Eighteen months into the latest pandemic, there are quite a few observations that can be made about the origins of, and responses to, the COVID-19 virus. The 24-hour news cycle and the lack of critical analysis have left a large part of the global population ill-informed, confused and seemingly helpless in the face of a real health crisis. No doubt there will be — and should be — volumes of work examining this episode. The point, as always, is not merely to understand the situation, but to change it. Revealed, once again, is that capitalism is no way to run the planet. But what is the “how and why” of that failure?
There has been a loud and largely irrelevant commotion about the exact genesis of the outbreak. The U.S. and its allies seek to point the finger at China, with dark and utterly unfounded rumours of deliberate releases of a “weaponised” virus. Or, alternatively, gross negligence in the handling of biological research by the Chinese. This is geopolitics at work, nothing more nor less.
Of course it is necessary to find the path of this pathogen into the human population. That can only help with dealing with the next pandemic. But it does not address the ultimate cause of such plagues. The expert consensus is that it is not a case of if there will be another planet-wide health emergency. It is a question of when.
So what do we know about the source of COVID-19? It’s zoonotic, meaning it came from a population of non-human animals. The broad consensus is that underlying all zoonotic diseases is the rapid encroachment of human populations upon previously isolated areas. Either people move into territory occupied by “exotic” species or rapid deforestation and land clearing cause those species to move into densely populated urban environments.
And that is the real genesis of the pandemic, indeed every recorded pandemic for the last 1,000 years. The difference is that the disruption is accelerating, and it is uncontrolled.
Here is a very sobering truth: the biggest influence upon the earth’s climate is not the sun, which is unlimited, at least by human measure. It is human activity. The future of the world’s biosphere depends upon a single species. It’s described as a new geological period: the Anthropocene. In almost every conceivable manner, the planet’s natural cycles and rhythms are now distorted nearly to breaking point. The COVID crisis is the result of a specific kind of climate change.
The “New Normal” has become the marketing slogan for the so-called “new era” — life with the virus. But there’s no new era: we’re experiencing normal capitalism! This latest of global health crises, along with all the other consequences of climate change, is the result of the imposition of a largely chaotic process of capitalist accumulation of wealth driven only by the pursuit of yet more wealth. Superimpose this onto the planet’s closed system of self-limiting environmental processes and the result can only be — chaos. At least in the short term.
The problem is that while the system settles into a different equilibrium, humans — and many other species — face catastrophe. We now live in a place buffeted by the gusts of an approaching global storm.
Southeastern Australia is currently dealing with the effects of a destructive superstorm. This follows massive flooding in the northeastern interior, the devastating firestorms of the summer before last and the sub-tropical cyclone, which recently caused havoc in the southwest of the continent. Globally, the disruption of weather systems and the prevalence of extreme weather events is looking like the actual “new normal.”
Whatever proves to have been the immediate trigger for the pandemic is simply not the issue.
What’s been clear about the responses to the crisis is that no one is at the controls of this runaway economic train. Even the super rich are just luxury class passengers. (The rest of us mostly get the cattle wagons at the rear!) Vaccines did not develop out of the “operation of the market’ — they exist as a result of direct state intervention. Proving, incidentally, what can be achieved with a hint of direction. Proving further that the resources to deal with such crises do exist. They’re just hoarded and then doled out by a tiny minority. The farce of “balanced budgets” and laissez-faire regulation has been exposed time and again in the current crisis, as governments open vaults and print money to prop up economies struck down by the virus.
Meanwhile, society largely continues to function. No thanks to the billionaires and shareholders. No thanks to Capital. In the end, as ever, it is the billions of working people, small business operators and agricultural toilers who keep things going. It was quite telling when the Victorian state government defined an “essential worker” as (almost) anyone with a job! Indeed.
We are not by any means free of this current health crisis. And we can only plan for the next, inevitable universal contagion. Unless we break into the locomotive and apply the controls! There is no planet B; there is no other option. The human community is now the dominant global climate driver. Human systems need to integrate with all the other planetary processes. First Nations peoples invariably refer to their custodianship of country. It is an outlook that the entire species needs to adopt. It sounds trivial to state that we are of this planet, but that is precisely the philosophy that the proponents of capitalism fight viciously and relentlessly to suppress.
The pandemic has brought home the current reality of climate change, made it local, made it personal — for each of us, not just the direct victims of so-called natural disasters. The ubiquitous encroachment of capitalism on every ecological process means that none of these life-changing events is at all part of the normal processes of the earth.
Capitalism is the ultimate virus and we, acting together, will be the vaccine.
Working people build and operate the infrastructure of society. We don’t control it — but that is what we must do to avert the threatened catastrophe. The sooner that we all decide we must not let our home be destroyed around us, the sooner we can begin the task of healing our societies and restoring the planet’s rhythms and processes, rendering the Anthropocene a brief aberration in the history of the Earth.