"Deaths Pulled From the Future"
A brief argument for still giving a fuck about the pandemic.
Listen, I’m not a life coach, a therapist, or a public health expert. I do political-economic analysis, and my perspective is that if you think you have left political views, now is not the time to disengage on Covid-19.
The problems with the US response to Covid are not as cut and dry as they may seem at face. It is not simply an issue of politics in public health, vaccine hesitancy, and pandemic fatigue—it is also income inequality, incarceration, racism, ableism, generations of hoarded wealth, monopolistic corporations, and many other forces which drive the failure and death we have been living with since March 2020. This attitude is not new but has been with us since the first day of the pandemic.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a piece on July 3rd, 2020, which contained a sentence that perfectly frames the attitude which as defined the US Covid pandemic response, which is one of death as destiny:
Researchers will be studying if the Covid pandemic may be “pulling deaths from the future,” hastening the deaths of people who were nearing death, though that will not be evident for several months.
“Deaths pulled from the future,” as we have come to refer to this framework on Death Panel, is part of a much broader narrative that has been pervasive throughout the pandemic, which has resulted in the framing of deaths from Covid-19 as somehow preordained. The idea that any of the death and despair that vulnerable populations have seen throughout the duration of the pandemic is necessary has been manufactured through frameworks of austerity. This results in deadly political inaction that threatens the survival of vulnerable people and will impact their health outcomes not just during the pandemic but for decades to come. A narrative has emerged about the destiny of death by Covid, how it does come for us all (but especially for the “vulnerable”) yet what we talk about all the time on Death Panel, is that many of the conditions of vulnerability—which the political system takes as a given—are socially determined by the capitalist political economy.
The problem is also that it is impossible for any person under capitalism to be “healthy”—not just those already sick, ill, mad, or disabled. Health is, as a concept, something that only exists as a state that one cannot be, but to which we must always strive towards being. In an episode of Death Panel with Nate Holdren on his book detailing the history of worker’s comp laws, I explained it as such: “Under capitalism, you work, you earn a wage, and then you are entitled to the survival you can buy.” We live in a society obsessed with health and wellness, billions of dollars are spent in this arena from wellness, diets, and supplements, to the entire health industries including (but not limited to): pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, nursing homes, infusion centers, dialysis clinics, all curative, preventive, rehabilitative, or palliative care, medical device manufacturers, insurance companies, pharmacy benefit managers, etc.—yet there is little to show for it in terms of a life with less disease and early/slow death for all people, not just the ruling classes.
If you look at how and where all of these various avenues for profit intersect with our lives, you ultimately, start to see a vast web of connected institutions. These moments of intersection create the undergirding structures of what we think of as health, which under capitalism is both an aspirational-state of body and being, as well as a commodity. The contours of this interconnected web of profit extraction via governance are merely one of many possible outcomes (what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls, “contingent phenomena,” and Foucault calls, “aleatory [random] phenomena,”). The means by which the outcome we have ended up with, was created or “made to be” is ultimately what a political-economic analysis tries to show.
Political-economic analysis is done by taking a material approach to the present and an eye to how these contingent phenomena developed through history to try and get a sense of how things move and behave throughout society over time, and how values are conveyed through the actions of institutions. (E.g. the Supreme Court of the United States is an institution of government, it represents a type of justified authority of the administrative legal state, but it also has an agenda, and it accomplishes social, political, and economic goals through its administrative actions, it’s authority, and the reproduction of its values throughout the political-economic system we live in, which is capitalism.) So yes, it’s true that the 820,000 dead in the US died as a result of Covid, they also died because of the social determinants of health that contextualized their life.
As we discussed on a recent Death Panel episode with epidemiologist, Justin Feldman, the possibility of becoming infected is also driven by political-economic forces, which dictate who works from home and who must work in person. As Feldman argued, whether or not you were going to get infected was largely skewed by race and class disparities. We discussed Feldman’s own research, published in JAMA, showing that if everyone had died at the same rate as college-educated white people in the first year of the pandemic 71% fewer people of color would have died.
Contextually, where we stand now, infection rates are increasing at alarming rates. It is not the time to let yourself be bullied into abandoning your outrage at the lack of pandemic response. This week, the United States has set new records on case numbers. Even liberal commentators who have been steadfastly committed to being 24/7 positive about the Biden administration are saying that we are “setting records no one actually thought we would set.” As we outlined in our Covid Year 2 episode of Death Panel, there is an enormous paper trail of mistakes, bad policy decisions, and choices made about what to prioritize, ready-made by the Biden administration for “the left” to critique. It’s the kind of “harms of centrism” argument that we should all be loving to make, but most people on the left-right now seem more inclined to give in to liberal notions of “an end” to the pandemic.
Even though I have a lot at stake here personally, because I am both surplus and immune-compromised, I understand the pressures making people feel this way and despair that nothing can or will change. The stench of futility is heavy right now, for example despite clear acknowledgment from the CDC and other public health experts that Covid is setting new grim milestones, the CDC has consistently rolled back workplace protections, OSHA dropped the ball, schools were reopened, and children are dying. Barons reported that on Monday, January 27th, 2021, John’s Hopkins data showed 512,553 new confirmed cases of Covid-19.
Wes Bignell has been keeping track of ongoing death counts in a massive twitter thread which has been going since August 2021, and the New York Times’ Covid-tracker has reported over 1,000 deaths a day in the United States for all but 5 of the last 135 days— likely 136 today, and 137 by tomorrow. Anthony Fauci, Director of The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Chief Medical Advisor to the President of United States, when asked what his “key message [was] on where things stand right now,” didn’t have good news. Fauci told ABC News on Sunday, January 2nd that; “Well, we are definitely in the middle of a very severe surge and uptick in cases. If you look at the uptick, it is actually almost a vertical increase. We’re now at an average of about 400,000 cases per day. Hospitalizations are up.” Quite the key message to accompany actions by the Biden administration which will send sick people back into the workplace sooner, facilitating more exponential case growth. (For scale: our previous record was ~250k cases per day which was January 2021.)
Many who have engaged in the decades-long fight for health justice in the United States are discouraged, exhausted, and feel powerless. How could anyone not feel that way under the present circumstances? Healthcare workers, many engaged in dual fights over working conditions, unequal pay, abusive power structures, and simultaneously over health justice, are burned out. How could anyone not be struggling to operate despite being pushed past one’s wit’s end months ago? The surplus class has been sounding the alarm for two years, arguing that the medically vulnerable, chronically ill, immune-compromised, imprisoned, unhoused, too-young-to-be-vaccinated children and so many others have been ignored, or outright harmed, by pandemic policies—sacrificed in the margins of a cruel and terrible society-wide cost-benefit analysis. How could anyone feel like now is a moment of budding solidarity?
Others who share politics with the health justice movement, the surplus class, with those fighting to have more worker control over working conditions, have had a harder time seeing the point of fighting for healthcare at a time when so much feels futile. It’s a feedback loop that cycles through a series of increasingly nihilistic frames; “Because of what’s already happened, how do I convince myself fighting for better pandemic policy is worth it? Why should I care?” Things shift towards the personal: there’s nothing I can do, it will not affect my health, my life is not at risk.
Well, all I can say to those on “the left” leaning towards nihilism, is that those of us who are still fighting could really use some solidarity right now. In a society in which our survival has already been so thoroughly commodified, this mass death event has become a multi-billion dollar business opportunity for monopolistic corporations, the wealthy, and the security state. And I’ll say it again: Listen. I do political-economic analysis, and my analysis is that if you have a left politic—now is not the time to disengage on Covid-19. Those of us still fighting cannot do this alone.
[Image description: Detail of found print, lithograph. Death pours a purple liquid into a delicate glass, standing on a red ground, in front of a blue, white, and grey background.]
Finally, I have a quick plug: we just released a Death Panel Patron episode today on the updated CDC guidance for isolation and quarantine that pairs really well with what I argued above. Here is a teaser, we discuss the fine details of the CDC's decision to shorten its covid isolation guidelines from 10 to 5 days, their questionable reasoning for doing so, and how the scandal has played out in the last week. Support us on Patreon for the full episode.
Sharing widely. Although I’m a patron of tsp on patron, today I’m having trouble unlocking the new episode. It may be just me, but FYI.