When a sneeze confines half of humanity

When a sneeze confines half of humanity

No one thought Coronavirus pandemic would be the best X-ray of human organization
Photo: @brunnocervera

When the sneeze of a peasant with COVID-19 in Wuhan (China), from a few months ago, leaves hundreds of thousands of homes without toilet paper and locks up three billion people, a dystopic reality breaks out. The crucial question today is whether this is “a circumstantial event that I had to live through” or “a binding event that I have to face”.

Where do we come from?

Life began 3.8 billion years ago and since then, in its broadest concept, it is the continuous transfer of memory through genetics. Challenging the laws of mathematics, it divided itself in two and did not stop multiplying until today. Life does everything to survive and, apparently, it does not like to die: plants, animals, insects or human beings. The latter are the living beings that have managed the most to transmit the life’s largest collective-memory accumulation, by concentrating it in millions of texts and heads, and converting it into actions that transform the planet. And what have we done with this colossal accumulated knowledge?

We have so altered the Earth that we created the “Anthropocene” (anthropo: human being; kainos: new): era in which the human being has been the main influence in the geological transformation of the planet. Hundreds of politicians, scientists and philosophers, like Bruno Latour [1] -of whom I had the opportunity to be the student last year in Paris- have been trying for decades to demonstrate the inexorable interconnection between living (and non-living) beings, and therefore (I would say a fortiori) between human beings.

None of them expected that COVID-19 would be the messenger that would reveal the extensive planetary global system, by taking a faithful economic and geopolitical x-ray of human organization.

The COVID-19’s X-rays

The virus travelled all around the globe and triggered the alarm that every state must take care of its citizens. It exposed global and local leaders’ positions. Presidents of United States, England, Ecuador and Brazil, among others, revealed that for them the capital is above life[2]: a complicit silence was maintained and/or there was a call (or still is) to continue working without taking sufficient measures against the pandemic. They ask not to damage the economy, “because the remedy cannot be worse than the disease[3]. The preservation of the capital’s structure is their axis of action at the expense of a sector of the population’s survival. They try to imbue the geopolitical vision of structural Darwinism, according to which “those who were born with money, was because nature wanted it so”. We all know that it is easier to be confined when you have enough money to buy food in advance for a month, or to pay for a private hospital.

However, these presidents didn’t count on popular pressure or civil disobedience. Governors, mayors and local leaders activated their own protocols, proving that capital does not equate to authority and that human survival must come before the economy. When science and common sense are not enough to transform the higher spheres of power, local consciousness and transformation from the field become a duty. Because, in the end, the virus kills the neighbourhood’s wisest people, those who have stories and advice to give us, those who take care of children in order to help working-couples. No pro-status quo media could persuade people that the virus kills those who hinder the economy, for everyone knows that money will never give you a grandmother’s hug.

On the other hand, countries’ governments such as Mexico, Denmark, Finland, Spain, Argentina, France, Germany, among others, have chosen to face this crisis by redistributing wealth and strengthening the welfare state. Some measures taken have been freezing debts or giving access to microcredit for entrepreneurs and individuals; demanding the private sector to immediately support the public sector (in Spain, for example, a decree against private hospitals that refuse to receive patients with the coronavirus was published); and establishing universal basic incomes.

Regardless of the position taken by the states[4], COVID-19 shaped an unprecedented popular solidarity. Small producers have not raised the price of their products (some even send them at their own expense), rounds of applauses happened at night for health personnel and public servants, drawings were made by children for the garbage collectors, among many other examples. These actions are perceived as resistance to the scheme of the first cited governments, and, in the second case, they facilitate support for the state structure. What is crucial is that the state’s response and presence has been essential to this global problem, as the politically and economically responsible institution for the measures issued by its representatives.

Another revelation is how we behaved as individuals. The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy says that “we must not be wrong: a whole civilization is being called into question”. In big cities, we ran desperately out and bought canned food and toilet paper, protecting ourselves and our families and leaving stores short-handed. Some of us spent our savings or went into debt. In the rural areas, not only did the virus take longer to arrive, but the panic was not as widespread. However, what happened next is extremely striking and must be taken as a new parameter for future economic measures. Current capital and global production suffice to feed existing population without people dying of hunger. Of course, this also depends on the leaders in office’s political will. The COVID-19 X-ray implied not only that unbridled production can be stopped, but that the virus forced redistribution –even Trump’s government was forced to do so–. This also gave the planet an environmental breather. Following this, companies that have been born, grown and developed in the modern market are beginning to take a surprising turn. For instance, Giorgio Armani stated: “The moment we are going through is turbulent; but it offers us a unique opportunity to fix what is wrong, to eliminate what is superfluous, and to find a more human dimension”. He proposes not to make such short-lived fashion, and to return to timeless and sustainable fashion.

When the philosopher Slavoj Zizek says that “the coronavirus pandemic is (…) a symptom that we cannot continue on the path we have followed so far, a change is needed”, and predicts a strong international coordination between states[5], he is not being utopian or idealistic. He is stating that, should legality not be strengthened among states, a catastrophic capital-led anomie could take place. Examples such as the “theft” of masks between allied states; the attempt to buy the vaccine from the laboratories in order to sell it at market price; these actions solely based on the power of capital reveal that if we continue the sequence of present-day civilizations, the political and economic control of most of the globe will have the same recipe: wars[6].

To the elites of Latin America

The COVID-19 has exposed the major war our generations must face, and it has forced us as individuals to see at least one step beyond what we do instantly. Today we know that when I go out to shop and sneeze without covering my mouth, I could be killing the grandfather of the person next to me; if he sneezes without covering his mouth, I could catch the Coronavirus: we all have to go out with a mask. By the same logic, when I buy a brand name T-shirt in a Miami outlet store for $5, it is because a worker in a Latin-American country is being paid less than a cent for it[7], because in order be profitable for $5 you have to include the thousands of kilometres of transportation, the fees and the payment of the personnel who work there: behind the expression “it’s incredibly cheap” there are thousands of people who are poorly paid and have limited rights.

I come from Latin America, a region of the world where the largest injection of foreign capital has been directed to local elite’s investment, in order to extract raw material in the long term (including human and animal labor and the extraction of flora). This phenomenon, which occurs in all countries, has a different proportion in this region because, with few historical exceptions, any attempt to strengthen the welfare state has constantly suffered from two equally important destabilizing factors.

The first factor –exogenous– is foreign financing of elites opposed to the interest of strengthening the welfare state (pro free market), based on a long-term investment bet to later have multinational companies’ privileged contracts, or direct agreements with supportive governments. The second factor –endogenous– is the will of these elites to grow economically, not as a country, government or state, but as a private sector[8]. They are intrinsically linked to families who own the largest banks and media outlets: television, written press and radio[9].

What does COVID-19 have to do with this? Although popular organization is the first axis of response to the pandemic, especially in countries where governments have not responded to the needs of their people, the regulation by states’ capital has become essential to preserve human life in each territory. At a local level as villages, neighbourhoods and cities, the pandemic (meaning the international relations order) called on states to control each confined community, even though the global order has the largest production factories of the most lucrative companies (mainly US American, European and Chinese) in developing countries. These companies demand very low taxes and low wages in order to establish themselves. In other words, the most historically attacked institution (the welfare state) was asked to take over the same population that has always suffered privatization and access to public services.

This is the new concept of global war: the indispensability of supporting the presence of a regulatory state worldwide in the interest of humanity. Seven[10] out of ten countries that have best dealt with the crisis so far have three crucial aspects in common. The first one is that they are led by women, the second one is that they are developed countries, and the third one, of equal or greater importance is that their leaders intervened the market, with support from the state structure, in order to direct public and private financial capital towards the fight against the pandemic. On the one hand, this should call on developed countries to support governments of emerging countries that strengthen the state structure. On the other hand, and even more urgently, our local Latin American elites must turn towards strengthening the welfare state in order to achieve a solid democratic institution that will allow, at least, to reinforce health. Only then, hopefully we will all understand that more education and better salaries in developing countries will result into less social violence and less emigration.

COVID-19 has put on the table, at least, the need of a sufficiently equipped and remunerated public health structure. Not only to react in times of crisis, but also to respond to middle and upper classes that have been equally affected by the pandemic (with less havoc than the less advantaged). Today it is not only urgent to invest in health, but it is a political suicide to dare the cut back and/or privatize the health sector. The right to public health has turned into a national necessity.

If the political leadership insists on the opposite –and without wanting to give a prophet impression–, let us remember that before the Covid-19 millions demonstrated in different parts of the world, such as France, Chile, Ecuador, Japan, Algeria, Palestine, the great premise being that the status quo of capital’s accumulation could not continue the same. The Macron government is undoubtedly taking measures of redistribution that have increased its acceptance. My humble reading is that this virus showed that changing that status quo can be a peaceful process, as long as the political opportunity is seized.

In this same logic of institutional strengthening, recent history has shown us that the only way to counter global hegemonies is to unite regions, as the European Union has done against China, the United States or Russia. It is time to simultaneously retake the Latin American union so as not to fall into “while fighting separately, they are defeated together”[11].

Going beyond the immediate society

I define the immediate society as the instantaneous and unmeditated conviction that is created between a human being and any situation captured by his or her senses. When President D. Trump says that disinfectant can be injected into patients with COVID-19 and more than 300 people do so with serious consequences to their health, we are in a clear example of unthinking behaviour based on the conclusion: “I saw it, I heard it, it is so”. When Bolsonaro says that the virus “is a little cold” (é uma gripezinha) ignoring the recommendations of the World Health Organization but receiving the support of thousands of followers in social networks and on the streets, it is a worrying example of individual behaviour based on an unchecked opinion[12].

Both presidential comments seem to come out of a bar conversation. They are not. These people are irrefutable examples that the capital’s current structure and power protects and promotes the immediate society as a governing formula. The danger is that if Latin-American’s political decisions and world elites (hegemonies) are based on capital and not on their citizens’ needs, we will continue to deepen social inequality at the detriment of global humanity. In this same logic, as long as we continue to feed our new generations with the immediate contents regulated by premeditated propaganda and algorithms of Facebook, Instagram and alike (luxurious lives of celebrities, best goals in history, fights, what does a celebrity say about COVID-19), short term battles will win us over long term needs.

When a sports journalist asks the Liverpool football team manager, Jürgen Klopp, if he is worried about the Coronavirus, and he answers elegantly but categorically that “what I don’t like is that the opinion of a football manager is relevant to such a serious problem”, emphasising that this question should be asked to the experts on the subject, he is giving a lesson in humility and how to resist the immediate society: meaning the fame of the moment[13].

From individual to planetary responsibility

This article is not a utopian appeal to people’s consciousness. It’s an X-ray of a system in which we have to exist, where our individual responsibility does have an impact on planetary responsibility. We cannot, as humanity, allow presidents to continue to be backed by the interests of capital alone. Simone de Beauvoir has already taught us that “the oppressor would not be so strong if he did not have accomplices among the oppressed themselves”.

I do not consider this to be “the crisis of capitalism”, much less “the end of history”, as we have found no other formula for trading than through the exchange of goods. Even the most advanced proposals, such as the Dutch intellectuals’ suggestion based on degrowth, advocate a new management of the same old capital. However, it is a way of facing up to the fact that the COVID-19 is not an “a circumstantial event that I had to live through” but “a binding event that I have to face”.

The urgent hour of a new humanity has arrived. “Let’s hope that after the virus comes a human revolution”, says South Korean essayist Byung Chul Han. This is a call to take the struggle against COVID-19 as a starting point that shows the link between all of us. We must face it, because today, silence is treason and indifference is complicity with death. Our generations, from the new-born to the oldest person, have the a-historical task of changing course and this is the great opportunity. Now that we have felt the indispensability of the distant farmer, the garbage collector and the supermarket cashier, it is urgent to fight for a present state that guarantees better basic salaries and dignified social security in any corner of the planet (reversing the feminization of poverty and respecting the voluntary isolation of indigenous populations, among other measures). Since we are in a capitalist model, it is indispensable not only to rethink the value of work but to intrinsically redistribute its accumulated wealth. Undermining emerging democracies in order to profit in developed countries will only create more and more migrants and refugees fleeing from poverty and war.

In the worst crises, humanity has managed to build the most comprehensive solutions. The United Nations was born in 1945 as a result of the World War Two, and despite its enormous humanitarian efforts in certain areas, it has not been able to prevent the relocation of the very north-centric so called “cold war”, as there still are very hot wars in developing countries financed by the largest weapon-producers. The European Union is struggling between nationalism and its position as a bloc to fight the pandemic. Will COVID-19 be the occasion for a peaceful and democratic transition towards the essential redistribution of wealth and the strengthening of the state in the face of the free market? Perhaps we should seriously consider the planetary constitutionalism suggested by Luigi Ferrajoli, Italian philosopher and jurist, because global problems should have been on national agendas for years now.

Finally, taking up Bruno Latour, believing that we are the happy and consumerist middle class is already irresponsible for us, our children and our grandchildren: we have to change the way we live. We must urgently move towards responsible and moderate consumption that takes climate change seriously.

We are the generation of planetary action. Let us move from Homo Sa-piens who believes he can do whatever he wants with what he has and sees, to Homo Piens-sa who has learned to be more than just having and knows the repercussions of his actions. When we leave our houses in the end of confinement, let us be, each of us, the revolution of solidarity. Because I am for life. What about you?  


[1] I strongly recommend an excellent interview in El País (Spain), from March 31st 2020: Bruno Latour: “El sentimiento de perder el mundo, ahora, es colectivo”

[2] This statement is based on ex Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa’s phrase: “the human being should prevail over the capital”. https://www.dw.com/es/correa-el-hombre-debe-primar-sobre-el-capital/a-16749217

[3] D. Trump was the fist to use this statement, then Jair Bolsonaro repeated it.

[4] I have decided to carry out a European and American analysis (American because of the continent, not for the wrongly used country name). I do not analyze China’s case, where the Big Data is one of the most useful government’s tools for confinement; or Malaysia, where the concept of community is much stronger than the individual.

[5] He calls it “Global communism”: https://www.rt.com/op-ed/482780-coronavirus-communism-jungle-law-choice/

[6] In fact, if the world’s population lived as US’ society, we would need 5 planets Earth to maintain it. Tiny detail: we only have one. http://www.rtve.es/las-claves/los-recursos-del-planeta-agotados-2019-08-01/

[7] The newspaper El Mundo exposed on 11 November 2001, that many multinationals corporations paid only 0.04% per article. https://www.elmundo.es/cronica/2001/317/1005552045.html

[8] I write on purpose about elites “opposed to the welfare state” because there is also an important sector of conscientious and patriotic elites. The latter has supported many times the construction of a State-of-Law and a Welfare State.

[9] This argument would need a deeper analysis linked to the media’s orphanage. I will develop it in my next article.

[10] Until 16 June 2020, Denmark (598 deaths), Iceland (10), Finland (326), Germany (1.256), New Zealand (22), Norway (242) and Taiwan (7). Source: https://elpais.com/sociedad/2020/04/09/actualidad/1586437657_937910.html

[11] This quote is attributed to Cornelio Tacit.

[12] These two presidents are an example of won elections mainly with fake news. I will deepen this analysis in my next article.

[13] I will write about a list of decisions that we can make as individuals in my next article.

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