In all cases, when the response to a problem is dominated by emotion and panic rather than rational thought, the problem defies solution for a longer period than necessary, sometimes indefinitely. There are too many examples of this to count, but the most recent one is the response to the Covid-19 outbreak.
It is shortsighted to blame the media solely for fueling the coronavirus panic, for we are simply part of the overall environment that thrives on shallow thinking, historical revisionism, ignorance of (if not outright hostility against) scientific reality, consumerism, and all the other ills that have held back civilizational progress for decades. The only thing new is that ignorance and disinformation now can “go viral” much more quickly thanks to the Internet – a tool that, if it were used more intelligently, could reverse the trend.
Still, there is no denying that nearly all media, mostly the corporate-controlled mainstream but many alternative news outlets as well, are purposely capitalizing on the Covid-19 to gain “hits” that attract advertisers and even, it is hoped, investors.
But even outlets such as Asia Times that make an effort to attract smart, broad-minded readers observe relatively little interest in looking deeper into the longer-term ramifications of crises like the coronavirus epidemic, or the historic developments that led to their destructive power.
Two articles come to mind that may help illustrate this phenomenon: To defend against pandemics, ground all the planes by Jonathan Gornall, and Covid-19 reveals the cracks in globalization by Marshall Auerback. Neither attracted the “hits” of equally well-written but in reality more run-of-the-mill, flash-in-the-pan yarns about stock-market ups and downs, disease-prevention successes and failures, and consumer panic that have – let’s face it – pushed Asia Times’ readership to very welcome heights.
British writer Gornall’s piece was of course largely tongue-in-cheek, or so it seemed at the time. In the month since it was published, his suggestion has become reality to an extent even he likely didn’t foresee. But the article was more important in that it recognized some of the chronic downsides of the modern world’s dependency on air travel, including its role as an ultra-efficient vector for epidemics.
Gornall looks back on two great pandemics of the past, the Black Death that killed off half the population of Europe in the 14th century and the influenza outbreak that followed World War I “and, claiming an estimated 50 million lives, killed far more people than all the bombs and bullets of four years of war.”
“These two pandemics were the result of what epidemiologists call ‘human mobility networks,’ and there is no doubt that the next one will be too. Last year a report by the WHO’s Global Preparedness Monitoring Board concluded bleakly that the world was not prepared for the ‘very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly 5 percent of the world’s economy.’ …
“Whatever happens to 2019-nCoV, the next pandemic is coming – it is, many virologists agree, simply a matter of when, not if. When it does come, it will arrive via an Airbus A320 or a Boeing 737 or any other airplane in fact, and only then will the true cost of human mobility become dreadfully apparent.”
But not many people were interested in reading this, preferring articles on toilet-paper shortages and movie stars hospitalized with a sore throat and sniffles. Nor, as has been observed in the past, are they interested in reading about the huge damage airliners inflict on the global climate with their jet exhaust.
Struggling through the hype like a virus muscling its way through a face mask (actually dead easy for these microscopic organisms) is the recognition that Covid-19 is most dangerous to people who already have underlying lifestyle-linked health issues such as smoking-related lung damage or obesity. In exactly the same way, the current din of crashing stock markets, though catalyzed (this time) by the coronavirus epidemic, is the product of chronic ailments deep in the lungs of the neoliberal economic system.
American economist Marshall Auerback is one of a small number of voices crying in the wilderness against the ravages of market fundamentalism, including its most damaging symptom, austerity. In his March 11 Economy for All piece re-published on Asia Times, he shows how avoidable cutbacks and other shortsighted decisions have increased our vulnerability not only to dangerous epidemics, but to other ills as well:
“In the US specifically, the mass migration of manufacturing has seriously eroded the domestic capabilities needed to turn inventions into high-end products, damaging America’s ability to retain a lead in many sectors, let alone continue to manufacture products. The country has evolved from being a nation of industrialists to a nation of financial rentiers. And now the model has exposed the US to significant risk during a time of national crisis, as Covid-19 potentially represents.”
But as with society’s blissful ignorance to air travel’s role in disease proliferation and environmental damage, humanity has long turned a blind eye to the deep-seated flaws in the global economic system. Auerback shows his frustration:
“We’ve been dealing with supply-side shocks emanating from hyper-globalization for decades, and the response of Western policymakers has largely been in the form of fiscal or monetary palliatives that seldom address the underlying structural challenges raised by these shortages. To the contrary: democratic caveats to globalization have been characterized as inefficient frictions that hinder consumer choice.”
Willful blindness, of course, is human nature. So is the preference for panic and sensationalism over thoughtful analysis.
McGill University anthropologist Samuel Veissière noted recently in Psychology Today that the coronavirus phenomenon “is quite simply, and almost exclusively, a moral panic.” As a result, By exploiting vulnerabilities in human psychology selectively bred by its pathogen ancestors, “it has already shut down many of our schools, crashed our stock market, increased social conflict and xenophobia, reshuffled our migration patterns, and is working to contain us in homogenous spaces where it can keep spreading.”
And so it goes; our propensity for self-destruction makes some wonder how we manage to survive as a species, let alone progress and evolve. Some, including this writer, even see epidemics such as Ebola, AIDS and now Covid-19 as our host planet’s rather feeble attempts to develop antibodies against the most dangerous virus of all, Homo sapiens.
Will Mother Earth succeed this time? Maybe, but it seems more likely that she will only succeed in aggravating the miseries of our own making.
David Simmons is a Canadian journalist based in Thailand. He has worked for newspapers and news websites in four countries, three of them in Asia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of British Columbia and a diploma in journalism from Langara College in Vancouver.