It wasn't magic. It wasn't astrology. Not faintly. But it was in the stars. No, not this specific pandemic, but a pandemic. In fact, back in 2010, TomDispatch ran a piece by John Barry on that very subject. He's the expert on the "Spanish Flu," the 1918-1919 pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million or more people on a significantly less populated planet. His 2005 book, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, has fittingly returned to the bestseller lists in the Covid-19 moment. A decade ago, his TomDispatch post "How Prepared Are We for the Next Great Flu Breakout?" concluded all too presciently this way: "Because H5N1 has not become a pandemic and H1N1 turned out to be mild, the idea that influenza is no longer a threat has become pervasive. Everything that happened in 2009 suggests that, if a severe outbreak comes again, failure to improve on that response will threaten chaos and magnify the terror, the economic impact, and the death toll. And it will come again."
Yes, the nature of "it" may have been unpredictable, but a pandemic wasn't. That was a decade ago and something like the Spanish Flu redux was already all too imaginable then. As Politico reported in March, it was so imaginable that, seven days before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, Obama administration officials walked at least 30 members of his team, including future cabinet members, through a horrific pandemic scenario for 2017 in which a virus worse than the Spanish flu, let loose in Asia, began to spread across the planet.
Predictably enough, the Trump administration responded to this nightmare by "largely dismantling government units that were designed to protect against pandemics." And then, of course, they were blindsided by what, to any virologist or epidemiologist, was all too predictable. With only election 2020 on their minds, the president and his crew suddenly faced their own version of the interloper from hell, Covid-19, and promptly ducked. They tried to push responsibility for dealing with it off on the states, even as they did their best to imagine it away and, in the process, consigned staggering numbers of Americans to an early grave. Thanks in part to such ignorant incompetents running the country, we now find ourselves in a version of hell (even if without the flames).
As TomDispatch regular John Feffer, weekly columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus and author of the Splinterlands series of dystopian novels, suggests today, The Donald and his crew might be considered the Great Unwinders on a previously globalized planet that looks to be coming apart at the seams. What that could possibly mean I leave him to explore. Tom
This Changes Everything (or Nothing)
How Covid-19 Could Upend Geopolitics
By John Feffer
I don't trust you.
Don't take it personally. It doesn't matter whether you're a friend or a stranger. I don't care about your identity or your politics, where you work or if you work, whether you wear a mask or carry a gun.
I don't trust you because you are, for the time being, a potential carrier of a deadly virus. You don't have any symptoms? Maybe you're an asymptomatic superspreader. Show me your negative test results and I'll still have my doubts. I have no idea what you've been up to between taking the test and receiving the results. And can we really trust that the test is accurate?
Frankly, you shouldn't trust me for the same reasons. I'm not even sure that I can trust myself. Didn't I just touch my face at the supermarket after palpating the avocados?
I'm learning to live with this mistrust. I'm keeping my distance from other people. I'm wearing my mask. I'm washing my hands. I'm staying far away from bars.
I'm not sure, however, that society can live with this level. Let's face it: trust makes the world go around. Protests break out when our faith in people or institutions is violated: when we can't trust the police (#BlackLivesMatter), can't trust male colleagues (#MeToo), can't trust the economic system to operate with a modicum of fairness (#OccupyWallStreet), or can't trust our government to do, well, anything properly (#notmypresident).
Now, throw a silent, hidden killer into this combustible mix of mistrust, anger, and dismay. It's enough to tear a country apart, to set neighbor against neighbor and governor against governor, to precipitate a civil war between the masked and the unmasked.
Such problems only multiply at the global level where mistrust already permeates the system -- military conflicts, trade wars, tussles over migration and corruption. Of course, there's also been enough trust to keep the global economy going, diplomats negotiating, international organizations functioning, and the planet from spinning out of control. But the pandemic may just tip this known world off its axis.
I'm well aware of the ongoing debate between the "not much" and "everything" factions. Once a vaccine knocks it out of our system, the coronavirus might not have much lasting effect on our world. Even without a vaccine, people can't wait to get back to normal life by jumping into pools, heading to the movie theater, attending parties -- even in the United States where cases continue to rise dramatically. The flu epidemic of 1918-1919, which is believed to have killed at least 50 million people, didn't fundamentally change everyday life, aside from giving a boost to both alternative and socialized medicine. That flu passed out of mind and into history and so, of course, might Covid-19.
Or, just as the Black Death in the fourteenth century separated the medieval world from all that followed, this pandemic might draw a thick before-and-after line through our history. Let's imagine that this novel virus keeps circulating and recirculating, that no one acquires permanent immunity, that it becomes a nasty new addition to the cold season except that it just happens to kill a couple of people out of every hundred who get it. This new normal would certainly be better than if Ebola, with a 50% case fatality rate if untreated, became a perennial risk everywhere. But even with a fatality rate in the low single digits, Covid-19 would necessarily change everything.
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