Archive | April 21st, 2020

Pro-‘Israel’ Bullying is Failing at Home, But is it Paying Dividends Abroad?


U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, DC. (MICHAEL BROCHSTEIN/SOPA IMAGES/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2020, pp. 21-23

Special Report

By Dale Sprusansky

CRITICS OF THE UNITED STATES’ unwavering support for Israel had several notable reasons to celebrate this winter.

Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren made headlines by doing the once unimaginable: boycotting the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference. Sanders even went as far as issuing a tweet accusing the organization of being a purveyor of “bigotry.”

Just a decade ago, scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt observed in their landmark book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, “any politician who challenges [the Israel lobby’s] policies stands little chance of becoming president.” Sanders and Warren set an historic precedent by remaining viable candidates despite their unwillingness to kowtow to the country’s foremost foreign policy lobby.

Of additional note was AIPAC’s steepened descent into a partisan organization. The group’s public confrontation with Sanders—at the time the front-runner for the Democratic nomination—was a destructive blow to its long-touted ability to corral nearly unanimous and unflinching bipartisan support for Israel.

Sanders’ unreserved denunciation of AIPAC came in the midst of numerous polls showing that left-leaning Americans are increasingly critical of Israel and support elected officials challenging the AIPAC-enforced status quo.

The Israel lobby’s response to this trend has been to resort to smearing and bullying. The Democratic Majority for Israel, a lobbying group formed in 2019 with the hope of sustaining support for Israel within the Democratic Party, launched a deluge of television ads attacking Sanders ahead of the Iowa and Nevada caucuses. Even more remarkably, AIPAC launched attack ads accusing Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar (MN), Rashida Tlaib (MI) and Betty McCollum (MN) of anti-Semitism and being “maybe more sinister” than ISIS.

This is not a new tactic. In his authoritative 2015 book, Congress and the Shaping of the Middle East, Professor Kirk Beattie noted that AIPAC has long sought to make dissidents pay a high price. He quoted one Hill staffer as saying that AIPAC is “so unused to people defying them that when it happens they try to create so much pain for your office that it’s not worth the effort.”

Now, however, an increasing number of elected officials are willing to hold their ground against the lobby’s attacks. Rep. McCollum, targeted for introducing legislation that would protect Palestinian children from abuse at the hands of the U.S.-funded Israeli military, has been unequivocal in her response to AIPAC’s smears. In a statement, she called AIPAC a “hate group” and accused them of “weaponizing anti-Semitism and hate to silence dissent.”

In subsequent comments to Israel’s +972 Magazine, the congresswoman identified fear as the motivating factor behind AIPAC’s attack. “They’re trying, the best I can figure out, to intimidate and bully members of Congress from speaking out,” she said. “This is an example of somebody who’s paranoid or frightened. It makes me think it comes from fear.”

If McCollum’s analysis is correct, it represents a major sea change. It would mean that the group that was once so powerful that it had, according to one Senate staffer quoted by Beattie, the ability to issue a “potential electoral ‘kiss of death,’” is now operating from a place of weakness and resorting to desperate attacks.

The rising number of voices unapologetically critical of Israel and the apparent inability of AIPAC to successfully shame leaders such as Rep. McCollum certainly give this argument credence. However, the fact that many Democrats unreservedly attended AIPAC’s policy conference after the organization offered only a tepid apology for its attack ads suggests that the group’s ability to exert power, though reduced, remains.

If nothing else, McCollum, Sanders and other leaders appear to have taken to heart Mearsheimer and Walt’s observation that because the lobby’s “strategic and moral arguments are so weak, it has little choice but to try to stifle or marginalize serious discussion.” These politicians are transcending the lobby by pioneering the notion that its bullying cannot, and must not, usurp the moral reality on the ground in Palestine.


While American politicians are slowly beginning to overcome the heavy-handed tactics of the Israel lobby, there are signs that leaders from the so-called developing world increasingly see establishing good relations with Israel as a prerequisite for effective engagement with the United States.

This is not necessarily a new development—Washington has for decades provided diplomatic cover for Israel and vociferously declared to the world the in­ex-
tricable link between the two countries.

American support for Israel on the world stage is closely tied to the Israel lobby’s influence over U.S. politicians. Political scientist Tony Smith supplied anecdotal evidence of this in his book Foreign Attachments: The Power of Ethnic Groups in the Making of American Foreign Policy. “In 1998-99 I was told by different knowledgeable observers that Turkey and Jordan considered the body with which they must first negotiate their relations with the United States to be not the State Department or some congressional body but AIPAC,” he wrote.

Given the plethora of foreign leaders brought in by AIPAC to speak at their 2020 conference, it’s clear the lobby still plays a meaningful role courting international support for Israel via the U.S. One needs to look no further for evidence than Democratic Republic of the Congo President Felix Tshisekedi using his speech at this year’s event to announce his decision to appoint an ambassador to Israel.

However, in the era of the Trump administration, where “true believers” of the Israeli cause occupy key White House and diplomatic positions, it is likely that Washington’s global campaign to support Israel is less lobby-driven than merely lobby-endorsed.

Israel scored a major geopolitical victory this February when Sudan’s interim leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, met Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Uganda and began the process of normalizing relations with Israel.

In subsequent remarks, Burhan affirmed Khartoum’s solidarity with the Palestinian people, but emphasized that engaging Israel is critical to the national interests of Sudan.

Burhan explained that establishing relations with Israel is a conduit to getting his country removed from the U.S. State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Sudan’s presence on the list since 1993 has severely restricted its ability develop its economy and receive financial assistance.

“During the meeting that took place in Entebbe, Uganda, we stressed the role of the Israeli side in supporting Sudan with regards to the list of state sponsors of terrorism,” Burhan said in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat. According to the Associated Press, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Burhan in advance of the meeting to thank him for normalizing ties with Israel and to invite him to the U.S.

The Entebbe meeting was reportedly orchestrated by the UAE, whose leaders have a close relationship with White House adviser and ardent Zionist Jared Kushner. Some analysts speculate the UAE viewed the meeting as a way to enlist Khartoum in its regional agenda, which includes isolating Iran by forming an unspoken but transparent alliance with Israel.

It thus appears the UAE, U.S. and Israel capitalized on Sudan’s economic desperation and desire to emerge from international isolation to impose a quid pro quo: join the Washington/Jerusalem/Abu Dhabi alliance in exchange for the removal of U.S. sanctions.

Scholar Joseph Massad recently noted in the Middle East Eye that this arrangement is hardly a new proposition. “In January 2016, with [then President] Omar al-Bashir still in charge, foreign minister Ibrahim Ghandour sought to lift the U.S. economic sanctions on Sudan by offering to open formal diplomatic ties with Israel,” he wrote.



Residents of Khartoum protest against Sudanese Sovereign Council Head Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Uganda. (MAHMOUD HJAJ/ANADOLU AGENCY VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Tunisia raised eyebrows in February when its newly elected President Kais Saied hastily fired his U.N. ambassador, Moncef Baati. Media reports indicate that Saied, eager to cozy-up to the U.S., terminated the diplomat after Washington lodged a complaint about Baati’s efforts to oppose the Trump administration’s “peace plan.”

Saied maintained the firing was purely based on Baati’s job performance. His colleagues summarily rejected that characterization. “He was among the most respected ambassadors at the United Nations and the government said he was fired because he was unprofessional? It’s a joke,” one U.N. ambassador told reporters.

Further west, there are reports that Israel is approaching Morocco with an agreement similar to the one it reached with Sudan. Netanyahu has apparently offered his assistance in securing U.S. recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over occupied Western Sahara if Rabat agrees to normalize relations with Israel. Like many other countries in the region, Morocco currently has a covert military and economic relationship with Israel that it officially denies.

Even Jordan, which has long enjoyed cordial relations with Washington and a strong working relationship with Israel, has apparently started to wonder if its $1.3 billion in U.S. aid could be jeopardized by its opposition to Trump’s peace plan.

Jordanian political commentator Fahd al-Khitan recently reported in Al-Ghad that senior officials in the Hashemite Kingdom view “the unpredictability of the White House” as “a cause of concern.” While Amman still views the withdrawal of U.S. aid as unlikely, their concern speaks volumes of the extent to which Israel is on the minds of officials in the region—and beyond—when it comes to their bilateral relationship with the U.S.

It’s easy to chalk up Washington’s international support for Israel to standard diplomatic practice. It’s well known, after all, that in international negotiations, the stronger party should not merely give away gifts, but extract concessions from the weaker party. If the U.S. is willing to remove Sudan from its terrorism list, what’s wrong with it throwing its ally Israel a bone by tying the move to Khartoum normalizing relations with Israel?

That logic is fair enough. But there is one important reality to consider in this case: The Trump administration, an allegedly impartial mediator that claims to view Israel-Palestine peace as being in the U.S. national interest, has not once sought to extract a concession from Israel. Asking Israel to give up nothing in return, Washington has simply handed Israel the Golan Heights, Jerusalem and a blatantly one-sided peace deal.

It appears other nations must make concessions to Israel in order to play ball with the U.S., while Israel in turn extracts nothing but concessions from the U.S. Who benefits from this arrangement?


The late Sen. Charles Mathias (R), who represented Maryland from 1969-1987, once warned that when “factions among us lead the nation toward excessive foreign attachments or animosities,” it results in the “loss of cohesion in our foreign policy and the degradation from the national interest.”

Countless observers have warned that unwavering U.S. support for Israel has resulted in a disjointed Middle East policy that jeopardizes many of its interests. For decades, the Israel lobby has used its strength to stifle an open dialogue about this policy. However, with the lobby increasingly losing its bipartisan standing and struggling to rebuff critics, a rethinking of U.S. policy may, at long last, be on the horizon.

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‘Israel’: Never Missing an Opportunity


This White House photo shows President Bill Clinton (c) meeting with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators on July 24, 2000 at Camp David, MD. When the meetings collapsed, Clinton and his AIPAC-spawned negotiator Dennis Ross—like Jared Kushner today—heaped all the blame on the Palestinians. (L-r) Abu Ala, Nabil Sha’ath, Clinton, Ross, Elyakim Rubinstein and Oded Eran. (RALPH ALSWANG/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2020, pp. 32-33

History’s Shadows

By Walter L. Hixson

IN THE “DEAL OF THE CENTURY” Israel and the Trump administration called on the Palestinians to endorse a plan to hand over the heart of their homeland to Zionist settlers. When the Palestinians of course refused, they were branded the enemies of peace.

This is the oldest play in the Israeli propaganda playbook. It was put into words by the famous Israeli diplomat Abba Eban in 1973 when he declared, “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity [for peace].”

Well before and ever since that time, it has been a staple of Israeli and U.S. lobby propaganda that the peace-loving “sole democracy” of the Middle East always genuinely strives for a just settlement in Palestine, but just can’t find a rational partner for peace among the fanatical Arabs. It is thus only with great reluctance that Israel goes about regimenting, repressing and episodically massacring Palestinians.

Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner—laughably described by the president as “an internationally recognized top expert on Middle Eastern affairs”—played the Eban card as he unfolded the stacked “deal.” Dripping with the arrogance of the wealthy white privilege that he personifies, Kushner asserted that the deal provided the Palestinians with an opportunity to achieve “something excellent.” He added, “If they screw up this opportunity, which again, they have a perfect track record of missing opportunities, if they screw this up, I think they will have a very hard time looking the international community in the face, saying they’re victims, saying they have rights.”


Contrary to the Eban-Kushner canard, the historical record clearly shows that it is Israel that “has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity” for peace. Throughout the history of the conflict Israel has had regular and realistic opportunities to pursue a two-state solution, but the drives of settler colonization invariably trumped all such efforts.

In 1948, amid the war that broke out in response to partition, Zionists rejected U.N. mediation—and assassinated the mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden. Committed to cementing “facts on the ground,” Israel refused to pull back to the legally sanctioned partition lines or enable the return or compensate refugees driven out in the Nakba. By the time of the ceasefire in January 1949, the Zionist state had increased in size from the 55 percent under the U.N. partition to 77 percent of the former British mandate of Palestine. Israel still refused to negotiate with its Arab neighbors. “After the sobering experience of military defeat at the hands of the infant Jewish state,” historian Avi Shlaim has pointed out, the leaders of the Arab states were, “prepared to recognize Israel, to negotiate directly with it and even to make peace with it. Each of these rulers had his territorial price for making peace with Israel but none of them refused to talk.”

Rather than talk peace with its neighbors, Israel demonized them as Nazis, repeatedly attacked Jordan and Syria, and in 1956 joined with Britain and France in an invasion of Egypt. Under U.S. pressure the Europeans pulled out but Israel refused to withdraw from Egyptian territory until the Americans acquiesced to Israeli demands for access to the Gulf of Aqaba, which was disputed under international law.

In June 1967 Israel launched the pivotal aggressive war in which it seized the West Bank as well as the Syrian Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. Israel at this time had a clear opportunity to negotiate a settlement with the Palestinians as well as with Egypt and Jordan (Syria remained obdurate). But “Israel preferred land to peace,” as historian Avi Raz has pointed out, “and thus deliberately squandered a real opportunity for a settlement” in the wake of the June war. Former Israeli diplomat Shlomo Ben-Ami adds that as a result of “hubris” and “triumphalism” an “opportunity was missed to turn the tactical victory in war into a major strategic victory for Zionism that could have made the Six-Day War into the last major war of the Arab-Israeli conflict and an avenue to a settlement with at least part of the Arab world.”

In subsequent years Israel fended off a peace settlement based on U.N. Resolution 242 (1967) while enabling settlers to flow into the occupied territories. Only after another war with Egypt in 1973 and the determined diplomacy of Anwar Sadat and Jimmy Carter at the first Camp David summit did the Israelis disgorge the Sinai. Israel refused to negotiate the promised follow-up accord with the Palestinians and instead tried to destroy the PLO with the first of repeated savage assaults on Lebanon.

The Palestinian intifada, Yasser Arafat’s recognition of Israel in 1988, and international pressures forced the Zionist state back into negotiations. The subsequent Oslo Accords (1993) proved a disaster for the Palestinians. Negotiating from a position of weakness, Arafat consented to deferring to future discussions the critical issues of final borders, return of refugees and status of Jerusalem. The PLO failed even to secure a freeze on Israeli construction of new settlements in the occupied territories.

Not only had Oslo failed to secure Israeli concessions, it created a “double occupation” as the new Palestinian Authority became a repressive police-state determined to stifle protest and dissent on the part of the Palestinians. It also embraced neo-liberal economic policies constructing a façade of economic growth to mask colonial dependency.

Despite the fact that Oslo was a lopsided accord in Israel’s favor, Zionist reactionaries led by Binyamin Netanyahu condemned it as appeasement and vilified Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, leading to his assassination in 1995.

In signing the Oslo Accords the PLO made the historic mistake of relying on the United States to play the role of honest broker and to pressure Israel into ending the occupation. Under the thumb of the Israel lobby and the widespread distortions of the Palestine issue that it fosters, Washington failed to use the leverage that its massive annual military allocations and economic assistance to Israel provided.

When a new round of talks at Camp David collapsed in 2000, President Bill Clinton and his AIPAC-spawned negotiator Dennis Ross—like Jared Kushner today—heaped all the blame on the Palestinians. In fact, however, Arafat had made a number of concessions, including signing off on Israeli annexation of West Bank settlement blocs and Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as well as de facto demilitarization of the new Palestinian state.

After the breakdown of the talks, Ariel Sharon sabotaged all diplomacy, orchestrated the extreme violence of the second intifada, and threw open the doors to West Bank settlers who today number more than 620,000 illegal occupants. The Obama administration issued a tepid call for renewed negotiations but quickly backed off in the face of Netanyahu’s rejectionism and the sweeping influence of AIPAC and its cohorts.

Israel’s persistent opposition to pursuing a Middle East peace flows from the logic of Zionist colonization in which the settlers seek to gain control of as much land as possible with as few Palestinians as possible living on it. Israeli leaders—David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Sharon and Netanyahu among them—often explicitly advanced this very policy in these very terms.

Never missing an opportunity to sabotage negotiations in deference to establishing facts on the ground, Israel remains today what it has always been: a congenitally aggressive settler state determined to privilege land over peace, to commit war crimes and to violate international law with impunity. Despite all its lofty pretensions as leader of the “free world,” the United States continues to serve as the relentless enabler of an oppressive apartheid state.

The “deal of the century” is merely the latest bad act in a long-running historical tragedy.

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We Won’t Stop COVID-19 with “Chickenpox Parties”


Photograph Source: kelly bell photography – CC BY 2.0

Thumbing their noses at both government directives and the coronavirus, right-wing protestors have been massing at state capitols in Michigan, Minnesota, Virginia, and Texas to demand the lifting of stay-at-home orders issued by Democratic governors. President Donald Trump has responded in a way that looks a whole lot like a call to insurrection. On April 17, Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” and ‘LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” apparently mistaking those states for Paris in 1944.

Trump and the Republican Party have been pushing to reopen the American economy immediately, if not sooner, and screw the cost in human lives. This attitude goes a long way toward explaining an article The Federalist ran on March 25.

If you didn’t already know that The Federalist is a right-wing website, you would have after you saw the article’s title: “How ‘Chickenpox Parties’ Could Turn the Tide of the Wuhan Virus.” The author, Dr. Douglas A. Perednia, a retired dermatologist—not a specialist in infectious diseases—makes the standard right-wing talking point that we can’t stay in our homes forever while the US economy crumbles. He adds that we don’t yet have a vaccine that would prevent infection with COVID-19; nor do we have an effective treatment for the virus once contracted. He declares: “It is time to think outside the box and seriously consider a somewhat unconventional approach to COVID-19: controlled voluntary infection.”

Unconventional is one way to put it. Controlled voluntary infection (CVI), explains Dr. Perednia, “involves allowing people at low risk for severe complications to deliberately contract COVID-19 in a socially and medically responsible way so they become immune to the disease. People who are immune cannot pass on the disease to others.”

Who would voluntarily submit to infection with COVID-19? President Donald Trump has an answer: journalists. According to Vanity Fair: “Trump told aides he’s afraid journalists will try to purposefully contract coronavirus to give it to him on Air Force One, a person close to the administration told me.”

Dr. Perednia isn’t thinking of infecting journalists. Dr. Perednia wants to recruit his corps of volunteer guinea pigs from a different group: young people under age 20. Why? Because of herd immunity.

Dr. Perednia explains herd immunity as “the phenomenon whereby contagious infections can no longer spread if a large enough percentage of the population is immune to the disease, and CVI is a means to achieve it.” This phenomenon is real. Dr. Perednia proposes that persons under 20 volunteer to be infected with the coronavirus as they are the demographic with the lowest risk of dying from COVID-19.

Here is where the problems with Dr. Perednia’s plan begin to come thick and fast.[1] First, Dr. Perednia assumes that COVID-19 infection + recovery = immunity in the future. Not necessarily. Future immunity from COVID-19 following recovery is not guaranteed. Reports from South Korea and China indicate that people who apparently recovered from COVID-19 tested positive for the virus after recovery.[2] The World Health Organization (WHO) says that the presence of antibodies to COVID-19 in a person’s blood is no guarantee that he or she will not become reinfected. WHO also said that there is little evidence that herd immunity to COVID-19 is developing.

Second, Dr. Perednia writes that under his proposal, “participants are actively exposed to the mildest form of COVID-19 virus available.” Here’s the problem with that: there is no “mildest form of COVID-19.” There is no way of predicting in advance who or how many of those infected with the coronavirus will experience a mild, severe, or even fatal case of COVID-19.

Third, Perednia’s plan would result in a staggering number of deaths. Dr. Perednia posits that 210 million Americans (60% of the US population) would need to become immune in order for the US to achieve herd immunity.[3] Our health system would collapse. Even assuming a low fatality rate, 210 million Americans infected with the coronavirus would produce a staggering death toll. Out of 640,000 known cases of COVID-19 infection in the US, 30,000 people have died, a fatality ratio of 4.7%. Extrapolating from these figures, if we infect 210 million Americans, then we should expect about 10 million deaths.

Fourth, where does Dr. Perednia propose to find 210 million Americans who have recovered from COVID-19 and thus are immune (a questionable assumption as we have seen)? Remember: Dr. Perednia specifies that these are to be volunteers…and under age 20 (because young people are at the lowest risk of death from COVID-19). There aren’t 210 million Americans under the age of 20, and, even if there were, how many of them would volunteer to be guinea pigs? Will Dr. Perednia enlist his grandkids? Will the offspring of the plutocrats on Trump’s new Council to Re-open America rush to sign up?

We know who the guinea pigs would be. Dr. Perednia’s plan would place the burden of fighting the coronavirus on disenfranchised groups, including Blacks, Hispanics, undocumented immigrants, and low-income individuals. These groups are already suffering the worst from the pandemic. They were already suffering before the pandemic.

* * * * *

Controlled voluntary infection is not a new idea. Dr. Perednia finds “an interesting historical precedent for CVI”: “chickenpox parties.”

Before a vaccine was developed for chickenpox or German measles, parents would expose their children to a neighbor child who had the disease. The parents did so with the expectation that their own children would thus become infected. This would spark what Dr. Perednia cozily describes as a “little local epidemic” in the neighborhood, and would immunize the children from infection in adult life when chickenpox and German measles are much more severe, even fatal.

Dr. Perednia thinks that because controlled voluntary infection (CVI) was successful at preventing the spread of chickenpox and German measles, CVI will work just as well at checking the spread of COVID-19. But most of the US population was already immune to chickenpox.  Therefore, the maximum number of people at risk in a given year throughout the US was at most the birth cohort of that year, about 4 million. By contrast, most of the US population is not immune to COVID-19. Further, chickenpox infections were not severe among children and the majority did not need medical care, although some otherwise healthy children who were infected at the “chickenpox” parties Dr. Perednia describes did die.

* * * * *

Dr. Perednia has written a prescription that will gladden the hearts of right-wingers. The Right welcomes any scheme, however hare-brained, that seems to hold out the promise that the US economy can be reopened at once, however many people that kills. It’s a dangerous prescription. After The Federalist tweeted Dr. Perednia’s article, Twitter temporarily suspended The Federalist‘s account for recommending a course of action which could endanger public health.

We must halt the stampede to reopen the economy. A comment on Facebook pointed out that the Right poses a false dilemma: go back to work now or let the economy collapse. We aren’t forced to make that choice. We can pay people to stay home and let billionaires lose a little money. Good advice.


1) In writing this article, I had the invaluable help of an epidemiologist who specializes in infectious diseases who has asked to be unnamed. She gave generously of her time and has my sincere thanks. Any errors and all opinions expressed within are mine alone.

2) Towards the end of his article under the subhead, “Potential Limits of This Approach,” Dr. Perednia asks: “Is it possible for patients who have recovered from COVID-19 to be re-infected?” This, he says, is a question which “should be answerable within a relatively short period of time.” 

3) Dr. Perednia writes:

Math tells us how many people need to be exposed to an illness or vaccine before herd immunity develops in the community. Crunching data from the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London implies that based on the Wuhan [sic] virus’s reproduction number, we can achieve herd immunity by immunizing somewhere between 33.3 to 71.4 percent of the population, with an averaged guess of 61.5 percent. 

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France and COVID-19: Incompetence and Conceit


Photograph Source: David Mapletoft – CC BY 2.0

On December 31, 2019, the Chinese government informed the World Health Organization of an epidemic of animal origin in Wuhan, reporting similarities to SARS-CoV (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, originally appearing in 2002 in the province of Guangdong) and to MERS-CoV (Middle East Repiratory Syndrome, originally appearing in Saudi Arabia in 2012). On January 12, Chinese scientists shared the completely sequenced genome of this new coronavirus with the entire international scientific community.

The epidemic had already killed 80 people in China and thousands were infected. The city of Wuhan (11 million inhabitants) and the province of Hubei (60 million inhabitants the city of Wuhan included) were isolated on January 25-26. Factories, offices, stores, schools, universities, museums, and airports were all closed down.Urban transportation in the city was significantly reduced. As a precaution, the authorities extended the Chinese New Year vacation by one week (January 23-31) to cover the incubation period for the virus among the inhabitants of Wuhan who left the city and could have been infected. They set up shelter hospitals (“fangcang”) in gymnasiums, conference centers, hotels, and other facilities to separate the symptomatic and the likely-infected from their healthy relatives. With the number of ill people exceeding local hospital capacity, the authorities set up two 1,200-bed hospitals in fifteen days and summoned medical and voluntary nursing personnel from all over China. More than 42,000 healthcare personnel responded. Despite the use of Personal Protective Equipment, 4.4% of them (3,387) had tested positive and 23 had died as of April 3 according to the Chinese Red Cross.[1] The lockdown was strict and neighborhood committees were mobilized to ensure food deliveries to the inhabitants. Masks were requisitioned and distributed to the population. Street fixtures and furniture were disinfected, even banknotes were disinfected. The average age of the ill was 55 and 56% of them were men. No case of infection was reported in anyone under the age of 15.

All this information was shared in international medical journals by Chinese doctors and researchers starting on February 20.[2] The creation of hospitals ex nihilo in the space of a fortnight was given ample coverage in the media but the French authorities did not appreciate the gravity of the implications: they preferred to view the initiative as the Chinese marketing their public works. In mid-January, COVID-19 cases were recorded in Bangkok, Tokyo, and Seoul. Thermal sensors were installed in the airports of China, Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. On January 26, the authorities in Hong Kong cancelled all sports and cultural events. A testing campaign began in the city on February 18.

And what of France? On January 24, the Ministry of Health announced that three patients coming from China had been hospitalized with the coronavirus. The French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) outlined two scenarios for the spread of COVID-19: one high-risk, the other low-risk. Given air traffic, the countries estimated to be the most exposed were Germany and the United Kingdom. Italy was not even mentioned. The Minister of Health, Agnès Buzyn, commented on the INSERM scenarios that same day as she left the Council of Ministers: “the risk of secondary infection from an imported case is very low and the risk of propagation of the virus in the population is also very low.”[3]

On January 30, France repatriated 250 French citizens and 100 European immigrants from Wuhan, putting them in quarantine in southern France. On February 10, a British citizen coming from Singapore infected five other people in the small Alpine ski resort of Contamines-Montjoie. A summary screening did not detect other cases at the resort. The infected were hospitalized. Buzyn reminded us on that occasion that “the risk of infection is very low; only close and sustained contact with an infected person can increase it.”[4]

At that point, with 900 reported dead in China, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made clear reference to the danger of global propagation, “we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg.”[5]

But in France the authorities—duly warned but strangely untroubled—took no particular measures. On March 6, while at the theatre with his wife, President Macron stated, “Life goes on. There is no reason, except for the more vulnerable members of the population, to change our outing habits.”[6] His aim was to encourage the French to continue to go out despite the coronavirus epidemic and the lack of protective masks. That same day, the Italian government decided to lock down Lombardy, extending the provision to the entire country the following day. While Macron was enjoying the performance, there were 613 cases of coronavirus in France and the number was doubling every three days (roughly the same rate recorded by Chinese physicians in Wuhan in January and seen in South Korea and Italy). Extrapolating this exponential growth, it could be estimated that on March 16 there would be approximately 6,500 cases; the final official figure was 6,633.

The French government was all focused on the pension reform, president Macron’s top priority. Protests were organized in all French cities: retirees, railway workers, physicians, lawyers, fire fighters, and students all took to the streets. The demonstrations were violently suppressed by the police. Economists were in unanimous agreement—a rare event—that the proposed reform would harm all categories of worker except those in the upper income brackets. Sociologists warned the government about the deepening social schisms, as had been thrust into the public eye earlier with the 12 months revolt of the gilets jaunes [yellow vests]. These protests had been staged every Saturday for nearly a year in all cities in France, drawing in a broad range of the hardest-hit social and occupational categories, a large portion of whom were pensioners. But all for naught: on Saturday afternoon, February 29, with the chamber of the Assemblée nationale -where the debate on the bill was taking place—almost empty because of the of the day, the government seized the opportunity of the COVID-19 pandemic to pass pension reform by constitutional decree. On that date, gatherings of more than 900 people were prohibited because of COVID-19. The authorities no longer risked protests by the people in the street.

But the Macron administration did not stop there. Against the advice of the medical team and the stadium manager, it authorized a Juventus–Olympique Lyonnais football match for the Round of 16 in the Champions League. Three thousand Italian fans were in Lyon on February 26: at that time Italy had 21 coronavirus deaths and 900 people infected. Dr. Marcel Garrigou-Grandchamp, who had warned the new Minister of Health on the morning of the match, published an opinion piece on the website of the Fédération des Médecins de France on March 31, where he spoke of an “explosion” in coronavirus cases in the Département du Rhône some two weeks after the OL–Juventus match. A similar sequence of events had taken place in Italy with the Atalanta B.C. – Valencia match on February 19, termed a “bomba biologica” by many Italian physicians. It was March 4, fifteen days after the match, that the number of cases in the Lombard city of Bergamo exploded, making it the most heavily impacted city in Italy. Walter Ricciardi, Italian representative to the WHO, acknowledged that the match had been a “catalyst for the propagation of the virus”. The Paris-Nice 8-stage professional cycling race was held as scheduled from March 8th to the 15th. More significantly, the government confirmed the first phase of municipal elections on March 15, after it had ordered the closure of schools and universities on March 12 and the shutdown of most stores, bars, and restaurants on March 14. There are 34,000 communes in France that had to organize the elections with local volunteers: volunteers and voters without adequate protection—there were no masks available. The government had requisitioned them for hospital personnel, where the shortage was critical. Half of the voters stayed home for safety’s sake. To make matters worse, Agnès Buzyn announced her candidacy for mayor of Paris on February 16, less than one month before the election, to take the place of the government’s candidate, Benjamin Griveaux, who had been discredited when an explicit video he had sent to a young woman was posted online. Buzyn left the Ministry of Health in the middle of the Coronavirus crisis. The healthcare workers who had organized numerous strikes over the previous eleven months to protest the deterioration of public hospitals felt belittled. Losing by a wide margin, Buzyn declared in an interview for Le Monde that the election had been a “masquerade”.[7] The lockdown was not ordered until the day after the elections, politique oblige.

The new Minister of Health, Olivier Vérant, a member of parliament with the party in power, took up the government’s mantra, one that every minister and secretary of state is expected to chant in unison: “masks are useless, the tests are unreliable”. They all swear by handwashing and lockdowns. No reference is made to the way things had been handled in Seoul, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, where free masks were distributed and people were required to wear them, and large-scale testing was carried out, and where economic life goes on, in slow motion, but it goes on. Today, with 23 million inhabitants, Taiwan has recorded 6 COVID-19 deaths; Hong Kong, with 7 million inhabitants, has lost 4. As for the French doctors who were in Wuhan working alongside their Chinese colleagues and thus well informed, they were not even consulted.

The French police stop and fine transgressors, solitary walkers or joggers, while the metro, airports, trams, and buses are all operating and supermarkets and tobacconists are open for business. The police are themselves without masks and many fall victim to the virus, becoming potential carriers. The same is true of healthcare and administrative personnel, working without personal protective equipment in retirement homes. The authorities refused to report the number of victims among healthcare workers, citing “medical secrecy” concerns. The elderly die but are not counted in the official statistics. Nor are those who die at home. Now that their numbers are so high and can no longer be ignored, we discover that the residents of these retirement homes account for 40% of the deaths recorded in France. They are not hospitalized. Their treatment? Paracetamol for the mildly afflicted, morphine for the rest. Close to half of the nursing staff in retirement homes are affected by the epidemic.[8] But the government is powerless: it does not have sufficient testing solution and will not allow tests to be conducted in retirement homes unless there is a confirmed case there. Ubuesque!

The borders remain open. President Macron refuses to close the border with Italy, which the leader of the Rassemblement National party, Marine Le Pen has been demanding since February 26. For the Head of State, the problem posed by the epidemic “can only be resolved through perfect European and international cooperation.” The events of the following days would quickly contradict this wishful thinking. Every country has closed in on itself. But not France. There are no health controls at French airports, train stations, or ports. Not even today, April 18, 2020, when the official death toll has reached 18,000. In the worksite next to my home, Italian workmen come to work, without protective equipment, every morning on the 7:35 train from Ventimiglia, getting off at the Gare d’Eze: no checks when they depart, no checks when they arrive. Italy has now officially recorded more than 23,660 deaths. On its April 18 evening newscast, the television station Antenne 2 aired the report by journalist Charlotte Gillard, who had taken an Air France flight from Paris to Marseille: the plane was packed, not a free seat, the passengers did not have masks, no one’s temperature was checked on either departure or arrival.

We gradually learn from news reported in the press that France currently has no stores of masks or test kits. For economic reasons—annual savings of 30 million euros—the country’s strategic stocks were depleted in 2012 and never replenished. On the eve of 2020, when the coronavirus epidemic began to spread, France’s supplies consisted of zero FFP2 masks, 117 million adult surgical masks, and 40 million pediatric masks! The hospitals are experiencing critical mask shortages. The nursing staff in retirement homes have no protection (no gloves, no masks, no sanitizing gel). There is no more sanitizing gel available in pharmacies or stores. Doctors and nurses do not have the equipment they need. As for hospitals, they have neither enough beds nor enough ventilators to adequately cope with the epidemic.

The French authorities do not admit it publicly. And they seem to drag their feet for reasons that are impossible to grasp. They did not expect this. And when it began to materialize, they denied it for reasons that can only be called conceit, a traditional mark of distinction among the French political elite. The French regions authorities, realizing the government deficiencies, order and purchase their supplies directly from China. When they arrive, they are requisitioned by the state: thus 4 million masks that were ordered from China by Bourgogne-Franche-Comté for the nursing staff in its retirement homes were confiscated on the tarmac of the Basel-Mulhouse airport by the police on April 4, using methods that would make a gangster blush. As for the rare mayors who have stocks of personal protective equipment and graciously make them available to the local population, requiring the use of masks, they are taken to court by the Ministry of the Interior, which wants to preserve its royal prerogatives. On April 16, the Council of State, the highest administrative body in France, asserted its regal status by limiting the power of mayors. The decision calls to mind its role in 1942-1944 during the Vichy regime. It stays true to itself; it serves the State, not the Nation.

The nurses in the intensive care units in Paris hospitals report that given the shortage of beds and ventilators, they are essentially practicing battlefield medicine. This means there is a triage among the sick, choosing between those considered too old and those the doctors feel have a better chance of recovery.[9] It is no coincidence that the two European countries least afflicted by the pandemic are well-equipped Austria and Germany, which have not, so far, experience a shortage of beds or ventilators. In France, veterinarians are lending their ventilators to hospitals! Instead of nationalizing private clinics as they have done in Ireland, they transport patients long distances in medical trains, helicopters, or buses to less congested hospitals in the province or abroad (Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg), increasing the possibility of infecting healthcare personnel and the risk of death. The statistics are biased because patients over the age of 75 do not have access to the ICU services: this is a sad fact for retirement homes.

It was not until March 28 that the Minister of Health, Olivier Véran, announced: “More than a billion masks have been ordered from France and other countries for the coming weeks and months.” This was the man who a few days earlier repeated publicly, in a sort of litany, that masks were useless.

In its decision of April 15 on the screening and protection of the elderly, the Council of State revealed the extent of the disaster. Assailed by associations demanding that people living in retirement homes and their caregivers be systematically tested and that protective equipment (masks, sanitizing gel) be distributed, the Council of State limited itself to reciting the paltry figures promulgated by the government (“40,000 tests per day will be available across the country by the end of April; 60,000 will be available in the weeks to come”). So in mid-May, France will be ready to do close to what Germany has already been doing since a month and a half: 500,000 tests per week. As for masks, the “current orders amount to some 50 million masks”. However, give the delivery rate, it will take nine months to receive them all.

There are 430,000 healthcare personnel and 752,000 pensioners in retirement homes and health centers. All told, there are close to a million healthcare professionals (210,000 active doctors and 700,000 nurses and nursing assistants) in France.

Under these conditions, it is clear that Macron’s announcement of the end of the lockdown and the resumption of school classes on May 11 is a gamble. If all teachers were to return to the classroom, that would mean 870,000 masks per day—reuse of masks is contraindicated. And if all the students return on this date, or even gradually, they would have to be supplied with more than 12 million masks per day.

Even with the President publicizing the “grand public” mask, a French invention no doubt handcrafted locally, the end of the lockdown on May 11 and the resumption of school classes is at best a gamble; without reliable masks to protect the entire population, it is a risky and irresponsible act.

The end of a health crisis that the authorities did not anticipate will be all the more painful for the French, both fiscally and socially, with the President and his administration coming out of this ordeal diminished and wholly discredited.


1) “Death from Covid-19 of 23 Health Care Workers in China”, The New England Journal of Medicine, April 15, 2020. 

2) The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine, see Chen Wang “Covid-19 control in China during mass population movements at New Year”, February 20, 2020 (on line). 

3) Statement to the press, BFM TV, Palais de l ‘Elysée, January 24, 2020. 

4) Benoit Pavan, “Coronavirus : la station de ski de Contamines-Montjoie, en Haute-Savoie, un foyer potentiel en France”, Le Monde, February 10, 2020.

5) Frederic Lemaître, “Coronavirus : la semaine où tout peut basculer”, Le Monde, February 9, 2020.

6) BFM TV, March 7, 2020. 

7) Ariane Chemin, “Les regrets d’Agnès Buzyn : ‘On aurait dû tout arrêter, c’était une mascarade’”, Le Monde, March 17, 2020.

8) Béatrice Jérôme, Lorraine de Foucher, “Dans les Ehpad décimés par le coronavirus, ‘c’est un cauchemar collectif’”, Le Monde, April 2,l 2020.

9) “Une situation de médecine de guerre”, Nice Matin, April 16, 2020. 

Posted in France, HealthComments Off on France and COVID-19: Incompetence and Conceit

Is There Any Better Time Than Now For a General Strike?


The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into stark relief the inequalities baked into the U.S.’s capitalist system—one that deems nurses and grocery workers “essential,” but leaves them with just as few rights and privileges as they had before the crisis struck. The scenario before us, where society depends more than ever on the bottom rung of the working class, offers a perfect storm for these “essential workers” to use their leverage and demand better protections for themselves now and in the future. This perfect storm may well unfold on May 1—a day with historic roots in the U.S., marked by workers all around the world to demand their labor rights.

For those of us considered “non-essential workers,” May 1, 2020, also offers an opportunity to say a resounding “no” to President Donald Trump, who is desperate to salvage his flagging shot at reelection and demanding that people return to work at the beginning of May. Trump has made clear that his needs are more important than ours in defying health experts who agree that May 1 is far too early to return to “normal.” He has claimed “total” authority over lifting state and citywide quarantines during the pandemic. A general strike on May 1 would lay waste to his wishful thinking for totalitarianism.

Kali Akuno, the co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, laid out his organization’s call for a May Day strike this year and shared with me in an interview that, “we are calling on all workers to come as one, in particular the essential workers to strike for their lives.” He explained that, “If Trump is calling for businesses to return to normal, if that is allowed to proceed without the personal protective gear being in place for every single one of our essential workers, we’re just going to create a calamity and keep this crisis going further.”

Akuno also sees the pandemic as a turning point where workers can send a message of refusing to “go back to business-as-usual”—the status quo where a massive underclass of working people are living paycheck-to-paycheck without adequate health care, paid leave, childcare for their dependents, or decent wages is no longer acceptable. “It was business-as-usual that allowed this to roll out in the way that it has,” he said.

Workers deemed “essential” have been forced to work in order to keep their jobs but offered little recompense or even protection from the virus. A supermarket worker at Tem’s Food Market in Macon, Mississippi, found my personal mask-making project on social media and begged me to make 20 masks for her colleagues and her. In the early days of the crisis, not only were grocery workers like her not provided with protective gear, but many were also stunningly not allowed to wear their own safety equipment such as masks and gloves. My own cousin, a grocery store manager in Boston, Massachusetts, responded to my worried queries about his health and safety saying that upper management was not permitting him and others to wear masks at work until recently. This was corroborated by supermarket analyst Phil Lempert who told the Washington Post, “One of the biggest mistakes supermarkets made early on was not allowing employees to wear masks and gloves the way they wanted to.”

It is no wonder that the workers we rely on to feed and care for us are falling ill from the virus and dying. Thousands of grocery workers have already tested positive for COVID-19 and as of mid-April more than 40 have died. Although such “essential workers” are naturally terrified of catching the virus in their workplace, their vulnerable socioeconomic status also means they cannot afford to quit. The pressure to conform and fall in line with the demands of corporate America are all too real as workers face a choice between accepting their oppression or being fired. More than 16 million Americans have already lost their jobs, and beyond a $1,200 payout from the federal government and hard-to-access unemployment benefits, there is little else to compensate them.

Still, in the face of such an untenable situation, workers are already agitating for their rights with walkouts and protests. The New York Times’ labor writer Steven Greenhouse explained that, “Fearing retaliation, American workers are generally far more reluctant to stick their necks out and protest working conditions than are workers in other industrial countries.” However, now, “with greater fear of the disease than of their bosses, workers have set off a burst of walkouts, sickouts and wildcat strikes.” Whole Foods workers had planned an action for May Day but moved up their “sick out” to March 31 to demand better conditions and pay. Amazon workers at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York, organized a walkout, but the world’s largest retail giant simply fired the organizer. The person ultimately responsible for overseeing workers at Whole Foods and Amazon is Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man who personally racked up an extra $24 billion this year alone largely as a result of the pandemic. Bezos’s wealth and power, when contrasted with the harsh conditions under which his employees work, are an appropriate symbol for a general strike on May Day as the best chance for workers to demand their rights.

On its website, Akuno’s organization Cooperation Jackson spells out the demands it is making for May Day in encouraging workers to not show up for their jobs, and for all Americans to collectively refuse to shop for a day. These include not only short-term demands for personal protective equipment for all essential workers, but also long-term demands for a Universal Basic Income, health care for all, housing rights, and a Green New Deal.

Americans are perhaps more receptive to the idea of a general strike than they have been in a century. Alongside the hashtag #NotDying4WallStreet are calls on social media for a #GeneralStrike2020. High-profile left thinkers like Naomi Klein have already embraced the idea of a general strike. But Akuno admits that a strike will not work if only small numbers of Americans participate, saying, “we need to reach people in the hundreds of millions,” and “we have to organize in such a way where we change the fundamental dynamics of labor, how it’s valued, how it’s treated.” In other words, there is the potential for transformative change in this crisis—but only if we can seize the moment.

Posted in USA, HealthComments Off on Is There Any Better Time Than Now For a General Strike?

The Origin of Plagues: From Mao to Trump


Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

On July 1, 1958, the ruler of China, Mao Tse-tung, said farewell to the god of plagues. Mao’s celebration was short lived. The god of plagues has been ravaging China and the rest of the world to this day of the existential corona pandemic in 2020.

China started the twenty-first century with a plague. According to Yanzhong Huang, professor of diplomacy at Seton Hall University, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) plague of 2002 caught the government of China unprepared. This was as much a blow to public health as it was a political embarrassment to the Communist Party.

Politicians and doctors from the time of Mao to the time of Trump have treated plagues like so many other diseases: temporary harm exorcised with drugs and vaccines.

In 2020, however, the plague of the corona virus demands a different philosophy: sensitive to the nature, harmony, and extreme vulnerability of the world. Humans are one of millions of species. They cannot crush wildlife and expect immunity from such violence. Aristotle was right: nature is perfect: it does nothing in vain.

Chinese Dao thinking goes a step further. It considers nature being ourselves. Humans and nature are one. According to the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi / Chuang-tzu, “Heaven, Earth and I came into being together, and all things and I are one.”

Developers and business men are wrong. Nature is not dead and divorced from us. There are repercussions to everything we do in the natural world. We are connected to all animals, plants, waters and the stars.

The corona virus did not just happen from nowhere. It has a history and it is a warning. It has become a lesser version of Black Death. It has practically turned the world off: forcing people to stay home, closing sports, theaters, shopping malls, restaurants, schools, libraries, churches, business — and causing gigantic unemployment, impoverishment, and shrinking of the economy.

I walk and bike in the deserted streets of my beautiful hometown in Southern California. I feel the sense of isolation and anxiety pervading everything. The few people I see are wearing masks. The moment they see anyone coming their way, they cross the tree-lined boulevard. We greet each other, pleased that civilization is still alive. They are walking their dogs.

This local, national, and global paralysis, however, is more than unprecedented. It has the potential of turning the planet back to the dark ages, even disrupting and annihilating civilization.

The other alternative, the silver lining of the pandemic, is potentially forcing a rethinking of the very political, military, and economic system that keeps giving birth to pandemics.

Agribusiness roots of the plague pandemics

In 1976, I wrote Fear in the Countryside, my first book. I denounced the so-called agricultural development of the tropics, then baptized as the Green Revolution. This effort of making global the petroleum farming of America, which required the stealing of the land of peasants, was primarily funded by the World Bank and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations.

My anger at that ecumenical homogenization  and land grabbing went deep. My father was a peasant who raised our food with traditional farming. But here I was in America and at Harvard studying the effects of machine and chemical-agriculture on my father’s agrarian culture, still dominating most non-Western countries.

This was the decade of the 1970s when America was bombing Vietnam to the Stone Age over abstract misunderstandings of communism and bitter, life and death cold war rivalries with the Soviet Union (Russia).

My research demonstrated the wisdom of traditional farming and the harm of petroleum agriculture. Peasants like my father knew how to raise food without destroying nature and wildlife.

Yet petroleum agriculture is the dominant global paradigm of modernity and food. The world in 2020 is mostly “producing” food with gigantic machines and unfathomable quantities of toxic fertilizers and chemicals.

Loggers, commercial farmers, and landless peasants are burning and flattening forests like the Amazon to produce feed for cattle, ending on the plates of customers of fast food restaurants and in the diet of rich people.

These endless sacrifices on the altar of ecocide have revived and reinvigorated the god of plagues.

Wildlife and the plague pandemics

Peter Daszak, a zoologist with extensive experience in China, is director of the New York-based non-profit Eco Health Alliance. He has studied the origins of viruses for several years. He links development projects and rural people to disease footprints in the natural world.

In other words, loggers and soybean farmers are in places where they should not be: habitats reserved for wildlife, which, when disturbed, facilitate the movement of viruses — like the corona virus – to human society in a big way.

In an April 16, 2020 interview, he highlighted the anthropogenic origins of the corona virus pandemic.

He ridiculed the idea that corona virus was a product of biological warfare. He said:

“The idea that this virus escaped from a [Chinese] lab is just pure baloney. It’s simply not true. I’ve been working with that lab [in China] for 15 years. And the samples collected were collected by me and others in collaboration with our Chinese colleagues. They’re some of the best scientists in the world.”

He is angry that the Trump administration has politicized the origins of the pandemic. He prides himself in studying the origin of emerging diseases, saying that about seventy-five percent of every new emerging disease “originate in wildlife.”

He explained why wildlife is full of viruses:

“Every species of wildlife carries viruses that are a natural part of its biology, a bit like we have the common cold and herpes, cold sores. They don’t really do much to the species in the wild, but sometimes when we make contact with them, we pick up those viruses, and they can be lethal. Most times they’re not, but every now and again we get a lethal virus. And we estimate there are 1.7 million unknown viruses in wildlife, so there’s a lot of diversity out there that could emerge in the future….

“We can trace back the origins [of corona virus] by looking at the genetic signal within the virus itself. So we sequence out the gene from the virus, the genome, and then we compare it to others. And when we do that, we see that the viruses in people, the closest relative of those are from bats. This is not unusual. Bats happen to carry a lot of different viral species. There are many different bats around the world that carry their own viruses. We make contact with them. Often we don’t see them. They fly at night [to feed on insects]… And we pick up their viruses. SARS coronavirus, the original virus, emerged from bats. Ebola virus is a bat-origin virus. Rabies and many others.”

Daszak explained that the huge diversity of bats in Southeast Asia has been a bridge for the movement of viruses to humans. Those peasants who live close to bat caves cannot escape the bats and their viruses. Bats fly over them every night. They “urinate, defecate, maybe onto their food or into their drink.”

Second, rural people go into the caves of bats, seeking their guano / feces for fertilizer. Most of those people are subsistence peasants who supplement their diet with wildlife, including bats. That assures they get exposed to the viruses of the bats.

In addition, there is a market for selling alive and dead bats. The Wuhan market in China has been a great market bringing together lots of people and wildlife like bats. This and other markets, Daszak says, are really “good places for a virus to spread.”

Daszak then speaks about people encroaching into wildlife habitat, opening new roads into forests for mining and logging and subsistence agriculture. That, he says, represents “a global trend that will drive the rise of future pandemics.”

He recommends we rethink our relationship with the natural world, at minimum “reduce our ecological footprint.” He even turns to “folks on the right,” asking them, “what about your own health? You know, we are making ourselves sick by making the planet sick.”

Daszak says he and his Chinese colleagues found a huge diversity of “bat-origin coronaviruses.” The bats keep “spilling [plague viruses] over into people.” As a result, about 3 percent of rural people in Southwest China have antibodies to wildlife viruses. Every year about 1 to 7 million people across Southeast Asia are infected by the bat virus. “So,” he says, “it’s not just an expectation that we’ll have more events. It’s a certainty.”

Daszak is also concerned about many other viruses he came across in his research in China. He laments we know practically nothing about those viruses. His hope is that we should study them before they make us sick.

In addition, he insists we should help poor tropical countries to deal with the viruses because that way we protect ourselves as well. “It’s a right-wing agenda and a left-wing agenda,” he says.

What needs to be done

On April 22nd, we are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Earth Day. What better gift to ourselves and our Mother Earth than taking seriously and acting on the signals it emits in distress: preeminently, the signals of corona virus and climate change.

I found the insights of Peter Daszak on the corona virus extremely useful and timely. I would have suggested the United States follows up, but with Trump in charge, nothing would happen. The World Health Organization, however, ought to implement his strategy for reducing the certain harm of repeated pandemics.

Daszak knows what he is talking about. His take home lesson is that we are to blame for the corona virus: “It’s our everyday way of going about business on the planet that seems to be driving this,” he says. Business as usual equals plagues.

Here we are acting like we came from outer space, invading and conquering this beautiful planet, home to people, science and civilization and myriad forms of life for millennia. Time is still with us to change our barbarian ways or we are doomed.

The first thing that needs to happen on a global scale is strict population control and the reversal of inequality. China is a model for both.

Poor rural people should not be forced to hunting bats for survival. Break up the large haciendas and agribusiness farms and give small pieces of land to landless peasants. Join their traditional methods with the science of agroecology and you have a productive and sustainable way of raising food.

If and when the virus takes a vacation, we must slow down and stop logging, mining, and subsistence or commercial farming in forests. In other words, leave wildlife alone.

The international community must force Brazil to stop burning the Amazon for the production of cattle feed. Start with a boycott of Brazilian feed. Those countries buying feed from Brazil need to say enough with forest fires for meat. In fact, stopping eating meat would be a boon to our health and the health of the natural world.

China and other tropical countries must stop rural people from eating bats. “Bush meat” should become illegal.

We should not forget this pandemic is taking place in the age of climate change, another anthropogenic calamity surrounding the planet.

We need global policies and institutions that diminish the violence of climate change and, at the same time, protect wildlife from human encroachment. A World Environment Organization could do exactly that: see that the world abandons its fossil fuels addiction for solar and other forms of renewable energy while enforcing strict international standards protecting wildlife and its habitats.

Our lives are now at stake. Subsistence farmers, agribusiness men, billionaires, right-wind conservatives and Marxists would agree they would not want to become victims of the angry god of plagues: the very viruses of their careless technologies and policies affecting nature.

Posted in USA, ChinaComments Off on The Origin of Plagues: From Mao to Trump

The Washington Post’s Debt Cult


Photograph Source: Kevin Dooley – CC BY 2.0

The Washington Post is always telling us that debt, especially government debt is bad, very bad. It’s not quite sure why or how, but debt is definitely bad.

We got the latest confused entry from the Post’s debt cult today, warning us about some “tipping point” that we are at risk of passing. The notion of a tipping point on government debt had its shining hour when a paper by Harvard professors Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff purported to show that when a country’s debt-to-GDP ratio crossed 90 percent, it led to sharply slower growth. While this paper was used to justify austerity in countries around the world, it turned out that the result was driven by an Excel spreadsheet error, as shown in a paper by University of Massachusetts economists Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin. When the error was corrected, the data showed no 90 percent tipping point.

This piece acknowledges that the United States is not likely to see a tipping point, where it can’t sell its debt:

“That scenario has afflicted numerous smaller economies. But such an outcome seems less likely for the United States, given the primacy of the dollar in the world economy and the country’s long track record of relative economic stability.”

While the U.S. dollar is still the preeminent currency in transactions and as a reserve currency, this is not a necessary condition for it being able to issue large amounts of debt without creating a crisis. Japan’s debt to GDP ratio is more than twice as high as in the U.S. and it had near zero interest rates and near zero inflation, just before the coronavirus crisis.

Japan does enter in this piece as a debt horror story:

“Japan has been stuck in an endless loop of disappointing growth, low interest rates and mounting debt, and the United States could face a similar future.”

Actually, Japan’s per capita growth since the bursting of its stock and real estate bubble in 1990 has not been hugely different from growth in the United States. Japan’s per capita growth rate has averaged 1.4 percent over the last three decades, compared to 2.3 percent in the United States.

But Japan also reduced the length of its average work year by 16 percent over this period, while it fell just 3.0 percent in the United States. In effect, Japan is choosing to take the benefits of productivity growth largely in the form of increased leisure rather than increased income. This does imply slower GDP growth, but there is no economic reason to prefer GDP growth to increased leisure.

The piece then gets into what can only be described as non sequiturs:

“An era of perpetually ultralow interest rates distorts the economy by eliminating the traditional market discipline that discriminates between worthy investments and unprofitable ones. If money is virtually “free” for many years — as it has been since 2008 — even bad ideas can attract financing.”

“As the United States once again turns to debt to rescue the economy, it is locking in a future of lower growth. The national credit card is being used largely to stop today’s financial bleeding, rather than for investments — in the medical system, infrastructure and education — that would boost future growth.”

The standard economics argument against the problem of high deficit and debt is that it will lead to higher interest rates. We have been seeing extraordinarily low interest rates ever since the Great Recession. Now this is supposed to be bad because it allows for investment projects of little value to go forward. This makes zero sense. Having projects little value move forward is bad if there is a better use for the resources. Implicitly, there is not better use, which is why interest rates are low.

On the second point, in a period of low interest rates, there is no reason why the government should not be spending money on investments in the medical system, infrastructure and education. There is not any economic obstacle if the country has idle resources, only the political obstacles due to needless deficit fears promoted by news outlets like the Washington Post.

The piece does rightly raise the risk of inflation, which is real. However, any inflation in the months ahead will be primarily the result of the fact that large sectors of the economy, such as restaurants, hotels, and airlines, are likely to have sharply reduced capacity even after the shutdown period is over. They are also likely to see rising costs due to the precautions needed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

It is also striking that patent and copyright rents are not mentioned once in this piece. The granting of these monopolies are an alternative mechanism to direct spending, which the government uses to pay for things it wants done. For example, right now it is paying Gilead Science to do testing on Remsvidir as a treatment for the pandemic with the promise of a monopoly on the drug, if it proves effective.

The rents from these monopolies, which are effectively privately imposed taxes, dwarfs the interest burden of the debt. It is over $400 billion a year in the case of prescription drugs alone.

The debt complaints move on to the corporate sector. While debt burdens in the corporate sector are high, this should not be surprising given very low interest rates which encourage companies to take on debt. After-tax profits are also at historically high levels as a share of GDP. Furthermore, stock prices remain at historically high price-to-earnings ratios even after the plunge earlier due to the pandemic. This means that many companies can easily issue stock if they need money to meet their debt obligations.

It’s true that not all companies are in this situation, but so what? If a company that is otherwise viable, is facing debt service problems, it is likely that another company will take them over. Many companies, such as the airlines, also operate just fine through periods of bankruptcy. If a company is not otherwise viable, then the problem is not the debt, the problem is the company is not viable.

Finally, the piece tells us we should be worried about household debt, which is also near record high levels relative to income. Here again the key point is that interest rates are low. As a result, the financial obligation ratio, which measures debt payments and rent relative to income, is near a four decade low. It’s true that many people may face eviction or foreclosure in the months ahead, but that will be because they have lost their jobs, not because of high debt burdens.

In short, this piece is desperately trying to create a problem where one does not exist. Having large chunks of the U.S.  economy shut down because of a pandemic is a really huge problem. The debt that is created as a result is not.

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Russia is About to Face its Biggest Test Yet in Syria


An American reader tired of corona journalism sent me a plea this week: “There must be plenty of cruelty being unleashed by the gangsters-in-chief across the ‘Mideast’ that simply isn’t making it into the headlines,” she wrote. “Trump et al are either ignoring it or silently condoning it.”

I doubt if Donald Trump is ignoring it, but I do think he’s ignorant of it. And condoning is a bit of a long word for the current occupants of the White House. But here goes.

Russia, we are now led to believe, is losing ground in Libya as its most recent ally, the Libyan-American – and erstwhile friend of Washington – General Khalifa Haftar retreats from Tripoli, losing even the city of Sabratha to the “internationally recognised” government.

The quotation marks are important because Turkey’s men and materiel, including mercenaries from the wreckage of the old Free Syrian Army, have been supporting al-Sarraj’s Tripoli government. The Libyan war, just like the Syrian war and the Lebanese civil war before that, is now a playground for quite a lot of my American reader’s gangsters-in-chief.

The Saudis and the Emirates and Egypt have been supporting Haftar, whose anti-Islamist credentials appeal to the al-Sisis and the al-Sauds of the Middle East. And of course, Moscow has smiled upon Haftar. Once one of Gaddafi’s trusted officers – until he was shuffled off to fight and be captured in the colonel’s hopeless fantasy war in Chad – and then a good friend of the CIA, he was given the ultimate accolade once he re-emerged as the swashbuckling general to save Libya: in 2017, Haftar was freighted out to the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetzov as it cruised through the Mediterranean en route from Syria to the Baltic.

It was one of Haftar’s finest hours. Courted by the Kremlin, he sat in the carrier’s ward room where he staged a video conference with the Russian defence minister. The subject was what you might have expected it to be: collaboration against international terrorism. That, after all, is a matter in which Vladimir Putin counts himself as an expert – whether it be “terror” in Chechenya, “terror” in the Ukraine, “terror” in Libya or “terror” in Syria. There were promises of Russian support over the following months but, save for a few mercenaries, no Russian troops and no Russian hardware based on Libyan soil.

If Libya was a playground, Haftar was more a plaything than a serious contender for a Russian alliance. Moscow was keeping its hand in the sands of Libya – it would have to be consulted by the UN, the US, and the “international community” in any discussion of Libya’s future – but it was not associating Russian power with Haftar’s Libyan National Army (which now even has an Islamist component).

Sisi and the Saudi crown prince can pin their medals on Haftar if they wish. Putin keeps his loyalty for another army: the Syrian variety now partly surrounding the truncated “rebel” province of Idlib. And, as we all know, there is now a “ceasefire” along the front lines as Turkish and Russian troops now supposedly patrol the east-west Aleppo-Latakia highway through Idlib.

But the Turks are – and this is Russia’s suspicion – encouraging those civilians associated with the Islamist and nationalist rebels inside Idlib to block the motorway. The roadblocks are certainly appearing, and are preventing those famous joint patrols. But Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not going to fight the Syrian army or the Russians. The death of 37 of its soldiers under Syrian-Russian air attack in Idlib was the most serious event in Turkish military history since the attempted coup against Erdogan in 2016. Warnings like that have to be heeded.

Turkey’s real problem, of which the Russians are acutely aware, is what to do with the jihadis and Islamist groups who have been fighting alongside the Assad opposition. They can no longer be trucked off to the deserts of Saudi Arabia to cool their heels in the Empty Quarter for a decade or two – one of the original brainwaves. They certainly won’t be allowed to settle down in Turkey, whose southern towns they have attacked. And Turkey, the Syrians suspect, wants to keep those areas of Syria – including hundreds of square miles north and east of Aleppo – which its troops currently occupy.

At present, the Syrian government is quite happy for the nationalist rebels to argue and fight with the Islamists in Idlib, which has been a rubbish bin for all those who have not surrendered to Bashar’s forces elsewhere in Syria. Damascus believes – with time and patience – that it will control all of Idlib, although eastern Syria is another matter.

So Russia’s stake in Syria remains its only serious alliance in the Middle East. It has assured Bashar al-Assad’s survival. Militarily, Soviet air power and a transformed Syrian army cannot lose. But despite the West’s concentration – and the media’s constant coverage – of Idlib, the Syrian government is far more concerned about the country’s economy.

So poor have its people become – those in the majority of the smashed country now restored to the authorities – that the government in Damascus is in danger of losing one of its constant wartime narratives: that Assad and the Baath party alone can protect Syria. It is one thing to “protect” your people from Islamists and Isis – quite another to provide them with food and fuel and money when the war is won. There is even talk in Damascus of how bread subsidies – the most important in the country – might not be maintained. So if Idlib remains a war-front in Turkish and western eyes, it is now a very small part of the government’s problems.

The Syrian economy is now even more fragile because its one economic entrepot – for dollar and property investments – is itself collapsing in an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions. As the Lebanese pound crashes down from 1,500 to 3,000 to the dollar in six months, Syrians who could travel to Beirut and pick up cash and goods have found their money trapped in Lebanese banks. Hitherto, up to a third of Syria’s private dollar liquidity – perhaps a lot more – was believed to be in Lebanon. But now the Syrian pound, which stood at 48 to the US dollar before the war, and then plunged to 700 pounds to the dollar during the fighting, is worth 1,200 Syrian pounds. Even Assad loyalists are criticising the government for its failure to provide basic services.

This is no mere ephemeral complaint. The foundational bedrock of the Baath party was always touted as the security of the Syrian people. Whether the people believed this – for the party’s primary concern was surely the security of the regime – they at least knew that their basic needs would be met. Food, education, healthcare – however far its standards were behind Lebanon or Saddamite Iraq – was provided. Even the war could be fought by the government on the grounds that sectarianism and jihadi “terrorism” could be overcome. The Baath was ostensibly secular, however much it was dominated by the Alawites.

But Syria’s economic pit now haunts the authorities. There were reasons to believe, months ago, that Qatar might intervene to rebuild Syria – a project which would enhance Qatar’s territorial power as well as infuriate its Saudi antagonists. Russian businesses could then take advantage of Qatari cash to organise the reconstruction of Syria. Or the Saudis could step up in front of Qatar and take over the renaissance of Syria themselves to the detriment of Tehran; after all, Syria’s Iranian ally is in no position to underwrite the economy of Damascus right now.

So the question must now be faced: can Russia rescue the Syrian economy as it rescued the Syrian military? It’s one thing to base your Sukhoi fighter-bombers on a Syrian airbase with a generational lease, quite another to pour roubles into a physically ruined nation belonging to a Middle East ally, however loyal he may be.

This is now the biggest question for the Syrian regime and for its Russian saviours. Assad has been loyal to Putin; and Putin to Assad. But the economic survival of Syria – not the bombing of Assad’s enemies – is now the greatest challenge facing the country. This, and this alone, is the new test of the relationship between Moscow and Damascus.

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An open letter to UK Labour leader Keir Starmer



Dear Keir,

Congratulations on your victory. I hope you keep the broad policy direction of the last five years and I wish you the very best of luck in bringing Labour to power, after which I hope you will lead the country in the radical new direction we so badly need.

I have to say, however, that I didn’t vote for you. There was a decisive moment for me in the campaign when the Board of Deputies of British Jews presented candidates with ‘Ten Pledges for Labour leadership’. Ostensibly intended to deal with Labour’s ‘antisemitism crisis,’ it was transparently clear to myself and many others that they actually formed part of the ongoing campaign to silence anti-Zionist and pro-Palestininan voices within the party (number 6, for instance, being the pledge to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism fully and without caveat– a definition that effectively includes anti-Zionism). Your acceptance of these made my support unthinkable. And on the day your win was announced, the Times Of Israel reminded us that you had previously told Jewish News: “I said it loud and clear – and meant it – that I support Zionism without qualification.” As I considered what your leadership would mean for Labour – and for me as a Party member with a strong connection to the Palestinian issue – it seemed that I was faced with an uncomfortable choice.

My dilemma was brought into focus by a news report from Israel in the Middle East Monitor accompanied by a picture of a house just outside Jerusalem. It is a very striking aerial photograph, showing the house separated from its neighbours by high walls and barbed wire, overseen by security cameras. Access is by a narrow walkway, also closed off. The inhabitants of the house can see nothing of the outside world. It is as if they are prisoners, and – effectively – they are. This grim scene is compounded by the fact that all around the house – on the other side of the walls – is what looks like a comfortable housing estate, complete with swimming pools. You will be unsurprised to hear that the family in the house are Palestinians, whilst the neighbours who caged them in this way are Israelis.


The background to this case makes it very clear that the difference in treatment stems entirely from the ethnicity of the house’s inhabitants, and I think that in itself this could constitute evidence for Israel being ‘a racist endeavour’. But I believe it has a greater significance. It seems to me that it symbolises the effect of Zionism on the Palestinians over the last hundred years. The whole point of that ideology, and the state it created, is to distinguish relentlessly between Jews and non-Jews; to privilege the former and discriminate against the latter. The Palestinian family in our example has been singled out for isolation by concrete and razor wire – but discrimination against Palestinians more generally has been, and is, of every type and at every level.

There has been murder, ethnic cleansing, theft of land, property, farms and factories on an epic scale; Palestinians have been beaten, tortured or deliberately crippled; imprisoned without trial; penned into the Gazan ghetto; denied access to maternity wards, swimming pools or parks; their political parties are never allowed into a ruling coalition; they are prevented from building new houses or extending old ones, and there are huge areas of the country and hundreds of towns where they are simply not allowed to live. And – like the residents of the house in the picture – all this is done to them purely because they are what the Israelis call ‘arabs’ – or to put it another way, because of what they are not. That is: they are not Jews. Our photograph therefore symbolises the fate of the indigenous Palestinian people at the hands of the Zionist-inspired colonisers – both before and after the creation of Israel, under all types of government (and perhaps most of all under the ‘labour’ ones). It dramatises an ethnic discrimination which is in Israel’s DNA, and without which the project would have been pointless. And yet, Keir, you say that you support Zionism, and not only that: you support it “without qualification”. I find it hard to express how troubling that is.

Troubling because it means the leader of my party subscribes to an ideology which was rooted in the racism, colonialism and ethnic nationalism of the nineteenth century in which it was born, and the practical application of which (i.e the creation of Israel) has showed their pernicious influence at every stage. Keir, you say that people have different ideas about what Zionism is. Might I suggest you consult its victims? They will quickly enlighten you, describing a settler-colonial project which – like all the others – was marked by the racist attitudes of Europeans towards indigenous non-European people. They will tell you that the creation of a Jewish state in an overwhelmingly non-Jewish country was illegitimate. And they will describe all the details of the particular version of apartheid which has been developed to ensure that they are quite literally second class citizens.

As a Labour Party member I like to think that my party stands with the oppressed, not the oppressor. That indeed, was one of the reasons why I joined. And at home I dearly wish for the sort of social transformation that a Labour government could bring. But my politics is rooted in values, and chief among these are an opposition to all forms of racism and discrimination, and an insistence on equal rights which I am not prepared to compromise. It is these principles have shaped my attitudes to Palestine/Israel. However, my party now has a leader who has pledged his unqualified support to a country and a system which is utterly at odds with those same values.

There is a further problem. According to Israel’s apologists, saying all this makes me a racist, and from everything you have said both before and after being elected leader, I think it is highly likely that you will agree with them. It is, I must say, a truly Alice In Wonderland situation when Israel’s relentless practice of institutionalised ethnic discrimination is deemed not to be racist … but calling it out is.

So it seems that in the Labour Party I face the prospect of being deemed a racist if I speak my mind on Palestine/Israel. And to be absolutely clear, I believe that the idea of a state ‘for Jews’ is wrong. It is, after all, completely at odds with the principles that are supposed to underpin liberal democracies, and instituting anything of a similar character in Europe would be unthinkable (at least, for anyone except the very far Right). I fail to see why an idea which is anathema in Europe should be endorsed elsewhere. And if the idea was wrong, the choice of an overwhelmingly non-Jewish territory made its realisation inherently unjust. It was bound to be a disaster – and it has been. Unless and until Israel re-constitutes itself into a single state with equal rights for all its inhabitants, I would argue that it should not expect any support from the Labour Party. And whilst I reluctantly accept that there is a long history of pro-Zionism in the party and can accept the idea of Zionists being Party members, my own view is that this as a moral error which is incompatible not just with socialist values but with general liberal-democratic ones as well.

Based on your acceptance of the BoD’s ‘Ten Pledges’, your recent letter to that body and your Times of Israel interview, I suspect that in your mind all of this makes me one of the antisemites who must be ‘torn out’ of the party. That will be the Party’s decision. But I have a choice to make as well. I have to consider whether, under your leadership, the Labour Party will be an appropriate place for someone with my values, and whether it is an institution I can continue to support.

I am therefore looking for reassurance. A good starting point would be an unequivocal statement that members will be free to hold and express anti-Zionist views, that Labour regards such views as legitimate, and that under your leadership the Party will energetically defend the right to freedom of thought and freedom of speech on Palestine/Israel.

I look forward to hearing from you,


Dr Ian Wellens

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A Scourge on the Earth


On my way back from my daily exercise routine, I pass the local junk/antiques emporium and notice that beneath the official Covid- 19 flyer some wag has put up a hand-written sign that reads, “Closed due to the end of the World.” Two doors further down, an independent bookseller has picked up the same theme, albeit in a more subtle way, and filled the shop window with copies of “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells. Like most of us, when I think of Wells’ dystopian fiction, I consider the possibilities of time travel and inter-planetary wars. I imagine monsters like the Morlocks, invasions from aliens and the world being devastated by plague, but foremost in my mind is the fact that he was born in Bromley – a modest and rather dull town about 10 miles from London. This is no mere biographical detail, but holds the clue as to why so much of Wells’ story-telling was concerned with the eradication of human life. Living in that suburban enclave might not strike fear into today’s stout hearted Bromelyans. But for Wells, growing up there at the end of the 19th century, as the town more than doubled in size over a 20 year period, was a hugely formative experience, as John Carey describes in ‘The Intellectuals and the Masses.’ What Wells experienced dramatically impacted his life and birthed not just his fantastical imagination but his loathing of mass culture and mass consumption. Visiting death and destruction on English towns in his works of fiction, many of which he gleefully names, was his way of wreaking revenge on the ‘development’ which destroyed the woods and poisoned the river where he used to go for walks as a child.

The destruction of the natural world is happening all around us all of the time, at least for those of us still fortunate enough not to live in cities. Here, on the south coast of England, in a county blessed with both coastline and forest, a valley recognised by the local council as ‘an area of tranquillity and extreme remoteness’, as well as being a haven for wildlife, was recently decimated by the building of 4-lane link road, providing a shortcut so that traffic could avoid the busy coastal road. What follows is the usual development: housing estates and shopping centres and more traffic, thus perpetuating the problem that the first road was supposed to resolve. Sadly, many badgers, whose setts were destroyed in the construction, were left confused and homeless and ended up on those roads. The desecration of nature, the decimation of wildlife habitats and the mass extinction of species have all been normalised, as worldwide ‘development’ continues unabated; this is the Anthropocene age after all. What seems to have come as a bit of a shock in recent days, however, is the realisation that remote areas are repositories of life-forms inimical to the health of human populations, (certainly as we now live, in conglomerations of millions.) Yellow Fever, SARS, H1N1, MERS, HIV, and most recently, Covid 19 – the latest of a number of known corona viruses – have all made the zoonotic leap from animal to human, just as smallpox, diphtheria, measles and influenza did before them. In fact 60% of emerging diseases are of this zoonotic kind.

What has been most surprising about the emergence of this new corona virus has been the lack of political preparedness and the ensuing widespread panic, particularly in Europe, as populations have fallen into hysteria. This is all the more surprising given the earlier SARS outbreak of 2003, which affected 26 countries, and the fact that governments such as these are presumed to regularly run this sort of ‘war-game’ scenario. In fact, I believe the UK government did just that in 2016, but you wouldn’t have guessed. The response here has been a mixture of Dunkirk and Hollywood: we’ve got a former vacuum cleaner manufacturer teaming up with a racing car designer to make ventilators, and in the early days the prime minister gave a speech straight out of Gladiator, when he promised that the UK government was going to hug everybody, which isn’t always what you want with an infectious disease.

Apparently, when the Queen of England visited the London School of Economics a few months after the 2008 crash, she asked what everyone was thinking, “Why did no one see it coming?” The response was largely bluster and embarrassment – all that education for what purpose? But what later emerged was that there had been a consensus on the unsustainability of the system and the risk of collapse. Just nobody could foresee exactly when and where it would happen, and so it was business as usual, which doesn’t bode well. In fact, it is difficult not to agree with Lukacs here that the very nature of academic specialisation operates as a defence mechanism protecting the capitalist status quo by making the bigger picture invisible – particularly dangerous in our era of global capitalism. “It destroys every image of the whole and the ability to perceive the interconnections between the market and cultural discontents, [we might add in here the dangers of a collapsing ecosystem] making a radical change of perspective impossible within bourgeois society based on the knowledge it provides.” With its inability to see and comprehend the world as a unique whole, rather than as a series of markets, it seems that capitalism is ideologically predisposed to self-destruct. Not only is it incapable of seeing totalities, neither can it limit itself, with its ever-expanding imperative: the very notion of a boundary is anathema. But further, and of greater concern, is the fact that in order to secure its position, it has actively disabled exogenous limiting mechanisms, perceiving them as illiberal ‘obstructions to progress’, whether they be innate, cultural or civic. Thus, we have all been delivered over to global citizenship: the ultimate oxymoron in a world of unaccountability, liberated hyper-individuals indoctrinated into believing that the planet is ours to consume.

Whilst it seems most likely that the Covid-19 virus emerged from a zoonotic leap at a ‘wet market’ in Wuhan – a place where wild animals, often sick and injured, are handled, butchered, cooked and eaten all in the same place – the exotic nature of the locale and the extreme cruelty inflicted on these creatures should not distract us from the fact that our grotesque utilisation of animals has become completely normalised. We may be appalled at the idea of thousands of wildlife farms, rearing animals such as civet cats, peacocks and bamboo rats for human consumption, all the while encouraged by the Chinese government. But we shouldn’t pretend that the CAFOS [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] gifted to the world by global capitalism as efficient, i.e., industrialised, units of animal agriculture, where animals – basically, burgers in waiting – are contained, are anything but torture chambers and repositories of disease. The high level of antibiotics doled out to many of these animals is leading to widespread levels of human antibiotic resistance, as the WHO warned just a couple of years ago.

If China is in breach of hygiene regulations enshrined in international treaties put in place following the last SARS epidemic, legal action may be appropriate. However China is not the only country consuming wild animals. Bushmeat – a collective term for many species of wild animal, including snakes, crocodiles, antelopes, monkeys, rats, bats and even elephants – in fact, anything hunters can get their hands on, is popular in many African countries. As it has been for centuries in harsh environments unsuitable for animal husbandry. With growing populations, (the population of Nigeria alone is set to double in the next 50 years, hitting over 700 million by the end of the century), and developing road networks, making it easier to access formerly remote areas, it seems unlikely that the market for this relatively cheap source of protein is going to end.

Back in the 1980s we were told that globalisation was going to bring us cheap goods. Apparently, we couldn’t have decent wages but we could have cut-price tatt instead. So corporations, with their governments’ blessings, turned their backs on national wage demands and relocated where labour was cheap and prices could be kept low. Trade unions lost their leverage, real wages flat-lined, and wherever you were, citizenship became a thing of the past, as the consumerist explosion swallowed up all those ‘old-fashioned’ political values like fair pay and solidarity. Former political groupings were sloughed off and identity became something you expressed through your shopping, increasingly on credit card. With this development came a new wave of exploration, as corporations competed for national resources all over the globe, but particularly in developing countries. Logging and mining operations necessitated expansive road systems and railways. Just as land clearance schemes for industrial agriculture forced millions off their land and into the slums, which began encircling the newly emerging mega cities like Lagos and Kinshasa. By buying allegiances and promising investment and development projects, transnational corporations gained access to valuable minerals and metals, and, just as importantly, domestic markets, filled with ever more consumers. Our global consumerist paradigm was thus perfected, cleansed of political scrutiny and critique through its emancipation from nation states and the eradication of civic society and communal allegiances. Just one enormous expanse of humanity united in 24/7 consumption.

Wells, like many intellectuals in his era, was impressed by Spanish philosopher Ortega Y Gasset’s ‘The Revolt of the Masses’ (1932), which blamed the working class for the emergence of mass consumption and low-brow culture. Gasset knew he was speaking for many of his fellow intellectuals, or ‘visionaries’ as he liked to call them, when he protested that the inferior classes, ‘men of minus quality’ had become ‘indocile’, and forgotten their place in the world. He complained that their, entirely inappropriate, demand for political power would result in a destructive ‘hyperdemocracy’ and ugly consumerism. Writing at the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, was the more politically astute Walter Lippman. In ‘The Phantom Public’ of 1925, Lippman explained why politics is far too complicated to be shared with the lower orders, asserting of the working man that “he knows his sovereignty is a fiction.” By the following year, the English working class certainly did, because in the general strike that was called in that year, to protest at the slashing of miners’ wages, the working class were effectively abandoned by their representatives – in both the trades unions and in parliament, (the then Labour party leadership described the call to strike ‘an act of revolution’.) So, Ortega Y Gasset et al needn’t have worried, it didn’t matter that universal suffrage had been achieved, or that the Trade Union movement had led to the creation of a political party supposedly representing the interests of Labour, because the fundamental aim of those representatives, as Ralph Miliband elucidates in his polemic ‘Parliamentary Socialism’, was to preserve the capitalist status quo. And what has been an essential element in maintaining that status quo ever since has been a constant ramping up of consumption. Not only has it produced unimaginable profits but, just as importantly, the quiescent allegiance of generations enthralled to consumerism.

So Wells was wrong, the drive towards mass consumption did not come from the working class. It was not an expression of their new found political power, just the opposite. As in reality, they didn’t have any political power, and still don’t. Mass consumption was and is a sop to allay the demands for democracy – i.e., a genuine participatory democracy. Wells might have feared the working class and preferred them to stay under ground like his dreaded Morlocks, but he shouldn’t have blamed them for destroying the natural world. Nor should he have blamed the newly emerging lower middle class who swamped his suburban idyll to take up white-collar jobs in London – responding to the growing demand for clerks to administer the empire. The lives of all of these workers had been more historically shaped by the ties of custom, community and solidarity than those of airy aesthetes like Wells and Ortega Y Gasset. The masses were a creation of capitalism not of representative democracy: they were its first workers, its fodder for the industrial revolution. In one of nascent capitalism’s earliest habitat destructions, small-scale producers, peasant farmers and local artisans of all kinds were thrown off their land and dispossessed of their traditional rights of land use. Having enjoyed centuries of rural self-subsistence, engaged in co-operative practices with their neighbours, these formerly independent, self-employed workers were turned into wage slaves and their land stolen. Through the usual couplet of law and commercial interest, capitalism was able to justify i.e., legalise, the theft. What was also severely damaged in that brutal expulsion was the innate sense of place or belonging: of being embedded in nature and having a locale. Peasant poet John Clare’s simple lines extolling his bounded life in rural Northamptonshire at the time of the enclosures, which are infused with a profound love of nature – many of the trees he passed every day are singled out and named – are a million miles from Ortega Y Gasset’s artistic recommendation of the ‘purely aesthetic’. According to Ortega Y Gasset, human notions of joy and pain are inferior and to be rejected, since art’s purpose is not to share or convey beauty, but to exclude the masses.

In his identification of the working class as the “inert matter of the historical process’, however, Ortega Y Gasset was right, but not in the way he meant. It was his view that such workers are inherently inert – just matter to be moulded by history, “[the mass] has come into the world in order to be directed, influenced, represented, organised. It needs to submit its life to superior minorities.” But that inertia has been brought about by political processes that have uprooted us from our relationship with nature and robbed us of our former independence and sense of purpose. It has also deprived us of all notion of individual responsibility and personal power and burdened us with a leeching consumerism it is difficult to shake off, because there doesn’t seem to be anything else.

But do we have to keep expanding? Can’t we leave remote areas remote, and allow other species and peoples to just be? It is interesting to note that the word ‘remote’ entered the English language around 1375. It was first used by Chaucer, who grew up in the shadow of the Black Death which coursed through Europe in his childhood, decimating the population by one third. The word means ‘distant’ or ‘far apart’, which is how we currently use it. However, it is derived from the Latin ‘remotus’ meaning ‘removed’ and is in fact the past participle of the Latin verb ‘removere’ meaning ‘to move back or away’. Perhaps there is a moral imperative here. Perhaps not. But surely not everything needs to be uncovered and utilised? Can’t some places be left remote? Not out of concern for our health, but simply out of respect for difference.

As we look fearfully at what the ‘remote’ may have in store for us, maybe we should consider what we have inflicted on those nether regions ourselves; at how little respect we have shown. As Western civilisation is on the brink of conquering the entire world, it seems extraordinary to think that there are still people out there who have declined our invitation to history and wish to be left alone. But a few of the remaining uncontacted tribes in the Amazon rainforest have made this quite clear. Unfortunately for them, the land they occupy has economic value and there are missionaries – so often the vanguard of commerce – eager to, presumably ‘save’ them, so their future looks doubtful. Given our viral overload, how long could they survive our embrace?

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