The November/December 2022 issue of the New Left Review includes a piece by sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko, criticizing the instrumentalization of Ukraine by Western elites amidst the current conflict. Ishchenko argues that discourse on the “decolonization” of Ukraine and its portrayal as a valiant champion of liberal democracy in the face of Russian authoritarianism does little to help the country or its people. Instead, it largely serves as fodder for pro-Western and anti-Russian propaganda. An excerpt:
The question for Ukrainians is whether being a part of this self-defeating escalation of identity politics is really what we need. This year, there has been a huge surge of events, panels and sessions related to Ukraine, Russia and the war, and a high demand for ‘Ukrainian voices’ in these discussions. Certainly, Ukrainian scholars, artists and intellectuals should be included in international discussions—and not just about Ukraine. The problem, however, is not the quantity but the quality of such inclusion. We have seen how outdated arguments—not least those of primordial nationalism, weirdly combined with teleological claims for the superiority of liberal democracy—are legitimated. We can already see the tokenism phenomenon, typical of contemporary identity politics, when a symbolic inclusion of ‘Ukrainian voices’ does not mean revising the structures of knowledge aligned with Western elite interests, beyond sharpening their guilt for appeasing Russia. Furthermore, the formalistic representation of tokenized ‘Ukrainian voices’ helps silence other ‘voices’ from Ukraine that are not so easy to instrumentalize. Are we really to believe that the English-speaking, West-connected intellectuals, typically working in Kiev or Lviv, and who often even personally know each other, represent the diversity of the 40-million-strong nation?
Note: This post was updated on 7/21 and 7/28/22 to include hospitalization data spanning a longer chronological range and national level excess mortality estimates.
In November of 2021, the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was discovered in the Gauteng region of South Africa. Early research painted a worrying picture. It was reportedly four times more contagious than the already highly transmissible Delta variant and was better at evading immunity, resulting in a marked decrease in the effectiveness of existing vaccines. There was an additional discovery: the variant was less likely to cause serious infection in lung tissue, raising the possibility of milder illness and lower rates of hospitalization. Researchers were quick to point out this wasn’t evidence of the virus evolving to become less severe (Omicron didn’t evolve from Delta) or that the variant didn’t present a serious threat. Imperial College London’s Neil Ferguson stated that “our analysis shows evidence of a moderate reduction in the risk of hospitalization associated with Omicron variant compared with the Delta variant….However, this appears to be offset by the reduced efficacy of vaccines against infection with the Omicron variant.” The University of Hong Kong’s Dr. Michael Chan Chi-wai, a faculty member involved in one of the aforementioned studies that indicated Omicron’s propensity for less severe respiratory infection, noted that “the severity of disease in humans is not determined only by virus replication but also by the host immune response to the infection.” He warned that Omicron could “cause more severe disease and death simply by spreading much faster, even though the lung infection appears not as bad.”
The mischaracterization of SARS-CoV-2 Omicron as a mild pathogen took hold in the greater public imagination, aggravated by some healthcare professionals promoting oversimplified explanations of “mild Omicron” with misleading statements about the “decoupling” of cases and hospitalizations and SARS-CoV-2’s transition to being an “endemic” virus. Additionally, many public health measures that had been put in place to blunt the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 were gone by the end of 2021. 2022 began with massive spikes in Omicron-driven COVID-19 infection erupting around the world, with one of the worst occurring in the United States (Fig 1). On January 10th, 1.3 million new cases were recorded in the US, with Omicron’s BA.1 sublineage being the dominant strain (accounting for more than 90% of sequenced infections.) The surge ended almost as quickly as it started, with daily caseloads much lower by early March than they had been at its beginning in late December.
During the BA.1 wave, deaths as a percentage of cases were a fraction of that seen in waves driven by prior variants. To describe the mortality that resulted from the outbreak in such abstract mathematical terms, however, is misleading. Because of Omicron’s greatly increased transmissibility, much more of the population was infected. Thus, the amount of death caused by the BA.1 surge was substantial, regardless of the strain’s decreased pathogenicity. Official COVID-19 mortality figures (Fig. 2) reflect this, but the limitations of this data are well known. Excess mortality estimates (Fig. 3) show that while the BA.1 wave was likely less deadly than all prior major surges, it was still highly lethal and comparable to the former*. Similarly, despite initial predictions of a decreased risk of hospitalization, the number of people hospitalized by BA.1 (Fig. 4) surpassed the Fall 2020/winter 2021 and Delta waves, being roughly 150% higher than the latter. More than 154,000 Americans were hospitalized nationwide as of January 19th 2022, almost entirely by a variant still widely being referred to as “mild.” Further analyzing hospitalization data, the number of these patients requiring intensive care was more or less equal to that of the Delta wave and marginally less than that of the 2020/2021 wave.
These data reveal the true severity of BA.1’s impact in the United States. Although the surge began in late December, the country’s cumulative COVID-19 death toll increased by more than 120,000 between January and March alone. By comparison, a particularly virulent seasonal flu can result in around 52,000 deaths. A recent study found excess deaths in Massachusetts were higher during the BA.1 wave than the Delta wave. Beyond mortality, there’s the uncalculated figure of how many Americans have sustained permanent injury, become disabled and joined the ranks of “long COVID” sufferers as a result of BA.1 infection. As disturbing as the effects of the BA.1 wave were, the government’s subsequent response was more unsettling. Funding for federal pandemic aid has been cut and top ranking officials have made the dubious claim that the most severe stage of the pandemic is over. The US is already experiencing another Omicron-driven surge, with the BA.5 sublineage (as of the publishing of this post) being the dominant strain. Preliminary data suggests it may have evolved to cause more severe disease. In the face of it all, numerous individuals and entities (the CDC included) carry on minimizing the continued threat of this virus.
*Alternatively, an estimate of excess mortality during the pandemic by The Economist found higher levels during the BA.1 wave than the Spring 2020 or Delta surges. Whichever measure is ultimately more accurate, the fundamental assertion that BA.1 caused a considerable number of fatalities in the US remains true.
Special thanks to Jeoffry B. Gordon, MD, MPH for his assistance during the drafting of this piece.
The abysmal and deadly failures of the Johnson government’s COVID-19 response have been extensively documented, with the UK’s death toll (now more than 180,000) the highest in Europe second only to Russia. I won’t be analyzing them in this post. Instead, with Johnson having officially confirmed his resignation, I want to spotlight a statement he made before the chaos of the pandemic kicked off in full that made it clear what his governing philosophy and priorities were. Anyone who heard it should have fully expected what was to come.
Prior to the carnage of Spring and Autumn or his blunt pronouncement-cum-self-fulfilling prophecy in March that “many more families will lose loved ones before their time,” Johnson gave a speech at London’s Old Royal Naval College three days after the finalization of Brexit. It was a twenty-eight minute hubristic declaration of the UK’s commitment to global capitalism and why the country, now freed from the shackles of EU membership, was apparently destined to become an economic superpower. What would become the speech’s defining moment came six minutes in when Johnson said the following:
[When] we are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other. And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.
There it was, stated unambiguously, albeit dressed up in Johnson’s theatrical verbiage: the health of Britain’s private sector came first. The health of its public faced with the threat from a deadly novel virus came second (more accurately, probably tenth or twelfth.) Johnson painted neoliberalism as the most progressive and liberating force on earth, and himself as the valiant world leader ready to defend it with every ounce of strength he had.
This was also, appropriately enough, the first time Johnson had mentioned SARS-CoV-2 publicly. During his public address earlier today, he touted “getting us all through the pandemic, delivering the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe, the fastest exit from lockdown” among his stellar achievements as PM. It was a sick joke, coming from the man who made clear early on that he valued economic stability far more than human life. He stands atop not a legacy of effective leadership, but a mountain of corpses.
Good riddance to him and a preemptive “up yours” to the similarly unprincipled goon who’ll replace him.
In his latest piece in The Atlantic, Ed Yong details why the hospitalization statistics that the CDC now largely relies on as a guide for what decisions individuals and policymakers should make re: COVID-19 are offering an incomplete picture and therefore are inadequate as a guiding metric. An excerpt:
America’s current pandemic strategy is predicated on the assumption that people can move on from COVID, trusting that the health-care system will be ready to hold the line. But that assumption is a fiction. Much of the system is still intolerably stressed, even in moments of apparent reprieve. And the CDC’s community guidelines are set such that by the time preventive actions are triggered, high levels of sickness and death will be locked in for the near future. For many health-care workers, their mental health and even their commitment to medicine are balanced on a precipice; any further surges will tip more of them over. “I feel like I’m holding on by a thread,” Marina Del Rios, an emergency physician at the University of Iowa, told me. “Every time I hear a new subvariant is coming along, I think: Okay, here we go.”
Yesterday, during an interview on the PBS NewsHour, Anthony Fauci declared the United States to be “out of the pandemic phase [of SARS-CoV-2.]” Coming from the man who, in March of 2020, said “the U.S. ‘should be overly aggressive and get criticized for overreacting’ to COVID-19,'” and as recently as March of this year was warning that the return of strict mitigation efforts could be immanent due to the threat of the Omicron BA.2 subvariant, it was an incredible, baffling and obviously premature assessment. Fauci backtracked almost immediately, but it was too late. His reply to Judy Woodruff was unambiguously indicative of an ongoing trend amongst governments around the world to downplay the persistent danger of the pandemic via claims that SARS-CoV-2 is now a “manageable” and “endemic” pathogen that humanity simply needs to “learn to live with.” Additionally (and granted, it’s been present throughout the pandemic,) this includes a distinctly neoliberal emphasis of the onus of risk assessment being on the individual and minimizing state intervention.
For a while now, I’ve wanted to write a comprehensive piece on this precise issue. For multiple reasons, I haven’t. Even in the wake of this year’s Omicron BA.1 surge, during which more than a hundred thousand Americans died and thousands were hospitalized due to the essentially unimpeded spread of a “milder” variant, I didn’t think I had anything substantive to add to the existing discourse. After hearing Fauci’s remark last night, though, I felt compelled to respond promptly in some fashion. Rather than begin the lengthy process that would entail writing my own rebuke, I’m instead providing several links to content that, in aggregate, seriously challenges the disingenuously sanguine framing of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Out of all the above commentary and analysis, the conclusion of Bruce Y. Lee’s article summarizes the current situation as well as any other:
Sure, some politicians and businesses may want things to appear as “normal” as possible as soon as possible. The illusion of complete normality could prompt people to spend more and re-elect current politicians for office. Plus, Covid-19 precautions require some up front spending and investment….The rush to return to normal, whatever “normal” means, and the repeated premature relaxation of Covid-19 precautions has continued to be remarkably short-sighted. The SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t really care what politicians and business leaders say. Failing to maintain proper Covid-19 precautions such as face mask use, social distancing, and Covid-19 vaccination could further extend the pandemic and increase the negative impact of the SARS-CoV-2. This is especially true with the more contagious BA.2 Omicron subvariant spreading. The CDC Covid-19 Community Levels map alone may have you seeing green as in low risk, go, go, go, and perhaps even mo’ money. But that could end up being an “off-color” conclusion.
This was posted to r/LabourUK today (and, unsurprisingly, eventually deleted by mods. Thank God for the Internet Archive.) It seems as straightforward and concise a summary of the most salient critiques of Labour under Starmer you’ll find anywhere. Some of the passages that stick with me the most:
A while ago I finally chucked in my membership. The final straw which broke the camel’s back being Starmer unwilling to condemn the evil Saudi takeover of Newcastle, whilst prattling on about James Bond needing to be female….
My mrs works in a care home. She likes Burnham, is pro armed forces, centre left on most issues, left leaning on nationalisation, LGBT and trade union rights, a bit centre right on crime, and is exactly the sort of person Labour NEED as a minimum just to hold onto seats let alone to win. So when she sees the party is resorting to attacking unions, putting the likes of Cooper (who’s WCA brutalised the disabled – people she has worked with for years – she has seen the terror they have been subjected to by Atos / DWP thugs) in key positions, attempts to edge out people like Rayner (who are like my mrs – northern and working class), and shifting the sort of soft left figures out of key positions, she realises the party is no longer for her. She, like I wanted an Attlee style reset of everything – we are sick to death of having to work through this virus, lose colleagues to it and get treated like shit. Regardless of whether this new variant is a relatively harmless storm in a teacup or something so deadly it will end up slaughtering vast swathes of the population, she (and I) will still have to work through it. Policies and figures who appease Westminster based political pundits don’t cut it.
If Starmer was genuinely interested in unity, the soft left would not be being purged from key positions, as they are literally the “centre” of the fucking party. Rayner herself is bang in the middle of the party and has great support from much of the base. Alienating her shows the direction of the party is simply to become some drippy form of market liberalism coupled with establishment politics. Nor would he be tolerating stupid attacks on unions, when given the state of the country, unions are more important than ever.
The expressions of relief at the immanent end of 2020 are disturbingly indicative of a widespread shortsightedness. The sentiment is typically motivated by an overwhelming catharsis triggered by the symbolic closing of a catastrophic and traumatic period, the Sisyphean expectation that COVID-19 vaccines will return the world to “normal” within the year or a mixture of both.
During the 2008 riots in Greece, “Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear” was a phrase frequently rendered in graffiti (a photo of it later went viral.) This sarcastic proclamation could hardly be better suited to the present moment. 2021 presents tremendous uncertainty and threat. The pandemic, currently at its most severe thus far in terms of both caseloads and deaths, will potentially worsen in the New Year. Anthony Fauci, quite optimistically, predicted that “normality” in the U.S. could return by fall of 2021. This would be heavily reliant on the timely implementation of vaccinations and continued mitigation efforts. As it stands, vaccinations in the U.S. are woefully behind schedule and even the simplest social distancing measures continue to be politicized and met with resistance.
The incoming Biden-Harris administration promises little more than milquetoast centrism. Biden himself insinuated he would veto Medicare for All legislation and his platform is mostly comprised of weak incrementalist policies with a few ambitious outliers like his college tuition subsidy plan along with his stated intent to bring supply chains back to the U.S. The degree to which he will actually pursue any of these measures (and the degree to which he would actually succeed) is anyone’s guess.
The catastrophe of 2020 presents, of course, a vast opportunity for leftist political reform and progress. COVID-19 has shone a floodlight on the savage inequality present in modern society. The private sector was no hero in the fight against the virus. Frequently, it was responsible and served as the justification for extreme negligence, re: resistance to much needed business closures, premature reopenings and widespread price gouging (all with disastrous results). Containment of the virus cannot be a green light for a simple return to the oblivious consumerism and recklessness of the pre-COVID-19 era. When a deadly airborne virus is no longer an omnipresent threat, widespread political mobilization is imperative.
2021 can be a continuation of the horrors of 2020 or the beginning of a paradigm shift of historic proportions. Whether it is the former or the latter will be determined by decisions made by the citizenry, carried out through civil society institutions and political organizations. In 1930, Antonio Gramsci wrote “that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” We are experiencing “morbid symptoms” in the most literal sense. We can, however, be midwives to the birth of the new if we choose to be.
In another piece written for Passage, Paris Marx describes how private homeownership forces home buyers to conform to and prioritize the logic of the market, viewing a home less as a stable dwelling and more “an investment that’s meant to generate wealth.” He also points out the role of condominiums in giving the wealthy who live in dense urban settings the option to buy rather than rent, reducing the profitability of the rental market. Marx is unambiguous in his advocacy of mass investment in public housing that is “not subject to market forces” as the solution to the housing issues plaguing Toronto (which apply as much to almost any other large North American city.)
“This government promotion of home ownership across much of the Western world changed the culture of our societies. As author Grace Blakeley describes in Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialisation, home ownership makes people more invested in the capitalist system as they build wealth through the ownership of an asset — even though the vast majority of the benefits continue to accrue to the wealthy.”
High unemployment rates mean employers can take their pick of the glut of applicants, offering them lower wages. Poor unemployment benefits make workers more desperate to take a job, and to keep the one they have. And frightened and vulnerable workers provide weak resistance to management’s demands to intensify their workload.
After three months in our homes, the pressure to consume in a certain way feels less necessary. While general pandemic experiences have differed depending on the country and region, the effect COVID-19 has had on consumer culture has been one of few trends felt on a supranational scale. With this in mind, we should commit to a version of economic recovery that looks like how we’ve been living and buying during quarantine — slower and more considered and ethical. Instead of rushing ourselves back into the fluorescent, corporate dynamic we left behind, we should build something closer to home.
This shift toward private car use and suburban, single-family homes also helped change people’s character. In 1973, journalist and philosopher André Gorz described how the car was inherently a luxury good whose benefits cannot be democratizing because there simply isn’t enough space in a city for everyone to have one. He compared it to a seaside villa — not everyone can own one, so the beach must be a communal space. Gorz argued that mass automobility was ‘an absolute triumph of bourgeois ideology on the level of daily life,’ making everyone believe ‘the illusion that each individual can seek his or her own benefit at the expense of everyone else.’ This is undeniably linked to the mass consumption that also arose in the postwar period, when all of a sudden there were a ton of consumer goods for people to fill their new suburban homes.
The origins of Memorial Day can be traced back to the nineteenth century. In May of 1868, Union veterans of the civil war established Decoration Day in recognition of their fallen brethren by adorning their graves with flowers. Following the First World War, the holiday was expanded to include all soldiers in the U.S. military who had died in American wars and was eventually declared a national holiday in 1971, now dubbed Memorial Day. In retrospect, the official recognition of Memorial Day in 1971, a year in which 2,414 died in the Vietnam War, seems grossly opportunistic.
Memorial Day 2020 is now upon us. If anything, it seems as though this year’s holiday will have mainly served as a catalyst to further the spread of COVID-19. The Memorial Day weekend (coinciding with the reopening of many states) sent Americans flocking to beaches and even pools, frequently ignoring physical distancing and without any kind of PPE. In Austin, Texas (where reopened bars have been ordered to limit their occupancy to 25% capacity), revelers packed into a nightclub. A video shot in the establishment shows patrons side-by-side, hugging and without masks, negating the positive effects any limits on capacity that were supposedly being enforced could have had. On Friday, Alabama reopened bowling alleys, movie theaters and summer camps, even as COVID-19 infections increased to the point where the mayor of Montgomery announced that the critically ill would be sent to Birmingham as the city had run out ICU beds.
Memorial Day ostensibly honors the sacrifices of the U.S. armed forces. The legitimacy of that alone is questionable. What’s honorable about dying in immoral and imperialistic military actions like Vietnam or the 2003 Iraq war? That said, let us for the moment take Memorial Day at face value. If the point of the holiday is to honor those who sacrificed their lives to arguably protect both their country’s sovereignty and its civilian population, then Memorial Day 2020 is a metaphorical slap in the face to all it pays tribute to. Memorial Day’s secondary purpose as an excuse for the retail sector to lure in customers with sales, discounts and limited-time offers already undercuts the somber nature of the occasion. Purchasing a foreign-made LED TV for thirty percent off in no way translates into a tribute to a soldier who died fighting on the beaches of Normandy. But that is, of course, not the worst part of this year’s observance.
Memorial Day 2020 is, as previously stated, taking place while grossly negligent state and municipal governments bow to the pressures of the private sector and reopen commercial and public spaces. It is occurring as the U.S. COVID-19 death toll is about to reach the horrific and obscene figure of 100,000, a figure that could have been considerably lower had decisive actions been taken at the appropriate time or the multiple “stay-at-home” orders and closures of non-essential businesses across the country stayed in place for longer. Instead, the U.S. has the highest COVID-19 death toll in the world. The dead include the scores of essential workers (especially healthcare workers) who contracted and succumbed to the virus due to a lack of adequate PPE. It includes those with families and dependents who had to continue working, unable to survive on a one-time $1,200 check and moderately increased unemployment insurance (and whose states never passed the sort of anti-eviction legislation that others did). It includes the residents of mismanaged long-term care facilities, like the more than seventy veterans living at a Holyoke, Massachusetts “soldier’s home.”
The dead who are being honored today gave their lives for a country that is cruelly and cavalierly allowing its citizens to die of a pathogen it could have greatly reduced the spread of. This is compounded by their day of recognition and tribute coinciding with the number of virus casualties reaching a near six-figure level that’s comparable to a nuclear weapon being detonated over an American city. Clearly, there are two groups whose sacrifice should be remembered today. There’s no nationally mandated holiday for COVID-19 casualties, however. When some of them were still alive, they were “honored” with jet fighter flyovers, a crude, militaristic and ultimately empty gesture that drew the ire of the very front line medical personnel it was meant to salute. Now, as scores of Americans return to work, go to pool parties, clubs and bars, movie theaters, and do so without any masks or effort to physically distance, the virus will spread, the reproduction numbers will increase across the country, and the death toll will rise even higher. This is what our veterans died to defend: a selfish, proudly ignorant nation where profit and the individual come before all else, and mass death is normalized.
My paternal grandfather, who died of natural causes in 2008, was a non-combat veteran of the Second World War. Stricken with polio as a child and burdened with cerebral palsy as a result, he nonetheless served domestically as a private second class in the U.S. military, transporting generals in his jeep, driving supply trucks and acting as an interpreter for Italian POWs. He didn’t die fighting for his country, but served it in a non-violent capacity and did so despite his disability. I believe he still deserves recognition on Memorial Day. I also believe that the current situation is a horrendous insult to his memory. My grandfather was, like so many others, a living testament to the necessity of vaccination. Born decades prior to the creation of the polio vaccine, he suffered the disease’s effects for the entirety of his long life. Now, as a pandemic is killing thousands of Americans each day, crowds of rabidly libertarian protesters are hysterically decrying public health measures as “tyranny” and stating that they’d refuse to be vaccinated even if a cure for COVID-19 is discovered. Meanwhile, our president fans the flames of the protesters anger, rallying them with his right wing populist declarations of state “liberation.” Georgia Governor Brian Kemp is effectively treating his state’s population as guinea pigs in an experiment to see how many will survive the premature repeal of the safety measures that had been in place to protect them from the virus.
This is an America that no veteran should be proud to have served, let alone died for. Thus, this Memorial Day is a hollow tip of the hat to our dead veterans. Secondarily, it is a non-recognition of the casualties of the war on COVID-19. On this day, I maintain many of the individuals that served and died in America’s wars never should have had to fight at all, especially those who died fighting in the service of imperialism and Thucydidean foreign policy. I recognize the deaths of those who’ve been lost to COVID-19, and wonder if it will take debilitating infection or the death of a loved one to get through to the many that increasingly process their deaths as yet another abstract statistic in the daily news cycle. The lack of concerted opposition to the U.S.’s criminal response to COVID-19 is bad enough, but the normalization of mass death will worsen the situation to a degree that will earn this period the unambiguous recognition as one of the darkest and most contemptible in American history.