The Politics of a Public Health Failure, and the Way Forward

March 19, 2020

TRNN's Marc Steiner talks to a social futurist about how progressive governing creates a future for us all in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

TRNN's Marc Steiner talks to a social futurist about how progressive governing creates a future for us all in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.


3D Rendering - Human coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. Stock photo/Getty Images

Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, great to have you all with us. What can the past tell us about the future? Now, we’re confronted with this COVID-19 and most epidemics in our history of pandemics, the root of the eruptions lies in human behavior and the destruction of wild habitats. From neolithic times that unleashed measles and tuberculosis still with us today, to a world now where the destruction of the forest brought us Ebola and this new strain of coronavirus. Our industrialization is killing the permafrost and melting polar ice shelves are about to unleash viruses we never knew existed, some sciences say. I hate to sound like gloom and doom but maybe there’s a positive end to this. We know the past, we know what’s happened and how it will affect the future. We think we do.

Can capitalism really responds to these disasters they create in the wake of their advancement, disasters they didn’t even see coming? Well, we’re joined by Sara Robinson, who’s a cultural futurist living in Seattle. She consults with a variety of progressive organizations, has written a wide range of publications for the New York Magazine to Salon, Huffington Post, and now she’s with us here on The Real News. Sara, welcome. Good to have you with us.

Sara Robinson: It’s good to be here. Thanks, Marc.

Marc Steiner: So let me just begin with some of the thinking I’ve been doing around this because of the reading I’ve been doing and it’s what I alluded to in the opening, which has to do with viruses have been with us all the time. And then a lot of them have been unleashed out of our own behavior, out of our own advancement as human beings, creating agriculture in neolithic times, but even more ominously to where we are today because of industrialization, destruction of habitat, the forest. And they can blame this thing on little animals like the pangolins, but really they are just innocent victims as we are. Talk a bit about that, if you agree or disagree with that hypothesis.

Sara Robinson: I agree that viruses come out of our interactions with the environment and I’m sure that the prehistoric man, way before neolithic times, no doubt also encountered viruses, because anytime you interact with the wild world, things jump, things come around and effective beasties have always been part of the environment. Animals carry them and I’m sure that neolithic people, stone age people, no doubt learned that we don’t mess with those animals. We don’t eat that. We don’t eat that. We don’t keep this with that because bad things happen. Everybody gets sick and dies. And it was probably on a level of superstition and religion. Those things tend to get baked into cultures in that way. And then, of course, in the neolithic times it intensified because we were growing things. We had this package, as Jared Diamond called it, of domesticated animals and domesticated grains and they all interacted with each other and we’re probably constantly producing new beasties.

And, as you say, we’re going out into new territories and unearthing things that got into the animals that got into us. And so this has been an ongoing human battle. These things have always been with us. And one of the reasons this is hitting is so, so hard right now is that in the 20th century we did such a fine job of keeping this stuff at bay. Our domestication of animals was kept away from where the people lived. So, for instance, we’ve had these CAFOs, these concentrated animal feeding operations, where many of our pigs and cattle are raised for pork and beef that are not in the cities where the people are living. So we haven’t had a lot of opportunity for these things to jump. The opportunities that were left were the wet markets in places like China and Africa, places where people eat bush meat. AIDS started as bush meat in Africa coming out of a monkey.

So we’ve basically lost control of the protections now that we have the modern people have put in place to keep us from getting just this kind of thing. Because in 100 years we’ve forgotten what sanitation has brought us and how important it is for everybody to kind of keep to those protocols. China didn’t, and here we are.

Marc Steiner: So can I say one that struck me as you were finishing was, can we put this on China or any place else?

Sara Robinson: No, absolutely not. Swine Flu came out of CAFOs, pig, swine farms with tens of thousands of animals that have these poop lagoons down in Mexico. So, no. Wherever we’re kind of misusing or mishandling our meat supply this kind of stuff’s going to happen. And, as you say, as yes the permafrost melts, we’re getting 40,000 year old viruses coming back out of the peat. So this is going to be how it is. Also, we’re losing our antibiotics. There are new approaches to antibiotics that are being developed that are very promising, but the end of antibiotics as we certainly knew them in the 20th century is upon us and researchers are very worried even as they’re coming up with new approaches. I think we’ll get up on top of that one. Some of the early research is very promising, but we are in kind of a transition zone between the old kind of antibiotics and some new strategies.

So yeah, there’s a lot of things that we got so used to that we forgot and I’m convinced that [inaudible 00:05:15] is one of the biggest drivers of history. People just forgot why we had the rules we have and they get kind of free and loose with the protocols and then we end up in trouble all over again and have to relearn the lessons the hard way.

Marc Steiner: Two quick thoughts here. One is you’re joining us from Seattle, which some people see as ground zero for coronavirus.

Sara Robinson: It absolutely is. I’ve been locked up for two and a half weeks.

Marc Steiner: So what does that mean?

Sara Robinson: That means on March 1st my husband and I came inside this house and shut the door and we’ve been getting things by delivery. Instacart deliveries are getting farther and farther out. They’re now a week out. Amazon Fresh doesn’t deliver anything anymore except necessities. So yeah, we’ve been kind of dealing with this as it’s come up. We were a good week ahead of California, probably 10 days ahead in New York. So we’ve been at this for a while. And it’s so funny because I remember 10 days ago getting into arguments with my friends from New York about how serious this was and finally just saying, “Look, you’re not in Seattle. Get back to me in two weeks because I’m living in the future that is coming to you. You just don’t know it.”

Marc Steiner: The futurist living in the future telling us what’s about to happen.

Sara Robinson: That’s right. I’m coming to you from a few weeks in the future. Yep.

Mark Steiner: I love it. That’s great. What was that tell us? What can you tell us from the future?

Sara Robinson: Well, our hospitals are set to hit Italian levels of overload starting Thursday. So we are less than 48 hours from having our hospitals at peak capacity, and beyond that, we don’t know. So, that’s a little alarming.

Mark Steiner: It is alarming. We don’t know where this could take us nor how long it could last. I mean, there are a lot of theories about the warm weather could dissipate it, but we really don’t know.

Sara Robinson: We don’t know. And, in fact, it’s spreading in Florida at the same rate it’s spreading here in the other corner of the country. So, that theory is kind of shaky. We’re not going to count on that. One of the things though that I’m really pleased about is that Seattle, if it had to come ashore anywhere in the country, this was the place for it to land. A huge slice of the nation’s public health and global health infrastructure is located here in Seattle. And there’s some big institutions, the Gates Foundation, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Kaiser has a big research center at the University of Washington, the big, big departments that are thousands and thousands of people who are epidemiologists, who are genetic analysts, who are makers of vaccines. And so when this thing landed, we had our first case here on January 21st. And everything ramped up right then and we have very forward thinking leadership in Jay Inslee and in Jenny Durkin and Dow Constantine.

A lot of our civic leaders are forward-thinking and we’re a city of engineers. We’ve been the home of Boeing for over 100 years and we’re technologists at heart. So our first response to everything is, how can you science the shit out of this?

Marc Steiner: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara Robinson: And that’s kind of what we did. And so the very first vaccine in the world was put into clinical trials here a week ago Friday. That’s how we’re responding here. So in that sense, we got ahead of it and we’re staying ahead of it and that pleases me as a futurist. It feels like I landed in the right place and I’m hoping that we will set models. We’re having to build the plane as we fly it but in the process I think we’re setting up models that the CDC has been following a few days behind the policies here very consistently. So look to Seattle if you want to see what things are going to be like in 10 days, two weeks, depending on where you are.

Marc Steiner: So let me take another futuristic question here, and I’m thinking about to kind of bring together the idea is that what we’ve done in the past to unleash these viruses as cultures, as societies, but especially modern industrial capitalism and what it’s done to unleash these viruses, so you can look at that and it’s a very kind of negative, almost frightening, picture of what we could be facing in the future. But then there’s also the other side of that because there’s nothing that is ever simple and linear, I mean, I think existence is dialectic, where nothing’s that’s simple, and so the other part of that path is the idea that we can do things differently, that there are people who are progressing and moving ahead. So talk about either that conflict or that interaction and how you see that affecting how we respond to what we’re about to face.

Sara Robinson: Modernity has been a double edged sword. As you say, it’s done violence to the environment that we’ve had to pay for. On the other hand, it’s also the technology has done a wonderful job at protecting us from the effects of that. Societies get more and more complex over time and there comes a point where they get so complex that they collapse it on themselves. And this may be a sign that that’s happening, that there are pieces of our society that are no longer resilient enough. And if progressive policies had been in place, we would have been, because that’s what progressivism does, is it makes sure that everybody has access to healthcare, has enough money, has a healthy food supply, that the environment is not being overstressed. I mean, these are the policies that we have always advocated for and since the Reagan era the other side has been eroding. And now we find ourselves with no safety nets, not medical ones, not economic ones, not social ones.

And the bottom’s falling out and we have reached a level of complexity that can’t be sustained because the underpinnings are so weak. And so now I think we have a real opportunity, a political opportunity, to start arguing for rebuilding the social safety nets, rebuilding the sense of, more than that, the sense of collectivism that we are all in this together, that there is a common good that we do well to invest in, the public health infrastructure, training enough doctors, building up our hospitals. These are all of investments in the common good that have been eroded away by 40 years of Conservative governance. And it’s time to start putting the money back into that. I don’t think there’s a parent in America right now who doesn’t think that their kid’s teacher deserves a triple raise in pay. Ask any of them today how they feel about their teachers. The teachers’ unions have got to get out there and make hay, because this is a really good moment for them.

But I think we’re going to see a shift in who we consider heroes. It’s not going to be heroes of capitalism anymore. Jack Welsh and those guys, Lee Iacocca. In the 80s and 90s, these were the lions. Donald Trump, right? And now I think we’re going to have a big switch in who the heroes are and it is going to be as Mr. Rogers says, “Look for the helpers.” And now it’s the doctors, the nurses, the healthcare providers who are putting their lives on the line, the first responders, the teachers, the people who devote their lives to the common good are going to retake their rightful places as heroes in our society. And I think that’s one of the good outcomes of this moment and one that we as progressives can kind of shove along.

Marc Steiner: And do you think that a progressive world can actually respond to what we might be facing because of what has been unleashed?

Sara Robinson: Yeah, far more resilient. We all know if any one of the Democrats, the candidates who were up on that stage over the last year, had been in charge that this would be unfolding differently and better. Whether or not you love him or hate him, pick one, anyone, Andrew Yang, any of them, stick them up there, they would have done better than Trump is doing. And so I think the bankruptcy of Conservative governance that pushed this off for so long and was worried more about the markets than about people. I think we have made that trade off a lot, that the markets were more important than people’s lives. We’ve been making those trade offs for 40 years because conservatives insisted. And I think one of the fundamental shifts we’re going through is that that will no longer be acceptable, that morally we have hit the full bankrupt moment on that idea. And I’m really looking forward to seeing what becomes politically possible because people have lost their patients because as many as two million Americans may lose their lives because of the way this has been mismanaged.

Marc Steiner: Well, your message of social liberal hope is important for us to hear, I think.

Sara Robinson: I hope you.

Marc Steiner: And I believe that and I want to thank you and thank my colleague and friend Charles Lenchner here at The Real News for suggesting that we spend some time talking with you. And he was right. Your analysis is very clear and it was really a pleasure to hear your thoughts. We need to really double down on these ideas and talk some more. And I want to thank you for your work and thank you for joining us today.

Sara Robinson: You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.

Marc Steiner: My pleasure. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network and we’re going to stay on top of the coronavirus and all of these things. There is a way out. We’re going to be part of helping figure out what that way out is. So, as I said, I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.