The activist, urbanist and historian Mike Davis is an important thinker on the American left and part of the New Left Review editorial board. Davis is known for titles such as Planet of Slums (2006) and In Praise of Barbarians: Essays against Empire (2007). He is also known for his culturally critical portraits of California in City of Quartz (1990) and in the book Ecology of Fear (1998), which deals with the fears of disasters such as fiction and reality in Los Angeles. The fear is cultivated through everything from fantasies about alien invasions to concerns about highly real disasters such as earthquakes and rioting – as well as epidemics that infect wild animals. The book Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of the Avian Flu (2015) begins with reports of Spanish illness and follows up with new epidemics with a southern focus on how they affect the weakest in society. Social injustice is a major theme in all Davis' texts, and in the article "Who is forgotten in a pandemic?", recently published in The Nation, he addresses the issue of solidarity in the wake of the corona eruption.
MODERN TIMES talks to him over safe conditions – over the phone – and asks what is bothering him most right now:
«Recent events. Today, the virus is spreading in Gaza and the Levant – where there are huge Syrian refugee camps that are extremely vulnerable to viral infections. Where hygiene is poor and drinking water is contaminated, we also risk contamination from feces. If the virus gets a foothold in the intestinal system, it is far more deadly than an infection of the respiratory tract – we know this from pigs that have been exposed to this type of infection. These days, each country reveals its strengths and weaknesses. In India, Modi is trying to introduce Western models of social distance, but it is obviously difficult in a country dominated by dense crowds and with large slums. ”
We need to develop vaccines and drugs
Everyone must learn from each other's strategies. What important lessons can we draw so far?
In addition to testing people and taking safety precautions, we need to develop and spread drugs against the virus. Here we are hampered by one pharmaceutical industry which is geared to their own merit and not to the needs of the people. The problem with the pharmaceutical industry's lobbying is not just an American phenomenon. WHO is also included å appointments which restricts the production of vital medicines, exclusive of contracts to large companies, such as the Swiss Roche. The institutions that would monitor medical production have alliances with those they are to supervise. Such deals under the table can be fatal when we are thrown into pandemics like this one.
It is quite possible to make virus vaccines which really protects, but the private pharmaceutical companies do not invest in virus research. They would rather develop new pills for middle-aged men with potency problems. For every virus vaccine they produce, there is a surplus production of hundreds of thousands of doses – which of course leads to unwanted losses. The solution is to break up the big pharmaceutical companies and subject them to more regulations.
What about solidarity and morality?
How about going to the root of the infection in meat markets and slaughterhouses? Do you think the corona pandemic will backfire with industrial meat production downturn?
There are a number of organizations in the United States that are trying to spread knowledge about what is going on in industrial slaughterhouses and farms. We have long seen that you could hardly make a better incubator for new viruses than a pig farm. The DNA-based viruses mutate rather slowly but wildly RNA viruses as corona are unstable: they copy themselves very inaccurately. Each copy they make of themselves is a new version – they do not propagate in a conventional sense, but rather spread a swarm of mutants. Mutated variants that can come back and infect even those who have passed through a previous variant. You would reservoirs, as among bat, there are also up to 400 types coronavirus just waiting to pass on to other animals and humans.
Internationally, the question may be who is able to maintain trust in the state, and thus solidarity and morality?
There has long been a decline in solidarity with other people, both nationally and internationally. Just look at how we have normalized the flu: Such viral infections kill tens of thousands every year, even though they could have been prevented by vaccines. The mentality is the same as in the gun laws we have in the United States: deaths are made into statistics in line with traffic accidents – and thus normalized.
And when the panic spreads, people hoard, some move or retreat to luxurious holiday homes.
A few years ago I edited a book with the title Evil paradises which is about this: We are increasingly finding that the rich are trying to establish overprotected enclaves, exclusive zones for people who think of themselves first and foremost. In Malibu there are now closed luxury residential areas that have their own private fire services in the event of a new forest fire. We see this trend everywhere.
It's not the migrants that bring the infection, it's the jetsetters.
I am constantly amazed at how cowardly they are rich is. They also very often have a phobia for microbes, which you may have noticed. On the opposite side, you have real heroes, such as doctors and medical personnel in West Africa, who have repeatedly shown a willingness to step into the danger zone to save lives.
The accusation of cowardice may well hit affluent countries in the West in general – which is steadily slipping further towards becoming "evil paradises"?
You build walls and you want to keep the refugees out, but it's not the migrants that bring the infection, it's the jetsetters. Most rich countries – especially the Anglo-Saxon bloc – have turned their backs on the poor countries, where the pandemic, which is now spreading through the slums, will undoubtedly unfold at its most inexorable. Rich countries such as the United States have given up the leadership to provide medical assistance to the Third World. But two small countries – Cuba og Norway – are moral giants in today's crisis. Of course, Cuba's doctors have long been heroes, always present on the front lines of dangerous epidemics like Ebola. Norway has an anti-immigration minority, but the national sense of morality, shaped by their social democratic and religious heritage, is the most internationalist in Europe. It is impressive that Norway has now taken the lead in creating a permanent UN fund to provide medical assistance to poor parts of the world.
For China, the corona crisis seems to end in a moral triumph.
What are the consequences of varying moral efforts in different countries?
I think it can predict Europe's death: With a solidarity collapse within the EU, the entire European project will stand on a rocky ground. Instead of being secured help from their big sisters, Germany and France, apply Italy Now help from China, Russia and Cuba for vital supplies and expertise. For the United States, the crisis could mean a dramatic decline, a loss of prestige, position and influence. For China leaves the corona crisis to culminate in a moral triumph. Where they initially faced justified criticism for suppressing crucial information, they ended up with a national crisis after the people protested. Now, China is probably the most open country in the world in the reporting of the disease outbreak – providing medical aid and expertise to a wide range of countries around the world. The geopolitical consequences can hardly be overstated.
Positive features of Chinese society
Does that mean, after all, that the West will be drawn to China's political methods?
The public apparatus used to control the outbreak of disease in China has, in my opinion, nothing to do with, for example, the funds used in retraining camps for the Uighurs. There are positive features in Chinese society. When they have succeeded so well, it is also because they managed to isolate the outbreak, so that health professionals from the rest of China could be sent in huge numbers. They built a hospital with 1000 beds in 24 hours and have no shortage of medical equipment since they have ordered the factories to work around the clock. In France, the state has taken over the production of certain instruments. United States has its limitations in that respect, especially the way Trump governs the country. I haven't heard any suggestions to turn the Trump hotels into hospitals, but that would be a timely moral challenge.
In the US, we see a new moral front politically, not in the parties, but the unions of progressive doctors and nurses who are increasingly furious at a dysfunctional health. Health workers are becoming increasingly radicalized. It is also not the case that right-wing politicians always take the case wrongly, while those on the left are right.
But can not the crisis also be a golden opportunity for the left, if they only know how to seize this historic moment with a real plan? Can we have a breakthrough for The Green New Deal?
Maybe, but not even Bernie Sanders is radical enough, because he talks almost only about the United States. The American left side of which I am a part deserves criticism, because it is little preoccupied with the world's poor – and ends up with a diluted version of the "America First" principle. I'm keen to criticize this, and have written about it in an article I called "Who Will Build the Ark?". The main theme here was the West's responsibility to counter global warming. We must settle the weathering of global solidarity.
Today, large areas of the world are in practice treated as superfluous and insignificant – since they can be sacrificed without financial loss. This is true in connection with both climate and health: World politics is being conducted so that we indirectly condemn hundreds of millions of people to death.
Is there too much to hope for a new global solidarity in the wake of the pandemic?
In some ways, we will experience a completely changed world order by the end of the summer.