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Questioning The Qualified Quarantine

We have reached a point of contradiction in the coronavirus panicdemic. On the one hand, we must imprison ourselves in order to stop the virus, on the other hand, the virus is inevitably going to infect 70% of the population regardless. Keep in mind it is the same people saying these two things at once. Some have speculated that the virus isn’t serious. I would disagree with that. It’s all serious.

There is another contradiction going on here and that is one of extreme fear and extreme optimism at the same time. On the one hand, we should fear the virus so much that we will give up all our rights and risk our livelihoods to avoid a disease that will only kill us at 0.6%. This lower estimate is based on the fatality rate in South Korea, which has done very extensive testing, opposed to many other countries who may base their fatality rate simply on those sick enough to go to the hospital. In a country like the United States, where no one can afford to the hospital, the fatality rate may appear quite high.

Let’s imagine both these numbers to be true. 70% of the population is infected at a fatality rate of 0.6%. This is still over a million deaths in the United States alone. Now we can talk about the social function of the panicdemic but I don’t think we even have to get into that level of national security state control to realize the downsides of the entire world trying to stop its economy without compensating poor people.

Let’s face the facts. The choice we are being given in the neoliberal era is a choice between a police state and no government at all. If the government was serious about containing the virus, it would give people a serious way out of it. The truth is that the poor people in this country and outside of it are far more likely to die because of the attempt to control the virus than the virus itself.

For the rich, the poor people itself are the virus, and the more of them that are killed, controlled and enslaved, the closer we are to the cure. The coronavirus is only of interest to the ruling class because it doesn’t discriminate in its infection. The efforts to contain it will be futile because the governments tasked to do it have been stripped of all the resources to do so.

The other side of the coin is that those more likely to be exposed in the face of a quarantine are the ones who have to work or go to school. Take the example of New York City homeless children being allowed to go to school because this is the only place they can get a meal. I will say, this is some sort of victory but I see both sides. The real question is what kind of choice do they have? Homelessness never has gotten the media attention that the coronavirus has. Some sensible governments may be recognizing the reality of poor people’s inability to quarantine but if the virus is the threat they say it is, isn’t there an obligation to get these people some sort of third option? This is why I remain skeptical of the oligarchic world economy being able to combat this virus. It will involve investment in all communities, both rich and poor.

There is an alternative, and it is one that can be accomplished, no matter whether or not we allow the rich to push us all into bankruptcy, imprisonment and homelessness. The rich could decide to let governments fund the proper response. This would mean that poor people would have to get compensated for both their healthcare and job losses, or we’d see a massive break of quarantine protocol, simply because people have to survive some how. If this was done, the ruling class could avoid its worst fears, and save the rest of us in the process.

Too be honest there are tons of problems that disproportionally effect poor folks that have never been dealt with by the government: climate change, child care, deportation, universal health care, homelessness, hunger, domestic violence, prison, etc. The reason I am against the quarantine on its current terms is that poor people shouldn’t have to pay the price for a virus that scares everyone. If the ruling class really is scared, give up your fortune and pay for a response. Meanwhile, the rest of us will go on surviving, with all the risks entailed, not because there is no reason to fear, but because we have no choice but to go on.

Over a million deaths in the United States is a horrifying prospect, but it is what lies on our doorstep, not because we didn’t have enough surveillance, suspicion and policing of each other. It is rather because the right kind of government was nowhere to be found when we needed it. Young people and old people have had a very different reaction to the virus, as they have in the voting booth. Young people are likely to vote for Bernie Sanders as the lesser evil or not vote at all as the greater good. Old people are likely to vote for Donald Trump as the lesser evil or vote Joe Biden as the greater good. Boomers, likewise, lock themselves up, afraid of the virus as a unique threat. Young people, not scared for themselves, or for the older generations who has been trying to bankrupt them for decades, see the virus as par for the course in a world full of uncertainties.

For those of us eyeing the future under climate change, this virus, and everything else for that matter, seems pretty inconsequential. No amount of horror statistics come close to matching the existential threat of climate change. It just so happens that the people most likely to live through extreme climate change are least likely to get the virus, which only intensifies the split. This, once again, is an illusion in a way. Another false choice. Coronavirus absolutely should be terrifying. Yet climate change and all the pitfalls of global inequality and accelerating capitalist destruction of natural resources makes the virus seem almost benign, or at the very least, expected.

Talk to young poor people and you will not only get a fear of the virus, but a wonder of whether or not the rich planted it as a form of population control. This is why Bill Gates remains a prime suspect, although this is still without any evidence. Young people, whose lives are saturated with technology, also fear it, and this is probably because we understand it better. The fear with whoever planted the coronavirus fear, just like whoever planted the climate change fear, is not just when the destruction will get to us, but how we will be used to prevent it from getting it to other people.

In this way everyone becomes engaged in a top-down communist power structure. Each of us are employed to do our duty. Just as we have to report a terrorist at the airport, we now have to report who has a cough or doesn’t watch their hands. We tacitly accept our own quarantine imprisonment, unsure of the safety within our space (immigration centers, prisons, abusive homes), and unsure of how to pay for them (no job, rising rent for a space you can’t escape), we hoard resources rather than engage in global solidarity against the common enemy.

Asians are already blamed for the disease in a very racist way. Any spread of this “foreign” disease will continue this dynamic. Rather than address massive spending cuts, we will be told the virus spread because we didn’t follow protocol. Poor folks will be blamed for surviving, or for just being human, while the central question of government spending will be pushed aside.

Like it or not, the conspiracy theories that this disease was planted by the rich have a logic to them. Who will survive this shutdown? It won’t be temporary workers. It won’t be small businesses. It won’t be those without a job. It won’t be those without health insurance. It will be the big companies who will benefit, who are bailed out by government at every turn, never held to the same standard as the rest of us. The coronavirus will not only stop life as we know it, it will further inequality and further the justification of a national security state.

For a moment here let’s get past this really conservative question of safety. Let’s admit that yes, half a country being denied a job, health care and a home at this time is a far bigger worry than anything else. But let’s also get to the question of: what the hell do we want?

Do we really want our children locked in their homes? Do we really want the government to be telling us who we can and cannot kiss? Do we really want to have students become a debtor for life with an online class? Do we really want to even further commit our human interaction to online spaces? Do we really want the most isolated and miserable generation spending more time alone?

If what they say is true about the disease, isn’t this a quarantine that could last for months? The rate of infection in the United States is quite low now, but growing. If now is the time for panic, what will happen in a couple months time when the virus is far more widespread? The idea that one can simply just quit everything they are doing to avoid a 0.5% chance of dying is a privileged position. It shouldn’t be. But it is.

Who are these people who can do this? What on earth are they adding to this world? Who gave them any authority to decide any of this for us? Shouldn’t there be a vote on the quarantine? Just make sure the DNC isn’t involved. The idea of shutting down the entire country is the most authoritarian measure imaginable, but who on earth is questioning it?

Has there ever been more of a consensus, from left to right, of people eager to give up all aspects of their life? What does this say about how we see our lives right now? What is our definition of freedom in today’s world? What is it we want? Because I really do think a lot of people are for this, somehow. Even people who can’t afford to be. That’s because we live in fear. Constant fear. Bombarded by would-be threats. Saved, continuously by authority figures. Our minds, continually colonized, turned to mush, and throwing liberty to the wind.

The chemical onslaught used to protect us from the virus may not kill us immediately, but they do lead to cancer. Which begs the question: if the economy can simply be shut down now, why couldn’t we shut down the economy and switch it to green energy? Could we just make this a two-for-one? Why not do the same for government controlled health care (not necessary to shut down the economy, but even so, you get my point). If the whole problem with making things more equal and sustainable is the transition away from capital, then how the hell is it possible we shut down the whole economy for this instead?

It really is alarming, what’s happening here. Someone has to say it. What the hell? Who comes up with these quarantine ideas? Just shut the whole thing down. Who has this power? Who should have this power? It’s not only a national power either. Now the hawks are out. Saying Venezuela can’t handle their two cases of the virus on their own. I mean seriously, this is all transparent stuff here. Any country who has a case will be seen as a national security threat. Any country who doesn’t have private health insurance will be seen as a failed state, and no one will question when this country is invaded and pillaged.

Because it’s all for public safety. The only thing left that is public is fear itself. The only way anything is public is if it threatens all of us. Because then we can be saved by the private interests. Just as importantly, we can fear the public. Not just our neighbor, but the foreigner, the government, the left, and solidarity itself.

What are the political (forget surviving, think just organizing), yes what are the political implications of not being allowed to meet with others or stigmatized if you do? What are the implications of a police state that can stop you anytime you go anywhere, as in Italy right now? What are the implications of turning over all our information to Google, Facebook and the like to coordinate control of the virus through surveillance? What does it say about our country that we are not questioning the entire country being on lockdown? What does it say about our numbness to our rights, or even our vision for life?

The fear of the virus can be linked to climate fear. In my view, completely logical, and actually inevitable. But equally fearful is the rights we give up in an attempt to curb a problem the rich could solve without us. The coronavirus, like climate change, will be most felt in poor communities. This will be used like a bludgeon against all who stand for a principled response. But just as we should not give in to the idea that we are supporting Trump if we oppose Biden, we cannot fall into the trap of being seen as dismissing the threat of the Coronavirus if we oppose a draconian response to it.

Millions of preventable deaths of poor people have been ignored for years. As long as a profit can be made it simply doesn’t matter who dies. How many years have we been screaming from the rooftops about climate change, health care and war? And now as soon as something threatens the economy we have cause for alarm. There should be an absolute shutdown. There absolutely should be. But as long as poor folks aren’t taken care of, this is a qualified, not an absolute quarantine.

Folks will turn to the alternative economy. Illegal, dangerous, degrading and unregulated jobs will be taken up. Folks will lose their homes, pushing them to the streets, making them even more vulnerable for all kinds of diseases. People will go hungry. People will die because they can’t afford health care. Nobody cares. Because these are specific people.

The herd mentality, the idea that anyone could get coronavirus is the reason we see this numb response to the life of specific poor people. We always have, and always will write off the lives of specific people. We can tell a story about why they are here.

What I am seeing around the world is a communist response. Not just the bizarre embrace of China, but all of this. But let’s take China specifically. Communist China raised millions out of poverty, while throwing human rights out the window. Perhaps, yes, in part because they threw human rights out the window. It was all, as they said, for the greater good. You sacrifice yourself, and the society will rise up. But who is sacrificing themselves? Poor people. Always poor people.

Here we have the same disgusting rhetoric. If someone has the audacity to be concerned about how they will survive. How they will keep their job, their home, and food on their table, well this person is suddenly a risk to the greater good. Yes, it’s only temporary, they say. But how temporary? No one knows. What will likely happen is an entrenchment of debt for more and more people.

We will see people’s financial futures absolutely decimated. And yes, many people will die, too. From poverty itself. The trick, the dirty ruling class trick is to put all the responsibility on the most vulnerable. In order to save the world from this pandemic we should be seeing serious measures to bail out the working class. Then all of us, rich and poor, could be safe and isolated. Instead we are meant to believe that there is some sort of grand sacrifice that is supposed to be going on.

If we are waiting for Joe Biden to save us, don’t count on it. He lies when he says Trump’s plan does anywhere near enough to “make people whole”. Generations of gutting this country of services for the poor have left this country vulnerable to the pandemic specifically, and health care generally. Additionally, it has created an economic precariousness that leaves people with only a choice of which way they will die.

We are scared of this virus now. We should be. But don’t let the rich hide behind it. They are only against this virus because it doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor. Their solutions to the virus, however woefully discriminate.

Therefore, let me say to anyone who has to risk their lives to survive under this virus, whether or not it is in a clean or public way. It isn’t “selfish”. It isn’t selfish to want to live on this wretched earth a little longer. It is selfish to decide that profit matters more than the lives of the poor. It is selfish to shut down other people’s right to survive under the name of the public good. It is nothing short of socialism for the rich, barbarism for the poor.

The coronavirus is an extraordinary threat to human life. We should be adapting our society to stop it, in all ways that we can. Right now we are only protecting those who can afford protection. In this way, despite the mass disruptions to life as we know it, nothing really has changed.

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Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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