The pandemic and a crisis of illegitimate authority

See updates for May 13, 2020, and May 14, 2020, at end of post


As one might expect, a CNN article (which I supplement here) rebutting arguments for reopening the economy retreads familiar ground: COVID-19 is highly contagious and highly lethal, with a fatality rate that, contrary to popular myth, is more than quadruple the flu.[1] It is so highly contagious because many who contract it, very likely including those who protest the lockdown,[2] experience no symptoms and thus have no reason to suspect they have contracted it, but they can still transmit it to others,[3] including of course, their own vulnerable family members and friends. Worse, as the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control warns, even folks who suspect they have contracted the virus may experience difficulty getting tested; their guidance continues to state that “[m]ost people will have mild illness and can recover at home without medical care and may not need to be tested.”[4] Any delay or failure of self-quarantine among these folks means that they, too, obviously can transmit the disease to others.

The notion of “herd immunity,” which might not even exist,[5] relies heavily on hospital capacity to treat those who become severely ill,[6] or on a vaccine. As the tragic example of New York City shows, such capacity can indeed be completely overwhelmed,[7] and even if a vaccine is successfully developed (a huge if[8]), it may take many years before there is enough of it to go around.[9]

Finally, claims that the case count continues to increase despite the lockdown neglect that these measures have succeeded in reducing the rate at which infected people pass the disease on to others.[10] I’d add here that claims that the pandemic has been overblown inevitably take the very success of lockdown efforts as an argument against them, that is, they make a fallacious claim that the prevention works, therefore it is unnecessary.

There is a larger story here, one that necessitates the CNN rebuttal, a story of contempt for illegitimate and self-delegitimized authority, in politics, academia, and journalism.

I need to repeat here that what I see out on the road, driving for Uber now, will disproportionately reflect those who resist the lockdown and disproportionately reflect Blacks who even now make up a majority of my passengers (I have previously observed something of a racial divide between Uber passengers in Pittsburgh being more often white and Lyft passengers being more often Black). But the distrust I’m seeing of elite voices is beyond palpable. At least one passenger a day espouses conspiracy theories[11] that I simply cannot devote the focus, while driving in the heavier and heavier traffic that might partly be attributed to “lockdown fatigue,” to refute. Many of my passengers actively consider the elites as a hostile force, which I would be inclined to accept, except to my despair, that they include scientists and scholars among those elites.

To state what should be obvious: People think the elites are against them because they have been exploited, because they have not been treated fairly. And our economic system, especially under the influence of neoliberalism,[12] can only exacerbate this.[13] The field of economics, which I regard as the evil stepchild among the social sciences,[14] deserves considerable blame for embracing capitalism as “science” when it should more properly be regarded as a religion[15] that now demands human sacrifice.[16] This distrust is only reinforced as elites take to calling ‘essential’ workers “heroes,” even as they continue to treat them as utterly expendable.

It is not only economics. A legacy of torture under the guise of “research” and unethical medical research on Blacks engenders a lasting distrust of doctors[17] even as the virus takes a disproportionate toll among people of color, whom the Trump administration accepts as expendable.[18] This pandemic has exposed a widely held contempt for scholarship that pseudo-scholars have earned, often with academia’s full support.

Finally, a media bias in favor of wealthy and powerful voices[19]—consider the attention given Elon Musk[20] and Bill Gates[21]—leaves a sense among the poor and working classes that their voices will not be heard even as they bear the brunt of a new Great Depression and a federal government response that has been reduced to politics as usual,[22] even as those of them regarded as ‘essential’ face shortages of personal protective equipment and supplies against apathetic employers, some of whom have been hoarding the stuff themselves.[23] The story, even to the extent it is in fact reported, will be perceived as incomplete, so journalists, too, are distrusted.

Now when authority needs to be trusted, it cannot be trusted.

I remember when I was applying for admission to my Masters program at the newly rechristened California State University, East Bay, that in my statement of interest, I noted a shift in what the general population would consider authoritative. I saw challenges from a number of sources[24] including, obviously, the Internet. I very strongly doubt I saw it quite like this.

But it is real, it is an inherent product of our system of social organization (a mistake made with the neolithic[25]), it is literally killing us, and it will kill many, many more of us than needed to die.


Update, May 13, 2020: It turns out Politico has an article documenting the problem of conspiracy theories I refer to in this post. It also explains some of the attention paid to Bill Gates.[26] I have added citations.

Update, May 14, 2020: When I wrote this post and “Don’t bet on ‘herd immunity’,” I essentially thought of a possible vaccine for COVID-19 as one might in terms of the old admonition against counting your chickens before they’ve hatched and didn’t bother to look into it further. I was more optimistic in the latter post than the former (this one). It turns out that, as with the antibody-based protection that arises from being exposed to the disease,[27] and that some rely on for “herd immunity,”[28] there are nuances, including the possibility that a vaccine isn’t possible.[29] This, in addition to that it will take time to mass produce and distribute a vaccine should it be found,[30] should be absolutely unsurprising, and I’ve updated these posts, including adding a citation here, accordingly.

The ugly truth here, and it’s not one I want to hear either, is that we as a species may well have to live with the novel coronavirus for many years to come. There’s a lot that needs to be rethought, including how we treat each other as human beings, should this prove to be the case, that we really need to be rethinking anyway, and—I don’t care what your political predilections are—our present political and economic order is simply not up to this task.

  1. [1]Holly Yan, “5 common arguments for reopening the economy — and why experts say they are flawed,” CNN, May 11, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/11/us/reopening-the-economy-flawed-arguments-trnd/index.html
  2. [2]Jana Benscoter, “Dauphin, York DAs, say they won’t take immediate action against businesses that reopen in defiance of state order,” Harrisburg Patriot-News, May 9, 2020, https://www.pennlive.com/news/2020/05/dauphin-york-das-say-they-wont-take-action-against-businesses-that-reopen-in-red-phase-counties.html; Eric Cortellessa, “US far-right extremists are now calling social distancing a Nazi policy,” Times of Israel, April 17, 2020, https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-far-right-extremists-are-now-calling-social-distancing-a-nazi-policy/; Bryan Armen Graham, “‘Swastikas and nooses’: governor slams ‘racism’ of Michigan lockdown protest,” Guardian, May 3, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/03/michigan-gretchen-whitmer-lockdown-protest-racism; John F. Harris, “Admit It: You Are Willing to Let People Die to End the Shutdown,” Politico, April 30, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/04/30/coronavirus-shutdown-altitude-ethics-223569; Joe Lowndes, “The Morbid Ideology Behind the Drive to Reopen America,” New Republic, April 30, 2020, https://newrepublic.com/article/157505/morbid-ideology-behind-drive-reopen-america; Kari Paul, “Elon Musk rails against ‘fascist’ shelter-in-place orders in Tesla earnings call,” Guardian, April 29, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/apr/29/tesla-quarterly-earnings-coronavirus-shares; Tony Romm, “Fake cures and other coronavirus conspiracy theories are flooding WhatsApp, leaving governments and users with a ‘sense of panic,’” Washington Post, March 2, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/03/02/whatsapp-coronavirus-misinformation/; Faiz Siddiqui, “Tesla’s Elon Musk reopens factory, defying county orders and daring officials to arrest him,” Washington Post, May 11, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/05/11/musk-tesla-factory/‘ Isaac Stanley-Becker and Tony Romm, “Pro-gun activists using Facebook groups to push anti-quarantine protests,” Washington Post, April 19, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/04/19/pro-gun-activists-using-facebook-groups-push-anti-quarantine-protests/; Charles Thompson, “Two central Pa. counties say they plan to reopen ahead of Gov. Wolf’s schedule,” Harrisburg Patriot-News, May 8, 2020, https://www.pennlive.com/news/2020/05/dauphin-lebanon-county-officials-declare-themselves-ready-to-reopen-say-they-will-break-from-gov-wolfs-plan.html; Charles Thompson, “A growing number of Pa. counties test Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency powers, saying they’ll decide if it’s time to reopen,” Harrisburg Patriot-News, May 9, 2020, https://www.pennlive.com/news/2020/05/a-growing-number-of-pa-counties-test-gov-tom-wolfs-emergency-powers-saying-theyll-decide-if-its-time-to-reopen.html
  3. [3]Holly Yan, “5 common arguments for reopening the economy — and why experts say they are flawed,” CNN, May 11, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/11/us/reopening-the-economy-flawed-arguments-trnd/index.html
  4. [4]Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, “Testing for COVID-19,” May 1, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/testing.html
  5. [5]Christie Aschwanden, “Sorry, Immunity to Covid-19 Won’t Be Like a Superpower,” Wired, April 16, 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/sorry-immunity-to-covid-19-wont-be-like-a-superpower/; David Benfell, “Don’t bet on ‘herd immunity,’” Not Housebroken, April 20, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/18/dont-bet-on-herd-immunity/
  6. [6]Holly Yan, “5 common arguments for reopening the economy — and why experts say they are flawed,” CNN, May 11, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/11/us/reopening-the-economy-flawed-arguments-trnd/index.html
  7. [7]Ariana Eunjung Cha et al., “Faced with a crush of patients, besieged NYC hospitals struggle with life-or-death decisions,” Washington Post, March 31, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/03/31/new-york-city-hospitals-coronavirus/
  8. [8]Andrew Nikiforuk, “Don’t Bet on a Vaccine,” Tyee, May 13, 2020, https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2020/05/13/Vaccine-Not-Likely/
  9. [9]Christopher Rowland, Carolyn Y. Johnson, and William Wan, “Even finding a covid-19 vaccine won’t be enough to end the pandemic,” Washington Post, May 11, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/05/11/coronavirus-vaccine-global-supply/
  10. [10]Holly Yan, “5 common arguments for reopening the economy — and why experts say they are flawed,” CNN, May 11, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/11/us/reopening-the-economy-flawed-arguments-trnd/index.html
  11. [11]Mark Scott and Steven Overly, “‘Conspiracy bingo’: Trans-Atlantic extremists seize on the pandemic,” Politico, May 12, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/12/trans-atlantic-conspiracy-coronavirus-251325
  12. [12]Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Oxford, UK: Oxford University, 2013); Amir Fleischmann, “The Myth of the Fiscal Conservative,” Jacobin, March 5, 2017, https://jacobinmag.com/2017/03/fiscal-conservative-social-services-austerity-save-money; Jason Hickel, “Progress and its discontents,” New Internationalist, August 7, 2019, https://newint.org/features/2019/07/01/long-read-progress-and-its-discontents; Daniel Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2012); Robert Kuttner, “Austerity never works: Deficit hawks are amoral — and wrong,” Salon, May 5, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/05/05/austerity_never_works_deficit_hawks_are_amoral_and_wrong/; Dennis Loo, Globalization and the Demolition of Society (Glendale, CA: Larkmead, 2011); Thomas Piketty, Jeffrey Sachs, Heiner Flassbeck, Dani Rodrik and Simon Wren-Lewis, “Austerity Has Failed: An Open Letter From Thomas Piketty to Angela Merkel,” Nation, July 6, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/austerity-has-failed-an-open-letter-from-thomas-piketty-to-angela-merkel/; John Quiggin, “Austerity Has Been Tested, and It Failed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 20, 2013, http://chronicle.com/article/Austerity-Has-Been-Tested-and/139255/; David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, “How Austerity Kills,” New York Times, May 12, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/13/opinion/how-austerity-kills.html; David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, “Paul Krugman’s right: Austerity kills,” Salon, May 19, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/05/19/paul_krugmans_right_austerity_kills/
  13. [13]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 119-129.
  14. [14]David Benfell, “Lies, damned lies, and … economics. Oh, and Donald Trump,” Not Housebroken, August 19, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/19/lies-damned-lies-and-economics-oh-and-donald-trump/
  15. [15]David Benfell, “The capitalist death cult,” Not Housebroken, March 27, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/03/27/the-capitalist-death-cult/
  16. [16]David Benfell, “An impatient capitalist god demands human sacrifice. Now,” Not Housebroken, April 17, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/15/an-impatient-capitalist-god-demands-human-sacrifice-now/
  17. [17]Harriet A. Washington, Medical Apartheid (New York: Doubleday, 2006).
  18. [18]Eugene Scott, “4 reasons coronavirus is hitting black communities so hard,” Washington Post, April 10, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/04/10/4-reasons-coronavirus-is-hitting-black-communities-so-hard/; Adam Serwer, “The Coronavirus Was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying,” Atlantic, May 9, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/americas-racial-contract-showing/611389/
  19. [19]David Croteau and William Hoynes, Media/Society, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2003).
  20. [20]Kari Paul, “Elon Musk rails against ‘fascist’ shelter-in-place orders in Tesla earnings call,” Guardian, April 29, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/apr/29/tesla-quarterly-earnings-coronavirus-shares; Faiz Siddiqui, “Tesla’s Elon Musk reopens factory, defying county orders and daring officials to arrest him,” Washington Post, May 11, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/05/11/musk-tesla-factory/
  21. [21]Mark Scott and Steven Overly, “‘Conspiracy bingo’: Trans-Atlantic extremists seize on the pandemic,” Politico, May 12, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/12/trans-atlantic-conspiracy-coronavirus-251325
  22. [22]David Benfell, “Yet again, a season for cynicism,” Not Housebroken, May 10, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/05/10/yet-again-a-season-for-cynicism/
  23. [23]Sarah Jones, “Dear Rich People: Please Stop Hoarding Things,” New York, March 30, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/things-are-bad-and-rich-people-arent-helping.html
  24. [24]I no longer possess a copy of this essay. It would have been written quite late in 2005 for a program I began in January 2006.
  25. [25]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD, Altamira, 2008); William J. Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University, 2008); Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991).
  26. [26]Mark Scott and Steven Overly, “‘Conspiracy bingo’: Trans-Atlantic extremists seize on the pandemic,” Politico, May 12, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/12/trans-atlantic-conspiracy-coronavirus-251325
  27. [27]Christie Aschwanden, “Sorry, Immunity to Covid-19 Won’t Be Like a Superpower,” Wired, April 16, 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/sorry-immunity-to-covid-19-wont-be-like-a-superpower/
  28. [28]David Benfell, “Don’t bet on ‘herd immunity,’” Not Housebroken, April 20, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/18/dont-bet-on-herd-immunity/
  29. [29]Andrew Nikiforuk, “Don’t Bet on a Vaccine,” Tyee, May 13, 2020, https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2020/05/13/Vaccine-Not-Likely/
  30. [30]Andrew Nikiforuk, “Don’t Bet on a Vaccine,” Tyee, May 13, 2020, https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2020/05/13/Vaccine-Not-Likely/; Christopher Rowland, Carolyn Y. Johnson, and William Wan, “Even finding a covid-19 vaccine won’t be enough to end the pandemic,” Washington Post, May 11, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/05/11/coronavirus-vaccine-global-supply/

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