April 2020 revision
Including the US, many countries’ public health authorities, their virologists and hospital workers, have coalesced with politicians, citing mortality risks to the immune-compromised, and prioritizing support for health care professionals in a time of ramping demand in many jurisdictions. Together they have instituted an isolation and immobilization policy upon a great, crude swath of the people, now designated “non-essential workers.”
Eager to protect and serve, people have embraced the virologist’s statistical conceptualization of people as disease vectors. People have embraced a sort of altruistic policy, suggested by public health officials for indefinite implementation. We can see this collective enforcement everywhere, as people impose self- house arrest and dutifully sew their own face masks. Police have expanded checkpoints from DUI to immigrants and now the entire population of disease vectors. Parks are closed, corporations and states furlough and fire employees, New York epidemiologists call for Americans to “freeze in place,” and the only people allowed to move their bodies in plague-riddled Milan are people who own dogs.
There is a greater good at stake. It’s just not the greater good we think. While we admire the brand of selfless cooperation, there is also a very strong element of inhumanity in our approach to the pandemic. It is very much rooted in a fundamental, Malthusian premise: Our humanity is the problem to be eradicated. To follow expertise means faithfully following whatever lab-coated technocratic policy crushes humanity while, thankfully for the politicians (some of whom liquidated their vulnerable investments before policies were implemented), maintaining and augmenting economic inequality. The issue here is that indefinite detention, for example the prohibition of walking, the preference for indefinite isolation and immobilization, is also torture in a walking, communicating species, which is what humans are. Both policy confining people to cell-like apartments and mortality are distributed very unequally, afflicting people who live in public infrastructure-poor areas and in the US, particularly long-beseiged African Americans.
Yet if we agree with population management experts in law, that isolating and immobilizing criminals and migrants in prisons is a necessary cost, logically we must agree to the similar recommendation of population management experts in health: immobilizing disease vectors long-term in their homes is a necessary cost. We have a specific model for how we address problems, optimizing the variables of masculine policing employment, maintaining the medical system as -is, reducing deaths among the immuno-compromised, and maintaining the state-mediated intergenerational transfer of wealth from the working class to business owners and top managers. Applied to the COVID-19 pandemic our “health” and “epidemiology” concepts are narrowly technocratic and political; nonetheless when we say it’s all for health, we think of our mortality and feel deeply.
Governments have offered trillions to compensate businesses for the economic depletion accompanying extended shut-down of all but “essential” work– primarily hospital and guard work. When life is on the line, most people are pleased to pitch in, particularly helping to police and abnegate themselves. In Canada, a Globe & Mail thought leader posed himself a Pandemic Mr. Rogers, affirming that Canadians are “helpers,” and that what helpers do is isolate and immobilize themselves. But there is more to being a responsible member of a human society, even in an emergency.
A better approach is possible in many places. In Vo, an Italian town where an early COVID19-related mortality occurred, the government instead tested everyone and isolated the 3% of the population that proved to be infected (80% of whom were asymptomatic). In a mere two (2) weeks, the blanket-testing and selected-isolation approach eradicated COVID19 from that population. Iceland is a prominent exception to the technocratic-political refusal of mass-testing. It has been mass-testing and select-quarantining to stop the virus in Iceland within a couple of weeks. With its high public health capacity and systematic incorporation of humane criteria in public policy, Sweden has pursued a testing-forward, selected isolation policy to maintain a socio-economy where federal transfers don’t facilitate business to loot the paychecks of future generations. With its high public health capacity and systematic incorporation of humane criteria in public policy, Kerala has responded to the crisis with effective disease suppression balanced with humane supports and democratic freedoms. As the Wall Street Journal recently observed, countries such as Germany, that are conceptually able (via corporatism) to recognize the contribution of their working class to their economy, soon moved onto increasing their testing capacity, toward a testing-forward approach that allows them to minimize population isolation and immobilization. Minnesota has the capacity to mobilize a testing-forward approach, and save its diverse working class and the economy that depends on human thriving.
While blanket testing takes state organization and costs money up front, it can be more efficient and effective–and useful in the long run, and will cost less than shutting down the entire society and economy, and indefinitely treating most people inhumanely as nothing more than disease vectors, a variant of criminals, as the technocratic-political population-management model must do.
Different conditions require different interventions. The testing-forward approach is not appropriate in urban concatenations, such as Milan, London, and New York City-Connecticut, where for specific reasons of age demographics, culture, and global economic network and transit centrality, COVID19 has raged throughout the population, and spread outward. In those metropoles, selected testing and blanket isolation & immobilization makes sense. Just as Wuhan was transformed into a “dystopia,” in the first week of May New York’s Governor Cuomo announced that New York City would become a surveillance and policing city as its response to its convulsive, central COVID-19 experience. Because NYC is a capitalist metropole, this will create a commercial export industry in antihuman infrastructure. This antihuman policy and infrastructure will be heavily promoted, but must be resisted outside these capitalist criminalized, disease-vector population cores.
Blanket testing/selected isolation would work best in regions with a lower incidence of transmission. The virus has been spread with the travel of business elites. Yet even in seemingly highly-infected Colorado, playground for the rich, testing has shown that only 1% of the population is infected. Regions less central and disadvantaged under global capitalism could move into a forward economic position, diminishing global inequality, if they were permitted to take advantage of their more moderate COVID-19 exposure, by instituting universal testing rather than the debilitating and interminable blanket isolation & immobilization approach that looks best on computer simulations preserving the existing parameters that produced the crisis.
Unfortunately, in countries like the US, policy flows from its financial metropoles. In a pandemic, this subsidiarization is not beneficial. It is a lack of regional-appropriate capacity. While global centers have the resources to manage morality throughout, including solidarity with the afflicted, distinctive high-capacity regions like Minnesota have a different responsibility, to always recognize that that the authoritative status of population management and policy expertise not only reflects their wonderful technical knowledge, but is also conferred by experts’ and politicians’ attunement to optimization at the hearts of the global system—misconstrued, in technocratic conceptualization, as universal welfare. Favoring “freezing” the hinterlands, metropole expertise will argue that the virus and antibody tests are not perfect. Yet if the virus and antibody tests are not perfect, in humane-policy jurisdictions like Sweden, Iceland, and Kerala, they have been shown to be sufficient to allow for efficient, targeted virus suppression and eradication—without incurring other forms of mass health devastation, economic collapse and exacerbated, multigenerational inequality.
We need to be able to recognize when and where population management detaches from the human, becomes inhumane, so that we can instead support policy alternatives more effective and efficient for circumstances in our part of the world, connected to but also distinct from people in other places. Doing like Sweden, Iceland, and Kerala, and following not just the virological disease-vector population framework and the politician’s population-communications framework, but incorporating Enlightenment sociological and developmental biology perspectives can help us keep our eyes on what it is to be human and what we need to make to support humanity. In this pandemic, a cost-forward blanket testing/selected isolation approach would cost some percentage of the trillions governments are working to transfer from workers to business elites for generations, where such problems as coronaviruses are caused by already-excessive discounting of workers’ human needs and welfare (Wallace, Liebman, Chavez & Wallace 2020). It would require immediately building testing capacity under state direction. It would require an organized mobilization, redeploying many of the out-of-work legions in the work of testing, or bringing into testing the armies of frustrated altruists within the military. It would be stridently opposed by metropole expertise, because it would be an expenditure of collective resources, and the global financial metropoles will not benefit from either mass testing or the diminishment of socio-economic inequality.
A testing-forward turn would also reduce the runaway risks and costs of universalizing blindness to the multiple conditions humans need to thrive and survive. For all their hopeful public recitations, none of the potential upsides of the crisis will materialize if we are not able to recognize these conditions, and act upon them now.
Mid-March reporting held that Minnesota state and private (eg. The Mayo corporation) labs did not have sufficient supplies to do mass testing. This “shrug” reporting was quite common in the US and Canada at the time, and there was little interest in how the state might fund and organize testing in these jurisdictions. Throughout the US the main interest in this story was exhibited by political partisans, who used it to bicker over which party was to blame for the poor testing capacity. This diversion is part of the problem with dependency on antidemocratic political leadership temporarily patronizing virologists. By contrast, Sweden averted politician leadership problems by having long ago built up an independent public health bureaucracy. Politicians have little say in public health policy there, though there was some attempt by politicians to intercede. Without politicians able to jump into manipulating people’s fears to keep policy choices within inequality-preserving parameters (eg. using police and commercial tech to institute a vast prison landscape), Swedish public health experts could take into account the significantly-deleterious mental and physical health impacts of treating humans as little more than population network nodes, and instead design epidemic interventions that preserve human health. While the US and Canada shrugged at their own incapacities or gave room for politicos to carp at their political enemies, governments such as Germany’s began to fund and organize mass testing capacity.
Mayo is among the private corporations that raced to produce immunization, as, with both state and private markets, immunization is expected to be more lucrative than testing. It could be that Mayo’s for-profit requirements mean that Minnesota, unlike Iceland (which state has more independence from New York), does not have the public-private-sector incentive to produce the testing that could end the epidemiological threat far more quickly than more-profitable immunization. This for-profit medical preference will be devastating to human health and the economic viability of the working class and capitalism itself in the short, medium, and long-term. Did Minnesota public health authorities have the capacity to intercede and redirect efforts? In April, Minnesota announced its public health officials had convened Mayo and the University of Minnesota to produce 20,000/day swab (molecular/RNA) coronavirus testing capacity. Yet the governor of Minnesota continued to prioritize isolation & immobilization policy, barring the public from parks and recreation.
Are we blinding ourselves to our humanity in order to prevent us from “squandering” our wealth on making less-central regions viable, in order to reserve our wealth as back-end compensation for the disruption of existing centers of overaccumulation? Minnesota’s economic and political elites are well connected to the US financial metropole; but because Minnesota also has working class people, from farm workers to small business owners to furloughed managers, following an isolation and immobilization program is not in this region’s health or economic interests. Ultimately, even our friends in New York can benefit from Minnesota pursuing a humanist testing-forward approach, and preserving health, social, and economic integrity in the US.
Our problem isn’t insufficient mobilization. Our problem is that we are already excessively subordinated, as our swift lockdown makes evident. Prioritizing policies that keep the wealth in overaccumulation centers, stubbornly discounting life outside centers of overaccumulation, will reproduce the crisis conditions, because those crisis conditions inhere in dehumanization and inequality. This pandemic, like the epidemics before it and the crises that will come after it, has everything to do with how capitalism in a dense human-population world smashes its giant, necessary, global working class into no economic choice but to reproduce themselves by living off of what awkward combination of commodified and, especially, uncommodified goods and services they can access and cobble together (Katharine Moos, 2019; Wallace, Liebman, Chavez, and Wallace, 2020). Capitalism separates wealth from the working class, but the population is needed to grow wealth. The wild game must be supplemented by poultry. The development must sprawl into field, forest, and watershed. While we clutch our pearls and claim that our expert antihuman policies are for the “health,” the frontline nurses and doctors, the grandpas and people of color, in fact we are living in a time in which a sinister Malthusian presumption undergirds our expertise: In our disposition to maximize the augmentation of dehumanization and inequality both in our everyday and our emergency policies and institutions, we continue to discount the humanity of working people, to discount their economic contribution, to take more and more from them, to immiserate, stunt and weaken them around the world and cut short their lives, our lives. How can we develop feelings about the foundation of our pandemics, so that we can stop reproducing them? Do well-educated Minnesotans have the capacity to break with the antihuman population management models? Can Minnesota put its weight behind testing rather than freezing humanity?
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Anglo-American Health Authorities Prescribe Indefinite Isolation/Immobilization:
‘How long will we need to practice social distancing? “For now, it’s probably indefinite,” Dr. Marrazzo said.’ —New York Times, March 17, 2020.
‘How long, then, until we’re no longer behind and are winning the fight against the novel coronavirus? The hard truth is that it may keep infecting people and causing outbreaks until there’s a vaccine or treatment to stop it.
“I think this idea … that if you close schools and shut restaurants for a couple of weeks, you solve the problem and get back to normal life — that’s not what’s going to happen,” says Adam Kucharski, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and author of a book on how outbreaks spread. “The main message that isn’t getting across to a lot of people is just how long we might be in this for. As Kucharski, a top expert on this situation, sees it, “this virus is going to be circulating, potentially for a year or two, so we need to be thinking on those time scales.’