Corona And Us

By Andrej Mrevlje |

I went grocery shopping last Wednesday to refill our weekly supplies. A week before that, I made the decision to stop ordering online from Whole Foods, since the deliveries were often incomplete and the vegetables always nearly rotten. I am aware that this is a first world problem, but I am using the experience to make a very different point so please bear with me. I personally prefer supermarkets like Trader Joe’s to the overrated and overpriced Whole Foods. However, I’ve been forced to bow down to Jeff Bezos’ empire during the pandemic, when you do not want to spend much time running from one shop to another. Right now, you want to do all your shopping in one place in order to avoid as much exposure to COVID-19 as you can. Whole Foods is, in principle, the kind of store where you can do one big shop and call it a day, even though the chain lost a lot of its appeal after the richest man in the world took it over. Nevertheless, two weeks ago I made the journey to my usual Whole Foods store near Logan Circle in Washington D.C. to do my first big corona grocery haul. I bought a cartload of unprocessed fresh food, including the vegetables of my choice. A few hours after getting back home, I heard the news: that particular Whole Foods was a COVID-19 hotbed. In the week before my visit, 16 of its employees had tested positive for the novel virus. The store management claims they now sanitize and disinfect the shop every night. However, after the news broke out, the line of people waiting to get into the store disappeared. The Whole Foods is now so empty that you can simply walk in. It is also better stocked than it was during the first few weeks of the lockdown. However, we never got to know what happened to the contaminated employees, many of them migrant workers. How did they fare in their fight with the virus? Are they okay?

The week passed and I was eager to go back to Whole Foods and see what was going on. The shop was pleasantly empty. I got my yogurts, artichokes, broccoli rabe, granola, more vegetables and blueberries, which my wife and I  have been going crazy for lately. The fish looked sad. I grabbed some spring water in order to avoid drinking DC water, which tastes like sewage. 

I was almost done when the store sounded an alarm. As I was focused on avoiding an encounter with COVID-19, it was surprising to hear an alarm and see employees ordering us to leave the shop immediately. Why such a hurry? We had to leave everything in the shop, they said. Looking around, I sensed that something was not right. I felt like I was on a movie set. “Why the panic?” I asked. “We have a gas leak in the shop,” they told me.

There were more employees than customers exiting the shop. After 20 minutes passed I returned to the entrance to find a young woman blocking the way in. I wanted to get my car and go home, as there was nothing  indicating that this ordeal would be resolved anytime soon. But to get my car I had to go through the store and the woman, who now put on dark police glasses, would not budge. She was about to close the door when I reminded her that closing a door on a gas leak was not a wise thing to do. “Thank you for your feedback,” she said to me. What was she saying? “Where are the firefighters?” I asked her.

“They were here this morning,” she barked at me. Well, you will have them back pretty soon, I thought, starting to have real fun. I called 911. I reported the gas leak at the location and in no time there were two big fire trucks in front of the store. I looked around for people’s reactions, when I noticed a small pick-up truck with a big poster on it, facing the entrance of Whole Foods. Besides a photo of Jeff Bezos and painted COVID-19 cells floating out of Amazon boxes, it said: 

Bezos: Don’t be a superspreader

Greed costs lives.


The set was perfect. There were five fire trucks on the street now, all shiny and gigantic. The colossal firefighters from the engine Tower 6 truck, the closest to the shop, were walking lazily towards the Whole Foods, some of them with axes casually rested on their shoulders. They looked like they were coming inside to have a glass of beer. It was fascinating. Obviously, this was not an organized robbery but an unauthorized strike. There was no straightforward cooperation between the firefighters and the Whole Foods employees, but it was evident that the firefighters knew what was going on and they were accepting the role they had to play, respecting the cause behind the strike. They too are essential workers with a high risk of contamination by COVID-19. They both belong to the blue-collar working class. They cannot work from home like many of us can. It was bizarre to watch the solidarity between the employees of Whole Foods, who are mostly immigrants, and the firefighters, who were all white, possibly Trump voters. And yet they stuck together, the epidemic had made them stand up, requesting more protection and better healthcare. They were acting because of what happened to their colleagues who had gotten infected while working in the store. 

Every time I find myself in a similar situation, it makes me think about how privileged I am. Self-isolation is a class privilege. Perhaps less so considering the recent discovery suggesting that Covid-19 has the capacity to penetrate the walls we are hiding behind. There are now a number of cases of people who have died at home by Coronavirus caused strokes. This has given the pandemic an even more dramatic dimension. It almost brings us to the point of thinking that some big mind could have conceived this war against the human race, a kind of super-intelligent serial killer that is setting new puzzles every day, leading us into a mortal trap. What a perfect time for religion, black magic rites, and other cults to flourish!  

Except that even the Pope in Rome, for example, is forced to preach to an empty St. Peter’s Square. An emblematic image that illustrates the impotence of religion. What kind of sentiment has the Pope’s gesture left in the souls of pious Catholics? What is it like for them to see this huge, empty square with a man dressed in complete white on a grey, rainy day? His voice echoing in the void, getting lost in the Bernini colonnade. Why doesn’t Francis use a video conference to address his flock over the TV as world leaders have been doing? It seems to me that the Church is helpless, missing it completely. I do not want to offend the good people of faith, but let’s say it: whoever isn’t able to participate in distributing personal protective equipment or isn’t otherwise engaged in the fight against the virus is gone for good. And the Church, like many other institutions, will have a hard time coming back once this is over, just like our flamboyant, easy-going way of life. 

If there is something positive to take from this terrible situation it’s that the Coronavirus has the potential to serve as a great growing opportunity. This is a time that humankind should use to readdress all the fundamentals of our society–the economy and religions, from the bottom to the top. We should perhaps, if necessary, change our calendars from Gregorian and Orthodox into something that would mark the monumental event of the Coronavirus as the turning point for human society. You may be thinking this is insane, especially when a superpower like the U.S. is not capable of resolving the production and distribution of little things like the swabs needed for Coronavirus testing that could save many lives. How can one expect that we will be able to address much more complex existential problems if we cannot, with all the technologies at our disposal, resolve such a small problem like testing? Well, it is for this reason exactly! It is because our societies are dysfunctional. If we want to survive, we will have to think and act differently. We will be forced to become functional again. We are at the beginning of the change. According to the serious forecast, we have 16 to 20 more months of fighting to free ourselves from Covid-19. Those that survive this pandemic will step out of their homes a different, very different person. 

So where are we now? Our society is basically on the verge of class war. As Olga Khazan writes

The past few weeks have exposed just how much a person’s risk of infection hinges on class.”Though people of all incomes are at risk of being laid off, those who can work from home are at least less likely to get sick. The low-income workers who do still have jobs, meanwhile, are likely to be stuck in close quarters with other humans. For example, grocery-store clerks face some of the greatest exposure to the coronavirus, aside from health-care workers. “Essential” businesses—grocery stores, pharmacies—are about the only places Americans are still permitted to go, and their cashiers stand less than an arm’s length from hundreds of people a day.

Wealthier people also have fewer underlying health conditions that exacerbate COVID-19. And they are more likely to be practicing social distancing effectively, according to Gallup. Perhaps this is because they don’t need to leave the house as much for their livelihood: Gallup also found that 71 percent of people making more than $180,000 can work from home during the pandemic, compared with just 41 percent of those making less than $24,000. 

“Self-isolation is an economic luxury, one which is not afforded to the working-class people who still have jobs, whose work probably requires a physical presence somewhere, exposing them to the virus. “The division between those of us who can keep our jobs and work from home and others who are losing their jobs or confronting the dangers of the virus, I think there’s a real chance that it could become more intense,”

concludes Peter Hall, a government professor at Harvard.

There are many similar opinions, some going as far as predicting the end of capitalism. Or at least the end of sustainable growth of the economy. However, I found one of the most credible hypotheses of how the post-Corona world might look like in a recent John Gray essay:

The world will be different from how we imagined it in what we thought were normal times. This is not a temporary rupture in an otherwise stable equilibrium: the crisis through which we are living is a turning point in history.

The era of peak globalization is over. An economic system that relied on worldwide production and long supply chains is morphing into one that will be less interconnected. A way of life driven by unceasing mobility is shuddering to a stop. Our lives are going to be more physically constrained and more virtual than they were. A more fragmented world is coming into being that in some ways may be more resilient. 

This is exactly about globalization. Moving billions of capital with one click on the computer. Transferring production to the cheapest corners of the world. This is over, as Gray says, mocking the professionals of the left:

In the view of the future to which progressive thinkers cling, the future is an embellished version of the recent past. No doubt this helps them preserve some semblance of sanity. It also undermines what is now our most vital attribute: the ability to adapt and fashion different ways of life. The task ahead is to build economies and societies that are more durable, and more humanly habitable, than those that were exposed to the anarchy of the global market.

This does not mean a shift to small-scale localism. Human numbers are too large for local self-sufficiency to be viable, and most of humankind is not willing to return to the small, closed communities of a more distant past. But the hyper globalization of the last few decades is not coming back either. The virus has exposed fatal weaknesses in the economic system that was patched up after the 2008 financial crisis. Liberal capitalism is bust. 

Let’s watch which direction this world goes to. There seems to be no other thing to do, anyways. So let’s just pay attention to the small changes we can notice on the level of our everyday society. There will be new pressures within our families and without a doubt, more shrinks will be needed. But will Freud and Jung be able to sustain us? We can expect stormy changes on the macro geopolitical level, in China and the U.S. for example. What is unraveling is not only the hyper globalization that may ruin the ambitions of the Asian dragon, the pandemic is also accelerating the collapse of the entire world order that had been set at the end of World War II. So, good luck everybody.

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