COVID-19: Preliminary Thoughts on the Current Situation

From Montreal Anti-Fasciste

What follows are preliminary thoughts; things are changing quickly and in unpredictable ways, and while we don’t claim to have anything particularly original to say, we feel it’s important to communicate some thoughts and connect some dots from an anti-racist, anti-fascist perspective, as the exercise might be useful, and to start thinking now about how we will move forward from this.

The COVID-19 pandemic has set off waves of repressive and authoritarian reaction, often along nationalist lines. While the virus will claim a heavy toll in lives lost, the social ramifications are likely to be at least as significant.

Extraparliamentary far-right forces have not even attempted to mount any kind of coherent response to the crisis and have no agreed-upon position. Some engage in denial, claiming that the virus is a hoax, others promote conspiracy theories and insist that it is a bioweapon either developed by China or by leftists, but most are simply overtaken by the speed of events. Which is not to say that specific groups may not be gearing up to overcome these limitations. So far what we have seen has been disparate discussions on social media, and that’s about it. One notable exception is Atalante, the neofascist organization based in Quebec City, which put up several of their signature poster-banners in Montreal and Quebec City, on the night of March 21st, with slogans like “Le Mondialisme Tue” (“Globalism Kills”) and “Le Vaccin Sera Nationaliste” (“The Vaccine Will Be Nationalist”). Antifascists were quick to paint these over where they could.

Indeed, the initial non-State response to the COVID-19 crisis has been almost entirely led by far left forces, which have established mutual aid networks in communities across North America, while putting forth economic demands around rent and working conditions for those deemed to be “essential employees.” At the same time, people have organized themselves, often against daunting odds – note for instance the hunger strike being engaged in as we write by people held at the migrant prison in Laval and various other initiatives by prisoners across North America resisting conditions in which they have clearly been deemed expendable. (See: COVID-19 Strike Document.)

Despite their fantasies of “serving the nation,” far right forces of the national-populist variety have been incapable of doing anything useful in this crisis, and have instead been content to vent on social media about how much they hate Trudeau and love Legault. Indeed, the accolades being directed at Legault and the CAQ – not only by the right, it must be said – are as pathetic as they are revealing. The political establishment the CAQ represents (along with the Liberal Party of Quebec and the Parti Québécois) is directly responsible for the fact that, through decades of budget cuts in public services, the health system is not as robust as it should be to face the current epidemic: hospitals are understaffed and underequipped, stocks of personal protective equipment, as well as life-sustaining ventilators, are likely to prove grossly insufficient, there are far fewer ICU beds per capita in 2020 than there were in 1992, and so on. The fact that (so far) the premier appears to many as a reassuring father figure, in stark contrast to the wimpy drama teacher equivocating on the federal level, serves as a reminder that image is really paramount in the bourgeois electoral spectacle.

What we have seen around the world, however, is that the most decisive responses to the pandemic have occurred on the level of State structures – closed borders, emergency legislation, mobilization of military assets, new police powers, etc. Over the past two weeks, more than a dozen European countries, together with the EU as a whole, have imposed new travel restrictions and border checks. This builds on years of growing populist xenophobia and “euroskepticism,” and has been applauded by far-right politicians. In Italy, Matteo Salvini of the far-right Northern League declared, “Allowing migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible.” “The need for borders is being vindicated by the pandemic,” crowed Laura Huhtasaari, a member of the European Parliament with the Finns Party of Finland – “Globalism is collapsing.” Meanwhile, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has blamed foreigners and migrants for the spread of the virus in Hungary: “We are fighting a two-front war, one front is called migration and the other one belongs to the coronavirus. There is a logical connection between the two as both spread with movement.”

Here in Canada, the pseudo-progressive Trudeau government closed its borders to travelers who are not Canadian or US citizens on March 18, a few days later to all non-essential travel, and then in a symbolic move, announced that refugees from the United States would now be turned away at irregular border crossings such as Roxham Road. This represents a major concession to xenophobic and racist sentiments in Canada, a clampdown on such irregular border crossings having been a key demand of right and far-right forces over the past years, and Roxham Road having been the site of numerous anti-immigrant mobilizations.

At the same time, in the current context, various repressive measures are not simply being passed but are being applauded. Here in Quebec, following a government declaration that gatherings of two people or more (from different households) were forbidden, police appealed to the public to denounce their neighbours who might be breaking this new measure. Within a few days, police had intervened to break up dozens of such “gatherings.” While we may agree that people socializing represents a real health risk, we are also not oblivious to the fact that the State is claiming powers that were unimagined just weeks ago, largely to popular acclaim. This bodes ill for the future, with or without this disease.

In a sense, the organized Quebec far right (such as it is) has been outflanked by elements of the “mainstream.” Comparing the writings of Atalante with those of Quebecor columnist Denise Bombardier (see her odious “Tout va basculer”) – who is to say which is further to the right?

Nothing can be excluded from the realm of possibility, and comrades had best keep that in mind. Those who need to know what that means should be able to do the math and figure it out. Repression could ramp up very rapidly, to an extent that most of us have never experienced before; nothing is certain, but nothing is impossible right now either.

In the here and now, the past three months have seen a steady stream of escalating racism and attacks against those perceived to be Asians. “People have reported being coughed at or spit on and being told to leave stores, Uber and Lyft drivers refusing to pick them up, verbal and online harassment and physical assault,” according to the Stop AAPI Hate website. Over one thousand such incidents were documented in the U.S. between January 28 and February 24, and then over 650 in the week since the website was launched on March 18.

Nor is this problem restricted to the U.S. As news and misinformation about the coronavirus began to spread following the New Year, Chinese and Asian Canadians began speaking out about dealing with an increase in racism and xenophobia. As the Pan-Asian Collective has documented, “In Montreal, two Korean men were stabbed this week, and the South Korean consulate has issued a warning to Koreans to be careful during this time. In the last month, GaNaDaRa, a Korean restaurant in Montreal, has been robbed twice. It is still unclear if these robberies were racially motivated, however, East Asians in the city can feel tensions rising. There are unconfirmed reports that KimGalbi, another Korean restaurant, was vandalized this week too. Additionally, hate crimes have occurred in Montreal’s Chinatown where a number of cultural statues and symbols have been vandalized in the last few weeks, and there have been attacks on at least three Buddhist temples. On Monday in Old Port, an Asian woman was walking when two strangers got her attention and pointed at a sign that said: “No Coronavirus Here!”

Opposing anti-Asian racism needs to be a priority in a context where the U.S. president makes a point of referring to this disease as “the Chinese flu” – one constitutive element of the far right is the impulse to scapegoat, to blame and attack a stigmatized group when times get hard. As Trump’s viral hecatomb-circus plays itself out to its predictable conclusion, times will get very hard indeed, and we know from history that there are no limits to how bad the reaction can get.

There are a number of other oppressive arguments circulating with increasing frequency that we should also be alert to. Ableist and ageist reassurances that COVID-19 “only kills old people and those with pre-existing conditions” build on popular attitudes that the human bodies that are not young and healthy are disgusting, defective, and less worthy of care. They also build on a producerist ethic, whereby certain people are deemed “parasitic” and, thereby, not worthy of equal rights, in some cases not even worthy of life. Historically this has found expression in the eugenics movement (which was widely supported by both the left and right), and we see it today in claims by mainstream media and political figures arguing that the economic harm of social distancing is worse than the possibility of the old and infirm dying. (It’s worth noting here that such ableist and eugenic criteria are embedded in the Canadian State itself, which, for instance, has long held that various medical conditions are sufficient to disqualify immigrants from receiving Canadian citizenship.)

Another trope circulating widely, including in progressive circles, is the idea that the virus is some kind of punishment or lesson being dished out by a conscious or meta-conscious “nature” to teach humans to not damage the environment. It is true that the response to COVID-19 proves that it would be possible to enact drastic societal changes for other purposes (for instance to reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change) and also that by various measures pollution and other harmful impacts have decreased as a result of the lockdowns (as they did after 9/11). Such rhetoric, however, lays the blame on “human beings” (magically undivided by class, gender, or nation) for what is in fact a global economic system maintained for the benefit of a minority at great and murderous expense to the majority. This kind of mystical talk of “nature” has historically laid the basis for violence against those deemed “unnatural” or “offensive to nature” and points away from societal solutions to societal problems. At its most extreme – which we have not seen much of yet, but which we are aware of as a potential – this can find expression in misanthropic eco-fascist movements. (In October of last year, in a joint text with the IWW and CLAC, Montréal Antifasciste laid out a brief series of points regarding climate change and the environmental crisis; these seem all the more relevant today in light of the current pandemic.)

The above notwithstanding, at this moment in the crisis the State remains the preeminent terrain for repressive and nationalistic action (though this is not a static situation). Certain tendencies within the far right – specifically, those referred to in recent media pieces as “accelerationist”, i.e., neo-nazis with dreams of mass carnage and chaos – have been caught chatting about the possibility of intentionally spreading COVID-19, and we know that in those corners there has been a lot of talk about responding to (or precipitating) a situation of mass upheaval through acts of violence meant to instil terror. In an apparent example of trying to implement these ideas in the real world, on March 25, it was reported that neo-Nazi Timothy Wilson had been killed in an encounter with the FBI while trying to bomb a hospital treating coronavirus patients in Missouri. Hopefully this will be an isolated case, but we need to remain aware of the potential for violence from these quarters.

On the level of the State, a whole series of repressive demands have been granted almost overnight, it remains to be seen if they will stay in place. Various left-wing demands may also be fulfilled, and there is the possibility of some kind of renewed authoritarian welfare state being pushed for, as a consensus seems to have emerged that neoliberalism has failed. The welfare state and social democracy have always had an exclusionary and nationalist aspect, representing a series of privileges historically reserved for citizens of the nation in return for their loyalty. This is important to remember as certain right-wing forces propose measures than might superficially resemble those of the left.

At the same time, under cover of a global health emergency, long-standing programmes are being pursued. In the United States, some state governments have excluded abortion providers from the list of essential medical services allowed to stay open. In various jurisdictions, cell phone data is now being used both to trace both those who have tested positive for COVID-19 and to ascertain where people might be gathering in numbers that violate social distancing rules. Such techno-repressive fixes have been discussed by officials in Canada and Quebec. At the same time, under the guise of stimulus measures to maintain the economy, billions of dollars will be funneled to oil and gas corporations as part of Canada’s strategy of opening up Indigenous lands for exploitation by global capitalism.

We are just in the earliest days of this pandemic, and it remains completely unclear what kind of future will emerge. One thing is clear: while we must stay safe to the best of our ability, we must also prepare to fight.

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