In the sociology of Los Angeles at the end of the 20th century, there is an essential author, Mike Davis, who dissected the future of big cities through the disasters of the great Californian town in the books City of Quartz (1990) and Urban Control: the ecology of fear (1998).
In 2005, following bird flu, he wrote an essay on the danger that one of those viruses passing from animals to humans could cause a catastrophic pandemic. It was called The Monster Knocks on the Door, and it is a visionary reading in the days of COVID-19. This pandemic, the real one, required a new version.
He has now reissued expanded as Monster Arrives(Captain Swing). The Marxist historian analyzes the conditions that have made it impossible to stop it and have enhanced its effects. Davis is 74 years old.
He answers the phone from his home in San Diego, California, where he lives with his Mexican American wife and two teenage children. Since the pandemic began, he has been confined in the garage with his dog and drinking Guinness pints. “I have had two cancers. My immune system is practically destroyed.
Basically, I consider this a death sentence. I see very little chance of ever having a normal life again.”
Question: You predicted that such a pandemic would come. What does this have that you don’t see coming?
Reply: The pandemic follows the lines of what expected and what we generally prepared for. Many countries had response plans.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that this virus is very different from SARS and MERS. Those are much more deadly. But SARS is only transmitted when you have been sick and with symptoms for a while.
In January, Dr. Anthony Fauci (epidemiologist at the White House) assured that asymptomatic contagious people had spread no epidemic. That was the orthodox opinion. Now we see studies that show up to 60% of asymptomatic infected. That is a danger that had not been predicted.
As Fauci has said, it is a perfect storm. It is a disease that is perhaps ten times more widespread than we thought. As it does not harm children and young people, reckless behavior is assured.
But for others, it is deadly, and also spectacularly deadly. Aside from the lungs, it attacks the heart and kidneys, and we are now also seeing brain damage. It is a nightmare virus. And chances are it will become endemic like the flu.
P: In the book argues that the economic system prevents there are incentives to develop vaccines. Is it still the same?
R: Trump’s economic team released a report in the fall that said big drug companies could not respond to this because they do not invest in R&D for new antibiotics, antivirals or vaccines, and that it would require billions of government subsidies.
On the other hand, you have a myriad of small biotech companies taking advantage of advances in design and genetic sequencing but are lacking money.
A consortium included a Texas hospital laboratory that made a candidate vaccine for SARS but could not find funding to develop it because SARS appeared to have disappeared.
Vaccine experts have pointed out that, if there were a SARS vaccine, it would be a perfect platform to develop a coronavirus vaccine Because of SARS-CoV-2 (the COVID-19 virus) shares about 80% of its genome with SARS. We could have advanced months.
“It was predictable that the weight of death would fall on immigrants and people of color.”
Q. But now there is a powerful capitalist incentive to develop a vaccine in record time.
A. Yes, but if it happens in record time, it will be for two reasons. One, for the revolution in vaccine design. The other, for an unprecedented international collaboration between researchers.
In a period in which the economy seems to be de-globalizing and in which the United States is determined to enter a new cold war with China, on the scientific level, there is only one research community.
With all the bad that has happened in China, his government released the virus genome in January. That community of researchers, not the pharmaceutical ones, is the one that leads. And the big pharmaceutical companies do it by receiving subsidies from all over the world.
P. In his book, he foresaw that, in any scenario, the pandemic would be fattened by the poor. We see it with essential workers in rich countries. They are the ones who are playing it on the front line.
A. Of course. Poor workers belong to minorities and are also affected by the conditions in which they live in this country. Millions of people do not have health insurance, plus the millions who have lost it by losing their jobs.
In some ways, it was predictable that the burden of severe illness and death would fall disproportionately on immigrants and people of color. This is also the case in European countries where poorly paid services depend on immigrant workers.
The data is the same, particularly in the UK. But in this country, the so-called essential workers have been wholly abandoned. It’s like Sophie’s decision.
The crucial American worker has to decide whether to lose his house or pay the rent but endangering his family, in homes where several generations live, something common among the immigrant population.
There are millions of people with this dilemma, and no one has offered them a single recommendation. Furthermore, the Labor Department has refused to issue a mandatory regulation on workplace safety.
It is criminal neglect. You take the responsibility away from the federal government and put it on the shoulders of the workers. Am I going to the warehouse today so that I can pay the bills? And if I go, will I end up killing Grandma? That is the kind of dilemma that people face.
Q. There is one thing you couldn’t predict 15 years ago. That all this would happen with Donald Trump as president.
R. Of course. What we have seen since January is not just bad management. From the first minute in power, he has tried to cut spending on public health.
It has dismantled the team of pandemic experts within the National Security Council. It was a dream team ridden by Obama and fired them in the fall, a few months before this started.
It removed funding from the USAID Predict program, a team that worked with the Wuhan laboratory to detect viruses before they jump into humans. But Donald Trump is not the problem. It’s the entire Republican Party.
What I could not predict and could never hope is how immediately after the election, I was going to control the party and purge traditional conservatives to make it the sect of 30% of the population.
And since April, it has been undermining the response to the pandemic by using the Tea Party networks to mobilize the madmen to reopen or discredit the idea of wearing masks. Trump himself has become a vector of a deadly disease.
“I see very little chance of ever having a normal life again.”
Q. What long-term economic consequences of the pandemic do you see in cities like Los Angeles, which you have studied so much?
R.Many. Probably the most important is the damage to the livelihoods of unemployed poor workers. These are the conditions that produced the 1992 riots. Most of the detainees then were not black, and they were Mexican and Salvadoran immigrants.
It was because of that year’s recession and the fact that people had no Safety net. Those conditions are now being reproduced on a much larger scale. This is worse than that recession and 2008, and we have not yet seen its full impact.
At the micro-level, that of families, people are not receiving any information on how to deal with decisions such as sending children to school and planning for the future.
Southern California must never forget the enormous price that the migrant population has paid to make their small and modest dreams come true.
And when you take that away from them, you will see anger and despair. We are going to see a national disenchantment that is going to hit the streets.