Like seemingly everyone else, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Corona Virus.
Besides making decisions about my own personal choices, I’ve also been wondering what the ramifications of this outbreak will be socially, politically, economically, etc., for life here in the USA. I’m not alone in feeling like this is some kind of breaking point, but to what degree?
Without even asking around, I already know two people who have been laid off from their restaurant jobs, with little-to-no likelihood of being hired back later. One lives in Colorado, where the state has eased the process for receiving benefits, given the high number of people suddenly finding themselves out of job. The other is in Vermont, and when they called the state office they just got a recording saying that call volume was abnormally high and they should call back later. Both these friends have family or social networks who can help them out too, but not everyone does,
Certainly, this particular breaking point—being laid off with so little notice—is very real and will affect many thousands, if not millions of people. How will they pay rent or utilities? Buy food? Pay for medical care? Many people are facing these questions as we speak. Many more will face them over the next few weeks and months. Knowing the US government and its tendencies, any public relief that is offered is unlikely to be sufficient.
On the domestic front, an increase in divorces could also happen, as apparently occurred in China, due to couples spending
too much time in close quarters under quarantine” Not just couples, I imagine; I’ve lived in shared housing situations where good roommate relations depended on limited contact. Families, too, are feeling the stress. In some cases, of course, the rifts won’t be new; just harder to ignore, and the ensuing break-ups will be healthy for everyone involved. Not everyone should stay together, after all.
What about the healthcare system? Counterpunch editor Jeffrey St. Clair writes:
“I have five really good friends who are emergency room doctors or nurses. It is grueling work in the best of times, often operating in a near-constant state of triage. They are among the most selfless and hardworking people I know and are all now working insane shifts treating dozens of people a day with coronavirus symptoms. Unable to confirm a diagnosis due to lack of tests, they are sending most of the patients back home, while placing themselves at extreme risk of contracting the virus. They are holding the system together while it splinters, quite literally performing triage on patients and the health care system itself. But it can’t be sustained much longer.”
Dire words. I’ve been reading similar pronouncements from nurses and other healthcare practitioners.
I read St. Clair’s words on social media, Facebook to be exact, and anecdotal reports have started to pile up that more than the usual number of posts were being blocked for “violating community standards.” This turned out to be the result of fewer humans at the wheel because of the virus, and more decisions being made by algorithms. YouTube was up front about it, warning that posts would be blocked that shouldn’t and that the appeals process would take longer. This will inevitably end up hitting alternative media, as they have been targeted already. The NYT, WaPo, WSJ, etc., will doubtless continue to pass through the filters that were designed with them in mind.
This matters. Corporate media serves corporate masters, and when it comes to efforts toward community building and citizen empowerment, they are indifferent or hostile. This has been demonstrated in innumerable ways over the years, but lately has been obvious in their treatment of Sanders, the only candidate with a whiff of community to him.
Speaking of elections, this virus is already having an effect. Several state primaries have been put off from March until May or June, to avoid people gathering together. This situation is another argument for mail-in ballots (which also double as a paper trail). We shall see which candidates do better as a result.
Can Trump “cancel” the national election in November? This seems highly doubtful, regardless of how much he might like to, or his opponents might fear it. There are a number of legal and logistical issues in the way that can’t just be tossed aside easily, as is well summarized in this article by Dominic Holden at BuzzFeed News, which I recommend: “What Happens If Trump Tries To Cancel The Election Because Of The Coronavirus?“
What about the possibility of “martial law”? This is another common theme online, and has been since the W administration.
Martial law is when the military takes charge of civilian governance. I am personally skeptical that martial law is possible—or more importantly, needed—in the USA.
First, this is a biiiiiiig country, and the number of people in uniform is relatively small in comparison. Besides, many of them are overseas, at our 800+ military bases around the world. Is the government willing to give up the empire for the sake of direct military rule in “the homeland”? Because I don’t think it can do both. Certainly, local police have become alarmingly militarized over the last twenty years, and many departments are havens for white supremacists and other surly characters, but would they all act in lockstep with a federal government that some of them resent? I would expect a number of county sheriffs in western states to essentially secede first.
Secondly, how would martial law affect the economy? The business of the US is, after all, business. People going out and spending freely is beneficial for the bottom line of the owning class. The shut-downs sweeping the nation are already far-reaching and will be hitting hard. It’s better for the powers-that-be if people can drink in bars, go to sporting events, and take in the movies. Travel restrictions and curfews—two staples of martial law—cut into these activities.
Third, the people of the US are already pretty darned obedient. They absorb their propaganda on a regular basis, and limit their rebellious side to bad habits and complaints. Soldiers with rifles are not needed on every corner to keep the population in line; it does it itself already.
That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if some portions of some cities end up getting locked down by the National Guard, if this goes on long enough and unrest starts to happen locally. Right now, people seem too afraid to act out, but that could change if, say, food became scarcer.
The Food Supply
What about food? Is there enough around? We’ve all seen photos of empty shelves, and not just of toilet paper.
For the time being, the issue is availability, not supply. Because of the “Just-In-Time” practices of the contemporary retail world, not much extra stock is kept on hand, “in back.” Some stores, like Walmart, don’t even really have an “in back.” Everything on the floor is everything they’ve got, with back-stock in a “warehouse on wheels”: a huge number of semi trucks constantly moving around the country.
On social media, I’ve seen an uptick in calls to start veggie gardens. I’m all for that. As many people as possible should be growing as much food as they can. But as a former small-scale organic farmer, I must also mention that “Our Veggie Gardens Won’t Feed us in a Real Crisis.” This is mainly due to the fact that a typical diet is only 15-20% fruits and vegetables, with the rest being grains, legumes and meat, which are not backyard products.
I’ve got plenty of fresh greens to harvest in the veggie garden on the rural property where I’m staying right now, but that’s because I planted a whole bunch last October and it overwintered until now. For the last couple months, I’ve been prepping and planting this season’s beds, so I have new stuff up and on the way.
Food doesn’t grow overnight. Starting now for a crisis that’s already underway is certainly not pointless. I strongly encourage it. But we have to be realistic with ourselves about how much gardens will help. My advice is to buy a bulk bag of rice and a bulk bag of beans. Add fresh veggies to those staples and you can squeak through hard times. That’s my plan.
No “Back to Normal”
Will things go back to normal? I doubt it, though I don’t know to what extent.
Of course, what with increasing climate chaos, depleting resources, and sharpening political rancor, what was “normal” was already breaking down. The ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 2005. The US economy has been tanking. Corruption and incompetence run rampant in government at all levels. Long story short, stability is a thing of the past. This virus is throwing a wrench in the gears for sure, but they were already grinding. Now they’ll get worse.
I will admit to occasional sensations of what feels like relief or maybe positive anticipation. Our system—capitalism on top of settler-colonialism on top of patriarchy—is a fucked up mess, no good for anybody, not even the rich people running it, who sell their souls for their station. Interruption to this nasty business-as-usual is a welcome one from the standpoint of the planet’s ecology, which suffers grievously for “growth” and “productivity.” Satellite photos showing less pollution in China are one sign of this.
Unfortunately, due to something called the “aerosol effect,” less air pollution could lead to an increase in the speed of global warming. This is because some amount of sunlight is reflected back into space by the particles of pollution that we put into the air, letting in less heat. The cleaner the air, the more sunlight—and heat—gets in. So, to extent, as we pollute less, the planet will warm more. This is a perverse irony if ever I’ve heard of one.
When a large, complex system hits a breaking point, the results can be unpredictable, but chance favors the well prepared. As we’ve seen, China’s response has been well coordinated and successful after a rough start. Say what you will about their system, but their culture enjoys the energy of an empire on the rise. Because of this, they can do things, big things, and do them fast.
The US, by contrast, is an empire in decline. Our vitality is on the wane, and has been for some time, since the early 1970s by some ways of measuring. Certainly the economic crash of 2008 was its own breaking point from which the nation never recovered. We are not collectively well prepared for anything here.
I am holding out hope that the unfolding dissolution will offer opportunities for new ideas and structures that will better serve both nature and humanity, at the expense of the current corporate overlords and their oppressive structures.
At the individual level, some people will surely come out of this freer; “disillusionment” doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Indeed, shedding illusions is indispensable for personal liberation.
We shall see how much of a breaking point Covid-19 will be. The only thing for certain is that it’s already proving to be one. We are venturing into new territory. Good luck to us all!