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Covid-19 Attacks the Down-and-Out in Ultra-Unequal South Africa

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It’s hard to imagine a more worrying place to watch Covid-19 hit a society than Johannesburg, South Africa.

This is, after all, the world’s most unequal major city, serving as economic headquarters for the most unequal country. In spite of a poverty rate (at $2.80/day) of more than 60 percent and a national unemployment rate of 40 percent before the current crisis, the labor movement is now considered (by corporate elites) to be the world’s third most militant (although its political divisions are profound). And the capitalist class is rated (by PwC) as the world’s third most crime-prone and corruption-riddled.

Is a social timebomb ticking here now? If so, the ruling elites – led by President Cyril Ramaphosa – appear not to be listening, much less worried. On March 27, the South African state’s response to Covid-19 included harsh – albeit apparently necessary – public-health restrictions on movement and social interactions. They included a dramatic economic shutdown limiting business to essential services, healthcare and pharmacies, and food (but not restaurants, or even seeds to grow vegetables, apparently). Aside from a few categories of workers, everyone else in the country has been ordered to stay inside their homes until April 16, and probably even later, aside from grocery-shopping trips.

Many have praised the state for swift action, as a new stage of ‘Ramaphoria’ infects the chattering classes. But since the 1990s, the state’s ability to properly respond to the Covid-19 threat has been fatally weakened through habitual reinjections of neoliberal ideology, resulting in a profound healthcare crisis, pathetically-slow economic policy reactions and tokenistic welfare responses – while the security apparatus’ brain has apparently weakened too, though its trigger fingers are oversensitive.

Necessary though restrictions on movement may be in a society with nearly eight million people living with HIV, with TB rampant, and with countless other immune-system threats, there is a genuine fear that Ramaphosa’s March 27 lockdown order cannot prevent a profound calamity. The decimated and divided health system and the unreconstructed character of apartheid-era urban slums are obvious even here in the continent’s richest city, below which half the world’s historic stock of gold was dug up over the last century.

The disease and the ghettoes

According to Housing and Water Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, South Africa today has 2000 densely-packed townships, inner-city areas and rural villages “urgently in need of assistance” merely for clean water provision. No doubt this is an underestimate, but at least poor and working-class people are finally being targeted for urgent water relief. But it is mainly in the form of communal water tanks (and only 1000 have been delivered), creating potentially dangerous collection points for spreading the virus. (Installation of house taps and flush sanitation is the traditional demand of social movements, in part because of waterborne disease prevention and gender equity.)

As media commentator Ayabonga Cawe argues, while it is important for these communities to belatedly now get “tanks as an emergency measure, the real crisis lies in underinvestment in service infrastructure and state capacity”; hence no wonder there are ongoing water protests across the country.

Moreover, even in short-term crisis management mode, Cawe continues, the state’s insensitivity to the needs of the masses is tragic: “The confrontations on the first morning of the lockdown between workers, the taxi industry and tavern owners on the one hand, and law enforcement officials on the other, indicate how inadequate the attention, communication and support are that have been extended to those outside the policy scope.”

The lockdown and social-distancing mandates simply won’t work in the overcrowded townships, which traditionally under apartheid were built merely as the urban holding cells of a reserve army of migrant labor.

To illustrate, on March 29 SkyNews reporter John Sparks witnessed army brutality against residents of the impoverished community of Alexandra, a few minutes’ drive from Johannesburg’s luxurious financial district of Sandton: “‘The police minister says you could go to jail for being out here,’ I said to one man, who was drinking a beer in the street. ‘I am staying in one room with five others, how can I stay in there all day? They must just come and arrest us,’ he replied.”

Nonchalant defiance against the lockdown in areas such as Alexandra could have been prevented with a proper public education campaign and generous social support systems, rather than futile episodes of mindless coercion. And to be sure, the urgent ‘de-densification’ of these slums is part of Sisulu’s rhetoric. However, given the history of police brutality in post-apartheid South Africa, including the Marikana massacre, incidents of police and army overkill during the lockdown are inevitable.

The first two such murders were recorded on March 29, one by police tasering in Cape Town. The other was in a township southeast of Johannesburg, where according to a journalist, “41-year-old Sibusiso Amos was allegedly killed when Metro officers tried to arrest people who were found drinking in a local tavern, thus violating the lockdown rules. It is alleged that Amos and some community members attacked the officers and in retaliation, the police discharged rubber bullets. It is further alleged that the deceased Amos was followed up to the veranda of his home where he was fatally shot.” Several children were also injured.

Even in the cosmopolitan Johannesburg suburb of Melville (supposedly “one of the world’s 50 coolest neighbourhoods,” as the municipality brags), the Financial Times reported on March 29 that city police invaded the home of lawyer Elisha Kunene, who simply had witnessed and objected to cops burning a homeless person’s possessions: “They searched the whole house, pulled everything out of our pockets, they berated us… It was very definitely a trespass and illegal search.”

A pandemic of neoliberal violence

At the same time, it also appears likely that already-high domestic violence and petty crime will rise. One reason is a new onslaught of neoliberal financial violence from the Treasury. On February 26, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni – who in 2008 was named Euromoney’s Central Banker of the Year “thanks to his laissez faire philosophy – cut the health budget by a painful $250 million, amidst other austerity hits, to please Moody’s credit rating agency.

In subsequent weeks there was a massive flight of emerging-market capital to the United States in search of the safety of the dollar. As a result, on March 24, Mboweni’s attempt to sell state securities to the private sector in Treasury’s regular auction completely failed. No one was interested. And then on March 27, Moody’s gave Mboweni the dreaded junk rating.

The next day, Treasury was “trembling in our boots about what might be in the coming weeks and months”, said Mboweni. Then on March 29, his surreal response to an interviewer threatened further blows to society: “When I spoke to the president before Moody’s announced their decision he said to me, ‘We now need to move more boldly on the structural reforms programme.’ I said, ‘Hallelujah’. I’ve been preaching that agenda for a long time.”

Egged on by the International Monetary Fund – from which he now threatens he might turn for loans – Mboweni’s reforms mainly consist of predictable budget austerity, civil service cuts, higher levels of cost recovery and the privatization or closure of money-losing parastatal agencies.

But as political economist Duma Gqubule points out, helpful reforms would consist of the opposite: Keynesian fiscal stimulation, because South Africa’s “GDP growth is expected to drop by 5-10 percentage points during 2020. By comparison, GDP growth declined by 1.5 points in the wake of the global financial crisis. The economy lost 1-million jobs between December 2008 and March 2010. This time the collapse in GDP will be at least three times larger. SA could lose 3 million jobs.”

In contrast, the United Kingdom’s Treasury has offered a state-spending stimulus of nearly 19 percent of GDP to tackle Covid-19 even under Boris Johnson’s right-wing rule. Mboweni’s team could only come up with 0.1 percent.

Not just fiscal, but also monetary policy remains stuck within neoliberal quicksand. As the Covid-19 catastrophe moved from public health crisis to world economic meltdown during February-March, the SA Reserve Bank (SARB) cut its main interest rate by only 1.5 percent (from 6.75 percent) in spite of South Africa suffering the world’s third highest rate among 50 countries regularly issuing state bonds, after Turkey and Pakistan.

Finally the SARB began to try unorthodox monetary policy, by issuing funds to purchase Mboweni’s securities on March 24. It was a version of Quantitative Easing which SARB Governor Lesetjo Kganyago – who in 2018 began chairing the International Monetary Fund’s main policy committee – had nine months ago sworn never to do unless inflation and the main interest rates were both at zero (they are 4.2 and 5.25 percent respectively).

The state’s social policy response is also illustrative. Many workers and most of the massive unemployed precariat were immediately without income as the full lockdown began on March 27, just as the state safety net was fraying. Not only was there no capacity in the collapsing public health system, there was little availability of suitable Covid-19 testing kits, masks, protective healthworker garb, Intensive Care Unit beds and hospitals. Only 4000 ventilators can be located in a country with nearly 60 million residents. The number of cases soared past the 1000 mark on March 30, with thousands more expected this week.

There is no unemployment insurance or social grant provision for the informal sector. The monthly grant received by 18 million elderly people and children has shrunk dramatically, measured in US dollars: the vast majority of recipients are mothers who must raise their kids with $24/month, down from $38/month at the end of apartheid; while the elderly get a state pension of $103/month. Now, standing in long queues to withdraw those funds represents an added threat.

So as Covid-19 has struck, the country’s extreme inequality has been exacerbated, and the state’s long-standing delivery shortcomings stand exposed. Even Ramaphosa’s close allies in the SA Communist Party (SACP) were moved to confess, “We have been far too timid in driving forward a comprehensive National Health Insurance. We have allowed our public health system to be hugely overstretched long before the arrival of the coronavirus, allowing the bulk of health resources to be enjoyed by the 16 percent of South Africans with access to private health care.”

The SACP further lamented, “If we can use decisive state power in the public interest to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, why have we not used state power to shut down massive illegal capital flows out of our country? Why did we not long ago build up a major, buffer sovereign wealth fund by imposing, amongst other things, a windfall tax on Sasol when it was still making super-profits out of its sale of petrol on our local markets? Why have we been so timid with urban land reform, perpetuating apartheid spatial patterns that will now expose millions of South Africans to crowded and potentially highly infectious minibus commutes?”

The answer, say traditional leftists such as those at Johannesburg’s Khanya College, is that Ramaphosa’s neoliberal regime has no intention whatsoever of doing anything the too-loyal Communists claim they want.

As one indication of service to corporate power, Environment Minister Barbara Creecy stunned anti-pollution activists by doubling the allowable SO2 emissions of big emitters on March 30, raising it to a level 28 times what China allows. Thousands of deaths a year are already attributed to SO2 and co-pollutants from Eskom’s massive coal-fired power plants, Sasol’s gas-to-oil facility, other oil refineries and countless petro-chemical firms. ABloomberg reporter observed that Creecy’s generosity comes “at a time when there is growing concern about the outbreak of the coronavirus, which is more severe for those who already have respiratory problems.”

Social unrest, with nowhere to go

For many people suffering what were already recessionary conditions, coronavirus seems the least of their concerns. Social protests that erupted during the last week in March in Khayelitsha township of Cape Town, central Durban, Soweto and Nelson Mandela Bay’s Westville township drew attention to lack of services that for communities are more pressing – although if they succeed their community strength to fight back against the virus will be much greater.

In Westville where out of 40 communal water taps only 20 are working, one activist told a local reporter, “We are aware that the coronavirus is dangerous, but it is here for a short period, while we have been living under these dangerous conditions since 2000. We are 1 625 households with no electricity. We do deadly illegal connections that have killed more than 20 people. Some of our people were electrocuted, others were killed in shack fires. On wet days, ambulances and the police don’t come to our area because it is muddy. We have to push sick people in wheelbarrows.”

Lockdown exceptions have been made for local “spaza shops” selling basic-needs groceries and consumables. Yet on March 24, the brutally xenophobic character of that policy was revealed by Small Business Development Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni: “We must indicate that those spaza shops that will be open are strictly those that are owned by South Africans, managed and run by South Africans.” The crucial context here is a series of brutal xenophobic attacks in 2008, 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019, aimed at regional immigrants – including hundreds of owners of the tiny shops. This is the first time in more than a dozen years that a leading politician has been so brazen.

In Nelson Mandela Bay, township protesters defended immigrant spas shops from police closure, and they also demonstrated (in their hundreds) for long-demanded electricity supplies. And in Soweto, the national power supplier Eskom continued to cut off electricity to thousands of residents of Johannesburg’s main township, generating more protests in late March.

In Cape Town, in spite of announcing a period of relief for water debtors on March 20, deputy mayor Ian Neilson would not even reconnect water to thousands of poor households because municipal supply was “restricted to a running trickle-flow after numerous warning letters have been sent to pay debt.” Protesters from Khayelitsha amped up pressure against Neilson on March 25.

For workers everywhere in South Africa, the consumer debt load has continued to rise. In late 2019, 41 percent of the country’s 22 million borrowers from the formal credit system – and millions more who borrow informally from ‘mashonisa’ loan sharks – were already more than three months in arrears, according to the National Credit Regulator.

Progressive precedent but an uphill struggle to rebuild the left

On a prior occasion, a progressive social movement organizing to resist economic oppression associated with a health crisis was exceptionally impressive. During the last pandemic, between 1999-2004 the Treatment Action Campaign fought to gain access to AIDS drugs for free (thus saving $10,000 per patient annually), and insisted they are produced locally on a generic (not Big-Pharma-branded) basis, and delivered to society via the public health system. The result was an increase in life expectancy from 52 to 64 years over the course of a decade.

Such a movement is desperately needed now, but impossible to locate given the adverse conditions. Opposition political parties are unable to mobilize, and in any case have mainly fallen lockstep into line behind Ramaphosa. The trade unions are desperately trying to react to terrifying news from one company after another, either firing workers outright or in a few cases (in retail and airlines especially) already declaring bankruptcy. The divisions between the pro-government Congress of SA Trade Unions and the left-oppositionist SA Federation of Trade Unions remain profound.

In March, efforts emerged from several quarters to forge progressive principles, analyses, strategies, tactics and alliances, of which two were at Khanya College, and another came from 113 civil society organizations endorsing an ambitious campaign statement. The SA Federation of Trade Unions offeredtough critiques of Ramaphosa, Mboweni and Kganyago, along with strong demands. On March 30, scores of progressive professionals organized by the Institute for Economic Justice made further progressive economic-policy suggestions.

Mostly these are occurring in online meetings of civil society strategists and allied intellectuals seeking a united front against government’s stinginess. But Durban community activist Vanessa Burger is correct to warn, “Many NGOs’ move to online virtual events because of the coronavirus is further marginalizing groups who don’t have the know-how, tools or resources to participate: unlimited free/cheap data, reliable network connection, electricity, etc. If this trend becomes permanent and the existing digital access challenges are not addressed, it will become a further source of inequity, division and the widespread exclusion of real grassroots and poor communities’ politics.”

Because of the lockdown, the conditions for mass organizing don’t exist. Lacking linkages to the necessary street-heat that should accompany all the new policy demands, most pro-poor advocacy has been directed at meekly persuading a Presidency, Treasury and Reserve Bank to reverse course. But the ruling elites remain profoundly committed to neoliberal ideology, and recourse to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for loans was Mboweni’s latest suggestion.

In a country in which the 1994 transition to a better society should have been far more decisive, given the activists’ death blow against apartheid, ambitions for socio-economic and especially health justice must be rekindled. Many now argue that between the Covid-19, climate and economic crises – to which here we would add patriarchy and residual racism – we are overdue for a socialist transformation, everywhere on earth. And political consciousness now requires that we take account of the ecological stresses we have placed on the earth which have resulted in the Covid-19 pandemic and its spread.

It is despairing, though, that in a country with among the most portentous objective conditions, the subjective conditions are made yet more miserable by a disease whose economic amplification is weakening everyone’s ability to resist.

The post Covid-19 Attacks the Down-and-Out in Ultra-Unequal South Africa appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Capitalism vs. Humanity

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From today’s perspective of Covid-19 mass death, the virtues of left-wing policies like Medicare for All are abundantly clear. Especially at the capitalist core, where, in the U.S., a stripped down, for profit, privatized, price-gouging, neoliberal health-care system has been proven wholly inadequate and been quickly swamped. Tens of millions cannot afford health insurance. They fall sick with Covid-19 and have a choice: suffer and spread the disease or go to a hospital, get treated and go bankrupt. M4A would correct that. In fact, every other plank of the Sanders campaign would correct similar abuses. In a sane world, that would lead to a leftish government to implement M4A, student loan forgiveness, progressive taxation and more. But this is not a sane world. And not all recent leftist governments have covered themselves with glory.

Take Greece. If ever there was a political party that betrayed its principles upon obtaining power, left-wing Syriza is that party. Elected on a wave of Greek disgust at EU austerity, Syriza held a referendum on whether Greeks should submit to that. The people resoundingly voted no, even at the risk of being booted out of the EU, whereupon Syriza promptly turned around and ignored the referendum. Not surprisingly, last July, a conservative party beat Syriza at the polls.

Was this a stunning instance of treachery by Syriza or was it something else? In the recently published essay collection, Beyond Crisis,” one of the authors, John Holloway, argues it was something else, that for the last 30 years governments have adopted neoliberal policies “not because the leaders are traitors, but because that is the world in which governments are forced to operate.” An economy based on debt, deployed to ram austerity down the throats of workers and the middle class – that is contemporary, globalized, financialized and seemingly inescapable capitalism. Left-wing states – Greece, Venezuela, Bolivia – “have been unable (or unwilling) to break the dynamic of capitalist development.”

According to Theodoros Karyotis’ essay, in Greece “a sovereign debt crisis has been used as a pretext for a massive operation of wealth transfer from the popular classes to the local and international capitalist class.” Sound familiar? It should. It’s life as normal in the U.S., where every time the stock market shudders, political leaders become hysterical and demand that the Fed throw billions down the toilet to rescue the rich. Of course, what is also flushed away is social welfare; tax revenues which could decrease college tuition or subsidize medical care go to ceos, rich corporations and their dividends. As Holloway argues, it’s capitalism versus humanity.

This was already clear in another sphere: the climate crisis. There, capitalism sentences us to an unlivable planet, so that in the short term, fossil fuel corporations can rake in profits. With Covid-19, as with the climate, capitalism reveals its fundamental anti-human nature. “Capitalism has become our destiny,” Holloway writes. “And more and more it seems that this destiny is death…Yet we resist…because resistance is the defense of what we understand as our humanity, as our dignity…Capital flees from us…It may flee geographically in search of a more docile or more malleable labor. It also flees into technology, replacing us with machines.” He argues that we are in a stalemate “where capitalism is unable to tame us sufficiently,” and we haven’t created an alternative. This was written before Covid-19. So it does not account for the chance that capitalism may destroy itself. Its refusal to resuscitate the welfare state, its refusal to forgive debt, may undo it.

The 2020 financial crisis could become a depression. If so, we are not in uncharted waters. We know what that looks like. We can refer to the 1930s or glance at the carcass of Greek society after the banks bled it dry and tossed it in the dumpster. Misery for almost everyone. Unimaginable luxury for a very few. Now we have the added disaster of Covid-19. A plague that ravages a population which cannot afford health care. Overwhelmed hospitals where bodies pile up in the corridors. You can be sure there will be no shortage of ventilators for plutocrats. Still, that may not save them.

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Fear and Loathing in Coronaville Volume 2: Panic On the Streets of Tehran

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There’s panic on the streets of Bellefonte, panic on the streets of Lancaster, I wonder to myself, could life ever be sane again? Barely two weeks into Pennsylvania’s largely mandatory shutdown and I’m already paraphrasing lyrics from vintage Smiths songs. I can’t deny to anyone, much less myself, that I’m not handling this shit particularly well. Quite frankly, I’m losing my proverbial shit. Flipping out on fucking trashcans and stalking the halls like Jack Torrance in lipstick, dragging an ax called ‘Nervous Breakdown’ behind me. I’d say I’m just a few loose screws away from chopping my family up into three neat stacks and hammering out “All business and no play make Nicky a dull girl” for volume three of this fucking thing. I’m an agoraphobic for shit’s sake. How the Christ did I do this for six years straight without committing a single homicide? I had sixty minutes with my shrink over the goddamn phone this week and she stopped my yammering no more than three times to ask me if I was suicidal. So, yeah, dearest motherfuckers, I’m not exactly doing well. At least I’m not alone.

This whole damn country is a fucking madhouse. It’s like dropping the razor blade and realizing, covered in blood and teeming with childhood trauma, that somehow, by the grace of Beelzebub, you’re the sanest motherfucker in the room. The entire country seems to be divided into two equally deranged bipolar camps of hysteria; People who take this virus way too goddamn seriously and people who don’t take it nearly seriously enough. You’re either jacking off to 28 Days Later in a hazmat suit or you’re hitting Rehoboth Beach with the bros for heavy petting and butt-chugging. Sometimes I feel fairly certain that I’m the only one caught somewhere between the two.

While every 25/8 news circus from CNN to ESPN7 is filling the atmosphere with a toxic fog of worst case scenarios and wildly speculative graphs with their tsunami red curves, our shithead president waltz’s to the podium every afternoon whistling the theme to Happy Days, talking up the huge beautiful Easter we’re going to have, choking up blood while the Grim Reaper serves the ham and the Donald watches the Nasdaq pull his orange ass over the finish line to a second term. Every afternoon I wake up with that imbecile blaring at my half-senile mother on Fox News, flanked by his task force of professional adults who pat our president’s back and try like hell not to think about the fact that they’re illustrious careers have been reduced to playing the Funky Bunch to a psychotic man-child and if they fail to nail the choreography, their ass could be grass before tomorrows jamboree, replaced by Dr. Oz or Ralph Macchio.

This may seem like some sick surrealist fever dream out of a bad David Lynch knock-off, but this really is plague time America in a nutshell. The media goes bugfuck nuts about every bump in the road and the government tries to look busy while they do jackshit. The only time when this role ever seems to reverse is when America is savagely tormenting a Third World scapegoat while the typically hysterical talking heads shrug their shoulders and check their phones. This is the situation, once again, with Iran, for the ninetieth fucking time. It’s like Uncle Sam is some hard-luck bully who desperately needs to get laid, but will settle for giving the class hemophiliac another wedgy instead. Iran seems to be the one place where the plague has legitimately reached almost baroque proportions of devastation. There is literally no point in me giving a body count because it will have quadrupled before I finish typing this sentence. Someone dies there every ten minutes and fifty people are infected every hour. And unlike those chain smoking geezers in Italy’s Salo Republic, the median age in Iran is thirty. Fucking thirty! Persia is a baby on fire, and Mike Pompeo says we better throw her in the river.

With everyone from the Mullahs to the EU begging our diseased empire to show a shred of compassion and remove the sanctions that make ventilators rarer than dildos on the streets of Tehran, Trump’s response is to toss on a few more, and he’s the merciful one in that White House. Pompeo’s West Point Mafia is trying their damnedest to pressure our dearly demented dear leader into dropping bombs on a nation that has become a glorified leper colony, all over a few rockets launched by Christ knows who at coalition soldiers illegally occupying nearby Iraq. And our frantic media covers exactly none of this! Even as I rock gently in the corner and try not to swallow my own tongue, my mentally ravaged mind boggles violently at the sheer absurdity of this spectacle, and my bleeding heart shatters over another theatre of cruelty we are once again performing in a country that has never once attacked us or even invaded a single sovereign neighbor.

Adding insult to a litany of injury, as we throw dress rehearsals for a land invasion with those rabid jackals in the United Arab Emirates, we offer a pocket full of aid to our victims as long as they crawl for it, like a rapist offering his victim lube before round two. Is there really any wonder why the Islamic Republic is so fucking paranoid? After the unforgivable crime of replacing one of our dictators with one not sponsored by Pepsi, we have thrown everything at these people; Poison gas attacks, proxy wars, downed civilian airlines, crippling sanctions, and now, as they stare down the sawed off barrel of a plague, they hear us laughing like Dylan Klebold behind the trigger. Have they gone mad? Of coarse they fucking have. We make them look sane after half a month of living the way they have for nearly half a century. What is an embargo after all but a militarized government shutdown. So they blame us for the plague and they’re not far off. We may not have cooked this thing up in some Zionist super-lab but we made the impact it had on Iran, and by proxy, the greater Middle East, a savage inevitability in a twisted game we won’t even call off when it’s raining blood.

And so there’s panic on the streets of Baghdad, panic on the streets of Tehran, Caracas, Havana, Sevastopool. Our only hope for things to be sane again may be to burn down the empire and hang the Great Satan ourselves. Until then, dearest motherfuckers, I’ll be here sharpening my ax. I’ve literally got no place else to be.

Peace, Love & Insanity- Nicky/CH

Soundtrack; songs that influenced this post

* Panic by the Smiths
* Baby’s On Fire by Brian Eno
* Loosing My Edge by LCD Soundsystem
* Reign In Blood by Slayer
* Stuck In the Middle with You by Stealers Wheel
* Don’t Look Back In Anger by Oasis
* I’ve Been Tired by the Pixies
* Hit So Hard by Hole
* Godstar by Psychic TV
* War by Sinead O’Connor

This post is dedicated, in loving memory, to Genesis P-Orridge. Another strange genderfuck alien who very briefly made me feel less alone on this savage planet. Godspeed Godstar. Hopefully you now burn brighter in a finer universe than this. You picked a hell of a time to leave us.

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Would Dying for the Economy Help Anybody?

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Let me start this essay with an important caveat: I, for one, wish this question would not be raised. I find it morally reprehensible to even entertain the idea that sacrificing the lives of the elderly and vulnerable is necessary for the perseverance of any economic system.

The whole notion that death for the economy could be in any way worthy is beyond sadistic and bizarre. I know I am not alone in feeling this way. In ordinary times, one could end the discussion at this point of moral objection. But as we know, these are all but ordinary times, so here I am penning down a column responding to the cruel idea that sacrificing the lives of the elderly would be necessary in the name of economic progress. It’s hard to believe, but in the midst of a pandemic, public discourse has reached this most morbid point.

Though one feels dirty even writing about the topic, last week Dan Patrick, 69 years of age and lieutenant governor of Texas, insinuated his willingness to commit suicide as the Coronavirus pandemic began to ravage in the US. Though the US has been more piecemeal compared to China or Italy, 24 states have directed residents to shelter in place to protect the elderly and vulnerable, such as people with severe asthma, from contracting the virus and falling ill with COVID-19, a disease whose trajectory can end fatal. These measures, designed to avoid mass casualties, contribute to slowing the economy.

In Patrick’s mind, these measures – which, for example, prevent people from congregating in bars and restaurants and compel employees to work from home – are an overreach. In his own words, “Let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it.” He added, “And those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.” Such views gained traction last week, with Glen Beck becoming more explicit by stating, “I’d rather die” from coronavirus “than kill the country” because of the lockdown. Trump suggested he’d shorten the lock-down to protect the economy, though he fortunately backtracked from this idea as the predictions on the mortality of the Coronavirus grew more and more dire.

There are – according to David Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center – “more surgical” strategies to protect the elderly and the economy, but let us stick with the extreme preposition that it might take death to protect the economy, since Glen Beck and Dan Patrick insinuated this would be a prize worth paying, and since their insinuations say much about how economic power has become fetishized. To be clear: I doubt that Glen Beck would die for any cause. But there are older people who hear these kinds of arguments. I cannot imagine how such talk would not spread fear, terror and guilt in the midst of an already tragic and scary situation. That’s one reasons why we have to engage with, and refute, these arguments about the early departure of the elderly and vulnerable to maintain economic prowess.

There is also the quote of the infamous Milton Friedman, a radical free-market thinker, which also epitomizes the need to engage with the odious suggestion that the elderly should depart to save the economy. It goes,

“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

If the ideas and arguments of sacrificing the elderly and others are lying around and could be picked up by some free market fanatics, we better pick them up ourselves with one goal only: to deconstruct them.

An Altruistic Suicide?

One of the founding fathers of the modern social science, French sociologist Émile Durkheim wrote pioneering work about suicide in his book Le suicide in 1897. He distinguished several types of suicide, for example by contrasting egoistic suicide with altruistic suicide. The latter occurs when people completely identify with the goals and values of a group, and killing herself would be necessary to maintain the survival of the group or serve its aims. Note that the values and goals of such a group, for which one of its members is willing to die, must not agree with what we ourselves consider altruistic or an advancement to humanity – the altruism lies in paying the ultimate price for the group.

Now imagine, for the sake of the argument, a scenario in which the lockdown is dismantled before the Coronavirus has peaked. One justification for putting the lives of the elderly and vulnerable on the line is that the economic slowdown caused by a tanking economy (which would be caused by a lockdown) would kill more people that the virus itself. This highly utilitarian line of argument follows the Trump logic, “We can’t have the cure to be worse than the disease.” If this scenario were true, and the elderly would accept death to prevent more deaths and suffering, then we could perhaps talk of an altruistic suicide. Fortunately, it is not true at all, but a reflection of how much some commentators have fatalistically succumbed to the notion that growth becomes a tyrannical death spiral if it is not constantly fed.

Can Growth Save Human Lives?

The whole line of reasoning that underlies the emergence of the current altruistic suicide madness – that a slowing economy would cause mass death – is empirically dubious. In public debates in contemporary capitalism, whether does or doesn’t experience strong growth serves as a litmus test of whether it is healthy. As Charles Kenny, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, has shown in his sweeping review “Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding – and How We Can Improve the World Even More”[2] that establishing any relationship between growth and well-being (which, if it becomes extremely low can cause death either through illness or suicide) is always tricky. However, his in-depth exploration of the different facets of growth statistics allows him to postulate some “good news”: “large incomes are less and less requisite to ensuring a good quality of life.”

Kenny is extremely careful in avoiding any hasty conclusion, given the difficulty of obtaining good data on the subject and statistically analyzing it, though trying to correlate economic growth with other variables (such as specific economic policies) has become “a large industry”. As he points out, “Google Scholar points to 14,600 papers referring to the analysis of cross-country growth experiences placed online between 2001 and 2007 alone.”

How Public Action Utilized the Economic Create Advances in Human Well-Being

The relationship between economic activities on the one hand and well-being and human survival on the other hand is hardly straightforward. It is true that people live longer lives in rich countries. It is also true that the last centuries have seen the expansion of industrial capitalism, and along with it also the reduction of various fatal diseases and the rise of life-expectancy.

It must be pointed out, though, that this type of growth has not only occurred in conditions of free-for-all capitalism, but predominantly in situations that allowed for a symbiosis between forces unleashed by free market activities and the salutary effects of public policy – that latter coming in the form of, for instance, strong regulatory institutions in the post-World War II era, welfare states in Europe, massive public investment in the US (for example to expand the digital infrastructure and electrify the West) and central planning in China and other Asian economies such as Singapore.

More often than not the reductions of diseases and improvement of healthcare required deliberate public action. For example, when the second Cholera Epidemic, beginning in 1829, spread throughout Europe, Britain put in place several measures to curb the spread, for example by putting in place quarantines and local boards of health. Such actions by the public sector occurred during the late stages of the British Industrial Revolution, one of history’s most dramatic expansions of economic activities and wealth.

If capitalism reaped health and well-being benefits for the people, this was often the result of organized labor and activists demanding that resources be made available for public policy. But this relationship does not only work in one way: a healthy population makes any economic progress more sustainable.

Maintaining growth of economic activity does not automatically translates into higher odds for human survival or even a higher quality of life, yet that’s what advocates for suicide for the economy seem to propose. Institutions and rights that were born out of struggle and compromise are much more urgent in a face of a pandemic compared growth. The absence of a robust welfare sector in the US currently undermines efforts to curb the Coronavirus pandemic in the most tragic ways.

There are other ways that deliberate policies rather than growth can save lives. In the Global South, aid organizations – working in close coordination with governments – enabled dramatic reductions of diseases by making new technologies widely available. For example, in large parts because of an ambitious international campaign, the direst prognoses on the mortality caused by HIV/Aids would cause in Southern Africa – for example, as the BBC predicted in 2000, that HIV/Aids would kill half of all the young adults in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe – did not come true. The tide was turned in dramatic ways on other diseases, too: Polio – a condition that has historically resulted in disability around the world – has been reduced by 99,99 per cent.

These advances do not suspend the need for structural changes on the national level of poor countries and how these countries are treated in the global system, nor are they sufficient in themselves, but they belie arguments that aid does not work and therefore should not be funded. No matter where one stands on aid, it is clear that we need vast increases of aid to protect societies in the Global South from the worst effects of the Corona pandemic. Given that the world spends exceedingly more on tanks, bombs and stock-options, it is worth keeping in mind that spending more on aid, rather than single-mindedly pursuing growth, actually saves lives.

Another way that societies can guarantee more well-being is by decreasing inequalities: As the Herculean research efforts by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have shown, the one factor that predicts human misery – for example in the form of depression and anxiety as well as criminal pathologies in rich countries – are levels of economic inequality.[3] The more inequality surges, the more mentally and physically sick the population becomes. This trend is not entirely surprising, if one seriously takes into account that primates – our closest relatives with whom we share much of our DNA, and whose behavior allows for some conclusions about our human preferences – lose their temper when they receive unequal rewards for the same task.[4] Who could blame them?

Could Too Much Growth Even Kill Us?

In 2016 the World Economic Forum, not exactly a bona fide leftist platform, rather exasperatedly reported that “accumulating evidence suggests that rising incomes and personal well-being” are not linked, and that “it seems that economic growth actually kills people.”[5] The Forum cited two papers, one of them analyzing the relationship between mortality and economic growth among 100 birth-cohorts in 32 countries over a time-span of 200 years. The conclusion: when a country’s GDP — which is how one measures economic output – is higher than anticipated, mortality also increases beyond what one might expect.[6]

The reason is that in times of booms, the air pollution and alcohol consumption increase. Especially infants are very sensitive to air-pollution, even in richer countries. For example, the effects of the 1981-82 oil shock in the United States may have saved 2,500 infant lives because of minor reductions in air-pollution because of the reduction in economic activity.[7] It turns out Trump’s decision to relax EPA rules in the midst of this pandemic might be more harmful than slow growth.

Economic growth is not all bad, though. In agrarian societies, it still increases health in the economy becomes more industrial.[8] But there appears to be a tipping-point, after which the pollution caused by further growth is more harmful. An intriguing case-in-point would be Sweden: In the 1800s, as Sweden was industrializing, economic growth contributed to longer lives, yet in the 1900s growth contributed to mortality.[9]

Deaths of Despair and Economic Stagnation

There are, however, deaths of despair that result from economic recessions. Depression and suicide spiked during the Greece death crisis of the last decade. This crisis was also accompanied by severe austerity policies imposed by the German government. In the US Rustbelt, citizens who have seen their economic opportunities diminish in the past decades are increasingly dying “deaths of despair” caused by opioid overdoses, suicide and illnesses related with alcohol abuse.

But here again, public action and safety-nets are key to key to reverse the trendline: This is, at least, suggested by the research of Thor Norström and Hans Grönqvist, both from the Swedish Institute for Social Research at Stockholm University, who interrogated the relationship between suicide and unemployment between 1960 and 2012.[10] Generally, unemployment contributes to more suicide in a society. The effect is not as significant as one might expect, though: A 1% increase in the unemployment rate was associated with a growth of 0.06% in male suicides. But, as the Swedish researchers have also found, this effect is decreased when a country has a more expansive and generous welfare system. Though it would make sense to strengthen welfare institutions as crisis looms, Donald Trump’s instinct is the opposite, as this week’s irresponsible decision to not reopen Obamacare marketplace shows.

An Agenda for Survival

A sober reflection on the scientific consensus on the effects of global warming alone should make it obvious that our obsession with economic growth has long courted disaster. It has now reared its head in a particular ugly form, and tapped into the tense intergenerational relationships in the US. But as the recent morbid altruistic suicide insinuations should male clear, intergenerational war is a diversion at best and a threat to the elderly and vulnerable at worst.

All ages are better off joining forces to protect the public from the worst effects of the spread of COVID-19 by taking socially distancing very seriously. It is the only path forward after the Trump administration’s dysfunctions and criminal neglect made the COVID-19 crisis worse than could have been. After we will have beaten back COVID-19 – which will hopefully happen sooner rather than later –, we have to honor those who passed from the pandemic by getting to work building an economic system and society that is resilient and allows all of us to live in dignity. Doing so will require ditching our economic growth fetish and to no longer pit one group against the other, be this group based on age, race, gender, nationality or class. Getting rid of all this old baggage and instead spinning security nets within and beyond US borders will be the best investment and insurance against future misery caused by pandemics, or any other contingency that might come our way.

Notes.

1. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10000613-getting-better

2. https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/the-spirit-level

3. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2236702/Fascinating-experiment-shows-monkeys-bananas-unequal-pay.html

4. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/10/the-relationship-between-gdp-and-life-expectancy-isnt-as-simple-as-you-might-think

5. https://www.nber.org/papers/w22690.pdf

6. http://economics.mit.edu/files/1782

7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21074307

8. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167629607001075

9. https://jech.bmj.com/content/69/2/110.full

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Could COVID-19 Reshape Global Leadership?

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As U.S. COVID-19 cases double every few days and the death toll mounts, the U.S. seems to be caught in a “worst of both worlds” predicament: daily life and much of the U.S. economy is shut down, but no real progress has been achieved in its efforts to contain or eradicate the virus.   Meanwhile, the 11 million people of Wuhan in China, where the pandemic began, are starting to return to a more normal life, with the city’s subway system running again and businesses reopening. In the province of Hubei (Wuhan is the capital), 4.6 million people returned to work last week, while another 2.8 million returned from quarantine in Hubei to jobs in other parts of China, a mass migration that seemed unthinkable a month ago.   But international trade and travel will be severely depressed until the world as a whole recovers from COVID-19, so no country can fully recover as long as others are still in the grip of the pandemic. Different countries are trying different approaches to the problem based on their own economic, political and healthcare systems. We can all learn from each other and we will have to help each other get through this. COVID-19 has mainly hit the people of wealthier countries first, because they travel more and carry it with them from country to country. But unless and until it is eradicated globally, no country will be immune.   The World Health Organization (WHO) has stressed timely and systematic contact tracing and testing as the key to fighting COVID-19. This means quickly tracing the contacts of each infected patient and testing them, whether they show symptoms or not.    The results of testing in Iceland, which has tested more of its population than any other country, have shown that about half of all COVID-19 carriers show no symptoms at all, so testing only people with symptoms without efficient and comprehensive contact tracing will not stop the spread of the disease. Increasingly oppressive lockdowns are only a stop-gap measure, and are no substitute for systematic contact tracing and testing.   China eradicated the virus from Hubei province by deploying 40,000 medical staff and doing comprehensive contact tracing and testing, and this is the model other wealthy countries that have had limited success against COVID-19 have tried to follow. Germany has done better than other large countries in Europe, with over 66,000 cases but only 645 deaths. The other countries that have tested at least 0.5% of their populations have kept deaths even lower. As of March 30, the numbers were: Australia (17 deaths as of March 30th); Austria (108); Bahrain (4); Canada (65); Estonia (3); Iceland (2); Latvia (0); Malta (0); Norway (32); Singapore (3); Slovenia (11); South Korea (158); Switzerland (359) and the UAE (5).  After a very late start, the U.S. has still only tested 0.3% of Americans, and is still testing people based mainly on symptoms, not contact tracing.    Wealthy countries that failed to respond to COVID-19 in its early stages don’t have enough protective gear, test kits or ventilators to treat large numbers of patients and stop the spread of the virus. How will poorer countries manage once they, too, are battling infections that are out of control? High-tech equipment will be in even greater shortage in low-tech countries. But fortunately, some poorer countries are already finding strategies that work.   Vietnam, with limited resources and without access to large numbers of test kits, seems to have avoided widespread infection, despite a long border with China. By March 30, Vietnam had 203 confirmed COVID-19 cases, but no deaths. So what has it done?   Vietnam’s public health system provides comprehensive healthcare to 89% of its people, and it has doctors, nurses and other health workers in every community. Anyone arriving in Vietnam is checked for a fever and quarantined if they have one. Even those who don’t are under a strict stay-at-home order for 14 days. This is so strict that their names are published in local newspapers and the public are asked to tell the local health authorities if they see them outside. If a stranger appears in a community, a healthcare worker visits to check them out.    If there is a suspected COVID-19 case in a building, the whole building is quarantined for two weeks, but quarantine Vietnam-style includes three meals a day, delivered for a small charge. All large buildings have whole-body sanitizing stations, not just hand sanitizer, at every entrance. Vietnam is using empty hotels as quarantine sites, with house-calls from a doctor as part of the service. Everybody in Vietnam wears a mask, and there have been no reports of price gouging, panic buying or hoarding.   Another of China’s neighbors, Taiwan, has developed a different approach to COVID-19, but it, too, has the benefit of a comprehensive public health system, with an emphasis on preventive care. With a huge number of daily flights between Taiwan and China, Taiwan began restricting flights into the country on December 31, 2019, nearly three months before the U.S. Like South Korea, Taiwan began COVID-19 testing on January 20, with contact tracing and testing and isolation of confirmed cases.  But Taiwan has avoided a national lockdown and has not even closed its schools. Instead, it has installed dividers between students’ desks, so that all students have their own cubicles. It also rations its limited supply of masks, distributing a fixed number to each family. By March 30, Taiwan only had 306 confirmed cases, and only 5 people had died.   Japan and Thailand both have low published figures for COVID-19 cases and deaths, but these figures may conceal unreported cases. Japan has the oldest population in the world, and already has a high incidence of pneumonia and respiratory diseases among its elderly.  It is treating COVID-19 as a strictly medical problem, trying various experimental treatments, restricting COVID-19 testing and maintaining normal life as much as possible. Thailand has adopted a more conventional approach, and may also have many undetected cases. As of March 30, Japan had 1,866 cases and 54 deaths, while Thailand had 1,524 cases and only 9 deaths.        Another country that is worth looking at is Venezuela, which was already in  a very difficult situation. As many as 100,000 people are believed to have already died since 2017 as a result of brutal U.S. sanctions that prevent the import of medicines, food and other necessities. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is calling for the lifting of sanctions, and many Americans support his call. The coming of COVID-19 to a country already in such dire straits is hard to imagine.    But in fact, as of March 30 Venezuela had confirmed only 129 cases and 3 deaths. China has sent 320,000 test kits, a team of health experts and tons of supplies. Cuba has sent 130 doctors and 10,000 doses of Interferon, a Cuban drug that China has used with some success to treat COVID-19, and Russia has also sent medical equipment and supplies.   Like Vietnam, Taiwan and other countries, Venezuela has benefited from already having a comprehensive national healthcare system. When the first COVID-19 case was confirmed on March 13, the government closed schools, dine-in restaurants and theaters. Within 10 days, 12.2 million people completed questionnaires about their health and 20,000 who reported symptoms received house-calls from medical teams. Community groups made masks and 12,000 medical students were drafted to make house-calls. Rent payments were suspended and the government guaranteed salaries and wages.   So Venezuela has responded to this dual crisis with free food, free healthcare, free housing and free COVID-19 testing, and has so far weathered the storm.    Cuba is another example of a small, poor country that is fighting internal outbreaks, mostly brought to the island by foreign tourists, through door-to-door visits by medical personnel. They had 170 cases as of March 30, with three deaths. The country’s borders have been closed to all nonresidents, bringing the tourism-driven economy to a standstill. On top of this, Cuba, like Venezuela, is suffering from brutal U.S. sanctions that hamper its ability to both earn foreign currency and import critical goods, from food to medical supplies.    Despite these severe obstacles, Cuba is not only controlling the spread internally, but sending brigades of doctors and nurses to Italy, as well as Venezuela, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Suriname and Grenada. It provides a heroic example for the world, but unfortunately, Cuba is too small and poor to make a major dent in the global pandemic.    A world in search of new leadership   This look at the COVID-19 pandemic in a few countries around the world is only a snapshot of what are facing now. The numbers of cases and deaths are higher every day, and no country except China has the virus contained. But, as a greater number of poorer countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America become infected, few have the healthcare infrastructure of Vietnam or Cuba. So where are countries going to turn for help when large numbers of their people start falling sick and dying?   The United States is struggling to address its own problems with COVID-19. For many months to come, it will be grappling with the dilemma of how to find enough ventilators, protective equipment, tests and medical staff. The U.S. will be scrambling to find or make more of these desperately needed resources, not sending them to other countries.   The United States is also failing miserably to provide a good example of how to successfully combat COVID-19. By March 31, the U.S. already had more coronavirus deaths than China, a country with four times the U.S. population, and the future for Americans is terrifying, with the Trump administration talking about the death of 100,000 Americans as a “good scenario.” The terribly botched U.S. response to the pandemic is undermining already weak global confidence in U.S. leadership.   China, on the other hand, has largely eliminated the virus from its own population and is already lending its expertise and resources to others. Many of the goods the world depends on to fight this virus, from masks to medicines, were already produced in China and the government has mobilized local companies to significantly crank up production and sell directly to the government to help fulfill global demand.    China is also sharing information about the pandemic and lessons from its own experience with countries around the world. Western views of China’s role in this crisis have shifted from blaming China for its initial denial of the outbreak and criticizing its restrictions of personal freedom in Wuhan to accepting its help and expertise as other countries and governments confront the same difficult choices.    With the U.S. failing and China taking a leadership role in the international response to this crisis, could this mark a turning point in the transition to a multipolar world in which China will be just as important as a world leader as the United States? And could this become an effective check on the destructive aspects and dangers of U.S. imperial power?    For several decades, China has defined its place in the world according to Deng Xiaoping’s “24-character” strategy, which has served it very well until now: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”   Since Xi Jinping came to power in China in 2012, he has implicitly been entrusted with guiding China into a new phase in its history, moving beyond the 24-character strategy into a position in which China will be the economic and diplomatic equal of the United States.   As many analysts have noted, and as the 24-character strategy implied, China has to walk a fine line to assert its influence in the world without militarily provoking the United States or taking actions that other countries will see as aggressive or threatening. That’s why it has tried to exercise extreme caution in disputes over islands in the South China Sea and other potential military flash-points. China’s One Belt One Road initiative, a massive economic development project aimed at strengthening China’s connectivity with the world, has so far been the centerpiece of its gradually shifting strategy.   But the crisis the world will face over the next six months or a year is one that cries out for competent leadership. The WHO is already playing a critical role, but it is dependent on major economic powers to provide the resources to fill its prescriptions. If China takes the lead in providing the equipment, the therapies and the expertise the world needs right now, it can do so in a context of respect and deference to the UN and the WHO. After decades of U.S. unilateralism, aggression and disdain for international law and institutions, most of the world would welcome this kind of internationalist leadership.       Unless China overplays its hand or makes serious mistakes, nobody but Donald Trump and the imperial hawks in Washington will begrudge China its role in helping to resolve the worst public health threat the world has faced in recent history. This is China’s chance to provide constructive international leadership in a way that will save many lives. And in the reshuffling of world power that this represents, we can only hope that the United States will also find a more constructive and legitimate place for itself in a multipolar world that is more peaceful, just and sustainable.

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Capitalism is the Virus!

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The U.S. Senate’s March 25, $2 trillion 97-0, COVID-19 corporate bailout vote gifted the ruling rich an amount never exceeded in world history. The overwhelming portion went directly to the coffers of the billionaire elite for whom the lives of literally millions of Americans are subordinate to their horror at seeing their casino capitalism stock market and associated paper fortunes evaporate to the tune of 30 percent in a matter of days. That some qualifying two-person working class households are to receive one-time payments of $2,400 along with promised temporary waivers of debt payments owed to the federal government and other short term measures aimed at modest and temporary relief for working people was subordinate to guaranteeing unprecedented multi-trillion dollar sums to the one percent. Not a single Senator thought to divide the 880-page package into distinct components that would embarrassingly expose exactly who got what. One lying Democrat did note that in the panic rush to approval no one challenged a provision that banned funding and/or forgivable grants to abortion rights groups like Planned Parenthood.

Days before, anticipating a first quarter, Jan.-Mar. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) decline of 10 percent, followed by an estimated 25 percent or more GDP decline during the following quarter as the economy continued its free fall descent, the ruling class debated strategies to preserve their fortunes. The initial orientation, represented by the Donald Trump wing, considered easing the increasingly stringent “shelter-in-place” restrictions that aimed at eventually slowing the spread of COVID-19. Sending workers, their perceived wage slaves, back to work while the COVID-19 curve was on the rise in order to keep the wheels of their predatory system turning was initially their first choice. The massive cost in millions of lives was but a secondary consideration, if at all. Said Trump, “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” The “problem,” of course, was the massive evaporation of their profits. All capitalists understand that these are derived from the exploitation of human labor. Earlier versions of capitalism’s life and death equations were uttered by the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who suggested that allowing COVID-19 to “burn out naturally,” that is, without medical intervention, would have the effect of the surviving population being left with a “natural immunity” to future COVID-19 encounters!

Johnson’s reactionary/racist/classist “herd immunity” or “survival of the fittest” thesis, would have allowed COVID-19 to run its course through the entire population, taking the lives of the weakest and oldest people, leaving the survivors, presumably now endowed with resistant antibodies, to continue as capitalism’s workforce. This was neatly explained in an originally secret UK government report that stated: “As many as 80% of the population are expected to be infected with COVID-19 in the next 12 months, and up to 15% (7.9 million people) may require hospitalization.” The document projected a UK death-toll as high as 531,100, a supposedly acceptable number, provided only that the “fittest” – the elite with guaranteed access to the best medical care that their money can buy – were therefore to be excluded from meeting with the grim reaper.

Trump’s initial sympathy for this view, along with his projected “return to work by Easter, April 12,” scenario, was considered by his betters, to be excessive. To achieve capitalist objectives and avoid a predictable working class furor at being sacrificed on the alter of profit, Trump and Co. decided on other means a few days later.

Trump’s Republicans soon after and joined at the hip with the Democrats, approved the $2 trillion first step bailout, an extraordinary amount roughly equal to 10 percent of the U.S. GDP of $22 trillion. Again, this was seen as only the government’s first step in saving capitalism. New York Times columnist Jeff Sommar clearly explained this strategy:

“On Monday, March 23 the Fed  announced that it would, essentially, take whatever actions were needed to restore stability in the markets, as well as the economy.” Referring to the monetary policies known as quantitative easing, which the Fed employed to combat the global financial crisis of 2007-08, Sommar said, “The new policy amounted to quantitative easing to infinity and beyond.” (NYT, March 27, Emphasis added.).

Sommar continued: “The Fed’s new policies are so large, and operate on so many fronts, that they are difficult even to catalog. In addition to lowering short-term interest rates to a nearly zero, the central bank will buy Treasury securities, government agency securities and corporate bonds. Beyond that, the newly-enacted [$2 trillion] fiscal stimulus package will enable the Fed to increase its already immense firepower by as much as $4 trillion.” In short, the government of, by and for the capitalist class, incorporated in its plans an additional promise $4 trillion, or roughly one-quarter to the nation’s annual GDP.

Said Federal Reserve chair, Jerome H. Powell “When it comes to this lending, we’re not going to run out of ammunition.” Powell was blunt. At least for now, the corporate powers, whose government they own and control, were ready to literally print money or its paper equivalent, to match 100 percent of the expected quarterly U.S. GDP decline, that is, the full amount of the total value of the goods and services no longer expected to be produced by U.S. workers. With the Labor Department’s latest published figures indicating that 3.28 million workers had filed for unemployment insurance in the past week, five times the numbers ever reported in U.S. history, and with additional millions expected to follow suit in the weeks and months ahead, no one could deny that the coming months, if not years, portent unprecedented changes in consciousness.

The initial shock that stunned U.S. workers has just begun to permeate working class consciousness. Incipient groups of Chicago tenants, for example, unable to pay their rent, took the first steps to organize a rent strike. In a similar manner, groups of Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, New York, and some Instacart grocery delivery workers nationwide walked off their jobs last week to demand stepped-up COVID-19 protection and pay increases as they continue to work in dangerous conditions while much of the country is asked to isolate as a safeguard against the coronavirus. Amazon employs some 800,000 warehouse and delivery workers, almost all low wage and non-union. Tens of thousands more are expected to be hired as home deliveries skyrocket in the face of a nation increasingly quarantined. Workers in some eleven warehouses have had workers test positive for COVID-19.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) tabulations as of March 30 indicate that more than 790,000 individuals in 200 countries and territories, spread across all continents, have contracted the disease. While over 37,816 deaths have been reported as of March 31, the daily percentage increase in deaths exceeds 12 percent worldwide! No one denies that the infection rate and the daily death rate are far from peaking.

In addition to China, one of the hardest hit nations is Iran, where the rate and number of infections, scientists estimate, won’t peak until May, by which time some 3.5 million people could die.

In Italy, with 101,739 cases reported, as of March 30, the total number of reported deaths stands at 11,591.

Rising death toll in the U.S. and worldwide

In the U.S. as of March 30, 3,170 deaths have been reported, according to the NYT, triple the number reported just three days earlier. At 164,603, the U.S. ranks first in the world in the number of confirmed cases, and this at a time when test kits still remain largely unavailable. The actual number of people who have contracted the virus and remain asymptomatic is unknown. Researchers have warned that left unchecked COVID-19 could kill some one to two million people in the U.S. in months ahead. Trump administration figures, including Trump’s top medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, report that a realistic U.S. death toll figure might be 100,000 to 200,000 in the unspecified period ahead.

Germany’s Angela Merkel reported two week that as many as 80 percent of the entire German population could be afflicted.

At an estimated fatality rate of one to two percent tens of millions could die in a relatively brief period. In a single month, October 1918, 195,000 Americans died during the worldwide influenza pandemic, the deadliest month in U.S. history. Some 500 million worldwide fell sick during this 15-month horror, which reduced the earth’s population by 3.5 percent.

China demonized then praised

After initial hesitation the Chinese government began a mobilization of doctors, government workers, Communist Party members, and units of the Peoples Liberation Army and local police to carry out widespread screening of the population in the heavily impacted zones of Wuhan and its province, Hubei. Simultaneously, an initial quarantine of the town and province was implemented followed soon after by a near lockdown of the entire nation.

A prioritized, unprecedented effort began to construct hospitals for quarantine and treatment purposes using prefabricated sections. A workforce approaching 10,000 has been mobilized to work 24 hours a day. In this effort the 1,000-bed Huoshenshan Hospital was constructed and made operational in just 10 days. At another site 25 miles distant the Leishenshan Hospital with 1600 beds was built in two weeks.

So exhaustive has been the response to keep the virus contained that the head of the WHO praised China for having “bought the world time” and that other nations should make the most of it. To date the reported number of new cases has been slowed or halted to the point where a number of the new hospitals have been closed for lack of patients. The graphic “curve” registering the initial rapid rise in reported COVID-19 cases in China has, according to some reports, has been “flattened.” Few nations on earth have proved capable matching China’s success. Despite the massive campaign by the Chinese government to stop the spread of the virus, its efforts were initially met by the U.S. mainstream media with bias and derision. Yet a few weeks after pillorying China for its “draconian” forced quarantine measures, the U.S. government itself along with virtually all fifty states, if not the entire world, have recommended and is increasingly implementing similar measures. Trump himself sent a letter of appreciation to China’s President Xi Jinping, for China’s accomplishments.

Cuba sets the example and leads the way.

Most noteworthy, revolutionary Cuba, even with its resources severely constrained by the U.S. embargo/blockade, can justly claim the moral high ground for cooperation, solidarity and success with regard to limiting the disastrous effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. (See page 12.)

Science at the service of society

In a socialist society scientific research would be conducted for the common good, not capitalist profit. All discoveries would be immediately made known to the scientific community worldwide. International collaboration and coordination as opposed to competition would be the norm. Patents and related measures to protect “intellectual property rights” would be deemed absurd and inimical to the interests of society. Funding and coordinating research would be public and massive, with the resulting solutions and vaccines the common property all humanity. Free vaccines would be available to all via hospitals and clinics, workplaces, schools, and community centers. Gone would be the televised advertising bombardment for high-priced drugs from the U.S. pharmaceutical cartel where critical breakthroughs are sometimes suppressed because a healthy population is not conducive to profits!

U.S. stock market’s wild gyrations 

The U.S. casino capitalist stock market has taken its greatest hit since the Great Recession of 2008, with the Dow Jones industrial index initially losing some 10,000 points, or thirty-five percent, in a matter of weeks only to “recover” some 3,000 points (as of March 31) in the days following the news of the $2 trillion bi-partisan bailout. The anticipated and continuing massive layoffs of tens of millions of workers, most with only short term promises of government relief, informs us that the already pre-COVID-19 era scent of a coming recession, will be qualitatively magnified for an indefinite period – at least several months, if not longer.

The unpredictable future

How long it will take to bring the current pandemic to a halt is the major social, political and economic question posed before the entire world. Indeed, any momentary timeline projection leaves aside the terrible fact that absent a real cure – an effective vaccine akin to those that have saved countless millions of lives over the past century – COVID-19 will inevitably return as a “seasonal” pandemic when a declining “curve” indicates that an end to the near worldwide quarantine is warranted!  In the meantime the most elementary aspects of survival for the vast majority are tragically absent or in dangerously short supply – from basic hospital facilities, protective gloves, face masks, sanitizing hand swipes, mass testing and basic live-saving medical devices like ventilators to productive and decent paying jobs to sustain life in capitalist America where the large majority survive paycheck to paycheck.

At a time when the combined scientific research capacities of the world are overwhelming allocated to an endless variety of military, as opposed to healthcare and medical research, prospects for rapid progress are dim to say the least. Endless wars are the most profitable of all capitalist enterprises. Mass destruction of nations’ infrastructure in the ongoing seven wars presently waged by the U.S., along with drone wars, Special Operations death squad wars, privatized mercenary army wars, not to mention militarily-enforced sanction wars, in the context of a highly monopolized military-industrial complex, make for the highest profit rates on earth. The U.S. sanctions on Venezuela alone cost the lives of an estimated 50,000 Venezuelans. And this was before the present COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. $1 trillion annual military expenditures account for 68 percent of all government discretionary spending.

The right to a decent job and be free from deadly pandemics like COVID-19 is a prime expectation of all humanity. When governments fail in this critical arena their excuses no longer find receptive ears. Anger, voiced rightful indignation, and civil outbursts begin to occur. How this pandemic will play out amidst the growing international radicalization is a question on the table for all of us.

Socialist activists and working class fighters demand:

+ Free quality healthcare for all

+ Nationalize the health care system and scientific research institutions and place them under the control of working people not the corporate profiteers

+ $Trillions now for critical medical supplies, equipment, free COVID-19 tests, food for the hungry and housing and care for the homeless

+ Bail out the working class not the corporate elite. $Trillions for full pay and benefits for all workers who lose their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

+ Cancel all evictions, foreclosures, rent, mortgage payments, utility and debt payments until the crisis is over

+ Abolish ICE and close all deportation centers. No deportations. No human being is illegal

+ Empty the prisons • Rehabilitation not racist and classist mass incarceration

+ Not one penny for imperialist war, deadly sanctions, embargos and blockades

+ Cut the military budget by 100 percent

+ $Trillions for a rapid conversion from the present deadly fossil fuel-based energy system to a clean sustainable nationalized system under workers control to preserve life on earth itself

+ Full pay for all workers during the transition to new jobs building a clean and sustainable energy infrastructure

+ Close all military bases and convert them to free hospitals for all

+ End racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, LGBTQI and senior citizen discrimination

The post Capitalism is the Virus! appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Incarceration, Detention, and Covid-19

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Recently I sat in on a livestreamed town hall sponsored by the school of public health at a large university in my state. The town hall’s purpose was to answer viewers’ questions about Covid-19: how to understand the pandemic, what to expect, how to stay healthy and safe. At the end, the moderator, the dean of the school, asked his fellow participants (epidemiologists, biostatisticians, infectious disease specialists) what they wanted viewers to take away from the program, and two or three referred to Covid-19 as a “wake-up call,” an alarm bell calling attention to the long-term defunding of public health systems in America, and the profound lack of preparedness for a catastrophic public health emergency of this kind.

The town hall succeeded in getting these points across, but a wake-up call like this should also alert us to other issues, particularly the deep-seated forms of social dysfunction that have long plagued America. The pandemic, for example, has sharpened the focus on systemic injustices underlying our criminal justice system, our prisons, and our immigration system. America has the largest number of incarcerated people in the world, and even before the pandemic, many of these 2.3 million individuals were confined in facilities notoriously detrimental to physical and mental health. As Covid-19 finds its way behind prison walls, they are now particularly vulnerable to the spread of the disease. Without sufficient physical distance, restricted in many cases from using sanitizers, and lacking adequate access to soap and water, incarcerated people are living in facilities that are incubators and amplifiers of infection – what the president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners called “petri dishes.”

Hundreds of cases of Covid-19 have now been confirmed in jails and prisons across the country, and both inmates and employees have been infected. According to a New York Times report, the Rikers Island Jail complex in New York City alone had 167 reported cases as of March 23. As a result of the rapid spread of the disease, many jail and prison systems are attempting to reduce their incarcerated populations with early releases (particularly for nonviolent crimes), and many prosecutors are reconsidering low-level cases that would otherwise land individuals in jail and subject them to exposure.

Similarly, calls for the release of people confined in immigration detention facilities have intensified. Judges in several states have ordered the release of small numbers of immigrants because these individuals have been particularly at risk for infection by Covid-19. In California, federal judge Dolly M. Gee ordered the government to “make continuous efforts” to release thousands of migrant children held in detention. Judge Gee’s order came on the heels of a report that four migrant children held in a facility in New York tested positive for the virus.

What’s significant is that the initiatives to release both prisoners and immigrants from incarceration are intensifying simultaneously, often at the behest of the same groups. There has been a growing recognition, certainly in a state like California, which has the second-largest prison system in the country, that mass incarceration and immigration detention have impacted individuals and communities in devastating ways – and this recognition has long preceded the outbreak of the pandemic.

In recent years, activists and legislators in California have worked to slowly reverse the powerful forces leading to incarceration and detention. Last August, for example, the LA County Board of Supervisors, which oversees the largest jail system in the country, cancelled a $1.7 billion contract to replace the Men’s Central Jail facility. Activists had long pushed for this action, arguing that funds should go instead to community resources and services. Two months later, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill mandating a phase-out of the for-profit detention centers in the state.

These were significant and hopeful indicators of the state’s shift to decarceration, but resistance, particularly from the Trump administration, has remained tenacious. The administration, for example, found a technical loophole in the state’s phase-out of the for-profit detention facilities, and it now has the capacity to renew the contracts for those facilities for up to 15 years. Meanwhile, despite the pandemic, ICE agents have continued to sow fear by conducting raids in immigrant communities.

The pandemic is indeed a wake-up call on many levels, but it would be a mistake not to acknowledge the stark choices it is placing before us with ever-greater clarity. Will we continue addressing our social and economic problems with resources poured into militarized policing, surveillance, and incarceration, or can we rise to a renewed and reimagined sense of community? Can we envision governance intended not for social control and social exclusion but rather for the benefit of well-being for all?

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Prayers, Piffle and Privation in the Time of Pandemic

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“Go corona! Corona go!” Ramdas Athawale, a minister in the state government of India, chanted this phrase again and again at a prayer meeting at the Gateway of India. Among those invited to participate were Buddhist monks and the Chinese Consul General in Mumbai. The rap-like cadence soon inspired memes and a pop version.

While places of worship have been shut down to facilitate social distancing, nobody had the courage to stop a ‘gaumutra’ (cow piss) party on March 14. Guests drank the urine from mud bowls. They recited prayers before a holy fire beseeching the virus to leave. Swami Chakrapani, the president of the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha that organised the event, said, “Coronavirus has come because of the people who kill and eat animals. When you kill an animal, it creates a sort of energy that causes destruction in that place. They (global leaders) should get cow urine imported from India because the almighty resides only in the Indian cow and not in any foreign breed. I request all the presidents and prime ministers of the world to take cow urine on a daily basis. You have all these scientists who don’t know the cure, we have the cure given to us by the gods.” He also claimed that this was the “only cure” for COVID-19.

All this took place in the country’s capital even as government officials and ministers were issuing statements about scientific measures used to deal with the virus. This was a well-publicised event, yet there were no calls for a ban on it.

There is a call for a ban on the Tablighi Jamaat centre in New Delhi. The immediate reason is that between March 11-13 it hosted around 2000 people, some from overseas, before the lockdown. 24 of the participants have tested positive, and some are untraceable. This has come as an opportunity for the rightwing; the ruling party’s minority affairs minister called it a “Talibani crime”. However, some questions have been raised regarding the permission granted for the event as well as police laxity; the Jamaat premises share a wall with the police station. For a few days now some media channels are seeking a ban on the organisation under the garb of restraining ‘spreaders’.

Such communalisation apart, this event was unnecessary and could be one of the major instances of community spread. Gatherings, be it sects, churches or such jamaats, where devotees have ignored reason to be one with god in the company of others, have resulted in several such spreads.

***

Since temples, mosques and churches are shut, devotees look for other outlets, other gods. In the South Indian state of Kerala, the prayer being shared on social media is, “Saint Corona, protect us from coronavirus.” St. Corona has never been popular in the state nor was she the patron saint of epidemics. Her name has promoted her as the annihilator of the virus.

Applauding medical workers too has been imbued with a fantastical explanation: That March 22, the day Indians rang bells and clapped, was Amavasya, the darkest day of the month when evil forces like viruses have maximum power. Clapping and clanging vibrations reduce virus potency, it was said, and the increased blood circulation boosts immunity.

What is it about superstition that holds people in thrall, sometimes even more than religion does? Unlike belief systems, they do not have a halo. Superstitions give people the power to deal with an immediate threat to themselves. Some may even perceive their belief as a rational exercise that they are ‘scientifically’ experimenting upon.

Mass superstitions such as the cow urine drinking one are dangerous simply because, like placebos, they cannot be proven wrong. There have been instances of people refusing medical intervention based on the belief that faith, or faith-approved palliatives, alone can cure.

Adding to the mythology of magic cures, the government announced that the serials Ramayana and Mahabharata, based on the revered Hindu epics, would be telecast again on the national channel after over three decades. It is assumed that this will help people forced by the lockdown to retain their moral fibre through its kitschy portrayal.

India is, quite literally, in ‘Ram bharose’ mode, where riding on faith is considered as a confirmation of its efficacy. That the virus hasn’t yet affected the country as much as it has the rest of the world – 1932 confirmed cases, 55 deaths – is seen as some sort of karmic victory.

The facts are quite different, though. According to the director of the US Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics, and Policy, Ramanan Laxminarayan, by July end 300 to 500 million Indians would be infected of which a tenth would be severe cases. “Our model predicted that at the outbreak’s peak, even with conservative assumptions, there would be 10 million patients with severe Covid-19 disease in India, many of whom would need to be hospitalized. India has fewer than 100,000 intensive-care unit beds and 20,000 ventilators, most of which are only in the large cities.”

***

Large cities depend on migrant labour. Most are daily wagers, of which about 744 million earn Rs. 44 (58 pennies) a day. They have little or no money left. Some are walking several miles to reach their villages. They believe hunger will kill them before the virus even gets to them. As one of them said, “I know everything about coronavirus. It’s very dangerous, the whole world is struggling. Most people who can afford and have a place to stay are indoors. But for people like us, the choice is between safety and hunger. What should we pick?”

There have been instances of people dying on the way. The finance minister announced a package worth $22.5 billion as well as rations for three months to reach the poor. Many have not heard about these schemes nor received anything. Returning to their villages isn’t a panacea. As a man on his long trek of 542 kms to home said, “We came to Delhi in the first place because our farms were destroyed due to stray cattle who use to eat our crops. So, if we go back to our village, there also we have to work as labourers, but there is no work anywhere.”

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged people to applaud the doctors, nurses, paramedics who served selflessly despite risk to themselves, those from the informal sector that constitutes 90 percent of the labour force in India were not on anybody’s mind. There is nothing grand about sweeping floors, dusting furniture, doing the dishes, or hawking and collecting garbage; they do not save lives, or minister to the ill.

However, the elite shared their ‘awws’ over a picture of a rag-picker noiselessly clapping, his expression confused. For them, it was evidence that the PM’s message had reached this poor man who cared for the carers. Ironically, social distancing that is embedded in the Indian casteist culture considers people like him to be a virus. Nobody cares that he belongs to the amorphous population of 1.8 million homeless people who do not even figure in the poverty or infected statistics because they do not even exist on any document.

The post Prayers, Piffle and Privation in the Time of Pandemic appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

In the New Dystopia

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It is difficult to neatly encapsulate the shift that has occurred in our collective perception and experience over the last several weeks. That all semblance of ‘certainty’ and ‘normalcy’ has disappeared seems no longer the main feature—what stands out is the psychological shift underway, proceeding on the collective and individual levels. What will this mean, how will it continue to evolve? Every conversation I have now touches on the coronavirus or those things that surround it. Everything I read online is related to it. ‘Social distancing’, ‘flattening the curve’—these phrases have become ubiquitous, standardized.

The situation is increasingly and rapidly revealing a number of uncomfortable but long obvious truths about our reality, perhaps none more so than the extent to which so much we take for granted is based on inertia, faith, and on a most rickety apparatus. A humming economy, the wide availability of consumer goods, school, transport, work—all melt away in the face of the virus.

There exists, in this hyperconnected strangeness, the sense that we are living through something predictable, foreseeable. This goes beyond the specific realities of a gutted pandemic response plan (not to mention public health capabilities) and general poor management of the crisis to something more metaphysical: the ubiquitous sense in the present of doom, of an apocalypse, the feeling that we are at the end of time, that there is no future. One has the sense of the present as deja vu, as almost a projected future of the past, of the 20th century, which saw the breakdown coming in the 21st. This sentiment is by no means new, but it has certainly grown more acute—it feels as if we have moved into another level of dystopia.

Of course, then there is the pure economic reality of the situation: over three million jobless claims last week, by far the most ever recorded in such a brief time span. We are seeing the artifice of the ‘service’ economy disappear—again, hardly shocking for those of us who have watched this patchwork mess limp along for years or longer, especially for those of us who have worked in it. The mainstream may (or may not) be realizing what has been clear to many of us for a long time: there is no real economy.

As the situation worsens, as the wave breaks, there is something extraordinarily chilling as elected officials and ordinary people call for Trump to assert never-before-activated executive powers—as the Justice Department attempts to enact its own draconian measures—in a desperate embrace of authoritarianism, made even more chilling by the fact that many of us understand this and are willing to concede (some of it) may be necessary. All, particularly in light of the realization settling in that things, will never go ‘back to normal.’ What was normal?

The plain fact is that we are living as unsustainably as ever—we were before this, and we’ve hit a massive speed bump that may have ricocheted us off the edge of the cliff toward which we were already careening. If it wasn’t the virus, it would be something else. And while the United States is uniquely poorly positioned to address this, the massive jolt this has provoked the world over makes it clear enough that the systems of capitalism, of industrial civilization itself, have been teetering on the edge. What this will create is unclear, and even for those of us not totally surprised by these events, the speed has often been difficult to grasp. But something is happening, something new is coming; be prepared

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We Need a Lot More Transparency From the CDC

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“COVID-19 is a White man’s disease. It doesn’t seem to infect Black people,” posited Jane, a community leader in New Haven, Connecticut, who had come to the U.S. as a refugee from Africa many years ago.

Jane addressed my team of health researchers and members of the local immigrant community to improve communication between medical doctors and refugee patients. Our team meets regularly to develop plans that address health literacy, discrimination. and cultural competency.

“And who gets to be tested? Who gets to be treated?” Jane recently asked our team. “There is something that they aren’t telling us,” she concluded.

She’s right.

The federal government has failed to report publicly which groups in our communities have received access to COVID-19 testing and treatment. This lack of transparency leaves our communities vulnerable to disinformation and confusion.

Jane’s concerns are grounded in a distrust of the U.S. health care system. People of color have long suffered disparities in the way they access and receive healthcare services compared to white people.

Eliminating this unequal treatment has been a national health priority for years. I fear that the federal government’s inadequate public reporting of COVID-19 will make the situation much worse.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is tasked with hosting the nation’s public-facing COVID-19 dashboard. But this online tool reports only three outcome metrics: Total Cases; Total Deaths; States Reporting Cases.

There’s so much we don’t know. Do people of color get the same access to COVID-19 tests as white people? How about families who speak a language other than English? Or those who suffer from a disabling condition?

We don’t know.

But federal and state governments can make minor adjustments to their current public reporting on COVID-19 to help identify health disparities. To start, the CDC should expand its dashboard, and publicly report metrics using demographic categories like sex, race, ethnicity, primary language, and disability status.

Doing so would help public health experts better understand how resources are being distributed. This information would then help inform strategies to ensure that all Americans, especially marginalized groups, can access these resources in a fair way.

To be sure, making these adjustments would add administrative burden to professionals at the front lines. But communicating accurate information in times of disease outbreaks is supposed to be a strength of our nation’s public health system.

The National Health Security Preparedness Index determines U.S. readiness for managing public health emergencies and disease outbreaks. Last year, the U.S. scored highest in our nation’s ability to effectively deploy resources and information to protect the health of communities in need. Living up to this standard is in the interest of all Americans.

Policymakers have begun to take notice. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ayanna Pressley, for example, have demanded that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar instruct the CDC to begin collecting racial demographic information pertaining to COVID-19 testing.

Public reporting and communicating information shouldn’t be difficult.

My friends like Jane are living in fear of being excluded from medical testing, from treatments being withheld, from information being hidden. Transparency can help build trust between the health system and all Americans living with uncertainty.

If we don’t take public reporting seriously, we risk harming our communities, causing more confusion in our neighborhoods, worsening health disparities, and ultimately making this pandemic harder to beat.

Dr. Leo Lopez III is a fellow at the National Clinician Scholars Program at the Yale University School of Medicine.

This op-ed was produced by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, adapted from The Crisis,

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Reflections on a Glass of Homemade Cider

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Tonight I opened up a treasure: a bottle of cider made by a friend in Santa Fe.

This gentleman had in fact gifted me with several-to-many bottles, all of which I have beenyeshoarding since I received them, on February 21st of this year.

That was but five weeks and change ago but now seems like a lifetime. Yeah, that’s a cliche, but then so is our context: an empire-in-decline mishandling a crisis. There’s nothing original about this moment. In our rise and fall we are nothing special. Not even our exceptionalism is exceptional. Far from it.

We are blinded by our own provincialism, we of the settler-colonial mindset, which is (sorry to say) all of us here who aren’t indigenous (andeven sorrier to saya number of them too).

We are both ignorant and brash; both increasingly weak and ever more blustery; both delusional and all-too-well armed. A comedian would add: “And those are our good points.”

So much has changed, so quickly, yet we have only just turned the knob and given the slightest tug to the door. It’s not yet open, not even a crack. The view waiting for us on the other side has the potential to bowl us over just from the sheer shock of it.

Not that what’s waiting is a mystery; honest historians can describe it from a hundred previous examples. A few gifted individuals have already seen it, if only in a vision. Far, far more people claim to know but they are missing the mark because they don’t acknowledge the present clearly, let alone anywhen else. Put another way: one cannot see where we are without imagination, and that’s a mode of perception too seldom deployed.

The cider from my friend, btw, is delightful. Very pleasantly dry yet unmistakably fruity. The maple syrup advertised on the label emits only the faintest of whiffs. As for the tea, the tannins are subtle but grounding, imparting a certain alertness that well accompanies the briskness of the cider’s attack. So the mind enjoys a relaxed focus, an all too rare effect of alcoholic beverages, which tend much more often to the blundering and melancholic.

Here’s a toast: To the fact that things are never going “back to normal.”

I think some people realize this is true. I think I do. Though, I’ve been in a state of personal alert about the worsening conditions of our society for some time, quite actively since 2005 (when I received the message of Katrina, that we’re on our own). I’ve been watching, and I’ve been making preparations.

I’ve known since my 20s (in the ’90s) that I’d live to see some shit hit the fan, and I’ve acted accordingly as much as I’ve been able. I’m not talking about logistical preparations, such as having extra food on hand (and a water filter, and solar accessories, and other “survival” gear), though I’ve certainly put some effort into getting that kind of stuff together.

No, what I’m talking about is the intentional development of a frame of mind that doesn’t count on The System to operate consistently for the rest of my life. I have purposely cultivated a way of looking at the world that doesn’t assume business-as-usual is permanent. I have been regarding the state of our society as a temporary phenomena.

In terms of wealth, creativity, and power, the US had its ascent and its peak and is now in its descent. Not a good time to get hit by an infectious disease. We’re not at all well prepared for it. The man in the White House is f’ing it up, for sure. So is the ruling class at large, as they try to rescue their fortunes. The things they’re propping up should be abandoned, but they won’t do that unless we force their hand, and we don’t seem up for it right now. That is, this is when we should reject the entire notion of “profits” but the “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” that make up the majority of the working class are unwilling.

Before this virus hit, we were already dying figuratively; now we’re being struck by a scourge that is literal. I don’t know how bad it’s gonna get, but I’m sure it’ll be worse than we want it to be.

However, right this minute I’ve got a lovely glass of cider in front of me, because back in February, I drove up to Santa Fe to run an errand for a friend, and since I was there, met in person someone I knew online. Little did I know that it was to be my last carefree roadtrip after a five year period that was mostly road-tripping.

A sudden stop. A quick change in direction. A “new normal.”

I did not foresee our exact circumstancea virusand the exact timingMarch of 2020but I’m not surprised, either. As sure as night follows day, something like this has been “baked in” as people say. There’s more to come, too.

I’ve got no predictions to make (unless you want to place a bet for sport) but it seems prudent to prepare for hardship at this point. If your version of that includes home-brewing, go for it. Where we’re headed, bottles might well be a better form of currency than cash.

Does the taste and sensation of homemade cider inspire poignancy? Yep. I’d be lying if I denied it. A little of that’s okay, too. A little of anything that’s not miserable will have growing value in the novel existence that’s unfolding.

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Developing a Vaccine Against War

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What if the vaccine that’s eventually developed is so large in scope it includes the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Pope Francis?

I revisit Guterres’ words of a week ago: 

The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war. That is why today, I am calling for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world. It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.” We must, he said, “silence the guns; stop the artillery; end the airstrikes . . . to help create corridors for life-saving aid. To open precious windows for diplomacy.

And several days later, the pope, delivering his weekly blessing not from St. Peter’s Square but from the papal library, called on the world to “stop every form of bellicose hostility and to favor the creation of corridors for humanitarian help, diplomatic efforts and attention to those who find themselves in situations of great vulnerability.”

My heart, hearing such pleas, cries: what if . . . what if . . .what if?

What if idealism were the essence of human politics, not its scapegoat? What if war and xenophobia were understood to be not business as usual, the equivalent of self-defense and always necessary (at least when we do it) and thus something to be funded without question — year after year, decade after decade, century after century — but rather, the Pandemic That Doesn’t End?

Just to clarify the matter, I would make a slight amendment to the words of Pope Francis and Secretary-General Guterres: We need a global ceasefire right now not merely so that we can address, and halt, the spread of COVID-19 — after which we can go back to murder, torture, sanctions and such . . . the business of teaching our enemies their lessons and/or simply eliminating them — but rather, we need a global ceasefire because this is what we have always needed.

I would make a further clarification. “Ceasefire” sounds like a temporary halt. We need a permanent halt: to war, xenophobia, the false divisiveness of national borders. And this will not happen merely by political authorization, any more than the coronavirus can be ordered — by some powerful leader — to cease and desist its destructive impact on the human race. Just as much as we need medical vaccines, we need social vaccines.

And even as we talk about “waging war” on COVID-19, that is not what is going to work. Remember all the wars we’ve waged over the last half century or so? We’ve waged a war on drugs, cancer, crime and poverty — even obesity, for God’s sake. And, oh yes, terror. Indeed, evil itself. How did those wars turn out?

“In America in my lifetime, war has not been a vehicle for positive outcomes, but for normalizing a particular kind of process in which a White House’s caprices and a populace’s complacency expand indefinitely,” Adam Weinstein wrote recently at The New Republic. He makes note of Joe Biden’s dismissal, in his latest debate with Bernie Sanders, of Medicare for All as crucial in dealing with COVID-19.

“It has nothing to do with Medicare for All,” Biden declared. “That would not solve the problem at all. We’re at war with the virus. We’re at war with the virus. It has nothing to do with co-pays or anything. . . . People are looking for results, not a revolution.”

Weinstein writes:

This argument was couched as common sense — deal with the problem in front of you — but it was the opposite. Rather than lay out an achievable but ambitious long-term goal to protect Americans, Biden is focused on an impossible and open-ended mission: victory over a virus. Affordable health care for all? There’s no time for that malarkey now, jack. Haven’t you noticed there’s a war going on?

In other words, Biden was calling for the opposite of a ceasefire. He seemed to be revving up all that war requires of us, whatever that might be. His declaration of war against a virus sounded excruciatingly like George W. Bush’s declaration of war against evil, and the axis thereof. We’ll take it out with some shock-and-awe bombing. What could be simpler?

And this, precisely, is the problem with war. Before it’s a reality — fire and blood, severed limbs and collapsing infrastructure, anguish, death and hell (for some) — it’s a declaration, a call for national unity against, ta tum, The Enemy. This mixes ever so nicely with politics. A leader’s job is a lot easier if he or she has a good enemy to rally his constituents against.

“In President Donald Trump’s Oval Office address yesterday about the threats of the novel coronavirus, he went out of his way to label it a ‘foreign virus,’” Ben Zimmer writes at The Atlantic, pointing out that members of the Trump administration have routinely called it the “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese coronavirus.”

“When it comes to the popular naming of infectious diseases, xenophobia has long played a prominent role,” he writes, quoting Susan Sontag that ‘there is a link between imagining disease and imagining foreignness. It lies perhaps in the very concept of wrong, which is archaically identical with the non-us, the alien.’”

Another twist on this is that members of Team Trump, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “have been pushing,” according to the New York Times, “for aggressive new action against Iran and its proxy forces — and see an opportunity to try to destroy Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq as leaders in Iran are distracted by the pandemic crisis in their country.”

The irony here is savage. The calls for ceasefire are not coming from those in command of armies, who instead are looking for whatever opportunity might exist in the current crisis. Yet when I think of what will save humanity from the looming pandemic — and from everything else that endangers them, including themselves — I can see this much: Developing a vaccine requires studying and understanding the virus, not waging war against it.

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Homegrown Crisis Response: Who Grows Your Food?

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The best COVID 19 response that I’ve heard to date came from Jessica. Asked if she was prepared for the chaos, she said her cupboards contained a reasonable amount of food, but most importantly, she still had greens in her garden. Food was growing, in the ground, at the home where she lived.

Her words were a welcome change from the texts and phone calls that had poured into my phone over the prior week. Little did I know on March 11th, that I was attending a conference in the heart of what would prove to be a hotspot for coronavirus infection. Hundreds of mostly young people gathered in New Orleans, attending the 4th National Good Food Network Conference, sponsored by the Wallace Center. I was a part of a plenary panel entitled, “From Whence We Come” with several other veterans of the good food movement.

The palpable emotional response from attendees contained fear, bordering on panic. My colleagues quietly and steadily began to retreat from the conference. An ember was becoming a flame-over the origins of the virus, our health, and of course, the food supply. Who was going to control the food supply? Can you control your own food supply? What legislation can be passed that will give you more control over the food supply?

$23.5 billion was allocated for farmers in the COVID-19 economic stimulus bill. This is in addition to the $28 billion that was allocated to the US Department of Agriculture for tariff supports to farmers over the past two years. Agricultural Secretary Sonny Purdue has broad discretion over spending these funds. I am calling for five percent of the over $50 billion to farmers-a mere $2.5 billion-to be allocated to small farms and urban agriculture. This new Agricultural Homestead policy would support infrastructure development for small farms and urban agriculture, as well as provide small inputs for home gardeners. The Big Ag system of mass producing nutrient-deficient, GMO foods that we have known for the last 75 years, is broken. The paradigm has changed. The current pandemic is contributing to the creation of a new world order.

Small farms and urban agriculture extend backyard gardens into a viable economic system for just and equitable food distribution, based on sustainability and self-sufficiency. They shift the paradigm from Big Ag to thriving local food systems, under local control. The local food economy generates economic webs that launch entrepreneurs and create employment. Natural urban agriculture brings nutritious food close to home, which is transformative in the best of times, and critical in meeting challenges such as the COVID 19 pandemic.

While I was at the Good Food Conference, my son called from D.C., reporting that there was no food in the store. Whole Foods shelves were empty, and they were not answering phones. Jeff, in Atlanta, texted to ask, “Have you been to the grocery store? People are clearing the shelves out of fear of eating in restaurants because of the coronavirus.” He continued: “Buying land, farming, and homesteading are about to become very relevant again.” How true, I replied!

Upon my return to Atlanta, Tina called, somewhat distraught, looking for advice. She wanted to know what was stored in both my cupboard and freezer. I explained that if the grid went down, freezers would be of no practical use. I told her I stored navy beans, brown rice and gallons of water.

The best way for people to ensure good supplies of quality food is to grow it themselves. Whoever controls your food controls you! That is an indisputable truth. Stated another way, if you do not control the sources of your food, someone else will. With many states under lockdown, grocery store shelves are emptying fast, with lines continuing out the doors. Shoppers are putting themselves at risk, just to gather essentials.

Even as we confront challenges to human health, our larger environment remains fragile. In addition to producing quality food, the local food economy reduces fossil fuel consumption by minimizing the long-distance transport of fruits and vegetables. Climate change is mitigated, and carbon sequestered.

For millennia, humankind lived within walking distance of where their food was produced. More and more people in this country are beginning to accept that concept and are returning to a pre-industrial regenerative mode of food production. Now is the season. Significantly, most civil authorities are allowing grocery stores to remain open, although in a controlled manner. If you don’t have food in your yard, the next best place to obtain it is from the nearest local farmer’s market.

The new world order that I’m visioning includes food justice, exemplified by universal access to wholesome foods, close to where people – ALL PEOPLE – live. A new food economy world order is an imperative of our time. We have to choose what order will lie on the other side of the COVID 19 pandemic. The time to choose is now. Grow your own food and grow your community

References.

Anderson, S. (2020). Trump Tariff Aid To Farmers Cost More Than US Nuclear Forces. Fornes, Jan 21, 2020.  (Forbes)

Lipton, E. & LaFraniere, S. (2020). For Farmers, Stimulus Bill Means Subsidies Continue to Flow. New York Times, Mar 27, 2020 (New York Times)

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Worst Case Scenario: Healthcare Workers Need Masks, ASAP

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Imagine a country where health care workers lack the equipment necessary to prevent coronavirus infection while treating people suffering from this terrible new disease.

Other countries are sending help. But meanwhile the shortage is so bad that citizens have taken it upon themselves to sew cloth face masks to replace the medical grade N95 masks that physicians, nurses, and others use.

Do you have that picture firmly in your head? Welcome to the United States today.

Protective personal equipment, or PPE as it is commonly called, is used by health care workers to prevent themselves from becoming infected by the viruses and bacteria attacking their patients. Common PPE items include masks, gloves, and gowns.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has made these items scarce, particularly the N95 masks that are essential for reducing risk of infection. As a fourth-year medical student, I see firsthand how a lack of masks is hindering our response to this pandemic — and putting health care workers at risk.

At my institution in north Georgia, all medical students and some resident physicians are under home isolation, partially due to a shortage of PPE. That means fewer workers are on hand to treat pandemic victims.

Meanwhile physicians on the front lines are reporting reusing these single use masks, and some have treated patients suspected of having COVID-19 without adequate protection. In New York, a staggering 200 employees at Weill Cornell Medical Center have fallen ill. Two nurses in the city died just the other week.

New infections in the United States are skyrocketing each day. The pandemic will continue to exponentially worsen, yet we already lack the equipment essential for the safety of health care workers.

Americans spend more per capita on health care than any other country in the world. So how can this happen? Shouldn’t we have plenty of materials to fight this virus while keeping our physicians and nurses safe?

Part of the problem is treating health care like a for-profit business. In the United States, there is no economic incentive for hospitals to stockpile protective equipment in sufficient quantities to battle a pandemic. Major conglomerates just haven’t found it profitable.

But it’s also a failure of public policy. For example, New York State advises hospitals to maintain a three-day supply of N95s for emergencies. In a multi-month pandemic, that’s woefully inadequate.

The federal government does maintain a “Strategic National Stockpile,” which contains medical supplies for health crises. However, we don’t know how many N95 masks there are. Was the federal government prepared for a crisis of this scale? It seems unlikely.

Experts and prior administrations have repeatedly warned of infectious disease threats on a global scale. Given these constant warnings and the long human history of pandemics, it is unconscionable that we are so unprepared to protect our health care workers.

The government must take immediate action to increase mask production and protect the workers risking their lives daily. Today, President Trump can invoke the Defense Production Act to demand that capable businesses produce N95 masks and other protective equipment.

However, he has stated that he will only use this in a “worst case scenario.” That worst case scenario has arrived. Any delay in production will kill more doctors, nurses, and other health care workers looking after our loved ones suffering from COVID-19.

As the government fails, we are obligated to help. If you own masks, gowns, or other protective items, they can be directly taken to local hospitals. It is one of the many ways that ordinary citizens can help this fight, and it may very well save a life.

But the impact we can make on our own is limited, so the government must take swift action to solve this life-threatening problem.

Mark Luskus is a fourth year medical student at Emory University School of Medicine.

This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.

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The Virus That May Bring us Together

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A country paralyzed. A booming economy about to crash. Citizens afraid of an enemy they can’t see, hear or smell. The coronavirus has captured the world. Life as we have known it has stopped abruptly.

As of March 29, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported some 693,000 infection cases and nearly 30,000 deaths worldwide as a result of the pandemic for which there seems to be no end in sight any time soon.

In the United States, the number of infections is close to 150,000 with the death toll approaching 2,500. Faced with the grim prospect that more than 200,000 Americans could die even with aggressive action to slow the spread of the virus, the Trump Administration extended guidelines for social distancing, tele-working and refraining from non-essential travel for another month until April 30, 2020.

Ever since the outbreak of the virus in early December 2019, government leaders face anew the age-old “security versus freedom” dilemma, having to make decisions about the extent to which to curb individual rights, liberties and freedoms in order to ensure public safety and security. But it is not only the physical security of each citizen, our political leaders have to be concerned about. Sheltering in place and reducing social interactions can also bring the economy to a shrieking halt, causing unemployment to explode and jeopardizing the survival of many small businesses.

The nature and rapid spread of the virus demands a concerted, coordinated and collaborative response where governments, businesses and individual citizens pull together and cooperate to effectively control the greatest public health crisis in a century.

On March 27, along with one of my PhD students, I conducted a nationwide online survey of 445 Americans and asked them how much they trusted the government and their neighbors to “get through the current public health crisis.” Slightly more than half of respondents said they trusted the federal (52.6%) and their local (54.8%) government to address the crisis (24.7% and 18.4% distrust respectively). Given confusing and sometimes contradictory information provided by the White House, especially in the early days of the outbreak and the fact that specific implementation decisions are made at the local level, this result is not surprising, although one would hope for higher levels of trust in a crisis that can only be addressed at the government level. When it comes to trusting others, more than half of respondents (56.1%) said they trusted “their neighbors to do what’s necessary to get through the current public health crisis” (16.2% distrust).

These findings remind us that when levels of trust in each other and in those we elect to ensure our safety and security are much lower than what they ought to be, we face not just a health crisis but also a democratic and a human connection crisis.

Local and state governments and the federal government are leveraging different strategies to combat the spread and effect of the virus, from social distancing to complete community lock downs. What all these strategies have in common is that public trust and immediate responsiveness is necessary for them to succeed. In a crisis that unfolds rapidly, that affects everybody, that requires fast and broad cooperation and that only governments can address, the results of our survey raise concern.

Public trust cannot be built overnight. It is a long process where those we entrust with our safety and security need to show concern and compassion for the interests, hopes and fears of the many and not just the few that fund their elections.

As horrible as this crisis is, and we cannot yet accurately predict its magnitude, it ought to be a wake-up call for us to come together and use this shared experience to rebuild a social fabric that has been torn by partisanship and self-indulgence. In the end, the virus that keeps us apart may actually bring us together.

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A Q & A on the GOP’s Call for Elder Sacrifice

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The second highest office-holder of the great state of Texas, Republican Lieutenant General Dan Patrick, recently proclaimed on Fox News that lots of senior citizens would be willing — or should be, anyway — to sacrifice their lives to coronavirus in order to save the economy for their grandchildren.

Fox News’ Brit Hume opined that this is “an entirely reasonable viewpoint,” so it is now officially a matter of reasonable debate in America whether the death of up to 2.2 million Americans may be a reasonable cost of stopping a recession. Assuming most of them are old.

Who would have thought? But here we are, so let’s answer your questions.

Q: This is a joke, right? Like Trump shooting someone on Fifth Avenue?

A: I’m sorry, this is serious news. President Trump had hoped to end business closures, sheltering at home, and all that by Easter, though he recently had to grudgingly extend the closure advisories through April. Doctors and scientists expected the Easter deadline to result in the exponential spread of Corvid-19 — with old people overrepresented among the dead. Maybe Republicans were trying to get ahead of the curve, putting a smiley face on all the anticipated dead old people. So to speak.

Q: I’m over 75. Do I get a choice, or are all of us old folks expected to volunteer?

A: You don’t need to volunteer. It’s just that after everyone else goes back to business as usual and gets the virus, unless you live in a well-stocked converted missile silo, you have little chance of dodging Covid-19. Q.E.D., R.I.P. The only question the Lieutenant Governor is raising, really, is whether you will go cheerfully.

Q: Can I poll my grandchildren on whether they actually favor me making the sacrifice?

A: They’re too young to vote and the president knows best.

Q: Would a recession really end the American way of life forever?

A: Well, no. But it might end Trump’s presidency.

Q: I’m 45 years old and I hear I can catch coronavirus even though I’m not old. Don’t I have to worry about dying of the virus if it goes viral?

A: According to the CDC, people under 65 represent nearly half of Covid-19 victims in hospital intensive care units. But you are only about one-fifth as likely to die of Covid-19 as someone who is 65 years old. So why worry? Besides, once the elders are out of the way, there will be plenty of ventilators for the rest of you.

Q: Some people say this is like making human sacrifices.

A: Nonsense. Human sacrifice involves deliberately killing human beings in order to propitiate a god. Here we are merely adopting policies likely to kill millions in order to propitiate Donald Trump. Completely different.

Q: Elders vote at higher rates than anyone else and mostly vote Republican. Isn’t the G.O.P. afraid they’re going to lose a lot of core voters?

A: They will all cast absentee ballots.

Full disclosure: The author is over 75 years of age.

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COVID-19 Could Be Catastrophic for Us: Notes From Gaza

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I have to admit that when I heard there was a new virus spreading through China a few months ago, I didn’t pay much attention. After all, China is far away. It’s a country with advanced medical and technological capabilities. Surely, it would overcome the virus.

When the disease spread to other countries and the number of infected people gradually climbed, naturally, I became more concerned. Still, I didn’t worry personally. I thought the virus wouldn’t make it into Gaza because it’s been under blockade for 13 years. We have no airports or sea ports. No world travelers come here, and we don’t exit anyway. Until about three weeks ago, when I heard the news about cases discovered in Israel and Bethlehem. Then I got really worried and scared. How did this blasted disease get here so fast?

Shock and awe

As soon as the first cases were discovered, the authorities in Ramallah and in Gaza began preparing to take preventive measures against the virus, including restrictions on movement and school shutdowns. This increased my sense that we were in grave danger, especially given the siege and the harsh living conditions in the Strip. We live in severe overcrowding, especially in the refugee camps. If, heaven forbid, there is an outbreak here, it would be a catastrophe with horrifying outcomes, mostly because Gaza doesn’t have the capacity to admit and treat a large number of infected patients, and the healthcare system has no way to protect us. There is no equipment, no labs, no medications. There are not enough hospital beds, and there are no ICUs. And that’s even before the pandemic.

Then, about a week ago, as I was browsing online news sites, I was struck by the report of the first two corona patients diagnosed in the Gaza Strip. I was in shock. I was overcome with anxiety for my fate, my children’s, my family’s, and all of Gaza’s residents. I went into high alert mode. I stopped working, except in really critical cases. I bought disinfectants, detergents and food, in case total isolation was announced and the markets shut down. I started making sure my family observed strict precautions: no handshaking, no leaving the house, constant hand washing, eating vegetables, taking vitamins.

This pandemic is dangerous. When it comes, it doesn’t knock on the door. My kids are frightened. They ask with a worried look, “What happened to us?” They keep asking when all of this will end, when we’ll return to our normal lives, to school. I don’t answer them because I have no answers. I see the fear in their eyes, especially my daughter Zeinah, who’s twelve. She says to me, “Mama, don’t go to work. Don’t go visit anyone. Stay with us,” and, speaking for everyone, she declares: “We don’t want to go out. I’m scared of corona!” She has shut herself in her room and leaves only occasionally to wash and disinfect her hands. My father is an old man, he’s 73, and I’m very worried about him. I call him a few times a day to ask how he’s doing and get some reassurance. I call my brothers, friends and neighbors too.

Shut in from the outside, shut in from the inside

So far, all corona patients who have been discovered (totaling 12) have been isolated far away from people in a facility near Rafah Crossing. The authorities here have organized several of these facilities – schools and hotels – to isolate people coming into Gaza through the crossings, but these places are not adapted for corona patients.

I’m very worried about the fate of Gaza’s residents too. Given the situation here, after 13 years of continuous siege and horrific rounds of fighting, it’s almost impossible to prepare and to protect from infection: people have no money to buy food for a long isolation or detergents and disinfectants, and even in ordinary times there’s a shortage of the most basic things – water and electricity. It’s particularly complicated because even for those who are considered as having a regular income, that’s no longer the case: salaries, welfare pensions, the grant from Qatar, the UNRWA food rations – everything is on hold.

Gaza’s streets are deserted. Everything is closed: schools, universities, hotels, banquet halls, coffee shops and even mosques. When I’m outside, I look at people’s expressions – I see worry and panic. It’s completely understandable – they’re barely able to protect themselves and their loved ones.

I sit on the balcony and look at the handful of people who are out in the street, the neighbors, the children who are playing and laughing as if there were nothing wrong. A group of men sit down at the entrance to our building, talking loudly about the situation. One of them asks me to take pictures of them and post them on Facebook. “They’re telling us to stay home, to buy disinfectants and detergents when we don’t have a dime to our name,” he says. “How are we going to stay home anyway? There’s no electricity. Tell, tell the world about how Gazans are doing under corona and the cruel siege.”

Don’t forsake us

Look at us. We’re under siege, and now the world is under siege like us. Isn’t it time to lift the cruel blockade off the Gaza Strip and save its residents? Don’t Gaza’s residents deserve to breathe freedom like the rest of the world? How can you forsake us to face this outbreak alone after 13 years of blockade and war, with devastating poverty, soaring unemployment and destroyed infrastructure? Has your conscience run dry? The world has to come to its senses and save the two million people Israel continues to imprison in Gaza – before a disaster happens.

In the meantime, I keep following the news. With an aching heart, I follow the dire situation in many countries in the world, especially Italy and Spain. I pray for them with tears in my eyes, asking God to have mercy on us, on all of humanity, and hoping to hear that they’ve found a cure for the coronavirus, that they’ve gotten it under control and stopped the spread, that all corona patients in the world have recovered – because then, the anxiety gripping us all will evaporate, and the whole world will awaken from the nightmare.

Olfat al-Kurd is B’Tselem’s field researcher in the Gaza Strip.

The above originally appeared in Hebrew on Mako.

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Hospital Bailouts Begin…for Those Owned by Private Equity Firms

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On March 22, the Steward hospital chain sent a letter to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, saying it would close Easton Hospital, in the state’s Lehigh Valley, on March 27 unless it received a government bailout to keep it operating.

Steward’s letter read: “If the Commonwealth has no interest in assuming all operating expenses and liabilities of Easton Hospital, Steward Health Care will proceed immediately on planning to close the facility.” The threat paid off: On the 27th, the state guaranteed Easton $8 million for April and a likely $24 million through the month of June. The bulk of the funds, Wolf said, would be covered by the federal bailout package that President Trump had signed into law that very day.

How Easton had descended to such dire straits is a good question, inasmuch as its owner—the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management—is hardly a candidate for taxpayer-funded assistance, and is responsible for loading down the hospital with an unpayable level of debt.

The Easton story is likely to be just the first of many. After compelling hospitals to take on huge piles of debt through leveraged buyouts, private equity firms—currently sitting on $1.5 trillion in uninvested cash from investors—are poised to line up for taxpayer bailouts.

Steward has claimed that Easton Hospital has been financially distressed for months, that competition from other larger hospitals is fierce, and that the postponement of all elective surgeries has further cut into revenues. It had worked out a deal to sell the hospital to St. Luke’s University Network, but the deal has slowed down due to the COVID-19 crisis.

But why is Easton Hospital struggling so much more than other hospitals?

After compelling hospitals to take on huge piles of debt through leveraged buyouts, private equity firms are poised to line up for taxpayer bailouts.

Size matters, but its private equity buyout history matters more. In March 2017, Cerberus acquired Easton, along with seven other hospitals, in a leveraged buyout for an undisclosed amount from Community Health Systems (CHS). While we don’t know how much debt Steward took on in order to buy out Easton, the typical private equity buyout includes debt financing in the range of 50 percent to 70 percent of the purchase price, which the acquisition, in this case Easton Hospital, is expected to repay. We do know that at the time of the sale, Steward sold the property of all eight hospitals to a real-estate investment trust, Medical Properties Trust (MPT), and pocketed $304 million in return.

Since then, Easton Hospital has had to pay rent on property it had owned for the 127 years of its existence. How much of Easton’s revenues have been used to pay down debt Steward incurred to acquire it and to pay rent on its facilities—revenues that could have been used to financially stabilize the hospital?

Easton’s financial struggles began under the ownership of CHS, itself originally owned by private equity firm Forstmann Little & Co. Forstmann used the classic private equity leveraged buyout model to buy out hospitals and load them with debt. Forstmann cashed out in the mid-2000s, but CHS continued the LBO strategy with financing from Forstmann even after it went public. Its largest buyout came in 2014, when CHS bought Health Management Associates (HMA) to form the largest for-profit chain in the country by number of hospitals—with more than 200 hospitals and 30,000 beds. But this led CHS to crash.

By June 2015, the hospital system’s total long-term liabilities had increased dramatically and its debt-to-equity ratio had nearly tripled since 2000. CHS was unable to meet its debt obligations and began selling off hospitals to pay down debt and avoid default. Its share price, at a high of $65 a share in July 2015, fell to a low of $1.81 per share in August 2019.

In its divestment spree from 2017 to 2019, CHS sold off 53 hospitals—including Easton to Steward. Most of those hospitals were in financial trouble. As of February 2020, only 11 had positive operating margins; four were closed soon after they were sold; 38 had operating losses, and of these, six have since declared bankruptcy. While it is true that smaller hospitals don’t have the revenue or the payer mix of larger systems, size alone doesn’t explain this level of hospital disasters. CHS’s debt burden prevented it from investing in Easton and its other hospitals to help them develop a sustainable footing.

Enter Steward to buy out Easton with the same private equity playbook. From 2010, when Cerberus bought out a handful of Massachusetts Catholic hospitals and created the Steward platform, to 2020, its aggressive buyout activity made Steward the largest private hospital system in the U.S. It owns 37 hospitals (with over 7,900 beds), more than 25 urgent-care centers, 42 skilled-nursing facilities, and a network of physician groups—with some 42,000 workers serving 800 communities.

Steward knew that Easton was financially weak when it bought the company, but claimed it could turn it around. But was the buyout just a real-estate deal from the beginning? Throughout its empire, Steward’s buyout strategy has included sale-leaseback deals in which it sells off valuable hospital real estate to pay itself back. In September 2016, Steward sold all of its acute-care hospital properties to Medical Properties Trust for $1.2 billion—allowing Cerberus to recoup its initial investment in Steward and more. It repeated this a year later, buying out IASIS Healthcare, owned by PE firm TPG, and selling the real estate of 11 of the hospitals to MPT in a sale-leaseback deal that returned 75 percent of the purchase price to Steward’s private equity owners.

While Cerberus and its investors have prospered, the Steward system is in financial ruins. In 2018, Steward’s Massachusetts hospital system was the worst-performing in the state on every metric. It lost $592 million in 2017 and 2018. In 2018, its overall margin, including operating and non-operating activities, was negative 4.1 percent. Its current ratio (a measure of its liquidity) for its Massachusetts hospitals, was under 1—indicating that its current liabilities cannot be met with current assets. Steward’s long-term debt exceeded the value of its assets by $1.21 billion.

Like the health care workers at Easton Hospital and the patients in the rural Lehigh Valley, Steward’s 42,000 workers and the 800 communities it serves face the danger of a sudden shutdown by the financially frail system if it cannot cope with the coronavirus crisis that is sweeping across the country.

Federal bailouts to the rescue. Easton Hospital is the first private equity bailout, but surely not the last.

This article first appeared on American Prospect.

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Carcinogens

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I have less potential than an aborted fetus.

I guess I wouldn’t describe potential in the normal sense though – and that’s worth clarifying. I think potential is often measured using units of caveats. Often, it is the regurgitated trope of “they have so much potential but”. This “but” is always followed by the shittiest, shallowest, most subjective description of a person. Potential is never looked at in a vacuum. It is constantly surrounded and penetrated by ad hominem attacks. Claiming that someone possesses something as optimistic as potential and then following it with a detrimental statement about the very fiber of their character is in itself a non sequitur. Therefore, pure, unattacked potential and socially constructed potential differ tremendously. I have pure potential, just not socially constructed potential. After a statement regarding my potential, many “buts” ensue.

I woke up this morning thinking things would be different. No I didn’t. I woke this morning with no expectations whatsoever. People often say that by not setting expectations, one is less easily disappointed. I’m perpetually disappointed, so expectations have become obsolete. In a way, that is a paradox. I guess I can expect to be disappointed.

I am disappointed in myself, I am disappointed in my friends, I am disappointed in a government that claims to be mine, I am disappointed in my professors, I am disappointed that liberals try to censor people from speaking because the speakers’ views don’t line up with theirs, I am disappointed in conservatives for calling themselves conservative when their policies allow the richest, least conservative people to indulge in gratuitous spending, I am disappointed in women and in men for the various ways in which they hurt each other emotionally, sexually, and physically, I am disappointed that music on the radio and the music that everyone loves is simple, devoid of thought, and manufactured for mass- digestion, I am disappointed in the media for pushing their opinions on me, I am disappointed in the medical industry for pushing drugs on me, I am disappointed in religion for confusing the fuck out of everyone, I am disappointed in people who interpret religion in their own way and judge others by it, I am disappointed that masturbation sheds its novelty more swiftly than the pornstars in the videos that I masturbate to shed their clothing, I am disappointed that I live in a country that rapes, murders, and destroys people’s lives, and I am disappointed that no one, no matter who they are, where they come from, or what group they identify with can take a fucking a joke.

That is what I thought about when I woke up that morning. Upon waking up, I walked out of my room and was slowly greeted by the sounds of my mother, father, and sister speaking in the living room. It is Saturday and everyone is home. I hear them speaking of some memory we all shared in the distant past; a memory which each person in my family was contributing their own unique perspective to. The smooth molasses flow of words was sliding between the mouths and ears of my nostalgic family members. In between different renditions of the story, sometimes boisterous laughter would follow. My family were all enjoying their cherished time together. I listened from an invisible point in the dimly lit hallway. The smell of bacon permeated through the air, crept uninvited into my nostrils, and molested them until eventually they adjusted to the scent. Everyone was happy and in pajamas. I don’t wear pajamas. You can’t be a nihilist and wear pajamas. All jokes aside, I never emerged from the hallway and swiftly snuck back into my room. I stayed there until the noise died out. I heard the front door open and close, a garage door open and close, cars start and shift into gear. I came out of my room when I knew everyone was gone. I could finally enjoy my weekend. A communal feeling within a family is just like any other familial dynamic; a vinyl record if you will. Most of them are old, rooted in tradition, and worn out. On certain occasions, members of the family agree to put certain records on – different LP’s titled “Nostalgia”, “Argument”, or numerous others. My favorite is the double LP titled “It’s Christmas So Let’s Instantly Forgive and Forget Our Past Transgressions Against One Another”. I chose wireless headphones and Spotify that morning. I choose this combination most of the time.

With my familial unit out-and-about, each running their errands or meeting with people who were singularly important to them, I basked in the lack of ambiance permeating throughout my empty house. Although it was well past noon, I was still experiencing the leftover haze of the 300 milligrams of extended release antipsychotic I took the night before; just a little something to get me through the night. Originally it was prescribed after a hospitalization for bi-polar related psychosis, but four years later, it’s prescribed for bi-polar related psychosis. The weight of my eyes were like the weight a child’s eyes feel while riding home in the backseat of their parents’ car after a long day at Disneyland. The only difference is that as the weight of their day finally pushes the lids closed, the last thing they remember is the fun-filled excursion that was their amusement park experience while the last thing I remember before I slip into sleep’s oblivion is the screaming of my thoughts; reminiscent of the wallowing of the masses that Dante passed in one of the latter Bolgias of hell. As I focus on literally nothing but keeping my eyes open, I receive a text from Kimberly, a beautiful, smart, independent, lovingly eccentric, and well-intentioned woman I’ve been trying to fuck since high school some three years earlier. I completely forgot that I told her about the all-day absence of my family the night before and how she could come over if she wanted to. I told her the night before that all she had to do was tell me whether or not she wanted to come over; either scenario was fine with me. While the scenario where my penis submerges into the soft, welcoming caverns of her wonderful anatomy is more favored, I lied and acted as if my intentions were to “just hang out anyway”. Kimberly told me that she would be over around two and asked if she should pick up some alcohol. I replied “yeah sure” and an hour later she was on my doorstep.

Five minutes after she passed through the entrance to my home, I was passing in and out of her. It seemed that Kimberly harbored similar feelings in high school and was just as eager to act them out. I thought I was the one who was manipulating the situation, yet after our sacrilegious escapade I was the one who felt used. I also felt great.

As we laid naked in my unmade and bodily-fluid covered bed, and thought for the first time in the past hour of something other than our own sexual gratification, Kimberly noticed the three prescription pill bottles neatly standing beside one another on my desk. She began reading them and pronounced them all incorrectly. She remarked, “I don’t recognize any of them.”

I asked “Have you ever had chlamydia?” to which she replied “What? No.”

“Then why would you recognize them?” I asked with a wry smirk.

She stared at me with her mouth wide open for about five seconds, fully believing that I was taking three medications for a sexually transmitted disease. After about another ten seconds she asked in all seriousness, “You’re kidding, right?”

“Yeah I’m kidding, I’m bipolar,” I admitted in a tone of voice which suggested I did not advertise this piece of information often.

“Oh, okay good, thank God,” she exhaled in a sigh of relief.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“No…I mean, not like ‘Yay you’re bipolar’ but like…’yay you don’t have chlamydia’, you know?”

“I understand. I wish they were for chlamydia though.”

“What the fuck, why?” she asked in a way that almost seemed like she was offended.

“Because insurance would probably cover more of it,” I said in a joking tone of voice that was backed by a state of mind that was completely serious. “And it could be cured in a week or so.”

Sensing the truth and pain-laden nature of my statement, she then commented “That’s true, but if you had chlamydia, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”

She forced my legs open and attempted to console me with quite possibly the best fucking blowjob I have ever received. I finished about fifteen minutes after that and we emptily kissed goodbye and promised to see each other again soon just as we did three years prior, as evidenced by what we signed in each other’s yearbooks. It would probably be even longer than three years before we saw each other again. I returned to my room, stripped the soaked sheets from my bed, sat on the floor beside my desk thinking about the fucking I just participated in and looking up at the three bottles of pills, still wishing I had chlamydia instead.

As my post-orgasm moment of clarity was nearing its end, I realized I should wash the vaginal fluid off of myself before going to work. On Saturdays and Sundays I work 3pm-9pm at a residential facility that houses young adults with autism, and although the job carries virtually no dress code, I still felt the need to clean myself before clocking in. Especially after a sinful act as the one I just indulged in.

I showed up to work around 3:01 and walked in the house. The house is in a regular neighborhood in San Diego. Why wouldn’t it be? They have autism not leprosy, however the neighbors would probably prefer the latter. Everyone likes to jump on the autism bandwagon because it’s the hip thing to do. Everyone’s child who hasn’t talked by the time they’re 13 months old is fucking diagnosed. But not many know what true, unbridled, profound autism looks like. They don’t fucking care to know either.

The house is old; most likely built in the 50’s. Little renovation has been completed since its initial construction, however the adjoining farm and nearly industrial sized garden have seen recent remodels. In the garden and on the farm, people with disabilities tend to the various plants, chickens, pigs, and in certain seasons, turkeys. They do all of this under the supervision of non-disabled caregivers and/or volunteers. All of this, obviously, is contingent upon whether or not the person’s disability allows them to complete these activities. The six young men that I work with are not really ever taken to the farm or garden areas. There are too many would-be weapons. The men I support have a tendency to be aggressive and self-injurious, so a regular old garden shovel could transform into an instrument of death in the blink of an eye. This is what I meant earlier when most people think they know what autism is yet have not the slightest fucking idea.

“Oh yeah people with autism can all play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata blindfolded on piano with no musical training” or my personal favorite: “All of them lack social skills”. These overpaid, under-informed, Autism Speaks-esque assholes have never interacted with someone with autism in their entire life. You know how people like to constantly state how different they are from other people? Well, we’re not. We’re all the fucking same. Every person with autism I have ever worked with, and there have been a lot, demonstrate exactly the same wants and needs as non-disabled people, just in different frequencies and degrees of severity. A young man I work with wanted his toenails clipped. He is nonverbal and was not using any of his speaking devices so this went unnoticed. Since we lock the nail clippers up due to their makeshift weapon potential, he could not do it himself. I did end up finding out that he wanted his nails clipped though. At the end of my shift, I went to mop his bathroom floor and found a trail of water and blood mixed together upon the dark wooden floors. The blood was almost invisible due to the dark backdrop upon which it sat, save for the few photons that reached it from the recessed lighting scattered in a seemingly random manner across the slanted ceiling. I followed the trail in the same fashion as a police K-9 dog follows a scent; just in a less racist way. When I reached the bathroom, the blood trails flowed until it reached the toilet and stopped.

I walked out of the bathroom and into the adjacent room. I walked up to the individual who wanted his nails cut and could taste the iron in the air. I shifted his comforter away from his feet and found two, 6-inch diameter blood spots on the white, linen sheets by where his feet were resting. I lifted up the sheets and saw that he had completely ripped off both of his big toenails and one pinky toenail. I provided first aid and then cleaned the bathroom. After I threw some paper towels away, I found three toenails neatly stacked atop the pile of trash.

This story is not meant to represent all people with autism, but it is meant to show that people with autism often have the same wants and needs as every human but go about getting these wants and needs satisfied and fulfilled in “non-traditional ways”. The ‘non-traditional way’ in this case being ripping one’s fucking toenails off. The moral of the story is that when any person is unable to communicate their wants and needs or their wants and needs are not respected, they do some ripping-their-fucking-toenails off type of shit.

Nevertheless, I entered the house at 3:01 and greeted the six men who I support. They are predictably scattered across the house in their favorite places so I know exactly where to go to find them. I greeted two-of-the-three coworkers who I will be spending the rest of my shift with, and who I spend most of my shifts with, each with a greeting that our prior interactions has deemed socially appropriate. These greetings change, as they do for every person in the history of humanity, based on the current evolution of their respective relationships. The third coworker, the one who I did not greet in a way that suggested frequent, prior interaction, said hello to me and shook my hand. As the men I support require, at times, very intensive care, and since they have the capacity to become incredibly aggressive, I always worry for their safety when someone new comes to work here. They are often not well-versed in how to deal with these behaviors which can lead to an unsafe environment for staff, but most importantly for the six men I support. This alone causes me to be skeptical of any new employee that works here. After working this job for over three years, I have more love and respect for the six men that live in this house than I do for most people. Honestly, I would much rather spend time with these uninhibited, sensitive, and smart individuals than the parasitic population which most of the world consists of. Essentially, because of the familial-like qualities that my relationship with these six individuals possesses, I am very protective over them. This is what causes my skepticism of new employees who come to work here. Sometimes this skepticism turns about to be unfounded, however it usually proves itself to be justified by the stupid actions of undertrained people. The new staff ended up burning himself on the stove and went home early; the best possible outcome for all of us.

This shift was like any other and after six hours, I clocked out and entered the liquor store down the street. At the storefront, three men seemingly not together were smoking cigarettes and it made me think of my father – how when he held me as a child I felt weightless; almost buoyant as I floated when he walked with me in his arms. I remember how he would often have a cigarette sticking between his lips – half-smoked when I would come out into the garage to happily say hello to him. He would stick the cigarette in the little carved-out portion of his red ashtray that had “Budweiser” wrapped around it and pick me up with ease and ask me how my day was. I must have been the cause of hundreds of wasted cigarettes. Love can be measured in numerous ways and in this case it was measured by the unsmoked cigarettes left to smolder into the ashtray; smolder just like our relationship did as I got older and more distant. Sometimes I buy cigarettes just to light and smell the smoke as it gently drifts from the ashtray into my nose; the smoke evidently becoming invisible and disintegrating into thin air until a thin strip of light shines toward the garage ceiling and reveals that it never really left. It reminds me of when I felt as though our family was a unit. Before therapy, before school suspensions, before the late-night calls from the police to pick me up from some empty park in the middle of the night – all of which caused me to stray further and further from the family.

As I entered the liquor store, the lights spelling out the company names of beer melded together in green, blue, white, yellow, red; a corporate, neon orgasm ejaculating subliminal messages onto the faces of all who enter. A bell clanged as I walked in and the cashier said “hello, welcome” in a way that makes me feel like everyone he ever loved just died of cancer simultaneously and he just found out. I walked straight for about ten paces, made a left, and walked another five paces (a walk I could make with my eyes closed at this point) to reach the beer cooler, more specifically where the Budweiser was located. My father’s ashtray flashed through my mind like the miniscule dot of light on a smoke-detector as I picked up the 12-pack and headed to the counter. I set the beer on the counter and the cashier, whose loved ones had evidently all just died of cancer simultaneously greeted me with the smirk of someone perpetually defeated. He managed to use the muscles in his face and mouth enough to shit out the total price of the beer. I stuck my card into the reader, entered my pin, grabbed the twelve back and left. My friend Jimmy had texted me while I was at work and asked if I would come over. I knew he wouldn’t have any beer so I picked up a 12 instead of a six-pack. He’s broke but he’s sad and it’s much more fun to commiserate with a friend and with alcohol than without them.

I walked from the storefront to my car and all three men who were just smoking had gone; dispersed back into the streets in which they dwell within the minute I was in the store. Their footprint on history stamped into the concrete in the form of cigarettes crushed by worn-out shoes. I stuck my keys in the ignition and turned it on. I gently pulled out of the parking lot so as to not raise suspicion even though no one was around. As I drove up the on-ramp to get on the freeway I opened up a beer and began guzzling. The 20 minute drive isn’t as long with the alcohol subduing my often intrusive and unwelcome thoughts. Also, I just love to drink beer while I drive. I love it so much that you would think I had some sort of personal vendetta against the mothers and fathers of teenagers who died as a result of drunk driving. I didn’t ask to be like this.

Two beers and a White Stripes song later, I found myself in Jimmy’s driveway; a familiar patch of concrete which I’ve been walking upon for over fifteen years. Jimmy and I have been friends for about that long and I have about as many memories at his house as my own childhood home. Memories of playing sports and skateboarding in the front yard, of broken skin and bruised shins, of marijuana and cigarettes, of love. I called Jimmy to tell him I had arrived and he strolled out shirtless and pale in the San Diego summer moonlight. He handed me a freshly lit cigarette and sparked his own. We didn’t speak to one another for the first three minutes I was there which is why we have been such good friends for so long. We have never felt the need to rape the decadence of silence with the cacophony of conversation. Neither of us have ever enjoyed small talk. Eventually, we walked in through the doors of his house quietly as it was close to 10:30pm now and we didn’t want to wake his parents, people who I am very fond of. For the next five hours or so, we drink the twelve pack, watch foreign films, go pick up more beer, and eventually fall asleep in the computer chairs which we bring into his room whenever I come over. I woke up around 5am, still drunk, and stumbled to the car as quietly as possible so I didn’t wake anyone up. I stuck my keys in the ignition and turned it on. I gently pulled out of the driveway so as to not raise suspicion even though no one was around. I drove through the windy neighborhood squinting one eye to quell the blurred and alcohol-induced double vision. As I wound around the turns of Jimmy’s labyrinthian neighborhood, I was tasked with maneuvering around cars and potholes; occupational hazards for the drunk driver. I kept the speed around 15mph because just as in almost every other situation in my life, I didn’t trust myself. A funny thing not to trust yourself – feelings of safety and security fleeing your mind and slowly dripping like sap beneath you; so slowly, forcing you to watch helplessly as your sanity disappears.

I reached the main road and slowly felt my eyes getting heavier, closing like a child’s eyes would close under the weight of a wonderful day spent at Disneyland with loved ones; under the weight of contentment only made possible by the alcohol coursing through my veins. I was awakened abruptly by a thundering pop sound and after a few seconds of rubbing the precious sleep from my eyes I realized that I had driven upon a concrete island in the middle of the road. Both of my tires: fucked. My alignment: fucked. My entire car: fucked. Miraculously, I was able to push my car to the side of the road before any other cars or the police showed up. No houses or apartments were around this part of the main road so no bystanders had accumulated. It was also 5am on a Sunday morning so no early morning construction trucks were driving to work. I turned my hazard lights on and looked toward the concrete island I had just pushed my car off of. I saw Jimmy’s pack of cigarettes laying there, completely forgetting that he had asked me to hold his cigarettes and lighter before we even entered his house earlier in the evening. I walked over to pick them up and felt the mist of the morning caress my face gently. As I picked up the cigarettes, I took one out, lit it, and watched the smoke evidently become invisible and disintegrate into thin air. As I sat marooned on that concrete island, smoking a cigarette amidst the early morning mist, I peered to the east and saw the sun gracefully rise above the eucalyptus trees; a symphony of colors conducted by some organic force much more powerful than myself. A thin strip of light appeared above me and revealed that the smoke from the cigarette never really left.

The post Carcinogens appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Efficiency vs. Resilience

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Many years ago, bestselling author Michael Pollan explained there’s a trade-off between efficiency and resilience.

For example, your grocery store probably did not have a warehouse full of toilet paper backstock sitting around somewhere when their customers bought out their entire supply. It would be expensive and inefficient to keep a huge supply of toilet paper on hand in the unlikely chance it would ever be needed.

It would be inefficient — but if they’d done it, they might not have an empty toilet paper aisle right now.

I went to business school 20 years ago. We learned about the efficiency of “just-in-time” supply management.

The goal was to cut costs by ordering inventory “just in time.” That way you don’t pay for all the extra, costly warehouses to store weeks or months of supplies. The example we were given was that if a certain large corporation’s supply chain shut down, they’d only have enough materials on hand to keep up production for four days.

Efficient? Yes. Resilient? No.

In business school, most classes were focused on one main goal: how to maximize profit. I took a single elective that had one unit on ethics, narrowly interpreted as following the law and doing things like recalling tainted products so your customers don’t die.

Right now, efficiency could be deadly.

Hospitals have enough beds, medical personnel, and equipment to handle a normal volume of patients, but nothing like this. They’d been cutting them back for years in the name of profit and efficiency.

Now there’s talk of converting empty college dormitories into hospitals, recruiting med students and retired physicians to help, and 3-D printing equipment.

My business school taught social Darwinism: survival of the fittest. The beauty of capitalism, we were taught, is that everyone competes for business and the competition drives innovation, while the least efficient companies go out of business.

It was an outlook that Ayn Rand would endorse: the most generous way to behave is to be selfish, because by doing your part to compete, you are doing your part to drive innovation and efficiency for everyone.

This crisis is pulling back the curtain on unfettered laissez-faire capitalism, showing that we are actually interconnected. And it’s far more serious than toilet paper.

A stark shortage of personal protective equipment has left health care workers without enough to go around. In my town, hospitals are organizing to receive donations from anyone who has a box of face masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves at home.

In short, they’re relying on community resilience where for-profit efficiency failed.

In normal times, we justify a form of capitalism in which competition means accepting inequality and suffering in the name of improving efficiency for all. We accept that some face poverty, hunger, and homelessness, and we’re okay with it because of a myth that it’s natural, or better for everyone (or else caused by the moral failings of those who suffer).

Continuing to believe that myth now will cause millions of deaths worldwide. Instead, our only hope is pulling together to help others through shared sacrifice and collective action.

Resilience isn’t always profitable. But we need it now more than ever.

The post Efficiency vs. Resilience appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

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