Tuesday, August 04, 2020

In A Covidious Time

in a covidious time

A few curious readers spotted me collecting various fragments on the web over the course of this covidious interlude, and a couple pointedly asked what I had in mind. I would have thought that the title rather gave the game away, but I might as well admit I've been mulling a series to collect the toli I've been curating about the new normalcy. Oh, I hear you say, but you're still going on about your Things Fall Apart series 14 years after that weeklong exercise started. How many variations can you come up with, man? And now, another one? Well, this time I thought I'd go with lots of photos to keep things moving, and playlists too - they're always popular soothers. You know, eschew the arch concept, aim for brevity, short cuts, slices of life and impressionistic entertainments. In any case, back when I started this collection in earnest in March, Mr Trump was promising an Easter reopening of the US economy. Thus you have presidential assurance that this will be a brief interlude, many people are saying this. There's bound to be a time limit on this situation, and you will be returned to your regular programming in short order, so I've been told. Herewith then, some musings on life in a covidious time...

The New Normalcy

April 8 2020 is as good a marker as any to lay down as the start of the new normalcy. That was a day of the formal relaxation of the restrictions imposed on the community that had borne the initial brunt of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. The rest of the world was comforted by this development but, as the images emerged on our screens, we all got a sense that a few things had changed, and perhaps for good. The headline that piqued my interest read Exit from Wuhan.

Exit from Wuhan

Things are back to normal at Wuhan airport apparently. There was a visible sense of relief after 76 days of lockdown ended and restrictions on movement were relaxed. Still, there was a new aesthetic on display.

Years ago, while singing the West Nile Blues, I "welcomed the United States to the fun of the Third World", bemoaning, as I did then, the state of my own country of birth, where we were simultaneously living in 3 different centuries. The new normalcy that we got a glimpse of from Wuhan and other places pointed to a similar kind of dialectic. The virus would set the timeline, and there would be a wide spectrum of responses. Different countries and communities would be living different realities simultaneously. You could envision any number of futures depending on the competence of your public health response, the political and economic choices your leaders made, the evolution of the virus and its underpinning, the biology in short, and, as always, luck. It was an all-consuming simultaneous global experience, yet, as ever, everything was local.

Parts of Wuhan and New Zealand, Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea would now be the First World, the first countries to control the disease and return to a constrained normalcy. In April, one could foresee parts of the US becoming the Lombardy or Catalonia of just weeks past, or even Wuhan of the February timeframe. American lockdowns had barely begun, and indeed the great Northeast cities were beginning to suffer in earnest; New York would become the most worrying hotspot. From my Austin, Texas vantage point, however, I hadn't really noticed much change in behavior, and only middling adherence to social distancing. Certainly there was nothing like the rigor imposed in China and other countries; there was no similar mobilization.

indian hairdresser in a covidious time

By the end of May, perhaps encouraged by Trump's example in the US, not to mention The Grand Reopening of Texas, countries like India, Israel and South Africa were relaxing their own lockdowns in earnest. Hairdressers in India were wanting to get back to business and The Grand Reopening of India seemed to be on track. Again, the visuals coming out of India seemed to indicate a more serious attitude towards the disease than in the US even though the country didn't have the capacity and resources of the more developed nations. But there was a dissonance between those parts of that society that were ready to reopen, and those that had been quite literally left behind. The plight of the 100 million+ migrant workers stranded by Modi's abruptly announced lockdown couldn't be denied. India's Supreme Court would step in to remind the government about its responsibilities to its people, ordering state governments and union territories to send migrants home and provide employment. The court enjoined them further

to withdraw any complaint or prosecution lodged against migrant labourers who had set out on foot from big cities for their native villages to escape starvation, unemployment and disease during the pandemic.

The court said "society as a whole was moved by their miseries and difficulties".
indian hairdresser in a covidious time

But that was India, the world's largest democracy, "moved by their miseries", what about the rest of the world? The obvious solution, pay everyone to stay home until we get everything under control is far too obvious to contemplate. There were the examples of Denmark and other countries that did the social democratic thing of supporting the labor market by furloughing and supporting basic income and maintaining the labor market, keeping workers connected to the employers. The American decision was to let unemployment reign.

Politicians and leaders in many societies bristled at the loss of control in the face of the disease; it was a matter of power and the raw exercise of it. It was quite intolerable to have mere epidemiologists and technocrats taking the stage and leading the response. It was the uncertainty of it all. Epidemiologists are a special breed, they are congenitally incapable of giving you a straight answer; they speak of exponentials, probabilities, and weighing risk. The most eloquent always hedge their bets, and will invoke the "balance of probabilities"; uncertainty is their daily bread. Then, there are their shifting judgements as the science evolves, as it must do. It's frankly a messy business at the best of times. Politicians like slogans and do well with action plans, not with uncertainty, and definitely not with these shifting sands. Capitalists don't like to see labor have a minute to gather and consider their options, they'd rather keep turning the screws. The daily grind of pre-Covid life didn't leave time for much contemplation but the global pause is revelatory. We all have nothing better to do than contemplate.

You would have a mild mannered Ethiopian doctor at the World Health Organization with a name like Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus imploring you to test, test, test, implying that you should mobilize your economy and health care system in a certain direction. What gall, such people needed to be put in their place. Four months later, you can still have leaders saying that "if you test more, you'll have more cases". Implying a kind of gotcha that wholly misses that point that if you don't know where the bombs are, you can hardly defuse or mitigate them, that it is pointless to drive out of your driveway into the traffic if improvised explosive devices are exploding every few intersections during your commute (or if their analog, superspreading events, are occuring all over the community). Perhaps there's a certain intelligence behind those recommendations, they are a challenge that should be embraced. But well, amateur epidemiology has never been a crime in human history. We are finding out in real time, however, that nostalgia and wishful thinking can be fatal diseases.

indian hairdresser in a covidious time

But enough about the things that fall by the wayside, the cracks in the cement of society. All these are being heartily exposed by the actions of those who fail to heed the lessons of The Mosquito Principle. There's already a surfeit of contemplation in our covidious present that I need not add more to the pile. I continue to hope that this will be as advertised, a brief interlude, and I am rather resolved to capture a few thoughts about life in this time. I also retrospectively nominate some of previous notes published on the theme of the ongoing pandemic for this collection - albeit these earlier pieces are more earnest. Going forward though, you should expect more emphasis on the slices of life and the bite-sized triumphs. In any case, welcome to the new normalcy.

In A Covidious Time

The phantom thread of greed lies at the heart of the matter
Uneasy rests the soul of a society reliant on money culture
Their "human capital stock" is held hostage until they yield
The prize is to hold out for corporate liability shields

The threat is of forced evictions, and ultimately, starvation
Honor and dignity absent in the strange architecture of misdirection
A conscious choice, yet it reeks of amateur epidemiology
The social disease here is a curious free market ideology

Wishful thinking and mixed metaphors, their magic realism
The disaster profits and seduction of shell game capitalism
Manifest Destiny and its favorite cousin, Social Darwinism
The propaganda holds that the victims are themselves to blame
America's real herd immunity is to shame

Rent is Due, a playlist

I was going to start with a covidious playlist but I think it is more timely to focus on the economic insecurity that is currently focusing the minds of many around the world. In the US, the political class is willing to hold millions of lives hostage, and force Faustian pacts that no one should face. We should be clear that it is a choice - and most other societies have chosen otherwise. In any case less talk more music, rent is due. (spotify version)

In A Covidious Time - Series Index



Slices of Life

Creature Comforts

Internal Displacements

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