Liberation Road

Covid19, Wuhan, and the US Left

Steve from Wuhan is an American pinko commie who had the good fortune to live and work in Wuhan for the better part of the last decade. The PRC is not what he imagined it to be. He spent most of his early years there dealing with cognitive dissonance between his received wisdom about China and his everyday reality. Similarly, daily contact with the structures of the Communist Party and their way of analyzing and acting in the world forced him to reconsider Marxism, and what organization means. The pandemic threw his neat orderly universe a curveball. Being under lock down in Wuhan for three months was socially isolating. One of the ways he coped was by writing emails to folks back home in the USA. This piece is an amalgam of excerpts.

In early January, most eyes were on the escalating confrontation between the US and Iran, even here in China. The cluster of unexplained pneumonia cases associated with a market in Wuhan was a side story. That all changed over a fortnight. Instead of another war in Asia, we now face a global pandemic. The scenario is different, but like a war, the pandemic is sharpening contradictions at all scales, from the local to the global. Pain is falling disproportionately on third world countries like the USA where governance is failing. The response here in China seems to be working (link), suggesting that viral outbreaks might be controlled through planning and rethinking the world.

A View from Wuhan

Before January 23 when the city was first sealed off, I thought of COVID19 as something like the H1N1 pandemic and not to worry: wash hands, avoid crowds and crowded spaces. Then, the number of cases exploded. Streets emptied. The fear was palpable.

As days passed, things became more structured, the health campaign became more tangible. The situation became less scary, but no less dangerous. Many rumors floated around, but thanks to our community volunteers, regular contact with people from work, and the blunt reporting on the news, factual information replaced hearsay. The number of cases was still increasing with a corresponding loss of life. That was depressing, but seeing the massive mobilization of resources from all over China to Wuhan raised my morale.

We had an intense mandatory social isolation regime for over 90 days. Massive funding for workers and small enterprises, coordinated farmer-to-city vegetable distribution, community volunteers coordinating logistics on the ground based on the smart city platforms, point level analysis of infection patterns, and geostatistical modeling, at the national, regional, provincial, and municipal scales. People knew what was at stake and were genuinely mobilized by the national patriotic health campaign

Workers who migrate from elsewhere within China, but have no household registrations in the cities, maintain land rights in the countryside. So, as folks went home for the spring festival, they avoided the pandemic by just staying in their hometown, where they had food, roofs over their heads and access to social insurance. In the export economy, production is resuming and companies are organizing charter flights to bring workers back from their villages. Some cities are almost back to normal, people have health QR codes so the sick and recovering people can be separated from the low risk folks. We took a big hit, but the growth rate will remain at 6%, despite the virus. Also the 2020 poverty elimination plan is still on track.

As the pandemic progressed, abatement measures intensified. At the worst of it, I was unable to go shopping for myself and was completely confined to my apartment. Thanks to steady contact with the community volunteers, checking in and bringing me food, I experienced it as cocooning not as house arrest. As terrible as isolation is, doing nothing was doing something.

This campaign beat back the virus because government efforts across a scale of hierarchies were matched by bottom up actions in the community to save lives. My role was to stay home, work online, check in with my office and my community volunteers; to stay healthy.

I urge people to look closely at how Wuhan shut down the virus through collective mobilization. When I walk around the grounds of my complex today, I see smiles from behind masks, I see shops opening up, and people slowly and carefully beginning to rebuild their lives. Our experience can be a model for others now witnessing exponential growth in new cases and deaths. In Wuhan, government action at multiple scales, community volunteerism and individual commitment to public health came together. Now we have under 500 active cases and one of the lowest death rates.

The US response

‘Flatten the curve’ mitigation measures adopted by most of the West will be more devastating than China’s fast, intense intervention. The longer the death and economic disruption continues, the less likely that production and supply chains will recover. Abatement requires deeper and more intrusive interventions.

In the USA, top down stay at home orders are individualist and leave essential workers behind. Clusters of infections in food sourcing, processing and distribution threaten the food supply. For Marxists, production holds pride of place in analysis. This health emergency underscores who is both essential and ultimately expendable in a system where production is socialized and appropriation privatized. Deaths are color coded by class. Domestic violence and stresses in intimate environments associated with patriarchy accelerate. 

The lock down backlash protesters are in some ways speaking to a very real contradiction in the implementation of a bourgeois public health scheme. A system that places profits ahead of people’s lives and livelihoods privileges those working from home, two steps removed from production. Biden is AWOL while Nancy Pelosi shows off her bespoke kitchen. No Congress is in session, but essential workers keep the subway running in NYC.

This gap in governance is what the social movements and independent political organizations could fill. In the USA, the elements are there, but the coordination and understanding of scalar hierarchies is missing. What is to be done at the local scale is not quite the same as at the municipal, state, regional, national, or global scales. We are often urged to think globally and act locally, but an effective Left needs to think and coordinate action at any level we hope to affect.

Lessons can’t be applied mechanically

The example of the community volunteers in Wuhan and across China suggest how civil society can step up to the plate and fill the gap. Community-based organizations and independent political organizations could use existing mechanisms to contact and communicate with marginalized people and neighborhoods where disease clusters are most intense. These entities could ascertain pressing needs, and act as trusted intermediaries between communities and a government they have little trust in. They could evaluate neighborhood resources, such as churches and schools, and facilitate interventions at the micro-level, countering rumor and misinformation with facts. This is what grassroots organizations did in Wuhan and across China, acting, turning slogans into reality on the ground.

The USA cannot respond at a national level, as China did, because the ruling regime is in the thrall of white supremacy and the most reactionary block of capital. There is no centralized collection and analysis of hospital data, there are no community organizations linked by cadre to a national structure. However, Congress, Blue state governors and City mayors can be forced to take more evidence based, people-first measures that will save lives and minimize economic devastation.

The pandemic will end, and eventually the economic fallout from shutdowns and federal relief spending will hit working people who are the first to die and the last to be helped. The American Left can make a major contribution to the global struggle against COVID19 and the virus of capitalism by struggling for unity at home. The threads are all there, but those strands must be woven together into cloth, bringing elements into a coherent narrative that addresses this evolving pair of crises at multiple scales. Creating a safe space behind virtual closed doors to hammer out a consensus view on the nature of the period, the principal contradictions, the forces in motion, and key tasks is crucial. The aim is a call to action that would resonate across sectors and trends. The multi-gendered working classes and oppressed nationalities must take the lead in defeating the virus in what is essentially an unnatural disaster.