What Coronavirus Teaches us About the Kind of World We Have to Build

(How) Coronavirus is About Poverty, Inequality, and Capitalism

umair haque
Feb 27 · 7 min read

I saw many, many Americans say something today like: “Coronavirus means Medicare for All!!” And I had to chuckle. They’re not wrong. But they’re also not right. Coronavirus does carry powerful lessons for us. But they are much, much bigger than this. What are they? Let me highlight three.

Coronavirus is a family of viruses, in fact — that can “jump” to humans. They can cross the species barrier. How? The mechanisms are still a little cloudy. But various kinds of unhygienic contact — eating, blood-to-blood transmission — and so on seem to be the key. That’s what a pundit might tell you.

Now, this Coronavirus outbreak started at a “wet food” market in Wuhan, which sold fish and birds — including bats — which were slaughtered and butchered on the premises. I highlight bats because they’re a key suspect in this mystery. But the causality’s pretty clear. It goes something like this.

A city of poor people. A market in that city. Selling the kinds of meat that poor people must eat. Bats and birds and fish of various kinds that rich people in the West would find pretty repulsive. Here’s a tiny fact from someone that comes from the East — the world’s poor don’t eat gross food because they like it — we’d all like to eat steak and McDonald’s and have a fine Michelin Starred dinner — they eat it because they have to. So. A market of poor people in a poor city selling poor quality food slaughtered and butchered in unhygienic ways, which is the only way that poor people can have meat, really.

Are you seeing a common thread here yet? You should be.

The first true cause in the rise of Coronavirus is poverty — as it has been in all global pandemics. What would have happened if all those people in that poor city could have afforded to eat like Europeans — or even, say Americans? That transmission from bat or bird or fish to human probably wouldn’t have occurred. What would have happened if China could afford decent standards for food? That first case, patient zero, probably never would have gotten sick. But China is still a poor country — a desperately poor one, by and large. It’s also the world’s most populous country. Put poverty and population together, and bang — you have a recipe for pandemics.

If you really want to learn the first lesson of Coronavirus, then, it goes like this. We are all in it together. A nation of desperately poor billions is a risk to us all. Socially, they tend to erupt into violence, whether fascism or authoritarianism. Ecologically, poverty is unhealthy, and ill health spreads through disease. Coronavirus is stark evidence of the need to have a fairer world. (Not, emphatically, just Medicare for relatively globally rich Americans.)

Let me translate that into the simplest terms possible. Everyone on planet earth should enjoy a decent income and savings, that provides enough for them not to have to eat toxic things. Every nation should be wealthy enough to regulate food and wildlife and so on. Such deficits endanger us all. Poverty is a global issue.

The second lesson of Coronavirus is the lack of another global public good — the first, as we’ve discussed, is money. The second is healthcare. You probably saw what happened in Wuhan when Coronavirus erupted: China proceeded to build hospitals at a furious, stunning pace — erecting them in weeks flat.

But a hospital is not just a building. It is a system. Of doctors, nurses, care, medicine, and so on. You can’t really build that in weeks. It takes years. Coronavirus spread precisely because it infected tens of thousands in Wuhan — because healthcare was abysmal to the point of nonexistence. But that’s not a condemnation of China: like I said, China’s a bitterly poor country, still.

What is Coronavirus really trying to teach us? Let me make lesson point crystal clear, too. Every life on planet earth should have good healthcare. Every single one. The logic for that should be obvious. If you’re the kind of ugly American who thinks: “Those dirty people don’t deserve healthcare” — that is, if you don’t accept the moral case for healthcare for everyone on the planet, then you should at least accept the pragmatic one. Sooner or later, there’s going to be a disease, which is carried most by the poor, which will infect even the rich. Pandemics teach us that healthcare should be a global public good.

By now, at this juncture in human history, we should have had something like a World Healthcare System. Why don’t we? Have you ever wondered? The reason is largely because America torpedoed every effort in the direction of social democracy for the last eighty years or so. But you can see where a lack of healthcare led America itself — to become a shattered, ruined society. Do we really want the whole world to end up like that? Of course not. And so these moments should teach us about the future — we need to get serious about building global institutions, genuinely awesome and radical ones, which care for every life on planet earth. If we had a Global Healthcare System, pandemics would be far less frightening and dangerous things. We are all in it together — but we don’t quite seem to understand how deep that lesson goes yet.

That brings me to my third lesson. Let’s assume that Coronavirus came from someone eating something that we in the rich West would consider dodgy — because they’re too poor to afford the quality of food that we take for granted. What about those very poor animals? Why are they eating bats and wild birds and seafood that would barely be considered food-grade in a richer society? The answer isn’t just: “they’re poor”, it’s also — “animals aren’t protected.”

So the third global public good that we should be concerned with if we’re really ready to learn the lessons of Coronavirus is nature itself. Animals themselves should be protected. Nobody should be able to go out and slaughter a family of bats or a school of fish willy-nilly. In the rich West, that’s kind-of-partly true: we have tight regulations on, say, fishing and poaching. But in most of the rest of the world, it’s barely true at all. What regulations there are can scarcely be enforced by countries too poor to provide much to people in the first place.

And so the obvious happens. People who are poor and desperate for meat go out and catch what they can, no matter the larger consequences or impacts. But those consequences are just depletion of natural resources — they can rise right up to the level of pandemics. Without protections for nature and wildlife, therefore, pandemics, which are often zoonotic — those crossing the species barrier, like bird flu, or giardia, or ringworm, or Hantavirus — are likely to go on rising, as human population does.

Just as we should have had a World Healthcare System by now, we probably also should have had a World Food System, and a World Wildlife Agency. Managed consensually, democratically, under the auspices, perhaps, of the UN, where countries can agree on what to provide to whom and how. In the absence of those public goods, an everyone for themselves attitude prevails — and the result is things like pandemics.

I said that I was going to mention three lessons. But I want to crystallize all three into a fourth. The three: the causes of this pandemic are poverty, a lack of healthcare, and a lack of protection for nature, at global levels. Even tiny actions — like someone in Wuhan being bitten by or eating a bat — can have catastrophic global consequences. We should therefore all, if we are sensible and thoughtful people, be concerned with a fairer world.

We should all want a world in which every single life has good healthcare and decent food. Enough money to buy it. A society wealthy enough to regulate and provide it. Enough savings to not have to go without it. Enough resources not to have to consume things we ourselves would consider repulsive and repellent. The consequences of an unfair world affect us all.

The best way to combat a pandemic is to have a healthier world. But that lesson’s too small, really. The best way to combat all of the dangers of the 21st century — from fascism to authoritarianism to pandemics to social disintegration to hate and violence — is a fairer world.

Why didn’t patient zero have decent healthcare? Why did he have to eat something like a bat, for meat? Why did he have to go to a market with degrading sanitary conditions? Because we in the rich West made that world, my friends. They are poor because we are rich. We colonized and enslaved them for millennia. We left them without the resources to build prosperous societies — and we still do. How much of that iPhone goes to Apple — and how much to China? Perhaps you see my point. Capitalism is inextricable from colonialism — and both are inextricable from things like climate change, mass extinction, and annihilation in the form of pandemics.

But an unfair world is a profoundly dangerous one, too. It is out of balance in too many ways. Economically, ecologically, sociopolitically, psychologically. If I can catch what you have — then an unfair world is the most dangerous thing of all. But it’s not just Coronavirus that catches. It’s all the plagues of the 21st century, from fascism to authoritarianism to tribalism to poverty itself.

Coronavirus isn’t about your healthcare. It’s not about you at all. It’s about them. Their healthcare, poverty, food, resources, deprivation. The billions who are, in fact, worse off than you. Until you learn that lesson, unless you do — you haven’t learned much at all. When you say, “I will build a fairer world”, then my friend, finally, you can build a fairer society, too. But not often without it. Because fairness is fairness, a principle, an imperative, a value. That is the lesson we still have yet to learn, in our arrogance and indifference.

Umair Haque

February 2020

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