“If trouble comes when you least expect it,
then maybe the thing to do is to always expect it.”
Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Writing anything about COVID-19 at this moment is a daunting task since the situation is evolving so rapidly, and in so many different locations. Information contained in this piece could be thoroughly outpaced by transformative events by the time it reaches publication, or even by the time I finish up and click “save.” There is also a glut of information online right now, some of it reliable and fascinating, and some of it misleading and counterproductive. Everywhere there is a mixture of growing apprehension, clashing opinion, and outright confusion.
If the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center’s interactive map is accurate, there are currently 284,566 cases of COVID-19 worldwide, a figure that is growing. The “true” number of infections, that includes asymptomatic carriers, will be much higher. Beginning on February 24th, an accelerating number of new transmissions emerged outside China, primarily in Italy which currently has over 47,021 cases. At time of writing, France and Germany are also experiencing rapid increases in affected persons, together totaling over 33,000 cases, and Spain is on the brink of a national lockdown with over 25,374. Almost every European country has now been affected, and COVID-19 is now spreading in the United States, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. How will it test the West?
Relations with China
Early speculation on COVID-19, especially in dissident circles, orbited conspiracy theories that the virus was engineered, and that it was either deployed by the United States or was an accidental leak from Wuhan’s Institute of Virology. In recent days, the former theory has been eagerly taken up by the Chinese themselves, with the added detail that COVID-19 may have been unleashed by visiting American soldiers during the Military World Games, which were staged in Wuhan in October 19-27, 2019. According to epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, in the course of a very interesting interview with Joe Rogan, it’s possible to date the origins of human COVID-19 through a process much like carbon dating, and scientists now have data suggesting COVID-19 became active in humans for the first time in mid-November 2019. Ron Unz has asked:
How would Americans react if 300 PRC officers had visited Chicago, and immediately afterwards, a deadly new plague broke out in that city, with a major risk of spreading throughout the country? Isn’t it also rather suspicious that Iran has been hit so hard? So the two countries in the world most subject to current American hostility just tend to be especially “unlucky.” It hit China just before Lunar New Year, the absolutely worst possible time, and the epicenter was Wuhan, a key transport hub. It really seems an *astonishing* coincidence that 300 American military servicemen had been visiting Wuhan just prior to the outbreak, at a peak of international tension.
Other than timing of course, there seems to be little or no evidence that this was a bioweapon attack. Most obviously, one would assume that any attempted bioweapon attack by the United States on China would be much more covert than what has been suggested (a deliberate release by a very public group of soldiers). Also, while we know that SARS-like viruses based on bat coronavirus can be developed in the lab, the genome of COVID-19 has also been examined countless times with the result that there are now over 300 papers on MedRXiv concerning the structure, nature, and origins of the virus. None of these papers have highlighted anything suggesting an artificial origin of any aspect of COVID-19.
Conspiracy theories on the origins of COVID-19 are of course a very convenient and useful tool for the Chinese government, because they deflect attention from the fact the outbreak can easily be attributed to bad government, and to Communism itself. I find the idea that the virus originated in a Wuhan “wild food” market to be utterly compelling (see this documentary by 60 Minutes Australia, and this short piece by Vox), and this has direct consequences for perceptions of Chinese Communism. The consumption of “exotic” foods is itself a legacy of the Great Chinese Famine 1959–1961, after which the government permitted private farming but failed to prevent the monopoly by big companies of the rearing of conventional livestock. The peasantry, priced out of the market, resorted in large numbers to the farming of wild animals, especially, in the initial stages, the farming of turtles. Since this curbed starvation to some extent, the government backed these initiatives, and then in 1988 made the encouragement of domestication and breeding of wildlife an explicit aspect of law. Wildlife farming became an industry overnight. Bears, snakes, rodents, lizards, and bats began to be mass-produced for human consumption, and sold in mass markets in many of the country’s largest cities. In these markets, multiple species, alive and dead, are stacked in cages on top of one another, with the animals soaked in cocktails of urine and excrement—each cage a petri dish for the development new diseases, especially respiratory diseases, with the potential to jump to humans from myriad mammals. Together with its failure to take decisive preventative action in January 2020, and absent conspiracy theory speculation, the origin tale of COVID-19 is ultimately an indictment of Chinese politics and culture.
How that indictment will impact relations between the West and China remains to be seen. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have speculated that while mutual suspicion between the Chinese and the United States will remain high, the coronavirus outbreak will have no meaningful impact on trade between the two countries, and may in fact help de-escalate some prior economic tensions and involve the suspension of tariffs. In the longer term, however, COVID-19 has accelerated discussion about the need to become more independent from China in the production of goods. Several multinational corporations with supply chains based in China, having already considered diversifying their supply chains because of the U.S.-China trade war, are now likely to further their plans. Apple, for example, intends to move some manufacturing of its products (including AirPods and Apple Watches) to Taiwan due to the coronavirus. In Washington, members of Congress have used the outbreak to call for scaling back U.S. reliance on China, especially for prescription drugs, medical supplies, and other critical resources. Since Europe (Germany in particular) is the world’s largest manufacturer of drugs and medicines, we are likely to see a gradual decoupling of the United States from Chinese production, and a greater integration of European-American trade. Brexit Britain, until recently seen by the Chinese as having great potential for a lucrative trade and investment deal, may now present more of a cold house than previously thought. The EU, already resistant to increased Chinese economic influence, is also likely to dig its heels even deeper in the face of Chinese approaches. Some of the lasting challenges of COVID-19 will be how the West can distance itself from economic dependence on Chinese manufacturing, what impact this will have in both the shorter and longer term, and how the Chinese will respond.
The first European outbreaks of COVID-19 fatefully coincided with an aggressive two-week operation by Turkey on its border with Greece, involving the movement of thousands of Syrian and African migrants. Beginning in late February, the Turkish government announced it would no longer stop migrants trying to reach Europe, and then drove thousands to the Greek border, live-streaming the process to encourage more to follow. The move was widely understood as an attempt to force European support for Turkey’s military campaign in northern Syria, and also as an attempt to extort more money from the EU. Although the effort now appears to have concluded with Turkey backtracking in the face of Greek resilience, Europe continues to have this metaphorical human “pistol” pressed to the side of its head.
COVID-19 is going to aggravate the broader migrant problem. Already the clamor is growing that migrant camps on Europe’s borders should be evacuated on health grounds, with the migrants permitted to enter Europe. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have argued that unhygienic and cramped living conditions mean COVID-19 can spread very fast, and that social distancing and hand washing are more difficult. While Europe bans mass gatherings, it’s been said that people in these camps have nowhere to go. Even within European countries, the outbreak has been associated with calls for amnesties and the opening of migrant detention centers. In the UK, lawyers and campaigners have called for hundreds immigration centers detainees to be released “because of fears they will contract coronavirus while locked up.”
The problem with such calls is that they all appear to present COVID-19 as a deadly plague slaughtering all in its path, rather than as something that afflicts the most seriously ill among the old and infirm. As is well known, the average age of Europe’s would-be migrants, particularly those from Syria, is somewhere around the late 20s. Given the known progression of COVID-19 in people in this age category, calls to permit mass influxes of masses of migrants purely because of the outbreak is tantamount to calling for open borders because potential immigrants might otherwise catch the common cold. Such calls are likely to ride the crest of a media-induced wave of panic, however, and the resolve of the West to resist further migrant flows will indeed be tested by twisted forms of moral blackmail in the weeks and months to come.
Life and Death under Liberalism
As stated in my review of Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), we live in a decaying society that is in terror of death, and pathologically so. This pathology is rooted in mistaken beliefs that our civilization is dying from, or could imminently die from, disease epidemics, climate catastrophes etc., in the midst of willful and ignorant abdication of a future (via self-hate and industrialized abortion) in favor of mass immigration, consumerism, and instant gratification. Just as one has to confront death in order to truly live (or to become “authentic” in Heidegger’s philosophy), our society is in constant flight from death and thus inevitably collapses into inauthentic decay. COVID-19, while not as lethal as media coverage would suggest, is a reminder of our mortality and human fragility and will necessarily have a jarring effect on a Western liberalism that has become increasingly distant from the confrontation with death.
Life under liberal finance capitalism is largely one of illusion, in which the prospect of real death is pushed far into the distance, both psychologically and culturally. Postmodern Western liberal culture is largely one of perpetual adolescence, in which the primary virtues are acting according to one’s individual will, identifying oneself in a hyper-individualistic manner, and expressing these identities via conspicuous consumption and behavior. We do not “live towards” Death, with a sense of purpose and a feeling that we are part of a much grander civilizational trajectory. We do not understand that Death has shaped our historical path, and that it hangs over us in ways that should direct our actions in the present.
COVID-19, regardless of current confusion over its true mortality rate, is a corrective to illusions that “progressive” Man has overcome Nature and can shape the world according to the human image, and without consequences. Certainly throughout my own lifetime, I’ve grown accustomed to assertions that life expectancy will continue to increase, and that there will be an endless supply of innovations and social projects that will make the mechanics of life easier and more productive. One increasingly expects that one will live a long life, mostly in very good health. Such a sense of security can breed all kinds of arrogance and fantasies, including the recent perverse luxury of the delusion that one can simply decide to be this or that gender. This new virus, however, presents the possibility, both in itself and its inevitable heirs, that Death is much closer than we ever thought, and that for all our technological advancement and self-congratulation, Nature need only tweak one molecule, so small our naked eyes could never perceive it, and the grave opens before us. The Age of Fantasy is confronted with the ultimate reality.
How the West responds to this realization will be a further cultural challenge. We have grown equally accustomed to the idea that we have “advanced” morally as a society, and that we have overcome some of the more “brutish” aspects of human existence that we perceive in the past. But in a world of apparently increasing plenty, such notions can be hard to test. It’s always easy for a man with a full stomach to condemn the actions of the starving. The conceit of the full-bellied West that it has overcome and surpassed itself and its past will now be tested. I, of course, arise from a political and philosophical tradition that insists there is no shame in the past. I see little or no place for morality in the struggle for survival. And I also see the cracks already forming in the Western conceit. This society that is against “hate” and prides itself on “coming together” is already struggling to stop people rioting over toilet paper and bottled water. If civil order breaks down, will the proud feminists be seeking their own resources, or hoping for a strong man to protect them? If the death toll does rise dramatically, and if curfews and lockdowns are imposed and intensified, I ask: How well will your beloved multicultural societies respond? If resources become scarce and tensions rise, who will you trust? These tests are coming.
Economic and Political Fallout
Just days ago, JPMorgan projected that a recession will hit the US and European economies by July, with US GDP to shrink by 2% in the first quarter and 3% in the second, and Eurozone GDP to contract by 1.8% and 3.3% over the same periods. Sudden cessation of economic activity through quarantines, event cancellations, social distancing, and the almost complete shutdown of the tourist industry will have both immediate and longer term consequences for national economies and broader trade patterns. The mass closing of schools will expose pre-existing weaknesses in a modern system that sees women funneled en masse into the work place while their children are left in day cares or schools. According to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 70 percent of American mothers with children under 18 work. Through the closing of schools alone, the impact of COVID-19 will almost certainly have the greatest impact on the role of women in the workplace since World War Two, with many forced to leave work and return to the home for an as yet undetermined amount of time. How this will impact the businesses or public entities employing these women remains to be seen, but it will undoubtedly cause significant difficulties and necessitate some level of infrastructural change.
The outbreak of COVID-19 is also projected to test Western healthcare provision to the limit. It’s been particularly interesting that the outbreak in Italy effectively broke the health system in Lombardy, widely regarded as one of the best in the world. Before the outbreak, it was remarked that:
The Lombardy healthcare system, characterised by quality and efficiency, is a model of reference both in Italy and worldwide. With the benefit of private partnerships in fact, it ensures its citizens and those who live in other regions or abroad have access to prime level health care with all the advantages of a public system. Lombardy has 56 University Departments of Medicine, 19 IRCCS (IRCCS means an institution devoted to excellence in clinical care and research) which represent 42% of the national total, 47 Institutes and 32 Research Centres. As a result, Lombardy and in particular Milan have always attracted the most renowned physicians in every field of expertise.
It took COVID-19 just four weeks to exhaust every hospital bed in Lombardy, force doctors out of retirement and medical students to graduate early, and provoke the creation of 500 triage tents outside hospitals nationwide. The different, and ever-politicized, healthcare systems of the United States and Great Britain are about to experience the most intensive test in their respective histories. One of the most outspoken figures from the medical profession on social media in recent days is Eugene Gu, who has made a point of attacking the profit-seeking nature of much of the American medical establishment. Gu has argued that American medicine is essentially a pyramid scheme that profits those at the top by artificially restricting the number of doctors produced by the system:
The medical school and residency system in the United States is completely broken compared to other countries. Now that we are in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, we need to reflect upon an abusive system that hurts patients and seeks to make a few specialists filthy rich. Even before the coronavirus, we created a huge physician shortage by limiting spots in medical schools to inflate doctors’ salaries the same way De Beers fixes the diamond market. And we gutted primary care so that specialists like plastic surgeons and dermatologists can get rich. I took an oath to “first, do no harm.” I cannot just stand by and watch as the corrupt cesspool we call our American medical system fails our patients while a few doctors, insurance executives, and Big Pharma get filthy rich. Medicine should not be a for-profit industry.
Whether or not one agrees with Dr Gu’s perspective, the coming weeks and months will test both American for-profit medicine and Britain’s nationalized health system, and perhaps leave long term political legacies for both.
Political consequences will also inevitably result from the approaches of individual leaders to the crisis. Boris Johnson is risking his political future on a “herd immunity” strategy that is radically different from the course of action pursued by other leaders. It’s been criticized as involving the sacrifice of the older generation for a slightly prolonged period of economic normalcy and an entirely assumed future immunity among the young. Donald Trump, meanwhile, is quickly trying to move on from a highly dismissive initial response to the outbreak. In both cases, and throughout the West, moderately “conservative” populism based on the celebration of finance capitalism and token gestures on borders will be tested to the limit by increasing strains on all aspects of social, political, and economic life. Trump, in particular, has managed to squeeze a lot of political mileage out of the performance of the stock market. With stocks tumbling, and the American healthcare system pushed to the limit, it remains to be seen whether Trump’s drive to make gay sex legal in Africa will be enough to keep his voters happy.
In another return of the Real, of course, COVID-19 is doing more to close borders than any expression of political populism ever has. It was all well and good that “the world is a village” when this involved cheap and cheerful vacations, but all it took was a few houses in the throes of sickness for the rest of the villagers to wish there was somewhere they could escape to. The global village is in shutdown. All humans might be equally susceptible to this virus, but national borders, so often scorned until recently, now reveal they might have some uses after all – just one of them being the invaluable opportunity to seal and control a limited territory. How people grow accustomed to this renewed emphasis on border control may leave a lasting political legacy for the West also. In any case, we can only hope it will.
With events moving so quickly, I conclude with the oppressive sensation that I’ve written both too much and too little. The figures presented at the outset of this essay will be superfluous by the time this piece is published, but I do think some of the suggestions in the body will remain relevant for some time to come. I wish all our readers the best of luck and the best of health in the weeks and months to come. May globalism’s difficulty be the dissident’s opportunity.