Digging deeper into the roots of COVID-19

Issue 129

Hey urbanists,

I hope you’re all staying safe and keeping your social distance. I’ve hardly left home all week, and there are now three people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 on the island of Newfoundland, where I’m currently holed up.

The main focus this week is, probably unsurprisingly, COVID-19. I highlighted a long article and interview below which delve into the political economy of the virus, and you’ll find there are also two other groupings of COVID-19 stories related to tech and cities throughout the newsletter.

I want to draw particular attention to the articles about Amazon’s cruel and monopolistic response to COVID-19, and Elon Musk’s similarly self-centered and irresponsible actions. Plus, see the pieces on Cuba’s biotech industry (part of that is also addressed in the Mike Davis interview), my argument to renationalize the airlines, Sy Taffel on ecological discourses, Kate Aronoff on the response to the economic collapse, and the piece at the very end on how capitalist is killing us while the rich are having a laugh.

I finished Chris Carlsson’s “Hidden San Francisco,” which is great if you want a radical history of the city, and I’m now reading Rob Larson’s “Bit Tyrants: The Political Economy of Silicon Valley,” which I love so far and am tweeting about here. I also want to point you to Haymarket Books, which is offering ten free ebooks (including “Bit Tyrants”) until April 2, and Verso Books, which has six free books (including two on the Green New Deal that I reviewed) and a big sale on all the rest.

Finally, I also picked up a microphone and I think I’m going to finally try to get my planned podcast on the go. Wish me luck!


P.S. — Press the heart below the headline or at the end of the issue if you liked it!

The political economy of COVID-19

If you want an excellent longread on the political economy of COVID-19, I can’t recommend “Social Contagion: Microbiological Class War in China” enough. It runs through how the expansion of capitalist agricultural practices, social systems, and economic forces has consistently been the catalyst for deadly viruses and pandemics, and the particular factors in China that have led to the emergence of COVID-19.

The furnaces of China seem to have stopped burning, or at least to have been reduced to gently glowing coals. In a way, though, the city has become another type of furnace, as the coronavirus burns through its massive population like a fever writ large. […]

Beneath the four furnaces, then, lies a more fundamental furnace undergirding the industrial hubs of the world: the evolutionary pressure cooker of capitalist agriculture and urbanization. This provides the ideal medium through which ever-more-devastating plagues are born, transformed, induced to zoonotic leaps, and then aggressively vectored through the human population. To this is added similarly intensive processes occurring at the economy’s fringes, where “wild” strains are encountered by people pushed to ever-more extensive agroeconomic incursions into local ecosystems. The most recent coronavirus, in its “wild” origins and its sudden spread through a heavily industrialized and urbanized core of the global economy, represents both dimensions of our new era of political-economic plagues. […]

If the English cattle epidemics of the 18th century were the first case of a distinctly capitalist livestock plague, and the rinderpest outbreak of 1890s Africa the largest of imperialism’s epidemiological holocausts, the Spanish flu can then be understood as the first of capitalism’s plagues on the proletariat. […]

[A]s capital accumulation subsumes new territories, animals will be pushed into less accessible areas where they will come into contact with previously isolated disease strains, all while these animals themselves are becoming targets for commodification as “even the wildest subsistence species are being roped into ag value chains.” Similarly, this expansion pushes humans closer to these animals and these environments, which “may increase the interface (and spillover) between wild nonhuman populations and newly urbanized rurality.” This gives the virus more opportunity and resources to mutate in a way that allows it to infect humans, pushing up the probability of biological spillover.

In addition to that piece, I highly recommend the interview Daniel Denvir did with Mike Davis on The Dig, where Davis, author of “The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu,” among many other fantastic books (I especially liked “City of Quartz”), talks about how the role of animal agriculture, Big Pharma, and the lack of international solidarity make us less able to respond to viruses and pandemics like COVID-19. He also warns that while COVID-19 death rates seem relatively low now, that will change when it inevitably hits Africa and other parts of Asia, where the health systems simply do not have the capacity to treat people and the people have other conditions, such as high rates of HIV/AIDS, that will make their bodies less able to fight it. Davis wrote a piece for Jacobin outlining many of these same issues.

News roundup

📦😷 Five people in Amazon warehouses in Italy and Spain have contracted COVID-19 and one person at fulfillment center in Queens also tested positive as workers say they warned the company it isn’t doing enough to keep them safe. Delivery drivers have also reported not having support from the company, only receiving a single wipe to clean their vehicles. Meanwhile, Amazon is offering a $2/hr pay bump in North America to try to hire more 100,000 workers, but how safe are they from the virus? Its supply chain is already breaking down as the company prioritizes essentials, which could threaten many small businesses whose entire operations depend on access to Amazon’s marketplace. Seems like the perfect time for Amazon’s warehouse workers to unionize, and for the government to consider outright nationalization.

“Amazon’s moves this week could prove presciently symbolic for a permanent transfer of traditional jobs at local small businesses to unreliable, part-time work for tech giants that distribute products and services through online platforms — the ‘Amazonification’ of our economy.” — Brian Merchant

Tech dystopia

💰😷 “America is now divided into two factions: Those who can afford to offload their risk of becoming infected with a deadly pandemic onto others, and those who serve people who are holed up in their homes, delivering them food, video game consoles, toilet paper, diapers, and scrapbook material at great risk to themselves.” — Jason Koebler

🇪🇺 Google will have to create a worker’s council in Europe, since EU law requires their creation if workers in at least two countries file a written request. “The works council is likely to include employee representatives from more than 35 Google offices across Europe […] The works council can’t veto company decisions, but the process means that employees should be consulted and can sometimes cast a vote to oppose or approve certain measures, allowing for greater input into management plans.”

🤦 The Bay Area is under a shelter-in-place order that forced most businesses to close, but Tesla’s told factory workers it was an essential business and would stay open after Elon Musk tweeted that “coronavirus panic is dumb.” However, then county officials and the local Sheriff’s office demanded the factory close, as it was open in defiance of the order and could spread the virus. Musk put his profit before people’s lives yet again, but is finally closing the factories in California and New York.

👏 Donald Trump announced Google would develop a COVID-19 test site the company apparently knew nothing about. But its search engine doesn’t even provide good COVID-19 results; we don’t need more Google. “Google is a company, with the self-interest of a company. Its mission statement is ‘to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’. It does not do that. It does not come close. It’s a data-hungry advertising company, first and foremost. It’s an instrument of massive surveillance and our dependence on it distorts our judgements and directs major decisions without deep human deliberation or contemplation.”

🇨🇺🚑 How Cuba developed a biotechnology industry to rival its wealthy neighbors. “Since its first application to combat dengue fever, Cuba’s interferon has shown its efficacy and safety in the therapy of viral diseases including Hepatitis B and C, shingles, HIV-AIDS and dengue. Because it interferes with viral multiplication within cells, it has also been used in the treatment of different types of carcinomas. Time will tell if Interferon Alfa 2b proves to be the wonder drug as far as COVID-19 goes.”

🇫🇷💶 “France’s competition watchdog on Monday fined iPhone maker Apple 1.1 billion euros ($1.23 billion), saying it was guilty of anti-competitive behavior towards its distribution and retail network.”

🇺🇸▶️ Bernie Sanders’ campaign is pioneering the virtual campaign rally, while Joe Biden’s attempts run into constant technical glitches

🚗👩‍⚖️ Anthony Levandowski pled guilty to stealing trade secrets from Google

🦠 In COVID-19 news: Elon Musk is tweeting misinformation and Twitter won’t do anything about it. Janitors are still told to show up even when office workers are sent home. Israel and England are using smartphone data to track people, and more countries could do the same. Article views are up ~50% with so many people at home. Scientists changed the way they work to be much more collaborative. COVID-19 could be the final nail in WeWork’s coffin.

Critical urbanism

🇺🇸🚌 U.S. transit agencies are going to need a bailout. Aaron Gordon writes that also presents an opportunity to permanently direct more funding to operating expenditures instead of just capital costs.

💔🚗 Stephen Zoepf describes how he fell out of love with cars. “The choice was simple: let commuting turn me into a worse husband and father every day of the week, or choose an enjoyable, stress-free commute and accept the increased possibility that I might have a bad accident.”

🇪🇺🚄 What might a Europe-wide high-speed-rail network look like? Alon Levy has a map.

✈️ By Paris:Nationalise the Airlines” (Tribune): “(Re)nationalised airlines should be planned as part of a broader transportation system, with the goal of reducing unnecessary air travel, particularly on short-haul routes, to achieve emissions reductions. Ideally, this would be in conjunction with a rail system that is also returned to public ownership, which would allow for improvements to reliability, frequency, and a reduction in ticket prices to encourage people to use trains instead of cars and planes.”

🦠 In COVID-19 news: Joe Cortwright compares its spread in China, Italy, the United States, and Canada. The Nigerian government is trying to shut down Lagos to prevent the spread, but that’s not so easy. Iran has been hard hit, its poor and working class in particular, but the United States refuses to lift sanctions even temporarily. Norway is banning citizens from their vacation homes to avoid overrunning rural hospitals. Italy’s cities are ghost towns, Spain didn’t act fast enough and is now seeing the consequences, but the impact on migrant camps in Greece could be disastrous. Uber and Lyft suspended their pooled and shared-ride services, while Lime pulled its scooters in California and Washington. Homeless families in Los Angeles seized 12 publicly owned houses to protect themselves themselves.

Climate crisis

🔮🌏 Sy Taffel outlines and critiques four leading discourses on ecological futures: extinction, currently promoted by Extinction Rebellion; ecological apocalypse, which focuses on overpopulation and thus redirects the blame to the global poor; technological solutionism, pushed by narrow-minded tech leaders and some people on the left who’ve bought into it; and degrowth, a rejection of capitalist economics.

🇮🇳🌡 “[M]ore than 60% of India has experienced significant warming during the 1951-2015 observed record. The rise in summer temperature is already more than one degree in the last 60 or so years,” says Vimal Mishra of the Water and Climate Lab at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Gandhinagar. “The hottest summers in the observed record occurred once in 60 or so years and had lasting impacts on public health, water availability, agriculture, and labour efficiency.”

🛢 “With crashing oil prices, all manner of stimulus measures on the table, and previously tight-fisted politicians now thinking more creatively, nationalizing the fossil fuel industry might just be one of the most sensible ideas on offer. […] For the 1.6 million workers currently in the oil and gas sector, government leadership of the industry might be the only way they avoid crashing out of the carbon economy and facing mass unemployment during the (likely) recession.” — Kate Aronoff

👷‍♀️ In another piece, Aronoff calls for green jobs as the response to the oncoming economic crash: “the choice right now is between crisis responses that double down on the dangerous policies of the past few decades or those that help shift society and the economy in a better direction. How lawmakers respond to Covid-19 and its economic fallout could either protect the next century from the persistent crises threatened by rising temperatures, or make them far worse.”

🛩 Why do rich people consume so much more energy than everyone else? A lot of it is from travel.

☠️ “Capitalism is killing us. There’s no way around it. While we languish inside, unpaid and uncertain, unprotected by an ideology of American exceptionalism and individualized meritocracy, RuPaul and his capitalist cohort are happily fracking at the end of the world.”

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