One of the theories is, that perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population.Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, UK Prime Minister, March 5th, 2020
Weeks after the above statement, my partner and I were re-emerging into the world of empty city centre streets having been isolating with coronavirus as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the land and cautionary measures were put into place. What began as coughs turned into something still manageable, but not exactly fun: she largely had disconcerting respiratory issues; I had body cramps for which I had to take paracetamol every few hours to gain any respite or rest.
Feeling a bit better and stumbling around our “locked down” ghost town which had enjoyed bustling city streets before we went into isolation, we had no idea of the long-term ramifications of what we’d just experienced. We’d never see anything like it again — there’d never be another approach to the pandemic like these cautionary measures that ended prematurely enough to create an illusion of safety and forever destroy much public perception of the pandemic’s threat.
Despite family and friends engaging in mutual aid with us while we were “quarantined,” by this time we still required resources and so reluctantly went to a nearby supermarket where we were astonished by the sight of lines of shoppers kept outside in the springtime sunshine, all of us waiting our turns to enter in distanced queues while our shopping carts were wiped down, before we went indoors to roam the aisles practically shoulder-to-shoulder with our fellow consumers, and without facemasks. That’s right: shoppers were invited inside “wiped down” supermarkets, with almost no masks in sight, in the midst of COVID-19, the airborne coronavirus (as since confirmed and clarified by science).
Neither my partner or I drive, so we hauled our groceries home in a greater struggle than usual, into the cramped corridors of our apartment building and into our home, and discussed what we’d just experienced, and later, on further reflection, agreeing we needed to find facemasks to wear, researching and shopping around online and making judgements on what masks to purchase. I remember ranting that I couldn’t comprehend that there wasn’t a public service where a boxcar full of masks arrived into each town, then mailed out to every household for each resident who lived there, or distributed on our streets.
But in addition to that, while we were pulling out of paid freelance work and isolating, we still had bills to pay, including our rent – and meanwhile our landlord, like many others, had chance to enjoy freezes on mortgages for such types who owned property. And with almost all of our work wiped out, we were distracted from any health concerns by sheer panic of not knowing where our income was going to come from. Support programmes for self-employed folks like us were either based on two years’ average earnings (penalising us for increasing our income and expenditures in the more recent past to try to pull past the poverty line) or being designed to require absolute proof that you’d have gained work that you’ve now lost (which as most freelancers will tell you is all too often almost impossible to ascertain).
The last time the media had a crisis to cover that was of comparable scale was, arguably, the financial crash of 2008, where governments mobilised swiftly to print money to gift to banks to keep them going, with many bank bosses actually using it to pay themselves “bonuses” for a what was apparently a job well done crashing the economy. And now here we were, with another crisis: but this time, in the form of a pandemic, millions of people in trouble.
Of course, what needed to happen was obvious: protect the planet’s population, with an unconditional universal basic income for every person, all but essential work put on hold (or ideally scrapped permanently), and “broadband communism” for all (a policy proposed by Jeremy Corbyn, a politician abused for refusing to “push the button” to activate nuclear weapons, while Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson declared reluctance to introduce cautionary measures to protect the population from COVID-19 by referring to them as a “nuclear deterrent,” for the most part unquestioned for said sickeningly perverse analogy).
No, the issue with such problem-solving options were that if the government started printing off billions – as it did for the bankers – in order to help ordinary people, it would shatter their myth that “there’s no magic money tree” when in fact there’s always been billions available, for everything from nukes and contracts and – as we’ve seen – bankers and landlords: indeed, for anything that keeps the capitalist order in place, absolutely no expense is spared.
The worries ran deeper, though, I’m sure. For much the same reason as housing the homeless in empty buildings was suddenly stopped, the government is surely gravely concerned about shifting public perspectives and narratives: if money could be printed to help ordinary working class people in a pandemic, then it’s likely that long-term we’d all start asking why this couldn’t happen more often.
Ironically, the government suggested the working class were becoming “addicted” to furlough programmes and were being obstinate in their career “choices” while blaming obesity – higher amongst people in poverty – for folks suffering with coronavirus. It was an offensive barrage of blame shifted to anyone but themselves from a government who define addiction given their loyalty to capitalism even as it destroys the planet. On top of this, the government further gaslighted the population with mixed messaging: despite risk of infection reduced outdoors, some people were being policed for practising yoga in the park, while others were told to get back into their indoor workplaces; much of the guidance made no sense, with no consistency, and little scientific basis.
The resulting confusion, particularly when combined with a collective ignorance about the enormity of capitalism’s ills, provided openings for far-fetched conspiracy theories to become quick-fix solutions for people trying to make sense of the nonsensical: from a virus spread by 5G signals, to elites plotting to wipe out local small businesses, to masks being a pilot test for mass conformity.
All conspiracy theories really require is to be connected – no matter how loosely – to some sort of truth, the truth being capitalism’s destruction of planet and people for profit, but the spread of these theories are almost entirely dependent on people not understanding capitalism itself.
Firstly, extraction capitalism’s principles of endless growth means exploitation of our environment, encroachment on nature and wildlife on a devastating scale, viruses becoming more commonplace. Once these viruses enter populations, capitalism’s profits made from workers mean that workplaces and the schools in their communities are crucial to keep ticking over, whether providing essential goods and services or not, and so viruses spread further. And finally, to keep this system in place, vaccines become important to produce, and are a nice little earner for some other companies as well, since these can be patented and profited from.
But widespread ignorance to the fundamental principles of capitalism (to extract profit from workers’ labour for capitalists’ gain) mean much of this is lost on people, and instead they reach for conspiracy theories, some grossly anti-Semitic, about a New World Order, or about Bill Gates creating a virus so he can make money from vaccines when, actually, he doesn’t need to create a virus because the virus is capitalism. Other conspiracy theories talk about cautionary measures, cynically named “lockdowns,” being a way to control the masses, alongside “muzzling” people with masks. What’s so ironic about this last one is that, right from the early days of the pandemic, as demonstrated above, it was government guidelines that were listened to and adhered to by so many people even when it made no scientific sense – about lifting “lockdowns” and getting back to business as usual, and getting children back to school so their parents could get back to work, for the “economy.”
And yet many people obediently followed the orders rather than the science – putting themselves and others in harm’s way; many, with no support and too many bills to pay, had little choice but to begrudgingly go to work (much less afford to isolate if they had symptoms), but others did have options yet merrily followed the guidance and did things without questioning it, from going to completely unnecessary social and recreational events in-person and indoors as well as travelling overseas…to outright refusing to wear masks, which is all well and good as a “right” providing an individual’s “right” doesn’t remove someone else’s right to, you know, not fucking contract a virus that threatens their health. I have the right to swing my fists about freely, but not when they impact someone’s face…even if they’re a right-wing conspiracy theorist, sadly. And oh yes, the anti-mask, anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists were almost always right-wingers selling their campaigns on false concerns for national(istic) “freedoms” – to refuse a mask, to refuse a vaccine, to refuse cautionary measures; and yet, funnily enough, completely in favour of the continued opening of schools and workplaces without once questioning why communities were being made reliant on capitalist businesses to “earn” a living. But the rise of these groups has been made somewhat sadly inevitable in capitalist countries where any argument against their ideology has been suppressed; voices silenced.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that from India and America to Brazil and Britain, their right-wing authoritarian leaders (who lived in comparative luxury and so were able to survive and trivialise the virus if they contracted it) were concerned with capitalism over care; profits over people…and their populations were some of the most devastated by COVID-19. Here in the UK, the government persisted; their rationale seemed largely based on how much could be handled by the healthcare system – one that they had spent years cutting to the bone – otherwise happily prepared to let “bodies pile high in their thousands” by creating government schemes to lure people into pubs and restaurants – places so obviously dangerous with poor ventilation and minimal mask usage that experts like Dr Bharat Pankhania said they’d of course be avoiding going on a plane in the pandemic but would rather take a plane than go into a pub, the risks being so high and so obvious. It was a summer that sowed seeds of not a “second wave” as they called it – as though an unavoidable natural phenomenon (like “the credit crunch” before it) – but a pandemic exacerbated by state policy.
Rejecting government calls to “eat out to help out” capitalism, myself and my partner – who at this point was strangely still unable to shake many of the effects of having the virus, some symptoms actually worsening – were continuing to work from home and wearing masks when we had to go anywhere, especially indoors. For the first few months of the pandemic, being without a car we never went beyond the same few grey city blocks while tied into a contract for a small, gardenless mould-infested flat from a landlord who not only rejected our request for rent relief but then went so far as to hike the rent even higher, so fortunately by a stroke of luck we were able to move into social housing and count our blessings while taking comfort in the emergence of mutual aid initiatives, rent strikes, and industrial actions around the globe, offering some hope for a saner and more just world.
Yet still, others we knew seemed baffled by our approach, when they were happy to get back to the office, get to the pub, go to a restaurant, and get “back to normal”…a concept that has disturbed me since I was a child pulled from school and taught at home by my mother in defiance of authorities; “normal” capitalism means chaos – a barrage of bullying, competition and consumerism that harms the mental health of millions and yet now we were witnessing people who had never given a shit about mental health suddenly stomping their feet, throwing tantrums, and declaring that they needed their luxuries “because…mental health.” Such petulance, impatience, and impetuousness only undid whatever progress could have been made.
It made me even more ashamed to be living in the privileged western world, where — while many working class people in poverty can’t afford such cafe lunches, downtime or trips away at the best of times — some middle class people can apparently enter a deep despair if they can’t go to the wine bar and get their hair done by Karen…and meanwhile elsewhere in the world people aren’t just suffering in terrible conditions that leave them largely defenseless against the virus, but can’t even access vaccines that the West patented and stockpiled for themselves. Yet British Prime Minister Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson suggested vaccines were a success because of “greed, capitalism” while a “Zero COVID” strategy was not feasible – despite it being proven to work when some countries adopted it with astonishing success even in the absence of an internationally coordinated effort (imagine if there had been one…the virus would now largely be history, something wiped out within months of a one-off short, sharp, shock “lockdown” over and done with…yet lessons have not been learnt, instead errors repeated).
Yes, in the absence of any coordinated global “Zero COVID” plan, the virus has been allowed to spread, mutating and forming variants that may, or may not, render vaccines useless. Yet as I write, here we are again in the midst of yet another Groundhog Day-like premature easing of cautionary measures by the British government, and yet again large swathes of the population – most not even fully vaccinated – will adhere to authority and even actively resist anything resembling a “Zero COVID” culture because, one year later, the idea has been swept away with “wave” after “wave” where citizens’ spirits have been crushed and their minds subjected to gaslighting to a point where they’re prepared to proceed to do as they’re told and embrace the illusion of “normality,” sticking their heads in the sand like ostriches – or rather, running ahead like lemmings.
Some of us may resist, but in our small numbers we’ll suffer for it – if we dare to refuse to go back to business as usual, we’ll pay a price. Heck, we already have paid our price, for capitalism.
My partner’s long-term effects, now finally understood as LongCOVID, have only gotten worse, as she continues to work because we’re so broke and deeply in debt; as a self-employed person unable to jump through the hoops of scraps from state support in the pandemic, she can receive no sick pay either, and Occupational Health services have been unable to help because, as yet, they only assist salaried employees, and even though she’s been passed from one baffled healthcare expert to another, and another, and another, and her GP would sign her “off sick” if it was possible, my partner is so very sick – with fatigue, with fevers, with headaches, with brain fog, with dizziness, with shortness of breath, with chest pain, and so on – that the prospect of then attempting to convince the welfare state of her condition inevitably makes her even more sick, before facing the plethora of paperwork and phonecalls and tests needed to be deemed “worthy.” Disabled people, including those with ME, will sadly be all too familiar with this struggle.
Yet we still see Social Darwinist narratives around the vulnerable and non-vulnerable – as though we aren’t all vulnerable, in varying degrees. Pre-pandemic, my partner was in the gym three times a week, playing soccer three times a week including an often-ninety minute game on a Sunday, who loved reading political theory, and now she’s 31 and can barely read a page or walk around the block most days without considerable consequences from her LongCOVID symptoms. I’m essentially an unpaid carer, on top of my self-employed work. And there’s little help at hand. We just struggle from day to day and keep the wolves from the door as best we can while her condition fails to improve and she still manages to consider herself lucky – millions dead, more than one hundred thousand deaths in the UK, over a thousand of those below my age of 44.
So what’s next for us – all of us?
Well, as climate denialism loses momentum in the public narrative, capitalists have begun to switch to an environmental fascism focused on population controls. So with the pandemic, they will call for convenient border controls, in addition to a police state, and more austerity. They will apply Disaster Capitalism where they can spin propaganda to convince us that the very solution to the problem (capitalism) is in fact…more capitalism. And they will find ways to profit off it. Like a virus, it finds a host and attacks; it feeds, and mutates, and spreads.
Capitalism is the virus.
The only way to rid ourselves of this virus, of course, is a Zero Capitalism strategy. That means workplace solidarity and mobilisation, renters unions, in addition to mutual aid initiatives and intersectional movements where there is no war on immigrants, no war on the LGBTQ+ community, no war on disabled people…no war but class war.
Until we get rid of this virus called capitalism, we can have little hope of ridding ourselves of the threat of the other kind of viruses, or many of the other threats to our existence on this planet.