In the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, it’s hard to think about anything else. We stew over our own health and that of our loved ones and worry about the economic devastation faced by so many Americans. We are troubled by the disproportionate harm to people who are poor, black, and Latino, and by the horrors facing those in prisons, detention centers, and nursing homes. If we are in a blaming mood, we may blame the president, the Republicans, the Chinese, idiot kids, or right-wing evangelicals.
The highest priority is to get through the current crisis. But then we must think about what went wrong and how to forestall future crises like this. The ideas include reversing President Trump‘s decision to dismantle the federal pandemic response team, supersizing our public health corps, improving our capacity to identify viruses and diseases, supporting vaccine research, and stockpiling equipment such as masks and ventilators. These suggestions are entirely correct, but in a deeper sense, they miss the point.
The timing and manner in which the virus spread were accidental, but it was predictable that an epidemic like this would happen sooner or later and that governmental responses worldwide would be inadequate. The failure by governments to recognize the threat early on and respond effectively is the direct consequence of the decades-long, worldwide conservative retreat from socially responsive government. The emergence and spread of the disease itself was the inevitable consequence of our profit-driven depredation of the world’s environment. The US is far from alone in failing to promptly and adequately respond to COVID-19. Many other countries failed, with disastrous consequences, including Italy, Brazil, the UK, the Philippines, Spain, France, and Iran.
Demographic and environmental factors played a huge role in creating the underlying conditions for disaster. Logging, mining, and the expansion of ranching have disrupted pristine forests and traditional agricultural areas alike. Smallholders growing diverse crops have been replaced by monoculture commercial farming and factory farming of livestock. Overgrazing, unsustainable drains on groundwater, and improper tillage practices led to the expansion of deserts. Rapid urbanization and population growth in many countries destroyed other traditional animal habitats. Together with global warming, these changes led to the spread of many species into new areas and the reduction of natural barriers between animal hosts and humans.
These changes were not inevitable. They stemmed from greed and a pattern of development that has given priority to profits rather than protecting nature. They have been exacerbated by the struggles of families throughout the world to adapt to the challenges created by globalization and the post-1970’s liberalization of capital flows and trade. Many of the same factors have also led to the displacement of millions of people who could no longer feed themselves on their land. Migration has been greatly amplified by global warming and by inequality in living standards between richer nations and poorer nations and within individual countries.
Both migration and the conditions that lead to migration are breeding grounds for disease. Crowding, homelessness, and stress (which suppresses the immune system) increase infection. And migrants, by definition, move geographically, bringing whatever diseases they have with them.
Internal and cross-border migration, in turn, creates or intensifies existing social tensions, often along fault lines created historically by colonialism and post-colonial civil wars. These conflicts are not simply a consequence of climate change. Climate change acts as what former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana called a “risk multiplier,” exacerbating conflict in places where poverty, violence, and social insecurity are prevalent.
Wars and other conflicts lead to still more migration. The flood of immigrants intensified political tensions in the receiving countries. The rise of right-wing populism is in significant part, a result. This has contributed to incompetent governmental responses to COVID-19. This is the legacy of the “neoliberal” hegemony of the last four decades.
From the post-WW2 economic expansion to the mid-1970s, inequality decreased and real wages increased in the US, Europe, and other industrialized areas, as governments intervened in society and the economy to lessen hardship. In the 1970s and later, corporations and their political allies responded to the continuing threat of rising wages by going on the offensive. They initiated a well-funded ideological campaign, mounted an assault on unions, insisted upon fiscal austerity (by stoking fear about the national debt), demanded deregulation, and accelerated globalization and financialization. In the US, Republicans took the lead in demanding neoliberal policies, but by 1988 they were increasingly supported by Democrats as well.
The consequences today are stagnant wages, rising inequality, and an erosion of the welfare state. These were accompanied by attacks on the very idea that “we are all in this together,” and that governments should take care of their (non-corporate) citizens. In the United States, expenditures on public health activities by local, state, and federal government agencies dropped 17% as a percent of total health spending between 2003 and 2018. Emergency preparedness funding dropped by more than one-third between 2002 and 2017. Public health spending also stagnated in other highly industrialized countries, including France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
Expectations about individual behavior also changed. During the prosperity of the sixties, the idea spread that we were living in a “post-scarcity” world. For the first time, wrote Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, we could glimpse a world “built on a premise of abundance.” Given the continued existence of profound poverty, at home and abroad, this was pretty silly, but the idea influenced many at the level of pop culture. The possibilities of expansion seemed limitless.
In the seventies, those concerns gave way. In a world characterized by competition for scarce resources, it was every man and woman for him or herself. A short-term perspective triumphed. It became acceptable to justify using your position in the economic and political spheres for personal advantage. Individual personality patterns adapted to the imperatives of the new neoliberal dominance. Sociologists and psychologists documented the rise of a new, narcissistic hyper-individualism. It was a precise reflection at the individual level of the new social ethos.
As a consequence, a national sense of unity in response to COVID-19 was never in the cards. Many individuals are either oblivious or contemptuous of the need to act in order to limit the spread of the virus. Serious politicians suggested that we throw our grandparents under the bus and let many people die just so the stock market can thrive. The need to bail out the airlines (with their miserly legroom and baggage fees) took precedence over the needs of millions of working people. Governors of nine states (all Republicans) refused to issue orders to their residents to stay at home, even before Donald Trump indicated that a gradual reopening of the economy could be justified. Far right-wing groups, funded by wealthy donors and egged on by the president, are demonstrating to demand an end to the Covid-19 restrictions. As one now-infamous spring breaker insisted, “At the end of the day, I’m not going to let [COVID-19] stop me from partying.”
More than forty years of neoliberal dominance brought us to this point. The interaction among environmental despoliation, migration, war, and the political and cultural drift to the right led us to our present crisis. If we are to avoid many reruns in the future, addressing the underlying causes is essential.
John Ehrenreich is Professor Emeritus, SUNY-Old Westbury, and the author of Third Wave Capitalism (ILR/Cornell University Press, 2016). He thanks Duncan Foley, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Ben Ehrenreich for their inputs into this article.