Five things the pandemic has taught us
Five things the pandemic has taught us

The world has been turned on its head during the pandemic, and there is no end in sight to COVID-19. While the future remains unclear, the last two years have furnished us with many lessons about the nature of our society. Here are five things we’ve learned.

1. The capitalist class is comfortable with mass death

“Tragic loss of life”. The lamentations from politicians around the world have been uniform. Yet you would be hard pressed to find a country in which the public health system today is better resourced than at the start of the pandemic. In fact, from the very beginning, in almost every country, the people in charge have prioritised the economic interests of business owners over the needs of the public health.

In the early days, some of the poor decisions could be explained away as understandable errors in a rapidly shifting situation. Two years in, and it’s clear that nothing is fundamentally about “mistakes” or “incompetence”; it is thought through policy. And the human cost is staggering. “Although the official number of deaths caused by COVID-19 is now 5.7 million, our single best estimate is that the actual toll is 20.4 million people”, notes the Economist magazine. “We find that there is a 95 percent chance that the true value lies between 12.5 million and 23.6 million additional deaths.”

Yet the people who run the world have not fundamentally changed course. They seem 100 percent comfortable with the official number of deaths running at more than 9,000 per day (a significant underestimate). When politicians say that they find the situation tragic or sad, they are lying—they could prioritise public health and human life, but they choose not to.

2. Science is a wonder, but capitalism is a barrier

When the dangers of the coronavirus became clear in early 2020, we were warned that an effective vaccine could take years to develop. But the urgency with which scientists took to the project—a mass mobilisation of human ingenuity building on the collective knowledge from centuries of scientific inquiry—resulted in the first human trials of several vaccines coming within months. Startlingly effective ones were rolled out within a year. Twenty-eight have now been approved or authorised for emergency use. More than 100 others are being tested.

Yet while scientists have worked tirelessly to develop these medical miracles, saving perhaps millions of lives in the process, the capitalists who control the intellectual property of the innovations have prevented them getting to everyone who needs them. The collective effort of scientific discovery is monopolised in the hands of CEOs and company directors whose primary interest is in making fortunes for themselves and their shareholders.

So in Africa, where the Economist estimates that there have been more than 2 million pandemic-related deaths since vaccines became available, just 15 percent of the population has received a first dose. In low-income countries across the world, just 11 percent of people have received a jab, compared to 78 percent in high-income countries. For the capitalists, the protection of “shareholder value” is more important than the protection of human life.  

3. There’s a downside to human resilience

Humanity has survived far worse things than this pandemic. But the survival of the species over thousands of years is not that remarkable—it’s just a matter of adapting to the natural world while also shaping it to meet our needs. Human society does much more than just “survive”, however. It raises a profound question for itself: How should life be lived?

It sounds like a purely speculative question, but it is usually answered practically: either forcing everyone to adopt an existing society’s way of life, or changing society itself to accommodate and embody a new and different set of values.

Most of the time, existing society wins out by just grinding people down. Take a small example. In a city like Melbourne, you notice a child’s response to seeing a homeless person for the first time: they stare in bewilderment until an embarrassed parent notices and pulls them away. The child is taught to steer clear. And as they grow older, they become accustomed to a degree of poverty—squalor on the margins—and walk right past it.

On a recent trip to India, I was similarly struck by the sight of an old man lying in the foetal position at Chennai railway station. Unlike the rough sleepers you encounter in Melbourne, who generally are on the margins, the man was right in the middle of a busy platform. I couldn’t stop staring—at him, at the passengers waiting nearby and at those disembarking and walking right past. I put some money in his hand, but he didn’t grasp it; he was catatonic.

The point of the tale is not to comment on the morality of all at the station or to draw attention to the voyeurism of an out-of-town Westerner. Just as the old man seemed powerless to move, so those around him were powerless, as individuals, to alter the social situation. No-one was naïve enough to believe otherwise—these sorts of horrors were everywhere you looked in India.

The point is that toleration thresholds vary wildly between different societies and are heavily conditioned not by what people believe to be reasonable or ethical, but by what they have come to expect through experience. Once an expectation—a way of living—is established as a social fact, it can be very hard to alter.

That’s what has been at stake in the management of the pandemic. When politicians use the phrase, “learn to live with it”, what they really mean is that we must learn to accept as “normal” a higher level of illness and death in society. We have to learn to live with COVID like we learn to turn our gaze away from homelessness, or from any other detestable product of capitalist society. They want us to ignore it, and all the attendant suffering.

4. The world is not getting better

The pandemic has been an onward march of mutations, the most effective variants spreading like wildfire. It cannot be ruled out that COVID-19 will be with us for years. A fourth thing we’ve learned is that just when the situation appears to be improving, it can rapidly deteriorate.

In rich countries, diseases of lifestyle or old age are the biggest killers: heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s and dementia. In the poorest countries, communicable diseases are the leading cause of death—things like tuberculosis, malaria and digestive and respiratory infections.

With COVID-19, the rich countries, or at least working-class and poor people in rich countries, are being pushed closer to the third world profile. How far closer? In some places, inches, in others, miles. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a research institute at the University of Washington, COVID-19 was the leading cause of death in the United States, France, Spain, the UK, Poland and Iran between January 2020 and August last year. It was the third-highest cause of death in the world over the same period, behind heart disease and stroke.

The coronavirus may be forcing not only long-term changes to the way we live, but to the way we die.

5. Another world is possible

Most of the time, we’re told that everyone in society simply can’t be taken care of. Higher wages hurt “the economy”, higher standards of living for the unemployed hurt the budget, sharing society’s resources just won’t work.

But we found out that the economy can be run differently. As the Financial Times noted in early 2020: “World leaders have been forced to tear up the traditional economic playbook” in response to the pandemic. Governments around the world started spreading the wealth around to keep the economy afloat, and spending money doing things that they previously said were “impossible”.

In Australia, homeless people were put up in hotel accommodation for months, free of charge. Childcare was also made free. The government had to step in to guarantee that everyone got an income. The dole was doubled overnight. It became clear that the people who are “essential” to society are not the CEOs, politicians and lawyers, but the supermarket workers, the delivery drivers, the nurses and teachers and so on.

In fact, the only way the capitalist system could be stabilised and saved was through governments doing the opposite of what they usually tell us. In so doing, they showed us that there is enough to go around for everyone. The resources are there, it’s just a question of how they are distributed.

The ultra-wealthy ultimately turned the situation to their advantage and made off with astronomical sums of money over the last two years. But that only provided us with another lesson: a permanently better society won’t be handed down as a gift from the people who run this one; we’re going to have to fight for it ourselves.

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