Dennis Broe writes from Paris about some of the effects on culture of the coronavirus
Europe is being called the epicentre of the disease and particularly Western Europe where the responses have varied from the new Socialist-Podemos coalition in Spain nationalizing the country’s industry, to a total quarantine in France by the neoliberal Macron, criticized for being three weeks too late.
Life is shifting online and as it does the American entertainment behemoths have, with pressure from the EU, acknowledged their oversized share of internet bandwidth with Disney delaying by two weeks the opening of its streaming service Disney+, Netflix halting streaming in HD, and YouTube also employing a lower bandwidth. The moves are necessary with the coronavirus pandemic forcing so much commerce to be done online at home. They call attention to the monopolization of the internet by American firms, with YouTube boasting 2 million users worldwide and Netflix having tens of millions of European subscribers.
There is a kind of constant tension between whether xenophobic nationalist solutions to the problem will reign, where the predominant way of fighting the disease which the US president Trump labelled a “foreign” virus, is to close borders or whether the European Union will come together to combine its forces to fight this battle.
There is controversy also about the origins of the virus with one Chinese official claiming that the virus was manufactured in US army labs and could have been delivered to its first point of outbreak in Wuhan province by the American delegation to the Military World Games, held just weeks before the outbreak. This theory recalls the parasite hatched in a US lab in South Korea that develops into a monster in The Host, Boog Joon Ho’s allegory of the US destruction of that country.
Meanwhile, Texas senator Tom Cotton, in a theory bandied about by Trump former advisor Steve Bannon, has turned this conjecture on its head and accused China of developing the disease in its labs, while the Wall Street Journal apologized for using a phrase that recalled former imperialist ideology in labelling China “The real Sick Man of Asia”.
Some of the European responses are telling glimpses into the minds of the continent’s neoliberal leaders. Angela Merkel claimed that in Germany possibly 70 percent of the population would come down with the virus.This Malthusian response, which essentially is a predictor if not a welcomer of widespread death and destruction, does indicate elites harking back to the 18th century where Malthus himself predicted war, pestilence or natural disaster as ways to curb an ever-surging and dangerous population growth from below.
Boris Johnson’s initial reaction in England was similarly to have the virus cure itself through “herd immunity,” meaning it passes through enough people that the country develops its own natural vaccine by being infected. Johnson’s solution involved 60 percent of the population, around 40 million people stricken by the virus and an estimated 250,000 deaths. This solution was being promulgated in a context where the poor are much more vulnerable to infection and epidemics. Is a sweeping pandemic the neoliberal solution to the coming loss of employment through automation? If so, we are now closer to Jonathan Swift’s anticipation of Malthus’ thesis in “A Modest Proposal,” where the poor are served up as a source of nutrition and fine dining. The old '60s slogan “Eat the Rich” has morphed in neoliberal parlance into “Let the Poor Die.”
In Italy, decisions on triage and intensive care, given the limited number of beds, are being made based on who is most likely to survive, meaning younger patients are being chosen to be saved over older ones. In Western Europe, the two countries hardest hit are those whom years of austerity budgets have weakened, Spain and Italy. Germany meanwhile has been as unyielding in this crisis as in the housing and banking crisis of 2008.
The European President Ursula von der Leyen called for unity and understanding but her words were quickly belied by the head of the European Central Bank, ex-IMF head Christine Legarde who, from her headquarters in Frankfurt, claimed that it was not the ECB’s job to close the 60 point difference between Italian and German bonds. On the day Italy lost $68 billion in savings in a stock market crash, she simply labelled the country “the elephant in the room.” The treatment reprised the EU's humiliating treatment of Greece in the wake of 2008, detailed in superb fashion in Costa-Gavras’ film version of the Syriza finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’ literary description of this intimidation in Adults in the Room.
Not one European country responded to von der Leyen’s call. Germany banned the export of masks and protective gear to Italy at the same time that Austria closed its borders to Italians. Not the European Union but China, which has now stemmed the tide of transmissions, came to Italy’s aid, promising 31 tons of supplies which included ventilators as well as 300 intensive care doctors. 5 Star Foreign Minister Luigi di Miao, amid quarantined Italian citizens playing and singing the Chinese national anthem from their balconies, said Italy would not forget who responded to the call for aid and who did not.
Here in France and especially in the capital Paris, the intensity of the lockdown has increased. All restaurants are closed except for delivery and the cafes are boarded and shut, a situation that did not even occur under the Nazi occupation in the 1940s. In order to be on the street, to exercise, work or shop, each citizen needs a written “attestation” swearing they are outside for a legal purpose, else they can be fined 138 euros. This is a drastic measure and comes also amid the closing of two of France’s most prominent promenades, the banks of the Seine and Nice’s water walkway The Baie des Anges, subject in less turbulent times of a Louis Malle New Wave movie with Jean Moreau where the hapless condition was that of gambling not of lives endangered by years of cruel government policies.
Macron is being hailed, at least by his own party, as having made a transition from “the president of the rich” to a now stalwart republican who puts the country’s welfare before financial gain. However, the imperious style of the decree, issued by the prime minister Edward Philippe on a Saturday night outside of the weekday media cycle, recalled a similar decree issued two weeks before that arbitrarily passed without a vote the gutting of the pension system, termed pension reform. This was the most contentious piece of legislation in the history of the 5th Republic since the last time the Macron government used the arcane article 49.3 to equally arbitrarily pass the labour “reform” law which has led to increased precarity, as more and more workers now are employed under short term contracts and all contracts can be more easily cancelled.
Indeed, the way of enforcing the lockdown is in typical corporate bureaucratic Macron fashion. The attestation is simply a paper saying the person swears they are outside for legal reasons. It can be printed from the government website but must be reprinted each day one goes out. So it is simply a tax on the poor, on those who do not have a printer because it is not relevant in their work or cannot afford one and who now are subject to a fine.
As the lockdown continues perhaps the cheeriest respite is to recall that when Shakespeare was “sheltered in place” because of the plague, he wrote both King Lear and Macbeth. Both were critiques of power gone mad in his day in a time of a catastrophe and both couldn’t be more relevant today.
To watch any Trump press conference on the virus--including his flying off the handle with a reporter who asks him if he thinks Trump’s precautions are too lax-- is to recall Macbeth’s mad banquet scene where he is tormented by the ghost of his conscience Banquo who he has ordered assassinated. Likewise, watching the camera lingering after Trump’s address to the nation and catching him exhausted and drawing breath at his effort to care about the welfare of the country as a whole, cannot but summon up the image on the moor of Lear equally going mad, “mewling and puking” like a little babe.
Dennis Broe is a television, film and culture critic whose latest works are Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure and the detective novel Left of Eden. He taught in the Master’s Programme in Film and Television Studies at the Sorbonne. His criticism appears in the Morning Star, on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the US, on Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris, People’s World, and Crime Time. He is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.