The trouble with normal is it always gets worse

A clamour to return to the status quo after Covid-19 would be bad news for people and the planet, argues Richard Swift. We may never get a better chance for a new normal.

Back to work: garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, after factories re-opened in May. Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters
Back to work: garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, after factories re-opened in May. Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

There is a 1980s song by the Canadian folk poet Bruce Cockburn that portrays a notion of an ominous threatening normality and seems to resonate with humanity’s present dilemmas particularly well:

Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage
Suddenly it’s repression, moratorium on rights
What did they think the politics of panic would invite?
Person in the street shrugs ‘Security comes first’
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse

The official monologue coming from the mainstream media, and almost all of the global political class, is that we need to return to ‘normality’ from the Covid-19 crisis. That this narrative has resonance more widely is not surprising. As well as the suffering of those unlucky enough to catch the virus, it entails a vast swathe of collateral damage: bereaved families, workers dumped from precarious work into unemployment, those already marginalized pushed to the very edge of starvation, healthcare workers stressed beyond endurance in institutions lacking the basic tools to cope. No wonder the normality of a more routine life of a few short months ago holds such an attraction.

Neoliberal healthcare

But we need to look a little deeper at this normality if we want to locate the roots of our current predicament. The mandarins in charge of fighting the pandemic are deeply committed to a metaphoric war against ‘an invisible enemy’. But unlike the lavishly funded military and police forces (whose enemies are often hypothetical) those on the medical frontlines have quickly run out of the most basic health supplies, particularly simple masks, gowns and ventilators. The decisions made by states in thrall to the austerity recipes of neoliberal governance are the bitter fruit we are reaping today. Take Italy, for example, which despite a lower infection rate has almost four times the number of deaths that Germany has.

While comparison of cause is complex, one principal factor cannot be ignored. Writing a trenchant essay in Italy’s Il Manifesto, Marco Revelli makes this clear enough: ‘If we have only 5,000 [ventilators] in Italy, compared to 28,000 in Germany and over 20,000 in France, this is as a result of choices: the choices that have cut €35 billion [$37.8 billion] from the healthcare budget and 70,000 hospital beds over the past 10 years. If our first responders are forced to face such “deadly dilemmas” [lists of who will live and who won’t], this is because others, above them or part of their institutional structure, have determined the scarcity that forces such a selection and makes it so pitiless.’

Who gets helped? Who gets blamed? Nationalist posturing and the privileging of corporate power (similar to the 2008 bailout packages) are again de rigueur. The return to a system of profit-driven globalized growth, no matter the costs to human freedom or ecological sanity, can feel almost inevitable. But it is not

It is not just Italy. In country after country the neoliberal mantra of ‘cut, cut, cut’ has eaten away at public health and other social provision, from the vaunted National Health Service in Britain to the debt-strapped countries of the Global South, like Argentina. There, back in March 2019, 30,000 health workers walked off the job to protest draconian cuts in healthcare provision. More than 30 per cent of social spending was lopped off the 2019 budget, while on the other hand military spending soared.

In the Global North it tends more to be cuts by attrition (‘restraining’ in the polite policy vocabulary), by ‘marketizing’ elements of the health system to achieve ‘efficiencies’ or by delisting services. In the Global South, cuts are often quicker and more brutal, if there is anything there to cut in the first place. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, has 1 doctor for every 2,000 people (not bad compared to some other African countries) and spends just 3.7 per cent of its GDP on healthcare.

Over the past decades cuts and limitations to already woefully inadequate health services have been advocated (at times dictated) by the arbiters of the global economy (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank amongst others). Add to this the social conditions in places like the Kenyan capital Nairobi’s massive Kabira slum or the refugee camps that dot the Middle East, where the very idea of social distancing is a sad joke. This is not a normality that anyone should want to return to.

It is in the US, with its privatized system of health apartheid, that the pandemic threatens to reach its apex (at least in the wealthy North). Citizens there may pay a heavy price for the dominant distrust (in some cases bordering on pathological hatred) of government. In US political culture this goes well beyond a healthy resistance to arbitrary authoritarianism, to a suspicion of anything in the public realm or of anything that appeals to common welfare. Rampant individualism rules.

And as people are thrown out of work by the crisis they not only lose their jobs but also the health insurance that goes with them. Unless emergency measures are brought in, 28 million uninsured people will be facing coronavirus-related health costs of anywhere between $42,486 and $74,310. There have been reports from New York of the uninsured dying at home and being buried in their hundreds in a paupers’ site on Hart Island off the Bronx, long reserved for just this purpose.

Globalized pandemic

The cascade of overlapping crises – climate, inequality, refugees, arms proliferation, the rise of narcissistic populist demagogues who squeeze democratic space – were all part of yesterday’s normality. Indeed, as with the case of underfunded health services, they are shaping the way the official responses to the pandemic are playing out. Who gets helped? Who gets blamed? Nationalist posturing and the privileging of corporate power (similar to the 2008 bailout packages) are again de rigueur. The return to a system of profit-driven globalized growth, no matter the costs to human freedom or ecological sanity, can feel almost inevitable. But it is not.

While the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic are still in dispute, transmission is crystal clear. Air travel from China, mostly related to business, quickly resulted in persistent hotspots in South Korea, Iran and Italy. Some have even started to refer to Covid as an aero-virus as airlines have proved the main vector for its initial spread. Planes are in this sense the mosquitoes of Covid-19.

Once it landed (literally) this highly contagious respiratory virus spread rapidly due to asymptomatic transmission and short-sighted politicians more worried about their political reputations, national pride and business confidence than the necessity of a nimble response. They failed to perceive (at least not quickly) the dark shadow of the much-vaunted system of corporate globalization that was supposed to be the cutting edge of techno-modernity.

The just-in-time model of industrial production pioneered by Toyota in the 1980s (and accepted across the globe to harness the efficiencies of globalized production) means there is little now in the industrial larder to allow for sustained local production of necessary goods as the trade system falters. The essayist Ian Welsh saw this a decade ago when he predicted: ‘Our society, as a whole, has no surge capacity protection, no ability to take shocks. We have no excess beds, no excess equipment, no excess ability to produce vaccines or medicines.

Everybody has worshipped at the altar of efficiency for so long that they don’t understand that if you don’t have extra capacity you have no ability to deal with unexpected events.’ So in the lean production model tied to hyper-globalization, production structures – including for medicine – often involve multiple inputs from multiple plants in multiple countries. This means not only local infectious diseases turning into global ones, but little decentralized production capacity or local resilience in the face of disease monoculture.

Much of the success story of globalized production is built on credit – both consumer and producer. So the lockdown-provoked economic crisis that accompanies this pandemic is going to be one of widespread insolvency, rather than simply one of liquidity as we experienced in 2008. Credit has maintained economic demand in the face of the polarization of wealth and the stagnation of most people’s incomes over decades. Loan and bill payments will come due with little or nothing put away for the proverbial rainy day. A number of ‘just-in-time’ companies (popularly known as ‘zombie’ companies) will be similarly exposed. Although no-one really knows how bad it’s going to get, most economic prognosticators are predicting something akin to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Everywhere low-paid workers in food, sanitation and public transport are being forced to continue to work in hazardous conditions, while those at the upper end of what is benignly called the financial services industry sit safely at home

Crowding of population is another core element of our present predicament. Big cities are the flash points of the pandemic. In the prosperous Global North we especially see this in situations of micro-crowding – care homes, prisons, migrant holding centres, cruise ships and hospitals. While the inmates of some of these institutions have little choice in the matter, the cruise ship industry has played a particularly dubious role as a super-spreader. Most customers are flown in from all over the world and thousands packed together with an international crew in tight quarters.

The spectacle of cruise ships as modern-day ghost vessels being refused entry at port after port due to the fear of onshore contagion does not bode well for the future of this form of mass tourism. The cruise industry already has an unenviable reputation for contributing to ocean pollution and having a disproportionate carbon footprint. When he investigated these ‘floating Petri dishes’, the Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk found that ‘many passengers tend to be elderly or immuno-compromised. Some ships even come with dialysis units. On one cruise ship recently overwhelmed by influenza, investigators found that 77.4 per cent of the 1,448 passengers were 65 years of age or older and 26.2 per cent had chronic medical problems.’

Globalization has always been accompanied by unplanned and dangerous urban crowding as well as shifting demographics. The elongated lives of people in the prosperous North, with its babyboomer demographic bulge, are drawing heavily on health costs during this pandemic wave. By 2050 a full quarter of the world’s population will be over 60. While heightened life expectancy means higher levels of older Covid casualties in the Global North, casualty ages in the South are likely to drop dramatically as malnourishment, other infectious diseases plus a myriad of poverty-related factors provide a fertile field of pre-existing conditions.

Pandemics and change

Could there be something better once the wave of Covid-19 infections recedes? Will those who have benefited most handsomely from neoliberal normality see their positions on the top of the heap threatened? These kinds of thoughts are not without foundation. History has many examples of significant change following great conflagrations, be they natural disasters, wars or plagues. The Black Death, perhaps the world’s quintessential and most feared pandemic, killed an estimated 75-200 million people worldwide in the 14th century. It is widely associated by historians with the transition from feudalism to capitalism as the agrarian workforce of the former was badly depleted, giving those that remained more power and choice in the fractured feudal economy.

The Spanish flu, the first and deadliest modern pandemic, hit just at the end of World War One, so it is difficult to separate the effects of one from the other. Some 50 to 100 million people died in this flu epidemic; by contrast 18 million died in the First World War. The flu in particular resulted in a veritable revolution in public health and sanitation infrastructure, including the gradual adoption of socialized medicine (first pioneered by Russia) in countries with the ability to pay for it (except of course the US).

There was even an international bureau for fighting epidemics established in Vienna in 1919 – a forerunner of today’s World Health Organization. Other major conflagrations, such as World War Two, brought the United Nations, the end of formal colonialism and the idea of a social safety net (more tightly woven in some places than others). The point being that crises have often been the midwives of significant change in how we live and what is important to us. For people who would like to see such change this is an important moment.

People across cultures and continents are being forced into similar behaviours – wearing masks, maintaining physical distance and constantly washing their hands, where they can. The very fact that from the Amazon to Albuquerque people need to be conscious of the same thing provides us with a moment pregnant with an almost universal human solidarity and potential for collective action. Pandemics are a strange mixture of equality and inequality. Contagion is at least to a degree arbitrary, taking those both high and low. So we see politicians such as Britain’s unfortunate Boris Johnson, an early doubter of the efficacy of preventative measures, as well as Israeli heath minister Yaakov Litzman and Iranian deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi come down with the virus. While those living in more cramped conditions are more prone to catching it, given its ease of contagion Covid-19 is obviously not something even the rich and powerful can be totally complacent about.

Yet everywhere class realities find a way to prevail. The most vulnerable are the poorest who are also most likely to have underlying health conditions. In New York City, Latino and African-Americans make up over 60 per cent of deaths while being barely 50 per cent of the population. Further south in Louisiana the situation is much worse with those of African descent making up 70 per cent of the deaths but just 32 per cent of the population. Everywhere low-paid workers in food, sanitation and public transport are being forced to continue to work in hazardous conditions, while those at the upper end of what is benignly called the financial services industry sit safely at home. It is these very folks who pressured for privatization and cuts in healthcare services that are adding to our vulnerability to Covid-19.

Solidarity in Milan: a volunteer with a mutual aid network distributes food and other necessities. Lapresse/Sipa Usa/PA Images
Solidarity in Milan: a volunteer with a mutual aid network distributes food and other necessities. Lapresse/Sipa Usa/PA Images

Restoring normal

In Hong Kong, graffiti reads: ‘There can be no return to normal because normal was the problem in the first place.’

The system of globalized capitalism can no longer survive on automatic pilot. It must now be consciously re-established by its partisans and profiteers. But the ground is shifting under their feet and there is no certainty that we can ever (or should ever) go back to normal. In trying to jam us back into the old mould we will likely end up with a worse version of what undermined us in the first place. But this doesn’t seem to prevent the champions of capitalism from trying and they have a myriad of ways to do so:

Profiteering: Advocates of the ‘free market’ are fond of saying that profit is not a dirty word. This is a slippery slope at the best of times, justifying all manner of corporate malfeasance. In a plague situation it is simply unconscionable, whether it is wholesalers or a broker jacking up the price of hand wipes, N95 masks or experimental pharmaceuticals and other materials which could slow down infection rates. High-end privatized medicine could become even more profitable.

The same goes on a bigger scale for the investment giant Goldman Sachs who, pre-pandemic in a 2018 biotech research report, asked ‘Is saving patients a viable business model?’ Cures may be less profitable than managing illness for Big Pharma. The Holy Grail is now finding a vaccine for the coronavirus, but how can it be produced at the quantity required at a price affordable (or hopefully free) to all and still allow profit margins? To say nothing of hoarding by wealthy countries if supplies are limited. It is not reasonable by any standard to throw millions of dollars of public money into developing a vaccine to have some Big Pharma company cash in on it.

Scapegoating: This is the meat and potatoes of normal politics and an often used tool during pandemics, as with the witch hunts of the Black Death and their virulent antisemitism (‘dirty Jews’ were accused of poisoning wells and deliberately infecting others), or the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ which was spread more by World War One veterans than Spanish people. We saw it with the AIDS epidemic, for which Haitians and gay men (at least initially) took the rap. Migrants and gypsies are being made pandemic scapegoats in Hungary and the rest of Eastern Europe, where regimes of the populist Right hold sway. Migrants are also the main pandemic target in Malaysia. But it is East Asians, particularly the Chinese, who are bearing the brunt of pandemic blame, goaded by Donald Trump and the Republican Party in the US – an extension of their trade war with China. The result is a campaign of gratuitous insults and physical assaults on Asian-Americans.

Surveillance capitalism: One supposed ‘winner’ for its authoritarian handling of the Covid-19 crisis is the Chinese digital police state, with its system of cell-phone coding, that presided over ‘flattening the curve’ on the country’s initial pandemic and restoring its particular form of oligarchic capitalism. Across the world, politicians with a kneejerk commitment to authoritarian control are making use of surveillance technology, such as Israel’s Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu using cell-phone tracking (usually reserved for those opposing Israeli apartheid) to track Covid cases. In Putin’s Russia, facial recognition technology has been used to enforce quarantine regulations and in Hong Kong people have been tagged with geo-fenced electronic bracelets. Surveillance industry companies like the Silicon Valley giant Palantir or Israel’s NSO group are licking their chops over contracts to build lucrative high-tech security systems across the globe.

And don’t believe for a moment that, once this pandemic starts to subside, these technologies will not be bent to other political purposes to enforce obedience to the dictates of the high and mighty. While no-one is overly concerned about civil liberties in this time of necessary restrictions, we need to think of the post-pandemic future. As Edin Omanovic of Privacy International makes clear, we have other better options: ‘Instead of declaring an end to our rights and the need for mass surveillance, surely it’s better to invest now in prevention, in things like climate solutions, in research, the health system, to invest in building resilient, educated societies and agencies capable of preventing and responding to crises when they arise?’

A lurking police state: There is no shortage of politicians around the world happy to embrace the shutting down and shutting up of any annoying opposition. No shortage either of police and security agencies happy to have their powers expanded to keep troublemakers in line. In some places, particularly, when dealing with ethno-nationalist leadership, this is proving a lethal combination. Orbán of Hungary, Putin of Russia, Bolsonaro of Brazil, Erdoğan of Turkey, el-Sisi of Egypt, Modi of India, Trump of the US – to name just a few of those supposedly still subject to some democratic checks. If we add in those with no checks at all it is not hard to see the kind of shape our enfeebled constitutional democracy is in across the globe. Certainly not in any condition to withstand the addition of a series of measures to further restrict rights to speak and assemble and organize to alter our circumstances.

In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s Coronavirus Bill, passed at the end of March, gives an idea of how bad it could get. It allows two to five years in prison for anyone in the media who publishes ‘false information’ or ‘distorts facts’, suspends municipal autonomy, provides widespread censorship of the arts, denies any right to gender re-assignment for trans people and provides for the funding of several of Orbán’s pet projects. You may well ask what this ‘salad bill’ (as Hungarians call it) has to do with stopping the coronavirus. It is unlikely that other populist demagogues will be as blatant as Orbán but the reduction of democratic space is definitely part of all their agendas. And more centrist politicians will also not be immune from these temptations. The Orbán model seems to be spreading, with Janez Janša and his SDS Party in Slovenia using the coronavirus-related suspension of normal political life, with Hungarian support, to install a repressive police state.

Re-starting the growth machine: A second panic is sweeping the globe, this one provoked by the fear of the extensive economic collapse expected to follow Covid-19. The International Monetary Fund is already calling it the Lockdown Recession. It all started with a global stock market contagion wiping ‘value’ off stock markets around the world. At the low point on 23 March a collective $23 trillion had been lost. According to the IMF there will be extensive shrinkage of the world’s leading economies, by more than six per cent. The Fund estimates cumulative output losses of the shutdown at $9 trillion. Countries around the world have taken fiscal actions amounting to $8 trillion. These figures are so large to be meaningless to most of us. It gets a lot more tangible if you have lost your job and can’t afford food and rent.

What is clear is that there is a lot more hardship down the road as governments’ sudden burst of Keynesian generosity to keep people afloat runs into the realities of inflation and debt. Much of the ‘fiscal actions’ are not aimed at supporting hard-pressed frontline health workers but are in fact a slush fund to cover corporate losses (think 2008 on steroids). As usual the US is the most egregious example, with a $1.8-trillion stimulus including a $500-billion ‘forgivable’ loan fund (called the Exchange Stabilization Fund) overseen directly by Donald Trump. Yes, some his hotels are eligible recipients.

Direct aid to hard-pressed healthcare systems and local governments is an obvious need. While there is immediate funding for individual workers (of widely varying generosity and availability), in most programmes this is not where the big money is. Much of that will end up in the hands of corporations and banks. According to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation there is a tax break buried in the US stimulus package that provides 43,000 people who earn $1 million a year or more with an average $1.6 million more. 

Even where relief funds are supposed to be helping out those most in need, they are often designed to pass through corporate employers (to limit lay-offs) as the mechanism for doing this. Governments are attempting to make all relief to individual citizens temporary and, where possible, on a loan basis. Spain almost alone has shown a willingness to break with the wage labour model by rolling out a long-term plan for a guaranteed income for all. Portugal has distinguished itself by including migrants as residents for pandemic relief purposes.

In the rush to restart growth there has been little thought given to how much growth and what kind of growth. Critics are worried that early attempted returns to business as usual may provoke another wave of infections. Most dubious of all are plans to prop up those industries most responsible for climate degradation – oil and gas, petrochemicals, cruise ships, airlines, car production. A denial of public support to companies in such sunset industries would send a clear message that we need to transition away from them.

Getting beyond normal

‘…so many of the out-of-the way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible,’

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

One would hope that our enforced solitude might lead to at least some degree of thoughtful reflection as to what is important and how to achieve it. Hints of it are prefigured in past struggles for social emancipation. If you look there are such hints of a crisis response that has the potential to move us beyond the endless spinning of the wheels of normality.

The pandemic has shown the possibilities for solidarity with selfless actions from friends, family, healthcare workers, complete strangers, municipal politicians and even the occasional national leader. By the time the pandemic is done, thousands of healthcare and other essential workers will have sacrificed their lives after having been exposed to infections at work. Volunteers have thrown in a huge number of hours of unpaid labour preparing meals, running food banks and working with vulnerable groups.

Workers in the health sector from Germany to Mexico are mobilizing against underfunding and inadequate protective equipment. Others are refusing unsafe working conditions in big anti-union distribution companies such as Amazon, Walmart and Target as well as in the claustrophobic conditions of the meat-packing industry. In countries like Lebanon and India and much of Africa where lockdown often means starvation there is a growing popular demand for an end to corruption and inequality. Some politicians have responded.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden took a pay cut of 20 per cent in recognition of the economic suffering of others. The government of Ireland increased the country’s contribution to the WHO by a multiple of four to help make up for the Trump administration abandoning the world health body. Tiny Cuba has sent medical teams to 20 countries, including Italy, to fight the virus. Although as usual, the devil is in the details. Denmark, France and Poland have indicated that no companies registered in tax havens will be eligible for bailouts.

Demands once unthinkable are becoming common currency: debt cancellation in the Global South as well as for students and others who can’t afford to pay, rent cancellations or freezes in many jurisdictions, and, increasingly, a call for non-job-related income distribution in the form of a Guaranteed Annual Income – even from the Pope.

Rethinking what matters

Several institutions have been revealed for what they are and what they are not by this crisis. For-profit care homes for elderly people have proven to be anything but, as they have been a major source of casualties and large-scale neglect due to hard-pressed underpaid staff and side-lining by government policy. A labour market that rewards ephemera in the advertising, real estate and financial services industries, but marginalizes essential jobs maintaining the food chain and cleaning and caring professions.

Expensive militaries drenched in patriotism and with all the most lethal modern weaponry have done little to secure us against the pandemic or climate degradation. Healthcare systems are badly under-resourced and have differentiated outcomes based on class and little capacity to withstand large-scale disasters. Prisons and mass incarceration for nonviolent crimes are dangerous sites of contagion and there has been little obvious risk to society when such prisoners are let out.

This pandemic has brought about a massive collapse of economic growth. While the negative effects are obvious, the fall in emissions and enhanced air quality also illustrate the possibility of our species living within its ecological means. Industrial activity and airline flights have been shut down, car exhaust fumes minimized and air pollution in our cities slashed. According to Stanford University researchers, in China alone over two months this is estimated to have saved the lives of 4,000 children below five years old and 73,000 adults above the age of 70.

If this were to be sustained, the effects on the health of ecosystems around the world could spread quickly. An obsession with re-opening the economy is short-sighted. If consumption and production both drop together in sync that is not necessarily a problem. If it is organized equitably a drop of 25 per cent in GDP is not a problem – except for banks and large corporations. The question is how to rebuild in a more modest sustainable fashion rather than mindlessly revving the growth machine again. We may never get a better chance.

If we think this pandemic is bad it will be nothing compared to what will happen if we keep sleepwalking into the climate catastrophe. What the pandemic has shown is the possibility that human beings can take abrupt and dramatic action to counter a threat. If we can turn from a regime of cost-conscious neoliberalism obsessed with austerity to one of generous (if sometimes unfair) public subsidy then we can take the steps necessary to deal with the climate crisis in a fair and equitable fashion.

In Wuhan Province, doctor Li Wenliang was the first person to blow the whistle on the Covid-19 threat and provide the world with a warning that, if better heeded, would have saved a lot of death and disruption. To do this he had to have the courage to break through the normality of obedient silence enforced by the Chinese authorities. By breaking the monopoly of ‘all news is good news’ he suffered official censure. He later lost his life treating his pandemic patients. Let Li Wenliang be a guiding light as we face the need to resist the return of a repressive and dangerous normality.

The breadth of this challenge is captured by US spoken word artist Sonya Renee Taylor: ‘Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.’