Suppress the virus now!

Barış Cihan Peşme

We were lied to. Our governing elites asked for our compliance this spring, as the COVID-19 pandemic got underway in North America. Just sit tight for two weeks, they said. Hang in there for a month, they said. Those who couldn’t sit tight, whom economic coercion pressed into plague-stippled workplaces – frontline workers, migrant workers – were bought off with sentimental praise instead of N95 masks: they were “superheroes,” we “thanked them.” Children’s drawings of rainbows proliferated on shuttered windows in rich neighbourhoods, comfortable families signalling their thanks to the multitude whose scrambling let them shelter in place. The first wave of the pandemic luridly showcased the inequalities that carve up our society. It distributed sickness and death along those same lines. But we were told it was all necessary, a collective sacrifice – however unevenly distributed – that would protect the most vulnerable and allow us all to return soon enough to modified versions, at least, of the joys of social life. It was a fucking lie.

In forcing everyone to choose, to the extent that they have a choice, between the dangers of exposure to the virus and the dangers of protracted isolation, it’s foreseeable, avoidable social murder. Capitalist eugenics.

The Ontario government, led by Doug Ford’s Conservatives, has now instituted a pandemic response framework that all but guarantees the isolation of the elderly and those otherwise at high risk of serious illness from COVID-19; coerces working people of all descriptions (plus their close contacts) to endanger their health or go hungry; and gambles with the spectre of long-term disability afflicting a significant fraction of the province’s two million public elementary and secondary school students. As one medical professional puts it, Ontario’s framework “enshrines exponential spread as acceptable.” It is “ageist, ableist & unethical,” another doctor and medical scholar has said. In forcing everyone to choose, to the extent that they have a choice, between the dangers of exposure to the virus and the dangers of protracted isolation, it’s foreseeable, avoidable social murder. Capitalist eugenics.

Local grassroots organizations like Keep Your Rent Toronto, Encampment Support Network, Not Another Black Life, Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project, Maggie’s: Toronto Sex Workers’ Action Project, and The People’s Pantry are on the front lines of the crisis, working overtime to douse the fires that white supremacist settler-colonial capitalism has set, now swollen to infernos with COVID-19 as gasoline. If the word heroic means anything, ordinary people physically blocking the eviction of their neighbours in a pandemic fits the bill. The broader left must support that work not only by mobilizing a true diversity of tactics whenever a call for solidarity goes out from such groups, but also by consolidating around clear, actionable public health demands that have the power to make all those fires more manageable. As the pandemic’s second wave continues to mount, let us call on those who claim to govern us to SUPPRESS THE VIRUS NOW!

Nearly a year into the pandemic, it’s clear: the only countries that have staved off COVID-19’s devastation are those that have achieved near-total elimination of the virus. Vietnam, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Australia, among a few others – each has deployed different tactics to manage the pandemic’s spread, but all have shared a commitment to the principle that the virus must be rooted out, that “living with it” means murderous abandonment of vulnerable people and is simply a non-starter.

It also, more importantly, expresses a conviction that one more COVID death or incapacitation is too many, and that older people and people with disabilities deserve as much access to public life as anyone else.

“Aggressive suppression” is a term used in Australia to describe that country’s successful pandemic approach. It describes a goal of eliminating community spread of the virus, rigorously cordoning viral outbreaks if they do pop up, and identifying and quarantining the inevitable few imported cases as the virus continues to circulate worldwide. In the Australian state of Victoria, an August spike that reached around 700 daily cases was flattened so effectively, through measures that included mobility restrictions and closures of most non-essential public spaces (including schools and childcare centres in the hardest-hit areas), that Victoria saw zero new locally transmitted cases from October 29 to November 5. On Sunday, November 1, Australia as a whole recorded no new locally transmitted cases at all, and no new COVID deaths. On the same day, Canada recorded 3,244 new cases and 43 new deaths. Brazil, in the Southern Hemisphere like Australia, recorded 18,947 new cases and 407 new deaths.

The Asian-Pacific examples prove that an approach to the pandemic that doesn't resort to social murder is possible. Not only does aggressive suppression allow for businesses and social activities to resume with confidence when the virus is all but eradicated from a territory, but it also, more importantly, expresses a conviction that one more COVID death or incapacitation is too many, and that older people and people with disabilities deserve as much access to public life as anyone else.

Such an approach is possible only if reactionary top-down public health mandates are effectively challenged. Unions, professional associations, and other civil society organizations can’t restrict themselves to moral appeals to the state’s better nature (it doesn’t have one), leaving all confrontation to small frontline groups. The left must advance its own vision of public health, signalling a willingness and capacity to fight for that vision through tactics ranging from disruptive street-based mobilizations to widespread strike action. We must insist that no one is disposable, that Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott’s idea that we have to “learn…how to live with [the virus]” is eugenics, and that we demand nothing less than to SUPPRESS THE VIRUS NOW!

Making collective demands of the state to protect vulnerable people may not ease that repression, but failing to make those demands will certainly leave us no better off.

In doing so, we may risk legitimizing the state’s power, lending police more latitude to enforce viral containment measures. But the state has never needed an excuse to extend its power; police violence has never been restrained by legalities. The state already uses its uniformed gangs relentlessly to evict tenants, crush social movements, and otherwise terrorize working-class communities. Making collective demands of the state to protect vulnerable people may not ease that repression, but failing to make those demands will certainly leave us no better off. Though it may take time to work out among ourselves which methods of viral containment are acceptable and which should be opposed as state overreach, we can start by insisting our governing elites adopt the humane goal that so far they clearly reject: total elimination of COVID-19 community spread. And as in any effort to ease people’s lives through legislation, we can acknowledge that our governments have a unique power to change the broad rules of the game, and act strategically on that basis, while we remain aware that the game is rigged against us and must ultimately be dismantled altogether.

We need to fight for what radical sociologist Alan Sears calls “health from below,” where a public defines its own health needs and organizes to win provision for them, refusing to accept the state’s paternalistic dictates of what’s best. When the state lets a plague spread uncontrolled through workplaces, calling for paid sick days is necessary but not enough. When unchecked community transmission dramatically raises the likelihood that COVID-19 will be present in schools, demanding adequate Personal Protective Equipment for educators is necessary but not enough. When state policy leaves viral prevalence at levels that mean older people and people with disabilities must self-isolate indefinitely or risk death, agitating for increased staff hours at long-term care homes is necessary but not enough. The virus is a system-wide problem and we need system-wide solutions. We need to fight for them together, as a united front, with as many of our friends, colleagues, neighbours, and organizations as we can enlist.

They call it public health, but right now it’s health for one public – the ruling class – and staggering risk for the rest. That isn’t right. Let as many of us as possible come together to say it, and become ungovernable if those in power won’t listen.

#SuppressTheVirusNow!

A writer in Toronto, Daniel Sarah Karasik (they/them) organizes with Artists For Climate & Migrant Justice and Indigenous Sovereignty, among other groups.