Reflections on a Pandemic

Co-Written by György Széll and Thomas Klikauer

covid 19

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After each crisis we ask ourselves, can we learn from it? We will ask this question again after the major effects of the on-going Covid-19 pandemic will be over. Perhaps, one might like to look back into the history of pandemics. Every human being on earth has about two kilos of bacteria in her or his body. We live in a kind of symbiosis with them and could not even survive without them.

There is the hypothesis that Covid-19 has been transmitted from bats via pangolins by consumption to humans. Humans always ate wild animals, actually we started our civilisation as hunters and gatherers as Marshall Sahlins has shown in his seminal work on Stone Age Economics. Apparently, we are also capable of adapting to risks ever since men and women started populating the earth and made their way Out of Africa. Recently, there was a proposal to kill all bats to eradicate corona viruses. Such idées fixes aren’t new. Yet there are about 6,000 species, and they serve the agriculture by pollinizing plants. German Nobel Prize winner and bacteriologist, Robert Koch, once proposed to destroy all wild animals to reduce bacteriological infections in 1908. A crazy idea bordering on madness.

In fact, diseases and viruses have accompanied humanity since its very beginning. Out of several million viruses, only about 5,000 are known in detail today. They exist much longer than humanity, in fact, since life on earth began, i.e. several hundred million years ago. Viruses will therefore never be eradicated. We have to adapt to them – with or without vaccination. So we have to find a modus vivendi (sic!) with them. But under which conditions? Recently, philosopher Jürgen Habermas had noted, There has never been so much knowledge about ignorance.

Historically, around 20,000 to 30,000 people died every year in ancient Rome by diseases, although at that time, Rome with its toilets was regarded as the most hygienic place on earth. However, no specific action was taken, as the dead were quickly replaced by new immigrants. The bubonic plague diminished the European population in the 14th and 15th centuries by one third. It was the worst pandemic in human history so far. Europe needed several centuries to overcome the consequences. Nevertheless, there were two positive developments, which were the result of this catastrophe:

  1. New religious movements emerged, which eventually led to Protestantism, i.e. another schism within Christianity, which strengthened the individual, and
  2. the creation of modern medicine, based on Arabic knowledge, which contributed to Enlightenment and the prolongation of life expectancy.

Surely, the plague was not alone responsible for this evolution. There were other elements as well that are too long to explain here. Around that time, Europeans introduced infectious diseases to Latin America after its conquest at the end of the 15th century, which decimated the indigenous population by 99%. These diseases were the most deadly weapons, although not deliberately used. The indigenous population never recovered from this collateral damage. No lesson was ever learned, except perhaps the idea of biological warfare.

Europe was regularly infected by cholera epidemics until the 1950s. One of the major contributions to fighting cholera was made by the physician and pioneer medical scientist John Snow, who in 1854 found a link between cholera and contaminated drinking water. This is when modern hygiene started. Before that it was simply bad science. Nevertheless, cholera still affects an estimated three to five million people worldwide and causes 28,800-130,000 deaths a year.

The most dreadful pandemic in modern times, the so-called Spanish flu in 1918/19, had some 50 million dead out of a world population of less than two billion. If this mortality rate was put into relationship with today’s world population, it would mean 200 million casualties. Eventually Fascism and Stalinism emerged hereafter, leading to World War II with some 60 million casualties. On the upswing, international organisations were created like the League of Nations Health Organisation (LNHO) in 1919, the predecessor of the UN’s World Health Organisation. With the exception of Donald Trump, virtually everyone else sees the WHO as vital in fighting global pandemics.

With that realisation came hubris. In 1948, US Secretary of State George Marshall confidently declared that humanity was about to eradicate infectious diseases from the Earth, writes Edoardo Campanella.

A 1990 Delphi Health Forecast – experts were asked in their relevant field – predicted in Japan in the 1990s that by the year 2020, all diseases will be eradicated. A utopia, which unfortunately will never come true. Every year normal annual flu viruses kill between 250,000 and 695,000 people globally – without making headlines.

Still, coronaviruses have accompanied humanity since six hundred years. They are responsible for about 15% to 20% mortality of lung infections annually. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2002/3 and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus) in 2012 were predecessors to Covid-19, also called SARS 2. So far, no vaccination exists for both infections, therefore it is very doubtful if ever one for Covid-19 will be found. And even if appropriate medications and vaccinations will be available, there is the risk that vested interests will appropriate them via patents, and by that increase social inequality.

South Korea and Taiwan have drawn sensible consequences out of the SARS and MERS pandemics and seem to have rather well overcome the Covid-19 crisis so far. Germany too reacted to these two pandemics and developed an emergency plan in case of a coronavirus pandemic in 2013. However, this plan was never implemented. Nevertheless, Germany is coping rather well with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Already in 2008, the CIA forecasted a virus catastrophe. Consider the 2008 report, Global Trends 2025, which was all but oracular. The emergence of a novel, highly transmissible, and virulent human respiratory illness for which there are no adequate countermeasures could initiate a global pandemic, the authors of the report warned. The threat, they added, would likely emerge in an area marked by high population density and close association between humans and animals, such as many areas of China and Southeast Asia.

Even with limits placed on international travel, travellers with mild symptoms or who were asymptomatic could carry the disease to other continents. Bill Gates has already forecasted a further virus pandemic as lessons were learnt from Ebola in 2015. In a recent interview, he reiterates his argument. Bill Gates said, There’s gonna be a pandemic every 20 years or so. Let’s deal with this one first, though.

With 420,000 deaths globally (early June 2020), the Covid-19 virus is much more dangerous than other corona viruses, although its number of casualties is far from the numbers caused by pandemics in the past. There are different strategies to cope with it, and therefore different results. The Swedish strategy to produce the so-called herd immunity failed enormously. The United Kingdom and the USA tried the same at the beginning of the crisis with the known results. Nevertheless there are definitely panic and overreactions, e.g. in India and South Africa, where Covid-19 restrictions cause more collateral damage than the pandemic itself. If millions of people die from hunger and non-treatment of other diseases, the catastrophe puts into question the functioning of government. Germany’s highly influential blogger, Sascha Lobo, characterises this approach as panic reason.

The former US ambassador Patrick Gaspard calls it viral authoritarianism. He wrote, we must recognise that, in many ways, defending public health and defending democracy are two fronts in the same battle. Certainly, the containment of the virus is marked by a severe incursion into freedom rights. However, as experienced six hundred years ago with the plague, it is the only way to restrict the explosion of infections.

Conspiracy theories – as always in times of crises – spread more than ever before. This is not different today, but with the so-called social media, the damage is more severe. Hence, about one quarter of US-citizens and the French believe that Covid-19 was deliberately or incidentally produced in Chinese labs – probably the same people who believe that the earth is flat and the universe was created 6,000 years ago, as written in the bible, and not 14,8 billion years ago as science confirms. For sure there is potential behind the imagination of scientists like Frankenstein using science to dominate the world. But it is very rare that the president of the most powerful nation is spreading conspiracy theories himself.

Not long ago, weapons of mass destruction, i.e. ABC-weapons including biological warfare, were endorsed. In fact, the Germans invented them during the First World War. But probably the most serious pandemic today is casino capitalism, i.e. an unrestricted market economy.

It is killing millions of people through famines, lack of drinking water, hygiene, medical care etc. every year. The global financial crisis of 1929 (Black Friday) brought forward many authoritarian and fascist regimes. After the financial crisis of 2008/9, banks were saved with hundreds of billions of US-Dollars of public money; the responsible people were never prosecuted, and business as usual continued as well as exorbitant bonuses. As collateral damage, right-wing politicians, authoritarian populism and neo-fascism spread worldwide. Today illiberal and directed democracies take the occasion of a viral turn to increase their rule.

In the democracy vs. authoritarianism contest, the question remains, do democratic regimes cope better with the Covid-19 crisis than authoritarian regimes? It is very doubtful, if there will be more democracy in the world after the Covid-19 pandemic. Out of 167 ranked countries only 22 are full democracies right now. The United States as well as Japan are flawed democracies. Contributing to the flawed democracy, Donald Trump has stopped financial support for the WHO. He blames the organisation to be too much China-friendly. However, a few days before his announcement, Trump said, the US and China are working closely together in the fight against coronavirus. Most probably, the Covid-19 crisis will not only exacerbate social inequalities, but also increase international tensions, not only within Europe, but namely between the leading world powers. There is, by the way, a collateral benefit caused by Covid-19 restrictions: normal criminality has been reduced, although cyber criminality increased.

Recently, political scientist Dani Rodrik asked, Will Covid-19 Remake the World? Covid-19 has definitely led to a kind of civilisation crisis. The question remains, will the world change for better or worse? For sure, the post-corona-world will be different from the one we knew. Potentially, it will be more capitalistic, entrepreneur-friendly and innovative. As if it was not already, and this is one of the reasons of the on-going crises.

But as we see – especially in the USA, in a pluralistic or even a polarised society there are quite different positions and value systems in regard to Covid-19. On the one hand, after the first openings of malls, shopping goes on as before. And we are Amusing Ourselves to Death, as was written more than thirty years ago. However, it is understandable that after severe restrictions and confinement, people want to catch up with the pleasures lost, and even live more intensely.

During the Corona pandemic, the ugly anti-vaccination movement reappeared. Many do not and will not understand that it is not just taking risks for one’s own life, but also harming the lives of others. It is the same issue as with gun control. This movement is accompanied with a fundamental distrust against science if it means to change habits and values. Here again cognitive dissonance shows up. We only accept those scientific findings, e.g. new technologies, which seem to fit our own interests.

In short, that societies and human beings changed fundamentally after severe crises was the exception, and limited in time. In most cases, a conservative, reactionary turn happened. Citizens were looking more than ever for security. However, one thing which has been learned so far from pandemics over the last several hundred years is the improvement of hygiene and medicine. But one issue will be at the forefront now. Privatisation and commodification will spread. With both, exploitation in the health sector – or let us better say, industry – will also increase.

In the past, hospitals were run by religious, humanitarian and municipal institutions. Today, quite often capitalist companies looking for profits control the sector. Health has become a commodity, it is no longer a public good. The consequences are exploitation, bad working conditions and work intensification, sub-contracting, outsourcing, and low salaries. Therefore, many foreigners work in the health sector in the rich West. If the health care system and the care for the elderly will be improved in the long run, is very difficult to foresee. Crises nevertheless have triggered what Paolo Freire calls conscientisation. It led many people to religious, irrational action, but on the other hand sometimes also to more and better science. Not too bad after all.

Due to the Covid-19 restrictions, the environment has been less polluted over the last couple of weeks, e.g. by less traffic, home office, video conferences/meetings etc. Nevertheless, homo sapiens is a zoon politikon, a social being. We need social contacts, not only via so-called social media. Insofar we have to find a new balance between pandemic control and environmental protection. How to overcome the collateral damages? How to be better prepared? Which lessons can be learned? Who are the actors for social change for better? Trade unions, Fridays for Future, the researchers?

What we learn from history is ambivalent. After the global crises of 1973/1979 we found two contradictory developments: On the one hand, the resurgence of neo-liberalism emerged with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, on the other hand the creation of Green Parties and the global environmental movement.

Today we are confronted with populist, fundamentalist, anarchist, and neo-fascist political movements and politicians as well as fundamentalist religious movements. On the other side we find Podemos, Syriza, Fridays for Future and other citizen movements. The French philosopher Edgar Morin therefore names our species homo sapiens demens. More recently, Mark Honigsbaum called our time The Pandemic Century. Already in 2011, Nathan Wolfe wrote The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age. These are rather pessimistic assessments.

The late Austrian future researcher, Robert Jungk, was asked on his 75th birthday where he gets his energy from to struggle for the improvement of life? He answered, You know I am 80% pessimist, and 20% optimist, but for these 20 % I live and fight. Perhaps this philosophy is also true for democratic participation. Researchers and practitioners from all over the world work on this endeavour.

None other than one of Germany’s finest, Rosa Luxemburg, once proclaimed Socialism or barbarity! Finally, as literature often tells more about the human species than many social science studies, my recommendation to read during these times of confinement are two books by two Nobel Prize winners of literature: Albert Camus, The Plague and José Saramago, Blindness.

German-Australian Thomas Klikauer is sociologist and Counterpunch author.

German-Hungarian György Széll is a sociologist at the University of Osnabrück.



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