Viral Political Ecology: fall edition

The anxiously awaited “second wave” of coronavirus infections has arrived. Just like in March and April, headlines are dominated by daily infection counts, and an increasingly cacophonous choir of restrictions have come into place. Unlike during the first wave, when arguably governments had the excuse of facing a genuinely novel situation, one would think that much has been prepared in order to ease the suffering and chart a different way through the crisis. Think again. 

Some things are different. I can only talk about what I know, so I will restrict my analysis to Belgium (where I live) and Italy (which I follow quite closely). In these countries, more testing is happening, though in Belgium the capacity is still vastly inferior to the demand, causing delays in test results that undermine the point of being tested in the first place. In both countries – and in general in most countries – mortality has dramatically declined, thanks to better care and prevention. Tracing doesn’t seem to be much better than it used to be. So even on basic technical measures, there is much to be desired. Schools have stayed open, though in some regions in Italy they have closed again, while in Belgium different classes in different schools may be quarantined (and therefore learning from home) at any given moment. 

Testing and mortality seem to be the greatest ‘structural’ changes, while the priority of keeping schools open feels like a return to some kind of decency (though it does not seem to hold in all places). Yet it is genuinely distressing to note that the summer months have gone by without a significant change in policy priorities such that healthcare capacity and social services in general could cope (with this or any other predictable crisis to come). At the beginning of the pandemic many held out hopes that a moment of genuine crisis could fuel a radical rethinking of social and political priorities. Instead, it seems that the further we go the bigger the social gaps get. It is as if the ruling classes are hellbent on continuing the fundamentals of the status quo no matter what. Whoever had harbored hopes that environmental crises (and covid is one of them) would change their minds is surely bitterly disappointed. 

In Belgium, health services are becoming genuinely overburdened, and this affects a vast number of people over and beyond covid patients. But nurses and doctors have been mobilizing for month for better working conditions, which would have directly benefited everyone during these times. Similarly, social workers have been demanding for years that the federal government have a better idea of who is at risk of poverty, such that in moments like these they could be sent help. Instead, local organizations are forced to work overtime with the same amount of people to serve a growing number of needs. 

The very classist ways in which governments have acted in response to the virus – basically protecting upper middle-class interests above everything else – has delegitimized them further. Of course, if the response to the pandemic is simply focused on the virus, it stands to reason that measures taken in this narrow fashion would do nothing but underline previous inequalities, precisely because they change nothing fundamental. This is one major reason why conspiracy theories and varieties of covid denialism are flourishing. It is not that a growing number of people are simply ill equipped to understand epidemiological matters. It is that trust in government (already decreasing for decades, and one of the most consistent political trends of our century) is as low as it has ever been. Measures announced in response to the growing covid cases are further eroding trust, because they are typically thought on the basis of an idealized well to do middle-class couple. Alternately, they are a vivid picture of state ineptitude, as the example of the completely wasted summer months shows. 

These criticisms can be made without falling into the trap of denying the severity of the virus or the genuine strain that it would put on any social arrangement: countries that have imposed little to no restrictions have not fared better than lockdown-happy ones, because unchecked transmission puts any system (not just health ones) under strain. The point is not to argue that there should be no measures in place designed for immediate-term transmission reduction. But if governments only do that, then they are bound to neither solve the problem in the long term, nor gather enough social support (based on trust) to solve the problem in the short term. The underlying issues that made the coronavirus a pandemic in the first place are human encroachment on the natural world, epidemic levels of morbidity caused by industrial food production and air pollution, and stark levels of social inequalities. Without starting to seriously address these, governments will neither earn citizens’ trust, nor be able to do much more than place leaking bandages on suppurating wounds. 

In fact, the mentality of crisis has worked to delay fundamental reform. So instead of investing quickly, and for the long term, in the prevention of other leading morbidity and mortality factors, all efforts are on ‘the one enemy’, the one that exceptionally shows systemic weakness. Air pollution, high blood pressure and diabetes together account for a frightening amount of suffering, but those are simply collateral damage of ‘the economy’, so they are tolerated. These kinds of inconsistencies are there for all to see, and we can be sure that they are seen. They further undermine trust in fatal ways, fuelling the armchair appeal of radical and crass solutions, much more than a patient and lucid long-term political project. 

There is a world after the pandemic, whether the end of the current crisis will be brought by a miracle cure or by learning to cope with a new endemic disease. It is, however, genuinely worrisome to see the increased polarization that largely classist and piecemeal approaches have generated. If this moment, as I have written before, is but a preview of ecological crises to come, buckle up for a bumpy road ahead; the ruling classes seem intent on driving the van straight off the cliff. 

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