Life in a Time of Plague
On what makes some natural disasters worse than others.
Posted Apr 28, 2020
A weakly goon, a cunning liar,
A balding fake, a foe of toil,
Whom fame by chance has boosted higher
Ruled over us then, seeking spoil.
—Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (Chapter X, verse 1; translation mine)
Life is everywhere
My first night in Tokyo, many years ago, was the first time I had the experience of an earthquake. I was staying in a tiny room in the guesthouse of the research institute I was visiting. The brief tremor in the middle of the night was barely strong enough to wake me up. I reached for the emergency flashlight, of the kind that is found in all hotel rooms in Japan, but it was not needed.
That weekend, I went with one of my host’s students (who later became a lifelong friend) to see the city. Two things stuck in my memory from that long day: the snug shitamachi alleys of Nippori, and, in one of the museums in Ueno Park, a huge painting of the future Showa emperor, crown prince Hirohito, inspecting the ruins of Tokyo left by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. The prince is depicted in military uniform, on horseback, looking down on a family of three – father, mother, and a small child, kneeling in the rubble next to their hovel.
I was at the time deeply moved by that painting; it reminded me of a well-known 19th-century Russian painting titled “Life is Everywhere.” In the painting, an angelic-looking peasant family, portrayed behind the bars of a Siberia-bound prison carriage, contemplates some pigeons pecking at dirt next to the tracks. It was one of the favorites of Leo Tolstoy, of the “nonresistance to evil” fame.
I still am moved by the Tokyo painting (which my friend has recently helped me find online), albeit differently, and perhaps not in the way intended by its creator. The resilience of common people in the face of hardship or of disaster, be it an earthquake or a pandemic, is to be celebrated, but if the disaster is preventable, celebration becomes mockery and any talk of “sacrifice” – a sacrilege. The shitamachi (the poorer “downtown”; cf. yamanote, “upper town”) neighborhoods of Tokyo burned in 1923 because they were built of wood. In 2020, and closer to home, tens of thousands of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. could have been prevented, had our upper-class rulers been as caring of people as they are of profits, and less inept.
“Woman, Life, Freedom”
A disaster does not have to be immediately and massively deadly to make life miserable for the living. Here in the U.S., millions of people, who have always lived hand-to-mouth, one missed paycheck or car breakdown away from financial catastrophe, are now unemployed and without health coverage – a mere decade after the previous “economic downturn.” There is now another generation of citizens of the richest country on the planet that has never known economic security.
Things do not have to be this way. Most people eking out a living while being ruled by clueless grifters and war and disaster profiteers is a very common characteristic of human politics, but it is not universal, even under capitalism.
A recent piece in The Guardian discusses a distinct pattern of success in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic: countries led by women are the ones that tend to do well. The author, Arwa Mahdawi, argues that “Being a woman doesn’t make you better at handling a global pandemic – but women generally have to be better in order to become leaders.”
This made me think of the slogan “Jin, Jiyan, Azadî” – “Woman, Life, Freedom” – of the all-female fighting units in Kurdistan. The embattled Kurdish Rojava region, which is committed to the outrageous practice of combining cooperative economy and direct democracy with protection of the rights of women and minorities, is under attack by all of its neighbors, some of which are propped up by meddling superpowers. The ongoing siege and attrition of the Rojava enclaves is indicative of how the masters of the world see its revolutionary politics.
Life and life only
The Rojava experiment is particularly relevant these days because of another reason as well. Like a tremor that heralds a big quake, the turmoil brought about by the current pandemic is merely a foretaste of another, bigger disaster – if it can be called that. We are used to thinking of disasters as points in time; this one is unfolding slowly, which makes it all the more difficult to prepare for, in an economy that is managed by quarterly profit-seekers and that is engineered to pursue growth at any cost. I mean, of course, climate change.
The socioeconomic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic is helping more and more people see that the present system is unsustainable. As its cruelty alone has not proved sufficient to make most people seriously question the system, this development may actually be to our collective advantage, as it might help prepare us to face the coming ecological tsunami. Here too we can look up to the political thinking that inspires Rojava, due to Murray Bookchin, Abdullah Öcalan, and others, who stressed the inseparability of ecological and social justice. The ruling class is not predisposed well to either. But that’s just something we’ll have to learn to deal with.
And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only
“The Regent, Crown Prince Hirohito during an inspection tour of Kojimachi Gobancho on horseback” (Hito-omi Tokunaga, in the collection of Tokyo Reconstruction Memorial Museum).
Ярошенко Николай Александрович, “Всюду жизнь” (1888). [Yaroshenko, N. A., "Life is everywhere"]
“The secret weapon in the fight against coronavirus: women” by Arwa Mahdawi (The Guardian, April 11, 2020).
Interview with Sonja Hamad on her 2017 exhibition “Jin, Jiyan, Azadî”.
“It's alright, Ma (I'm only bleeding)” by Bob Dylan (1965).
Note: This is a special supplementary chapter to the thirty eight ones that comprise the book “Life, Death, and Other Inconvenient Truths: A Realist's View of the Human Condition”, Shimon Edelman (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, out in October 2020).