Reviewing Mike Davis’s latest book on the links between capitalism and pandemics, Simon Pearson echoes the book's chilling and urgent warning that without enormous and systemic change, only calamity awaits us.
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Social distancing is a privilege.
It means you live in a house large enough to practice it.
Lockdowns are a privilege. It means you can afford to be at home.
Dr. Jagadish J. Hiremath
In Mike Davis latest work he appears as a modern-day Cassandra as he revisits a previous text and updates it for the COVID age. The Monster Enters COVID 19, Avian flu and the Plagues of Capitalism (OR Books 2020) is an expanded version of his 2005 work The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. The change to the title reflects the global emergency we now face.
COVID-19 didn’t just knock on the door, it battered it down and then smashed the house to its foundations! Davis is an American academic, political activist and urban theorist of note on the left, having previously written nineteen nonfiction titles and three works of fiction. He starts the text with a reflection of the personal, thinking about a family member who died during the Flu pandemic of 1918.
As I sit here to write this review, the world has seen 623,658 deaths from COVID-19 and over 15 million confirmed cases of the disease. These are big numbers so bringing it back to the personal helps, and in reading the text I was drawn to my own family and a second great uncle who, having returned from the Great War, died in November 1918 of the so-called ‘Spanish flu’ then sweeping the world—aided by the first capitalist industrial war. Having succumbed to the disease (one of the 17-50 million who died) he passed the contagion to his wife and baby in arms who both died within days of each other.
Bringing it back to the present, I think of the Aunt who died only last month of COVID-19 in a care home, not a statistic, but a real person. Davis writes that ‘it can be difficult to retain a clear image of individual suffering’ and this is something we must do, we are now living in a world of big numbers, but the deaths and hospital admissions are not just a scene setting for the leadership, to be read out at a staged press conference, but real people who had lives to live.
In his preface to the book Davis surveys this new COVID world as ‘a landscape of disaster’ in which, like the plague years of the middle ages, we see the rich flee to their country piles with home deliveries and Instagram tales to follow, of an idyllic lockdown experience. For the precarious, the key worker, and homeless a trip to pick up essential medicines or supplies can result in the contagion tapping you on the shoulder and infecting your life.
Davis is quick to identify multinational capital (as he did fifteen years ago) as the main ‘driver of disease evolution’ through ‘the burning or logging out of tropical forests’ the ‘proliferation of factory farming, the explosive growth of slums’ and the ‘failure of the pharmaceutical industry’ in the creation of a new generation of anti-viral medicines. If the world is to avoid future pandemics, a vaccine for the latest disease is not enough, we will need—as Davis points out—‘a suppression of these structures of disease emergence’.
But which of the large capitalist or state capitalist countries has the desire, or the political will, to change the conditions which would mitigate a future global pandemic? After all, a change would impact the state’s slavish desire to prop up capital at any cost, even if doing nothing would ultimately means sacrificing your own citizens on the altar of capitalism.
With the COVID pandemic continuing to rage, it was as if we had been entered into a giant controlled experiment, but instead of scientists pulling the levers it was left to the political class. For every Anthony Fauci fighting to stop the pandemic, we would see individuals like Texas Governor General Daniel Patrick who as Davis describes ‘bravely volunteered to sacrifice the elderly to COVID if necessary to keep the economy generating profits’. Not unlike Britain, the US seriously contemplated a strategy of herd immunity, throwing the working class (key workers was not yet a term) into the path of the pandemic, while the central banks kept the printing presses going to revive their stuttering economies.
Davis writes that this approach ‘was an idea with Hitlerian overtones, that Trump grudgingly retreated from when Fauci scoffed at it’. I’m sure it is not lost on anyone that the supposed world leader has gone missing during this crisis. As China and Cuba sent medical staff and supplies to poorer parts of the world (and let’s not forget EU member state Italy) the US threatened to withdraw funding from the WHO and has gazumped other countries in its quest for a cure, and by that I mean any cure! However, Davis warns that in recognition of the solidarity extended by China ‘we should avoid learning the wrong lesson’ and he makes an important point in that ‘state capacity for decisive action in an emergency does not necessitate the suppression of democracy’.
The lesson for the rest of the world (including President Trump) is to recognise the effectiveness not of the Communist Party’s authoritarianism, but its ‘presence in daily life’ with well over 90 million members who live and breathe both workplace and neighbourhood committees. Davis believes, and I agree with him, that the Chinese example shows ‘the critical importance of grass route organisation and preparedness, not the necessity of a police state’.
As the reader leaves the now and enters the text from fifteen years ago, we are surrounded by the familiar staccato of three and four-letter acronyms: HIV, AIDS, SARS and MERS and the strange ‘genetic license plates’ such as H5N1, H6N2, and H1N1. Small words, at a different moment in time, but with much the same impact as COVID-19.
Davis again links poverty to industrial food production and Western nation’s ambivalence in dealing with new outbreaks of disease. We are reminded of factory fleets that ‘illegally extract fish of the highest commercial value while, dumping 70-90% of the haul as by catch’. This stripping of the ocean results in fish becoming scarcer and more expensive at local markets and then being substituted with bushmeat. The trade in bushmeat has seen ‘a series of viral leaps from animal to humans’ and Davis points out the most ‘infamous being HIV/AIDS’ as now ‘researchers believe HIV-1 arose as humans ate chimpanzees’.
It is then we find the prophetic line from Davis in which he indicates that the rapid ‘urban-industrial revolution in South China’ could have an equally devastating effect. The text continues to remind the reader of missed opportunities. In 2004 the ‘Trust for American Health’ warned ‘that a pandemic would cripple the resources of a US public health system already stretched too thin’. Words that have come back to haunt the current US administration.
With COVID-19 not showing any respect to modern healthcare systems of the US, Britain, Italy and the like, what hope is there for countries with themselves with crumbling health infrastructures? Davis writes of the ‘pandemic clock ticking’, and it certainly did not stop in 2005; COVID-19 has shown the world cannot avoid a pandemic, and if nobody listens to experts and instead follows the online babble of conspiracy theorists (and that means you, President Trump) who shout about mask wearing civil liberties, the effects of any future pandemic will be far worse.
As the world holds its breath and hopes we will not see a second, possibly larger spike of COVID-19 cases later this year, it is important to note that we may have got off lightly from this pandemic. Of course, as I wrote earlier, we need to remember the personal stories of those that have died and sacrificed, but the mortality of the outbreak has been thankfully lower than feared. All it will take is a more virulent pandemic to emerge and the death toll could reach 1 billion human beings (again, we are back with the large numbers).
In 2005, when The Monster at Our Door was released, we had fifteen years to prepare for the inevitable, and in a world that is lurching towards a second cold war with nationalist leaders who don’t listen, will we do as Davis says and ‘wake up in time’?
You have been warned…
Simon Pearson is a East Midlands activist and trade union member. A recent graduate of the Open University with an interest in Modern European History and Politics.