Category Archives: Archived

A Pandemic and a Plague of Absurdity

At a certain point in an age of absurdity the normalization of madness becomes so common that it is almost indiscernible to most in the thick of it. Indeed, late capitalism, the stage which is undoubtedly preceding complete barbarism, has produced an endless stream of absurdities which not only insult the senses of those who possess a conscience and a modicum of critical thinking skills, but can also deliver a fatal injury as we are seeing unfold in real time with tepid or reckless responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

Donald Trump’s ceaseless spin of the truth is already legendary. But his indifference to the deadliness of the virus has been amplified by groups like the far-right Freedom Works who have quietly supported anti-shutdown protests around the country. The malignancy of Trump’s sowing confusion via baseless accusations and endless deflection is exacting an extraordinary toll in American lives. And the dissonance is equally jarring. At many of these protests, socially liberal leaning anti-vaxxers are uniting with white supremacists and gun wielding militias in a bizarre display of solidarity.

 

The demand has not been for increased financial support, rent freezes, hazard pay, student debt forgiveness or universal healthcare as other protests have been doing. It has been for the government to “open up” businesses for non-essential services where working people are potentially exposed to the deadly pathogen. Some of the signs at these demonstrations speak volumes about the privilege of many of the protesters, saying they want a haircut, or their nails done, or to play a round of golf. Theories with little to no evidence on how the virus came about or if it is even a real thing, are peddled generously.

 

Unsurprisingly, many of the theories being thrown around these days scapegoat China; and this only feeds into Trump’s ramped up war of propaganda against the nuclear armed country and his unabashed racism at home. The latter was on display this month when he told an Asian American reporter to “ask China” about the United States’ record on addressing the pandemic. It is no coincidence that these rallies to end the supposed “lock down” are primarily made up of white middle-class Americans either. After all, many of them have been untouched. The worst of this pandemic has disproportionately impacted people of color, indigenous communities and migrants.

 

The economic landscape has also tipped the scale into utter absurdity, even more so than ever before. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, will likely become the world’s first trillionaire. And much of this is due to him profiting from the desperation and social conditions of the pandemic. That we, as denizens of this planet, can hear that bit of insanity without revolt is quite telling. While tens of millions of people have lost their livelihoods in this time of unprecedented crisis, the wealthiest have only become wealthier, and much of that thanks to direct government bailouts. It is worth noting that as Bezos gets closer to the trillion dollar mark, his business has been cutting hazard pay as his workers become ill with Covid-19. They were given thank you t-shirts as compensation for the life threatening risks they take to gain him his wealth. Even prior to the deadly pandemic, Amazon was a dangerous place to work. Long hours, injuries from heavy lifting and machinery failures were common. The pandemic has only amplified these things in far more deadly ways.

 

Indeed, over the past couple months, we have witnessed the depths that the uberwealthy can sink to.  Elon Musk, the man who wants to colonize Mars and whose net worth is approximately 36 billion dollars, has tweeted endlessly about the pandemic. Originally likening it to the common cold, he has been relentless in demanding the “opening up” of the economy, linking health measures to prevent contagion to idiotic claims of tyranny, all while he remains safely at home at his palatial estate. Of course, Trump adored his sickening online sycophancy. Along with a cadre of senators, Glenn Beck, and most of the staff of Fox News, the calls for working people to get back to work has echoed down the corridors of power. Meanwhile, almost all of them remain safely at home, comfortably tweeting and airing their opinions to the beleaguered masses.

 

In a country built upon land theft and slavery by the elite ruling class, which has hardly had a year without attacking another nation, the words of the wealthy are taken with almost as much reverence as the utterances of high priests were in ancient civilizations. In fact, there is no separation of church and state because capitalism is the state religion. And far too many Americans have been conditioned to adore their billionaires and celebrities as demigods, even when they continually rob them of the fruit of their labor. There are signs that this adoration is fraying as each day passes. Vapid Twitter posts from celebrities saying, erroneously, that “we are all in the same boat” are growing tedious; and the so-called titans of industry are being seen more as the parasites they are.

 

But there is also a rising tide of distrust in officials in charge of major and critical institutions like the CDC. For instance, the viral video segment from the upcoming, so-called “documentary” Plandemic revolves around one central figure, the discredited scientist Judy Mikovits, and attempts to weave a complicated tale of conspiracy about Anthony Fauci and other officials with virtually zero evidence to back any of it up. But the blame for most of this public dubiety lies at the doorstep of the establishment itself.

 

Scores of atrocities have come from the unholy union of the state, corporations and the military. Even though it may not be discussed widely in mainstream circles, there is some public memory of the multitude of crimes committed by powerful state actors and agencies, from the Tuskegee experiments on Black men, to COINTELPRO, to infiltration of the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, to the nuclear tests that contaminated the Marshall Islands and exiled its indigenous population, to the radiation experiments on unsuspecting soldiers and pregnant women, and beyond. These crimes, along with those committed against non-Americans during war, as in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, Libya, have eroded the public’s confidence in the nation’s established institutions. Indeed, all those incidents have led us to this moment. And Trump has used all of this to his advantage. He continues to distract from his initial denialism and ongoing anemic response to the pandemic by playing on rampant paranoia we are seeing in many places, especially online.

 

The United States leads the world in cases and deaths from Covid-19 and this is, at least in part, due to a culture of entrenched, willful ignorance where science is concerned. The rampant denial over climate change in an era where there is literally no debate on the subject among the majority of the world’s scientists, is a glaring example of this. But it is also due to a long legacy of brutal betrayals and crimes, and a culture which values the stock portfolios of the wealthy over the health and lives of the working class, people of color, the disabled and the elderly. There is no end in sight for this pandemic thanks to this arrangement. And no coherent or humane plan is in the works to address the enormous human suffering that will result.

 

Absurdity is a luxury of the powerful, but a misery for everyone else. Under the rubric of capitalism, the ludicrous becomes a tool in fomenting distrust, disenfranchisement, alienation, fear and confusion. It is used to divide and conquer. But because of its corrosive effect, it can only go on for so long before the very fabric of a society disintegrates. We are not there yet, but we should not kid ourselves in thinking we are far from it.

 

Kenn Orphan  May 2020

 

Remembering Eugui Roy and All Victims of Ecocide

          Eugui Roy was a 21 year old biology student at the Technology Institute of the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico. And he loved wildlife. He was also a passionate activist for the protection of the regions rich biodiversity. On Thursday, the 7th of May, Eugui was found murdered. He was shot at the ranch where, according to his sister, he was spending the Covid-19 isolation time “collecting insects, studying, writing for a magazine, looking after a few deers, besides creating content for his blog.”
          Sadly, Eugui joins a long list of indigenous, land, water, and wildlife defenders who have been targeted and murdered, in Mexico and around the world. Last year, Paulo Paulino Guajajara, an indigenous Guajajara leader, was killed in November in the Amazon rainforest in an ambush by loggers in the Araribóia Indigenous Reserve. Philippine forest ranger Bienvenido Veguilla Jr. was murdered by machete in El Nido, Palawan in September, after he and his team discovered illegal logging activities in the area. Seventy-seven year old Jorge Juc, an indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ community leader, was killed in a machete attack in July. He was president of the village chapter of the Campesino Development Committee (CODECA). Three other members of the organization were also murdered in the same month: Isidro Perez, Melesio Ramirez and Julio Ramirez. A leader of the indigenous Wajapi tribe, Emyra Wajapi, was murdered by illegal miners in the Amazon rainforest in July of last year. And this is just a fraction of those killed, from Ukraine to India to the Gambia.
          Since the start of this year there have been more attacks on environmental and indigenous rights activists. Homero Gomez Gonzales went missing in January and was later found dead at the bottom of a well that same month. He was the manager of El Rosario Monarch Butterfly reserve and advocate for preservation of nature in Mexico. The forests that provide crucial habitat for monarch butterflies are under constant threat from illegal logging. Raúl Hernández Romero, a guide at the same butterfly reserve, also went missing in January. He was found dead in early February. And just last month 12 wildlife rangers were massacred at the Virunga gorilla and chimpanzee habitat in Congo. The deaths bring the toll of rangers murdered in this area up to 176 since the year 2000.
          In a time where humanity and countless species are staring down the gun of extinction, we must see these incidents for what they are: crimes of ecocide. The assaults on indigenous land and water protectors as well as those protecting wildlife, by both illegal extractivists and by legal state violence at the behest of corporations, are direct attacks on the living biosphere itself. In essence, we are all under attack by those who seek to profit from the destruction of the fragile web of life on which we all depend.
          May Eugui, and all those taken from us, rest in peace. May we remember all the victims of ecocide, human and non. And may we, the survivors, find the same courage to confront the perpetrators of ecocide in our midst.
*Illustration by Alejandro Solo Solors
Kenn Orphan  May 2020

Earth Day 2020: The Pandemic Edition

          This is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and, for the first time since its inception, there will be no mass gatherings to mark the occasion. No parades. No drumming circles. No raves. Yet on many streets wildlife has returned, if only briefly, to reclaim their stolen habitats. Skies have cleared over smog choked cities. Waters have become translucent in once sullied waterways. Is this not the best way to mark the day?
          Of course, the Earth’s natural realms have not healed. Chemical and fossil fuel corporations, mining and timber companies, and the military are still polluting with near impunity. Whatever meager regulations on industry are being slashed every day by the plutocrats in charge. And climate change continues to proceed even as coral reefs bleach and forests burn.
          But on this 50th Earth Day, where our entire species has been confronted and our daily transactions and interactions paused by the indiscriminate rampage of a submicroscopic ball of genetic coding, we in the “industrialized world” have also been given a moment to reflect and, hopefully, realize that our “way of life” is really a “way of death.” Business as usual is really the business of plunder. And the status quo is really a march toward extinction.
          If there is any meaning to be drawn from the coincidence of Earth Day falling in the midst of a global pandemic 50 years later, it might be that it is a reminder of our place in a chorus of species. That we are all part of an intricate web of life that must be protected is not merely some New Age trope. On the contrary, as this pandemic is teaching us, our very survival depends on us adopting this ethos as the fundamental right of all living beings.
Kenn Orphan  22 April 2020

The Human Spirit is Stronger

This meme was the last post on the wall of one of the victims of the massacre here in Nova Scotia this past weekend. She was a beloved teacher who recently said she missed her kids because of the school closures. A co-worker described her as “a shining love,” and I think this post of hers makes that quite obvious.
Two nurses are also among the dead which is especially difficult given the pressure on healthcare workers during this pandemic. One was on her way to work when she was killed. Both are being remembered for their energy, compassion and spirit.
Other victims include a woman who had beat cancer twice. Her daughter said she fought so hard for her life. She was also a salsa dancer who loved going to Cuba often. An RCMP officer and mother of two, and a family of three, including a 17 year old girl were also killed.
There are more victims and we will learn about them in the days to come as the investigation unfolds. But the timing of this horrific crime has compounded the pain. In a time of social distancing, families are unable to mourn together and hold funerals for their loved ones.
It will take a long time for all those affected to recover from the shock and process this grief, especially in these times. It will take a long time for Nova Scotians too. But we will. Because, as C.C. Scott said, “the human spirit is stronger than anything that can happen to it.”
Kenn Orphan  April 2020

For Nova Scotia: In Sympathy and Solidarity

The acts of violence, hatred, and terror that took the lives of so many in my home province, Nova Scotia, are beyond horrific. There are no words to adequately express the grief or sorrow of this moment. My deepest condolences go out to the families, partners, and friends of all those who were killed and those who are injured.

My heart is broken and extended to all those suffering through this tragedy.

Kenn Orphan  April 2020

The Portent of a Pandemic

Just months ago, few would have thought it possible that a submicroscopic ball of genetic coding could bring the world’s wealthiest powers to their knees. But it has. In the space of a few months the Covid-19 virus projected its spiky arms not only into the delicate cells of the human lung, but into the very membrane of the global economic and political order itself. The United States, being the emblem of this order, has also become the biggest example of its enormous failure. In desperation, the American Empire, the wealthiest and most powerful one humanity has ever known, is flailing in spasms and fits of insanity, denial and outright cruelty. It is robbing from its allies and client states masks and ventilators, as it lashes out even more furiously at nations which have defied its hegemonic control. And, while it bails out corporations and the richest industries, it has abandoned its citizenry to fend for themselves amidst a raging storm where nearly every “non-essential” business has been shut down, the for-profit healthcare system is beginning to buckle, the bodies of the dead are mounting, and the mass graves are being dug. Amidst this assault on humanity, there is a growing assault on the living earth itself. The US is rapidly stripping the last meager protections for the environment, accelerating climate change and the collapse of the biosphere itself.

 

Donald Trump, a leader that is rapidly approaching the malevolence of Caligula, presides over this plague-ridden stage of the American Empire. On his watch, nurses and doctors are left to wrap themselves in garbage bags as their only defense against the microbe’s merciless rampage. Governors are reduced to a bidding war against other governors for life saving medical equipment. Workers that are considered “non-essential” are left to figure out how to navigate the brutal landscape of capitalist predation, with few options available to them to maintain their health, food security or home. Immigrants and prisoners are being left in cages to die without any adequate medical assistance. Most Americans are now left in an impossible situation. “Shelter in place” even though they may lose their livelihoods and homes in a very short time. Millions are unemployed with millions more on the way. Millions have or will lose their health insurance since this fundamental human right has been tethered to employment and whims of the market economy, one that has been built on the mercurial and shifting sands of the so-called free market. Now that marketplace is in shambles. The government’s answer to their plight has been to toss them a laughable, one-time pittance of $1200, while hundreds of billions of dollars are allotted to the wealthiest corporations and industries.

 

As the United States outdoes the rest of the world in Covid-19 cases and deaths, the Trump administration is rapidly dismantling the last, anemic protections for its beleaguered ecosystems. Lands that protect besieged endangered species are now open to hunters and poachers. The largely defanged Environmental Protection Agency has, for all intents and purposes, been shuttered amidst this pandemic. Now corporations are free to pollute without fear of oversight or penalty. The air and water, so integral to human health, are in open season for these industries. Indeed, even as the pandemic seems to be clearing skies and waterways around the planet, the “titans of industry” seek to rapidly cloud them again with toxins for their profit margin. It is an omnicide for profit, encouraged by the corporate state, on full display. And as if to add yet another layer to this absurdity, Trump recently signed an executive order announcing that the US will mine the moon for minerals. Apparently, plundering our own celestial sphere isn’t enough.

With little doubt, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed painful truths about the nature of capitalism itself. The sacrosanct liturgy of the “free market,” for so long lauded by its faithful adherents, now comes across as a vulgar joke in the face of the inhumanity we are witnessing. This should come as little surprise since it possesses no mechanisms to cope mercifully with the calamity of a pandemic in the first place, let alone the existential threats of climate change or nuclear war for that matter. It understands only mindless expansion of the accumulation of capital for a select few. But it is also encroaching even more aggressively into habitats where few human beings have been before. Forests are being felled at record pace, the ocean floor is being scraped away for minerals as I write this, along with a myriad of species we may never even see, and ships now ply the once frozen waters of the Arctic circle in search for petrol.  And with this reckless abandon comes our inevitable encounter with pathogens that are likely to be far more deadly and with which we will have no defense.

 

Indeed, as horrifying as it is, Covid-19 could have been a far more lethal plague, eviscerating any vestige of civilization in a matter of weeks. We may have been spared this time around. But with the ice caps and glaciers melting, coral reefs bleaching, locust swarms blanketing crops in Africa, and fires burning forests and fields to ash with more ferocity each year in Australia and California and along the Mediterranean, we are facing an even greater menace than a microbial killer. Climate change is an existential threat on a global scale, and it does not just threaten the human species, but all life in the biosphere. And given what we have witnessed in the past couple months, we should not hold any assurances that the economic and political order that runs the world’s affairs will be any better suited at addressing the harrowing predicament of a rapidly warming planet. True to form, they will continue business as usual only, as things get worse, they will ramp up brutal repression of civil rights and accelerate toward outright fascism.

 

Just this month, the US stopped issuing passports except in matter of “life or death,” a move that echoes past authoritarian regimes limits on the freedom of movement. While its population is reeling from a collapsing healthcare system and the economic aftershocks, it is continuing its cruel sanctions on Iran, Cuba and Venezuela, even as it threatens military action against those countries. And the echoes of its influence can be seen in many of its allies and client states. In India, Narendra Modi has ignored and sometimes encouraged the police who have persecuted and beaten the poor, Muslims and Dalits for non-compliance to quarantine restrictions which ignore their socioeconomic plight. It continues to ravage occupied Kashmir. In Israel, draconian surveillance technology is being used to track citizen’s movements. And it continues to collectively punish the open-air prison of Gaza. In Hungary, democracy has all but been dissolved, giving far right Victor Orban sweeping, dictatorial powers for an indefinite time period. In the Philippines, Duterte has ordered police and soldiers to shoot people who break the lock down, even if they are desperately searching for food. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has flouted the urging of health officials, endangering the lives and health of millions of people, and has encouraged radical Christian evangelicals in their genocidal aspirations to minister to uncontacted tribes in the Amazon who have no immunity to most western diseases, let alone Covid-19. Indeed, this pandemic has demonstrated the incompetence, cruelty, and despotism of today’s global economic and political arrangement in stark ways, and it has indicated how this order will respond to the escalating nuclear arms race, continuing destruction of ecosystems through habitat loss and pollution, and the climate change catastrophes that loom on the horizon.

 

If there is anything to be learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, it would be that it is a portent. A miniscule sphere packed with laces of genetic strands that perhaps symbolize the power of knowledge itself.  It offers us a glimpse at how some governments are acting responsibly, like Cuba, for instance, who has sent medical teams to China, Italy and Spain. And how others, ones driven by the despotism of the so-called “free market,” are incapable of responding in any manner that is even remotely humane. The United States being the prime example. It also gives us insight into the power of nature and its ability to halt the very machinery of human society. But in addition to this, it offers us an opportunity to organize and act collectively as a species, even in isolation.

From the streets of Paris and Santiago, to the rainforests and wetlands of the Amazon and the Niger Delta, we have seen how ordinary people can arise and unite in solidarity against the barbarism of the global corporate state, whose omnicidal demeanor endangers us and the living earth itself. They continue to fight for the world we all deserve, the world we desperately need. We should take note of them now because, without a doubt, their struggle will become everyone’s in the years to come.

 

Kenn Orphan   April 2020

Excerpt from a day in my Covid-19 Diary, April 4th

I never thought that going to the supermarket would bring anxiety. I generally dislike shopping, but I enjoy food markets, especially farmers markets. Partly because I love cooking, partly because I love the liveliness of the marketplace. But, I must admit, before I went the other day I had to muster up some courage.

 

Interestingly enough I was impressed by the way most people seemed to be treating one another. Many were wearing masks. People smiled, waited patiently for their turn, kept a safe distance and politely stepped aside giving each other plenty of space. Of course, there are always exceptions to this. One young couple burst into the store together when they ask that only one person come in at a time. They proceeded to cough without covering their mouths and violate everyone’s space around them. One of them stood inches from an older lady who had a face mask on. I had a rush of rage, but many of us saw them from a distance and gave them a wide berth.

 

But the staff at the store were impeccable. These people, mostly very young, but some much older, treated everyone with respect and meticulously sanitized every single cart. They were extraordinarily patient too, especially with elderly customers. I understood in real terms why these people are essential workers. And why they need protection from this virus and deserve far more than a paltry $15 an hour. In this crisis they should have hazard pay, because that is what their job is right now: hazardous. How many workers have fallen ill? How many have died? How many will we never even hear of?

 

I was careful before and throughout most of my visit to the store, but then the nightmare happened. At the checkout, after an hour of not touching my face, I touched my nose. It happened so fast. And right after I did it, I felt flushed with fear. These are strange times when such an innocent and common action could invoke terror. My mind flashed to my history of asthma. My blood pressure. In my head I counted the days of possible incubation. Would I live with apprehension at every cough, every muscle ache, for the next 14 days? I thought of my elderly mother, and the fear of passing something terrible on to her. And my partner. And my sister. All of whom are in my circle of direct contacts.

 

I returned home to employ a procedure that the tv detective Monk would have thought excessive. I sanitized every package before bringing it into the house. Then I disrobed just inside the front door, brought my clothes to the washer, and took a shower akin to the kind Karen Silkwood endured after she was exposed to radiation. I am exaggerating a little, of course. But these are the fears many of us live with these days.

 

I write all of this to highlight the fear that anyone who works directly with the public must feel right now. If I felt a little of it from just one little thoughtless nose rub, imagine how they must feel. How nurses, doctors, respiratory techs, cleaners, lab techs. coroner and funeral staff, laundry staff, transit workers, grocery staff, garbage collectors, pharmacists, etc. must feel. How they must self isolate from family in their own homes. How they must wash their uniforms every single day, and many lacking laundry facilities. And how that same fear is intensified when they lack adequate protection. Aware that they, too, might get it. That they might pass it to another patient if they work in healthcare, or to a co-worker, or to a family member.

 

The thought humbled me. As a medical social worker I’ve had the privilege of working with some incredible people in healthcare. People with whom I would want by my side should I become ill or if I should be on my way out of this realm, hopefully to the next adventure, without having the benefit of a loved one near to hold my hand when it happens.

 

But every one who works with the public needs the rest of us to fight for them now. Not just to say thank you or to applaud, but to fight for them to be protected, to have time to see to their own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health and that of their families, to have debt forgiveness and economic compensation for their sacrifices and, if their country lacks it, free universal healthcare and sick pay.

 

We need them, but they also need us as well to amplify their voices, now more than ever before.

 

Kenn Orphan  April 2020

To Live in this World

“to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go”
― Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Volume One

 

          Living close to wildlife you see the cycle of life and death frequently. This morning that reality was on our doorstep. Our beloved resident pheasant had been killed in the night, most likely by a bobcat we have seen around. He had been here for several years and we became as familiar with him, as he was with us.

Every day he would peer through our windows like a nosy neighbour and strut around the meadow on his daily constitutionals. Occasionally we gave him some sunflower seeds which he happily pecked away at. He was a beauty, proud and emphatic, beating his chest and squawking loudly, calling for a mate.

Some say you shouldn’t name wild animals, but I couldn’t help but name this one. I called him Fezziwig after my favourite character from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carole. I suppose I chose it because Mr. Fezziwig gave his employees joy, and this pheasant brought a lot of joy to us.

My heart sank when I saw his proud, colourful feathers spread out over the meadow, quivering in the breeze like a thousand small birds. We picked up a few of them to hold on to as a remembrance. We do not blame the bobcat for she, too, must eat. But we do feel an emptiness now without our colourful and loud friend, our neighbour.

With our world reeling from the emotionless rampage of a submicroscopic ball of non-living genetic coding, it might seem trivial to some to grieve the death of one wild pheasant. Yet I think that is exactly what we must do. To be fully present in the world we inhabit. To feel it. To embrace everything that walks, crawls, flies, swims or slithers among us as if it were our own life, our own breath, no matter how big or how small. And then to grieve for it when it is gone.

 

Kenn Orphan   April 2020

The Message of Covid-19

At the end of the first World War, as civilians and soldiers returning home were celebrating the end of a senseless and cruel carnage, another terror was lurking in the microscopic shadows. The 1918 flu pandemic, most commonly referred to as the Spanish Flu, would end up taking the lives of anywhere from 50 to 100 million people around the world. The first wave of the virus was bad enough, but the second wave mutated in a way that was far more lethal and rapidly swept through communities in every country, causing untold misery and bringing governments and economies to their knees.

 

Although the 1918 pandemic was named the Spanish Flu, it is unlikely the virus actually originated there. In fact, many historians believe it originated in the United States, and that an American soldier might have inadvertently brought it with him to Europe during combat assignments. But the deadly catastrophe was reported by the Spanish press in a thoroughly honest manner as opposed to other nations. Spain, which was neutral in WW1, had no propaganda to advance. But within the imperialistic nations at war, obfuscation and lies ruled the day in the media. Propaganda was considered more important than giving an appearance of weakness to the enemy. This blackout may have led to the initial and rapid spread of the pathogen. But another factor of this pandemic was how officials handled warnings from healthcare professionals after the war, and how humans’ relationship with animal species may have given the virus its start in the first place. With the world reeling from the latest pandemic, Covid-19, it is worth revisiting the lessons of this tragic era.

 

The 1918 pandemic was not the plague that ravaged Europe centuries earlier, but it emerged in an era of modern warfare which most certainly aided in its incubation and distribution. Tens of thousands of men were housed in huge barracks, in very close quarters. The spread of disease was almost a given. Indeed, without any properties of intelligence, this virus used militarism as one of its vehicles for its deadly global rampage. The first World War was vicious. It claimed millions of lives, of soldiers and civilians alike. Chemical warfare was one of the most cruel manifestations of modern weapons. Apart from the horrific effects of agents like mustard gas, the psychological toll was enormous. Throughout history, war and militarism have been linked to disease, and it isn’t too difficult to understand why. Contrary to what is commonly held as true, war is alien to humanity, and even more so in the last 100 + years. It not only rips at the fragile chords that link humanity together, but tears apart the very fabric of the natural world on which we all depend.

Following this horrendous war, public health officials and politicians continued to downplay the severity of the rapidly spreading disease. Many wanted to puff up their reputations with parades and festivities. One particularly tragic example of this was in September of 1918 in the city of Philadelphia. 200,000 people crowded together on clogged city streets despite a looming disaster in the making. In just three days the cities hospitals were inundated with gravely ill patients. The healthcare system would collapse within a week. By the end of it at least 12,000 people in Philadelphia had perished, but this account is likely underestimated as the city simply stopped counting the dead and mass graves had to be dug to bury mountains of corpses. Children starved after their parents succumbed. Bodies lay unmoved in houses due to the fear by city workers of contagion. Doctors and nurses would drop to the floor gasping for air while caring for the dying. Sadly, we have seen similar stories being repeated recently in China and Italy. It is a textbook example of how social distancing is key to the slowing of deadly contagions.

 

But the 1918 pandemic also revealed how understanding human interaction with animals is key to assessing how viruses flourish and become more lethal. This was, as in the case of all coronaviruses, a zoonotic disease. Meaning, it has its origin in other species and jumped the barrier to humans due to proximity and, in all likelihood, unsanitary and cruel conditions that livestock endured.  And soldiers who were malnourished thanks to limited rations and who faced the utter barbarity of war, provided the 1918 flu virus a perfect host. Today’s modern globalized world has created new avenues for the distribution of pathogens. But it is in our relationship to other species that this latest pandemic was likely born.

It would be all too easy to simply blame one market in the bustling city of Wuhan for the current unfolding catastrophe. But it would ignore the glaring and stark reality that humanity has breached crucial planetary boundaries that have altered the very net of the biosphere. With little doubt, global industrialization fueled by the avarice of capital gain has made pillage of a liveable biosphere inevitable. Deforestation, mining, mass scale fishing and other deeply damaging practices have all but erased the frontier between humans and other species. Indeed, the habitat of other species has dramatically shrunk in the last century thanks to the rapid expansion of industrialized extraction of what have become known as “resources” and any damage done referred to as “externalities.”  But it has done so at an extraordinary and existential price. A myriad of species have been decimated by the rapacious activities of capital accumulation for the economic powers who seek unending profit above planetary health. But, as Covid-19 is demonstrating, it is nature that has the ultimate power to shut this machine down.

 

Even in its infancy, the Covid-19 pandemic has ripped the tattered and rotting cloak from the edifice of the global economic and political system. Markets are in free fall. Airports and streets are empty. Restaurants and movie theaters are shuttered. Workers have been laid off. In the US people are anxiously staying at home, fearful of any cough or headache because they are un or under-insured; and stupefied by the crumbling institutions which were supposed to protect them. It has revealed the sociopathology of world leaders like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Benjamin Netanyahu and Jair Bolsonaro who are utterly incapable of addressing the urgency of this situation with even a modicum of decency or compassion; and whose solutions lie solely in increased authoritarianism or even fascism. It has demonstrated the complicity of “moderate” politicians like Emanuel Macron whose neoliberal austerity led to a dearth of medical staff and equipment, and Joe Biden who has long cozied up to Big Business and refused to consider the slightest hint of Medicare for All which might have stemmed the spread of this disease. It has shown us that the militarism of an empire is ruthless and relentless, even in a time of humanitarian disaster, as demonstrated by the ongoing sanctions against Iran and other nations. And it has revealed to us the cruelty that is routinely inflicted on animals and wildlife around the world.

But there are signs that Covid-19 is changing the way humanity looks at the way society is arranged. Some are questioning the cruelty and cost of militarism. Others are seeing how class has kept too many people in a cycle of demeaning poverty and disease, and many are demanding universal healthcare. The 1918 pandemic and a needless war of imperialism stole from humanity a young generation. The Covid-19 pandemic appears to be stealing from us our elders, and many of us are beginning to see the intrinsic worth of all people and the immediate need for an end to all war. And, as the waters clear in Venice’s canals and skies become cleaner over Wuhan, there are questions emerging about how our species has treated the delicate balance between us and the natural world. Indeed, many are realizing that there is no “us and the natural world” at all. Covid-19 might be the biosphere’s last and desperate warning to our species that the status quo is a one way ticket to extinction. The only question that remains is how we will respond to its urgent message.

 

Kenn Orphan  2020