The coronavirus crisis clearly has a political dimension, since its solution requires political measures. However, the political weaponization of the virus by ideologues of both right and left has been nothing but counterproductive. Not only is it unhelpful in dealing with the pandemic; it also offsets any silver lining that we may find in this crisis, such as the bridging of social, cultural and political divides.
The Virus vs. the System
What’s remarkable about the politicization of COVID-19 is how versatile it is. Whatever your ideology, the virus validates it. At least, that’s the impression one gets from reading social media posts, which range from I told you so to Vice contributor Reina Sultan’s viral Tweet, which urges: “PLEASE let this moment radicalize you.” Sultan argues that there is an immediate need for radical system change, since “[c]apitalism prevents” government from taking steps to “make sure people don’t need to go to work” during the pandemic. According to Sultan, “The government could put a moratorium on rent, mortgages, student loans [and] nationalize utilities,” the implication being that “a handful of billionaires” could bear the multi-trillion-dollar cost.
Others have used the renewed—and deserved—appreciation of healthcare workers and other systemically important occupational groups, many of whose members earn relatively low incomes, to push for anticapitalist policies, arguing that the current crisis shows how unfairly income is distributed in our capitalist society. But income isn’t distributed at all. Rather, it reflects supply and demand, a function of scarcity and perceived usefulness. Thus, it makes little sense to base one’s general economic policy on the particular requirements of an emergency situation. Many countries would do well to invest in their healthcare systems. But that’s not an argument against capitalism.
Particularly shortsighted is some anticapitalists’ schadenfreude at the fact that the economy is taking a hit due to the pandemic—as if economic crises only affected large corporations and rich capitalists. What about all the ordinary people whose livelihoods depend on a functioning economy? Besides, don’t we need economic growth and stability to sustain public health?
Some people take their schadenfreude to such extremes that they are celebrating Coronavirus infections among their political enemies. The gloating reactions to Boris Johnson’s announcement that he has contracted COVID-19 are a case in point. Such reactions are obscene.
A particularly radical manifestation of this mindset recently popped up on my Facebook newsfeed: “I hope all politicians, police and elitists will get Covid 19, and die.” The poster identifies as a Muslim anarchist. While his views may be fringe, they are embedded in a larger network of radical thought and action.
The anarchist platform CrimethInc. recently published an article entitled “Surviving the Virus: An Anarchist Guide.” The piece, which focuses more on “how to survive all the needless tragedies that governments and the global economy are heaping upon us in the context of the pandemic” than on the virus itself, makes some good points about the importance of community and mutual aid at times of crisis; however, its advice on social distancing is highly irresponsible:
We won’t be safer if our society is reduced to a bunch of atomized individuals. That would neither protect us from the virus nor from the stress of this situation nor from the power grabs that capitalists and state authorities are preparing to carry out.
According to CrimethInc., “The measures being implemented around the world are totalitarian in every sense of the word.” In fact, “the virus shows us … that we were already living in an authoritarian society.” And “it might be worth it to risk our lives … to defend our freedom and the possibility of living in an egalitarian society.” In other words, not only is resistance to the system more essential than resistance to the virus; it has become even more pressing now that the system is taking action against the virus.
Is there any merit to the claim that governments are using COVID-19 as an excuse to move towards totalitarianism? It depends. This certainly seems to be the case in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has weaponized the virus against his opposition in an attempt to undermine parliament and the rule of law. Experts warn that Hungary is in danger of sliding into dictatorship. But the former communist country is, in many ways, an outlier compared to most other modern democracies. Orbán’s autocratic leadership style, his pronounced nationalism and his attacks on press freedom led to the suspension of his Fidesz party from the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) in the EU parliament.
In my home country of Austria, the situation is quite different. Austria was one of the first western nations to implement restrictive government measures to contain the virus. This was partly because of our geographic proximity to Italy. However, these measures are backed not only by the government—a coalition of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the left-leaning Green Party—but by the opposition and by the vast majority of citizens. These measures are not arbitrary (at least not by design); and they don’t infringe on freedom of speech or of the press. So to speak of looming totalitarianism seems like a misguided, slippery slope fallacy.
The real question, of course, is whether draconian government restrictions work to squelch pandemics. While it may be too early to say for sure (though we have reason to be optimistic), history offers some interesting case studies, most notably the cases of St. Louis and Philadelphia during the Spanish flu, which killed millions worldwide. While the Philadelphia authorities largely ignored the outbreak and even “threw a parade that drew 200,000 people,” St. Louis immediately “closed buildings such as schools, churches, courtrooms and libraries,” and “[g]atherings of more than 20 people were banned, work shifts were staggered and ridership on streetcars was limited.” As a result, the death toll in St. Louis was less than half that of Philly.
No, Nature Is Not Fighting Back
A particularly facepalm-inducing trope that is going around is that the Coronavirus pandemic is the planet’s way of indicating that it’s had enough of the anthropocene. According to one article,
The coronavirus pandemic is no accident. Like past global epidemics, it’s a warning that nature has had it with the ecocidal proclivities of man. These outrageous actions are changing climate and are warming and threatening planet Earth. Nature (the Earth) is fighting back. Climate change is sowing pandemic diseases.
While the outbreak of COVID-19 in humans is linked to the trade and consumption of wildlife, the idea that we are currently experiencing nature’s revenge on humanity is, at best, a pathetic fallacy (the attribution of human feelings, motives and responses to inanimate objects or phenomena). The earth is not fighting back; nor are pandemics nature’s population control. What makes the latter notion particularly objectionable is its implication that mass death is, ultimately, a good thing: after all, it’s necessary to thin the herd from time to time. To those who so argue I say, Go first!
Identity Politics Rears Its Head
Another narrative is that “COVID-19 is a gendered crisis.” Australian politician Mehreen Faruqi has stated that “[n]urses, nurse aides, teachers, child carers and early-childhood educators, aged-care workers and cleaners are mostly women,” and that women, therefore, “carry a disproportionate risk of being exposed to the virus.” However, these are by far not the only occupational groups facing a Coronavirus risk. We must also consider those male-dominated whose members are working on the frontlines: such as the medical profession and the police. In fact, men constitute the majority of fatalities. So why make this a feminist issue?
It has also been suggested that “LGBTQ+ communities are among those who are particularly vulnerable to the negative health effects of this virus.” The reasoning is that because “[t]he LGBTQ+ population uses tobacco at rates that are 50 percent higher than the general population,” and because “COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that has proven particularly harmful to smokers,” they are more likely to be affected. A second argument is that “a greater number of “[LGBTQ+ folk] may have compromised immune systems” due to higher rates of HIV and cancer in the community. Thirdly, many LGBTQ+ individuals “are reluctant to seek medical care” due to “discrimination, unwelcoming attitudes, and lack of understanding from providers and staff in many health care settings.” Of these positions, the first two can only be described as gratuitous identity politics. Smoking and pre-existing health conditions are risk factors that affect large segments of the general population. To frame these issues in terms of LGBTQ+ identity seems arbitrary and needlessly divisive.
Isolation, Xenophobia and Diplomacy
Nor is it helpful to call COVID-19 the China virus. The government of Xi Jinping is not blameless, but pointing fingers out of political expediency is a dangerous distraction from the challenge at hand. China is sending both experts and medical supplies to the West to help with the pandemic. This may well be a PR stunt—but beggars can’t be choosers. This is an emergency situation, and the last thing we need are further diplomatic tensions.
This brings me to the issue of national isolation. Closing our borders, an emergency measure against the spread of COVID-19, is certainly a sensible policy in the current situation. But that doesn’t imply that this should also be done under normal circumstances. Yet many nationalists now feel vindicated in their anti-immigration views. There is great danger in invoking epidemiology in the context of immigration. It’s a xenophobic trope: the ingroup threatened by outgroup contamination. This can lead to the demonization and dehumanization of perceived outgroups: a recipe for violence and disaster.
So, while self-isolation on both the national and personal levels is necessary at this juncture, it’s important to draw a clear distinction between people and the virus. Nor is this the time to engage in divisive politics. After all, the goal should be to fight the pandemic, not each other.