Back when it was safe to go to public places like museums, I saw an exhibition of the work of Russian-American artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. It featured an installation entitled ‘Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future’. The phrase ran across the destination bar of a railway car and I’ve been turning it over in my head in recent weeks.
Many of us fear that we won’t be taken into the future because we will die early of preventable cause, and that our deaths will be deemed acceptable. From the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, public health messaging focused on calming the general populace. ‘Don’t worry,’ the message was, ‘only the sick and the elderly are at risk.’ As though sick and older folks aren’t hearing these messages, too. As though age and illness don’t thread through all human lives.
Now, even as we continue to see staggering death tolls and worrisome projections; even as we bear witness to horrifying scenes of overstressed medical systems around the world; even as we have little idea of how this virus affects human bodies or how to treat it, some far-right commentators are advocating for looser social restrictions for the sake of ‘the economy’. They complain that the price of taking everyone into the future is too high.
UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson was among the first to say it, with an air of fatalism: ‘many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time’. He talked about ‘herd immunity’. Something like sixty per cent of Britons were meant to get the virus in the vague hope they’d become resistant from future outbreaks, and the present death toll would be a side-effect of a stronger population in the future. Johnson backed down from this position, as we all know, but it still highlights the first response many in power have and its closeness to eugenics, or a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality. This has little to do with science, or, of course, ethics. Certain lives are deemed less viable, some risks can be taken, some deaths are acceptable, some deaths are inevitable.
A virus is apolitical. Though the burden of disease may highlight social injustices, the virus doesn’t have a point to make. We are all vulnerable in its face, even if certain people are more at risk. Yet, as McKay Coppins has argued, COVID-19 in the US has become the battleground of a ‘culture war’. Positions are split along party lines, with progressives who want to shut economic activities to save lives and conservatives who think that the risk to life is overstated or, if it isn’t, that it’s acceptable to risk lives to preserve the economy.
Conservative commentator Glenn Beck said that he’d rather die than ‘kill the country’, economically speaking. In New Zealand, right-wing lobbyist Matthew Hooton stated that ‘it is an ethical cop-out to simply assert that eliminating risk to that 27,600 is a priority above any other, and that any cost the 2 million New Zealanders under 30 must pay over the months, years and decades ahead is worth it’. Economist Sam Lovick supplied specific numbers to use when ‘balancing the economy against health’, valuing a human life at between $4 and $8 million. If lockdown saves the number of people he expects it to, it would not justify his projected estimate losses of 1.9 per cent of GDP per month of lockdown.
The untested assumptions behind these economic arguments are extremely dangerous. As COVID-19 is a novel virus, we don’t know what the long-term outcomes of it are, or whether we’d get ‘herd immunity’ if a significant proportion of the population were to contract it. We do know however that, left unfettered, the virus spreads exponentially. Even if you only care about the economy, allowing this spread is the riskiest choice.
Framing this debate in the realm of money versus life is also painful for those of us who’ve had to continually ask for and justify basic accommodations to exist in society. The amount of backlash disabled people get for asking for online resources, accessible buildings, flexible work and other alternative arrangements seems ironic now, as similar alternatives are magically rolled as abled people need them. This backlash to our basic needs also doesn’t bode well now that our collective existence relies on people to resist the call of the beach, and withstand a fall in GDP.
Effort and care are imperative now. What financial goal could possibly justify widespread unnecessary death? What’s the point of wealth if it comes at the price of precarity?
Although the frenzy of panic buying has come down over the last couple of weeks, it’s provided clear scenes of what happens when everyone feels vulnerable. When you see massive underspends on the NDIS, or a failure to raise welfare payments to a liveable rate – whether or not those things have directly affected you so far – it highlights the flaws of our politics. Seeing nothing on the shelves is a realisation of a promise neoliberalism has been delivering to us all along: expect nothing. The ‘wealth’ and ‘growth’ the far-right seeks is invisible to most and elusive by design. Out of abundance, we’ve created shortages.
Alongside the dismaying arguments outlined above, we’re also seeing policies that reimagine what we can do with our existing resources. Many of us are asking: what would our society look like if it were unacceptable for anyone to die of a preventable illness?
We know from examples set out for us from other countries, like Singapore, that exponential spread is not inevitable, and thus preventable death is unacceptable. Twitter hashtags like #HighRiskCOVID19 have given a face to ‘acceptable risk’. It’s important not to let the scale of the death toll and case numbers disfigure this reality. As Giacomo Lichtner reminds us, counting is no replacement for mourning, or for caring: ‘each victim has a name, a face, a story.’ This is a time when, as Jennifer Mills writes, ‘every act of staying home is an act of care.’ All of us can be glad to endure downturn and boredom because we’re saving lives, we’re taking each other into the future.
What would ordinarily be regarded as ‘radical’ policies are being swiftly enacted. Eligibility to welfare payments has been broadened in many countries. Some jurisdictions are no longer jailing people for minor offences to prevent overcrowding. US student loans will not accrue interest until further notice. It has become harder to evict renters or cut people off from utilities. It’s suddenly possible for the Australian government to get welfare recipients above the poverty line.
These responses are neither perfect nor globally uniform, but they do spark some hope in solidarity. As social distancing is enacted, other policies that have limited us even more are coming undone in the face of COVID-19. It’s possible to live in a world where we’re not unduly pressuring, punishing, or charging one another. All of that was artifice. And while all these policies have an economic cost, we can no longer accept the argument that they’re unrealistic. They’re happening right now. There’s room for them in the future.
If some lives are disposable, there might come a time when yours becomes disposable, too. We should all be afraid of that, and fight that fear by imagining a future for everyone.
Image: ‘Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future’ by by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Loz Pycock