I am interested in examining not what has been done or not done to tackle the Covid-19 threat, but what its consequences might be – apart from the immediate one, which is the tragic loss of lives and livelihoods.
One of the long-term consequences of the pandemic was visible right from the start when strongly racist remarks were made about the Chinese on social media, and in some cases Chinese people were beaten up or threatened. The fact that this particular outbreak occurred in China was used to sneer at Chinese cultural and eating habits, despite the fact that the virus was passed on from live animals to humans. The only way to avoid a virus is to stay away from all animals (including humans), a possibility that surely was not in the mind of the genteel American lady who posted on her Facebook that she was a lover and keeper of cats and dogs, and simply loathed people who ate them.
For those of us who still read history, instead of concocting it, the reaction brought to mind the “invasion scare” fiction from the early 20th century, which often pictured hordes of Chinese, some infected, flooding into Europe or America. As it turns out, the great virus of that period was the so-called Spanish flu (though it probably started in England or Germany) of 1918, which killed up to 100 million people worldwide. But Euro-American fiction featured a “threat” called the ‘yellow peril.’ In one particularly xenophobic novel, the invading hordes of Chinese are finally beaten back – well, exterminated – when a white scientist introduces a virus that does not afflict ‘Caucasoids’ but kills the other races. Hence, it was a double pity that, this time around,cultural chauvinism against the Chinese was evidenced also by Indians, Arabs and other peoples on social media.
So that is the first outcome: xenophobia. I am sure this outbreak will be used by nationalist and rightist parties in most countries to close the borders programmatically, and to police their minorities. This will tie in with political and economic manipulation. Take for instance, US President Donald Trump’s ban on flights from the European Union because he claimed that European nations have not done enough to stop the “foreign virus.” But, there are more coronavirus cases in the United Kingdom, with which US is trying to do a sweetheart deal and which has left the European Union, than in many European nations. Besides, it is difficult to imagine a virus that is not “foreign” to human beings, or that speaks Chinese not English. But who can talk science to politicians these days?
The economic aspect is evident in the prompt aid packages that many national governments have handed out to their corporations and share markets. The US, for instance, provided a buffer of $1.5 trillion to its corporations and Wall Street days before it declared a national emergency and grudgingly made $50 billion available for health. The UK, which is still partly in denial, has offered around $45 billion of buffer money to its corporations. The list is long, and vaguely reported or analysed. If people were not dying, and likely to die in greater numbers, one would be tempted to call it a scam.
Another consequence is going to be the impact on digital economies and working routines. On March 10, I returned to Denmark from Lisbon, via Frankfurt, and was informed that one of the American delegates at the Lisbon conference had been hospitalised with Covid-19 symptoms after I left. I immediately contacted my doctor for a test.
Imagine my surprise when I was told that I could not get myself tested – for peace of mind. In fact, along with locking down the institutions on March 12 (which was good), the authorities in Denmark also suspended all testing (which was bad) and advised people suffering from the virus to just isolate at home unless the symptoms were life-threateningly serious. This was done to save medical resources for the seriously affected.
But I wondered if Denmark, with around 650 cases, needed to conserve resources so early. I wondered even more when I read, in a small article, that Denmark has already provided $50 billion in soft loans to its businesses and corporations to enable them to cope with the Covid-19 economic downturn.
Around the same time, my university, which is shut down like other institutions (which, I repeat, is good), asked us to start teaching digitally. Hence, I suppose one obvious consequence of all this would be to strengthen the tendency, being encouraged by governments and the booming digital economy for the past decade or so, to work from home. This will be more possible in some economies – usually the privileged ones, which have a significant financial services sector – than in others, which rely on manufacturing.
Changes in work spaces
I think the coronavirus threat is the final nail in the coffin of classical production-based capitalism, as against neoliberal financial-digital capitalism. With it comes the ability to thwart any kind of organisation to oppose the economic status quo. Workers need to work together in shared spaces in order to organise and carry out effective protests. In his great study, Carbon Democracy, Timothy Mitchell explained how the movement from worker-extensive coal economies to technocratic and pipeline oil economies enabled capitalists to contain and disband worker’s movements and reduce industrial unrest as a protest weapon.
I think the coronavirus threat will mark the next step in this direction. Human beings, as producers, are going to be further sidelined by the changes in working spaces that will be ushered in as a response over the next few years. As economist Samir Amin had noted far back in 2000,most of the capital in circulation today is no longer rooted in trade or production. It is a play of numbers. And some can play it better by working and making others work from home: they no longer need many production lines.
This is a crisis that should have been used to strengthen national and international political accountability, lead to scientific approaches and greater investment in education, strengthen medical and human welfare options, and create the realisation that we cannot live (or die) alone. Instead, it will probably lead to more xenophobia and loud but ineffective nationalisms, even more cronyism between politics and private finance, and a greater movement towards the exploitation of workers and the marginalisation of citizens. The growing tendency towards surveillance societies might also be strengthened.
Tabish Khair, the author of several books, is an associate professor in the Department of English, University of Aarhus, Denmark.