The Ways After

by José Gracia Bondia, Physics, University of Costa Rica

“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned” (W. B. Yeats, 1920)

“COVID-19 was the lightning before the thunder” (P. Khanna & K. Khemka, 2020).

1. The bare facts

1a. A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

SARS-Cov-2 is not at all like the agents of the “common cold”. Bigger, much more contagious, endowed with a many-in-one ability for wrecking havoc in different organs and functions of the human body, this virus is the stuff of nightmares. Well-informed scientists have argued that it evolved from bats to human hosts by natural processes; and that remains the most likely hypothesis. This does not negate that Wuhan houses the most advanced-level laboratories devoted to experiments with viruses in China. And that those experiments try to augment the toxicity of the pathogen and its ability to enter body cells. Both American officials and Chinese diplomats have engaged in the blame game about the zero-point of corona. Something is certain: “infodemics” is here to stay.

There were plenty of Cassandras, to be sure. “The coming plague” and many other works were easily prescient. To no avail: politicians do not deal in likely future risks. The prestigious Center of Disease Control at Atlanta used to be the spearhead of the fight against epidemics the world over. Barely propelled during the Obama Administration, and starved of funds by the current one, it made a botch in the present emergency.

1b. The answers to the pandemic: under the Eurocentric lens

Amidst the gallop of the white horse of Pestilence in the West, one could hear a ripping of robes: about the battering that “Third-World” countries were about to suffer.

The reality is more nuanced. Besides the Asiatic “usual suspects”: Taiwan, Hong-Kong, South Korea, China itself… New Zealand is being hailed as the shiny example of containment. As of late May, it had had around 1,500 certified cases and about 25 five deaths. Now, this iaffluent country is essentially made of two very big, sparsely populated faraway islands, relatively easy to close. Take Costa Rica, with a larger population, crammed into a space smaller by a factor of more than five. What is worse, with porous borders with two hotbeds of coronavirus (Nicaragua’s official figures there are not worth the paper they are written on). Its figures by the same dates: 1,000+ thousand certified cases, 10 deaths (12 at the time of writing). In Africa: Ghana, Rwanda, Botswana… have developed testing kits and impressive strategies, overlooked among the Western fanfare. South Africa deployed high-technology against the virus. Senegal started preparing against the pandemic in January. Vietnam stands apart in the whole world by the number of tests performed by number of inhabitants. It closed its borders already in January. To put matters in perspective: towards the end of April Germany had effected around twelve tests per each detected infection; Vietnam had done by then over 600 (!). No deceases reported. This might seem a bit rich; but certainly there the virus was stopped on its tracks.

My favorite example is Kerala in India. Home to 35 million people (fairly small by Indian continental standards), this state has long being governed by a benign brand of Communism. It enjoys a strong public health system. As soon as late January it started to organize. At some point nearly 170,000 people were quarantined. Kerala is no island, its hinterland is the huge Indian subcontinent, where matters are certainly less tidy. As of mid-May there had been four casualties. For sure, people at Kerala trusted their sanitary authorities after a victorious fight just two years ago against Nipah — a less contagious, but far deadlier virus.

In summary: the main weapon against Corona was speed, that is, political vim and political acumen. When “The Economist” writes that USA is not doing too badly, since its fatalities rates compare with Europe’s of two months ago, something is seriously amiss in the Western perspective. All the big countries in the EU, and a good number of the smaller ones, acted late. As did the WHO itself. (Germany is touted as a partial exception. According to refined “generative” epidemiological models, it was just lucky, i.e., there is an unknown factor.)

2. Blasted into the past: the Old Normal

Coronavirus harks back to the way the world was: largely governed by (hunger and) health issues. In the summer of 1564, the vicar of Stratford-on-Avon, not far below from the register of birth of one William Shakespeare, resignedly wrote “hic incipit pestis”. Luckily for us, William survived. The pictures of masked people and deserted streets during the influenza epidemic of 1918-19 eerily recall present ones. Recurrent epidemics of all kind, made worse since the birth of cities, have been the lot of humanity in all of memory . The Athenian plague, the Justinian plague, the Black Death, measles and smallpox brought by the Europeans to the New World and Australasia, the misnamed Spanish Flu of 1918-19… have led to upheaval. Sometimes there were positive outcomes. The Black Death hastened the demise of serfdom. But there are always losers: noblemen were not amused. Within living memory of this writer, the “Hong-kong flu” of 1968-69 killed some 2-3 million of people, several times the figure of Covid so far.

The concept of Old Normal is more pervasive. Who this writes is a typical “boomer”. It was not fun to spend one’s youth under the shadow of nuclear war. Nevertheless, in the second half of twentieth century, the Western World enjoyed peace, freedom from extreme want, giant steps forward in medical and agricultural technology, and other unprecedented bonuses. Even the sky above was clement: it has been noted that the frequency of natural catastrophes during the period was appreciably smaller than it is today. Now we have runaway global warming and ever more dangerous hurricanes. The net of institutions created by America after the Second World War worked for the mutual benefit of many countries. (Let us not forget the torment of China under Maoism. Or in Latin America the succession of military coups against elected governments and bloody dictatorships, drummed up by paranoid fear of communism in the US.)

After the Soviet Empire collapsed around 1990, globalization and the idea that it would hasten the “end of history” permeated discourse for a while. This was already asinine then. In the sphere of international relations, the rivalry between an old power and an ascendent one brings us back now to the first part of the last century. The newcomer then suffered less and less the haughtiness of the old. Instead of biding its time, it was tempted to strike too soon — with well-known consequences. It is hard to escape the overall impression that the “Great Moderation” in the West, roughly between 1950 and 2000, was a product of that undervalued, irreducible factor: luck.

3. The internet’s big beasts

Most everybody is doing “virtual” work. In many ways this is a positive development — but see our last section. Education, office work, financial services… will be permanently transformed by this. Now, even before corona, it was easy to distinguish true technology companies from mere users of the platforms trying to disguise themselves as “technological”. Most of the big beasts: Huawei, Apple, Foxconn, Cisco, Microsoft… belong to the hardware/software backbone of the internet and its main uses. Almost as central are the logistics and consumer-centered companies completing the GAFAM roster. Already before the crisis, it was easy to distinguish them from those claiming to be high-tech on the basis of a more or less “clever application”. The fiasco of We Work was already plain. Lots of “savvy operators” contracted heavy debts to acquire Airbnb sites… Good riddance.

Big Internet has sinister aspects, loss of confidentiality and privacy not least of them. Let us put this aside. Being indispensable for modern life, internet and its management are “critical infrastructure”. They should be regarded as utilities, just as are provision of water and power. However, they are in private monopolizing hands. One trembles at the idea of putting them in the hands of the state. But modern-day Sherman and Roosevelt would be well advised to break them, for the benefit of competition and the common good.

4. Destruction of the working class

By and large, Germany Inc. still is the workshop of the world, and its working class looks in rude health. The writing on the wall, however, is plain to read. Many of the main industries like carmaking are “sunset” ones. For service work, the next paragraph applies worldwide.

What comes after the present massive unemployment and freezing of advancement? The post-pandemic constraints on factory work mean accelerated introduction of robotics. What about office work? Portable phones had already brought the 24-hour work shift. Further virtualization was welcomed by some: better to do one’s work at home than suffer the crammed desk spaces and the stare of incompetent managers… The trouble with this assertion is not merely “Zoom fatigue”, nor the myriad software (Hubstaff, TimeDoctor, TSheets…) being used to track every movement, pause, click of workers from home. It is in the one’s part. Well before Covid, the gig economy was established. Large parts of the workforce are at mercy of calls. But remote work is by definition outsourced work. The whole world will be competing for the work you were doing only a while ago, when you were “temporarily” dismissed — even for the the work you are still doing now. The future harks back to the time when owners would collect available hands in the main square. Only, the full Earth is the stage. Office work is in the air, literally. Wages are set to go down across the board. What would Marx have made of this?

5. And the winners are…

There are no prizes for figuring out the likely winners of the post-pandemic era. Since the late March sell-down, what is the news? A vaccine could be at hand for coronavirus: stocks rise. The prospective vaccine won’t work: stocks rise. Unemployment figures went down: stocks rise. Unemployment figures went up: stocks rise. As of the day of writing, Nasdaq valuations are higher than before the pandemic exploded; and other Wall Street valuations are not far behind. It is true that the economy is all upside-down. In some aspects, we are back to a homestead economy, like in the nineteenth century. Jobs vanish, but disposable income for now rises, due to the rescue plans. The pandemic is an extinction event for small enterprises, although oil prices turned negative at some point…

The roots of the present crisis’ outlook are in the 2008 financial collapse -the cross on the grave of the “Great Moderation”. Its minders, Obama in the lead, instead of reversing “deregulation” and punishing the financial “elite”, bailed it out. Now the latter claims to be part of the solution.

6. Against the “digital shock”

A long haul in the fight against Covid is unavoidable. Beyond and apart from the victims of the planetary killer, new time-bombs are ticking. A social regime based on isolation, more inequality, loss of privacy and liberty is trying to establish itself. In the new regime human contact is regulated, when not suppressed. The switch to purely digital schools rears its ugly head. Macron in France plans to replace all public services by online portals. Already it is impossible to buy train tickets there at the guichet. Maddeningly impersonal customer service both from the state and the big companies through outsourced representatives or chatbots will rule: pretending to provide ways of contact, they dig moats around themselves. Not only this disenfranchise a fifth of the population. The sanitary crisis is the perfect pretext to push ahead “digital health”, the “internet of things”, “virtual money” and several other projects of uncertain benefit, to say the least. Cybervigilance may have a role in fighting Covid. However, the main weapon is … soap. The Romans had it.

Digital capitalism is a gravedigger of humanism. Kafka and Orwell saw it coming.

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