Jarrod: Two weeks ago I stood on the corner of Stony Island Ave and 71st Street on Chicago’s South Side, a major intersection and level crossing for the Metra commuter train. A shrill warning siren, blinking red stop lights, and retractable safety gates heralded an approaching train. But none came. As the minutes dragged on, impatient motorists began to honk demands to end the logjam. One brave soul inched cautiously toward the tracks, and after looking both ways, sped through a large gap between the gates to the safety of the other side. The car behind followed suit, but with less hesitation. Soon traffic in both directions had resumed at a normal clip, heedless of the flashing lights and screaming sirens begging them to stop. I watched in disbelief: How can they be so sure a train isn’t coming? What chance, I thought, do we have of Americans taking the Coronavirus seriously?
Zhana: It’s a freaking disaster. Many people are not following the social distancing rules. People are being either dumb or selfish but many are just not isolating. Why aren’t people taking this seriously? Like guys despite what the politicians and the capitalists have told us for four decades, we actually do live in a society, you know like in a collective with a minimal commitment to social solidarity. But of course how our institutions are set up work to actually undermine this idea of society. Their logic is one of individual will and actually against any notion of a public and collective good. Right now the world is divided between the lucky few like Elon Musk who are already trying to relocate to Mars and the rest of us. I keep thinking about all the folks that are still expected to show up to work. And those that are losing their jobs. And if our healthcare system is any indication we are in some serious trouble.
John: American health care institutions are characterized by an extraordinary level of carelessness about following protocols of care and routinely place patients in worse danger than they would face if they were not hospitalized. Each year, about 700,000 patients acquire a preventable infection while they are hospitalized; about 70,000 of them die. I have no grand explanation for the tendency to be careless. It may well be that it’s most often in evidence when the patients involved are not considered to be worth all that much–see, for example, this video below about a woman’s death in an Emergency Room at Kings County Hospital, a public hospital in Brooklyn. And the likelihood of carelessness having deadly consequences increases when patients have no knowledgeable family members or friends to intervene on their behalf.
Some many years ago, when our parents were hospitalized and we spent a lot of time visiting them, I would often say to my wife something about how good the care seemed to be. She, a nurse, would then tell me all the things that had been done wrong or the things that should have been done that were not done. She was able to step in when she was there but she couldn’t possibly be there all the time. On a few occasions, her interference prevented a potentially irreversible setback.
I know that science is not held in much high regard but I think that we need to challenge that tendency. In the same way that the arguments of anti-vaccine advocates have accumulated believers by shredding scientific evidence to argue that vaccines endanger kids, rather than protect them, people have come to rely on anecdotes and legends about all sorts of things. This reminds me that I should recommend an outstanding book on this and related topics–Eula Biss’s On Immunity, published by Graywolf Press in 2015.
Cloee: About two days into the Bay Area “shelter in place” order, I get a call from an inmate in Perryville State Prison, an all women’s facility in Arizona. We have spoken on the phone for more than a year at this point and within minutes, after spending all day long glued to my computer following the news cycle, we are both laughing so hard out loud. She says, “this is the first time I can actually say I’m happier to be in here than out there.” “Why the hell are people hoarding toilet paper? What do they think is going to happen?” She laughed so hard. She said that earlier in the day, her and other inmates were telling all the guards to keep their distance. “We are already on lockdown, we are already quarantined,” she said. “We just have to make sure they don’t give it to us.” The comic relief seemed perfect, coming from someone on the inside, looking out at the panic manifesting in a shortage of toilet paper. She also mentioned how all of the inmates in prison had been set up with tablets for entertainment, emails and even making medical requests just in time. It reminded me of the dystopian scenes in Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” where people are all glued to their screens, ordering food and getting entertainment from there, while in housing that is indistinguishable from an Amazon warehouse or a prison cell.
Jarrod: Glad you brought up prisons Cloee. By now it’s a truism in our circles that the Coronavirus crisis is only exacerbating other crises related to the standard of living for working-class Americans, as seen in deficiencies of healthcare, sick leave, living wages, power at work, and power over their lives in general. Historically we know that the state and private divestment from working-class Americans behind the worst of these privations was operated in tandem with increased state expenditure in prisons, police, court-ordered “alternatives to incarceration,” and other so-called “security” measures. Now, most of this “security” infrastructure is proving completely useless in the face of a public health crisis, as it is revealed that basic public health infrastructure is not considered a security technology at all. In fact, the prisons and jails in which some 2.5 million Americans are now caged, in close quarters, with rotten-to-nonexistent health care, are breeding grounds for the virus. How is this not “cruel and unusual punishment?” Short-stay jails in particular are places from which people will be released sooner than later, meaning you don’t even have to disagree with incarceration to support considerable decarceration right now (and we can talk later). ICE detention facilities are even more pointless and sadistic than before. And if most police are doing anything besides staying in their cars — which, to be fair, makes a lot of folks safer even on a good day, but especially now when arrest can mean forcible exposure to the virus — I haven’t heard about it. Maybe their time to shine will come when they receive the authority to accost anyone walking on the street, but they basically have that now and seem more concerned with not getting sick.
In short, we finally have the massive threat to security and safety that the “law and order” types have been scaremongering about for decades, and their institutions of choice, which have received much of the funds diverted from so-called welfare state institutions, are completely powerless to do anything but make it even worse. It will be interesting to see how the security sectors and their apologists respond in the coming weeks and months to challenges stemming from the desperate need to reallocate resources and social power away from police and prisons. If recent trends which aim to integrate policing and social work are any indication, we can expect an attempt to provide public health under the auspices of police power. Can this be resisted? Further, how can we extend and generalize the present moratoriums on “quality of life” policing and the calls to decarcerate which have arised amid this crisis, once the virus has been contained? It seems like the massive divergence of the social wage away from public institutions that provide life-sustaining resources for people, and toward those that repress them, will be challenged in a meaningful way in the months ahead. But given how conservative this country is right now, it’s not certain this challenge to the hegemony of “law and order” will produce anything but a revamped security state, maybe with a few doctors sprinkled here and there to garnish the cops with medical credentials.
Zhana: Especially in the age of Trump. He first responded to news of the global pandemic by drumming up support on Twitter for his travel bans and border wall plan and stating his case that “border security is also health security.” The CDC director fortunately disagreed in a public hearing before House lawmakers voting on a bill proposed by his agency to deal with the crisis. Trump seemed to have back peddled a bit on this approach and started to assure everyone that the coronavirus is not a real threat. He does this mostly through his strategy of relying on hyperboles–this is great, we are doing great, the best. Liberal critics for instance have combed his twitter feed and found more than 1,200 tweets with the mention of words like “bestest” “smartest.” On his most recent visit to Capitol Hill, he publicly addressed public fears of slow government testing for the virus. “And we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. And a lot of good things are going to happen. The consumer is ready, and the consumer is so powerful in our country with what we’ve done with tax cuts and regulation cuts and all of those things. The consumer has never been in a better position than they are right now.” But he clearly has not taken this crisis seriously enough even in the face of science. I mean let’s not forget that earlier in February he presented a budget that proposed further cuts in funding for the CDC. My brother who works in the field of public health was texting me that as a consequence of these cuts now apparently only 3 out of 100 public health labs in the country are equipped to test the virus. He sent me a link that states that half of counties in America do not have access to an ICU bed. In a recent piece on the Coronavirus, Mike Davis presented statistics that demonstrate that between 1981 and 1999, the number of in-hospital beds declined by 39 percent. If the projections are true and millions of Americans can contract the Coronavirus there will not be enough hospital beds. Citing statistics that show only 8 states in the entire country with enough hospital beds to treat 1 million Americans, Mike Davis argues that we are in the stages of an “early medical Katrina.” And while many of these terrifying changes occurred prior to Trump, his persistence on cutting federal funding alongside with his sidelining of scientific research (prior to this it was climate change) is just being magnified by the Coronavirus.
Jarrod: While science may be out of style, as John suggests, science fiction — which has vividly captured popular perceptions of social crisis for over a century — has earned a remarkable place at the center of US mass culture. Disasters, dystopias, and zombie infestations galore have represented for a massive popular audience the severity of American social degeneration in a manner that more “intelligent” fight-the-system stories, with their emphasis on righteously righting wrongs, cannot approach. In particular, I can’t even count the number of films, TV shows, and books depicting the end of the world to have come out in the last twenty years alone. A list of apocalyptic films by decade reveals a considerable spike post-1990s and I’d be willing to bet one could find a notable increase in the number and popularity of these stories following the 2008 fiscal crisis, for the same reasons underlying the genre’s golden age in the early 1980s.
I’ve spent the last decade marveling at the popularity of one story, which is never far from my mind today: The Walking Dead. For a time the most popular TV show in America, it is the absolute most nihilistic story imaginable. A virus is turning humans into bloodthirsty zombies. OK, that’s a familiar enough trope post-2008, when the fear of downward class mobility is commonly expressed as the fear of poverty as a contagion, with individual poor people as the carriers. Hence the need for “social distancing.” That’s standard for the genre. As is the basic moral economy, which roughly dictates that any actions taken out of compassion, solidarity, or trust (the ultimate sin) will be punished with an unspeakable demise, ending with one becoming a member of the zombie underclass. But here’s the big difference: in The Walking Dead, everybody is already infected. You can be turned into a zombie by being bit by one, but regardless of how you die, you will become a zombie after death. And as if this isn’t already the most miserable story imaginable, in a world where a great levelling has occurred, one social role remains: the cop remains a cop, and he’s the fucking leader! And this says nothing of the level of violence and gore you see on this TV show. Rewatch George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead alongside an episode of The Walking Dead, with its entrail-strewn hellscapes interrupted by commercials for family vacations. This is a popular show! It’s a mean little world we live in.
I could go on all day about this ridiculous show but for our purposes I’ve been thinking a lot about how America’s response to an actual virus pandemic will be colored by the fact that we’ve spent our precious hours away from work watching and reading about the world ending with a bang, a whimper, and every which way in between. And this is not counting time spent watching TV shows where people get arrested and imprisoned or compete for jobs at the whim of abusive bosses, including Trump himself. (The Apprentice, after all, is basically the same show as The Walking Dead when you strip away the incidentals.) I’ll confess that just today I walked into a grocery store freshly stocked with colorful produce and immediately pictured myself at age 80, living in a cave, subsisting off worms, and dreaming at night about the sight of the Cermak supermarket in Humboldt Park. The picture was so vivid! Same with the supermarket. I blinked and the stocked shelves became bare and toppled over, the scene of a gun fight over a can of dog food waged by feral children devoid of language.
I’ve caught myself adopting a hostile attitude toward other people, as my potential contaminators and therefore enemies. This is part of our ordinary social conditioning in capitalist society, upheld by its ideological products which again, have been almost obsessively devoted to end times in recent years. What other mental pictures do we have in the reserves, waiting to inform how we conduct ourselves in this crisis? How have these pop culture tropes predisposed us to anticipate disorder with the cynosures: trust nobody, treat kindness as weakness, and embrace the descent into barbarism? How will the people, who have spent their lives watching society unfold in narratives which glorify the return to an imagined state of nature, behave when the crisis shifts gears from an excruciating daily grind downward to a high-speed trainwreck? Will the leap be easier to take with the host of The Apprentice conducting surreal daily press conferences, saying whatever bullshit pops into his head?
John: Unlike many, I do not think that Trump lies; he simply does not know the difference between fact or fiction and he is the mouthpiece for what many millions of people think. For all practical purposes, for him and them, science does not exist. To the extent that he has a view of science, he probably would say something about the Scientific Method. But science has little to do with that formula; science is achieved by work, usually work among many individuals in collaboration. Within the last few decades, that collaboration has been internationalized and researchers in many different countries are up to date with what is being done elsewhere and contributing their own findings and interpretations. This development makes the routine claims that the health professionals in the US are the best in the world a hollow PR stunt.
It bears repetition that capitalist science, meaning the priorities that are set for research activities and the uses that are made of research conclusions, is fundamentally distorted by the demands of profit seeking. Scientific knowledge needs to be rescued from that hole and re-established as a common universal knowledge for humanity, with no private claims on it. The starting point of science is that what appears to be self-evident at the level of everyday experience is mistaken–the earth is round, not flat; the sun doesn’t really rise and set; profit is not the result of investment.
Beyond that, scientific knowledge needs to be made understandable to many millions of people. That will never happen so long as that knowledge is organized in numerous special fields which are only really comprehensible to individuals in those fields. What’s needed is a general framework for scientific thinking that can be applied broadly, with some differentiations, to understanding both natural and social phenomena. And beyond that, what’s needed is a sustained effort to produce understandable interpretations of that knowledge, written in accessible language, without resorting to simplifications. One aspect of the language issue is to familiarize people with the practice that common words have different meanings in everyday conversations and in scientific discussions–a “virus” in everyday talk is not the same as a “virus” in science talk.
A brief observation about the science of society–many would insist that science is not appropriate for thinking about and understanding society. A couple of thoughts: 1) the great German poet, Goethe, was also a very accomplished student of plant life; he called his method a “delicate empiricism”. I think that what he meant by that phrase was that he would be patient and careful and consistent in his observations of very specific plant life–he would not rush to premature conclusions. It sounds like a good idea. 2) The separation of natural science (biology, chemistry and physics) and social science (the study of society) does not serve us very well. Think, for instance, about this current epidemic or pandemic–1) it is increasingly clear that its origins go back to the spread of industrial agriculture into previously natural forests and the disruption of the more or less normal processes that would have prevented the spread of disease, and 2) the spread of the virus around the world has been accelerated by global trade and travel, 3) its spread within countries has a great deal to do with pre-existing inequalities and dysfunctional public health systems, The line where biology ends and society begins is an invisible one.
But scientific knowledge is not enough. It needs to be combined with the good sense of many millions of people–people who know how to talk with their co-workers and neighbors, who know how to get things done in an emergency (like what happens in the aftermath of hurricanes or earthquakes), who know how to fight for what they need. I’m reminded of what happened during the AIDS epidemic. Against all odds, activists in groups like ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) organized themselves to become scientific experts about the disease and how to fight it. Often enough, they were ahead of the medical profession. Ultimately, the doctors, nurses and activists needed each other and they stopped the carnage, at least in places like the US. For a history of ACT-Up, go to https://actupny.org/.
How in the world might the science-unbelievers come to their senses? By the closing down of Disney Land and Disney World; by the suspension of cruises; by the cancellation of March Madness; by the suspension of games by the NBA, NHL MLS and major league baseball? By the closing of colleges and schools? By their run-ins with health care institutions when they can’t get tested? By the frantic predicament of doctors, nurses and other people who work in hospitals and nursing homes who cannot get themselves tested or to obtain the protective equipment they need? I know, I know, the list can go on and on. But when does the list get too long? When do we stop and think and realize that what the epidemic has revealed is what goes on all the time?
Zhana: For sure this crisis is certainly revealing the fragility of our health care system. In TN where I live, most people echoing Trump do not seem to be concerned with how the federal government is handling a public health crisis of global proportion. In personal conversations, many instead bring up how the flu has killed more people than the coronavirus. As if people dying from the flu in one of the richest countries on earth is normal. In Tennessee ten people have thus far died from the flu this year. Mind you this is a state that has one of the highest number of uninsured people (tied in third place with Arizona and Alabama ) and the second highest rate of rural hospital closings in the nation. Since 2010, more than a dozen rural hospitals have been closed and about a quarter of Tennesseans are left without access to hospital emergency rooms.
For folks in rural areas that are nowhere near a hospital, especially the elderly and disabled, the threat of coronavirus is very real. This is not to mention anything about the large numbers of low income folks working in the service industry who don’t have health insurance or whose jobs don’t allow them paid sick leave. Most people working in fast-food, retail and restaurant industry cannot just afford to skip out on work and stay home. Last week in Harrison County, Kentucky a Walmart worker was diagnosed with coronavirus. Yet companies like Walmart have been slow to extend sick leave to their low-paid workers. I just read that Walmart will provide a measly 2-week sick leave package but only if a worker can provide documentation that he/she is being quarantined in a health facility or is diagnosed with the coronavirus.
And while we should applaud basketball stars like Zion WIlliamson, a player for the New Orleans Pelicans, who will pay the salaries of Smoothie King Center employees for the next 30 days, it can’t be our only response! Individual acts of goodwill and philanthropy (as well intentioned as they may be) are not going to last more than a month tops. And Trump’s proposal of $1,000 or $1,200 is not enough. For some folks that’s not even a month of rent.
I follow reddit threads about things happening in Knoxville that I wouldn’t know about otherwise. Apparently, the Downtown Hilton laid off all 80+ employees without any warning and just handed them out unemployment insurance papers to fill out. I guess in TN which is an at-will state these kinds of firings will be a lot easier to justify–well because they don’t have to. What will happen to all the people that are losing their jobs or seeing their wages diminish as bosses cut back hours? Let’s be real, most of us don’t have savings that can cover an emergency situation like this. Only 40% of Americans are able to cover an unexpected $1,000 emergency. That’s insane.
What do we think people will do in the face of all of this?
John: My best guess is that people might come to think differently after they act differently. As the new strategy of “social distancing” takes hold, there will be many opportunities for individuals to help out others–especially older people who need to take special care about what they do. As people do so, we should pay attention and publicize their deeds and highlight the differences between the beneficial consequences of their actions and the inept bungling of the federal bureaucracy. I want to be clear–there is no substitute for effective and efficient public health measures and no amount of popular activity will substitute for that, So, alongside how people help each other, they need to forcefully demand that stupidity stop and intelligent action take place.
Zhana: John you are more optimistic than I am. In Chattanooga, TN, a man hoarded 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer (by cleaning out stores in rural Tennessee and Kentucky) and was selling them on Amazon for $8 to $70 a piece. The Attorney General began investigating him for price gouging so he had to donate them to a local church. In the UK, a 13-year old bought hand sanitizer and was selling squirts of it to his fellow classmates. And these Martin Shkrelis in the making are by far no comparison to what Pharma will pull at this time which undoubtedly sees in crisis such as these an opportunity to make profit.
John: Zhana, you’re right. I bent the proverbial stick too far. How about: “It’s the best of times. It’s the worst of times”? On March 15th, the Sunday morning TV shows featured scenes of large crowds of travellers who had come back to the US and are being channeled to one of thirteen airports. When they got off their planes, they found themselves waiting on lines for three hours in cramped spaces to go through customs and health screening. They found themselves in exactly the kind of situation that they should have been avoiding. Indeed, the on the ground situation was much worse than the TV reports indicated. This article from The Washington Post describes the scene at Dulles Airport outside Washington.
But the federal bureaucrats were clueless. They may be hopeless but ordinary people do not have to be. So far as I know, there have been no instances yet where travellers self-organized themselves into smaller groups distributed around the larger terminal to wait their turn. Passivity remains the norm. Of course, we could also think about giving up on Customs and just taking temperatures which would certainly speed things up.
So, on Monday, even the all but idiotic panelists on “The Five” on Fox News were talking about swearing off social media because it spread so many stupid ideas and challenging those who wanted to party on to stop and think about what they were doing. Earlier in the day, the Fox business anchor gave an earnest appeal to people to stop hoarding, to understand that when they took what they didn’t need, others would not be able to get what they needed. As I recall, he all but ended in a call for a common humanity. Given the restrictions of Fox News, the common humanity might well end at the US borders. But maybe not! You let the genie out of the bottle and who knows what might result.
And one more thing: I just saw one of those Obama think-alikes on cable and he talked about how we needed to make sure that people didn’t starve or get evicted because of the virus. After the virus, I guess we can go back to people starving or being evicted.
Jarrod: Yes. As we saw with Bernie’s failure to capture the Democratic Party the way Trump did in 2016, it’s clear that the centrist Democrats are good at exactly one thing: holding onto power at all costs. In 2016 Trump was able to outflank the Democrats to the left on NAFTA and the Iraq War, and he’ll be able to do it again with Joe Biden. In response to the left challenge from Bernie Sanders, the Clintonite Democrats have circled their wagons and taken to openly deriding “free stuff” and repeating the right-wing taunt: “How are you going to pay for it?” The promise of Biden to return things “back to normal” — meaning, I guess, the hour before Trump was declared victor in the 2016 election — was laughable enough even before this crisis made any return to “normal” impossible to imagine. On the one hand, what’s bad news for Bernie is good news for us extra-parliamentarians: if the Clinton crowd sticks to their guns, they should be fairly easy to push aside in day-to-day organizing. Even the worst unions can’t countenance the Democrats’ brand of woke austerity right now. On the other hand, they’ll be just as easy for Trump to push aside come November.
Zhana: It does seem that something has been indelibly broken that will not be able to be put together despite all the politicians assuring us otherwise. For instance, I just think about all the folks that will be unemployed in the next few months. The NYS Labor Department website was swamped with thousands of laid-off workers claiming unemployment benefits. And this is not only in NYC–it’s nationwide at this point. A department spokesperson claimed that by 12pm they had received 8.758 calls, comparable to 9/11. I was driving around Knoxville the other day listening to the D.L. Hughley show. It was interesting to see how much the comedian’s politics had changed just in two weeks. Before he pleaded with his listeners to vote for Biden because well free healthcare and debt relief are nice but very much a pipedream and results are what’s needed not revolution. Now he was urging his listeners to reject the bailout of the airline industry and support bailing out everyday people instead. I know this is anecdotal but if D.L Hughley is any indication, something has shifted and it will be interesting to keep our eyes and ears on the ground for how everyday folks will move in the next few months. Sure the selfish acts many continue and jeopardize all of us but maybe acts of solidarity and collective action will also blossom. There are folks still continuing to go to work, to take care of the sick, to continue to deliver and sell us our food, etc. It’s all up in the air, no pun intended.
What about you, dear readers? What are your thoughts? Share your comments below.