Between the 13th of March and the 5th of April, I wrote daily media briefs on COVID-19. These consisted of all the major Coronavirus articles from The Guardian, The New York Times, The Spectator, The BBC, The Nation, The Atlantic, the Financial Times and more. I have just spent a week inside what Orwell would call the whale, away from all forms of Coronavirus news.
Emerging from this whale, I would like to propose three major ideas that have emerged from the 20,000 words written on the pandemic. Firstly, the disregard for climate change. Secondly, the acceptance of surveillance. Thirdly, the end of America.
Building a climate change infrastructure that can avert ecological disaster requires co-ordinated efforts to introduce carbon-zero technologies and limit the use of fossil fuels. The Paris Agreement aims to stay well below 2 degrees of warming, after which the planet would reach an ecological tipping point. The last IPCC report suggested we were on course for 3.2 degrees.
From a climate change perspective, the most positive effect of COVID-19 is that it has drastically cut carbon dioxide emissions. According to Reuters this year could lead towards the biggest fall in carbon dioxide emissions since World War Two. In many Chinese cities nitrogen dioxide emissions reduced by more than 40% thanks to government lockdowns. Unfortunately, as many in the activist community are aware, the rapid decline of carbon emissions does not provide short term benefits for the economy.
David Wallace Wells emphasises how until fossil fuels ‘nobody lived better than their parents or grandparents or ancestors from five hundred years before, except in the immediate aftermath of a great plague like the Black Death’. Therefore, in the face of a recession, triggered largely by an oil crises where prices collapsed to the lowest levels in 18 years and oil rigs shut on the largest scale for 35 years, oil gets fostered as the economic champion in fighting the recession.
Jeff Bezos when asked why he provided fossil fuel companies with Amazon Web Services argued that he didn’t believe in ruining oil companies because cheap fuel would lead to increased fossil fuel consumption. Meehan Crist, whose New York Times article is the best overview on what ‘Coronavirus Means for Climate Change’, warns that low prices could help depress electric-vehicle sales and make people less inclined toward projects like ‘retrofitting homes and offices to save energy’. This observation recognises that green energy transitions are expensive. Omissions of Green Deals from the US’s $3 trillion dollar bail out and similar deals in Britain and Europe arguably signal a lost opportunity to secure effective green infrastructural change. Beyond encouraging the use of fossil fuels and diverting significant investment away from green infrastructures, the recession also serves to injure the renewable energy industries needed to solve the planet’s energy problem.
From the climate change point of view the need for radical change is a constant. We are going through a moment of volatile alterations yet the above suggest that the problems of fighting Coronavirus and confronting the recession have not so much out argued global warming concern, but somewhat silenced it.
On the subject of surveillance there has been a push back from acts like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, groups like Privacy International and writers like Shoshana Zuboff criticising the surveillance powers of states and large technology monopolies. We have created an infrastructure that has violated privacy through networked communications and the continual recording of everything everyone does online. This paradigmatic shift in social relations has been taking place amongst lively discussions on how to regain sovereignty over data and privacy from state and large technology companies.
Following Coronavirus the desire for state surveillance has been heavily encouraged to confront the virus. In South Korea, the government has used ‘camera footage, smartphone location data and credit card purchase records’ to monitor coronavirus victims and understand potential transmission networks. In Lombardy, the Italian centre of Coronavirus, location data has been recorded from citizens’ mobile phones. In Israel, measures were introduced to ‘track the cellphones of those infected with the virus and those who were around them in the 14 days preceding their diagnoses’.
There have been a chorus of demands from the liberal media to introduce similar measures. In Germany, a country that suffered totalitarian surveillance systems under Hitler and Stalin, the interior minister has proposed the implementation of the South Korean model, describing the use of big data and location tracking as ‘unavoidable’. An article from Casey Newton in the Verge argued that ‘I’m increasingly persuaded that location data could be part of a solution to emerge from the pandemic. In the New York Times, Josephine Wolff stated that ‘we can and should use people’s location data both to track the spread of the coronavirus and to alert people who have been in close contact with infected individuals’.
There have been critical responses towards the implementation of surveillance measures. Amnesty, along with more than 100 civil society groups, suggested eight ethical conditions for the implementation of digital surveillance during the pandemic. Samuel McDonald, writing in the Guardian, drew parallels with the 9/11 PATRIOT act arguing that ‘emergency violations of civil liberties are not easily rolled back, and often aggregate over time’. Similarly, Prospect Magazine stated that ‘temporary measures must not legitimise a permanent shift towards authoritarian state control’.
Examples like the PATRIOT act exemplify the state’s desire to enhance surveillance measures for problems beyond the diagnosed ills. From a privacy perspective, the state arguments for fighting Coronavirus cannot be removed from the ongoing negotiation over how much surveillance we permit from states and private companies. Already, Viktor Orban has used Coronavirus to cement his political authority and introduce greater levels of authoritarianism. As the planet has become completely reliant on the Silicon Valley infrastructure, Google has also started to flex the muscle of its own data set, publishing the global location data from 131 countries.
The confrontation of Coronavirus is far from apolitical. Orban, may use it to introduce greater state authoritarianism. Google may use it to win the argument on why it needs to collect user data. Moreover, these measures may normalise state surveillance in the same way it has been virtually permitted by all 2 billion Facebook users and thus puncture the momentum of Privacy International and Shoshana Zuboff.
The image of American hegemony is well represented by the buzzing cinema in New York showing the premier of what would become a Hollywood great starring Brad Pitt, Marilyn Monroe or Gregory Peck. Now imagine the cinema empty, silent, boarded up with the stars locked in their heavily gated communities on the West Coast. In my mind this image may act as the symbol of American decline similar to Britain’s 1956 Suez Crises, where the British Empire lost the Suez Canal in a battle with Egypt, a nation the former had colonised just 70 years before.
For many, this moment may have come earlier with the election of Donald Trump, yet, despite the fact he manoeuvres political situations through actively deploying double speak, sees no value in the truth and continually attacks the free press, it would not be until something disastrous happened that we could truly condemn the President. There have been moments when we thought it would all go wrong, the withholding of Foreign Aid in return for political dirt on Joe Biden and the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, but Trump managed to survive both of these relatively unscathed. Now we have a crisis that has wrecked Trump’s most powerful political weapon, the economy, and loudly exemplified the flaws in having a President with a disregard for the truth.
There have been 639,664 cases of Coronavirus in the United States. In China there were supposedly just 83,402. In the past three weeks over 15 million American’s have applied for unemployment benefits. The bank is forecasting a 6.2% decline of the economy for 2020. The President has decided to halt funding for the World Health Organisation after it ‘failed in its basic duty’ responding to the coronavirus outbreak. In 2018-2019 the US made up 15% of its WHO’s budget. It is hard to take these comments very seriously given that on the 30th of January the WHO warned of a global pandemic while Trump asserted ‘we’ve very little problem in this country at the moment’. Instead the decision to severely weaken the international body tasked with co-ordinating a global pandemic response reads as if Trump is attempting to scape goat the WHO and discourage any attempt to heal the pandemic anywhere beyond the United States. As with the proposed exit from the Paris Agreements and the departure from the Iran Deal, the pulling out from funding the WHO, at a moment where the organisation has never been so useful, marks an almost nihilistic attempt to destroy international co-operation.
The damage caused by coronavirus and the abandonment of responsibility both domestically and internationally will likely hasten Chinese hegemony. America was created by European’s and then following World War 2 Europe was rebuilt by Americans. De facto American’s in Britain, Germany, Japan and more will mourn the death of American hegemony. Media reports around Coronavirus suggest that Chinese ascendancy will likely come at the expense of truth. The New York Times reported that China had been ‘mimicking Kremlin disinformation campaigns’ ‘using government linked social media accounts’ ‘to spread discredited, and sometimes contradictory, (coronavirus) theories’. Michael Fuchs, writing in the Guardian, urged that the United States ‘must ensure that no policy that is intended to blunt nefarious Chinese behaviour will negatively affect the fight against the pandemic’. In effect, this means toeing the CCP party line, accepting disinformation campaigns, and forgetting that the Coronavirus began in a Wuhan live animal market. While it is humiliating for the west to deal with a President that doesn’t believe in truth, it is defeating to have a hegemonic power whose view of reality is created by the CCP.