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Coronavirus contemplations: Part III Open in fullscreen

Azmi Bishara

Coronavirus contemplations: Part III

There are over 4.7 million confirmed cases of coronavirus, and at least 316,060 deaths [Getty]

Date of publication: 18 May, 2020

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Comment: In this three-part series, Dr Azmi Bishara takes a deep dive look at how citizens and states have responded to an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic that is reshaping our world.
This is Part III of a three-part series. Read Part I here, and Part II here


IX: Trump

Times of crisis bring out the best in some people while fear suppresses it in others. But there are some who have no 'best' to show to start with. One of these people is President Donald Trump. Having initially ignored and dismissed the pandemic with preening machismo, he is now terrified at the prospect of losing votes and has been forced to take action – but only by exploiting fear of coronavirus to foment xenophobia (against China) and engaging in childish competitions with the Europeans (who is the best, who is the fastest). Even if a treatment for coronavirus is found, Donald Trump will remain incurable.

The virus originated in China, but this does not justify Trump's use of the term 'Chinese virus': it is not Chinese but biological (the same applies to the continued use of 'Spanish flu' for the early 20th-century pandemic which did not originate in Spain in any case). But China's decision to conceal the virus for a period of weeks did help it to spread outside the country – and it went further, punishing the doctor who warned of the danger.

You're sitting at home in the USA (or wherever you may be), worrying about the pandemic and a thousand other questions that it has raised about your future. But you can still find it in you to feel infuriated by a person like Trump, who by some mysterious force has become president of a country – ruling during a pandemic, no less – but who makes it clear with every word that comes out of his mouth that he considers himself the only worthwhile topic of conversation (followed at some distance by stock market performance, a topic he knows nothing about but nonetheless takes great pleasure in talking about).

On 4 April 2020, The New York Times reported that between the moment in early January that the Chinese government ended its cover-up and informed the WHO that it was facing an epidemic and the point at which the US started to take steps to fight the virus, more than 430,000 travellers arrived in US airports from China – with 40,000 arriving even after direct flights were suspended. This is Trump's responsibility, not China's.

Trump's state of denial was the product of his fear that the public might find out the truth about the pandemic and the effect that the necessary measures would have on the economy and the broad atmosphere of 'optimism' during an election year. As I have been writing, Trump has once again been harping on his anxieties about the stoppage of the economy, calling for its 'reopening', fomenting rebellion against Democratic governors who disagree with him and describing armed protesters opposing lockdown measures as 'responsible'.

Hollywood has made many disaster films. Some feature state governors and mayors who conceal the danger or suppress the signs that something catastrophic might be coming despite experts' warnings. In order to avoid causing panic or undermining economic projects, they massively exacerbate the crisis when it comes. Perhaps Trump has seen these films but only remembers handsome scientists falling in love with beautiful experts and coming together to save humanity at the last minute.

On 15 April 2020, the Washington Post reported that Trump's name was to appear on the US treasury checks sent to 70 million US citizens to compensate for lost earnings during the pandemic – as though they were royal gestures of magnanimity, as though the money were coming out of his own pocket. Nothing like this has ever happened before in US history.

Trump has an embarrassingly high number of bad qualities. But he did not invent the use of malaria medication to treat coronavirus patients. This treatment had already been in use in a number of countries (as a treatment aid, not as a preventative) before he heard about it. And just because Trump is promoting it doesn't mean that his opponents should dismiss an experimental treatment so readily. All treatments of coronavirus victims are actually trial and error. There is a paternalistic tone to many liberals' attitudes – the same condescending tone adopted against people who want closures to be lifted because they have to work in order to eat, the same tone that made it so easy for populism to be used against them.

I'd like to note here that it was Sudanese doctors who were among the first to say that antimalarials might help to treat coronavirus until a vaccine is created. Some mocked them and others paid them no attention. But when French doctors said the same thing – and Trump followed suit – it started to be taken seriously. But the Sudanese doctors were ignored, perhaps because they were Sudanese, or Africans. As was made clear by the recent suggestions of two French doctors, Africa which is still considered by some of their colleagues many as a continent fit only to serve as a laboratory for new vaccines.

Having initially ignored and dismissed the pandemic with preening machismo, he is now terrified at the prospect of losing vote.


X: On the return of the state

There has been a curious rediscovery of the importance of the state, a strange declaration of its 'return' or 'ascendancy'. Had the state disappeared, or gone away, before the pandemic? Those who confidently claimed that globalisation had defeated the state because its terminology and concepts are its antithesis or its enemy have had a rude awakening. The developments of the last two decades could have shown them that this was not the case: while globalisation of capital exports and consumerist, cultural and digital globalisation have indeed been on the rise – and globalisation of communications and transport – the same applies to the influence and position of the state. Dozens of new countries have arisen under globalism in Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Balkans; more recently, the UK has withdrawn from the European Union. It is now clear that even as globalisation has produced a new global culture, it has simultaneously given new life to local and ethnonational cultures and identities. Globalisation has not done away with the state or with nationality. In fact, under globalisation, new states have  formed and new nationalisms have been produced from ethnic difference.

The state that monopolises the legitimate use of violence, that creates and enforces law, that adjudicates disputes, that issues ID cards and birth certificates, that sets budgets and raises taxes – this is the same state that fought wars and gained new strength and influence, that made use of globalised technology to develop its ability to conduct surveillance, discipline and control the local population. It is the same state that political forces fight tooth and nail to take control of, the same state that produces the political and economic news that people follow so closely and anxiously. It takes pride of place not only in the media but also in dinner-table discussions. Is it only now, with coronavirus, that it has become important – by closing the borders and imposing a lockdown?

 The romantic souls that see in all this some dramatic change are strange indeed. Carl Schmitt, an interbellum German jurist, saw its ability to impose a state of emergency as the defining feature of the state. In my most recent book (What Is Populism?), I argued that this definition is an abstract one because it is based not on the rule but on the exception – something that made Schmitt particularly attractive to the Nazis. It is my contention that any definition of the state should be based on the rule, i.e. its function in normal times, and only thereafter the state of exception – and not vice versa. In the post-virus era we may well see a political debate on the relative ranking of state functions, inspired by the conditions created by the pandemic and its economic and social consequences.

In times of crisis people look to the state because it is society organised in its sovereign form, because it is the sole legitimate authority capable of announcing curfews or distributing rations, setting budgets or mobilising the army, calling up reserves, issuing orders and declaring emergencies. For this reason – and for many other reasons too – people seek to define the powers of the state when there is no emergency and prevent it from acting arbitrarily even when a state of emergency is in place. This is nothing new.

Closing borders does not in itself indicate that a new national chauvinism has arrived or that the state's power is increasing. States that are not ready to fight pandemics have no other choice: passive prevention by means of lockdown is the main weapon available to them. Neighbourhoods, cities, buildings and houses have also been locked down. The largest area that a state is capable of controlling access to in order to prevent the spread of infection is that delineated by its political borders. This has nothing to do with inhumanity or racism – unlike the refusal to treat certain patients or "foreigners" within the borders of a state on racial grounds, for example.

Even those who had announced the death of the state and the various theorists of 'post-ism' are now saying that it has returned during the pandemic. In crises people look to the state. It is the point of reference in times of disaster – natural and otherwise – and the sole organised framework capable of taking comprehensive and enforceable measures.

State borders become the main point of reference in distinguishing 'us' from 'them'. You are most interested in how many cases there are, how many people are under quarantine and how many are being treated within a particular state – the number of tests conducted, the number of recovered patients, the number of beds and ventilators available in the country in which you live. And blame and criticism focus on exactly the same numbers.

Everyone expects the state to act, and it is the state that will be blamed for acting or not acting – to the point that it becomes difficult to work out how to distinguish steps taken against the pandemic. Are they really the result of careful planning? Or are they the product of an inability to do anything else? Or is it just doing something in response to public pressure?

But the pandemic also shows how relative borders are and the modest resources states actually command. States rely on each other in order to fight the pandemic.

States are going to have to think seriously about how long lockdowns should last. The closure of public facilities and businesses that seem at first glance 'non-vital' will inevitably impact on those that are still operating. There are likely to be problems with supporting and supplying vital facilities, including healthcare facilities. This is without going into the effects on the macro level of economy, which is another story entirely. I'm talking about the direct and immediate effect on people's lives – exactly what the lockdown measures are intended to protect.

But the pandemic also shows how relative borders are and the modest resources states actually command. States rely on each other in order to fight the pandemic.



XI: Conspiracy, rumour, racsim

The problem with 'conspiracy theories' begins with the name. They are not theories but a sort of fantastical thinking that explains every phenomenon with a story – precisely like legends.

Conspiracies exist. They happen within and outside the realm of politics, in peace and in war. They will continue to exist so long as political and economic actors make secret plans unexpected by another party in order to beat or score points against them or bring about a result that benefits them while harming the other party. But a 'conspiracy theory' attributes any phenomenon that the true believer is himself incapable of explaining, or tends to look for machination even in social or natural phenomena (such as coronavirus), a conspiracy authored by a group that, in his eyes, embodies true evil. Conspiracy stories thus typically show two opposing parties, one of which accuses the other of responsibility for something they both consider an atrocity (but which the other is assumed to have no compunctions about). And if you cast doubt on whether this putative conspiracy exists, it is easy to accuse you of making excuses for the evil party, as if you are suggesting that he would never commit an evil act.

The conspiracy, in this case, is hidden; it is discovered through 'likely scenarios', stories woven together narratively and not logically, and all without any proof. The Arab revolutions thus became a conspiracy in the eyes of Arab regimes and their intellectuals: the conspirators, of course, are 'hostile states' whose identity changes depending on the country that is the victim of this ostensible conspiracy. ISIS likewise became the product of an Iranian, Saudi or US conspiracy (depending on who was making the accusations).

Evidence is little use in refuting a conspiracy, because any evidence you might marshal against it can easily serve as evidence of attempts to cover it up. When the pandemic began to spread stories focused on a US conspiracy against China; this soon transformed into a US conspiracy against China and Iran (according to Supreme Leader Khamenei himself and Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq – not just eccentric journalists and writers). This was followed by talk of a Chinese conspiracy against the West. Even if it were proven that the virus originated in a Chinese laboratory and that it was designed or manufactured, this wouldn't mean that it was the product of a conspiracy. In India some Hindu newspapers have accused Muslims of spreading the virus, with Muslims then being attacked in the streets; curiously enough, the attackers rarely seem to worry that they will be infected by their victims. An official Bahraini source has accused Iran of launching a biological attack on the island country and has claimed that the virus is Iranian-made and manufactured. The list goes on and on. Finally, one US journalist writing in the Wall Street Journal has insisted on gathering all of the ridiculous nonsense that has been written accusing Jews of a 'coronavirus conspiracy' to beat China and Iran after their failure to do so politically or militarily in a single article. He ends his piece by thanking God that Israel exists to protect Jews from anti-Semites of this kind.

Many lies, rumours and curious ideas about the origins of the virus have been disseminated. By this point they have become recognisable types, and you know what you should read and what you should avoid even glancing at. There are clinical obsessives desperate for attention and recognition who get what they need by sharing doctored photos and spreading rumours. Not even an epidemic can 'cure' their particular illness.

CNN has introduced an anti-rumour ad that appears between programmes, made up of short, punchy sentences: "In a time of uncertainty, facts provide clarity. In a time of anxiety, facts comfort. In a time of misinformation, facts correct. In a time of division, facts unite. In a time of crisis, facts matter most." This short text encapsulates the optimism of 18th-century Enlightenment philosophy – the belief that 'the truth shall set you free'. But a long time has passed since the 18th century. We now know that this is not necessarily true – that facts might not be a source of comfort or unity, and that alone they cannot set us free. But there is no alternative. We have to hold on to facts as the basis of rational thought in order to reach correct conclusions. How they are used is another matter altogether which has nothing to do with the facts per se or even with rational thought per se. This is a much bigger question I won't go into here. But CNN's optimism – despite its lack of any scientific basis – is legitimate and justified because it is intentional, part of a deliberate effort to fight back against rumour and fantasy. The aim is to influence people in the right direction. The CNN problem lies elsewhere:  enlightened campaigning  can easily morph into paternalism. 

Quality media may not fall into the trap of cheap propaganda – but even quality media is at the mercy of viewing figures. There is no basis, for example, to the claim that mass graves have been dug for coronavirus victims on Hart Island near to New York. The picture showing a line of coffins buried in a shallow trench is not new: this is where municipal authorities have typically buried the remains of homeless people of 'unknown identity' or with 'no known relatives'. This is a tragic phenomenon in itself. But the media insists on republishing these images with the claim and then denial that they are the mass graves of coronavirus – so that it doesn't miss the chance to catch people's attention during the pandemic.

Even serious media outlets are only making a superficial pretence at objectivity when they publish stories that the writers themselves know very well to be false, leaving it to relevant parties to refute it. Sometimes the story may involve genuine incitement against a particular person – and proves far more memorable for viewers than the accompanying denial. If a story is simply false or fabricated and the editor knows this, then it is not news to start with, and should not be published even if accompanied by a denial. Its publication has an ulterior motive. It is only stories which seem likely to be true but which it is impossible despite great effort to confirm that should be published with a denial or a disclaimer. But false allegations are not news but fabrication, even if the target of the allegation is allowed a right of reply.

It is only natural that a pandemic should re-energise another phenomenon that social media has made highly infectious: the plague of 'vocal ignorance'. Freedom of expression does not mean that rational interpretations of the pandemic and how it is being confronted should be treated the same as unwitting ignorance and superstitious interpretations of crises or other social problems more broadly.

Some states are now having to deal with the consequences of encouraging ignorant and irrational understandings of the world and neglecting human development – including education – in their development plans. They are having to ask citizens to rely on their data and their news, to follow their instructions, to avoid panic, to stand in an orderly line to receive disinfectant or food rations.

Neglecting epidemics of poverty, ignorance or superstition makes dealing with a virus at the moment of crisis more complicated and makes the human cost higher. Is it not strange to see the state repeatedly seeking the help of religious leaders, pedagogy experts and scientists to convince people that the virus is lethal and that the falsehoods surrounding it are neither scientific nor religious? The governments in these countries are fighting a multi-front war, and one front is its own tolerance of ignorance and irrationality.

Indian PM Narendra Modi (a close friend of Trump and Netanyahu) called for a national candlelit vigil to be held across the country in an attempt to 'brighten the darkness' of coronavirus. Perhaps – I have no idea – a particular class of people responded to this call. But we have also seen many other scenes from India – scenes of slum dwellers driving out medical teams who had come to conduct tests or to provide medical guidance with sticks and stones. It is said that they believe the medical teams themselves are causing coronavirus. Perhaps they prefer not to know, or perhaps they know that they won't receive treatment in any case but may in fact be banned from working and go hungry as a result (in order to protect the inhabitants of richer neighbourhoods). Or perhaps they genuinely do think that the medical teams intend to harm them. I've thought of hundreds of possible explanations for this behaviour. But in any case, the epidemics of poverty, ignorance and classism in countries like India indisputably dwarf coronavirus.

The scenes from India, considered to be the world's largest democracy because of its population of over 1.3 billion people, remind us that it is really the democracy of  elite classes made up, probably, of around 50 million people, and that in this strange democracy a policeman is still able to make large groups of citizens prostrate themselves in the streets and thrash them with his truncheon (or more creatively his cricket bat). This is the same India that has such a rapidly developing high tech sector, that exports scientists to the USA, launches satellites, produces vast quantities of iron as well as other industrial products, has a joint nuclear programme with Israel, and which provides tech support for Western industries of all kinds.

When fear of the unknown – especially that involving death and the myths that sprout up around it – comes together with chauvinistic loyalty for the small community, it can sometimes reach the point of absurdity. Marginalised local communities are always at risk of becoming victims who look like agents. Ignorance and solidarity against the unknown can turn fear into anger against any available and 'well-known' target. I recently read a strange but unsurprising news story (a common combination these days) on clashes between locals and security forces in the Egyptian village of Shubra el-Bahw. Village residents attempted to prevent the burial of a local doctor who had died of Covid-19 in the quarantine hospital in Alexandria.

Those local communities that are driven mad even by the prospect of burying those who have died of the illness – and the broadcasters on non-local media who fight phony wars on the virus with lists of local dishes they claim possess an almost magical ability to cure the virus – of the exact time, place and context in which science and reason can be marginalised to this extent.

Parts of the Egyptian media have been busy churning out a 24-hour clown show on the epidemic, its effects, its origins and how it can be treated with a sort of traditional conventional machismo. There is a particular sort of smile characteristic of broadcasters who believe that their country alone has local delicacies. But there is also a distinct whiff of malevolent complicity with shortcomings in public health policy. Playing down the problem and reducing the issue to folk remedies frees the state and its health apparatus from a substantial audience that might well be convinced of it.

In the past responsibility for the plague was often laid at the door of 'evil' in the form of witches or secret practitioners of magic. Supposed 'witches' were tried and burnt at the stake to set minds at ease and 'root out evil'. Epidemics were likewise often characterised as divine punishment for disobeying the Creator's commandments. Since time immemorial the 'other' has been accused of carrying illnesses; there are innumerable examples of this throughout history.

In India, Muslims have been accused of deliberately spreading the pandemic. One cartoon depicted a Muslim man (based on his outfit) with a coronavirus molecule for a head.

In Beirut this combination of backwardness and racism took a different form. On 13 April the right-wing newspaper Al Joumhouria – famous for its antipathy towards Palestinian and Syrian refugees and, when necessary, anyone else – published a cartoon commemorating the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War; while the first of the two panels, titled '13 April 2020', showed a coronavirus molecule, the second – '13 April 1975' – depicted a coronavirus molecule wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh. Palestinians are depicted as a virus. The pandemic has nothing to do with this racist's racism; it is no more than an opportunity to give it expression. By this point racism's tendency to cast the other as a 'plague' or a 'cancer' or as other illnesses that evoke collective fear is an unimaginative cliché.

In the second week of April, various newspapers published detailed reports of discriminatory treatment suffered by Africans in some Chinese cities, including eviction and quarantines based on skin colour. The Chinese government was forced to act after certain African countries submitted official complaints about what was happening.

The pandemic has nothing to do with this racist's racism; it is no more than an opportunity to give it expression.



XII: Celebrities

In times of societal crisis that directly affect individuals' daily lives, the psychological space accessed by those referred to as 'celebrities' narrows. 'Celebrities' is often translated into Arabic as nujum – 'stars' – which is not quite correct. 'Stars' refers to those celebrities who became famous for a particular reason, and while it is often used for famous artists, sportspeople etc, while scientists (including those who discovered antibiotics and those who will discover the coronavirus vaccine) rarely become stars or even celebrities. And while 'celebrities' may include those stars who became famous for 'some reason', they are not celebrities for this 'some reason' but because they are famous (or celebrated) – with or without reason. This is a particularly superficial kind of fame, fame that dissolves on contact with reason. The most precise translation into Arabic would be – 'those who are celebrated for being famous'. This is celebration of fame in itself.

Everyone has the right to express their opinion. But this is an abstract right without meaning if the person exercising this right doesn't know what they're talking about, or is talking aimlessly, or is motivated by nothing more than a desire to exploit this right because they don't know how to shut up. In any case, they will express their opinion – probably without noticing the harm caused because it is quite limited: someone who isn't famous, who isn't a celebrity, will not be the object of any particular attention, and in the ideal scenario their comments will be disputed and contested by those around them. The problem, however, is that some of those who are famous-for-being-famous – that is, without having made any meaningful contribution in life other than their meaningless fame (meaningless, that is, except as far as those who consider fame itself meaningful) – have earnt money and (usually ephemeral) status simply by being famous. And with money and fame they have developed an enviable self-confidence that allows them to hold forth and sometimes even to piously advise the rest of us on politics, art, medicine, or vaccinology. And although what they say is usually tailored to win the admiration of a particular target audience – that is, to win fame – when it is spontaneous it nonetheless cannot hide what shallow, superficial bores they are. Sometimes, in fact, it can expose a certain plebeian loutishness, undoing in a moment of unguarded speech the efforts of dozens of publicists and make-up artists. People may be able to tolerate this in normal times as an inevitable part of modern life, irritating though it may be.

But whatever nonsense celebrities come out with in times of pandemic or war – when people have enough to deal with as it is – whatever allusions they might make, will be received with a deep exhaustion and fall immediately out of the context and into the dustbin in which used masks and gloves are deposited. Nobody has the patience to deal with their inanity. Their best option is to use lockdown as an excuse to be quiet. They do exist. Yes, we know that, and there is no need for them to prove their existence. The problem is that they believe that the moment they stop trending they will stop existing. And it may be difficult to convince them otherwise, because they are right. Some of them have been volunteering (providing a perfect photo opportunity), which is at least better than talking. And if they keep quiet, they might genuinely learn a lesson from the experience.

It is very nice when artists have a minimum degree of culture and education alongside fine voices, acting skills or instrumental talent. In such cases it may be useful for the artist to take advantage of their fame to say something of value to society or to their teenage fans. Unfortunately, however, these things rarely come together. This doesn't mean we enjoy their performances any less. A truly cultured artist is a quiet, modest type who recognises that what he knows best is his artistic contributions and whose culture appears in the elegance of his art. The most vacuous artists, on the other hand, love to talk – especially about things that they know nothing about. Ignorant people are very self-confident. If they become famous this self-confidence becomes pride and it is no longer possible to stop them from publicising their ignorant, racist and prejudiced opinions, opinions that often reveal a mixture of stupidity and vulgar loutishness. One actress – I'd never heard of her before and don't want to mention her name now – recently suggested that the coronavirus vaccine should be tested on prisoners in Saudi Arabia (as though Saudi were leading the charge on development of a vaccine), particularly prisoners held on 'security' charges (which mostly means political prisoners), "instead of rats". Is there any way of dissuading the media from showing interest in what these people 'think', and from competing with social media instead of guiding and rationalising it – especially given that the most celebrated people in  the Corona era are those who deliver food, who are keeping the internet up and running, who are directly involved in mitigating the effects of the crisis?

Whatever nonsense celebrities come out with in times of pandemic or war – when people have enough to deal with as it is – will be received with a deep exhaustion and fall immediately out of the context and into the dustbin



XIII: Economy on hold

A multifaceted global debate is currently going on about economics and health. This debate is truly transnational. Ideas are being exchanged in a truly unprecedented way between politicians, experts, journalists and businessmen as well as the employees and small business owners hurt by the virus. From the comfort of their own homes everyone is telling us what they think. This is a strange, novel phenomenon. And I believe it has positive aspects.

In popular discourse – as yet it has not been articulated as a political programme – support for the welfare state is resurgent. The problem is that the social-democratic forces that traditionally acted as its standard-bearers have grown weak and have come to an accommodation with neoliberalism. If these parties do not resume their historical role then the welfare state may return in a very different form.

Another issue may arise that by is by no means incompatible with the welfare state but which under current conditions, thanks to the influence of demagoguery, may appear to serve Trump, the populist right and those sections of the left opposed to globalisation. This crisis is sure to have reminded many countries of the dangers of offshoring all traditional industry to countries where labour is cheap and importing inexpensively rather than producing more expensively. Being forced to import masks, ventilators and other key equipment has shown them that it is crucial to maintain this and other  strategically important traditional manufacturing industries within their borders, even if this means putting up customs barriers. And this may – at least temporarily – play in the anti-globalists' favour. But world trade and exchange will continue, maybe more intensively. There can be no self-sufficiency, neither in economy nor in science and technology, and hopefully not in culture.  

There is another good reason for taking this step: the need to create an economic balance between 'traditional' and high-tech industries in developed capitalist countries. The numbers show that the high-tech economy increases wealth concentration and widens the income  gap. A third reason is more long-term. Ethnonationalist populism is on the rise among workers: offshoring of industry is suppressing wages in those industrial jobs that continue to exist, as well as being an affront to national pride. This may change after the crisis. The east Asian countries recognise this, and are proving remarkably cooperative in exporting light goods, like masks and medical equipment, during the crisis – so that importing doesn't feel like a burden on the consumer, and in order to bolster the globalisation on which their economies rest.

With the herd immunity method now seen as a form of Social Darwinism – despite the fact that it is simply a passive approach to epidemics inherited from the ancient past, or is simple natural survival of the fittest , i.e. natural Darwinism – everyone now emphasises that the priority is keeping people healthy. The likes of Trump and Johnson have always favoured an approach that doesn't affect economic growth, but have bowed before the pressure of public opinion, experts and the opposition. Nonetheless, we can no longer ignore the issue of the economy. What might happen if lockdowns remain in place longer than they should? What we have at the moment is not an economic crisis but a suspended economy – what we might call, creatively, an 'economy on hold' (I don't think this term is in wide usage). This can only work temporarily. If the issue is not addressed through global discussion – and not by individual measures – then we may be facing an economic depression with catastrophic social and political consequences that I will not go into in depth here.

Subsidizing businesses on hold can only be temporary and cannot principally solve the problem of supplies and other economic activities needed or the reproduction of human and social life.

And even a gradual reopening of production or services will be impossible without first laying the groundwork by taking two steps. The first is making it possible for everyone to avoid spreading the virus, enshrining prevention in law, and intensifying oversight of its implementation. The second is systematically ramping up testing to discover as many cases as possible and investigating their network of contacts as well as identifying cases of other serious illnesses to establish who is unable to return to 'normal life'. I cannot understand how it is that some countries are looking to return to 'normality' without putting these processes in place.

The problem in poor or so-called 'developing' countries is that they are unable to do either of these two things without international financial support. Nor can they make the necessary money available to support the private sector and subsidise those who have been laid off or furloughed until the crisis passes. At the same time, they do not have the capacity to cope with a massive influx of patients into hospitals if life goes back to normal.

In some countries, for economic reasons, quarantine and lockdown will gradually become more selective, becoming restricted to those at higher risk of complications and those who have been in close contact with infected persons. But this will first require intensifying testing and maintaining lockdown.

A vaccine or a cure would solve the greater part of the problem (although neither is a sure bet) but producing and distributing them fairly and at low prices will require international cooperation starting from now. In my view no vaccine that may be produced will totally protect us from the illness, and the search for a cure must continue. If the illness cannot be stopped from entering the body, then then the rational target should be treatment, at least to stop it from harming it or affecting the vital organs.

There is some progress in the testing of existing drugs intended for other viruses using immunology and comparative virology, trial and error. We don't yet know much about how effective the plasma of recently recovered patients is in treating the disease, there are weak and strong antibodies. This is all important until such time as a vaccine is discovered. But the most important tool to fight the illness is still prevention and quarantine as well as increasing the number of tests conducted.

It may be that humanity will come out of this troubled period safe and with the fewest losses possible, and that we will learn a few lessons along the way. Some of us have suffered, some lost their beloved, and some had the opportunity to work, help and mitigate the suffering of others, some had to work from home and spend more time with their families, to read more and think more. Some of us have learnt how important those working to reduce the suffering of others really are. And many of us have learnt to confront challenges with empathy, solidarity and kindness. I hope that states learn that it is crucial to invest in things that may not be of immediate return until before the next elections and that do not produce profit: developing the infrastructure to quickly produce vaccines for the future pandemics that are sure to come (it is simply a matter of when); and preparing hospitals and medical staff and stockpiles for disasters like this one as well as other unforeseen problems like those related to pollution. And I hope, too, that we will learn that humanity has far more commonalities than it does differences, and that we are – in many senses – in the same boat. But anyone who expects the world, states, humans to change radically after the pandemic is likely to be disappointed. He can say what he thinks is right, act upon it, and hope.



Dr Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian intellectual, academic and writer.

Follow him on Twitter: @AzmiBishara


This article was translated by Chris Hitchcock. Chris is an Arabic-English translator working at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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