Journal of the Plague: Year One

For anyone who doubted that our corporate and political elites would use the Covid-19 plague to line their own pockets, the Senate Republican aid package cutting corporate taxes kills those doubts once and for all. Further proof of our aristocrats’ disgusting behavior comes with the news that at least five senators dumped stocks after classified briefings on the Covid-19 threat, violating a 2012 law against such behavior. That our oligarchs protect themselves at everyone else’s expense is not surprising. But that they are on the lookout to profit from economic and public health misery is nonetheless sickening.

Covid-19 is our national Katrina. Expect the worst: disaster capitalism in overdrive, an arrogant government that rejects offers of medical help from a country well-positioned to offer it – Cuba – and soldiers on street corners, especially low-income and minority ones. That the U.S. was utterly unprepared for this disease, despite a two-month window provided by the Chinese quarantine, is Trump’s fault. He reacted as if this plague was a political enemy that could be insulted and bullied into submission. But what’s coming now is a systemic disaster, a disaster of capitalism, as billionaire corporations and individuals begin to profit from tragedy. This would happen with or without Trump. If Obama was president, you can bet airlines, hotels and cruises would get the same bailouts Trump offers. When it comes to capitalism’s corporate core, there is little difference between Republicans and Democrats.

And yet. Would we be better off with Biden as president? That’s doubtful. The public health system might have prepared better, but billions of dollars would still flow to industries that should be nationalized or allowed to die (the cruise industry). And if financial institutions start to collapse, you can be sure Biden, like Trump, would whip out the federal checkbook for handouts. Of course the picture changes dramatically if Sanders was president. In that case, low-income families would not be bankrupted by medical bills, Wall Street would not get bailed out nor would corporations like Boeing – a company that killed hundreds of people in airplane crashes due to its shoddy corner-cutting to boost profits and which, as a result, was already headed to bankruptcy before the current crash. But the reality is neither Sanders nor Biden. It is Trump. That means that medically the U.S. was unprepared, and multitudes may die. It means bailouts for companies that took risks and for years rewarded their ceos with obscenely high salaries. It means a continuation of the original sin of the 2008 collapse, when private debt was transferred and converted into public debt with a wave of the imperial presidential wand.

The only difference is magnitude. This plague and the ensuing economic catastrophe could cause an outright depression. Cognizant of that, our dear leaders opt for a temporary universal basic income and waive the cost of medical testing (though so far, not treatment). Trump requests that states not report unemployment stats, as 14 million lose their jobs as of Friday morning. A miserable few of the unemployed will receive paid leave, thanks to the Democrats in the House. The vast majority – who knows what will happen to them? Temporarily  rent and mortgage payments can be deferred, so our aristocrats won’t be troubled by the spectacle of millions of destitute people living in the streets. As a result, most people have shelter, and in some localities, will continue to receive utilities regardless of ability to pay. Short-term government largesse will cover food expenses. But it this plague lasts a year and a half or continues to return in waves – what then?

From Wall Street there’s lots of happy talk about an economic rebound in the third or fourth quarter and a possible vaccine in a year. Unfortunately, for the past 18 years, since the appearance of the first coronaviruses, attempts at vaccines have failed. Cuba has many promising treatments, but to access those, the Trump administration would have to lift sanctions, an act of humility quite unimaginable for the arrogant likes of Secretary of State Pompous Maximus and his boss. As for an economic rebound for those at the top, that will depend on successful corporate looting of the public treasury. In that case, extravagantly irresponsible corporations like Boeing will stay in business, many small companies will die and tens of millions of unemployed people will either scrape by on a permanent universal basic income, or, without it, be dispossessed of all they own, including, for those who can’t pay a doctor, their lives.

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Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Birdbrain. She can be reached at her website.

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