by Ben Rosamond
What makes a pandemic, like the spread of Covid19, different from similarly destructive natural disasters and weather-related events?
There are multiple answers to this question. One is that a pandemic, by definition, has an effect on the whole world, whereas disasters tend to be local affairs. This is somewhat convincing, but as weather patterns change and the climate catastrophe deepens, it now makes more sense to view seemingly isolated disaster events as part of a broader, global pattern.
Another answer is that pandemics don’t emerge from geological or weather-related phenomena, and therefore aren’t natural. Any sober look at the dynamics of viral mutation will tell you, however, that it’s as much a natural phenomenon as the shifting of tectonic plates or the path of an asteroid, making this response just as unsatisfactory.
The real, most important, difference between pandemics and other disasters is that pandemics spread through human contact. This gives them a significantly different character than other crises we face. Responses to wildfires, earthquakes, and tsunamis, no matter how bungled they might be by governments, almost always involve bringing people together.
The paradox of the viral pandemic is that by spreading through human contact it is both the most and least social form of disaster. Human sociality itself is weaponized by the virus, making it seem that the only rational response is to prepare yourself, go into isolation, and stay away from others, refusing any and all forms of human contact outside of the household. Already, even in New Zealand where we haven’t received the full impact of the pandemic, we’re seeing such responses in the form of spectacular instances of panic buying spreading across social media.
Rather than the development of a form of ‘disaster communism’, where communal forms of social reproduction overcome the logic of capital and capitalism, even if only for a short while, pandemics instead invoke an affect of overly-cautious individualism. Anyone outside of your quarantine is a threat. Irrespective of actual health advice, the assumption is that the only safety is inside your home, insulated from the outside world. While physical distancing may be appropriate, depending on the circumstances, that is automatically translated into an isolationist standpoint. Despite its individualism, this logic is almost as antithetical to capital as ‘disaster communism’ is.
As the market collapse in the face of the virus has shown, capital thrives on the flow of goods and people. One of the originary features of capitalism was indeed to bring people together, facilitating a massive influx of workers from the rural peasantry into crowded urban factories. Capital needs workers to be able to come together under one roof and, in the age of globalisation especially, needs consumers and tourists to want to flock together rather than stay staunchly apart.
The logic of the pandemic prepper isn’t an expression of capitalism as we know it any more than it’s a prefiguration of communal social relations to come, instead it’s a harbinger of a dystopian future, a sign of a potential societal and economic order much worse than our current one. What if we remain scared of social gatherings for ever? What if the borders stay closed? What if we never leave our houses again?
Despite its seeming rationality as a response to a real crisis, this attitude clearly needs to be challenged. As socialists, we know that solutions to large-scale problems don’t come from individual actions, nor do they come from acts of state, they instead emerge when we organise together. We will always be stronger together than we are apart.
So how should socialists respond in times of pandemic? First off, we need to recognise that the scientific and medical advice we’re receiving is genuine and real. Despite our inclination towards collectivity, if we show symptoms or have been in contact with the infected, we should follow all advice we’re given. It’s important not to let our desire to help end up infecting more people. For New Zealanders, Dr. Siouxsie Wiles is providing excellent advice of this sort. This itself is a form of practical solidarity.
Secondly, we need to push for a strong government response. Basic demands such as indefinite paid sick leave, funds for precarious workers and the self-employed, suspensions on rent and mortgage payments, an end to benefit stand-downs and sanctions, and genuinely free and accessible healthcare are obvious areas to agitate around.
We know, though, that the state governs in the interest of capital, not of workers. It is likely that far more government funds will be made available to stem the stock market collapse than to help those who’ll suffer the most from long periods without work, or indeed from infection. Given this fact, it’s understandable that skepticism of an effective government response would lead people to panic buy and stockpile their own resources.
To a certain extent, this skepticism has already been proven right by the response of the government of the United States, where 1.5 trillion USD has been offered in short term loans to banks while those without health insurance are unable to access coronavirus tests. As with other forms of natural disaster, pandemics reveal and exacerbate underlying inequalities, which capitalist states have neither the tools or the desire to remedy.
So while we should push to get as much as we can from the state, we also need to organise at a grassroots level to ensure no one in our communities goes without care, food, or shelter. Community groups, including socialist groups like Organise Aotearoa, trade unions, sports clubs and any other active societies, should embrace a strategy of mutual aid during an outbreak.
Those who are healthy should do everything they can to support the sick, including buying and delivering groceries, offering rides to those who have no means of private transportation, pooling money to pay for housing and electricity costs, and offering basic human contact in a time of isolation. This is the foundation of a strategy for social solidarity in a time of crisis.
Only through such a concerted effort will we be able to break the common-sense of the pandemic, which encourages isolation and individualism at inhuman levels. Many people will suffer needlessly in an outbreak if we allow these ‘pandemic values’ to determine our actions. We might also find that, allowed to flourish, such a new common sense will make the return of collective values a daunting task even in times of normality. To ensure we’re not entering a dystopic future, we need to stay vigilant against the virus, agitate for everything we can get from the government, and pick up the pieces at a community scale when it’s inevitably not everything we need. Doing so will not only put us in a better position to endure the crisis, but also to ensure the values of social solidarity and collectivism emerge from it stronger, rather than irreparably weakened.
Ben Rosamond is a trade unionist, researcher, and Organise Aotearoa member based in Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland