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(Image: AAP/James Gourley)

Governments start to talk about being able to lift some restrictions in the weeks ahead, and we all breathe a sigh of relief. Not merely for the possibility that work may start up again for some of those laid-off, that a wider range of shops might open, that at some point we might be able to sit in a cafe for 10 minutes — but also, in Australia, because we are approaching it from a place of less than a hundred deaths, a hospital system which never became overloaded, and a government which, though it has used this crisis for political advantage, has at least responded rationally to the threat.

I was in the US as the lockdowns began across the world, and as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson strutted across the stage, blowing their populist thought-bubbles, releasing the bats from right-wing wonks’ belfries, and the feeling was alarming.

So I’m grateful that, for the moment, we have a rational government, whatever its political stripe, though I’m not going to gush over it, like some on the left have, because it’s obvious that the crisis is also being used for a political-culture war.

But praising the basic rationality of the government (much of which, I have no doubt, is the product of Labor premiers in the national cabinet locking in Morrison, as the Attlee and the Labour members of Britain’s wartime national government locked in Churchill during WWII) is simply a prelude to the question we need to ask: what is going to come out of this crisis that will lay solid foundations for a system ready for the next crisis?

The corporate and ideological right want to construct this as a once-in-a-century event, you know, like the once-in-a-century fires we’re getting every five years, or the once-in-a-century drying up of eastern Australia’s major river system that we’re told to get used to.

The latest signups to this dingbat death-squad are Pru Goward and, of course, Elizabeth Farrelly (rule-proving exception to the [John] Quiggin principle that not all right wingers are death-cult capitalists, but all of the latter are from the right).

They’re not only in denial about the dilemma we face in reviving full social life; they, and many others, are in denial about what this virus portends and what may come next.

After all, COVID-19 isn’t anything new, as the virus’ full name — SARS-CoV-2  — makes clear. Perhaps calling it SARS-COVID-19 would have been better to establish continuity with the SARS outbreak of 2003.

Since that time, we have had two flu outbreaks, an ebola outbreak, and another coronavirus MERS (Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome). The circulation of coronavirus roughly coincides with globalisation going to a new level in 2001, when China joined the WTO, and India abandoned the last vestiges of nationalist economic and social policy, and went for full neoliberalisation.

Globalisation, in the developing world, had been a preserve of a tiny elite, travelling, doing business, etc. Now it began to reach into the hinterland of these vast populations — and into an Africa emerged from Cold War dominance by client dictators. The world was now really on the move.

Remember how weird the idea of Chinese international students was? And then Chinese tourists? How Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, were suddenly a destination for corporate careerists in the way only Hong Kong had been? First-stage neoliberalism — the ’80s and ’90s — hadn’t been a real globalisation at all. Now it was here. 

Now it is here and part of the package is a virus, with an exponentially widened field of mutation and recombination to develop in.

It’s a measure of how frightening this is that large sections of the elite are regressing to the mythical and childish act of finding concrete baddies to blame for the trashing of our lovely lives. “If only China had…” “If only the WHO had…”

Magical solutions are proposed: “Let’s close down the wet markets!” people say, without bothering to find out what a wet market is. “China must change its animal eating culture” — ignoring that MERS, a far more lethal coronavirus, emerged from the Middle East, and was briefly called “camel flu” or “camel virus”, because bats had transferred it to camels.

Bats, the epidemiologists tell us, are sources of such viruses because they have very strong immune systems, so viruses develop in a super-efficient manner to get around them. A nasty cold for a bat is lethal to us. This has presumably been occurring for centuries or longer, limited only by the non-mobility of very large sections of humanity.

Which means humanity has a dilemma for which there is no easy solution — especially not the bumper-sticker slogan “herd immunity” which the death-cult dingbats like to ‘eave about.

Not only is there strong evidence that SARS-COVID-19 can reinfect those whom it has passed through once or more, there is the possibility of the global virus — what is really a singular organism, now omnipresent — developing until it hits on a new combination of effects.

The lethality of a virus is a byproduct of its mechanism of spread. Ebola uses only body fluids, so it turns the body into a rotating sprinkler of everything inside of them, until the sufferer dies, having soaked someone else in blood, vomit or shit along the way.

There’s an obvious trade-off between infectiousness and lethality, as the common cold (rhinovirus) demonstrates. But what if coronavirus hits on a modified mechanism of spread — say, a form of coughing so unstoppable and so projective that sufferers’ lungs break apart faster than now? What if such a disease had a 3%, 5% mortality rate and did not spare children?

At that point, it should be obvious that the modified form of everyday life we have now — even in lockdown, a lot of us probably circulate more than a lot of women and older people did in the 1950s and before — could not continue.

The distribution of food and other essentials would have to be managed by the state to minimise risk, health care would have to be brutally and cruelly triaged, and mobility would have to be subject, effectively, to military control.

As a society we need to have a plan for that, and to regard SARS-COVID-19 as a prelude and rehearsal to a viral event that would mark a categorical historical change in human life.

Should the state be unwilling to do this, out of the deep denial that still permeates a state devoted to the preservation of capitalism at all costs, then a coalition of public epidemiologists, economists, political scientists and disaster experts should form, create such a plan and make it public.

The only responsible act, for those who believe that the “human project” is worth continuing, is to make such a plan, with a clear-eyed view of nature’s indifference to our desires.

The world is a beautiful place and worth fighting for, to quote Papa Hemingway, but the fight you face is never the one you thought it would be.

Yes, we should look to the possibility — and no more — of some very gradual, very limited and very reflexive opening up of the lockdowns. But only if such a measure does not serve as a host-body for the hubris of imagining that this viral event is an exceptional historical moment.

It may simply be that “the viral” is an inevitable stage of history for any mammalian species that develops a mobility beyond its pre-cultural evolved habitats. We need to recognise the potential epochal character: the moment when we lose our aeons-long status as this planet’s apex predator, and must learn the caution and humility that guarantees the survival of all the rest of the animals.

Peter Fray

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