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Normalizing COVID death and destruction

Left JAB by John Bell

March 24, 2022

At the 2-year anniversary of the pandemic emergency, we can step back and look at how government and corporate interests have conducted a strategic campaign to normalize the death and serious long-term health complications of COVID-19.

Recall the first response: serious lockdowns, the scramble to adapt to remote work and schooling, and a proliferation of acts of mutual support and solidarity. Some frontline workers drew special bonuses to continue working in essential services. And we all began to learn what epidemiologists have been warning about for years.

Right from the start we heard about the need for “balance” between public health and the economy – between human life and business profits.

Governments were caught off guard. On one hand they did provide support for people unable to work, like the federal CERB program. It was never enough, and excluded too many, but it was something. And they piled resources into vaccine procurement.

On the other hand, they ignored advice about containing a global plague. They fell back on national or regional solutions to an international problem. Instead of scrapping pharmaceutical patents to allow low cost vaccines for all, they doubled down on supporting corporate profits. As a result, measures to contain and stem the disease were hoarded by richer industrialized nations, while the majority of the world’s population was left adrift. The virus has continually taken advantage of capitalisms greed; the global south became a petri dish for COVID to grow and mutate new strains.

The ruling class’s main takeaway was that COVID was virulent but the death toll was relatively low, especially among people who took precautions. So they loudly touted vaccination as the solution. The fine print admitted that vaccines were not perfect, but one aspect of a program of defensive measures.

What most people heard was that vaccines were the magic bullet solution. And when they failed to live up to that billing the small but vocal minority of science skeptics and conspiracy theorists found fuel for their arguments.

So the first step in normalizing COVID was to discover that the death toll was significant, but not enough to threaten the system.

The next step was to downplay the death toll, and turn the spotlight on the suffering of business. The media focused on small business losses without giving equal time to the families of the victims, or patient who “recovered” but developed a litany of new, chronic health problems.

The focus on local small business was deliberate. They are not without importance to the economy, but the real economic power always lies with the big corporate enterprises of production and distribution. It is hard to generate sympathy for poor suffering Walmart, or Loblaws, or Amazon. But your favourite pizza place or your local butcher? They became the poster child for suffering capitalism.

So the second crucial step in normalizing COVID was to tip the balance away from public health, and build sympathy and identification with “our” businesses.

Another lurch toward normalization was foregrounding “pre-existing health conditions”. Whenever the mounting death toll was grudgingly mentioned, there was always an asterisk: they were already sick, they were old, they were weak. No one said it out loud, but the suggestion was there–maybe “the herd” is better off without them. 

The virus is a highly adaptable thing. It presents in waves: we devise defences, seem to gain the upper hand, it mutates to evade our defence and the cycle of illness and death spikes again.

Government and corporations met every trough by dropping the very measures that got them there. Then with the inevitable return, new public health measures were less stringent, less universal. After all, we were reminded, thanks to vaccines even if you get COVID it won’t seriously hurt you. 

The get-it-and-forget-it step in the normalization required focusing on the “mildness” of new variants like Omicron and ignoring the growing chorus of people suffering from “long COVID”. Even less attention was paid to the relentlessly growing death toll.

This yo-yo approach gave confidence to the far-right fringe that feeds on conspiracy theories and extols individual selfishness as a human right. It also feeds on loyalty to and covert funding from the oil and gas industry. And it throws shade on public health advocates and on science itself. 

So we entered the final phase of the process, when pundits, politicians and titular public health leaders came right out and said it: get used to it, learn to live with it. 

Thanks to the far-right led convoy movement, “We’re tired of COVID and we just want it to be over” became a political demand, even if it was a scientific impossibility. Conservative politicians like Jason Kenney and Doug Ford, and even BC’s John Horgan, were quick to comply.

They stopped testing. They all but stopped compiling data. They even admitted that what data they did release was a gross under-estimate.

The so-called balance between health and profits has been scrapped. Now, medical experts are virtually unanimous, calling for masking and proof of vaccination to stay in place even as the next wave is at our doorstep. Government ignores them.

Educators and child health experts beg that masks may be mandated in schools – the government refuses. (Kudos to the Hamilton Wentworth school board which defied Doug Ford’s decree.)

Communities like Edmonton and Calgary tried to impose their own health regulations. Kenney tabled a new law making it illegal for them to do so.

Do your own risk assessment (sans useful data or social supports) advised Ontario’s CMOH Kieran Moore. If you are vulnerable, have vulnerable loved ones, or are just a concerned neighbour, well…you’re on your own. The rest of us will be over here pretending that COVID is done because we’re done with COVID. Hey, just in time for St Patrick’s Day. 

The process is complete. Millions of vulnerable people are cut loose – their susceptibility to COVID is their problem. What started as “We’re all in this together” has become “You’re on your own”.

And that, under capitalism, is how to normalize COVID: you privatize it.


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