By: Raúl Zibechi
Centuries ago we were able to learn the importance of the social and natural environments where viruses take root and multiply, because we live with them and they don’t always threaten us. The black plague should have taught us that pre-existing viruses multiply and disperse when the appropriate conditions are created. In our case, neoliberalism created those conditions.
In Plagues and Peoples, William McNeill highlights some current questions, when he analyzes the black plague that swept Europe from 1347. Christians unlike the pagans, cared for the sick, “helped each other in times of pestilence” and in that way contained the effects of the plague (Siglo XXI, p. 122). The “saturation of human beings,” over-population, was key in the expansion of the plague (p. 163).
Poverty, a diet with little variety and the non-observation of “superstitions,” local customs of the peoples, due to the arrival of new inhabitants, turned the plagues into disasters (p. 155).
Braudel adds that the plague, or “the hydra of a thousand heads,” constitutes a constant, a structure of the life of men (The structures of everyday life, p. 54). However, how little we have learned.
The black plague destroyed feudal society in a few years due to the acute scarcity of labor as a result of the death of half of the European population and, also, due to the loss of credibility of the institutions. This is the fear that now leads states to lock up millions.
The coronavirus epidemic underway has some peculiarities. I’ll focus on the social ones, because I ignore elementary scientific questions.
The current epidemic would not have the impact that it has, if it were not for three long decades of neoliberalism, which has caused probably irreparable environmental, health and social damage.
The United Nations through the UNEP recognizes that the epidemic “is a reflection of environmental degradation” (https://bit.ly/2TS42fL). The report points out that: “ailments transmitted from animals to human beings are growing and worsening as wild habitats are destroyed due to human activity,” because “pathogens spread more rapidly to herds and human beings.”
To prevent and limit zoonosis, it is necessary to tackle “the multiple threats to the ecosystems and wildlife, among them, the reduction and fragmentation of habitats, illegal trade, the contamination and proliferation of invasive species and, increasingly climate change.”
Temperatures in early March (winter) in some regions of Spain are up to 10 degrees above normal (https://bit.ly/3aFvynq). Furthermore, the scientific evidence links “the explosion of viral diseases and deforestation” (https://bit.ly/2IDBbGO).
The second issue that multiplies the epidemic has to do with strong cuts in the health system. In Italy, in the past 10 years 70,000 hospital beds were lost, 359 departments closed and numerous small hospitals were abandoned (https://bit.ly/39BjkMC). Between 2009 and 2018 health spending increased 10 percent, compared to 37 percent for the OECD. In Italy there are 3.2 beds for every 1,000 inhabitants. In France there are 6 and in Germany 8.
Between January and February the Spanish health sector lost 18,320 workers, in full expansion of the coronavirus (https://bit.ly/2wJIR7W). Health care sector unions denounce: “abuse of interim hiring and job insecurity,” while working conditions are increasingly hard. This neoliberal policy towards the health system is one of the causes of why Italy has placed the whole country in quarantine and Spain can follow the same path.
The third issue is the epidemic of individualism and inequality, cultivated by the mainstream media, which are dedicated to instilling fear and reporting in a biased way. For more than a century, we have suffered a powerful offensive from capital and the states against popular socialization spaces, while blessing the cathedrals of consumption, like shopping centers.
Consumerism depoliticizes, de-identifies and implies an “anthropological mutation” (as Passolini warned). Today there are more people who wish to have pets than children. This is the world that we have created and for which we are responsible.
Long-term measures can aggravate epidemics. The State suspends society upon isolating and confining the population in their houses, even prohibiting physical contact.
Inequality is equal to that in the Middle Ages (around 1500), when the rich ran to their country houses after the plague was announced, while the poor “were left alone, prisoners of the contaminated city, where the State fed them, isolated them, blockaded them and watched them” (Braudel p. 59).
The model of the digitalized prison panoptic that suspends human relations seems to be the strategic objective of capital so as to not lose control in the current systemic transition.
Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada
Friday, March 13, 2020
Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee