evicted, and hedge funds bought large swaths of the housing stock in quite a few locales. You can’t really blame capitalists for being capitalists. That’s what the system is predicated upon: “buy low, sell high;” profit from “creative destruction”. It’s the nature of that beast…if it’s not properly reined in and domesticated.  

We have already been seeing the hollowing out of the retail economy as Amazon and online commerce have driven countless mom and pop stores and small and medium-sized companies out of business; and the new indentured servitude of the “gig economy” has further disempowered the workforce. This crisis is poised to radically exacerbate these trends. People in lockdown are ordering more and more food and products online, which may be desirable short term during the epidemic, but many are likely to maintain that pattern, which was already growing exponentially. Unless there is enormous grassroots resistance, when the viral tsunami has passed and the dust settles we are very likely to find ourselves living in a radically altered, drastically impoverished landscape: one with far fewer independent stores and businesses, far fewer small and medium sized cultural organizations, far fewer activist non profits; and ever more obscene wealth and power disparities. 

It is possible, though, that enough people across the political spectrum, already hyper sensitized to the injustices of the bailouts a decade ago, will react strongly enough in this situation to push back against the most blatant of these profiteering attempts. The outcry, even by some on the right, of the horrible optics of Senators Burr and Loeffler’s dumping of stocks just before the epidemic started to spike here in the U.S. while they were downplaying its severity to mirror the Trump party line, may be a hopeful sign that the public is attuned to these issues and will push back hard. I can’t say I’m overly hopeful, but it’s conceivable. It’s also possible that while Biden is of course far from the shining leader one would aspire to in this dire historical moment, if he were to win, a push from below could force him to include figures in the Warren/Sanders wing of the Democratic Party in key economic roles, helping perhaps use this historical opportunity for at least some fundamental structural changes that might start to roll back some of the wealth concentration and monopolistic domination of the economy, the way the great Frances Perkins pushed Franklin Roosevelt’s government to the left on many key issues. Again, I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s worth agitating for in whatever ways we can muster. 

Another existing trend that is absolutely certain to be accelerated, and is in fact already happening, is the use of this crisis to drastically increase governments’ efforts to build out their AI-augmented surveillance, tracking, monitoring and censorship capabilities. For example, using the excuse of the epidemic, the Netanyahu administration in Israel is permitting cell-phone tracking techniques hitherto used by Mossad for specific “anti terrorist” operations to be used on any and all citizens (not to mention that Netanyahu has shut down the courts as a “public safety” measure as they were about to try him for corruption…). Governments around the world see the opportunity to use this public health emergency to fend off threats to their power or to consolidate their grip. Putin seems positively gleeful about the opportunity to use the COVID-19 moment to emulate in Russia the level of control of information the Chinese Communist Party has achieved. In Bolivia elections slated for May have been postponed supposedly because of the virus but really because the interim right wing government is afraid of being voted out of power. This is sure to be only the beginning. We will have to be vigilant here because it is not impossible to imagine Trump trying to pull off such a stunt this coming November. 

I don’t want to sound like a complete pessimist. These trends are very powerful, but they are not inevitable. Major crises tend to have paradoxical effects. I do think the crisis has reduced Trump’s re-election chances, which would be perhaps the only positive outcome of all this (besides the temporary drop in fossil fuel use and pollution globally). I have also heard from some of my family members in northern Italy that support for the far right has decreased somewhat (at least for now) because people suddenly understand that good governance is actually critically important. This epidemic is likely to boost authoritarian regimes in some places, but it could also undermine some authoritarian governments in other regions, as people decide they desperately want dedicated civil servants and competent governance. 

How people respond in a given upheaval is hard to predict and will depend on the duration of the sacrifices they have to make as well as the preexisting social and political patterns in their societies. In general it’s harder to maintain social cohesion if the level of suffering and fear linger for too long. Still, crises also often bring out the very best in people: our capacities for solidarity, mutual aid, compassion and gallows humor come to the fore. Perhaps we can sustain some of those impulses into our struggles to prevent the worst power grabs in the near future. It isn’t going to be easy: many of us will have been severely impacted financially and in precarious situations, and our enemies are deeply entrenched and ruthless, but there’s no excuse not to try.

One irony for those of us who have been working on eco issues and climate for so long is that politicians, even supposed “deficit hawks,” are all on board without any hesitation to print trillions of dollars to avoid a deep depression (which may indeed be the right course IF it’s targeted fairly and intelligently), but they were unwilling to spend even chump change on climate change, ultimately a far more existential crisis for the survival of human civilization and the health of the biosphere’s web of life. This moment is a good time for us to remember that as Bioneers founder Kenny Ausubel loves to say: “Nature bats last, the saying goes. Even more importantly, it’s her playing field. We would be wise to learn the ground rules and how to play by them.” As the biologist and evolutionary theorist Lynn Margulis, originator of the groundbreaking Endosymbiosis Theory, used to say, human beings will ultimately be likely to have only been a small footnote in the history of microorganisms on this planet. Each one of us is host to several trillion of them on and in our bodies (or they are host to us…).

In H.G. Wells’ 1897 classic, highly influential, early science fiction book, The War of the Worlds, alien invaders from Mars, vastly superior militarily to earthlings, are on their way to fully taking over the planet and wiping out the human race when they are felled by microorganisms on our planet that they have no resistance to and that are fatal to them. Our biosphere’s microbiome winds up saving the day. This pandemic is causing tremendous suffering and is bound to claim quite a few more lives, including, inevitably, some people we are close to and perhaps even a few of us reading this. It will also threaten many of our livelihoods, but perhaps if those of us still standing when it subsides can dig deep to unearth our most primal courage and resilience, mobilize our most noble impulses and work together intelligently, we might perhaps find a way to use this opportunity to start reversing some of the dark trends that have been infecting our body politic in recent years. I can’t say I’m wildly confident, but I hope we surprise me and rise to the occasion.  

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