Sunday, 12 April 2020

COVID-19 is Not the True Enemy

Image: New Scientist
The COVID-19 pandemic is a common threat to all humankind. Much has been said about the need to put politics aside to unite against it. If only. For in this world of our making, COVID-19 is extremely political and is becoming the gateway for something far deadlier.

The pandemic was not unpredictable. Warnings and precedents have been there for years. It has only done its damage because of the political and cultural failure of all countries to build and protect strong public healthcare systems; to prepare even when they knew COVID-19 was coming; to tell the truth about it; to mount an informed and effective response; to cooperate with one another against a challenge to them all; and most fundamentally, to value real people, with real lives, over abstract totems like “the nation” and “the economy”.

But the problem goes beyond failing at a pandemic. The problem is one of power. It is of how human societies, for years, even decades, have been handing their power to those who could not care less about human death and suffering; and that these Trolls, as we might call them, are finding in this virus a springboard to launch their abuse of humankind to unstoppable heights.

The Trolls take many forms. Authoritarians, nationalists, gender-policers, and the cultists of the market all stand among them. There are many well-trod roads to Trolldom, often from opposing directions, but two characteristics bring them together:
     a) The belief that life should serve power, rather than power serve life;
     b) The subordination of all things, even truth itself, to the pursuit of that power.

The sum of the Trolls’ threat far exceeds, and will long outlast, that of COVID-19. This is not to trivialise the death and agony the virus wreaks as we speak. But COVID-19 will pass, as even the deadliest pandemics in history did. By then it will have killed hundreds of thousands of people. The Trolls, for their part, killed hundreds of millions in the twentieth century alone. They will do so again if we allow them to claim the twenty-first. And by that point they will have compromised our response to the challenges of climate change, making their threat, unlike the virus’s, existential.

Consider some of what has been happening in this pandemic so far.
  • The UK, US and China and many other countries have been threatening and punishing their medical professionals for telling the truth about the spread of COVID-19, or for speaking out about their countries’ blunders in responding to it (such as failing to supply them with sufficient protective equipment).
  • Manipulation of COVID-19 statistics for political purposes has become standard in many countries.
  • In much of the world the pandemic has provided a pretext for racist attacks on Chinese people (or people seen as appearing Chinese). US leaders have purposefully referred to the “Chinese virus” and sought to shift blame onto China for the whole pandemic.
  • The Chinese government has responded in kind, blaming the US for COVID-19’s spread and casting the virus as a foreign menace as attention there turns to preventing its re-introduction from abroad. The severity of the pandemic looks likely to owe at least some part to the punitive silencing of Chinese medical professionals who warned of it in its early stages.
  • Hungary and Cambodia are among countries which have passed emergency laws to give the authorities sweeping powers with no time limits, checks or balances. 
  • In Hungary, prime minister Viktor Orbán has instantly followed up by using these new powers to threaten journalists and draft a law to forbid legal recognition of trans people. Ugandan police used social distancing laws as a pretext to arrest 20 homeless people in an LGBT shelter in Kampala. Several US states have similarly taken advantage of the emergency to restrict abortions.
  • India, Kenya and the Philippines are among countries where lockdowns and special powers have provided an excuse for police brutality and arbitrary power-tripping, including beatings with sticks, use of tear gas, and humiliating punishments.
  • Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil, has shamelessly put its population in mortal danger by effectively roaring with laughter at the virus and shaking the contents of his penis at it.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) has failed to acknowledge the epidemiological existence of Taiwan, and is excluding its efforts against COVID-19 (some of the most capable of any society’s so far) from statistics and international cooperation. Even for the WHO, political submission to the government of the People’s Republic has evidently taken precedence over reality-based cooperation against a virus that has no interest in political borders, as exemplified in WHO advisor Bruce Aylward’s pretence at not hearing the questions about Taiwan in his now-infamous interview with the Hong Kong media. 

None of these behaviours are new on account of COVID-19. For years the Trolls have been seducing populations, capturing governments, smashing institutions, punishing love, corroding the very concept of truth, and killing and violating with impunity whether for power, profit or prejudice. Even before COVID-19, they were mounting into the single biggest challenge to humankind in its history.

The point, however, is that though some Trolls were initially wrong-footed by the crisis, their concern since has been to seek every possible way to exploit its grief and suffering to advance their ruination of the world. The longer the crisis goes on, the more organised and systematic the Trolls’ efforts have become. They know well that COVID-19 is political.

So far, there has been little or no corresponding political mobilisation to stop the Trolls.

There have been cheering signals: people pulling together and supporting each other through grassroots community efforts; heroic labours and sacrifices by medical staff and workers in the bloodstream of everyday socio-economic infrastructure, often the least recognised or rewarded people in their societies; and a re-affirmation of how important our relationships are, with each other and with the natural world. But these do not, in themselves, amount to a movement for political change: for change in our societies’ arrangement and use of power. They are necessary, heartwarming even, and a genuine fount of energy for bringing about the more humane world that the pandemic has awakened so much hope for, but this will not take place unless the Trolls are expelled from their positions of power over and within all societies. Healing and learning cannot take place so long as its instruments are controlled by abusers and bullies comfortable in their ignorance.

Change will not come about automatically. Only by marshalling organisation and political will, together, at least to a level that matches the Trolls’, can a movement for change be built, and that in turn requires a consciousness of COVID-19 as a political struggle.

A consciousness that first and foremost is alert to the Trolls’ tactics and strategic vision. Look out, for example, for the following things:
  • Deliberate manipulation, suppression or misuse of COVID-19 statistics;
  • Intimidation or punishment of doctors, journalists or other professionals for speaking out about the impact of COVID-19 or about problems in the response to it;
  • The extension of authoritarian powers over speech, movement, association or other aspects of life, and especially of digital surveillance methods, with a view to keeping those powers in place after the crisis passes;
  • Attempts to scapegoat foreigners or unpopular groups for COVID-19, and use it as cover to create us-versus-them narratives or further otherise and subordinate the world, such as in environmental destruction, enforcement of sexual and gender conformity, or persecution of immigrants and other vulnerable sections of the population;
  • Prioritisation of abstract ends – the “economy”, “security”, national pride etc. – over people’s lives;
  • Battlefield analogies and feelgood rhetoric about the heroic struggle against COVID-19, in so far as it is deployed to distract from problems and shame critical voices into silence;
  • And all the Little Bullies in the cracks and dark places of society who exploit the atmosphere to get away with power-tripping on an everyday level: domestic abusers, abuse of police power, unethical behaviour by employers and landlords and so on.

Beyond expelling the trolls, the struggle is also to take back this world from Trollish values and practices. For the Trolls are not an external “other” but a potential tendency in all our hearts, which can only be restrained by building a public environment that heals pain, calms fear, and enlightens ignorance. Only then will we stop producing Trolls and handing them power.

COVID-19 represents what may be our last opportunity to bring down the Trolls before they deal irreversible damage to the human future. What it has exposed about their indifference to human suffering is news to no-one. What is new, what makes this moment white-hot, is the shock, among many hitherto comfortable and insulated people, about just how far the Trolls are prepared to go: not only by failing to deploy their power against a predicted and manageable pandemic, but by so shamelessly exploiting that outbreak, and all the grief and panic it entails, as a political tool to expand and indulge in that power.

That shock, that moment, will not last. By the time another such moment comes, it will be too late. If the Trolls do not finish us directly, they will do so by destroying our responses to far worse challenges to come, from still deadlier pandemics to climate change. We must confront the way of the Troll not some time later, when the crisis has passed, but now – right now – and everywhere, in all countries and at all levels of society.

If nothing else, we must undertake the following, relentlessly and with courage:

1) Support, communicate, organise
Caring for one another, building our relationships, leaving no-one behind – all these are inherently political actions in a world where the Trolls have sought to extinguish them from what it means to be human. Where states have failed, locals communities must stand up with a strengthening and broadening political consciousness in their actions.

2) Pull down totems, raise up people
The virus is indifferent to nationality, gender, or political or religious opinions. No-one is safe from it. It shows us what really matters: real people and their real relationships. It has shaken up everyone’s sense of reality, and in moments when it has taken the Trolls aback, has even forced them to instantly concede uses of power they have insisted were impossible for years. It is right now that the illusions of national ego, and market dogma, and imaginary mobs at the gates, are at their most fragile. Smash them. Criticise them, ridicule them, and do not let them get back to their feet. Where they stood, raise instead real people, and rearrange every instrument of power to better their lives.

3) Tell the truth
The Trolls’ power is built on their towers of lies, which have grown so high as to cast the very ground of truth out of sight. Even in the midst of a crisis whose solutions can only be built on a grasp of social and epidemiological realities, the Trolls have not come down off those towers but continue to stack them higher. Now their centres of gravity are at their most precarious – every word of truth shakes these towers and makes them feel threatened. Speak out. Speak the facts of COVID-19, and of what your society is getting wrong in response to it. When they threaten you for it, speak out that they have done so. Support others whom they hurt for speaking out. Bury the Trolls in the wreckage of their lies.


There can be no return to “normal”. Normal is gone forever. What follows is either an upward path of healing and learning, or a descent into a permanent winter of tyranny and abuse for the rest of human existence on Earth. Here and now is the best chance we will ever have to bring about a Great Spring. It is also the last.

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