Journal of the Plague Year 2020: Late Capitalism’s Rubicon

On March 21, there were 70 confirmed Covid-19 infections in my state, Arizona. Now there are 367.

The more interesting statistic comes from The Covid Tracking Project, a site that tracks how many tests are being administered, as well as health outcomes. Here are the numbers for Arizona:

Positive: 367

Negative: 313

[Test Results] Pending: 22

Hospitalized: 8

Deaths: 5

Total: 702

Do you see the problem here? I’m in much more elite company than I imagined. Only 702 people have been tested in Arizona. So we have no reliable data, and can’t make informed decisions.

Colorado has tested more of its citizens by an order of magnitude, though the per capita number might be less impressive, since its almost certainly more populous:

Positive: 912

Negative: 6,789

Pending: N/A

Hospitalized: 84

Deaths: 11

Total: 7,701

Arizona is not under a shutdown order. Most businesses are open, with only casual social distancing rules in place. Rush-hour traffic on the surface roads and freeways looks like traffic at noon or 7:00 p.m. We have no meaningful way to gauge risk, so now we’re operating on fear and rumor and wishful thinking and what folks on a flight line call Kentucky Windage.

(Pressing question: Why does every asshole feel like he now can and therefore must drive 85 or 90 on I-10 everywhere at all times? Come on, people! Your shit is not that urgent! Sad to say, there is an asshole in me straining to get out. I keep catching myself driving 82 in a 65 zone. You’re not surprised, but I genuinely am.)

As if that weren’t enough, some economists — let’s agree now that they are the dreariest kind of dork — are now murmuring, or even proclaiming, that we should go back to normal for the sake of The Economy.

Yeah, right. The economy that has been sacrificing people like an Aztec temple for decades now? That economy? The metaphor is an apt one. It’s said that the Aztecs increased the pace and savagery of human sacrifice in times of trouble.

Contrast that with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a beacon of decency, toughness and morality (or, a bacon of these, according to autocorrect), who says that he won’t place a value on human life. He said, I love New York, and New York loves you. No matter who you are — what your race or age or ability. We’re all human, we all matter, we’re all in this together. He explicitly said that we’re doing this to protect the most vulnerable members of society: the elderly, people with underlying conditions.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but The Economy won’t function normally when the pandemic rages out of control, no matter what orders we’re given. People will be terrified for their loved ones and themselves, and they’ll be grieved by their personal losses, and our collective loss. They’ll be busy coping with illness and death, and caring for each other and themselves.

It’s literally impossible to weigh people against profit, to put a price on human life. Honestly, I think the exercise is monstrous. Being forced to ration and triage in terrible times is a cause of moral injury. That’s why Gov. Cuomo responded with indignant rage when he was offered 400 ventilators, a small fraction of the number New York needs. It’s terrible to decide who will live and die, and cruel to place states and cities in competition with each other. It’s wrong to force individuals to weigh fatal risks in the absence of data.

This is late capitalism’s Rubicon. Will elected officials and economic technocrats order us across? If they do, will we follow?

We will hunker down and refuse to be beaten, like London during the Blitz? Or will we allow ourselves to be divided for others’ profit?

The choice is very personal, and damn hard. Lots of people have lost their jobs. Businesses are bleeding cash. Whole industries have been shuttered temporarily.

I keep thinking, though, that The Economy exists because of us, and for us. It’s supposed to be meeting our needs. If all stocks and bonds disappeared overnight — simply ceased to exist — we would still be here. We’d still have to eat and find shelter and tend the sick and bury our dead. We’d be singing, and crying, and holding Mass, and making art.

There’s no graceful way to descend from that rhetorical height, so I’ll just hop on down.

I went into the office and lab for the first time in weeks. Parking was a breeze, and the halls were depopulated. All the common areas were sparklingly clean — eerily so. The labs and closed areas are still pretty grungy, because they’re relying on engineers to clean them. They’re handing out cleaning supplies, starting with the closed labs. The result is binary and predictable: A plurality of the population cleans anxiously and constantly, while the rest have rededicated themselves to careless machismo.

My desk is still very dirty.


J.A. Thompson

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