Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair
“We’re living on borrowed time. But that gives us a chance to do things we should perhaps have done before.”
– Klaus Stohr (WHO), 15 December 2004
It’s a funny thing, language. Geniuses tell us that it’s what separates us most from the chimpanzees at the zoo who spit at us, unimpressed. One time, I saw a guy spit back and pick up a banana that had fallen from the cage, and made as if to give it back to the chimp with entreating eyes, only to pull it back at the last minute and begin a burlesque peel that drove Bonzo, and his mates, cageshakingly apeshit, and as he ate it, like a one-percenter, I could see in Bonzo’s eyes a vow to evolve — just to get him back. The guy riposted with a finger, and flashed his opposable thumb, and walked away, a stream of ejectile whizzing past his head. Made me ashamed to be a homo sapien.
In these days of Covid-19 we need to be more careful about spitters and spittees, and the language that we use: lives are at risk. Nothing reveals the decline and fall of the American imperial mind better, at Das Kapital’s end, than the inane debacle that took place weeks back concerning the use of masks in our current pandemic. Should we wear them? Or should we not? Which ones should we wear? Can we make our own stylized sputum catchers? Can we mask-up like Jesse James, criminal hero of many childhoods? Are American Muslim women now laughing at us behind fashionable hijabs? Some people got so discombobulated by the mask fiasco, hearing that mouth masks don’t protect eyes from vile ejectile, that they panicked and wore face masks over their eyes and you gave them extra distance.
Well, we could all end up discombobulated by the time it’s all finished, going out masked and looking like Picasso’s Guernica, driven devolvos hoiked into our own spittoons. In a peculiar way, too many ‘folks’ in America seem to be enjoying Nature’s schadenfreude festival in ways that are uncomfortable to observe and may border on some kind of dissociative hysteria that feels like The End is near.
In his preface to The Monster at the Door (2005), Mike Davis calls us out on our special species lack of empathy during catastrophes. He writes,
Unlike certain other social animals, we have no collective sorrow instinct or biological solidarity that is automatically aroused by the destruction of our fellow kind. Indeed, at our worst we find a perverse, often delectable sublimity in Black Deaths, tsunamis, massacres, genocides, and collapsing skyscrapers.
You go to chide such an attitude, but, then, you can’t see how it’s untrue, looking back at history as a series of Bill Murray Groundhog Days (but without the happy ending), and guys going around flashing opposable thumbs at chimps the way hippies used to flash opposable fingers at The Man. We can be monsters, and we just don’t seem to get it.
And that’s one of many salient points Mike Davis makes in his new book, The Monster Enters: Covid-19, Avian Flu and the Plagues of Capitalism. The new book is actually The Monster at the Door redux, with a 45-page Introduction completed in late April 2020 that specifically addresses the coronavirus pandemic. Deflecting the apparent chutzpah of re-releasing a book
largely about the “avian flu” virus (H5N1), Davis offers up, “The [Covid-19] pandemic, according to my current publishers, has given new relevance to my old flu Monster…I should emphasize, however, that the threat of an avian flu outbreak and its global spread continues to be ‘imminent.’” In short, Covid-19 could team up with H5N1 and come at us like Godzilla, with Mothra, in a secondary wave of bio-terror.
That ‘full disclosure’ aside, The Monster Enters is a helpful reiteration of important details regarding the Problem we face: From AIDS to Ebola to SARS to MERS to Covid-19, Davis cites scientists who say we’ve entered a new epoch of pandemics; from now into an indefinite future, we will face waves of these ‘novel,’ viruses: “the species-jumping versions are extraordinary shape-shifters that constantly alter their genomes to foil the powerful immune systems of human and mammalian hosts.” Maybe a shape-shifting virus-tipped spitball from space conked out the dinosaurs, too.
Davis writes, “As a recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine observes: ‘It took the genome of the human species 8 million years to evolve by 1%. Many animal RNA viruses can evolve by more than 1% in a matter of days.’” It’s a scenario reminiscent of the alien, crystal-like virus that changes before the very eyes of terrified scientists in The Andromeda Strain.
We’ve known for quite some time that viruses come in different categories. Some have a high mortality rate, but don’t spread easily, so total deaths are down. Others have a lower mortality rate, but spread easier, and can kill more people. Davis says we are in the latter category, and that
Although not as deadly as the SARS or MERS, COVID-19’s currently guesstimated two percent mortality rate is comparable to the Spanish flu and like that monster it probably has the ability to infect a majority of the human race unless antiviral and vaccine development quickly come to the rescue.
Spanish flu ended up infecting a third of the human population and killing up to 100 million people. A sobering fact to get soused to in your solitude.
But there’s more, whether by avian flu or coronavirus human vulnerability to viruses seems to be growing exponentially, especially now that viruses seem to be getting closer and closer to cutting out the middle pangolin and getting at humans directly. Davis fears a perfect storm scenario whereby we are facing a virus that spreads easily and is so lethal that as many as “a billion people” could die. Citing Rene Snacken, leading influenza expert at the Scientific Institute of Public Health in Belgium, Davis mongers up a Doomsday image:
Eight years of research on H5N1 had convinced him that this cunning little Darwinian demon was capable of ecocide—the wiping out of entire species.
Covid-19 may just be the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem, while we take zoom-selfies of our selfish doom.
So who’s to blame for Covid-19, hypocrite, mon lecteur, as the Rolling Stones once sang about the killing of the Kennedys — after all, it was you and me. Pleased to meet you. Well, it’s that and it’s not that, and not in a quantum way either. We western ords and occidental plebs, who mostly live in gorgeous representative democracies, cede our power as people to roaring dunderheads, time after time. Once they’re in office, Christ! They can be tough to get rid of, like cargo-cult cans of worn-out Spam on the shelves of supermarkets in Papua New Guinea. Davis says the biggest problem is the resistance to change, even at the potential cost of self-extinction. The two main factors of resistance are culture and politics.
He provides an example of cultural resistance in the form of cockfighting in Thailand. Our modern homogenized and pasturized moral minds recoil at hearing of such acts as setting one animal against another for bloody sport. But Davis has bigger chicken to fry: Farmers in China, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam raise chickens, and many of them supplement a subsistence income by grooming cocks to fight for money. When H5N1 broke out among Thai farmers in 2004 the government imposed a kill-down, and farmers with fighting cocks faced immediate destitution. Davis writes,
As they investigated, WHO officials were horrified to find out that it was common practice for the owners of fighting cocks to suck blood and mucous from the beaks of birds injured in a fight.
Strangely, I pictured the Holyfield-Tyson Bite Fight, Evander’s trainer ’s medically laving his ear. If you call reality “sur” long enough he becomes your master.
A more germaine and recent example of culture impacting on public health comes from Wuhan. The “wet markets,” said to be the source of the Covid-19 outbreak (although others have pointed to a research lab a mile up the road that was known to be experimenting with coronavirus before the outbreak), often feature exotic wild animals — pangolin, bats — that bring with them from the wilderness ‘novel’ viruses that come at us like zero-day attacks we have no ready solution for. Tourists and other travelers passing through the wet market took the virus away with them. The first American diagnosed with Covid-19 in January had just returned to Washington state from Wuhan. It is difficult to convince the locals to change their habits. Davis points out that Chinese did nothing to change wet market practices after H5N1.
But the biggest hindrance to solutions to pandemic planning, and all the other clear and dangerous humanity faces, is political will to take on vested corporate interests. Davis writes,
The essence of the avian flu threat…is that a mutant influenza of nightmarish virulence—evolved and now entrenched in ecological niches recently created by global agro-capitalism—is searching for the new gene or two that will enable it to travel at pandemic velocity through a densely urbanized and mostly poor humanity…Human-induced environmental shocks—overseas tourism, wetland destruction, a corporate “Livestock Revolution,” and Third World urbanization with the attendant growth of megaslums—are responsible for turning influenza’s extraordinary Darwinian mutability into one of the most dangerous biological forces on our besieged planet.
Davis provides evidence that novel coronaviruses are equally dangerous.
Covid-19 has already brought to the fore, yet again, the disproportionate suffering such pandemics bring to the poor — the Third World poor — whose conditions are so primitive, in many instances, that the viruses are practically part of their biomes. Davis notes that
Multiple studies confirm that SARS-CoV-2 [Covid-19] is being shed copiously in feces and accumulated in sewage. In African and South Asian slums, of course, fecal contamination is everywhere: in the water, in home grown vegetables and as windblown dust. (Yes, shit storms are real.)
Similarly, the slumdog millionaires of Mumbai have been economically devastated by the Covid-19 ‘lockdowns,’ as reported recently by The Democracy Dies in Darkness Daily, owned by Jeff Bezos. These “shitholes,” as Trump would describe them, may ironically be the breeding ground of the next revolution.
Davis is livid. He implies that Trump’s leadership inadequacies, including masks, chloroquine, and advising people to skip quarantine (as his economic numbers tumble) could be potentially impeachable offenses:
Trump’s craven abdications, tantrums, lies, and sundry high crimes and misdemeanors during this crisis. For now, it is possible to summarize the major factors responsible for the catastrophic meltdown of the federal response in the first three months of the pandemic.
And this doesn’t even include Trump’s early assignation of blame on a Chinese hoax — now apparently re-assigned to the Democrats, a conspiracy theory that son Eric now appears to be in charge of spreading.
Davis lists six reasons why the response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been so disastrous. First, says Davis, “there was no continuity of leadership” from the Obama administration to Trump’s. Two, he cites the “shocking incompetence and poor judgment of the CDC,” specifically in their handling of testing kits. Third, Davis says self-isolating is a back-up plan, not primary, and was “made necessary by the failure to implement early testing and detection.” Fourth — the aforementioned fiasco regardings masks. Fifth, Davis continues, “… the Trump administration … power grab in almost every sense…has consistently rejected power’s responsibilities.” Sixth, “Trump’s CDC, still reeling from the test kit fiasco, has abdicated a principal role in vaccine development as have Big Pharma and the WHO.”
And as if another impending pointless lesser-of-two evils election wasn’t depressing enough a prospect, Davis raises the potential for bioterror. He has suggested that H5N1 could potentially wipe out a billion people. This was known during the GW Bush administration. But, as with the 9/11 information he had at his disposal, he cynically turned around for political purposes. Davis writes that Bush set up Project BioShield which “was designed to build support for the invasion of Iraq by sowing the baseless fear that Saddam Hussein might use bioweapons against the United States.” Not only that, but he set aside funding for “fast-tracked vaccination programs for smallpox and anthrax,” when the focus should have been avian virus. Where do we get these leaders? Oh, right.
Davis says the sad reality is that Covid-19 is here to stay. Antibody testing will be ready soonest, drugs like remsevir, which are largely untrialled, will be given a shot to be a temporary solution, while no vaccine will be ready much before June 2022. In the meantime, the economy will continue to falter, weaknesses in the structure of the American social/political system will continue to blight what’s left of the democratic republic. Who’s in charge? You choose A or B in November. Then imagine if it will matter with the pandemics ahead and Climate breathing down our necks.
Davis explicitly points out that vested interests won’t by themselves change anything soon. They never have. Davis writes,
Today…multinational capital has been the driver of disease evolution through the burning or logging out of tropical forests, the proliferation of factory farming, the explosive growth of slums…and the failure of the pharmaceutical industry to find profit in mass producing lifeline antivirals, new-generation antibiotics, and universal vaccines.
Permanent bio-protection against new plagues, accordingly, would require more than vaccines. It would need the suppression of these “structures of disease emergence” through revolutionary reforms in agriculture and urban living that no large capitalist or state-capitalist country would ever willingly undertake.
TikTok. TikTok. TikTok. Zoom. Zoom. Zoom. Time is ticking away.
Now that the Monster is comfortably seated in our environs, munching on cell walls, glugging down tins of Precious Bodily Fluids, and checking out the breathless TV epic take-down of a clown legally elected president of a country that rules the world with chutzpah, we probably don’t stand much of a chance. Vaccines are years away. Davis says Covid’s beefier cousins are already in transit. It’ll take a special effort (a universal vaccine, global governance coming together) and we may just not have the wherewithal to get it done. We may have just shot our wads on the wild-eyed vision needed to build cathedrals.
It’s gonna be like all those old Untouchables episodes, Robert Stack machinegunning virus after virus, finally nailing Corona for tox evasion, and looking handsome doing it, while the climate kicks some heinie, and bankers get so toonish with money-lust, that in the final end (as Dylan would say), it’ll be like Nicholson playing a 1-percenter, sitting back, and getting his brains blown at the end of Carnal Knowledge by the 99% service sector, his last exploded selfish thoughts spattered all over the walls of the universe, a big bang, followed by a little whimper, like a God indifferent to it all.
One thing Covid-19 has reminded us, among many things, is how much we spit when we speak, and we must be more careful to ‘say not spray.’