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How Taiwan Contained COVID-19: Early Action, Technology & Millions of Face Masks

Democracy Now! -

Taiwan, despite being just 100 miles from mainland China with regular flights to and from Wuhan, has successfully staved off the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. The country has so far seen five deaths and just under 350 confirmed cases, and most schools and businesses remain open. How did Taiwan do it? “Aggressive action,” says Dr. Jason Wang, the former project manager for Taiwan’s National Health Insurance Reform Task-force. He is now the director of the Center for Policy, Outcomes and Prevention and associate professor of pediatrics and medicine at Stanford University. He speaks with us about Taiwan’s strategy and what the world can learn from it.

As Virus Spreads in Philippines, So Does Authoritarianism: Duterte Threatens Violence Amid Lockdown

Democracy Now! -

In the Philippines, authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte said Wednesday he’s ordered soldiers to shoot to kill residents if they resist a strict lockdown on the island of Luzon. His order came after residents of Manila’s Quezon City shanty town staged a protest, saying they’ve gone hungry without food promised when the lockdown began more than two weeks ago. The Philippines death toll is 136 with more than 3,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases. As those numbers grow, nurses and doctors report a drastic lack of personal protective equipment. While the Philippines has seen a surge in cases, Indonesia is now reporting the second most fatalities in Asia after China with 181 dead. Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan have also had success in containing the virus. For more on how countries in the region are responding to coronavirus, we speak with Natashya Gutierrez, editor-in-chief of VICE Asia.

"Our Bodies Are On the Line": NYC Nurses Demand Protective Gear as COVID-19 Death Toll Skyrockets

Democracy Now! -

Nurses in California, Florida, Kansas, Missouri, Nevada and Texas are protesting one of the nation’s largest hospital chains for a “lack of preparedness” amid the coronavirus pandemic. They’re calling on HCA Healthcare to provide optimal personal protective equipment, or PPE, for nurses and other staff. In New York, the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, nurses and doctors at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx protested Thursday over the lack of PPE. Today another protest is underway in front of Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan calling for more PPE, better staffing and COVID-19 testing for frontline staff. Live from the protest, we speak with Tre Kwon, an ICU nurse at Mount Sinai West and a member of the COVID-19 Frontline Workers Task Force at Mount Sinai Hospital. Kwon ended her maternity leave early to help her colleagues address the COVID-19 pandemic, which is overwhelming New York City hospitals. Kwon is also a member of Left Voice.

Headlines for April 3, 2020

Democracy Now! -

Activists Are Still Taking to the Streets—in Cars

Mother Jones Magazine -

Downtown San Francisco should have been quieter than ever, since most of the city has been quarantining for weeks due to COVID-19. But on Tuesday morning, the streets echoed with more noise than a typical rush hour, as a long caravan of cars blaring their horns inched toward the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building, demanding the release of immigrant detainees who are highly at risk during the pandemic.

Noisy caravans simultaneously moved through Sacramento, Los Angeles, and San Diego, employing a tactic that has caught on nationwide as a safe way to voice political dissent in a time of social distancing: protesting from your car.

Many activists credit Never Again Action, the national network of Jewish people and allies, with inspiring the idea after they mobilized as many as 100 cars to surround ICE’s Hudson County detention center in New Jersey on March 22. Since then, protest caravans have appeared in Philadelphia, Chicago, and throughout California, calling for rent forgiveness, freedom for prisoners in overcrowded jails, better funding for health care workers on the pandemic’s front lines, and removing President Trump from office. 

Yesterday we surrounded an ICE Detention Center in NJ. We won’t let COVID turn detention centers into death camps.

We need your help to do this across the country. We have to pressure 50 Governors to act to protect ALL of the people in their states, no exceptions #ReleaseThemNow pic.twitter.com/9KeCo500eL

— Never Again Action (@NeverAgainActn) March 23, 2020

The tactic isn’t necessarily new—automobiles were used to hold up traffic during Black Lives Matter protests throughout the last decade, and even played a role in the Montgomery bus boycotts of the 1950s. But by insulating passengers at a safe remove from others, cars have taken on new relevance in the age of the coronavirus, when people can’t otherwise be in the streets.

“Of course there are digital actions,” says Sam Tunick of Never Again Action, which organized the recent San Francisco protest. “But there’s something about an in-person action that wakes people up to the urgency. We wanted to protest in a way that couldn’t be ignored, since detention facilities aren’t in broad daylight and we don’t alway know what goes on inside.” 

Never Again Action draws parallels between modern immigrant detention and the historic persecution of Jews, a connection they say grows more pressing by the day as overcrowded and unsanitary conditions threaten to turn ICE facilities into “death camps.” 

An activist on San Francisco’s waterfront prepares for a car protest.

Molly Stuart

“We’re doing what we wish that bystanders had done for our ancestors, which would have prevented a lot of death and suffering if a critical mass of people had noticed and taken action,” says Tunick, whose car blasted Beyoncé’s “Freedom” repeatedly throughout the two-hour protest. I trailed somewhere behind, alone in my Ford. Snaking through city streets in such a long caravan felt chaotic, but the dozens of cars attained critical mass at times, such as when they circled the block around City Hall.

Though the group defied stay-at-home orders, “I’d argue that protest is an essential activity,” Tunick says. “We’re ringing the alarm about something that could become a greater public health emergency.”

“Anne Frank didn’t die in a gas chamber,” said a sign taped to one car at the protest. “She died of typhus in a detention camp.”

Besides the danger they pose to people inside, infection hotspots like ICE facilities, prisons, and jails can rapidly spread the virus to local communities, through guards and others who move in out of such places.

Related concerns inspired Norma Orozco to attend a car protest in Oakland last week. After noticing that the Alameda County sheriff added an $85 million request to expand the police force at around 8 p.m. on the night before a county Board of Supervisors meeting, Orozco, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and other local anti-incarceration groups mobilized to have a car-based presence when the meeting started at 9 a.m. the next day.

As county supervisors met in person to vote on their agenda, Orozco circled the building with a dozen other cars before parking in a place visible through the meeting room’s windows.

“We wanted to let the supervisors know that we were still watching and paying attention to what’s going on,” says Orozco, calling the sheriff’s last-minute request a “cash grab” made strategically while advocates were busy trying to provide sanitary supplies to inmates and release as many as they could. The sheriff’s office said that his request was not coronavirus-related; the protestors called for money to be diverted to local hospitals instead.

Cars circled the Alameda County Board of Supervisors meeting to protest a budget increase for their sheriff.

Brooke Anderson

That car protest seemed to be a success, as the supervisors postponed their vote to allow for weeks of public comment on the sheriff’s request. Those driving against ICE, however, continue to play the long game.

Tuesday’s statewide protest in California dovetailed with earlier pleas by San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to use emergency powers during COVID-19 to suspend ICE facility contracts and release detainees. The governor’s office replied that only the federal government could do so. Yet organizers with Never Again Action say they will keep applying pressure at all levels of government. 

“We are trying to stop preventable deaths before it’s too late,” said Tunick, adding that the turnout of more than three dozen cars, and even more in other cities, was a pleasant surprise. “When we’re all feeling isolated, it’s really important to express dissent in a collective way,” he says.

Ruth Robertson, who is 67, drove out to represent the Raging Grannies Action League, who have protested immigrant detention policies for years. But “the last time we were in the streets was March 7,”  says Robertson, before the pandemic became grave. “We’ve been itching to get out in the streets again, and this is the best way to do it while still being safe.”

Wearing an N95 mask behind the wheel, and a matronly apron overflowing with buttons, Robertson said she was taking pains not to contract the virus. “I’ve been getting my food and produce delivered,” she said. “I’m staying inside, except for today.”

Outside the Los Angeles Metropolitan Detention Center where anti-ICE protesters are staging a car horn protest to demand ICE release all of its detainees for fear of coronavirus outbreaks while in custody.

Signs say, "Release them all," "Detention is deadly," and "Fuck ICE" pic.twitter.com/wyIrxDXrsP

— Julio Rosas (@Julio_Rosas11) March 31, 2020

Expired Respirators. Reused Masks. Nurses Offer Sobering Accounts of What Could Come

Mother Jones Magazine -

This story was originally published by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Nurses at one hospital in southeastern Washington state have alleged that, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they were ordered by supervisors to use one protective mask per shift, potentially exposing themselves to the novel coronavirus.

At another hospital, just east of Seattle, nurses had to use face shields indefinitely.

At a third hospital, on Washington’s border with Oregon, nurses reported that respirators were expired. The hospital responded, the nurses said, by ordering staff to remove stickers showing that the respirators might be as much as three years out of date.

The accounts these nurses provided are drawn from nine complaints filed by the Washington State Nurses Association with the state Department of Labor & Industries since March 11. They paint a picture of how the first state hit by COVID-19 continues to struggle to provide adequate safety measures for medical workers.

Their struggle may well preview what medical providers in other states could face amid a national shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE. The complaints from Washington also show the increasing sense of fear, frustration and powerlessness many nurses and other medical workers feel as COVID-19 pummels the health care system.

As of this weekend, the Washington Department of Health has reported 3,700 known COVID-19 cases in the state and 175 deaths.

ProPublica contacted all nine hospitals that were the subject of a nursing association complaint. Four responded. They said they were taking measures to protect their employees, but emphasized the unprecedented crisis in which their hospital staffs are now working. In a press briefing Thursday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the federal government had supplied the state with “significant shipments of personal protective equipment” but added that he had “profound long-term concerns about being able to procure these necessities.” Inslee, a vocal critic of the Trump administration, reportedly clashed with the president in a conference call with governors Thursday, according to the Washington Post, pleading with him to take more action.

Some nurses in Washington state told ProPublica that they feel caught between their responsibility to care for patients and their own safety. They believe they have no choice but to keep working, at great personal risk and with limited means to raise concerns within their chains of command. They could be disciplined for talking to the media, and some said they had been explicitly warned about that in emails sent by hospital administrators. To refuse an assignment on safety grounds, they said, could find them ostracized by colleagues or, worse, fired for insubordination.

“It’s a health care war zone,” said a critical care nurse who works at one of the nine hospitals named in the complaints and, like all nurses interviewed for this story, asked to remain anonymous.

She told ProPublica that she has had to reuse masks and other PPE, if she can obtain it at all. She uses a simple surgical mask—a paper cover with ear loops, no eye cover—even when working with patients waiting for COVID-19 tests, because that’s all that’s available. Community members have been asked to donate handmade masks. She wears one over her surgical mask; it doesn’t protect from viruses but at least is one more layer. Every night when she comes home, she strips down in the garage and throws her dirty hospital scrubs in the washer before rushing in to take a shower.

“Never in a million years did we think when we were in nursing school that our employer would not provide us with the PPE they are legally obligated to provide us with, to care for those patients,” she said.

Her supervisors acknowledge the shortage, she said, but have told staff members that unless they make do, they could run out of all protective gear, making their situation even more precarious.

“We take an oath of ‘do no harm,’” the nurse said. “Would we be willing to take care of these patients with nothing?” She has a family, some of whom would be especially susceptible to the disease.

“I don’t know what I would do,” she said. “We are continuing to reuse this equipment so hopefully we don’t have to make that choice.”

“This Is What You Signed Up For”

Nurses in Washington, where the virus first surfaced in the U.S., believe their early experience can help prepare health care workers elsewhere. The Washington State Nurses Association has even produced a list of recommendations for other states, called “Lessons learned from the front lines.” Those lessons include, “Know your employer’s plan for PPE (personal protective equipment),” and “Know the testing and treatment protocols now.”

When the novel coronavirus spread across Washington in February and March, the lack of supplies in hospitals, coupled with uncertainty over what protective measures were needed, presented many nurses with a difficult choice. Nurses given a dangerous job could accept the assignment and its attendant risks, or refuse and face possible discipline. The WSNA, a union that represents more than 17,000 nurses, advised members who refused an assignment to stay and do other jobs. For those nurses who accepted an “abnormally dangerous” assignment, the union advised filling out what is called an ADO form. ADO stands for Assignment Despite Objection.

When ProPublica mentioned ADO forms to some nurses in Washington, they did not react with enthusiasm. “It’s the stuff of fairytales,” said one nurse in the Seattle area who specializes in mental health. “Nurses, administratively, are strongly discouraged to use the forms or outright shamed for documenting what they are uncomfortable with in a caregiving situation.”

Under collective bargaining agreements, nurses disciplined for refusing an assignment can push back, arguing that the discipline lacked “just cause.” But the WSNA has warned its members that given the current national and state emergency declarations, the resolution of any such objection “would likely be delayed and the outcome may be uncertain.”

Ruth Schubert, the association’s communications director, said the WSNA has received about 70 Assignment Despite Objection forms related to the coronavirus. She declined to provide copies, citing confidentiality, but did share excerpts, including one that said: “Continue to be asked to reuse single use masks for COVID-19 modified droplet patients and wear ill-fitting gowns that fall off shoulders. Goggles not available.” Some nurses are unlikely to fill out an ADO for fear “that management will see them as complainers,” Schubert wrote in an email.

The WSNA said nurses fear being disciplined for talking with the media. A doctor from PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, close to the Canadian border, told the Seattle Times on Friday that he was fired after he raised multiple concerns about the hospital’s lack of protective measures against COVID-19. A spokesperson for PeaceHealth St. Joseph confirmed the doctor was fired but had no comment because the physician was employed by another company, called TeamHealth.

PeaceHealth St. Joseph is one of the nine hospitals the state nursing association has filed a complaint against, for allegedly asking nurses to reuse and share their protective equipment without proper cleaning. As of Saturday morning, PeaceHealth had not responded to ProPublica’s inquiries about this incident or the complaints. TeamHealth, the doctor’s primary employer, told ProPublica that the physician has “not been terminated,” and that TeamHealth is “committed to engaging with him to try to find a path forward. Now more than ever, we need every available doctor, and we will work with [him] to find the right location for him.”

A Seattle nurse who specializes in oncology said her hospital’s administration initially downplayed the risks: “I had a manager come in and tell me, ‘This is just like the common cold.’” The nurse added, “We’re being told, business as usual, this is what you signed up for.”

Some nurses in Washington have turned to Facebook to express their frustrations. (ProPublica isn’t identifying the nurses in these threads, but did confirm their nursing credentials through state licensing records.)

Commenting on a Facebook post that warned against using cloth masks, one registered nurse wrote, “We need to be able to wear something!!!”

A different post linked to a Bloomberg story about hospital workers making masks from supplies bought at craft stores and Home Depot, including industrial tape and foam. “No offense but I’m not wearing someone’s arts and crafts project with this thing,” wrote one registered nurse.

Facebook posts linking to a Tacoma News Tribune story about nurses reusing disposable masks generated multiple me-too threads. “We are doing this,” wrote a nurse in Everett. “Our hospital … also,” wrote a nursing assistant southeast of Seattle. “It’s everywhere,” one RN wrote, followed by a second RN, “This is everywhere,” followed by a third RN, “Yep.”

One nurse told ProPublica that she wrote on Facebook that she had decided to take a break from her job because she could no longer deal with what she considered an unsafe environment.

She was met with criticism by another nurse, who commented that they didn’t get into this field to “cut and run.” That devastated the nurse who spoke to ProPublica, who responded she didn’t “sign up to die.”

The nurse, who works in an eastern Washington hospital, started to get concerned when, on March 10, her hospital loosened some of its PPE guidelines. She is now using up all her vacation and sick leave because she’s nervous to return to work. If she isn’t approved for an extended leave of absence, she said, she is “100 percent prepared to resign.”

“These Are Not Normal Times”

The most recent complaint filed by the state nurses association was on March 23 against Overlake Medical Center. Based in Bellevue, just east of Seattle, Overlake has had dozens of patients with COVID-19 on any given day. On Friday, the number was 40, said Morgan Brice, a hospital spokeswoman. At least 11 patients have died at Overlake from COVID-19, according to Brice. A number of them arrived at the hospital under “comfort care,” meaning their death was imminent and the hospital made efforts to keep them comfortable in their final days.

The complaint filed with the Department of Labor & Industries said nurses were being required to reuse face shields “indefinitely.” “They must clean them themselves and … store in their own locker for reuse day after day, until the chinstrap is loose,” the complaint says, adding: “RNs report the chinstrap is loose after one 12-hr shift.” The complaint also said the hospital was failing to make sure that notification of exposure was reaching nurses on their days off, “thus prompting additional community and family exposure.”

Brice, in an email, told ProPublica that Overlake had yet to receive a copy of the complaint and would not respond to the specific allegations until it has. But the hospital, she wrote, is “committed to investigating the facts related to any complaint and acting appropriately.” She outlined some steps Overlake has taken during the outbreak, including having a team of nurses “committed to the health of our employees.”

“We have dedicated extensive resources to training staff on how to use and maintain their PPE,” Brice wrote. “We have posted videos, daily FAQs for staff, formed a PPE float team to help guide employees, along with our managers rounding the floors on a consistent basis. We know we have taken extraordinary and proper measures to protect the health and safety of our staff, while we respond to the medical challenges being presented on a daily basis.”

The complaints filed with Labor & Industries use a fill-in-the-blank form, with a narrative section to describe alleged hazards.

On March 11, the nurses association filed a complaint against St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma, saying nurses were being directed to reuse and share protective equipment. The complaint also alleged that nurses weren‘t being fit-tested for N95 masks, a protective respiratory device worn over the face. Masks that aren‘t properly fitted to a person‘s face can admit contaminated air.

CHI Franciscan, the medical system that includes Tacoma‘s St. Joseph, said it is cooperating with the investigation but was told by the Department of Labor & Industries that no action is required at this time. The system denied that nurses “have been or will be asked to use PPE in a manner not in compliance with CDC, FDA and DOH guidelines,” according to an emailed statement from Cary Evans, the company‘s vice president for communications and government affairs.

The hospital is operating with “7-12 days of PPE” and said it has not had a situation where demand for PPE exceeded supply. Administrators have expanded fit testing for N95 masks. They are also accepting donations of PPE gear from the community. Normally, a 30-day PPE supply is preferred, according to the Washington State Hospital Association.

“These are not normal times,” Evans‘ statement said, “and we are doing everything we can to keep our staff and patients safe, while also conserving masks under the latest local CDC guidelines.”

The same day it filed the St. Joseph complaint, the nurses association submitted seven others, two against hospitals within the same medical system: Multicare Tacoma General Hospital and Multicare Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup, a community southeast of Tacoma. A spokesperson for the system wrote that all employees “have the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) they need today to do their jobs safely” and noted that hospital staff are allowed “to preserve PPE resources needed to care for our most critical patients.”

“Due to supply chain disruptions, health systems worldwide are dealing with shortages of PPE,” the statement read.

Another complaint, filed against PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center, a hospital in Vancouver, across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon, said nurses were reporting lack of access to masks and respirators. When the nurses reported that respirators were outdated, the hospital “directed staff to remove outdated 2017 and 2019 ‘service by‘ stickers on equipment,” the complaint said.

The hospital did not respond to requests for comment from ProPublica as of Saturday morning.

Beth Zborowski, senior vice president of membership engagement and communications for the Washington State Hospital Association, said a lack of PPE is probably the medical community‘s top problem in the state, in terms of its efforts to fight COVID-19. The association advises hospitals to follow Department of Health and CDC recommendations, though many nurses say the latter keeps changing.

“Prior to the pandemic, masks were available on carts outside of rooms,” Zborowski said. “What started happening is those things started disappearing pretty quick. People had to put conservation measures in.” It‘s one reason the state canceled elective procedures in recent weeks.

It‘s unclear how many health care workers in the state may have become ill as a result of COVID-19, though a doctor at EvergreenHealth near Seattle has been infected and Schubert, of the state nursing association, said she knows of nurses who have become sick. Zborowski said the state hospital association does not have a formal record but added she has not heard about many front-line medical workers becoming ill, as they have in New York and Italy. She hopes that means the conservation and safety measures hospitals are taking are working. The goal is to preserve the PPE; otherwise, “I think we will start to see health care workers getting sick.”

Eileen Ravella, a physician assistant at an urgent care facility in Olympia, said her employer is doing well under the circumstances, trying to keep COVID-19 cases cordoned off from other patients and using a drive-through testing area they set up to meet the need. This is helping them preserve PPE, but she knows the system is breaking under the weight of the pandemic.

“I think we all have to step up and do our best despite the obstacles,” Ravella said. “Those patients need us.”

A nurse who works in a western Washington emergency room said that a few weeks into the pandemic, the crisis conditions had begun to feel normal, “which is kind of horrible, too.”

Now she‘s advising nurses in other states about what she‘s experienced. Initially, many of them refused to take her seriously.

She admits that she downplayed COVID-19 at first. Then, in mid-March, she found out about the EvergreenHealth doctor who had contracted the virus.

“It became really real then that some of us may not make it out of here alive,” she said.

A few days later, she and her colleagues received a message from their hospital administrator, advising them to complete their advanced directives—basically a living will.

“[N]ow with COVID-19 making who gets sick an unpredictable event,” the message read, “it‘s an important time to get this done.”

“The Officers Were Taking Our Toilet Paper”: One Woman’s Life In Prison Right Now

Mother Jones Magazine -

Earlier this week, lawyers representing the state of California notified a panel of federal judges that the state’s corrections department intends slow the spread of coronavirus in its facilities by freeing about 3,500 inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes who were already due to be released within 60 days. Those early releases won’t affect Stacey Dyer, who is currently serving life without parole after she was convicted of murdering a 19-year-old in a small city in California’s Central Valley. Sixteen years into her sentence at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, the 40-year-old works as a peer drug and alcohol counselor and sees her children once a month at most. Survived and Punished, a prison abolition group that advocates for prisoners who are survivors of sexual and domestic violence to be released, has petitioned Gov. Gavin Newsom to commute her sentence.

I spoke with Dyer by phone last week. Her prison currently has zero confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to data published by the state corrections department—but just one inmate there has been tested for the virus. With the prison on a modified schedule to promote social distancing, Dyer has been spending up to 22 hours a day in a shared cell with four bunks, watching TV news to glean information about the pandemic outside. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of her comments based on phone and email correspondence.

Stacey Dyer

Courtesy of California Coalition for Women Prisoners

Stacey Dyer: In the beginning, the officers were taking our toilet paper. I don’t know if they’re still hoarding toilet paper out there or not, but this was at the time everybody had first started going to the grocery store and there was, like, no toilet paper.

We have boxes of toilet paper, gloves, and sanitary wipes, stuff like that, that the janitors use to clean up. They keep an inventory of everything, from the toilet paper to the cleaning chemicals to the pads and tampons. They check it frequently and pass it out weekly to each room. A couple of boxes came up missing, and there was no other way it could have disappeared but staff, because it’s locked up. We kind of joked about it, because our toilet paper is horrible. It’s not really even toilet paper; it’s like this one-ply sandpaper. It has, kind of, a smell to it. It’s the worst of the worst of toilet paper. So we laughed and said they must be really desperate.

The staff that was here that day agreed that the remaining toilet paper in the closet would be safer if we passed it all out and started hoarding it in our rooms. So there wasn’t any toilet paper for staff to steal unless they came in our rooms and got it, which—then we would know who they are.

“Everybody kind of panicked and started hoarding toilet paper and pads.”

Once the boxes came up missing, everybody kind of panicked and started hoarding toilet paper and pads, and sanitary napkins, and stuff like that. The same with the groceries at the canteen. The canteen supervisor said that she has a couple thousand dollars worth of canteen left, and after that, she didn’t know if the next shipment was coming in. So everybody was basically buying up everything in the canteen. We’re hoarding things like people were hoarding things out there. The big difference is we can’t go to the grocery store any time we want.

I’m a drug and alcohol counselor for the drug program here. [With programs cancelled,] I’m missing my support network, and my pay. Everybody that I work with is positive. They’re all mentors, they’re all drug and alcohol counselors, and they’re my support system. And even though I live in a good room and a good unit, there are a lot of people that are on a different page—a lot more negativity. People are taking drugs and drinking to try to cope with the lockdown, which in turn usually ends in some type of conflict among roommates. It’s basically pruno, fermented juice or fruit that they let sit. It’s really unhealthy, pretty risky, but they do get drunk off of it and usually end up fighting.

You definitely have to have a good room right now. There’s four bunks, and I’m not sure the dimension of the cell, but it’s a pretty tight squeeze. It’s definitely less than six feet apart from one bunk to the next. We share the bathroom, the shower, and the sink. We’re pretty much with each other all day, except for our hour and a half out and in the dayroom.

A lot of people I see are having problems. A lot of conflict, a lot of arguing, a lot of fighting. Some people don’t handle being locked down all day well. I don’t think they handle it mentally and emotionally, so they start lashing, taking it out on each other, or they start trying to complain or control things. If somebody’s not washing their hands enough, they might start bullying them to wash their hands, calling them dirty or nasty. People are getting bullied if they sneeze, cough, or sniffle.

“We are used to being locked up, while the rest of the world is getting a small bitter taste of what we go through.”

Officers are really grumpy and angry and taking it out on us. I got a lot of comments from some of the officers in passing, saying, “Oh, you better not have the coronavirus,” stuff like that. There’s been a lot of rumors. Like if things got really bad, the officers could abandon us. That they don’t have to, legally, help us or save us or do anything for us. They can leave us for dead. I don’t think it’s going to get that bad. But my first thought was feeling sort of a desperation. Like, oh god, how am I going to survive? If worse came to worst, and there was nobody there to feed us or to even unlock our doors? Being trapped in the cell and not having food, or what if they stopped running the water or the electricity?

Thinking about it, and just seeing the tone of the officers and their attitudes, it just really made me feel like I was basically worthless, like I’m not worthy of being saved.

Watching the news and seeing things on TV, seeing how people are reacting out there to being isolated from each other, it’s like watching the whole world get locked up in prison with us. Watching the news, I’m seeing them struggle emotionally from not having a connection with people, missing their family, and loved ones. I see it’s taking a toll on people. They’re depressed, in the free world. And it’s just interesting to me because we’ve been going through that since we’ve been in prison. Going through these emotions, feeling isolated, and trying to find creative things to do with our time. Most of us are used to entertaining ourselves and have games, puzzles, and adult coloring books to keep ourselves occupied. We are used to being locked up, while the rest of the world is getting a small bitter taste of what we go through.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says no toilet paper has gone missing from the Central California Women’s Facility, and that allegations of increased drug use, drinking, and fighting there are unfounded. “We understand that the inmate population is watching the news and are experiencing the same kinds of uncertainty and anxiety that many might be experiencing in the public,” CDCR press secretary Dana Simas said in a statement. “We have contingency plans on top of contingency plans to address any situation where COVID-19 might significantly impact our operations, including ensuring we always have enough staff to continue operations at each institution.”

Gaza’s New Conflict: COVID-19

Counterpunch Articles -

Photograph Source: Garoa – CC BY 2.0

At a time when everyone was celebrating the arrival of a new decade, a rare once-in-a-100-year event took the world by surprise: a major global pandemic named COVID-19. Governments around the world struggled to fight the virus, taking extreme measures to contain it with nearly one billion people now living in confinement. At first, Palestinians followed up on the pandemic with sighs of relief thinking that the virus will never reach them, especially in Gaza, where two million people have been living under a suffocating siege for more than a decade. Alas, their worst fears have been realized: the discovery of dozens of Coronavirus cases in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

In 2012, The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees warned that the Gaza Strip would be uninhabitable by 2020. Years of a devastating siege and a series of military conflicts taking the lives of thousands struck the enclave with misery and poverty, bringing youth unemployment up to 75% and the economy to its knees. The current healthcare and sanitary system in the Gaza strip are extremely exhausted, lack basic resources, equipment and material that would be necessary not only to fight a major pandemic, but to simply treat normal day-to-day patients. A major outbreak of COVID-19 in the Gaza strip would lead to nothing less than a disastrous effect and would likely cause a death toll higher than all previous military conflicts combined.

On March 26th, 2020, the United Nations announced that it would facilitate the delivery of a total 1200 COVID-19 testing kits to Gaza’s hospitals to help fight the outbreak. Nearly 1636 people who arrived in Gaza via the Rafah Crossing border or the Beit-Hanoun (Erez) checkpoint have been placed in mandatory quarantine in 22 centers around the Gaza Strip, including schools, hotels and healthcare centers. 505 more people are currently in confinement at home. In the Gaza strip, every individual has an average of 0.18 square meters of personal space, which would place Gazans into involuntary clusters of interconnected social networks. One person can easily transmit the disease to scores of family members and neighbors living nearby, in houses that are glued side by side to each other. At one of the most densely populated areas in the world, the average family has nearly 6 members on average and most of the population lives in extended family homes of 20 members and more. More strict measures must be taken to contain the virus or catastrophic consequences will ensue the like of which Gaza has never seen before.

When the news of confirmed cases broke out, Gazans started taking precautionary measures to protect themselves and their family members from infection. However, with the lack of sufficient resources and equipment, Gazans had only one other way to cope with stress: cynicism and dark comedy. From Facebook posts to Twitter hashtags, Gazans reacted to the irony of being advised by the Palestinian Authority not to travel, whilst living under siege and prohibited from doing so for more than a decade. Others reacted with sarcasm to isolation notices to close down businesses and shops and go into confinement, wondering how they would provide for their children when there is little commercial activity in an ailing economy, even before the arrival of the virus in the first place.

In Gaza, over 50% of the entire population is unemployed; the percentage is 75% for the youth, which renders thousands of workers in agriculture, transportation, retail, and other industries desperate (The Israeli GDP per capita is nearly 30 times that of Gaza’s). Unemployment rates are expected to rise due to major lockdowns of commercial and economic activities. Authorities in Gaza have already closed mosques for prayer, shut down events and activities involving any gathering of people; limited entry to Gaza’s seaport for fishermen under tight restrictions and closed street markets. These decisions were seen as a necessary evil to prevent a major outbreak. However, they will present a painful strike to a weak economy. In the absence of an economic rescue plan, more Gazans will suffer.

In the event of a major COVID-19 outbreak in the Gazan enclave, the numbers draw a dark picture: according to the WHO’s Gaza office, there are only 62 ventilators in the Gaza Strip. They represent far less than what is needed to fight off the virus, and many of them currently do not function properly. There are only 2313 hospital beds available for an entire population of over 2 million people, with the capacity dwindling to less than 0.5 hospital beds per 1000 individuals. This compares to over 4.6 beds in Switzerland, 3.3 beds in Italy, and 3 beds in Spain, Europe’s most affected countries by COVID-19. There are currently 60 intensive care units in the entire Strip, 40 of which are currently occupied. The cost of preparing a single intensive-care unit costs nearly $50 000. The cost of a single testing kit is almost $5000. Gazan hospitals do not currently have the financial resources to equip themselves with enough equipment and basic material such as face masks. In short, an outbreak scenario similar to that of Europe or China will be a death sentence to the Gaza strip.

The supply chain will become even more exhausted under an imminent lockdown with major logistical difficulties of transporting food items, medicine and other essentials on a daily basis to families and shops around the Strip. The negative impacts of electricity cuts and lack of accessibility to clean drinking water can be fatal as well. NGOs, private-sector corporations, self-employed workers and students have all increased their reliance on the internet to work from home or study. However, many families around the Gaza strip do not have a smartphone or an internet connection.

In order to reduce the probability of a major outbreak in the Gaza Strip, the international community needs to recognize the difficulties that lie ahead. Hamas’ authority in the Gaza Strip is currently not recognized by the U.S, the EU or Israel. The two main doors of entry into the Gaza Strip are Kerem Shalom and Erez, both of which are under full Israeli control. The Covid-19 outbreak has no consideration for borders, ideology or ethnicity. It transcends them all, it attacks all humans. Israel and Hamas must cooperate with one another to keep each other safe. Israel seems to have already understood the upcoming challenge and therefore it facilitated the entry of testing kits and other medical essential equipment over the past few days into the Gaza strip. On the other hand, Hamas recognized that there could be a political opportunity that it could seize: by proving its ability to contain the virus with responsible measures and a smart management, they could be seen as competent and more legitimate.

However, the COVID 19 outbreak has shown not only Israel and Hamas but also many advanced countries around the world that they should have invested more in healthcare and sanitary infrastructure rather than dedicating entire budgets to defense and warfare. Economic stability is an additional essential factor for containing a virus: Gaza has lost many of its professionals, particularly, doctors and nurses who emigrated abroad due to dire economic conditions.

The COVID crisis has brought into stark relief the vital importance of investment in healthcare as a crucial factor in economic wellbeing at the individual and societal level. The virus knows no borders; as such, it has also underscored the imperative of mutual cooperation, which, perhaps ironically, could create political openings once considered impossible.

The post Gaza’s New Conflict: COVID-19 appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Work, Crisis and Pandemic

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Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

As the depth of the crises resulting from the coronavirus pandemic sink in, millions of the most vulnerable citizens will be facing eviction, hunger and the ravages of illness. America has always been a brutal place for workers and the socially marginalized. Recently enacted economic stimulus and corporate bailouts will demonstrate both the bluntness of the government’s tools and the differentiated class interests they serve. The difference between who they help and who they don’t will be spilling forth as people facing sudden homelessness and hunger aren’t going to just fade away.

Beyond the question of aid from the Federal government, many workers face the prospect of getting sick and dying for simply going up to work. The largest employers, low-wage retailers deemed ‘essential’ through their grocery and hardware business lines, have hundreds of thousands of workers who are only eligible for unemployment benefits if government stay-at-home orders are issued. And with no requirement that employers provide PPE (personal protective equipment), many workers are earning money to pay for their own funerals.

The Federal aid programs are capitalist in the sense that they see the world through a capitalist lens. Unemployment benefits are premised in the idea that only paid labor matters. Since the 1970s, women entering the workforce have added to household income without the work that they were doing— household labor, being considered. The informal economy that sustains the poor exists outside of Social Security numbers, unemployment insurance, and many times the law. It ebbs and flows with the broader economy, growing in times of broad social failure and pitting citizens against the forces of capitalist order.

A virtual chorus of leftish economists has called for maintenance of this order through keeping workers ‘attached’ to their employers. A host of European governments are paying worker’s salaries through their employers so that economies can be restarted quickly once the danger of the pandemic has passed. Left unaddressed in comparisons with the U.S. is that despite four decades of neoliberal reforms, it was never that easy for European companies to fire their workers. ‘At will’ employment, the neoliberal standard, embodies the brutality of American labor relations when compared with Europe.

Labor market ‘flexibility,’ the ability of companies to fire workers quickly at low cost, has long been valued by capitalists who shed workers in recessions to protect profits. The Fordist / Keynesian insight that capitalists are firing their customers was, for a period, mitigated through New Deal programs to support household incomes during economic downturns. Between the end of WWII and the 1970s, unemployment insurance provided an economic bridge during periodic layoffs. As neoliberalism gained traction, state unemployment insurance schemes were systematically underfunded to limit payouts.

The workers for whom maintaining attachment with employers is most feasible are the capitalist functionaries in the PMC (professional managerial class). Together with corporate executives and various and sundry oligarchs, the PMC represents the richest 10% of the U.S. Over the last four decades, its role has been to organize work below it to make it more ‘efficient’ in the capitalist sense of producing more for stagnant or falling wages. The goal of this engineered precarity is to assure that the employer-employee bond exists only to benefit employers.

With respect to Federal stimulus passed to ameliorate the effects of the pandemic, these economists face the challenge that the only group whose interests are guaranteed to be have been represented in congressional deliberations are corporate executives and their agents. From the capitalist perspective, why save jobs now when you can buy desperate labor at half the cost later? This is to make the point that broadening and deepening unemployment benefits is exactly how the capitalist class wants the economic stimulus to be structured.

There are rational reasons for keeping workers attached to employers. The social organization behind capitalist production was decades in the making. Where people live, their shelter, sustenance and support relations can’t be shuttered for six months or a year and survive. To understand the impact of doing so, travel the U.S. to see the devastation that four decades of neoliberalism have wrought. The ultimate logic, as expressed through the structure of the stimulus and bailouts, is to create a tiny island of super-rich amidst a vast wasteland of the cast-aside.

Fear that workers will lose their skills overlooks both the availability of skilled labor overseas and the financial incentives that motivate modern corporate management. Since the 1980s, the role of corporate managers has been to keep ‘their’ organizations from falling apart as financial gamesmanship and eternally rising financial asset prices made them rich. Today, corporate executives and the PMC live in walled ghettoes where the improbable stories and implausible logic that emerge from remoteness and ignorance inform their power.

Not much about America works as claimed. The largest employers follow the Walmart model of low wages, weak worker attachment and the sale of mediocre products from squeezed suppliers at low prices. Through capitalist logic, these weaknesses are strengths. Amazon achieved critical mass as a corporation by starving state and local governments of needed tax revenues that brick and mortar stores were required to collect. This meant in turn that either government services were cut, needed revenues were squeezed from other sources, or some combination of the two.

Deskilling is MBA-speak for the commodification of labor to make it interchangeable and expendable. It is also a conceit of corporate executives who have little hands-on experience with the production processes they oversee. Here is ex-presidential candidate and CEO of Bloomberg Corporation, Michael Bloomberg, confidently explaining farming and metalwork to a roomful of corporate executives. He conspicuously doesn’t know what he is talking about. His broader point is to distinguish between ‘knowledge work’ and unskilled labor. But he has no knowledge of his topic.

Given how common this view is among the executive class— no one challenged Mr. Bloomberg on it, it is unsurprising that enhancing and extending unemployment benefits was favored over maintaining worker attachment. Almost anyone can be trained to dig a hole and drop a seed in it—his explanation of agriculture, in about fifteen minutes. Likewise, almost anyone can be placed in front of a metal press and taught to press the ‘on’ button— his explanation of metalworking. So, why not let the economy crash and afterwards hire unskilled labor at the prevailing wage to run the machines?

As the coronavirus pandemic is in the process of demonstrating, the U.S. hasn’t been run by wise and competent leaders, be they corporate executives or elected representatives, in living memory. Ivy league technocrat Barack Obama led the reorganization of both the healthcare and financial sectors. Both are currently failing due to faulty design, not the skill and dedication of their workers. And those paying attention wouldn’t let Joe Biden make change for a dollar, drive a car or feed their dog. He may soon be joining Michael Bloomberg in deciding how we live.

The issue of worker attachment is the clever branch of a larger debate over ‘liquidationism.’ First, by funding unemployment benefits rather than keeping workers attached to their employers, the bonds of employment are dissolved, or liquidated, goes the theory. Second, stimulus that goes to sustaining corporations keeps them from being liquidated— divided up into pieces, in the bankruptcy process. Finally, liquidation is the fire sale of ‘distressed’ assets that in theory exacerbated the Great Depression.

Not to be flippant, but the entire point of folding finance capitalism into neoliberalism was to end worker attachment to specific employers; to carve corporations up into their constituent pieces to be sold through investment banking (asset stripping); and to create zombie corporations that exist solely through bailouts. The objection appears to be that the Federal government shouldn’t be facilitating this process, meaning leave liquidation to the ‘private’ market.

Bailing out financial institutions, which the Federal Reserve is in the process of doing, keeps the mechanisms and means of predatory finance alive. And bailing out corporations maintains the value of the constituent pieces to be stripped by bankers. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin made more than one fortune as a pirate capitalist. So again, the complaint seems to be that the Federal government is stepping on private toes by floating banks and corporate valuations through bailouts.

In 2009, the decision was made to sacrifice mortgage borrowers to increase bank profits. The picture was muddied by fees, systematic document fraud and perverse incentives, but the choice was to either give banks bailouts to cover bad loans or to pay mortgage balances to keep borrowers in their homes and to cover bad loans. The Obama administration decided that paying mortgage balances would sully the moral character of undeserving homeowners (‘moral hazard’), but that bailing out miscreant bankers was a strike for capitalism.

With regard to a potential fire sale of assets, at the outset of the Great Depression there was no Federally guaranteed deposit insurance, meaning that when banks went under, they took all of the savings of their depositors with them. This created a vicious cycle where insolvent banks created payments crises that made for more insolvent banks, etc. It also resulted in a large number of banks being liquidated in waves that produced a deflationary spiral.

Today, the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) is tasked with winding down insolvent banks. This means that it sells bank assets into orderly markets. It doesn’t dump them in fire sales. Around 2009 this was a point of some contention between the then head of the FDIC, Sheila Bair, and the Obama administration. Ms. Bair thought it best to liquidate insolvent banks while the Obama administration wanted to place them on Federally funded life support in perpetuity while allowing them to pay exorbitant bonuses to miscreant bankers.

Related, in 1998, (Ayn) Randian ‘genius’ and Fed Chair Alan Greenspan organized a privately funded bailout of LTCM (Long Term Capital Management) when its excessive leverage threatened to bring down Wall Street. After 2008 the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve stepped into this role of saving errant hedge and private equity funds. While a few hedge funds were initially allowed to go belly up, Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke quickly stepped in to create the bailout culture that permeates Wall Street today.

With the grip that finance has on American political economy, there is little possibility of public financial liquidation. The most likely scenario is private liquidation where predatory financiers loot pension funds, bailed out corporations and government coffers. Given the power that predatory finance has been given to destroy the economy in normal times, a functioning society would shut Wall Street down in an orderly fashion and turn what remains into a heavily regulated public banking utility.

Reflexive defense of the status quo by an erstwhile left is ironic in the American context. Capitalists, oligarchs and most of the political class don’t appear to see their lots tied to it. An alternative explanation of the focus on unemployment benefits versus keeping workers attached comes through the flow of payments. Income pays the rent; the rent pays the landlord’s mortgage and the mortgage payment keeps the bank solvent. As long as owners and bankers are happy, the ultimate plight of workers is an afterthought.

Finally: Job Guarantee. Job Guarantee. Job Guarantee. And Job Guarantee.

Notes

For those with an interest, Milton Freidman wrote a bit about liquidation and the Great Depression as part of his Monetary History of the United States. Charles Kindleberger’s The World in Depression provides an international take with emphasis on how the charter and structure of the Federal Reserve left banks outside of Wall Street to their own devices. There is no need to take Wall Street propaganda at face value when more likely stories can be found.

 

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Slumlord Capitalism v. Global Pandemic

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Photograph Source: Will Buckner – CC BY 2.0

The poet Langston Hughes once wrote, “I wish the rent was heaven sent.” With 10 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Hughes’ words resonate now more than ever. As we hurtle toward a public health and economic catastrophe, we must reckon with the sobering fact that our federal government is helmed by landlords, real estate developers, and financiers whose fortunes have been made – and whose worldview has been shaped – by years of predatory and extractive business practices. These practices prefigured the federal response to the pandemic and overdetermine the nature of the state-led economic rescue that is already underway.

Jared Kushner is widely regarded as the Trump administration’s behind-the-scenes point person on the coronavirus. Kushner, like Trump, inherited his family’s real estate holdings, updating the business model and expanding its geographical footprint. A New York Times expose from 2017 sheds light on the day-to-day workings of Kushner’s properties in the Baltimore area, where tenants live amidst chronically poor conditions and are subjected to a relentless pattern of petty and meritless litigation. In New York City, Kushner’s residential real estate portfolio has benefited from generous tax incentives and exploited loopholes in the state’s rent laws to remove units from regulation, in the process converting affordable apartments to luxury goods.

The extraction of value that is at the core of Kushner’s business model is based on the multiplication of rents-debts and the intensification of inequalities.

The business practices of Kushner – like those of the real estate industry more broadly – are emblematic of the shifting relationship between the state and the market economy over the past four decades. Beginning in the 1970s, after years of intellectual mobilization by right-leaning economists, neoliberal policies began to take hold in the US and Western Europe. The redistributive functions of the state, established during the New Deal and expanded during the Great Society, were whittled down to a nub, resulting in a tattered safety net and exploding inequalities. At roughly the same time, capital began to move more freely across borders, and once-vibrant economic centers saw massive losses of stable, relatively high paying industrial jobs.

During this period, the power of finance capital grew and real estate became a motor of economic growth. In fact, global real estate now comprises the majority of the world’s assets. The economic centrality of real estate is inextricably linked with financialization, which refers to the expansion of financial services and technologies, and denotes the process through which financial markets have been unleashed, empowering creditors and expanding private debt. Across the country, private equity landlords have bought up swaths of residential properties, preying on tenants of meager means, in the name of short-term value maximization. Though the spread of financialized real estate seems bland and technocratic on the surface, its effects – rent hikes, harassment, evictions – are dislocating and violent. In the words of economic geographer Desiree Fields, the end result is the plundering of “the spaces of existence of the working poor.”

For decades, the bipartisan commonsense has been that government should be run according to market principles. The current administration takes this logic a step further, governing the country like the financialized landlord of a recently purchased ‘distressed asset’: seeking immediate, short-term gain wherever possible – via massive tax cuts and the gutting of already-depleted social programs; nickel and diming workers and poor people; exploiting racist and xenophobic tropes to erode solidarities; seizing on – and expanding – regulatory loopholes; allowing vital public infrastructure to decay, particularly in poor and Black and Brown communities; and casting itself as the insurgent populist that is cutting through entrenched and inefficient bureaucracy.

As it turns out, this mode of governance is particularly ill-suited to deal with the type of crisis we currently face. Despite having a clear window into the near-term trajectory of the coronavirus (see Italy) and a blueprint for how to contain it with relative success (see South Korea), the Trump administration – reportedly under the guidance of Kushner – initially viewed it as a hoax. Then, like a slumlord confronted with well-founded complaints about serious structural conditions, the administration failed to take action. Little to no testing was done initially, leaving the scientific and medical communities at an information deficit regarding the pace and scale of the virus’ advance. This problem was exacerbated by the interplay between our profit-driven healthcare system and our under-resourced medical and public health infrastructure.

In late February, the precipitous decline of the stock market and the inevitability of the virus’ spread left the administration with no choice but to act. The federal response – uneven and incoherent as it has been – can be viewed as a reflection of the worldview of financialized real estate. President Trump’s first instinct, apart from repeatedly referring to the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus,” was to slash the federal payroll tax – this would have given workers in much of the formal economy a small infusion of cash; it also would have starved social security of funding. The $2 trillion bailout passed by Congress and signed into law by Trump is a boon to large corporations and Wall Street. The idea – held by some progressives – that Trump would outflank the Democrats from the left was belied by the paltry benefits offered to workers: a modest one-time check for $1200, extended unemployment benefits, and no relief for renters.

During a stay in New York City in the midst of the Great Depression, the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, shaken by the inequality and alienation of his host society, wrote, “[t]he terrible, cold, cruel part … is Wall Street. Rivers of gold flow there from all over the earth, and death comes with it.” In recent years, these rivers have coursed with lucre from the real estate industry, whose representatives wield state power in much the same way that they made their fortunes – through predation, extraction, grift, racism. As a global pandemic bears down on us all, disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable, the bankruptcy of that project is on full display. And death comes with it.

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The Bigger Picture is Hiding Behind a Virus

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Things often look the way they do because someone claiming authority tells us they look that way. If that sounds too cynical, pause for a moment and reflect on what seemed most important to you just a year ago, or even a few weeks ago.

Then, you may have been thinking that Russian interference in western politics was a vitally important issue and something that we needed to invest much of our emotional and political energy in countering. Or maybe a few weeks ago you felt that everything would be fine if we could just get Donald Trump out of the White House.

Or maybe you imagined that Brexit was the panacea to Britain’s problems – or, conversely, that it would bring about the UK’s downfall.

Still feel that way?

After all, much as we might want to (and doubtless some will try), we can’t really blame Vladimir Putin, or Russian troll farms spending a few thousand dollars on Facebook advertising, for the coronavirus pandemic.

Much as we might want to, we can’t really blame Trump for the catastrophic condition of the privatized American health care system, totally ill-equipped and unprepared for a nationwide health emergency.

And as tempting as it is for some of us, we can’t really blame Europe’s soft borders and immigrants for the rising death toll in the UK. It was the global economy and cheap travel that brought the virus into Britain, and it was the Brexit-loving prime minister Boris Johnson who dithered as the epidemic took hold.

The Bigger Picture

Is it possible that only a few weeks ago our priorities were just a little divorced from a bigger reality? That what appeared to be the big picture was not actually big enough? That maybe we should have been thinking about even more important, pressing matters – systemic ones like the threat of a pandemic of the very kind we are currently enduring.

Because while we were all thinking about Russiagate or Trump or Brexit, there were lots of experts – even the Pentagon, it seems – warning of just such a terrible calamity and urging that preparations be made to avoid it.

We are in the current mess precisely because those warnings were ignored or given no attention – not because the science was doubted, but because there was no will to do something to avert the threat.

If we reflect, it is possible to get a sense of two things. First, that our attention rarely belongs to us; it is the plaything of others. And second, that the “real world”, as it is presented to us, rarely reflects anything we might usefully be able to label as objective reality. It is a set of political, economic and social priorities that have been manufactured for us.

Agents outside our control with their own vested interests – politicians, the media, business – construct reality, much as a film-maker designs a movie. They guide our gaze in certain directions and not others.

A Critical Perspective

At a moment like this of real crisis, one that overshadows all else, we have a chance – though only a chance – to recognize this truth and develop our own critical perspective. A perspective that truly belongs to us, and not to others.

Think back to the old you, the pre-coronavirus you. Were your priorities the same as your current ones?

This is not to say that the things you prioritize now – in this crisis – are necessarily any more “yours” than the old set of priorities.

If you’re watching the TV or reading newspapers – and who isn’t – you’re probably feeling scared, either for yourself or for your loved ones. All you can think about is the coronavirus. Nothing else really seems that important by comparison. And all you can hope for is the moment when the lockdowns are over and life returns to normal.

But that’s not objectively the “real world” either. Terrible as the coronavirus is, and as of right as anyone is to be afraid of the threat it poses, those “agents of authority” are again directing and controlling our gaze, though at least this time those in authority include doctors and scientists. And they are guiding our attention in ways that serve their interests – for good or bad.

Endless tallies of infections and deaths, rocketing graphs, stories of young people, along with the elderly, battling for survival serve a purpose: to make sure we stick to the lockdown, that we maintain social distancing, that we don’t get complacent and spread the disease.

Here our interests – survival, preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed – coincide with those of the establishment, the “agents of authority”. We want to live and prosper, and they need to maintain order, to demonstrate their competence, to prevent dissatisfaction bubbling up into anger or open revolt.

Crowded out by Detail

But again the object of our attention is not as much ours as we may believe. While we focus on graphs, while we twitch the curtains to see if neighbors are going for a second run or whether families are out in the garden celebrating a birthday distant from an elderly parent, we are much less likely to be thinking about how well the crisis is being handled. The detail, the mundane is again crowding out the important, the big picture.

Our current fear is an enemy to our developing and maintaining a critical perspective. The more we are frightened by graphs, by deaths, the more we are likely to submit to whatever we are told will keep us safe.

Undercover of the public’s fear, and of justified concerns about the state of the economy and future employment, countries like the US are transferring huge sums of public money to the biggest corporations. Politicians controlled by big business and media owned by big business are pushing through this corporate robbery without scrutiny – and for reasons that should be self-explanatory.

They know our attention is too overwhelmed by the virus for us to assess intentionally mystifying arguments about the supposed economic benefits, about yet more illusory trickle-down. 

There are many other dramatic changes being introduced, almost too many and too rapidly for us to follow them properly. Bans on movementIntensified surveillanceCensorship.

The transfer of draconian powers to the police, and preparations for the deployment of soldiers on the streets. Detention without trialMartial law. Measures that might have terrified us when Trump was our main worry, or Brexit, or Russia, may now seem a price worth paying for a “return to normality”.

Paradoxically, a craving for the old-normal may mean we are prepared to submit to a new normal that could permanently deny us any chance of returning to the old-normal.

The point is not just that things are far more provisional than most of us are ready to contemplate; it’s that our window on what we think of as “the real world”, as “normal”, is almost entirely manufactured for us.

Distracted by the Virus

Strange as this may sound right now, in the midst of our fear and suffering, the pandemic is not really the big picture either. Our attention is consumed by the virus, but it is, in a truly awful sense, a distraction too.

In a few more years, maybe sooner than we imagine, we will look back on the virus – with the benefit of distance and hindsight – and feel the same way about it we do now about Putin, or Trump, or Brexit.

It will feel part of our old selves, our old priorities, a small part of a much bigger picture, a clue to where we were heading, a portent we did not pay attention to when it mattered most.

The virus is one small warning – one among many – that we have been living out of sync with the natural world we share with other life. Our need to control and dominate, our need to acquire, our need for security, our need to conquer death – they have crowded out all else. We have followed those who promised quick, easy solutions, those who refused to compromise, those who conveyed authority, those who spread fear, those who hated.

If only we could redirect our gaze, if we could seize back control of our attention for a moment, we might understand that we are being plagued not just by a virus but by our fear, our hate, our hunger, our selfishness.

The evidence is there in the fires, the floods and the disease, in the insects that have disappeared, in the polluted seas, in the stripping of the planet’s ancient lungs, its forests, in the melting ice-caps.

The big picture is hiding in plain sight, no longer obscured by issues like Russia and Brexit but now only by the most microscopic germ, marking the thin boundary between life and death.

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