It has only been mere weeks on the COVID-19 clock in the United States and it has already superseded China in positive cases of the new coronavirus. In a matter of days, a global health pandemic — a situation affecting all the people of the world — has mounted the same type of pressure originally sparked by demands for freedom and justice, and revolution, evoking war, civil disobedience, and political unrest all articulated as a threat that will bring down the system. It’s been just days and a plethora of articles have appeared about how things won’t go back to normal.
The growing crisis is tearing the United States — and the world — apart, but bringing us closer together. While other countries are trying to focus on mitigation — dancing with the virus curve — for a fortnight the United States has been doing the same, but mainly by trying to lull the impending market collapse, in a somewhat hopeless effort. On March 13, President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency. Huddled around him during his speech were CEOs and senior government officials. Corporations working with the federal government on fixing the problem — were given individual airtime, laudatory introductions and gushing thanks by Trump, who only took serious measures after the economy had started to be hard hit, and two days after the already late proclamation by the World Health Organization that the new coronavirus was a global pandemic. In real-time, a social media uproar branded the speech as emotionless — the spokesperson of the “free world” was addressing the market — not the people — as the public. And the numbers rose.
Today, there are over 85,000 confirmed positive coronavirus cases across the US, and over 1,300 deaths accounted for to date. The financial markets are posting their steepest fall since the 2008 crisis. As the Federal Reserve tries to keep the economy afloat, we have no choice but to stay at home and practice social distancing, self-isolation or self-quarantine to eventually put a full stop on the health crisis. Transportation slows down, air travel stops, production is paused, all the while people are being laid off and job prospects are dwindling. That is to say, we can safely assume we are in the midst of a recession of cosmic proportions. This week, a record 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits, up from 282,000 last week, and more than quadruple the previous record of 695,000 in 1982 and the more recent 665,000 during the 2007-2009 recession.
Every single person in the world is grappling with the unseen — an invisible virus — palpably manifest. We preserve each other’s demands to maintain distance (socially and physically) from each other, yet the next imminent threat is one of livelihood and survival. In a consumer-capitalist society, how do we survive without contact? If one can’t grab a coffee, the cafe will no longer be able to pay its baristas or its bills. Without daily income, a cafe will not be able to pay its suppliers, its rent, utilities and insurance. Without transactions, the banks will break. Granted, the Federal Reserve is “injecting” money into the lifeline of businesses, but without heady mathematical notions, it’s clear to every layperson anxiously sitting at home that these measures won’t be enough. Many stores across the US have been ordered to close by city or state guidance or shelter-in-place decrees in some states, including New York. People are being laid off or juggling remote work while homeschooling if they have kids.
While people and businesses are visibly (or invisibly) struggling to adapt to the new normal—it’s only been two weeks after all—this struggle is only possible by putting added strain on the few services, private and public, that can remain functional. Online delivery has become the go-to for basic provisions. While we are still figuring out basic grocery shortages (pasta, flour, bread), the obstacles ahead are graver with the UN warning of global food shortages on the horizon. Today, the vast majority of USians are worried about how they will pay next month’s rent. Across the United States, and in other countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, talk and petitions on rent strikes are starting to emerge on the fringes of mainstream media and largely underreported. While not everyone will leap to the call of rent strikes starting April 1 (April Fool’s Day), many might start defaulting on mortgage payments or simply not being able to keep up with bills and payments. Some people are merely coping with disaster reality without even being attuned to the growing calls for “civil disobedience.” Beyond rent strikes, wildcat strikers (a strike action by unionized workers without the union leadership authorization or approval), sick-outs (deliberate absence from work on the pretext of sickness), other forms of action are brewing in response to the pandemic. In prisons and detention centers, incarcerated persons are launching hunger strikes demanding—en masse—to be released.
In past weeks, there has been mounting controversy targeting Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, who had announced that the state would amp up its production of gel-based hand sanitizer that was (and still is) in short supply and was being sold for hundreds of dollars on Amazon (the product has since been pulled from online stores). Cuomo’s solution is not without adding salt to an already infected wound: the US has a prison problem. The US has the highest incarceration rate worldwide with 2.3 million people in prison (including state prisons, local jails, and juvenile correctional facilities). The coronavirus has found its way into the New York prison system in a number of ways. To provide New York with sanitizer, prisoners in New York were “employed” at USD$0.65 an hour to produce sanitizer. Note that sanitizer is typically listed as contraband because it contains alcohol, which is usually forbidden in prisons. Prisons are a festering ground for any pandemic, even if hygiene is accounted for. Prisons are cramped spaces in which social distancing sounds absurd. Inmate searches, requiring contact between guards and prisoners, are routine. Subtract alcohol-based sanitizer from the premises, and the problem has just spiked the curve. Outside of its prisons, New York itself is the most densely populated city in the US — which, combined with youth and arrogance, might give a clue as to why the positive case counter is accelerating, just like inSan Francisco, Jersey City and Boston (the latter is behind on testing). These places and their adjacent areas are among the worst hit by the virus.
We brush up on our statistical intuition and follow the exponential growth curve of the new coronavirus, despite the inexactitude of the data to date. We have no choice. We dance with the virus even though what we need is to hit it on the head. We flirt with the dictums of social-distancing, self-isolation and self-quarantine while we develop an entirely new vocabulary for the event. Email sign-offs have been switched out to, “Stay safe / sanitized / sane.” Gradually as groceries dwindle, we start to slow cook. With bated breath, we wait for bread dough to rise, divergently willing and awaiting the moment when the curve will flatten, city by city, country by country—and in the end, the world. We imagine all the people, and the love, and we will be okay. Though the toll and the exact ramifications this world crisis is having on us and on the economy that we sustain and that sustains us, remains unclear.
To think about language at a time like this seems scholastic but it really isn’t. To call a thing by its name, can help reframe the problem — and the imagination. The term pandemic means all (pan) people (demos). While it dates back to the 1660s, its first recorded use in relation to a health disease affecting all people was circa 1853 during the third cholera plague. What is the new coronavirus? An all-people situation. Yesterday, Naomi Klein seized the moment to speak to a live online audience of 13,000 people about how to beat Coronavirus Capitalism, for example. In the same panel discussion, Astra Taylor, author of Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss it When It’s Gone (2019) draws us into word choice—the language around the crisis and its amelioration needs revising. Frankly, it sounds insensitive, if not downright wrong, to speak of “stimulating the economy” at a time when people’s lives are at risk, and when they’re more prone to lose their jobs, parents and grandparents all at once, while also not being able to seek medical care because the healthcare system is overflowing with coronavirus cases.
In an all people health crisis, a theoretical idea such as Michel Foucault’s biopower becomes easy to understand in an embodied sense, and worth exploring. There is an extent to which your well-being — and mine — is dictated by power. I live in Massachusetts — hospitals in Boston have been inundated with patients, and over 150 hospital staff have tested positive for the coronavirus across four hospitals. Supplies such as surgical masks are limited in their availability. Pharmacies and shops no longer carry masks for citizens. The shortage of masks has been an issue since before the epidemic was proclaimed an all people situation. Yet, the media — a litmus to economic hope — has given bleak news a positive spin, with the New York Times running reassuring headlines, such as. “As Coronavirus Looms, Mask Shortage gives Rise to Promising Approach.” The article itself is about how doctors in Nebraska are decontaminating and reusing surgical masks that are only meant to be used once. The need to be masked when going to a grocery store is growing to become a scary sight — unless you make an effort — and all people are turning to YouTube for DIY solutions on the creative fashioning of masks with filters with supplies they have lying around at home.
The fusion of government and the market hold power over our lives, and they are failing us. All Cats Are Beautiful tweets bluntly “capitalism has always involved a ‘how many deaths are acceptable’ calculus, and the answer has almost always been “the number of deaths at which people start rising up’ minus one.” In other recycled media coverage of the pandemic in Italy, readers of the news were particularly moved by the fact that doctors there (and now elsewhere) have to use a “triage”, a process by which doctors have to prioritize cases, ultimately — if crudely put — deciding who lives and who dies. Around 2003, Achille Mbembe coined the term “necropolitics” (from the Greek nekros, corpse) as a corrective to Foucault’s biopower. Triage is not necropolitics, or at least not exactly. Necropolitics is how power is used — socially and politically — to dictate how some people may live while others may die. Mbembe in the early 2000s was already posing difficult questions that resonate even more sharply under the pressure we are in today: “under what practical conditions is the right to kill, to allow to live, or to expose to death exercised? Who is the subject of this right?” Necropolitics was published as a book in March 2011, with a most recent edition in 2019, and addresses the genealogy of our contemporary world. While necropolitics tends to evoke war-time genocide and a history of totalitarianism, it also explores notions of care as a shared vulnerability.
We have never been so physically divided, yet for the first time in perhaps ever, there is an opportunity for mutual care, for an authentic encounter between all people. This forced physical divide – being apart as a condition of this pandemic – is drawing us together in ways that potentially constitute alternative forms of solidarity that can be channeled toward action. Locally and universally, we can think of alternate communal platforms dedicated to re-imagining the nature of work and labor as well as the institutions and forms of systems undergirding health, education and culture through a more egalitarian economy. In this pandemic, there is a moment of resetting how we relate to one another. For the first time, we are all in this crisis — global pandemic or on the brink of recession — together. There is a lot of work to be done moving forward. Break the cycles of economic acceleration and crisis. Slow down. Then things will start changing. End the reliance on corporate social media platforms. Stop panic-consuming news. Resist over-productivity. Slow down. Work. Read slowly and more. Spend more time with family. Spend more time alone. Harness perception. Notice how much brighter the sky is, and louder, the birds. With the imagining of these practices, we can gradually develop new conceptions of who and how we are, and what it means to be human in the first place. Beyond the rational and conditional mass that we have become, this is a moment when all the people can radically reimagine what being is.