Pandemics Diary: March & April 2020

In March, 2020, I started to write on this site – and I never posted my thoughts, because I couldn’t finish them. Today, I reread the numbers I wanted to mark then: On March 24, 2020, 400.000 individuals had been counted and confirmed, and 18.000 persons had died worldwide. Among them were the old and the young, healthy and chronically ill, rich and poor, men and women and all those who do not fit into either of these categories.

On March 24, the Hastings Center published new guidelines and responses in a letter that many of us signed, although a few of us were also worried that persons with disabilities or chronic illnesses were not mentioned and cared for enough in the document (https://www.thehastingscenter.org/guidancetoolsresourcescovid19/). In the following weeks, the medial ethicists joined the epidemiologists and doctors in talkshows, articles, and committee reports, all discussing triage in cases of emergency. I wrote:
As more and more people are scared and many can only think of triage anymore, here is the framework that I consider the best right now. However: every hospital and city should by now have a task force in place, and I recommend that (medical) ethics professionals are called in. This means:

1. A team is better than individual;

2. Follow the (existing) protocols – don’t reinvent the wheel;

3. Go public and be as transparent as possible.

4. Insist that your governors/mayors make decisions in consideration of justice, not privilege and special interest. Insist that they communicate with the public and are transparent.

5. Dignity, compassion, solidarity, and justice must guide us. These are not empty principles – spell them out for yourselves – have a conversation about our shared responsibility with your family, friends, …. don’t forget: when you become weak, someone else may be just a little stronger. When you are strong, someone else may need you.

The suffering and the dying came closer: it was not clear whether the US would have enough intensive care units, ventilators, and personal protective equipment. The States began to beg for help from the Federal Government.

 

At the end of March, the right-wing, Christian ‘s Liberty University president Falwell in Virginia had just called back  students and faculty, playing down the risks of the pandemic. And I almost forgot already: The President of the United States was pretty sure at some point in March that the hysteria would be over by Easter. We now know that the USA does not provide better help for its citizens than Belarus – a dictatorship that cannot by far be compared with the economic, let alone the political power of the US. To some, this may come as a surprise. For many, it does not. The immediate catastrophe reveals the underlying political and social catastrophe that the American citizens have either ignored for decades (if they could afford to do so) or suffered through (if they had long been left on their own by the government): the individualization and responsibilization of welfare, making everyone responsible for their own fate, although the historically grown unjust structures perpetuated unequal starting points and different means to cope with insecurities.
The libertarianism that has dominated US Republican politics for the last decades – and was only half-heartedly rejected by the Democratic Party for fear of losing donations and, as a result, losing elections, has almost destroyed the ideal that good governance is even possible. But it has not destroyed state expenses. It merely distributed it towards the wealthy who have paid less and less taxes, to the military, to surveillance technologies, to certain branches of the economy, such as the non-renewable energy sector or agriculture.
The poorer the people became due to rising  costs of living (healthcare, housing, education, childcare, precarious work) the more they were abandoned – mass incarceration, (opioid) addiction, mass loneliness and mental illnesses rose to unimaginable numbers, compared to other industrious countries. The USA was truly the country of the 2/3 of winners, and the 1/3 of losers of the overall standard of life, from cradle to grave – literally if one considers the costs for giving birth to a child, even with insurance, (around 4.300 USD) (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/01/how-much-does-it-cost-have-baby-us/604519/) or a funeral (between 7.600 and 9.100 USD) (https://www.nfda.org/news/statistics).
It is understandable that everyone wants to keep one’s distance, as far as possible, from the lower one third – because in the US, once one belongs to this group (that may in fact be closer to 50%, one half of the country!), one will never have enough money to save, and never develop the self-confidence that one will be dignified. One can lose the job as in other countries, too. But in the US, one will also lose one’s healthcare in one strike. It is easy to become homeless in a few months. The society is cruel in its inclination to blame individuals for structural ills.One is better not black or brown in this country, and certainly better not a black or brown who is poor – in this case, one is not even protected by the color of the skin that protects the white man and the white woman – not from poverty, not from homelessness – but from social death. One is also better not a religious or sexual minority. The American culture clearly has a problem with religion, violence, and masculinity (https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/1126-god-guns-gold-and-glory), and an almost gnostic either/or thought structure.

But this is, as many have said over the last two months, really only the one side. The other side is as true: the civil society embarked on the civil virtue of care and solidarity in myriads of creative ways to cope with the lock down and Stay At Home orders that began by the end of March. The special heroism (or the longing for heroes and praise of heroism, often gets the better of people. One politician had a better solution than the triage ethicists – he considered it even a more “Christian” solution: Texas Lt. Governor Patrick called for elderly people to sacrifice their lives for the economy. Yes, the economy. It sounded like amazon’s Jeff Bezos calling for his company’s employees to sacrifice their health for his wealth, refusing to pay any sick leave or caring one bit about their safety (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/apr/07/amazon-warehouse-workers-coronavirus-safety)

A family member of an employee holds a sign outside an Amazon center in Romulus, Michigan, on 1 April.

(N.B.: amazon saw a 26% sales increase in the first quarter, though not in profit, it was reported recently.) (https://www.digitalcommerce360.com/article/amazon-sales/).

At the end of March, Hungary decided to give its Prime Minister Victor Orban full authority to keep an Emergency Law as long as he likes, circumventing the Parliament. Of course, there was an outcry – but to my knowledge, the European Union is so paralyzed that it cannot even agree to condemn this violation of every value that was once supposed to be the backbone of the Project Europe. The first victim of the pandemic is perhaps not even truth. It is clearly democratic values and principles.

Internationally, the sad truth is that countries are now competing against each other in the race to get equipment, masks, PPE, or ventilators. The global order is clearly overwhelmed. There is no international structure, no effective coordination – and the WHO is not equipped to handle such a crisis. Instead, the philanthropists in the US, such as Bill Gates, dominate the NGO support that substitutes for the lack of governance.

Mid-April was full of bad news. Not only are the numbers staggering. The “hidden places” are unbearable: nursing homes. Prisons. Detention/Concentration camps (we almost know nothing of them). Meats factories. And even the children are not spared when they are in a very special “lock down”?

At least 19 cases of Covid19 are confirmed in a Chicago shelter for Unaccompanied Migrant Children (https://www.propublica.org/article/at-least-19-children-at-a-chicago-shelter-for-immigrant-detainees-have-tested-positive-for-covid-19)

But then – it is also a Presidential Election Year – and this president is certainly not helping himself by talking a lot (and watching a lot of TV) – but leaving all the work to his underlings whom he will be able to blame for anything that goes wrong.
On the Democratic side: depending on where you stand, it is all about the pain and hurt that Bernie Sanders will not be the nominee. There is no excitement for the candidate. But the people who vow that they will not vote for Biden make a scandalous mistake. I agree wholeheartedly with the open letter by the “Old Left” to the “New Left” (https://www.thenation.com/article/activism/letter-new-left-biden/)

And then Trump can’t help himself: on twitter: “ LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” My comment: This is sick.

Intellectuals, in the meantime, all apply their own theories, be it a utilitarian ethics, a particular interpretation of liberalism, the political theory of Carl Schmitt, radical democracy, or civil solidarity movements.

In the NZZ newspaper, Giorgio Agamben demonstrates how creepy his theory has been all along: he compares the “obedience” with which we follow the Stay at Home Orders with A. Eichmann’s defense in his trial, namely that he only followed his sense of duty by deporting Jews. Agamben: you cannot defend freedom by destroying freedom.

But this is a wrong analysis: we are not destroying freedom (freedom 1, namely the right to move freely and live our lives as we like) by defending freedom (freedom 2, which is not really our freedom but rather: our life). So, while it is true that one cannot, ultimately, defend life if one destroys freedom – I disagree that this is what happens right now.

The truth is: we will all die at a certain point, and the truth is, too, that life is not an absolute right that cannot be held against other rights under any circumstances. But in the case of the Pandemic, I believe that we must be very careful – and therefore as concrete as possible in our assessments. Right now, this is a question of politics, guided by science on the one hand, and by ethics on the other (bound by law). For us, the citizens, it is a different question, because we are the agents who determine in a good part what options the politicians have.

For politicians, I believe that in this case the duty to save lives of the one group includes the duty to restrict the freedoms of an other group (they may coincide – but not necessarily).

For us, the moral agents, it is different: Claiming one’s right to freedom implicitly entails either the assumption that others are not affected by one’s actions (which is factually wrong) or the conviction that they do not matter as much as one’s own freedom (which is morally wrong).

It means that the protection of others are no motivation and no call for my own constraint. We can, of course, debate : what are the exact duties, where do they end – and where does my “freedom from duty” begin? But to me, this sounds like this, in an analogy: imagine there are firefighters who have the means to stop a burning house from totally collapsing. They work tirelessly – and put their lives at risk to save the people who are trapped in the house. They block the streets with their trucks, and won’t let anybody pass. After a while, people who cannot leave their houses debate whether it is an infringement on their freedom that they cannot go outside, because they might be at risk or become a risk for the firefighters. The work on the house takes longer than expected, and the firefighters still block the ways of the neighboring houses. The people who live there are trapped, and they begin to protest, and then to just go outside. — If the house is no longer burning, the people must not be kept from doing what they want to do and what is their right, i.e. to go outside, to protest, to ask questions, and to criticize how the emergency was handled.

To Agamben I would want to say this: our political houses are not burning permanently (although I agree that we are in a deep crisis). Yet, we – the citizens in democracies – do not always live in a state of emergency. Quite to the contrary: no matter how often the analysts or critics of Schmitt may repeat it: we do have rights, and we do have responsibilities: we are agents, not merely the addressees of laws and orders. Freedom is not only the freedom of liberalism – autonomy and the free pursuit of happiness. It is also moral freedom. And moral freedom is, first and foremost, the freedom of the other. Furthermore, however (or even: prior to the respect of freedom): moral freedom is the freedom to attend to and to respond to the other. Moral freedom is other-oriented, not self-oriented.

I, for one, am therefore horrified by Agamben’s comparison. The respect for the other and the concern for the danger that they are confronted with is enough motivation to adjust to the rules of the lock down.

Those who are hit by the secondary effects – losing their jobs, their business, their home – can rightly demand of others – and the state – to be cared for, too: in their emotional, social, and economic situation. Moral freedom includes solidarity. It is not merely a set of rules that are obeyed or resisted.

I do agree with Agamben, however, on another point: we need to do much better than letting people suffer alone and, in the extreme, even die alone. We must find ways to accompany the ill. And we must bury our dead.
But neither of us is an “Antigone” – and the dead we mourn and wish to bury are not kept from doing so by a “Kreon” who is interested only in keeping his power. He prohibits the burial of a political enemy whom he deliberately dehumanizes. To compare the quarantine and isolation measures with this context, is as dangerously misleading as the comparison with Adolf Eichmann’s disgusting excuses for his crimes against humanity.

“Ich weiss, dass es immer Leute geben wird, die sich erheben und antworten werden: Das durchaus schwere Opfer sei im Namen moralischer Prinzipien dargebracht worden.”
“Sie möchte ich daran erinnern, dass Adolf Eichmann – offensichtlich in gutem Glauben («buona fede») – nicht zu wiederholen aufhörte, dass er, was er getan hatte, aufgrund seines Gewissens getan habe, um dem zu genügen, was er für die Gebote der kantischen Moral hielt.”
“Eine Norm, die besagt, dass man auf das Gute verzichten müsse, um das Gute zu retten, ist ebenso falsch wie die, welche verlangt, dass man auf die Freiheit verzichten müsse, um die Freiheit zu retten.”

https://www.nzz.ch/feuilleton/coronavirus-giorgio-agamben-zum-zusammenbruch-der-demokratie-ld.1551896

By the end of April, many of us are feeling the fatigue. We are exhausted. And yet, one “story” after the other reveals the catastrophic disaster. The USA has now 1 Million identified cases. 60.000 people have lost their lives. Illinois mourns more than 2000 people who have lost their lives. The curve may get flatter – it just does not go down yet.

Some say, the economy cannot stay closed for much longer. Small businesses are losing the battle. Indeed: they are people too, and their lives, too, are at risk. 30 million people have filed for unemployment within the last 2 weeks (https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/30/economy/unemployment-benefits-coronavirus/index.html).

And yet: I believe in the data and the facts that we make matters only worse if we give up (and go out) too early. I am therefore All IN with my fellow Illinois brothers and sisters, and urge us to practice self-care, because we or others  may not be able to survive the disease. Let us practice solidarity and stand with our neighbors. Let us practice our moral freedom: to reach out to others before claiming something for us that may indeed be our right.

And let us laugh – together, if possible, connected in our physical distancing that is by no means a social distancing: watch Governor Pritzker talking to the penguins:

NO: we do not swallow disinfectants.
And the truth is the truth: We cannot afford to listen to the President: he does not care about the people, no matter what he says: he does NOT care, because he does not ACT in the interest of the people. He has no humor, no empathy, no courage (he is AFRAID of germs but not of a deadly virus, because it does not suit him politically?!), and he certainly has not the competence to govern.

He does have what many demagogues have: the sadistic sense for the weaknesses of his declared “enemies”. He goes after them, because he cannot tolerate weakness – it reminds him too much of his own weakness. He cannot stand neither sickness nor death. And that is exactly why the pandemic scandal will take him down as president.

At the beginning of the month of May people are clearly losing their minds. Protests in multiple states against the Lock Down policies seem to be far too organized to be the spontaneous local or regional protest. Protestors in Michigan State enter the state house with guns, which is legal in that state. For once I agree with Jennifer Rubin who blames the Media for not playing Hardball with the Republicans (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/01/no-media-isnt-fair-it-gives-republicans-pass/). I tweet:

“Could anyone imagine Black Lives Matter protesters, armed to the teeth and shouting disgusting comments about a Republican female governor, without the media demanding comment from Democrats?” – right question. Imagine. Imagine!
This has been a hack of two months 2020. If this is a marathon as some claim, we certainly have not trained for it. But I wonder whether we are not better off with prophetic words, calling us to take this moment to acknowledge the moral crisis we have been in for a long time now. The prophets urge us – but they also encourage us: there is always the possibility to turn around and seek light where there seems to be only darkness.
I wish we can see that there is no “turning around” without connecting the rebuilding of the economy with a revolutionary, radical Green New Deal – one that connects the climate crisis with the justice crisis.

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