The Three Ways of Looking at the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2

There are three ways of looking at COVID-19 and three time frames for responding to the crisis it has created, argues Quinn Slobodian in a think-piece generated after a Transnational Institute webinar.

Quinn Slobodian is a historian at Wellesley College in Massachussets, US, looking at modern German and international history with a focus on North-South politics, social movements, and the intellectual history of neoliberalism. His most recent book is Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism published in 2018.

The first way to look at the virus is as an X-ray. The outbreak has exposed the existing structure of societies and economies. Where economies have systems of social support that act as automatic stabilizers during recessions, and universal health care that provides basic services to all citizens, we have seen rapid response and, in many cases, the flattening or decline of the curves of new infections and deaths.  Where economies rely on neglected migrant laboring populations with little access to basic health services we have seen violent displacement and difficulty in controlling spread of infection. Where economies exist with little social support and high levels of consumer and corporate debt, we see paroxysms of overnight poverty and the collapse of entire sectors with dim chances of recovery. The need to restart circulations of labor and capital drive politicians and individuals to hasty measures that may well end up being self-destructive.

A second way to look at the virus is as a dress rehearsal. We are discovering in real time how we respond to collective challenges.  This time it is a pandemic. Next time, it will be a natural disaster, a nuclear or chemical accident, another financial crisis, or a combination of the galaxy of symptoms we call climate crisis. While the first turn for many was to the central state, we learned quickly that more local systems of authority and provisioning may be just as important. 

Neighborhoods have pooled resources; state governors and governments have assumed new prominence; what looked like a centrifugal dynamic may end up being a centripetal one.

A third way to look at the virus is as a dynamo, or an engine.  If left to run, the dynamo of the virus will guide societies and economies in the same direction they were heading before.  Opportunity for maneuver will be narrowed, most dramatically for countries of the Global South as foreign investment flows reverse, but the virus itself will not lead to a radical reorientation of state priorities. The global Left should not expect the virus to do the work for it. At the same time, an engine converts energy into motion. If redirected, through popular pressure on elites and decision-makers, there is far more opportunity for rapid social transformation now than under the circumstances that pass for normal.

Taking advantage on the dynamo of the virus requires thinking in three timeframes.  The first, short-term, is vanishing even as I write.  Crisis management has led governments to take measures unthinkable at other times. They are doing so with little public oversight. Direct cash transfers, government covering wages of private employees, overruling private property prerogatives to seize needed supplies, and multi-trillion dollar spending packages are breezing through government.

The short term imperative is ensuring that these crisis measures do not include massive giveaways to already privileged actors, that they do not become blank checks which extend patrimonial networks that already define the nexus of political and corporate power in countries like the U.S.  The 2008 bailout allowed the wealthiest to escape with all privileges intact, stoking justifiable resentment against financial elites. Federal bailouts for private companies must include not only restrictions on CEO bonuses, dividends, and share buybacks, but also requirements for the redirection of corporations toward socially productive activities.

A case in point is fossil fuels. The likely bailout of the U.S. oil sector to come, as prices drop into the netherworld of negative dollars a barrel in late April, is the most important opening in a generation for a real turn toward a just energy transition.  Similarly, the inevitable bailout of the airline and aerospace industry must include more than the token efforts at carbon emissions the sector has offered thus far.

The financial firefighting operation of the U.S. Federal Reserve, the most important actor in this global crisis as it was in the last one, must not neglect poorer countries. Dollar swap lines should be open to emerging markets and the Fed must push the IMF to, in turn, pressure private creditors to accept massive debt forgiveness for the Global South. This must be done en bloc to prevent the re-emergence of a dynamic of each nations vying to be apt pupils in a race to the bottom.

In the medium term, it is essential that the economies reassembled after the crisis are not identical to the ones that existed before.  Policymakers need to turn to initiatives like the Green Stimulus and think tanks like the Transnational Institute and Common Wealth UK which have outlined in-depth plans for pivoting high-carbon economies to a low-carbon future. With wise deployment of state funds,  people displaced by the necessary collapse of the ecologically catastrophic unconventional oil industry in North America will have well-paying jobs to which to return. Despite the colossal forces arrayed against such an outcome, we have to nevertheless work towards an economic model that is not  premised on bartering prosperity today for climate collapse tomorrow).

The daily applause for frontline medical workers in cities around the world suggests that attention to the necessity of care workers for the reproduction of social life could be one hopeful outcome of the pandemic.  For the more economistically-minded, this may strengthen the argument for more liberal immigration policies to fill gaps in aging populations in richer countries. While one must be suspicious of public relations gestures, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s expression of gratitude to his Portuguese and New Zealander nurses are one sign of a possible shift.  

Long-term, the question of a just international order must be reposed.  The point that international cooperation is necessary to confront the next pandemic is an obvious but important one. Beyond this, we need to rethink a normative idea of globalization away from one that seeks maximal freedom for capital and goods while erecting ever more walls for people. If “deglobalization” through decreased international trade and the “reshoring” of supply chains is one outcome of the pandemic, this can have a reactionary or a progressive face depending on who shapes the policy. Demands for local food security have long been progressive demands.  They can also be part of a project of deglobalization that remains internationalist.

Without being naïve, we can also see how emergency measures produced interim realities that prefigured better futures. In the first months of 2020, as lockdowns dried up demand, container ships resorted to “slow-steaming” to delay their arrival in ports where their clients had no customers, a means of transport that is dramatically better for carbon emissions. The disappearance of planes from the skies has led some radical advocates that they “stay grounded” until they articulate a vision for air travel compatible with future human survival. Lawns have been ploughed into vegetable gardens and ornamental nurseries repurposed to grow food. One of the lessons of the virus has been that, if networks of social support are intact, whether family, community, or state, one can even weather a global pandemic. On the other hand, if one is compelled to leave home for a post at a cashier’s counter, an intensive care unit, or an Amazon warehouse, without as much as employee-provided healthcare, then the conditions for survival look ever grimmer.

We have no choice but look at the virus unflinchingly. When we do so, we may see some hope in the shape of our collective response. We will also see that the real enemy is not the virus but the entrenched powers that will remain standing once we are all vaccinated and the victims have been buried.  It is to them we have to turn our attention even as the emergency extends without a clear end in sight. 

This think piece submitted to the ISC Covid-19 Global Science Portal is based on a presentation given by Quinn Slobodian at a webinar – The coming global recession: building an internationalist response – organised by Transnational Institute, an international research and advocacy institute committed to building a just, democratic and sustainable planet. TNI is holding weekly Wednesday webinars on different social, political and ecological dimensions of COVID-19:

Photo by Georg Eiermann on Unsplash