Centuries ago we were able to learn the importance of the social and natural environments where viruses take root and multiply, because we live with them and they do not always threaten us. The Black Death must have taught us that pre-existing viruses multiply and spread when the right conditions are created. In our case, those conditions were created by neoliberalism.
InPests and peoples, William McNeill highlights some topical issues, when he analyzes the black plague that swept Europe since 1347. Christians, unlike pagans, cared for the sick, helped each other in times of pestilence and thus contained the effects of the plague (XXI century, p. 122). The saturation of human beings, overpopulation, was key in the spread of the plague (p. 163).
Poverty, a not very varied diet and the failure to observe the superstitions, local customs of the towns, due to the arrival of new inhabitants, turned the plagues into disasters (p. 155).
Braudel adds that the plague, or hydra with a thousand heads, constitutes a constant, a structure of the life of men (The structures of everyday life, p. 54). However, how little we have learned.
The Black Death destroyed feudal society, due to the acute shortage of labor as a result of the death, in a few years, of half the European population and, also, due to the loss of credibility of the institutions. This is the fear that now leads states to lock up millions.
The ongoing coronavirus epidemic has some peculiarities. I am going to focus on the social ones, because I ignore elementary scientific questions.
The current epidemic would not have the impact it does, were it not for three long decades of neoliberalism, which has caused probably irreparable environmental, health and social damage.
The United Nations, through UNEP, recognizes that the epidemic is a reflection of environmental degradation (https://bit.ly/2TS42fL). The report notes that diseases transmitted from animals to humans are growing and worsening as wild habitats are destroyed by human activity, because pathogens spread faster to herds and humans.
To prevent and limit zoonoses, it is necessary to tackle the multiple threats to ecosystems and wildlife, including the reduction and fragmentation of habitats, illegal trade, pollution and proliferation of invasive species and, increasingly, change climate.
Temperatures at the beginning of March (winter) in some regions of Spain are up to 10 degrees above normal (https://bit.ly/3aFvynq). Furthermore, scientific evidence links the explosion of viral diseases and deforestation (https://bit.ly/2IDBbGO).
The second issue that multiplies the epidemic is the strong cuts in the health system. In Italy, in the past 10 years, 70 thousand hospital beds were lost, 359 departments were closed and numerous small hospitals were abandoned (https://bit.ly/39BjkMC). Between 2009 and 2018, health spending grew 10 percent, compared to 37 percent for the OECD. In Italy there are 3.2 beds for every thousand inhabitants. In France 6 and in Germany 8.
Between January and February, the Spanish health sector lost 18,320 workers, in full expansion of the coronavirus (https://bit.ly/2wJIR7W). The unions in the sector denounce abuse of the hiring of interns and the precariousness of employment, while working conditions are increasingly harsh. This neoliberal policy towards the health system is one of the reasons why Italy has quarantined the entire country and Spain can follow the same path.
The third issue is the epidemic of individualism and inequality, cultivated by the mainstream media that are dedicated to causing fear, reporting in a biased way. For more than a century, we suffered a powerful offensive by capital and states against popular spaces for socialization, while cathedrals of consumption, such as theshopping malls.
Consumerism depoliticizes, de-identifies and implies an anthropological mutation (as Passolini warned). Today there are more people who want pets than children (https://bit.ly/2W8J5Qm). This is the world we have created and for which we are responsible.
Long-term measures taken can exacerbate epidemics. The State suspends society by isolating and confining the population in their homes, even prohibiting physical contact.
Inequality is the same as in the Middle Ages (around 1500), when the rich ran to their country houses when the plague was announced, while the poor were left alone, prisoners of the polluted city, where the State fed them, He isolated them, blocked them, watched over them (Braudel p. 59).
The model of the digitized prison panopticon, which suspends human relations, seems to be the strategic objective of capital in order not to lose control in the current systemic transition.
By Raúl Zibechi