Covid Strikes Back

Anybody with a brain knows Trump loused up the U.S. covid response, causing hundreds of thousands of needless deaths. But lots of thinking people don’t want to admit that Biden made some mistakes too. This is natural, given his astonishing success in vaccinating roughly 200 million people in a matter of months. But when confronted with the life-and-death decision to suspend covid vaccine patents, Biden failed to press presidential muscle into the struggle. True, he publicly supported breaking the patents. But then German Prime Minister Angela Merkel so conveniently said no, and he caved. He didn’t have to. Moderna took plenty of taxpayer cash. Had Biden abrogated the patent and allowed India, China and other countries access to mRNA technology, they would have produced cheap generics, and billions of people in poor countries would have received the vaccine. That, in turn, would have constricted the viral pool in which the disease mutates. But Biden didn’t, and now we’ve got kids on ventilators thanks to the delta variant.

To be fair, Biden lacked the time to stop delta, which first surfaced in India in December 2020. But he could have slowed it. If billions, instead of hundreds of millions of people got the vaccine – which Biden could have ensured – that would have spared the world much misery. And who’s to say covid is done? Multitudes, nearly whole countries in the Global South aren’t vaccinated, as the virus entrenches itself, becoming endemic. It could be mutating as you read these words. In fact, it probably is. The next variant could be worse. It could be a killer, whether you’re vaccinated or not. All we can do is tip the odds in our favor by inoculating the world. But our leaders refuse. Because that involves transgressing the neoliberal shibboleth that no matter what, government never interferes with corporate profits.

Before new, vaccine-resistant mutations clobber us, it’s worth noting that the delta variant is bad enough. It severely sickens young people. Its incubation period is shorter – three or four days. It smashes through the vaccine and infects people who thought they couldn’t get sick. And it’s a killer. A killer of unvaccinated people in their 20s and 30s. Hospitals in Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas are overrun. It’s only a matter of time before deaths of the unvaccinated mushroom.

So not breaching the patents was a venal, deadly error. That wasn’t the only mistake. Telling vaccinated Americans they could go maskless back in May, as the CDC did, was catastrophically stupid, because, as it turned out, everybody, whether vaccinated or not, can spread the disease. Not granting full FDA approval for many months after the vaccine’s emergency use authorization was a gargantuan blunder, enabling the anti-vax excuse for not getting the shot that mRNA technology was too new, too experimental – when in fact it’s been around for 20 years – to sink deep roots in red-states. Declaring U.S. independence from covid on July 4, as Biden did, so that millions of Americans gathered for cookouts, in groups, without masks, catapulted the virus’ infection rate into the stratosphere.

And remember, we’re not talking about old covid anymore – we’re talking about delta, which busts through vaccines to slam folks in the hospital, a variant which kills 20-year-olds, a mutation so contagious that in Arkansas since April, cases of pediatric covid skyrocketed by 650 percent. Who in their right mind wants to send their child to school with this threat? Especially in districts where idiotically doctrinaire right-wing politicos ban mask mandates? I sure wouldn’t. If I still had a five-year-old at home, I’d keep that kid out of school until he or she could get vaccinated.

In the U.S. since July, the infection rate soared by 700 percent, by far most of that rise among the unvaccinated. That ballooning infection rate – covid’s almost as contagious as chicken pox – is thanks mostly to states like Texas, Florida and North Dakota, led by blind, free-market ideologues, incapable of grasping their governmental responsibility to protect public health. But thanks to delta, things grimly spiraled down elsewhere too, even in highly vaccinated locales. Remember the mass Provincetown outbreak in July? Hundreds of vaccinated partiers got sick.

The CDC reports 8000 breakthrough cases “resulting in severe disease or death,” CNN said on August 19. Roughly 35,000 vaccinated people per week in the U.S. “are having symptomatic breakthrough infections,” the Washington Post announced on July 30, but still managed to sound upbeat: “Turning covid-19 into a nuisance cold instead of a potentially fatal pneumonia was the main goal of the shots.” Main goal? What about eradicating a killer virus before it mutates into a mega-killer virus? Well, our fearless leaders cowered before big pharma, swore fealty to its profits and didn’t dare break the patents. So herd immunity ain’t happening.

My guess is the Biden team, desperate for a win on covid, thought they had it with the vaccine and plowed ahead, prematurely ditching mitigations, in order to scoop up votes from fanatically anti-mask Amuricans. This was a fool’s errand. Those anti-mask imbeciles consider a centrist like Biden a socialist and a leftish senator like Bernie Sanders a wild-eyed, foaming-at-the-mouth communist. The Dems will never corral those votes and should abandon the effort. Better to cement the loyalty of the progressive base – rather than high-handedly assuming they have nowhere else to go and so can be safely ignored, a recipe that ensures left-leaning Dems stay home on election day.

The real question, raised in an August 15 Information Clearing House article by Finnian Cunningham is, will covid doom the U.S. empire? More specifically, yours truly would add, will covid fatally ravage American capitalism, a system of organized economic savagery uniquely incapable of dealing with a plague?

The answer is not reassuring, even for those of us who would be happy to see an end to our brutal plutocracy. Because even if the leopard changed its spots, and the titans of American finance went all in on public health and controlling covid, it would be too late. American capitalist mind-control already hypnotized tens of millions of anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers and the vaccine-hesitant, who believe drivel about personal choice in the face of a killer virus. These dimwits cannot be persuaded to abandon their lethal hobbyhorse. So they will continue to get sick, spread the virus and die. They will infect the vaccinated, and then the virus will mutate into more potent strains. The plague-infested dystopia, along with the agonizing social collapse pestilence causes, envisioned in Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse – that’s what may await us.

China adapted far better to this emergency, as Cunningham comments. That’s because central planning more easily accommodates the demands of public health. Chinese leaders made decisions about covid without one eye on the whims of financial tycoons and slaughterhouse moguls. They locked down sanely – when necessary. And, most critically of all, during lockdowns, they supported their idled workers with money. Thus people rationally trust that their government has their back.

Here in the U.S., covid threw lots of people out of work and straight into poverty, while Trump locked down ambivalently, in fits and starts. My guess is that if we need a lockdown again, Biden won’t even consider it. Under Trump there was little financial support from government for the abruptly unemployed and when later Biden did try to provide federal benefits, dogmatic right-wing republican governors sabotaged the effort by refusing the cash.

So lots of Americans soured on public health restrictions, associating them with penury. But, as Cunningham observes, “the problem is not the practice of public health policy per se, it is the practice of public health policy in a capitalist society where there is little support for furloughed workers.” So workers in the U.S. faced a lousy choice at the height of the pandemic – starve or get sick and possibly die. Workers in China would rightly consider this barbaric. And so would their leaders.

This is not to say China doesn’t have its problems, it does. But when it comes to surviving covid, China excels, with only a few thousand deaths in a population of 1.4 billion. Meanwhile, the U.S. has 630,000 deaths and counting among its 330 million people. So the answer to the question posed by Cunningham is a qualified yes: the global empire will probably slowly crumble, and most of the world’s people will be the better for it. Far grimmer is the fate that awaits those of us who dwell in the imperial core, specifically those who inhabit regions hostile to inoculation. There, we’re looking at years of plague, as it burns, uncontrolled, through the population – IF large numbers of people remain unvaccinated. Social disintegration will follow, at times languidly, at times in a deadly rush.

If new, resistant strains mutate, then it’s a whole ‘nother ballgame, and we could very well strike out. But even just with delta, big pieces of the country crumble and circle the drain. This is inevitable if covid is not brought to heel. It can be done. China did it. South Korea did it. Vietnam and New Zealand did it. But first the neoliberal ideologues who rule this country have to be sent packing.

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