Sick and Tired of Virus Banalities
Everyone has seen those cheesy T-shirts which say, “My grandmother went to Tahiti and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”
One of our friends went to Venice and brought us back an attractive mask, one of those with a protruding beak. It hangs on a wall in our hallway. I pass by it many times every day, imprisoned as I am by the coronavirus. Each time I glance at it, I am reminded that life is not as it should be. The mask fuels my anger about the way we (by which I mean our governments) are dealing with this problem. The outcomes are way worse than they should be. The evidence is in: other governments with different species of capitalism are doing much better for their citizens. This makes me resentful, particularly as I am bombarded with inanities that are supposed to explain why there is nothing that can be done other than what is being done. This is nonsense on stilts.
I am sick and tired of these solemnly, portentously uttered banalities. I do not want to hear any of the following again:
“We are following the science.”
“We have to open-up the economy.”
“We are all in this together.”
These soothing motherhood statements are meant to distort. They pervert the meaning of science, the nature of the economy, and the meaning of solidarity. They are used to legitimate unnecessary pain and suffering.
Let me return to the Venetian mask and its curved beak and lovely decorations. It is a replica of the masks worn by health care workers and those of the population who could afford them during the plague that hit Venice and much of Europe during the 14th century. The Venetians knew nothing about germs or bacteria or viruses. They were not following what we call science; there was no science as we know it. They did, however, unlike us, use the knowledge they did have. Venetians saw that the infections spread in some invisible way. It simply made sense to them not to breathe the air that might carry whatever was infecting people.
We in contemporary Canada know about the virus; we know how small it is; we know how it might be attached to surfaces we touch; we know that it might be spread by breathing out. Yet, we are still arguing as to whether we should wear masks and, if so, whether doing so is important enough to force others to wear them. We, of course, say that we are “following the science.” If this allows doubts to be thrown on the utility of masks, stop following that science, please! Let us take our cue from the less scientific Venetians. Make everyone wear masks until this plague is beaten back.
Science back then being much more primitive than it is today, the Venetians were not sure why they had been hit by the pestilence. But they figured out that since the disease had been unknown to them until it hit them, it must have travelled in from somewhere. So, they did two things. They decided to stop it travelling from those among them already afflicted to others in Venice. They moved the infected people to a small island to be treated. This is also where the health workers were first equipped with those masks. They also reasoned that the plague might have come to Venice by travellers, so, they determined that any new boat that arrived should be kept away from its citizenry for a while, anchored at another near-by island. The period they chose was forty days; ‘quarantina’, they called it.
Seven-hundred years have passed since Venice’s isolation and quarantining were deployed as preventive measures, and that scientific know-how is still our basic approach. We have some protocols such as asking people who have travelled to isolate themselves for a while. Yet with all our science, we are still pondering, long and hard, to determine when and if so, for how long, people who might carry the virus should be kept away from others and for how long. These hesitations and our dithering on masks, these tepid measures, should worry us. After all, we have new knowledge we could use. We have developed tests that can detect the presence of the virulent virus in people not yet obviously afflicted, enabling us to isolate them and locate all the people with whom they have been in contact and are, therefore, in danger of becoming ill and further spreading the infection. Considering that this is a real advance on the way Venice and Europe were able to approach plagues, following the science should mean that we make intensive and systematic use of these tools.
But as they ‘follow the science’, which our governments never tire of telling us they do, those same governments test and do contact tracing without conviction, haphazardly, and, therefore, with little success. For instance, it has been reported that in Toronto our scientific authorities have no idea where 65% of transmitted cases came from; there remain many mystery carriers (an Australian term) out there, continuing to do unintentional harm. The Toronto Star’s Josh Rubin reported that when the pandemic made a sudden come-back in October, the people who keep on telling us that they are, and we should be, following the science decided to cut down on the testing and contact tracing because “the growth in cases made it all but impossible to keep up.”
The proof is in the pudding. In those countries where everyone wears the modern versions of the Venetian mask, where they quarantine seriously, and where they test and contact trace with rigour – China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, Kerala, Cuba, Australia, New Zealand – the pandemic has been halted in its tracks. Not so here.
The Venetians’ efforts were not all that successful because they had limited technical and material resources, but their thinking abilities were no different from ours. This is why a question arises as to how much ‘science’ is adding to our responses. Not only do we neglect the new knowledge and technology, we continue to guess, just as the Venetians did. For instance, we know, as the Venetians knew, that we should stay away from each other. How do we decide that we are far enough away? We have come up with a measure: 6 feet, or 2 metres, or the length of a hockey stick. Is that based on science that the Venetians did not have? The 6-feet rule, it turns out, was the distance suggested during the Spanish flu epidemic at the end of World War I. Are we to believe that it was ‘scientifically’ arrived at then and, if so, that it is bound to work for a different epidemic?
Of course, some of our scientific advances are put to some good uses. The 14th century treatment of infected people was, by today’s standards, primitive: sweating, blood letting, and forced urinating and vomiting. We have hospitals, ways of bringing down temperatures, ventilators, and the like. We know how to do some things better; we know what equipment is needed. But we do not necessarily have sufficient access to care centres or to equipment. We are in this situation because no one saw a chance to make money out of having better infrastructure to be ready for a potential public health crisis.
Still, there is some hope. We should be able to develop vaccines to immunize most of us against this particular virus. This is what modern science can do and will do. There is money in it. No matter how degrading the impulse to profit is, vaccinations do denote a tremendous advance. But that does not deal with the issue of how we use science in the meanwhile.
Much of what we should do, and do not do very well – ensuring the wearing of masks, enforced isolation, and physical distancing – is not the kind of organized knowledge only understood by a few gifted and skilled scientists. It’s not rocket science. This is revealed when a hue and cry goes up because some people gathered in a park or at a club or went to a wedding: “Come on, people, what is so hard? Use your common sense”, Premier Ford tells us plaintively. He is right: it is common sense. So, why does he not make us follow this simple science? Being that lax, it is inevitable that governments like his do not make the most of the scientific advances that have been made since 1350.
Our modern technologies can furnish us with data about the extent and locales of infections, permitting more pointed measures to stop activities, recommend isolations, and the like. We can also measure whether the rates of infection are increasing or decreasing, that is, whether ‘following the science’ is working. Mostly, it is not. As noted, we use our technological abilities, testing, and contact tracing very poorly when compared to the way it is used in other virus-beating jurisdictions. Our scientific findings to stop the spread of infections are used haphazardly and unevenly. Why don’t governments follow the science they do have at their disposal?
The answer is that we don’t care about science, pure and simple. “Follow the science” is a slogan, not a principle. It can be ditched, like any other mindless slogan. And it will be ditched when there is a desire to achieve a conflicting goal, one which conflicts with better health.
‘Another goal’ brings me to another slogan: “We have to open up the economy.” What the devil is the economy?
Recently, a court in India declared that the Ganges and Yamuna rivers were living entities and it extended that holding to cover the glaciers that feed these rivers. New Zealand has enacted a law recognizing the Whanganui River as a living entity. Ecuador’s constitution acknowledges nature’s right “to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles”; Bolivia has a similar provision.
Is the economy like a natural phenomenon? Is it a thing which exists in its own right, requiring guardians to protect its life and dignity?
Of course not. The economy is a creation of society. It is simply how we decide to produce goods and services we need and want. For good or ill (and, really, it is for ill), we have chosen a variety of capitalism often called market capitalism. At the centre of its workings it expects every individual to compete with all others as they pursue their own selfish interests. It is a regime in which a few own most of the means of production in which they can invest for even more profit, while the others, those without any meaningful amount of disposable wealth, possessed only of their own capacities, do all the work. The argument for the maintenance and perpetuation of this regime is that the aggregated outcomes of the pursuit of self-interest by the owners of wealth, the capitalists, and by all the non-wealth owners in a competitive setting, those being the workers, will lead to the best outcomes for society as a whole. If the rich are able to garner more wealth, we will all benefit.
The lack of logic and the lack of evidence for this proposition were neatly pointed out by a clergyman who noted that the trickle-down theory might well be a good economic theory but that it would always fail to work because of all those sponges at the top. The now widely acknowledged yawning gaps in both wealth and income between the sponges at the top (the 1 or 0.1 percenters) and the rest of society are irrefutable evidence that the economy we privilege does not work as its proponents say it will. The exercise only works well for a select few, not for the whole of society. Yet, the trickle-down theory is treated as a scientific truth. This is the science governments follow. Diligently, with fervour. They rely on capitalists to invest their wealth to generate social well-being. This gives capitalists enormous economic and political power. And they use it or, more accurately, abuse it.
The logic of this science is that no one, especially no capitalist, is responsible for the welfare of any other person. There is no requirement that privately owned wealth should be used to meet people’s needs. The science of trickle-down will, magically, do the trick.
What this signifies is that private, self-serving actors cannot be expected to deal with a public problem, like a pandemic. They are, as dictated by science, rightly way too busy feathering their own nests. This is particularly true of capitalists who rule the roost in the variety of capitalism we “enjoy” in Canada.
They attack workers’ wages; they ceaselessly rail and push against regulatory systems that protect the environment, workers, consumers, and the most vulnerable among us. Those regulations interfere with the science of the economy. They hinder the making of money as they impose costly (to the owners of disposable wealth) social welfare programmes and the social wage. Because these capitalists are always looking for new profitable outlets for their wealth, they are always pressuring governments to allow the for-profit sectors to deliver services and goods people need, the so-called privatization movement. Since it is often unprofitable to deliver services to all those who need them, there will be gaps in coverage. And so it goes.
The logic of capitalism is to make profits for the few and shift the costs of the injuries and harms inflicted by them onto others, principally on the most vulnerable in society. How is that working out?
By the time governments were jarred into action by the coronavirus, evidence indicates the following mistakes had already been made:
(i) Despite the recommendations of the report on what went wrong during the SARS epidemic, the government had not stored up what we now know as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and, as there was no money in it, the private sector had not produced any, endangering health care workers way more than they should have been and pushing ‘authorities’ to manufacture false science. Thus, we were told by governments (following the science, of course) that masks were not essential at all. Those Venetians were too primitive for words. Many unnecessary infections later, we have had to recant. Did the science change?
(ii) From the 1990s onwards, entrepreneurs had persuaded governments that for-profit long-term care would be superior to not-for-profit operations, giving them a new source of profit. They gleefully exploited this by further persuading complicit governments to drop all pretence at monitoring and enforcing such standards as did exist. This was an explicit policy of the Ford government. Emboldened by this indifference, long-term-care operators reduced the number of workers per patient and hired part-time workers, all too often recent migrants, thereby lowering costs and increasing profits. All this reduced the quality of care… dramatically. When the federal government sent in the military to these long-term-care facilities, the soldiers reported conditions that were absolutely appalling. And it was not just optics: the fatality rates among residents are sky high. The rate of infections among health care workers subjected to these conditions has been horrendous. At the same time, the last decade has been good, very good, to investors in for-profit long-term care. Linda McQuaig reports that three for-profit operators returned $1.5-billion in dividends to their shareholders who, in turn, rewarded their executives with $138-million. We can be confident that these shareholders and executives were not equally exposed to the COVID-19 that rampages through their gold coin spinning businesses. And it is to be noted that these profiteers have not announced that they will give up their gains to help out the stricken folk who paid so much money for so little care. Rather, the business papers have been full of accounts about wealthy people thinking about investing in nursing homes as the population ages: they know a good thing when they have profited from it before.
How is that for trickle-down theory doing? How is the economy working?
(iii) In line with the last point, as under capitalism no capitalist has any duty toward anyone else, it should be unsurprising to find out the lengths to which these occupiers of the commanding height of the economy go to hold on to their wealth. They argue, vehemently, that if anyone needs assistance during this pandemic, it is they. They contend, successfully, that they need help if they are going to stay in business and return the economy to its previous glories. They have won subsidies to keep workers on their books (with some of the more shameless of them, as reported in the Toronto Star on 21 November, using some of that money to pay dividends to their shareholders and bonuses to their executives); they point out that they, rugged capitalists all, need protections from other selfish capitalists who will pursue them for rents (funnily enough, Hudson’s Bay is warding off its rapacious landlord, Oxford Properties). Cunningly, these positions for hand-outs are advanced by positing small business capitalists in seriously competitive sectors (hairdressers, restaurants, gyms, salons) as typifying the plight of all capitalists. Nothing could be less true, less scientific: the concentration of capital, the lack of serious competition in Canada, has been established by countless commissions and scholars. The hype about small business being the backbone of the economy is just that: hype.
(iv) Having succeeded in persuading governments that the economy posited on avarice is virtuous and is, scientifically speaking, a superior model, capitalists, that is, the members of the class that owns and controls the means of production, have come to swill at the public trough. They demand that if they are to use their assets to make the masks, testing equipment, ventilators, and to invest in research for antibodies and vaccines, the governments should step in to make sure that such socially good work yields private profits. If not, forget it.
This is the economy, which must be preserved so that it can be opened-up. The so-called science it demands us all to follow is more like a religious cult than science. Yet, it is to be preserved by not making the most of the few scientific advances we have made in the last 700 years. The fake science underpinning the economy is trumping established public health science. The reason that the Ford-like governments are not following the science (even as they ask the public to follow the primitive science as developed by the Venetians) is that they think the health of the economy (read: profiteering capitalists) is more important than public health.
This has brought me to that other odious expression: “We are all in this together.”
Some businesses must remain open, no matter what. Health care, food, shelter: those are essential human needs. Therefore, government and private operators that can meet those needs must continue to function. They require workers. Those workers must face the increased dangers of going to places where infections might arise, to travel to and from those places, and then return home to their families and neighbours.
They are running risks not incurred by those who can work at home.
Personal carertakers, custodial staff, nurses, paramedics, doctors, agricultural workers – many of them migrants on visas exposed to horrendous living and working conditions – meat packing workers, construction workers, retail-stores shelf-stockers, cashiers, warehouse and storage house workers, couriers, truck drivers, bus drivers, train and streetcar drivers, transport maintenance workers, garbage collectors and sorters, mail sorters and carriers, all run tremendous risks. It turns out that Peel, NW and NE Toronto are the locales where great clumps of such workers reside. They are the ones most exposed. They expose more people. The areas in which they live become hot spots.
Work is the core of the problem, not the fact that these are non-white racialized communities, featuring extended families and crowded housing. Those things matter, of course. They explain why, in those hot spots, there are fewer public health facilities, less access to testing, a reduced capacity to isolate infected people. The systemic racism, inequality, and poverty that accompany capitalism, that inhere in the economy, play a nasty role. But, in the end, it is the fact that during an epidemic of this kind it is these people in these locales who do most of the heavy lifting for the rest of us. They are the ones who take most of the risks so that we can retain a good level of comfort and sharply reduce the risk of coming into contact with corona-virus-carrying persons.
We are not all in this together. Not even close.
It is not that our governments and pundits do not acknowledge the sacrifices these workers are making for us. They are called heroes and grateful citizens bang pots and pans to show their appreciation. But no one does anything concrete for them. Indeed, the rhetoric and cheap symbolism aside, the focus is the opposite. Central to government and private capital’s approach to these ‘heroes’ is keeping them at work, exposing them and their nearest and dearest to COVID-19.
It is no accident that until very recently hardly anyone suggested that to control the spread of the infections, it was crucial to look at the conditions in workplaces. Occasionally, a scandal would erupt, say in respect of foreign visa workers on exploitative farms or an unusual cluster of cases in a meatpacking factory. These events were treated as outliers. In fact, with a couple of noble exceptions, local public health authorities were not disclosing any statistics about the incidence of infections in workplaces. One would have thought that ‘following the science’ would, at a minimum, demand that the decision-makers use the data available to them. It took a dramatic revelation by Dr. Loh, the administrator of public health in Brampton, to make the obvious visible to the government. He reported that since the beginning of April, his staff had investigated more than 1500 potential COVID-19 exposures in his bailiwick’s workplaces. There had been 116 work-place outbreaks between Sept. 1 and Nov. 13. He noted that these people had been labelled as essential workers because we (the less endangered sectors) needed their output. However, he pointed to a corollary: the workers that have to do the dangerous/essential work, need food and income. This made it monstrous that many of their employers still failed to take adequate precautions to protect these vulnerable workers’ health, ranking profits over people.
In short, the very people who provide our needs having been paying the price for our continuing welfare and for our expected renewed prosperity when the economy is opened up. Our attention has been deliberately diverted from this brutal and verified scientific fact. The version of science we follow has been perverted science, one not based on established facts. The risk-spreaders, we are told, over and over again, are the socially selfish and ignorant people who frequent bars and go to big weddings. Our science perverters are eager to point their finger at ‘Covidiots’. From there, it is but a short step to argue that if there were no imbeciles and we all did what we should do, all would be well. A nanny state hectoring replaces policy: “Wash your hands, wear a mask, keep your distance, abide by common sense, and all will be well. It is up to you.” The science we follow, imbued with the notions of the religious cult we call the logic of the economy, is distorted to make us believe that the spread of infections is not attributable to the policy-makers’ dismal failure to look after workers, to their failure to test and contact trace effectively, provide mobile testing capabilities, provide adequate isolation facilities, their wilful blindness when it comes to truly acknowledging and dealing with the plight of workers they saccharinely bathe in praise.
In fact, so determined have our politicians been to distract our attention away from workplace infections that they have persistently claimed they really, really care about these workers because they do essential work. They are heroes, our leaders tell us, because as they cater to our fundamental needs, they take risks. Yet, when some of these workers insist on their legally bestowed right to refuse work that puts them in danger, they have been repeatedly (hundreds of times) told that they are not in imminent danger, that is, they are not taking any special risks after all. For instance, just recently, after an outbreak of infections in one department of a school in Scarborough, Ontario, some 32 staff, administrators, and teachers tried to exercise their right not to work. The Ministry of Labour (note here that it is deliberately not called the Ministry for Labour) said the workers were legally obliged to return to work.
Of course, the workers could just quit their jobs. Right. It is their vulnerability, their need, which makes them take crowded transport, which makes them do their jobs in dangerous circumstances. To say they are free to quit is just rank hypocrisy. Of course, if they feel off-colour, they could just stay home. Right. They could if they had sick pay entitlements. Most of the workers we call heroes have no such entitlements. And both capitalists and governments oppose any such mollycoddling of these workers who have so little economic or political bargaining clout.
None of this applies to the stay-at home-work force, those hedge fund managers, lawyers, actuaries, managers, researchers, PR and advertising types, web designers, influencers, university teachers …
It is clear: we are not all in this together. We are not following any science worthy of the name. We are, however, pursuing the dictates of a cult, the economy. This is the reason for distorting reason and abandoning compassion.
Let’s return to that work refusal in a Scarborough school: why was that school open? Because it is obvious that if schools are not open, it is more difficult to re-open the economy. This is why the workers were not allowed to refuse obviously dangerous work. We know, or should know, that such blatant disregard for human lives will lead to the more infections and, perhaps, loss of lives. Two weeks ago, a school in New South Wales found just one student who tested positive. The school was closed. All the students and their families and contacts were tested and traced. New South Wales has no community-generated infections. Just saying.
There we have it. Our red-blooded Canadian capitalists have been taking hand-outs to keep them in position to resume normal operations when the economy opens up. They are not expected to make any contributions to the resolution of the crisis. They are not required to use their assets (many relaxing in island tax havens), their equipment, their self-proclaimed expertise, their know-how, their innovative skills, to assist. And they don’t. Instead, they exploit the circumstances to gouge workers and customers, even other wannabe capitalists. The supermarkets could hardly wait to roll back the pitiful wage increases they had awarded as danger money to their heroic shelf-stockers, cashiers, and warehouse employees. Rather, the dominant supermarket chains are using the occasion to demand greater commission payments from their suppliers. As a result, Ontario and British Columbia have both felt the need to set up monitoring bodies to prevent the gouging of the public during the pandemic, an exercise which, thus far, has shown no positive results.
More importantly: we now know that capitalists have not provided us with what we need, as opposed to what they educate us to desire. To them, we are profit centres, consumers, not human beings with needs. Essential human needs will only be provided if they can be profitably provided. This is why those very workers labelled as heroes, those whose jobs deliver what we need, are so poorly paid: they are doing jobs for which (it is believed by the profiteers) there are relatively easy ways to create a vast pool of labour. This has opened a lot of eyes. It is now more widely understood that the economy that so-called trickle-down theory produces leaves huge numbers of people in perilous circumstances and excluded from meaningful citizenship.
This is the economy to which we are so determined to return. It is an economy in which greed and inequality are happily tolerated. It is an economy where we implicitly accept that some people are disposable. Thus, those who cannot take any action to avoid contact with virus carriers, for example, those in nursing homes of one kind or another, and those who cannot be employed profitably are, sorrowfully, treated as lambs who cannot be saved from the slaughter. Workers whose skills are seen as easily replaced and whose numbers can easily be added to by migration policies are thrown into the infection pit. It is an economy where its rulers, the dominant capitalists, having been saved by government policies, will oppose any policy changes such as a raise in the minimum wage or the provision of more adequate sick pay. They are certain to also demand restrictions on unionization, which might lead to better workplace practices, and will vehemently resist any efforts to have them pay a fair share of the burdens of running a more compassionate society. We can count on this. And we can be sure that they will not feel any pressure to prepare for the next public calamity that may befall us. Capitalism, the economy, is, these shameless Canadian capitalists aver, about individual risk-takers. Individuals are not to be responsible, as individuals (I will say nothing here about the obvious fact that even this claim is untrue, as most capitalist wealth is embedded in collectives called corporations) for the public good. We should take them seriously.
The virus has been a great educator. It continues to highlight capitalists’ unappetizing greed. It has brought out capitalism’s shameful disregard for human life. It has established that the science we follow is the science that suits this abject capitalists’ agenda. This is not science but a political project and one which is not aimed at benefitting the vast majority, the working class. In capitalist relations of production, we are not all in this together.
We should all get together to change this dismal system. •