Portent of Pandemic

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Just months ago, few would have thought it possible that a submicroscopic ball of genetic coding could bring the world’s wealthiest powers to their knees. But it has. In the space of a few months the Covid-19 virus projected its spiky arms not only into the delicate cells of the human lung, but into the very membrane of the global economic and political order itself. The United States, being the emblem of this order, has also become the biggest example of its enormous failure. In desperation, the American Empire, the wealthiest and most powerful one humanity has ever known, is flailing in spasms and fits of insanity, denial and outright cruelty. It is robbing from its allies and client states masks and ventilators, as it lashes out even more furiously at nations which have defied its hegemonic control. And, while it bails out corporations and the richest industries, it has abandoned its citizenry to fend for themselves amidst a raging storm where nearly every “non-essential” business has been shut down, the for-profit healthcare system is beginning to buckle, the bodies of the dead are mounting, and the mass graves are being dug. Amidst this assault on humanity, there is a growing assault on the living earth itself. The US is rapidly stripping the last meager protections for the environment, accelerating climate change and the collapse of the biosphere itself.

Donald Trump, a leader that is rapidly approaching the malevolence of Caligula, presides over this plague-ridden stage of the American Empire. On his watch, nurses and doctors are left to wrap themselves in garbage bags as their only defense against the microbe’s merciless rampage. Governors are reduced to a bidding war against other governors for life saving medical equipment. Workers that are considered “non-essential” are left to figure out how to navigate the brutal landscape of capitalist predation, with few options available to them to maintain their health, food security or home. Immigrants and prisoners are being left in cages to die without any adequate medical assistance. Most Americans are now left in an impossible situation. “Shelter in place” even though they may lose their livelihoods and homes in a very short time. Millions are unemployed with millions more on the way. Millions have or will lose their health insurance since this fundamental human right has been tethered to employment and whims of the market economy, one that has been built on the mercurial and shifting sands of the so-called free market. Now that marketplace is in shambles. The government’s answer to their plight has been to toss them a laughable, one-time pittance of $1200, while hundreds of billions of dollars are allotted to the wealthiest corporations and industries.

As the United States outdoes the rest of the world in Covid-19 cases and deaths, the Trump administration is rapidly dismantling the last, anemic protections for its beleaguered ecosystems. Lands that protect besieged endangered species are now open to hunters and poachers. The largely defanged Environmental Protection Agency has, for all intents and purposes, been shuttered amidst this pandemic. Now corporations are free to pollute without fear of oversight or penalty. The air and water, so integral to human health, are in open season for these industries. Indeed, even as the pandemic seems to be clearing skies and waterways around the planet, the “titans of industry” seek to rapidly cloud them again with toxins for their profit margin. It is an omnicide for profit, encouraged by the corporate state, on full display. And as if to add yet another layer to this absurdity, Trump recently signed an executive order announcing that the US will mine the moon for minerals. Apparently, plundering our own celestial sphere isn’t enough.

With little doubt, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed painful truths about the nature of capitalism itself. The sacrosanct liturgy of the “free market,” for so long lauded by its faithful adherents, now comes across as a vulgar joke in the face of the inhumanity we are witnessing. This should come as little surprise since it possesses no mechanisms to cope mercifully with the calamity of a pandemic in the first place, let alone the existential threats of climate change or nuclear war for that matter. It understands only mindless expansion of the accumulation of capital for a select few. But it is also encroaching even more aggressively into habitats where few human beings have been before. Forests are being felled at record pace, the ocean floor is being scraped away for minerals as I write this, along with a myriad of species we may never even see, and ships now ply the once frozen waters of the Arctic circle in search for petrol.  And with this reckless abandon comes our inevitable encounter with pathogens that are likely to be far more deadly and with which we will have no defense.

Indeed, as horrifying as it is, Covid-19 could have been a far more lethal plague, eviscerating any vestige of civilization in a matter of weeks. We may have been spared this time around. But with the ice caps and glaciers melting, coral reefs bleaching, locust swarms blanketing crops in Africa, and fires burning forests and fields to ash with more ferocity each year in Australia and California and along the Mediterranean, we are facing an even greater menace than a microbial killer. Climate change is an existential threat on a global scale, and it does not just threaten the human species, but all life in the biosphere. And given what we have witnessed in the past couple months, we should not hold any assurances that the economic and political order that runs the world’s affairs will be any better suited at addressing the harrowing predicament of a rapidly warming planet. True to form, they will continue business as usual only, as things get worse, they will ramp up brutal repression of civil rights and accelerate toward outright fascism.

Just this month, the US stopped issuing passports except in matter of “life or death,” a move that echoes past authoritarian regimes limits on the freedom of movement. While its population is reeling from a collapsing healthcare system and the economic aftershocks, it is continuing its cruel sanctions on Iran, Cuba and Venezuela, even as it threatens military action against those countries. And the echoes of its influence can be seen in many of its allies and client states. In India, Narendra Modi has ignored and sometimes encouraged the police who have persecuted and beaten the poor, Muslims and Dalits for non-compliance to quarantine restrictions which ignore their socioeconomic plight. It continues to ravage occupied Kashmir. In Israel, draconian surveillance technology is being used to track citizen’s movements. And it continues to collectively punish the open-air prison of Gaza. In Hungary, democracy has all but been dissolved, giving far right Victor Orban sweeping, dictatorial powers for an indefinite time period. In the Philippines, Duterte has ordered police and soldiers to shoot people who break the lock down, even if they are desperately searching for food. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has flouted the urging of health officials, endangering the lives and health of millions of people, and has encouraged radical Christian evangelicals in their genocidal aspirations to minister to uncontacted tribes in the Amazon who have no immunity to most western diseases, let alone Covid-19. Indeed, this pandemic has demonstrated the incompetence, cruelty, and despotism of the today’s global economic and political arrangement in stark ways, and it has indicated how this order will respond to the escalating nuclear arms race, continuing destruction of ecosystems through habitat loss and pollution, and the climate change catastrophes that loom on the horizon.

If there is anything to be learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, it would be that it is a portent. A miniscule sphere packed with laces of genetic strands that perhaps symbolize the power of knowledge itself.  It offers us a glimpse at how some governments are acting responsibly, like Cuba, for instance, who has sent medical teams to China, Italy and Spain. And how others, ones driven by the despotism of the so-called “free market,” are incapable of responding in any manner that is even remotely humane. The United States being the prime example. It also gives us insight into the power of nature and its ability to halt the very machinery of human society. But in addition to this, it offers us an opportunity to organize and act collectively as a species, even in isolation.

From the streets of Paris and Santiago, to the rainforests and wetlands of the Amazon and the Niger Delta, we have seen how ordinary people can arise and unite in solidarity against the barbarism of the global corporate state, whose omnicidal demeanor endangers us and the living earth itself. They continue to fight for the world we all deserve, the world we desperately need. We should take note of them now because, without a doubt, their struggle will become everyone’s in the years to come.

Kenn Orphan is an artist, sociologist, radical nature lover and weary, but committed activist. He can be reached at kennorphan.com.