Empty shelves amid coronavirus fears (Image: AAP/James Ross)

It’s closing time in Italy, China remains on lockdown, there’s a case in Tasmania, there’s a second death in the US, the shelves are emptying of essential supplies, the stock-market is tanking…

My it all comes down pretty quick, doesn’t it?

We can’t quite believe it’s happened, but here it is. Maybe not the plague, maybe not even ’70s swine flu redux, but here it is anyway. SARS, MERS, COVID-19.

We started with a line reading, progressed to a walkthrough. What’s this? First rehearsal? Dress rehearsal? Final tech run through? Or is it curtain up? 

We’re all trying to grasp that it might be here, the event, but it’s hard to do so. Even as basic social life begins to be disrupted, transformed, suspended, the jokes, the irony, the commentary continue to fly through cyberspace.

People are buying up all the toilet paper, then people are tweeting photos of the empty shelves, the comedians are working up their material. This will go on I guess, absent a decisive and sudden scything, a shift in death numbers outside of China, at which point a decisive political and social shift might begin.

That sudden lift in western death numbers may never happen. The high numbers at the outbreak site of Wuhan may simply be a consequence of COVID-19 circulating for weeks or months in the local area, and the 2-4% mortality rate thus accumulating.

But while the Chinese outbreak was limited due to the efficiency of a totalitarian state apparatus, after initial bungling due to a totalitarian state apparatus, the entirely avoidable Western breakout — especially in the US — has been bungled due to the inefficiency of a trashed liberal state apparatus.

So it’s out there, spreading rapidly — with a higher transmission-rate per person infected. Between two and four, it is said, whereas earlier viruses were 1.5 persons or lower. 

Suddenly we’re all looking at surfaces, conscious of how much our hands touch things, touch our face, how much of the world is crappy, cruddy, dirty. Yet at the same time we can’t seem to bring the sense of emergency into the centre of our lives, to start to take the political action that the virus suggests is necessary.

That’s not only if it’s a false alarm, but especially if it is so. What a godsend it is if this is just the rehearsal. What an opportunity to actually find out what we need to do to western states to future-proof for these events. 

But it’s an opportunity we won’t take of course. Last month I noted that if the virus occurred here first:

…. de facto private hospitals would have instituted a first layer coverup/inaction to cover their bottom line/KPI standing; doctors who objected would have been threatened with the sack, and possible civil proceedings; the health department would have responded sluggishly.

Most of that has come to pass in the US already. Infected and non-infected US citizens were evacuated from Japan on the same plane; there aren’t enough test kits for them; they were allowed to scatter without being quarantined; government doctors were muzzled.

It was revealed that in 2019 the Trump administration had sacked the pandemic response team established by Obama after the Ebola crisis. Experts estimated that the spread would be made rapid by the lack of US sick leave and basic health care for the poor.

The administration’s frat-boy acting head of homeland security, whose name is Chad Wolf, could not answer basic questions on the infection rate of flu.

The supine White House press corps let Trump joke his way through a rare press conference. Trump said the virus would simply disappear “like a miracle”. The right began to portray it as a hoax, and that Democrat warnings were wishful thinking about a million dead.

Soon we’ll find out that private sector subcontracting played a role in the screw ups. And on it will go. 

There is no need to believe it will happen much differently in Australia — unless the US debacle actually focuses the minds of the small number of rational people remaining on the right. Only after a day or two did so-called “pushback” against the president begin.

And it’s a measure of how incapable we are of busting out of existing frames of politics that we talk of “pushback”, when the state apparatuses are plainly incapable of addressing a collective risk on its own terms. 

Grimly funny isn’t it?

For decades we have spoken of the problem of climate change and the “lag” effect: that there are no immediate, absolutely irrefutable consequences for climate change denialism which would show the dangers of business-as-usual.

And here it is! Here it bloody is! The chances of living or dying dependent on the actions of an efficient, reflexive, state, combined with an open society and a courageous mainstream press corps.

All that is absent, the disease is spreading, the fragility of globalisation has been exposed (more of that tomorrow) and still we go on.

Well, let’s see where we’re all at in three weeks time. When the next wave of whatever is going to happen happens.

Or doesn’t. And nothing changes. We are the species that claims to dominate the planet, yet we appear to be incapable of exercising collective control.

Meantime, with globalisation we have turned the planet into a giant petri dish, which maximises virus’ opportunity to mutate and spread. Viruses run the joint, we just live here. For the moment.

For the way we have lived, is it closing time everywhere?