Mike Davis on COVID-19

Few historians (by trade) have been more influential under the Big Top of critical geographical thought (especially the Urban side) than Mike Davis. His book City of Quartz remains one of the most cited cautionary tales about the civic and social costs of privatization, especially considering how he arguably anticipated the 1992 LA Riots.

This essay he wrote came to me via social media, which (as much as I’ve been saying this for years, what with the failure of ‘the global village’ and all) we need to be vigilant about how we use. Under ideal circumstances, yesterday was the peak of what can only be referred to as “a productive hysteria.” The American Association of Geographers announced that their Denver meeting was cancelled, which has changed the layout of my spring a bit (more announcements soon). The NBA announced that their season is being suspended and the NHL is likely taking similar measures. To their benefit, I would absolutely watch a televised sporting event with nobody in the stands (The Three Stooges were out ahead of this 86 years ago, but I digress).

As I said, hopefully, as we learn more about COVID-19 and continue our collective efforts to mitigate its spread, the small bouts of hysteria I’ve witnessed will calm down and people won’t let it ruin their lives. Naturally, the relative paucity of gatekeepers to differentiate between valuable information and thoughtless pablum (mostly in the form of tired, regressive jokes about beer brands and 37 unique of Smash Mouth lyrics under a hand-washing diagram) has diluted what should be a teachable moment. That being said, I do find it ironic that 3/11 was the day for the greater public to suggest that we DO stay home, but again, I digress. Maybe there is something in using humor to battle something we might feel powerless against (not that it hasn’t been a primary function of comedy for thousands of years).

Without further ado, here is Mike Davis discussing important points about COVID-19 in light of the 21st century’s precarious balance of resources, growing population, and neoliberalism. Enjoy and feel free to pass it along or share your thoughts.


COVID -19 is finally the monster at the door. Researchers are working night and day to characterize the outbreak but they are faced with three huge challenges. First the continuing shortage or unavailability of test kits has vanquished all hope of containment. Moreover it is preventing accurate estimates of key parameters such as reproduction rate, size of infected population and number of benign infections. The result is a chaos of numbers.

There is, however, more reliable data on the virus’s impact on certain groups in a few countries. It is very scary. Italy, for example, reports a staggering 23 per cent death rate among those over 65; in Britain the figure is now 18 per cent. The ‘corona flu’ that Trump waves off is an unprecedented danger to geriatric populations, with a potential death toll in the millions.

Second, like annual influenzas, this virus is mutating as it courses through populations with different age compositions and acquired immunities. The variety that Americans are most likely to get is already slightly different from that of the original outbreak in Wuhan. Further mutation could be trivial or could alter the current distribution of virulence which ascends with age, with babies and small children showing scant risk of serious infection while octogenarians face mortal danger from viral pneumonia.

Third, even if the virus remains stable and little mutated, its impact on under-65 age cohorts can differ radically in poor countries and amongst high poverty groups. Consider the global experience of the Spanish flu in 1918-19 which is estimated to have killed 1 to 2 per cent of humanity. In contrast to the corona virus, it was most deadly to young adults and this has often been explained as a result of their relatively stronger immune systems which overreacted to infection by unleashing deadly ‘cytokine storms’ against lung cells. The original H1N1 notoriously found a favored niche in army camps and battlefield trenches where it scythed down young soldiers down by the tens of thousands. The collapse of the great German spring offensive of 1918, and thus the outcome of the war, has been attributed to the fact that the Allies, in contrast to their enemy, could replenish their sick armies with newly arrived American troops.

It is rarely appreciated, however, that fully 60 per cent of global mortality occurred in western India where grain exports to Britain and brutal requisitioning practices coincided with a major drought. Resultant food shortages drove millions of poor people to the edge of starvation. They became victims of a sinister synergy between malnutrition, which suppressed their immune response to infection, and rampant bacterial and viral pneumonia. In another case, British-occupied Iran, several years of drought, cholera, and food shortages, followed by a widespread malaria outbreak, preconditioned the death of an estimated fifth of the population.

This history – especially the unknown consequences of interactions with malnutrition and existing infections – should warn us that COVID-19 might take a different and more deadly path in the slums of Africa and South Asia. The danger to the global poor has been almost totally ignored by journalists and Western governments. The only published piece that I’ve seen claims that because the urban population of West Africa is the world’s youngest, the pandemic should have only a mild impact. In light of the 1918 experience, this is a foolish extrapolation. No one knows what will happen over the coming weeks in Lagos, Nairobi, Karachi, or Kolkata. The only certainty is that rich countries and rich classes will focus on saving themselves to the exclusion of international solidarity and medical aid. Walls not vaccines: could there be a more evil template for the future?

*

A year from now we may look back in admiration at China’s success in containing the pandemic but in horror at the USA’s failure. (I’m making the heroic assumption that China’s declaration of rapidly declining transmission is more or less accurate.) The inability of our institutions to keep Pandora’s Box closed, of course, is hardly a surprise. Since 2000 we’ve repeatedly seen breakdowns in frontline healthcare.

The 2018 flu season, for instance, overwhelmed hospitals across the country, exposing the shocking shortage of hospital beds after twenty years of profit-driven cutbacks of in-patient capacity (the industry’s version of just-in-time inventory management). Private and charity hospital closures and nursing shortages, likewise enforced by market logic, have devastated health services in poorer communities and rural areas, transferring the burden to underfunded public hospitals and VA facilities. ER conditions in such institutions are already unable to cope with seasonal infections, so how will they cope with an imminent overload of critical cases?

We are in the early stages of a medical Katrina. Despite years of warnings about avian flu and other pandemics, inventories of basic emergency equipment such as respirators aren’t sufficient to deal with the expected flood of critical cases. Militant nurses unions in California and other states are making sure that we all understand the grave dangers created by inadequate stockpiles of essential protective supplies like N95 face masks. Even more vulnerable because invisible are the hundreds of thousands of low-wage and overworked homecare workers and nursing home staff.

The nursing home and assisted care industry which warehouses 2.5 million elderly Americans – most of them on Medicare – has long been a national scandal. According to the New York Times, an incredible 380,000 nursing home patients die every year from facilities’ neglect of basic infection control procedures. Many homes – particularly in Southern states – find it cheaper to pay fines for sanitary violations than to hire additional staff and provide them with proper training. Now, as the Seattle example warns, dozens, perhaps hundreds more nursing homes will become coronavirus hotspots and their minimum-wage employees will rationally choose to protect their own families by staying home. In such a case the system could collapse and we shouldn’t expect the National Guard to empty bedpans.

The outbreak has instantly exposed the stark class divide in healthcare: those with good health plans who can also work or teach from home are comfortably isolated provided they follow prudent safeguards. Public employees and other groups of unionized workers with decent coverage will have to make difficult choices between income and protection. Meanwhile millions of low wage service workers, farm employees, uncovered contingent workers, the unemployed and the homeless will be thrown to the wolves. Even if Washington ultimately resolves the testing fiasco and provides adequate numbers of kits, the uninsured will still have to pay doctors or hospitals for administrating the tests. Overall family medical bills will soar at the same time that millions of workers are losing their jobs and their employer-provided insurance. Could there possibly be a stronger, more urgent case in favor of Medicare for All?

*

But universal coverage is only a first step. It’s disappointing, to say the least, that in the primary debates neither Sanders or Warren has highlighted Big Pharma’s abdication of the research and development of new antibiotics and antivirals. Of the 18 largest pharmaceutical companies, 15 have totally abandoned the field. Heart medicines, addictive tranquilizers and treatments for male impotence are profit leaders, not the defenses against hospital infections, emergent diseases and traditional tropical killers. A universal vaccine for influenza – that is to say, a vaccine that targets the immutable parts of the virus’s surface proteins – has been a possibility for decades but never a profitable priority.

As the antibiotic revolution is rolled back, old diseases will reappear alongside novel infections and hospitals will become charnel houses. Even Trump can opportunistically rail against absurd prescription costs, but we need a bolder vision that looks to break up the drug monopolies and provide for the public production of lifeline medicines. (This used to be the case: during World War Two, the Army enlisted Jonas Salk and other researchers to develop the first flu vaccine.) As I wrote fifteen years ago in my book The Monster at Our Door – The Global Threat of Avian Flu:

Access to lifeline medicines, including vaccines, antibiotics, and antivirals, should be a human right, universally available at no cost. If markets can’t provide incentives to cheaply produce such drugs, then governments and non-profits should take responsibility for their manufacture and distribution. The survival of the poor must at all times be accounted a higher priority than the profits of Big Pharma.

The current pandemic expands the argument: capitalist globalization now appears to biologically unsustainable in the absence of a truly international public health infrastructure. But such an infrastructure will never exist until peoples’ movements break the power of Big Pharma and for-profit healthcare.

Sonic Sunday 03.08: Read About Your Band on Some Local Page

I know this firmly places me in the “aging guy with advanced degrees who wears glasses” stereotype, but prepare for a deluge of pure, uncut love for the Replacements and Big Star over the next week or two. 

  • First and foremost, I discovered that this exists, and I’m going to have trouble thinking about anything else or accomplishing anything else on the internet in the immediate future.
  • Actually, just as foremost, my wonderful colleague Lola San Martín (EHESS) is organizing a new conference in Paris this summer entitled “Urban Nostalgia: The Musical City in the 19th and 20th Centuries.” I can’t think of a conference more curated specifically for me, but I hope to give it as big of a signal boost I can, because I love the work that Theatrum Mundi and EHESS do. The deadline is relatively soon (April 6th), and the full CFP is right here. Here is a nifty GIF advertisement for the conference, too:
    Urban Nostalgia
  • Here’s another conference in Paris that appears to have been curated exactly to my interests, happening in September. Something about Pop and Rock in the past two decades of cinema. Elsa Grassy will be there!

Here’s Paul Westerberg playing my favorite Replacements song to close out a solo set on KFOG-FM in 1996. Have a great week, everyone!

Recommended Reading: ‘The Revenge of Analog’ by David Sax

512bolgqtoilWhen I was visiting DC in November, my friend and I were preemptively reminiscing about how we’ll remember the 2010’s. I said, from where I sit, it seems like where the 2000’s were the decade of us spelunking into the technical possibilities of the digital century, and the 2010’s were the decade of humans reckoning with affiliated dangers (some more evident than others) and escaping the vortex when they could. Resistance, when it boiled down, was so much more than just a buzz word related to people upset at the actions of an administration or particular politicians. To me, it’s about resilience and breaking punching through the wall of a near-Orwellian dynamic of cultural conformity – the kind of society where I got ridiculed for (get this) paying for music in 2005, or daring to use an iPhone 4 in 2016.

Of course, it’s hard to see these trends in action. They’re only observable in terms of, for example, physical book and turntable/vinyl sales, which are still both arguably niche markets. But their meaning and importance transcend those niches, and then some. The process of digital detox is an intensely individual, private phenomenon. One cannot easily observe people cancelling their Facebook or Twitter accounts, and (let’s be honest) the ones who post publicly about plans to do so are usually back around in a week or two.

I just finished David Sax’s 2016 book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Not only is Sax a very (very, very) good writer and journalist, but at least once every few pages, he made a point that hit me like a ton of bricks. This paragraph did, in particular, considering the wastelands of digital detritus I’ve spent much of the past month sifting through to find some old photos across at least 4 different hard drives:

0115201820_hdr

Writing this out now, I think one of the greatest victories of Sax’ book is how it helps me realize how easy it is to just take stock of all the great analog businesses in my life and realize that I’m not alone.

By the way, to paraphrase Sideshow Bob, I’m aware of the irony of taking a digital picture of a block of text in an analog book to post on the internet in order to prove a point, so don’t bother pointing that out.

Just Another Sonic Sunday (03.01.20) – VHS and Vintage Games

And just like that, it’s March already.

  • Cool Maps on Instagram
    I haven’t really taken time to express how many fun maps I’ve seen on Instagram (and really, why would I?), but it’s definitely a fun-map-lover’s dream over there. Here is one particularly head-turning one for those of us who haven’t visited South Asia.
  • Shudder to Podcast
    Craig Wedren, who spent his teens through mid-twenties helming Shudder to Think and much of the past two decades scoring almost every show on television, is starting a meditation/ambient music podcast that sounds just as interesting as everything else he does. You can read about it here.
  • Bad Brains and Defiance
    Speaking of DC punk veterans, The Root published a great little piece on how defiance crafted Bad Brains in honor of Black History Month.
  • The Wild World of VHS Digitization
    A piece of non-journalism on VICE (which I’ve already RT’d; they don’t need any more exposure) clued me into The VHS Vault. Everything from the extremely copyrighted to the mundane. Further verification of my opinion on just how much data and media exists outside of the internet, especially given the way the home video market blew up in the 1980’s. What a time to be alive.

While we’re on the topic of the weird early-80’s techno-glut, I had the rare opportunity recently to visit a friend in Ohio who is a brilliant archivist, coder, and trader of vintage video game equipment. It was remarkable, given the legendary Video Game Crash of 1983 (Wikipedia), to be able to play some of the flopped systems and realize, “Oh…that’s why it happened.”

Here are a few of the digital antiques.

0221200021a_hdr

A fluffball named Lucky poses with a pair of early Apple Computers. If I’m not mistaken, the one on the right was the model I used in elementary school in 1988.

0221200127_hdr

The Timex Sinclaire 1000. This thing was just the worst.

0221200106_hdr

A floppy disk with games coded for an old Commodore system.

Sonic Sunday: A Day of Remembrance Edition (February 19)

I know I’m a few days late and several dollars short, but certain algorithms which shall remain anonymous prevented me from getting this sad reminder on Wednesday. On February 19, 1942, FDR signed off on a measure to incarcerate Japanese Americans. Do not let contrarians play up the atrocity of Pearl Harbor or allow revisionists to gloss this over; more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated because of how they looked, and we must never risk repeating it. Russ Feingold indicated as much in his speech on the Senate Floor condemning the Patriot Act in 2001 (though he has reoriented his opposition more recently).

Two summers ago, I was wandering through an estate sale in North Knoxville and I came upon some old postcards that included this fascinating propaganda by Carl Crow, folded up within the family’s correspondence. The “general interest” magazine Liberty probably (and hopefully) would regret publishing this. I’d be loathe to call it white supremacy since Crow had spent most of his adult life in Shanghai, but its still shocking my any metric today. The note included in the family’s correspondence read “isn’t this just awful.” The same fervor which justified (to a powerful few) the desire to uproot American citizens and America-loving immigrants was perpetuated by a magazine with almost one and a half million subscribers.

Propaganda is a powerful and terrifying thing, and its our duty to punch holes in it every opportunity we get. This is something I think about when I see people signal-boosting talking points about Presidential hopefuls which are completely fabricated.

Anyway, more material coming in the next couple weeks. New post coming to @postcardsfromirving tomorrow. Enjoy the rest of your weekend(s)!

 

Sonic Sunday Clips 02.16.20

Happy Sunday. I don’t know why, but I almost missed it! It’s still technically Sunday here in Eastern Time. Here are a few things.


Ben Irving Updates
I haven’t been able to write much about any of these, but if you use Instagram, head on over to the Postcards From Irving page, give it a follow, and see the latest updates from Austin, Louisville, Tampa, Flint, and more.

Robert Forster and Peter Paphides on “G Stands for Go-Betweens Vol. 2”
I bookmarked this video ages ago, and just got around to watching it. I had the rare opportunity to see Forster play on his first US tour in 11 years, and I’ve gone on the record here (often) about how important the Go-Betweens are to me. Under most circumstances, the idea of two older men sitting at a table and talking for an hour would sound boring, but Robert Forster is someone I could listen to talk for hours on end. If you’re intrigued, check it out. Sadly, the box set is already sold out (of course).

Experimental Persian Music
The Unexplained Sounds Group is at it again! I don’t remember how this came across my desk, but it’s very cool.

Sonic Sunday Clips 02.09.20

Happy Weekend, folks. It’s certainly been an interesting week of the DNC stumbling over themselves to avoid nominating an actually sorta progressive candidate, and I wanted to make sure that a handful of items worthy of your attention didn’t slip through the cracks!

  • If you see this right after I posted it and you’re in Central Michigan, you still have time to catch the 12:30pm screening today of the Bruce Springsteen film Western Stars at the Broadway Theater. I’ll be talking for a few minutes afterwards. I’m sure tickets will still be available at the door, but here’s the link with more info.
  • Amanda Petrusich (my favorite music journalist) is at it again, this time with a great New Yorker review of Taylor Swift’s documentary. It makes for a great read about the nature of fame and class in 2020.
  • Jathan Sadowski just published a new article in Antipode about Internet Platforms and Rentier society, which sounds amazing. I may need to wait until next month to get my hands on the full thing what with EBSCO restraints.
  • Speaking of Antipode, there are several sites online where you can look up your current antipode! This is one of them.

Thank you so much to everyone who came out to see my talk at SoCA down in Windsor on Friday, and an extra special thanks to Dr. Jamey Essex for the invitation as well as being a consummate host and good friend of almost two decades now. As I said to the audience before my presentation, be nice to your TA’s, kids, and maybe one day they’ll shepherd you across the border. Also, the audience of U Windsor students and faculty may have provided the best set of post-talk questions I’ve ever received, and I wish I could have had more time to meet and chat with everybody.

0206202155a_hdr

With the Windsor music map on Dub Night at The Phog, Windsor ONT. Photo by Jamey Essex.