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Europe and the coronavirus: report from the front

Among our neoliberal EU leaders, the old ’60s slogan ‘Eat the rich’ has morphed into ‘Let the poor die,’ says DENNIS BROE

EUROPE is being called the epicentre of the coronavirus, and particularly western Europe, where the responses have varied from the new Socialist-Podemos coalition in Spain nationalising the country’s industry to a total quarantine in France by the neoliberal Emmanuel Macron, criticised for being three weeks too late. 

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 that US President Donald 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 US 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 film The Host, Bong Joon Ho’s allegory of the US destruction of that country.  

Meanwhile, Texas Senator Tom Cotton, in a theory bandied about by Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon, has turned this conjecture on its head and accused China of developing the disease in its labs, while the Wall Street Journal apologised 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. 

Boris Johnson’s initial reaction in Britain was to have the virus cure itself through “herd immunity,” meaning it passes through enough people that the country develops its own natural resistance following being infected. 

Johnson’s “solution” involved 60 per cent of the population, about 40 million people, stricken by the virus and an estimated 250,000 deaths. This idea was being promulgated in a context where the poor are much more vulnerable to infection and epidemics

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 centre of the epicentre, the two countries hardest hit are those that 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. 

European Commission 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 harkened back to the humiliating treatment of Greece in the wake of 2008, detailed in superb fashion in Costa-Gavras’s film version of Syriza finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’s literary description of this intimidation in Adults in the Room. 

Not one European country responded to Von der Leyen’s call. Germany, in an about-face, 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 that included ventilators and 300 intensive-care doctors. 

Five Star Foreign Minister Luigi di Miao, amid quarantined Italian citizens playing and singing the Chinese national anthem from their balconies, said that Italy would not forget who responded to the call for aid and who did not.  

Here in France and in the capital Paris the intensity of the lockdown has increased. All restaurants are closed except for delivery, and the cafes are boarded 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, otherwise they can be fined €138. 

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, in which 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 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 Fifth Republic since… well, 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. 

In a sense, this 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 it’s worth reflecting 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 at a time of a catastrophe in his day — and both couldn’t be more relevant today. 

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