When I was growing up in the ’70s, a common vision of the dystopian future was a bleak, industrialized landscape where everyone has to wear gas-masks because of pollution. The image goes back further still; speaking on the campaign trail in 1968, RFK warned a classroom of children that unless the US did something, air quality in NYC would be so bad in a decade that people would have to wear masks to breathe.
Now here we are, half a century later, sinking daily further into a dystopia, but one of the emblems of our moment is a lack of masks.
I’m referring to COVID, of course, an infectious disease known to be airborne since January 7, 2020, and to the low number of people who wear masks in public although COVID’s spread can be greatly curtailed by doing so.
This is not an an anti-anti-masker screed. I blame institutions, not individuals, for the behavior of the populace. Despite their at times blustering claims to the contrary, most US Americans are obedient and do what they’re told. Most unquestioningly believe the media which, from conservative to liberal, from Fox to CNN to NPR, is telling them they don’t need masks anymore.
So most people don’t wear them, and two and half years into this pandemic, as we are afflicted with new variants and surges, and as more people die or become disabled—and as other diseases like Monkeypox enter the market—we are exposed, defenses down. This is our maskless dystopia: a nation that has apparently given up on the idea of public health, and is barely even making a pretense about fighting an ongoing pandemic. I find it depressing, to say the least.
I’m aware of various controversies around the death count for COVID in the US and elsewhere. It is indeed difficult to make an exact count because standards and procedures differ from place to place and have done so from time to time. Some people claim the official numbers are too high, and others too low. To be honest, that argument doesn’t interest me. It’s enough for me to know that the total number of excess deaths in the US since the outbreak began is over 1,000,000, which means that something serious is going on. I’m also aware that some would ascribe many of those deaths to the vaccines, but, though vaccine injury is a real thing, enough of those excess deaths happened before widespread vaccination commenced at the end of January 2021 that, again, we know an actual thing has actually been happening.
Sometimes I wonder if the role of the COVID vaccine has been overemphasized by both pro- and anti-vaxxers. After all, China had the first wave of COVID under control by the first week of April, 2020, long before any vaccines were available. Their methodology featured widespread testing, extensive contact tracing, and localized lock-downs, as well as sending in hundreds of healthcare professionals and building new hospitals virtually overnight. In centuries past, before vaccines (or even germ theory), pandemics were halted or slowed through quarantines and through public health measures like sanitation. In the US, it seems we have forgotten about the basic, common-sense, non-technological practices that should be central to a pandemic response besides vaccines. That is, a vaccine does not make for a complete public health program all by itself, yet the US establishment often talked as if it did.
China’s contrasting record with COVID should be piquing our curiosity. Their official death count is only 15,000. If their official count were proportionate to the US’s official count, that number would be 4,500,000. Try bringing up China, though, and someone’s always gotta jump in immediately with, “bUt tHeY’rE aUtHoRiTaRiAn!!”
<eyeroll> As a culture, China goes back at least 3500 years, with a rich history of effective medical practices. Their approach to community and health contrasts greatly from the West because of this lineage and is currently implemented by a different form of governance that—whether we like it or not—happens to be popular with most of its citizens, more popular than the US government is with its own. Additionally, their notions of the individual, the collective, and the relationship of the two, are quite dissimilar from our own. They are, in short, not like us in ways which are significant, well-established, and which we can’t easily appreciate from our vantage point, especially given our propaganda-addled brains. Dismissing an entire nation and its record with a single word, “authoritarian,” is fucking ridiculous, quite frankly, though not unexpected given our chauvinism.
“But they must be undercounting,” people insist. Ok, let’s say they are. Let’s say their actual death count is one hundred times higher than their claim. That would give them 1,500,000 fatalities, which is still only one third the rate of the US. Are they minimizing by that much? That seems highly doubtful. You can’t cover up that many deaths in this surveilled world these days, even if you’re “authoritarian.” “But the US is over-counting,” people also insist, and maybe we are (intentionally or not), but are we doing so at a rate that diminishes the huge gap with China meaningfully? With their total at .003% of ours, I would propose that there is no credible amount of simultaneous obfuscation that could even out that difference. We here in the US must simply admit, then, that in one way or another, China is doing something better, if fewer deaths is a metric of “better” (and I should hope it would be).
First, I’d point to the fact that, as soon as the initial outbreak happened in Wuhan, doctors of Traditional Chinese Medicine were sent to the front lines alongside “regular” doctors, and they started working with medicinal herbs immediately. Imagine if that had happened in the US! After all, among critics of COVID policy in the US, proponents of alternative medicine have been loud voices, rightly lambasting the practically exclusive concentration on pharmaceuticals. That national efforts were centered on what could be patented regardless of what might be most effective illustrates the perversity of capitalism and it’s no wonder this prioritizing led to skepticism. As a long-time plant medicine enthusiast myself, I sought out herbalists in the spring of 2020 to see what was being recommended, and, along with certain supplements, herbs have been my own first line of defense and treatment this whole time.
Secondly, even if a particular program in China has been “authoritarian,” can’t we at least look at it and see if the same or a similar method could be accomplished with a non-authoritarian approach? So, for example, if China’s contact-tracing system utilizing color codes on smart phones has been somehow despotic, is there another way to do the same thing? Or is any large-scale project tyrannical by nature? I refuse to accept that. My own politics are at heart anarchist (and ultimately anti-civ), so I believe it is possible to find ways to address big problems with mutual aid, in a community-based, non-authoritarian fashion.
Intriguingly, much of the implementation of China’s COVID policies has been through decentralized, neighborhood committees that were first created in the 1950s. In the book, Capitalism on a Ventilator [which I review here], Vijay Prashad, Weiyan Zhu, and Du Xiaojun, write:
“A key—and under-reported—part of the response to the virus was in the public action that defines Chinese society. In the 1950s, urban civil organizations—or juweihui—developed as way for residents in neighborhoods to organize their mutual safety and mutual aid. In Wuhan, as the lockdown developed, it was members of the neighborhood committees who went door-to-door to check temperatures, to deliver food (particularly to the elderly) and to deliver medical supplies. In other parts of China, the neighborhood committees set up temperature checkpoints at the entrance of the neighborhoods to monitor people who went in and out; this was basic public health in a decentralized fashion.”
Ah: “in a decentralized fashion.” So there’s a starting point, with a structure that’s basically completely foreign to the US, and which deserves some examination. But we won’t learn anything if we’re knee-jerk dismissive, which is exactly what the US corporate media trains us to be about anything Chinese—or Cuban, or Venezuela, or (out of Cold War habit I guess since they’re capitalists now, too) Russian. Still other places—like India or the entire African continent—are routinely ignored by the media, although they too have had different track records with COVID from either the West or China and therefore deserve examination. I mean, given how poorly we’ve done here, we arguably have something to learn from everyone else. But you’d never know that from our media.
The media. The damned media. We’re living in the Age of Bernays and we’re all being constantly manipulated for profit and control. Actual, bona fide free-thinkers are exceedingly rare, though those who pose as such are common enough. In fact, I won’t claim to be one myself. I admit that my own views on COVID have been strongly shaped by the media I’ve chosen to follow on the topic, much of which has been socialist, though I’m not a socialist. (Favorite podcasts for pandemic news: The Socialist Program with Brian Becker, The Punch Out with Eugene Puryear, Death Panel.)
COVID isn’t just about death. It’s also about disability. Long COVID (which precedes vaccines) is not a rare outcome. One study published in The Lancet found that 1 in 8 people who were diagnosed with COVID were beset by Long COVID. (This study took place before vaccination roll-outs, so their effect—either way—was not a factor.) The CDC has stated that 1 in 5 get Long COVID but the CDC has repeatedly proven itself unreliable on COVID, so if people would rather find figures elsewhere, that’s understandable.
But regardless of the exact percentage, enough people are suffering from Long COVID that it’s clearly not an anomaly. When one in eight people (or one in twenty or even one in a hundred) are contracting a condition that lasts months to years, it will start adding up in a way we can’t ignore. Immunocompromised people are more susceptible to COVID and Long COVID, so the lack of masks in public spaces is a nightmare for them. Long COVID is also apparently making more people immunocompromised, compounding the problem. Unfortunately, here in the US, our track record of caring for disabled people is abysmal. Just look at the number of PTSD-inflicted veterans on the street.
The dystopia we are manufacturing will include more and more people who are physically and cognitively challenged, for whom COVID is not “mild” or “like the flu” but is a permanently life-altering event. China is looking pretty smart—and even compassionate if you’ll deign to grant them that much humanity—in striving to avoid such an outcome.
Now here’s Monkeypox. The last outbreak in the US, in 2003, was halted at 71 cases. Currently, we are at nearly 22,000, but are barely acknowledging it. As of this writing, global numbers seem to be on their way back down, so that’s good news. But why wasn’t there an all-hands-on-deck effort to suppress it here this time? Or is it spreading faster than previously for other reasons? We don’t even know. Our own authoritarian power structures are not taking it seriously.
In our future, there will only be more epidemics and pandemics, not fewer: with accumulating pollution of air, water and land, the baseline of human health will be further compromised, making us more vulnerable; with a wetter, warmer planet, tropic ailments will expand into temperate zones; with increasing encroachment on the wild, more zoonotic diseases will be encountered; with continued gain-of-function research, the danger of intentionally or accidentally released viruses will persist; with a failing public healthcare structure like the US is cursed with, issues once considered manageable will readily burgeon into crises.
This dystopia threatens to be a new, ever-worsening reality, not merely a phase. Welcome to the Failing States of America.