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The coronavirus pandemic: Not good news for anyone, but probably worse news for the West than China

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Image: New York National Guard/Flickr

The novel coronavirus hit China first. Yesterday was the first day China reported no new local infections since the global pandemic officially began in Hubei province in the fall of 2019. No new local infections means that while there were 34 cases reported in China in the previous 24 hours, all could be traced back to Chinese citizens or visitors who had recently arrived in the country from abroad.

Relatively early intervention, vigilant monitoring and tough social distancing rules aggressively enforced, all contributed to this achievement. Despite the fact China is obviously no democracy, so did something close to a national consensus on social cohesion. No doubt preferential access to manufactured medical safety equipment -- almost all of which comes from China thanks to our disaster-prone globalized economic system that has all but abandoned manufacturing in the West -- helped as well.

China is not out of the woods. Indeed, the shoe is on the other foot since the day when U.S. President Donald Trump called the cause of COVID-19 the "Chinese virus." The viral danger presented by travelers from the West is now a legitimate source of fear in Asia.

It is far from clear if China's success suppressing COVID-19 is even possible in the West with its emphasis on individual economic rights over collective rights, its near total lack of domestic manufacturing of health-care equipment from complex ventilators to simple masks, and leadership dominated by neoliberal economic theories that have contributed significantly to present catastrophe.

Indeed, as has been argued in this space before, it's almost as if the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, has evolved to exploit the vulnerabilities of the modern neoliberal state. But then, perhaps it had to, if the modern neoliberal economy is what's eliminating the virus's traditional hosts.

Yesterday in Italy, with a population 20 times smaller than China's, the death toll from COVID-19 surpassed that of China. There have been 3,405 deaths in Italy, 427 of them yesterday, 475 the day before.

Last week, China, behaving like a superpower, shipped emergency supplies of ventilators and surgical masks to Italy. The United States, until recently supposed to be the last superpower still standing, was mired in chaos and narcissism, with longer lineups for guns than for food or even toilet paper! COVID-19 tests? Forget about 'em. The world's mightiest economy can barely manage that.

The English-speaking world, in particular, seems to have turned into a careening clown car. For now, Canada actually seems like a positive exception under Justin Trudeau's Liberals. It's hard to believe COVID-19 can be pushed back as quickly in the United States or Britain as it was in China -- which, if you recall, was initially criticized in the West for taking a week too long to respond, and then for being too draconian in its requirements for social distancing.

But while China -- and Singapore, Taiwan and Korea -- got down to business quickly, the United States under the worst leadership in its history failed utterly to respond for days, even though we all knew what was coming. President Trump kept insisting it was nothing to worry about, it would all go away when the flowers bloom, it was fake news, and so on.

Indeed, under Trump's unhinged command, preparations made for a global pandemic by the Democratic administration of president Barack Obama were tossed on the scrap heap. Now, after weeks of denial, fantasy, muddled messaging and shambolic localized responses, the disease is taking off in all 50 states, compounded by an economic disaster as businesses shut down, schools close and literally millions of gig economy workers are abandoned to their fate.

Well, at least the Americans closed the Canadian border, which saved us from having to do the reverse and endure the abuse.

Further along the pandemic bell curve, the United Kingdom, now led by a similarly sinister neoliberal clown, is on the verge of seeing its health-care system utterly overwhelmed by COVID-19.

Social cohesion? Do we even have that any more in the West? Where we do, as in Alberta, conservative elites are doing their best not just to eliminate it, but to make it illegal.

In the West, which truly both boomed and shared the wealth through a system of social democracy in the immediate postwar years, neoliberal economic doctrine promised us juicier tomatoes than could be grown in northern climes and cheap computers made in poor countries delivered "just in time" by a fragile, brittle, heavily polluting transportation network. All we had to do was give up our collective rights and let the wealthiest 1% gather all the money unto themselves

We have reaped an environmental and social catastrophe.

In health care, as Dr. Michael Pappas wrote on Counterpunch yesterday, neoliberal capitalism has striven to create a system "predicated around extracting profit from sick bodies -- one that continually attempts to drive down costs whenever possible." This is another reason for the shortages of supplies and equipment that are now costing lives wherever COVID-19 appears in the so-called democratic West.

Here in Alberta, our provincial legislature is still sitting -- MLAs packed together like sardines, so much for being a good example of social distancing -- passing bits and pieces of Premier Jason Kenney's knee-jerk austerity package, which falls short of what's needed in a normal year, let alone in the midst of a global pandemic and recession.

Our representatives are toiling through the pandemic to privatize our public services, including the public health-care system that is holding the line to save us, weaken our unions, unfetter corporations from the regulations that protect us, redirect the money we spend on these things to the pockets of foreign billionaires, and get our now nearly worthless bitumen pumping to those mythical markets in Asia. Talk about selling our birthright for a mess of pottage!

No wonder the Chinese don't want to take our advice on how to run an economy, let alone a society!

As Vladimir Lenin famously observed: "There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen."

What do you want to bet that when we emerge from the next few weeks, the United States and old Imperial powers like Britain are diminished as if decades had passed, and China is not?

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: New York National Guard/Flickr

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