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.
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.
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.