Gone Viral

Yes, I’m panicking. Late sixties, heart and lung disease, a health service that is rationing admissions of the over ‘60’s and a Government that doesn’t care. Prime Minister Johnson appeared with groomed lackeys last night to tell us to stay at home and self-isolate. In reality, the infrastructure of our health and social care will not cope with the demand.

The Coronavirus epidemic is not a fake-news scare story. The current global death rates are some thirty-times higher than for influenza, and that’s scary. Panic buying is already intense, alongside vicious attacks on Black people across Britain perpetrated by racists using the risk of contamination as an excuse to blame and persecute non-Whites. The attacks on Chinese people wearing masks in public in the UK are as alarming as they are absurd.

Doctors in the thick of it declare this to be “the most frightening virus ever” – more contagious than Ebola or SARS and a higher death rate than flu. From Italy we hear that the marching orders are: “Save scarce resources for those patients who have the greatest chance of survival.”That means prioritizing younger, otherwise healthy patients over older patients or those with pre-existing conditions.”

As someone ticking most boxes of pre-existing conditions this raises existential issues. Are some people’s lives worth saving more than others? It’s a political as well as moral issue. As socialist author, Michael Rosen debated on BBC Radio 4, if we take a position other than “every life is equally precious”, where does society end up? I could say I’d rather a older left-wing socialist climate activist with heart trouble was saved than a macho-racist fascist, but what if the governors of the medical services felt the opposite?

Hmmm…Right to Life, and all that.

The right-wing responses to predictions that 80% of us will eventually catch Covid-19 include, as examples: people dismissing life as a lottery, championing the false “scientific Darwinism” of survival of the fittest; proselytising about the fake science of “behaviouralism” (that is, observe what you want and write it up as scientific fact); disregarding the threat as a Liberal conspiracy; organising outright eugenics by leaving the disabled to die or actively welcoming the Malthusian “clear-out” of the old and vulnerable clogging up our health and social care system.

The range and depth of emotions stimulated by the epidemic could easily outstrip the distress experienced by the illness itself.

For activists there are many factors to be considered. Not least, the incredible vulnerability of human society, the social fabric easily fragmented, the scale of production dramatically reduced by supply-side disruptions. The threat of social collapse caused by combined and extreme weather events, not to mention actual climate shift, is visibly exemplified by this current health crisis.

A second focus for us is industrial farming and specifically animal management. Intensive animal farming, the horror of their treatment a subject for a separate blog of outrage and pain, and the growth of exotic wildlife meat markets are the sources of continuous spread of life-threatening disease.

For the humanist, the way humans treat animals reflects upon the concurrent inhuman behaviours of humans one to another. For the scientist, the poor management of animal life is the root cause of much of societies ills. For the climate activist, the industrialised production of meat produces, proportionally, the highest levels of global heating gases of any industry other than the military.

Together this appears to amount to a searing indictment of humanity. Of course, its not quite as simple as that. When living above subsistence (and often even when on the verge of starvation), humans love and care for the animals around them. More than any other human condition, hunger and the need to survive tends to erode compassion. Any decent human society would place human need above all else.

A compassionate society would end industrial animal farming I’m sure. More vitally, for society to survive at all it is fairly universally accepted that consumption of meat has to fall markedly, not least of cows and bulls (the term “Beef” redacts all reference to the living being) to reduce global heating gases. Animal husbandry is certainly a core part of the transition required to prevent runaway climate change.

And the pandemic threat raises a third discussion for the environmentalist -the core debate about what we mean by “A Just Transition”. This is a lively and earnest set of current arguments about the transformation of society to Carbon-Zero. Whilst open political preference is apparently frowned upon, the demand for protection of democracy through the transition is shared by the majority.

We want everyone to be engaged with and participative in decisions to decry the internal combustion engine and carbon fuels. We certainly don’t want a totalitarian dictatorship to decree carbon-zero whatever the pain and injustice incurred. Do we? In the same way we want our old and vulnerable protected as much as anyone else from disease and premature death, not sacrificed by a Government keen to protect business profits above comfort in our old age.

Current images from China, South Korea and Italy raise important questions. The appearance of quarantine as a form of social control is inescapable. I have repeatedly imagined what would happen if people in Plymouth were threatened with imprisonment if we appeared on the streets. How well would a curfew be accepted? I’d like to predict an uprising, but today’s global school strikes were cancelled by Greta Thunberg herself!

Locally there appears to be a tacit acceptance of “staying in your home” – a self-imposed curfew, for a period of 14 days should you begin a fever. Even football fans will accept a close-down of the games on the basis of stopping the spread. Quite fundamental changes to human interactions and behaviours are being readily discussed and accepted in the cause of preventing a pandemic.

So why not the the same level of acquiescence to social change in the existential face of human extinction? Most importantly it is governments, informed by scientists, who are demanding collective engagement with the viral threat. Yet the same governments, informed by a far wider and diverse set of scientific analysis, refuse to act with anywhere near the same level of determination towards the existent global heating.

Or is this a false observation from the very beginning? Is it, in fact, the case that most governments are doing as little as possible to protect the people whilst offering every support to ensure production and profits are maintained – “business as usual”? It is reported that ten times as many people click to watch the virus-deniers and paranoid conspiracy online posts as click the government advice adverts. Is this proof of virus-denial being as widespread as climate-denial?

One conclusion has to be this. To win hearts and minds to the level of change needed to keep global heating to below two-degrees centigrade (let alone 1.5), we have to prove the reality of the threat at a very personal and material level. Not by waiting until people “catch-it” – fires, floods, food shortages – but by speaking the science clearly, repeatedly and with a passion.

And that translates into how environmentalists and socialists should be relating to Covid-19. We have to learn about the science of the virus, read the conclusions of reports on effective approaches in other countries, and find ways “speak the truth to power” to challenge popular mythology, complacency and most of all Government lies and spin. The Coronavirus requires a system change away from profit and towards human need just as much as does any solution to global heating.

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