Archive | April 3rd, 2020

The Temple of Self-Gratification


Photograph Source: Ken Walton – CC BY 2.0

Author David Foster Wallace once said that America is, “One enormous engine and temple of self-gratification and self-advancement.” The spectacle of American consumerism comes galloping to mind. But the pageant of gluttony with which we sate ourselves on a weekly basis is a pale reflection, at least in its intensity, of American foreign policy. Like our national addiction to guns mirrors our international addiction to bombs, so too our appetitive instincts at home merely reflect those same greedy impulses writ large in the global arena. From the soul of the gourmand to the surface-to-air missile, the attitude to the world is the same: take what ye would, all else be damned. But while consumers might bankrupt themselves on needless consumption, it is the imperial arm of the state that visits mass suffering on innocents abroad. The empire is an ogreish consumer that plods across the landscapes of the planet, disfiguring as it dispossesses, a kind of unreflective Freudian id blindly pursuing its own gratification. It’s thirst is unquenchable, its belly ever famished. And, thanks to the power of fiat, this growling Beowulf has unlimited credit with which to bankroll its adventurism. A ravenous profligate thumping through the agoras of the world, claws extended.

But enough with the metaphors. Let’s render it in the dry prose of the national security state: the overarching objective of U.S. foreign policy is to serve as the vanguard of U.S. multinationals and those of its European partners who, it should be said, wish to establish “full spectrum dominance” the world over. A bland and technical way of saying self-aggrandizement, the pursuit of which is as varied as its justifications for war. But we do not just mean war. Heavens, no. What do you take us for, savages? American foreign policy is far more nuanced than that. It achieves its ends not merely through military threats and interventions, but also via more subtle forerunners to that last drastic option. Namely, economic siege through illegal sanctions, the covert funding of comprador elites and traitorous organizations within the target country, as well as the procurement of mercenary proxies that we pay, train, arm, and deploy. Each of these tactics are often preferred to open warfare, partly due to cost advantages and partly to propaganda benefits. Preferably both.

A Cloak of Exceptionalism

Both parties, Democrats and Republicans, advance the extractive engines of empire behind narratives of human progress, collective prosperity, and individual freedoms, all of which come fancifully to life in so-called ‘free-market democracy’. Judging from its outcomes, this is just a cheap euphemism for corporate autocracy, since it uncouples ballot-box democracy from economic democracy, and the former without the latter is substantively empty. All of this is a bipartisan, that is to say, nonpartisan commitment. See Rob Urie for a broader look at the policy outcome uniformity of our decrepit duopoly. Chris Hedges, notable scourge of liberal optimism, recently said that thinking that the Democrats would save us is, “a kind of willful blindness.”

Lest there be any doubt that a Biden presidency would entail the same unscrupulous behavior as Trump’s, consider what candidates said about foreign policy in the last large Democratic debate. (Almost all of the candidates might feature prominently in a Biden White House, so their views are still sadly relevant.) The questions and answers were predictably rabid.

Biden roared that there wasn’t a democratic bone in Xi Jinping’s body and called him a thug, but then added we needed to work with him. True diplomacy there. Also a miserly understanding of the Chinese political system. Sanders was hammered for acknowledging Chinese and Cuban educational and economic success, before railing that both countries were dictatorships. Warren blathered on about our “sacred responsibility” and not abandoning our allies. In other words, revitalize NATO, the global arm of American imperialism. Scripted gibberish. Bloomberg reiterated George W. Bush’s ‘kill them there before they kill us here’ logic. Buttigieg raised the ‘credibility’ issue, insisting we need to restore the respect President Trump has squandered. This typically means destroying a defenseless nation in a chest-thumping show of might. Buttigieg also claimed that we need to listen to our intelligence agencies, nobly setting aside their mounting rap sheet of lying to the public since their infamous creation.

In any event, everyone including Sanders is beholden to some manner of American exceptionalism, though Bernie would be demonstrably better and considerably less volatile, a singular standout in a lineup of grovelers. But as in 2016, he seems incapable of breaking away to stage a presidential run as an independent. But what do all these dodgy euphemisms translate to in practice? It’s always useful to turn to one of the less politically savvy imperial managers for an answer.

Pompeo Maximus

In the wake of the President Trump’s illegal act of war and assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani earlier this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo crooned to the press, “We just want Iran to act like a normal country.” (This is not the first time we’ve implored the Iranians to be “normal.”) Pompeo would have you believe that Iran is a rogue agent of ceaseless intrigue and rascality. However, it has not started a war in two centuries. Nor has it sought nuclear weapons since at least 2003. It has issued a fatwa against such weapons. But it does want nuclear power to fuel its energy grid. On the foreign front, it has largely been defending Shia interests in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria against western imperialism. Not the worst of sins. But for Pompeo, resistance to empire is a black mark. In his version of international affairs, the U.S. and its sensible allies in Europe and the Middle East are ruefully contemplating how to respond to Iran’s unendurable provocations. We call its resistance terrorism. We call its desire for nuclear power a drive for nuclear war. With puckered brow and restless hands, Pompeo’s imaginary community of nations moves agonizingly to check the unbridled expansionism of Tehran.

Fortunately, this jolly cretin has a credibility rating of nil. During a sit-down interview where the estimable insider was regaling a crowd of bourgeois neoconservatives with tales of our international crimes, he laughingly admitted that as CIA chief he consistently lied, cheated, and stole. It was, he noted, the modus operandi of that illustrious presidential paramilitary. The gallery crowed happily in the background.

Pompeo has provided numerous examples of his capacity for mendacity in recent weeks. Even as the coronavirus surged across the globe, he seemed to relish the imposition of fresh sanctions on Iran, a nation in the throes of an epidemic, beset by medical shortages induced by sanctions. Pompeo made it clear Iran would not skirt its discipline by virtue of some misplaced American empathy. He defends U.S. attacks in Iraq despite its having killed half a million of its kids via illegal sanctions, invaded it illegally, lied about doing it, stole its energy, co-opted its agricultural independence, precipitated the death of a million people inside its borders, generated a refugee crisis, gave rise to ISIS, and flatly refused a demand that it finally leave. Yet he says U.S. forces inside Iraq have a right to self-defense. He has positively never laid eyes upon the Hague or Geneva Conventions.

Doubtless Pompeo had little problem with the spineless IMF decision not to extend $5B in loans to Venezuela because it said it didn’t know who was president, Maduro or Guaido. And he has now partnered with acting Director of National Intelligence RIchard Grenell to argue for limited strikes on the Iranian navy, a vulgar kind of opportunism. Now we have two U.S. Navy aircraft carrier strike groups converging in the Arabian Sea for the first time in years. In a recent speech, the Secretary launched into a thumping neo-McCarthyite harangue with a series of dumbfounding paragraphs on how the Chinese are infiltrating our nation, down to the state level, undermining democracy and sowing the seeds of division, among other crackpot piffle. Just days ago he compounded this jackanape rant by claiming that China, Russia, Iran, and others were spreading misinformation about the Coronavirus, as if his own commander-in-chief were not daily gracing the gape-mouthed populace with a potpourri of hearsay and invention. But then, the Secretary is a predictable sort. He’s a bit like a wind-up toy with a butterfly key in his back that, when cranked tight, instantly produces the boorish boilerplate of a PNAC diehard.

A Model for Behavior?

Nevertheless, despite Pompeo’s obvious guile, the martinets of mainstream opinion report his utterances as though they were Orphic decrees. Heed the Delphi on the Potomac. Yet master Pompeo’s words do beg the question: how does a normal country behave? One naturally assumes that the U.S. is the Secretary’s model nation. He’s not going to lift up as his ideal some backwater Scandinavian country like that crazed socialist currently barnstorming round the country. Let’s take him at his word. If the U.S. is the ideal, then what should Tehran do to “act like a normal nation”?

To follow the U.S. example, Tehran should do the following: develop 6,800 nuclear warheads, keep them largely free from international scrutiny, and drop a couple on civilian populations in a needless show of strength directed at one’s supposed ally. Then it should busily establish hundreds of military bases abroad, including dozens encircling one’s chief adversaries. It will be important as well to argue all along that this aggressive expansionism is actually a series of regrettable defensive maneuvers necessitated by the aggressive expansionism of other nations (whose combined defense spending and foreign military bases do not approach yours).

Should a host country then ask you to leave, as Iraq recently asked America, immediately add more troops to your stealth occupation and simply refuse, citing a need for international stability. Then proceed to invade and destabilize dozens of nations in pursuit of regional and global hegemony. Internally, you may call it full-spectrum dominance. Publicly, be sure to embellish it with the phraseology of peacemaking. To further buttress one’s behavior, gravely declare that numberless organizations thousands of miles away from your borders are “imminent threats to national security.” (Even if you “don’t know when and don’t know where” attacks will happen, as Pompeo noted after the Soleimani attack.) Ignore the guffaws from the gallery; they will soon be silenced. Be sure to litter each region with corpses in the name of international security. Don’t do body counts, but if you do, underestimate the collateral damage.

Befriend fascists, back terrorists, jail the brave, honor the craven, revile the rabble, pen odes to oligarchs, fawn upon elites, and abandon the impartial in the cause of objectivity. Censor dissent and call it security. Shutter speech and say it’s liberty. Should a rabble rouser emerge (as they invariably do) and the supplicant media cannot silence him, embroil him in slander and scandal. Deploy partisan hacks and patriotic bootlickers to seed doubt and fear in the minds of men. Blame foreigners for all domestic trouble. Always blame foreigners. Then, and only then, fair Tehran, might you accede to the community of the elect, the normal nations.

None of this is to mention what the U.S. has done in Iran itself. It installed the vicious tyrant known as the Shah of Iran, empurpled by the CIA’s overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953. The Shah assembled fascist groups to violently deal with anti-authoritarian protests (not unlike Ukraine of late). Soon the Iranian security services SAVAK was formed. SAVAK was notorious for brutal torture of dissidents. Mossad wrote their training manuals. The CIA trained them in Nazi torture methods. Since the 1979 popular revolution, Washington has backed Iraq in its war against Iran, leveled murderous sanctions on the country, launched debilitating cyber attacks, funded destabilization projects within its borders, assassinated its scientists, broadcast relentless propaganda across its borders through Radio Europe, falsely smeared it as a nuclear weapons-hungry nation, an existential threat to Israel, and ensnared it in sovereignty reducing inspection regimes via the politically compromised IAEA. And lately it murdered one its leading generals, an textbook act of war but for America’s comparative monopoly on WMDs.

Pompeo Maximus appears to advise all this because, as we noted, it is precisely what his own country, the normal nation, has done. All to facilitate the singular goal of the plutocrats that own and direct U.S. policy: self-advancement.

A Maxim for Minions

The dictate to foreign nations is the same as to domestic dissidents: Defy empire at your peril. Accept your lot or lose your life. Deny every instinct for justice, fairness, and prosperity you possess. Don’t worry, a 24-7 surveillance state will greatly help you to internalize the right values. Embrace fealty and prosper. Might makes right. It always has. Nothing has changed. But by all means, pretend it has. Hide your subjection, then refashion it as the good. Unfortunately, one cannot pursue self-advancement without the rhetoric of inclusivity. Happily, the language of mutualism soothes an angry heart. Power prospers best in darkness, as Samuel Huntington once advised U.S. leadership. To that end, become a disciple of the Big Lie. You may be on the wrong side of history, but we’ll rewrite that story soon enough. The pen of posterity is in the hand of the victor. The ink is red, the style dissembling, the story fictitious.

Foster Wallace continued, “In some ways [this engine of self-advancement] works very, very well. In other ways, it doesn’t work all that well because…there are whole other parts of me that need to worry about things larger than me that don’t get nourished in that system.” Honest words from a searching author, whose own quest evidently ended in vain. The targets of our domestic and foreign policy are the things that don’t get nourished by the imperial system. Nations that ignore the American maxims. Patriots that seek to upend the system of obscene profits. Villages that unwittingly ‘harbor terrorists’. Notions of collective security, amity between nations, planetary amelioration: these ideas smack of collectivism to the neoliberal imperialist. The collective will stymies the individual will and is synonymous with a falling rate of profit. Hence the need to reinforce the ethos of self-interest. Every nation for itself, every man for himself.

This attitude that Foster-Wallace lamented, so nakedly expressed in our imperial aggression, narrows to a single proposition: us or them. Sheer tribalism. The enemy at home is the freethinking socialist. The enemy abroad is the independent state. Substituting a congenital liar with an unstable temperament in clear cognitive decline for narcissistic laissez-faire foot soldier is no path forward. He would simply disguise our rapacity as a kind of restoration, appease lip-service liberals, and level yet another bill of indictments at recalcitrant populations abroad that stand in the way of elite gratification.

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Prisons are a COVID-19 Petri Dish


Photograph Source: Prison Insight – CC BY 2.0

Now is the time to empty the prisons. With over two million people incarcerated, the vast majority for nonviolent crimes, prisoners are packed like sardines, their overcrowding perfect for mass infection and spread of the Covid-19 pestilence. Nonviolent drug offenders, people who couldn’t make bail, people within six months of release, the elderly and infirm – all should be freed before they catch the disease, spread it and die.

For years the U.S. gulag has been an international scandal. We incarcerate proportionally far more of our people than any other country on earth, at a staggering rate of 698 per 100,000. This prison population explosion dates back to Bill Clinton’s attempt to attract centrist and Republican votes by getting tough on crime. Originally written by Senator Joe Biden, the 1994 federal crime bill signed by Clinton was the biggest thing of its sort in U.S. history. It ravaged minority communities. An entire generation of young Latino and African American men came of age in prison thanks to Clinton’s crime initiative. It resulted, as of today according to the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative, in 1,291,000 people in state prisons, 631,000 in local jails and 226,000 federally incarcerated. 578,000 people rot in state prisons for nonviolent offenses like DUI and public order. They could be released. In local jails, 470,000 people have not been convicted. They could be released pending trial. Federal prisons contain 213,000 nonviolent offenders. Under the current extraordinary pandemic circumstance, they too should be freed. As the head of the Cook County Board of Commissioners in Chicago recently said: “Our jails are Petri dishes.”

Right now this need for emptying jails is most acute at the pandemic’s center – New York City. That means Rikers Island, where Covid-19 is spreading like wildfire. The chief doctor there says it is “a public health disaster unfolding before our eyes.” As of Monday, Rikers had 167 confirmed cases among its thousands of inmates.  The mayor has announced freeing 650 people from Rikers, with hundreds under review for release. But the daytime population at Rikers – including staff and visitors – can reach 20,000. It is horribly overcrowded and unsanitary. The prisoners have little access to soap and running water – a perfect environment for this plague. Meanwhile Rikers prisoners have been asked to dig mass graves for those dead of Covid-19. The prisoners will be given protective gear and paid $6 per hour. Whether they can wash up after this toil was not announced.

What’s true in prisons also holds true in migrant detention centers. In March, the detention center population surged to 13,400. Recently a federal judge in Los Angeles ordered the release of migrant children. Plaintiffs had reported children testing positive for Covid-19 at a shelter in New York. The judge said she would order the release of roughly 3400 children April 10, barring an explanation of why they should remain in custody during a pandemic. Meanwhile a federal judge in New York ordered ICE detainees immediately freed from county jails with Covid-19 present. Migrant detainees in Pennsylvania are on a hunger strike, demanding release during the plague.

By freeing the 1,261,000 nonviolent prisoners and all migrants in detention, the U.S. government would eliminate much Covid-19 infection. Prisons would be less densely crammed for those remaining, routine sanitation would be easier and spread of the disease among prisoners and guards would decrease. Who knows – release that many prisoners and in some institutions there might actually be one person per cell, thus drastically curtailing contagion. Since most migrants are not held for violent crimes, practically the entire migrant detention population could be safely freed, thus arresting the spread of Covid-19 in swarming, filthy detention centers.

These releases are the just, moral and correct thing to do; they will save lives – of prisoners, migrants, guards, ICE officers and their families. While some states, localities and the federal government have started this process, it moves far too slowly. This pestilence is a highly contagious killer. Let it not be said in a couple of years that our government was as lethally irresponsible as the cruise industry, which keeps packing victims into its boats and sailing, as they die, for profit.

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What We Should Do About COVID-19


Like their counterparts elsewhere, contract sanitation workers in Chennai work with little or no serious protection. Photo: M. Palani Kumar.

With his first speech on the coronavirus, Prime Minister Narendra Modi got us to scare evil spirits away by having people bang the hell out of their pots and pans.

With his second, he scared the hell out of all of us.

With not a word on how the public, particularly the poor, are to access food and other essentials in coming weeks, it sparked off a panic waiting to happen. The middle classes thronged the stores and markets – something not easy for the poor. Not for migrants leaving the cities for their villages. Not for small vendors, domestic help, agricultural labourers. Not for farmers unable to complete the rabi harvest – or stuck with it even if they have. Not for hundreds of millions of marginalised Indians.

The finance minister’s package – announced yesterday, March 26 – has this one saving grace: 5 kilos of free wheat or rice for each person for three months in addition to the 5 already given under PDS, the public distribution system. Even there – it is not at all clear if the earlier or existing 5 kilos will also be free or must be paid for. If that’s to be paid for, it won’t work. Most of the elements of the ‘package’ are sums allocated for schemes already in existence. The MGNREGA wage hike of Rs. 20 was due anyway – and where is there any mention of an additional number of days? And how if they get down to it at once, and with what kind of work, will they maintain their social distancing norms? What will people do in the many weeks it will take to roll out the scale of work needed? Will their health be up to it? We must pay MGNREGA wages daily to every labourer and farmer for as long as the crisis lasts, work or no work.

The Rs. 2,000 benefit under the PM-KISAN was already there and due – what does it add? Instead of being paid in the last month of the quarter, it is advanced to the first month. Nowhere did the finance minister give a clear break up of the Rs. 1.7 lakh crores package responding to the pandemic and for the lockdowns – what are its new elements? What part of this sum is old or existing schemes recobbled together to make the numbers? Those hardly qualify as emergency measures. Further, pensioners, widows and the disabled will get a one-time amount of Rs. 1,000 in two instalments over the next three months? And 20 crore women with Jan Dhan Yojana accounts will get Rs. 500 each for three months?  That’s worse than tokenist, it’s obscene.

How will raising loan limits for self-help groups (SHGs) change a situation where getting an existing loan amount is a nightmare? And how exactly will this ‘package’ help those countless migrant workers stranded far away, trying to return to their home villages? The claim that it will help migrants is unsubstantiated. If the failure to produce a serious set of emergency measures is alarming, the attitude of the packagers is terrifying. They seem clueless on the kind of situation developing on the ground.

Lockdowns of the kind we are into – with no serious social support or planning for the vulnerable –can lead, already have led, to reverse migrations. It is impossible to get a fix on the extent or intensity of those. But reports from several states suggest that large numbers of people are heading back towards their villages as the cities and towns they work in go into a lockdown.

Many are using the only transportation now available – their own feet. Some are cycling home. Several find themselves stranded midway when trains, buses and vans stop functioning. It’s scary, the kind of hell that might break loose if this intensifies.

Imagine large groups walking home, from cities in Gujarat to villages in Rajasthan; from Hyderabad to far-flung villages of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh; from Delhi to places in Uttar Pradesh, even Bihar; from Mumbai to no-one-knows-how-many destinations. If they receive no succour, their rapidly diminishing access to food and water could trigger a catastrophe. They might fall to age-old diseases like diarrhoea, cholera and other.

Besides, the kind of situation that could build up with this mounting economic distress would see those deaths very largely amongst the working and younger populations. As Prof. T. Sundararaman, global coordinator of the People’s Health Movement, pointed out to PARI, health services – so, along with this economic distress, we may end up substituting deaths from other diseases for coronavirus deaths.”

The 8 per cent of the population in their 60s and above are most at risk from the coronavirus. The outbreak of other diseases, along with decreased access to and curtailment of other essential health services, could see working age people and the younger population taking a huge hit.”

Dr. Sundararaman, a former executive director of the National Health Systems Resources Centre, asserts there is a desperate need to “identify and act on the reverse migrations problem and the loss of livelihoods. Failing that, deaths from diseases that have long tormented mostly poor Indians could outstrip those brought about by the corona virus.” Particularly if reverse migration grows – with migrant workers in the cities gripped by hunger, failing to receive even their meagre wages.

Many migrants live on their worksites. As the sites shut down, and they’re asked to leave – where will they go? Not all of them can walk gigantic distances. They have no ration cards – how will you reach food to them?

The economic distress is already picking up speed.

What’s also surfacing is demonisation of migrant labourers, domestic workers, slum-dwellers, and other poor by housing societies convinced that they are THE problem. The truth: the carriers of COVID-19, as also of SARS earlier, are the flying classes: us. Rather than recognise that, it seems we are trying to sanitise the cities by purging them of these undesirable elements. Consider this:  if our flying carriers have passed on the infection to any of those returning migrants – what could be the outcome when they reach their villages?

There have always been some migrant labourers walking back to their villages, if those were in the same or neighbouring states. The traditional way was to work at tea stalls and dhabas along the route to earn their meals – sleeping there at night. Now, with most of those shut down – what happens?

Somehow, the better off and middle classes seem convinced that if we stay at home and practise social distancing, all will be well. That, at least, we will be insulated from the virus. There is no recognition of how the economic distress will work its way back to us. For several, ‘social distancing’ resonates differently. We invented its most powerful form nearly two millennia ago – caste. Class and caste factors seem embedded in our kind of lockdown response.

It doesn’t seem to matter to us as a nation that close to a quarter of a million Indians die of tubercolosis each year. Or that diarrhoea claims up to 100,000 children’s lives annually.  They aren’t us. Panic sets in when the Beautiful People find they have no immunity to some deadly diseases. So it was with SARS. So it was with the plague in Surat in 1994. Both were terrible diseases but killed far fewer people in India than they might have. But they did get a lot of attention. As I wrote at the time on Surat: “Plague germs are notorious for their non-observance of class distinctions…. worse still, they can board aircraft and fly club class to New York.”

We need to act right now. It’s not just one virus we’re fighting – pandemics are also a ‘package.’ Of which economic distress can be a self-inflicted or self-aggravated part – driving us from calamity to catastrophe

The idea that we’re fighting just one virus, and all will be fine once we’re on top of it – is dangerous. Sure, we need to fight COVID-19 desperately – this could be the worst pandemic ever since 1918 and the misnamed ‘Spanish Flu.’ (India lost between 16-21 million lives to that between 1918-21. In fact, the 1921 Census remains the only one ever to record a net reduction in the rural population).

But focusing on COVID-19 to the exclusion of the larger canvas – that’s attempting to mop the floor dry with all the taps open and running. We need an approach which pushes ideas that strengthen public health systems, rights and entitlements.

In 1978, some great minds in the field of health drew up the Declaration of Alma Ata – in days when the WHO had not been brought to heel by western government-backed corporate interests.  It was that declaration which made famous the phrase ‘Health for All by 2000’. Something it believed all people of the world could attain “through a fuller and better use of the world’s resources…”

And from the ’80s, the idea of understanding the social and economic determinants of health was growing. But another idea, too was growing. More rapidly: Neoliberalism.

From the late ’80s and the ’90s, the idea of health, education, employment – as human rights was trashed worldwide.

With the mid-1990s came the globalisation of communicable diseases. But instead of building universal health systems to meet this deadly challenge, many nations further privatised their health sectors. In India, it was always private dominance. We have one of the lowest health expenditures – barely 1.2 per cent (as share of GDP) – in the world. From the 1990s, the public health system, never terribly strong, was further weakened by deliberate policy-driven measures. The present government is inviting private management takeover of even district-level hospitals.

Health expenditures across India today are possibly the fastest growing component of rural family debt. In June 2018, the Public Health Foundation of India, analysing diverse data sets on health, concluded that 55 million people  had been pushed into poverty in the single year of 2011-12, because of having to fund their own health issues – it also said 38 million of these had fallen below the poverty line due to spending on medicines alone.

One of the most striking common features among many thousands of households hit by farmers’ suicides across India is this: outrageous health expenditures, often funded by borrowing from the sahucar.

We have the largest population that is least equipped to cope with a crisis like COVID-19. And here’s the tragedy: there will be COVIDS by other names in coming years. Since the late ’90s we have seen SARS and MERS (both also from coronaviruses) and other global-spread diseases. In India in 1994, we had the plague in Surat. All signals of what was to come, of the kind of world we’d built and entered.

As Prof. Dennis Carroll of the Global Virome Project recently put it:  “We’ve penetrated deeper into ecozones we’ve not occupied before….” Activities like oil and mineral extraction in areas earlier having few human populations, he says, have come at a price. Our incursion into fragile ecosystems have triggered not just changes in climate but potential health disasters as wildlife-human contact increase the potential for the spread of infection, of viruses we know little or nothing about.

So yes, we’re going to see more of these.

As for COVID-19, there are two ways this can go.

The virus mutates (to our advantage) and dies out in weeks.

Or: it mutates to its own advantage, worsening the trend. That happens, all hell breaks loose.

What can we do? I make the following suggestions – over and above, or alongside and in concurrence with, some of those already put forward by some of the finest minds amongst India’s activists and intellectuals. (There are also ideas that consider measures in a larger global context of debt, privatisation and financial market failure). And accepting as inspirational, some of the measures announced by the Kerala government.

Ø  The very first thing that needs doing: preparing for emergency distribution of our close to 60 million tons of ‘surplus’ foodgrain stocks. And reaching out at once to the millions of migrant workers and other poor devastated by this crisis. Declare all presently shut community spaces (schools, colleges, community halls and buildings) to be shelters for stranded migrants and the homeless.

Ø  The second – equally important – is to get all farmers to grow food crops in the kharif season. If the present trend persists, a terrible food situation looms. They will not be able to sell cash crops they harvest this season. Going in for more cash crops could prove fatal. A vaccine/cure for the coronavirus seems many months away. Meanwhile food stocks will dwindle.

Ø  Governments must help, pick up and buy big time, the produce of farmers. Many have been unable to complete the rabi harvest – social distancing and lockdowns being in force. Those who have, can’t transport or sell it anywhere. Even for food crop production in the kharif, farmers will need an ecosystem of inputs, support services and marketing assistance.

Ø  The government must be prepared to nationalise private medical facilities across the country. Advising hospitals to have a ‘corona corner’ – so to speak – within themselves, simply won’t cut it. Spain last week nationalised all its hospitals and healthcare providers recognising that a profit-driven system can’t meet this crisis.

Ø  Sanitation workers – safai karamcharis – must be immediately regularised as fulltime employees of the governments / municipalities employing them, with Rs. 5,000 a month added to their existing salaries, and with full medical benefits they have always been denied. And supplied protective gear that they’ve never been given. We spent three decades further devastating millions of already vulnerable sanitation workers, shutting them out of public service, outsourcing their jobs to private entities – who then re-employed the same workers on contract, at lower wages and with no benefits.

Ø  Declare and rush free rations for three months to the poor.

Ø  Immediately regularise ASHA, anganwadi and mid-day meal workers – already on the frontlines of the battle – as government employees. The health and lives of India’s children are in their hands. They too must be made full employees, provided proper wages, given protective gear.

Ø  Give MGNREGA wages daily to farmers and labourers till the crisis tides over.  Urban daily wagers to get Rs. 6,000 a month in the same period.

We need to get down to these measures right now. The government’s ‘package’ is a curious blend of callousness and cluelessness. It’s not just one virus we’re fighting – pandemics are also a ‘package.’  Of which economic distress can be a self-inflicted or self-aggravated part – driving us from calamity to catastrophe.

If the virus trend persists for the next two weeks, urging farmers to grow food crops for the kharif season becomes the single most important thing to do.

At the same time, can we be detached enough to see COVID-19 as a spectacularly revelatory moment in history? A junction from where we decide which way to go. A moment to renew and pursue debates on Inequality and Health Justice.

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The Future May Be Female, But the Pandemic is Patriarchal


Before I found myself “sheltering in place,” this article was to be about women’s actions around the world to mark March 8th, International Women’s Day. From Pakistan to Chile, women in their millions filled the streets, demanding that we be able to control our bodies and our lives. Women came out in Iraq and Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Peru, the Philippines and Malaysia. In some places, they risked beatings by masked men. In others, they demanded an end to femicide — the millennia-old reality that women in this world are murdered daily simply because they are women.

In 1975 the Future Was Female

This year’s celebrations were especially militant. It’s been 45 years since the United Nations declared 1975 the International Women’s Year and sponsored its first international conference on women in Mexico City. Similar conferences followed at five-year intervals, culminating in a 1995 Beijing conference, producing a platform that has in many ways guided international feminism ever since.

Beijing was a quarter of a century ago, but this year, women around the world seemed to have had enough. On March 9th, Mexican women staged a 24-hour strike, un día sin nosotras (a day without us women), to demonstrate just how much the world depends on the labor — paid and unpaid — of… yes, women. That womanless day was, by all accounts, a success. The Wall Street Journal observed — perhaps with a touch of astonishment — that “Mexico grinds to a halt. Hundreds of thousands of women paralyzed Mexico in an unprecedented nationwide strike to protest a rising wave of violence against women, a major victory for their cause.”

In addition to crowding the streets and emptying factories and offices, some women also broke store windows and fought with the police. Violence? From women? What could have driven them to such a point?

Perhaps it was the murder of Ingrid Escamilla, 25, a Mexico City resident, who, according to the New York Times, “was stabbed, skinned and disemboweled” this February. Maybe it was that the shooting of the artist and activist Isabel Cabanillas de la Torre in Ciudad Juarez, a barely noted reminder to an uninterested world that women have been disappearing for decades along the U.S.-Mexico border. Or maybe it was just the fact that official figures for 2019 revealed more than 1,000 femicides in Mexico, a 10% increase from the previous year, while many more such murders go unrecorded.

Is the Pandemic Patriarchal?

If it weren’t for the pandemic, maybe the Wall Street Journal would have been right. Maybe the Day Without Women would have been only the first of many major victories. Maybe the international feminist anthem, “El violador eres tú” (You [the patriarchy, the police, the president] are the rapist), would have gone on inspiring flash-mobs of dancing, chanting women everywhere. Perhaps the world’s attention might not have been so quickly diverted from the spectacle of women’s uprisings globally. Now, however, in the United States and around the world, it’s all-pandemic-all-the-time, and with reason. The coronavirus has done what A Day Without Women could not: it’s brought the world’s economy to a shuddering halt. It’s infected hundreds of thousands of people and killed tens of thousands. And it continues to spread like a global wildfire.

Like every major event and institution, the pandemic affects women and men differently. Although men who fall sick seem more likely than women to die, in other respects, the pandemic and its predictable aftermath are going to be harder on women. How can that be? The writer Helen Lewis provides some answers in the Atlantic.

First of all, the virus, combined with mass quarantine measures, ensures that more people will need to be cared for. This includes older people who are especially at risk of dying and children who are no longer in school or childcare. In developed countries like the United States, people fortunate enough to be able to keep their jobs by working from home are discovering that the presence of bored children does not make this any easier.

Indeed, last night, my little household was treated to a song-and-dance performance by two little girls who live a couple of houses down the street. Their parents had spent the day helping them plan it and then invited us to watch from our backyard. What they’ll do tomorrow, a workday, I have no idea. A friend without children has offered to provide daily 15-minute Zoom lessons on anything she can Google, as a form of respite for her friends who are mothers.

As recently as a week ago, it looked as if shuttered schools might open again before the academic year ends, allowing one New York Times commentator to write an article headlined “I Refuse to Run a Coronavirus Home School.” An associate professor of educational leadership, the author says she’s letting her two children watch TV and eat cookies, knowing that no amount of quick-study is going to turn her into an elementary school teacher. I applaud her stance, but also suspect that the children of professionals will probably be better placed than those of low-wage workers to resume the life-and-death struggle for survival in the competitive jungle that is kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade education in this country.

In locked-down heterosexual households, Helen Lewis writes, the major responsibility for childcare will fall on women. She’s exasperated with pundits who point out that people like Isaac Newton and Shakespeare did their best work during a seventeenth-century plague in England. “Neither of them,” she points out, “had child-care responsibilities.” Try writing King Lear while your own little Cordelias, Regans, and Gonerils are pulling at your shirt and complaining loudly that they’re booored.

In places like the United Kingdom and the United States, where the majority of mothers have jobs, women will experience new pressures to give up their paid employment. In most two-earner heterosexual households with children, historic pay inequalities mean that a woman’s job usually pays less. So if someone has to devote the day to full-time childcare, it will make economic sense that it’s her. In the U.S., 11% of women are already involuntarily working only part-time, many in jobs with irregular schedules. Even women who have chosen to balance their household work with part-time employment may find themselves under pressure to relinquish those jobs.

As Lewis says, this all makes “perfect economic sense”:

“At an individual level, the choices of many couples over the next few months will make perfect economic sense. What do pandemic patients need? Looking after. What do self-isolating older people need? Looking after. What do children kept home from school need? Looking after. All this looking after — this unpaid caring labor — will fall more heavily on women, because of the existing structure of the workforce.”

Furthermore, as women who choose to leave the workforce for a few years to care for very young children know, it’s almost impossible to return to paid work at a position of similar pay and status as the one you gave up. And enforced withdrawal won’t make that any easier.

Social Reproduction? What’s That? And Why Does It Matter?

This semester I’m teaching a capstone course for urban studies majors at my college, the University of San Francisco. We’ve been focusing our attention on something that shapes all our lives: work — what it is, who has it and doesn’t, who’s paid for it and isn’t, and myriad other questions about the activity that occupies so much of our time on this planet. We’ve borrowed a useful concept from Marxist feminists: “social reproduction.” It refers to all the work, paid and unpaid, that someone has to do just so that workers can even show up at their jobs and perform the tasks that earn them a paycheck, while making a profit for their employers.

It’s called reproduction, because it reproduces workers, both in the biological sense and in terms of the daily effort to make them whole enough to do it all over again tomorrow. It’s social reproduction, because no one can do it alone and different societies find different ways of doing it.

What’s included in social reproduction? There are the obvious things any worker needs: food, clothing, sleep (and a safe place to doze off), not to speak of a certain level of hygiene. But there’s more. Recreation is part of it, because it “recreates” a person capable of working effectively. Education, healthcare, childcare, cooking, cleaning, procuring or making food and clothing — all of these are crucial to sustaining workers and their work. If you’d like to know more about it, Tithi Bhattacharya’s Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression is a good place to start.

What does any of this have to do with our pandemic moment? How social reproduction is organized in the United States leaves some people more vulnerable than others in a time of economic crisis. To take one example, over many decades, restaurants have assumed and collectivized (for profit) significant parts of the work of food preparation, service, and clean up, acts once largely performed in indvidual homes. For working women, the availability of cheap takeout has, in some cases, replaced the need to plan, shop for, and prepare meals seven days a week. Food service is a stratified sector, ranging from high-end to fast-food establishments, but it includes many low-wage workers who have now lost their jobs, while those still working at places providing takeout or drive-through meals are risking their health so that others can eat.

One way professional class two-earner couples in the United States have dealt with the tasks of social reproduction is to outsource significant parts of their work to poorer women. Fighting over who does the vacuuming and laundry at home? Don’t make the woman do it all. Hire a different woman to do it for you. Want to have children and a career? Hire a nanny.

Of course, odds are that your house cleaner and nanny will still have to do their own social reproduction work when they get home. And now that their children aren’t going to school, somehow they’ll have to take care of them as well. In many cases, this will be possible, however, because their work is not considered an “essential service” under the shelter-in-place orders of some states. So they will lose their incomes.

At least here in California, many of the women who do these jobs are undocumented immigrants. When the Trump administration and Congress manage to pass a relief bill, they, like many undocumented restaurant workers, won’t be receiving any desperately needed funds to help them pay rent or buy food. Immigrant-rights organizations are stepping in to try to make up some of the shortfall, but what they’re capable of is likely to prove just a few drops in a very large bucket. Fortunately, immigrant workers are among the most resourceful people in this country or they wouldn’t have made it this far.

There’s one more kind of social reproduction work performed mostly by women, and, by its nature, the very opposite of “social distancing”: sex work. You can be sure that no bailout bill will include some of the nation’s poorest women, those who work as prostitutes.

Women at Home and at Risk

It’s a painful coincidence that women are being confined to their homes just as an international movement against femicide is taking off. One effect of shelter-in-place is to make it much harder for women to find shelter from domestic violence. Are you safer outside risking coronavirus or inside with a bored, angry male partner? I write this in full knowledge that one economic sector that has not suffered from the pandemic is the gun business., for example, which sells ammunition online in all but four states, has experienced more than a three-fold increase in revenue over the last month. Maybe all that ammo is being bought to fight off zombies (or the immigrant invasion the president keeps reminding us about), but research shows that gun ownership has a lot to do with whether or not domestic violence turns into murder.

Each week, Washington Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax hosts a chat line offering suggestions for help of various sorts. For the last two weeks, her readers (myself included) have been horrified by messages from one participant stuck in quarantine in a small apartment with a dangerous partner who has just bought a gun. Standard advice to women in her position is not just to run, but to make an exit plan, quietly gather the supplies and money you’ll need and secure a place to go. Mandatory shelter-in-place orders, however necessary to flattening the curve of this pandemic, may well indirectly cause an increase in domestic femicides.

As if women weren’t already disproportionately affected by the coronavirus epidemic, Senate Republicans have been trying to sneak a little extra misogyny into their version of a relief bill. In the same month that Pakistani women risked their lives in demonstrations under the slogan “Mera jismmeri marzi” (“My body, my choice”), Republicans want to use the pandemic in another attempt to — that’s right — shut down Planned Parenthood clinics.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent recently revealed that the $350 billion being proposed to shore up small businesses that don’t lay off workers would exclude nonprofits that receive funds from Medicaid. Planned Parenthood, which provides healthcare for millions of uninsured and underinsured women, is exactly that kind of nonprofit. Democratic congressional aides who alerted Sargent to this suggest that Planned Parenthood wouldn’t be the only organization affected. They also believe that

“…this language would exclude from eligibility for this financial assistance a big range of other nonprofits that get Medicaid funding, such as home and community-based disability providers; community-based nursing homes, mental health providers, and health centers; group homes for the disabled; and even rape crisis centers.”

Meanwhile, Mississippi, Ohio, and Texas are trying to use the coronavirus as an excuse to prevent women’s access to abortion. On the grounds that such procedures are not medically necessary, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has ordered abortion providers to stop terminating pregnancies. Earlier, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost sent letters to abortion providers in that state forbidding all “nonessential” surgical abortions.

A Return to Normalcy?

When Warren Harding (who oversaw a notoriously corrupt administration) ran for president in 1920, his campaign slogan was “a return to normalcy” — the way things were, that is, before World War I. What he meant was a return to economic dynamism. As we know, the “Roaring Twenties” provided it in spades — until that little crash known as the Great Depression. Today, like Harding, another corrupt president is promising a prompt return to normalcy. He’s already chafing at the 15-day period of social distancing he announced in mid-March. At his March 23rd press conference, he hinted that the United States would be “open for business” sooner rather than later. The next day, he suggested that the country reopen for business on Easter (a “very special day for me”), saying he wants to see “packed churches all over our country.” He can’t wait until everything, including our deeply unequal healthcare and economic systems, gets back to normal — the way they were before the spread of the coronavirus; until, that is, we can go back to being unprepared for the next, inevitable crisis.

Unlike the president, I hope we don’t go back to normal. I hope the people of Venice come to appreciate their sparkling canals and their returning dolphins. I hope that the rest of us become attached to less polluted air and lower carbon emissions. I hope that we learn to value the lives of women.

I hope, instead of returning to normalcy, we recognize that our survival as a species depends on changing almost everything, including how we produce what we need and how we reproduce ourselves as fully human beings. I hope that, when we have survived this pandemic, the world’s peoples take what we have learned about collective global action during this crisis and apply it to that other predictable crisis, the one that threatens all human life on a distinctly warming planet.

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Detroit Impacted Severely by COVID-19 Pandemic and Lockdown

Majority African American impoverished working class city mired in poverty facing monumental challenges

By Abayomi Azikiwe

Global Research,

On March 12, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency in Michigan ordering public buildings and educational institutions closed for three weeks.

By the Monday March 16, restaurants were closed for dining and open on a carry out basis only.

Streets soon became deserted in densely populated areas in Detroit and other major municipalities in southeastern Michigan and around the state. Later an order-in-place declaration went into effect encouraging people to remain indoors and to limit their movement to personal exercise outside the home and shopping for necessities such as food and medicines.

Food outlets providing assistance to poverty stricken residents were the scene of long lines and limited supplies. Over the course of the second and third weeks of March, millions were thrown out of work, many of whom are not eligible to collect unemployment benefits.

Detroit, which has undergone tremendous socio-economic upheaval over the last five decades, has been projected by the corporate media and local political officials as a center for financial revival and innovation. Yet the poverty rates among the majority African American population have remained constant during the recent period characterized by a contrived imposition of emergency management, municipal bankruptcy and privatization.

In regard to the actual COVID-19 cases in Detroit, the figures indicate that the city has the largest cluster of infections in the state. Many high-profile residents have fallen ill and died.

As of March 31, there were 7,615 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state of Michigan with 259 deaths. Most of the deaths have been in Wayne and Oakland counties which encompass and border the city of Detroit.

Makeshift testing centers have been established outside Beaumont Hospital in a suburb of Detroit, Farmington, and at the previous State Fairgrounds on Woodward Avenue inside the city. Hospitals are cautioning people to not come in unless the situation is serious. Many people have been diagnosed online through a process established by local medical centers.

Flint, another majority African American municipality, located 70 miles north of Detroit, has also been the center of numerous infections and deaths. The city suffered enormously under former Republican Governor Rick Snyder when emergency management was imposed in both Flint and Detroit which mandated the fracturing of the water systems leading to the poisoning of the nearly 100,000 residents.

A suburb of Detroit, Ecorse, is inflicted with a disproportionate number of COVID-19 confirmed cases. Hospitals throughout the Detroit metropolitan area are reaching capacity.

The transition of the TCF Conference Center located downtown on the Detroit River, is currently being converted into a makeshift field hospital in anticipation of a rapid surge in serious and critical cases. Other locations such as the Detroit Pistons training center located between the New Center area and Midtown is being repurposed as well.

Reports of COVID-19 cases are circulating through informal social media networks which paint a vivid portrait of social disruption and economic peril. Some have posted videos of themselves while ill discussing the symptoms and the progression of the illness. Others are celebrating their recovery as an encouragement to those who are still incapacitated.

According to Bridge Magazine published in the state of Michigan:

“Across metro Detroit, the epicenter of the coronavirus in Michigan, the pandemic has entered a new and terrifying phase. On Monday (March 31), Detroit’s infection rate and death toll skyrocketed with 259 newly confirmed cases, pushing the city’s total past 1,800, with 52 deaths. Across the three metro counties of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb, there are more than 5,200 cases and 158 deaths. Community leaders say it is becoming difficult to find a Detroiter who doesn’t know someone who is infected with the virus. Detroit politicians and civic figures are listed among the sickened or dead. Even the city’s police chief is barking orders from the solitude of quarantine.”

Poverty, Racism and National Oppression as Risk Factors

Detroit, Flint, Highland Park, Pontiac and other municipalities with majorities and near-majorities of African Americans have long been subjected to racist policy decisions which have left these communities disproportionately jobless, impoverished and disenfranchised. The absence of healthcare is a direct result of inadequate employment benefits and the failure of the United States to adopt a guaranteed national medical program which covers all people regardless of employment and income status.

The problem of testing in Detroit along with other cities is paramount. Testing on a mass scale has not been available. Patients have been requesting testing after exhibiting suspected symptoms of COVID-19. Nonetheless, the practice was to require those asking to be tested to present a prescription from their physician. Of course this ignores the reality that untold numbers of the population of Detroit are without healthcare coverage.

Now with public testing facilities established, this situation can be challenged by community organizations and healthcare advocates. Everyone should be eligible for testing largely because the overall public health of the city is at serious risk. With the closing of the City’s Health Department during the capital-driven emergency management and bankruptcy scheme during 2013-2014, previously housed at Herman Kiefer Hospital in the Virginia Park District on the west side, the administration of corporate-imposed Mayor Mike Duggan is limited in any attempt to mobilize a citywide response to the pandemic. If this pandemic had struck a decade ago, Herman Kiefer could have easily served as a mass testing and treatment location.

Moreover, the policies enacted by the state and city governments over the recent period have essentially degraded the capacity of the authorities to effectively address a crisis. Billions of dollars in abatements and tax captures have been awarded to the leading capitalist entities which have transform the downtown area and other districts into playgrounds for tourists and wealthier residents.

The corporate image projected nationally and internationally of the contemporary situation in Detroit does not take into consideration the continuing exploitation and oppression of the majority of city residents. Massive home foreclosures, evictions, utility shutoffs, water service terminations, the lack of adequate public transportation, gentrification, the rapid increase in property taxes and rents have left the masses in a state of disempowerment and marginalization.

People gather to protest against the mass water shut-offs to Detroit citizens behind in their payments, July 18, 2014.

Although the city administration claims that the rates of poverty has decreased in the city, a study just four years ago noted:

“’The number of extremely poor neighborhoods in the Detroit region grew almost fivefold between 2000 and 2010-14,’ said Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, who co-wrote the report. ‘In metro Detroit’s case, almost every neighborhood that crossed the 40% poverty rate threshold after 2000 did so as it shed population. … Poverty became more concentrated both as people with the means to move out of declining neighborhoods and as … the regional economy pushed more neighborhood residents below the poverty line.’”

Community Response to the Pandemic

Detroit organizations are attempting to keep up with the rapidly unfolding situation where communities are being further destabilized as a result of the healthcare and economic crises. Groups such as We the People of Detroit have been distributing water to people without service. The state and city has stated it is going to restore water to all residents in Detroit and around Michigan although the process is not taking place fast enough for activists and those directly affected.

The Moratorium NOW! Coalition and the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War & Injustice (MECAWI) have held their weekly organizing meetings by conference call since March 16. The organizations issued a set of demands calling upon Governor Whitmer to exercise her executive powers to guarantee housing, utilities, water, medical care and economic stability to all residents of the state of Michigan.

In cities such as Detroit and other Michigan municipalities, unemployment rates have skyrocketed. This is being replicated across the U.S. where many production and service facilities are closed along with educational institutions.

Within a matter of three weeks the number of infections have exceed 200,000 nationwide. Of that number, 4,500 have succumbed to the virus. Projections presented by U.S. governmental agencies and the White House Task Force, suggest that up to 2.2 million people could perish before the pandemic is arrested.

As the infection rates and deaths escalate, working people and the oppressed will be demanding concrete solutions to the social dislocation which is intensifying. Even with the current stimulus package passed by Congress, many workers, retirees, people with disabilities and their families and communities will be in need of radical social reconstruction policies.

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