Health Not Wealth: The World-Changing Lessons of the Coronavirus


A composite image of a doctor and the City of London, photographed by Andy Worthington during the coronavirus lockdown, on April 2, 2020.

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Yesterday marked 100 days since the coronavirus (COVID-19, or SARS-CoV-2) was first reported by the Chinese authorities, and, as now seems to be becoming clear, this highly infectious disease, which, in just three months, has reached almost every country on earth, and has so far killed nearly 100,000 people, is changing our lives — and our world — forever.

To put it simply, we have discovered that health is more important than wealth, and in a world dominated by the profit motive of capitalism, this is a profound lesson to learn, and one with consequences that will affect every aspect of our lives from now on.

Just a few weeks ago, we still raised up, and were obsessed by, the pin-ups of the celebrity world, one of capitalism’s many fronts for its almost complete domination of our lives, with its vacuous models, pop stars, footballers and film stars — all obscenely overpaid, and all dutifully obeying the requirement that, for fame and money, they had to allow themselves to be put on pedestals, to dazzle us into subservience.

The celebrities’ irrelevance has now been revealed, as the true heroes of the coronavirus world have emerged — those involved in the NHS, and in other health services around the world, risking their lives to try to save the lives of others, the drivers, the cleaners, the supermarket workers, postal delivery workers, those working in pharmacies, and all those hidden from view, still preparing and packaging the essential things of life under the virus — medicine and food — in nameless warehouses around the country.

As we reflect on these heroes, let’s also not overlook how many of them are immigrants, and, as we also think about how the fightback against the virus can only work through the cooperation of health researchers around the world, with no barriers raised whatsoever to the cooperation of experts, let’s also try to work out how we can get rid of divisive follies like Brexit, and far-right isolationist tendencies in other countries around the world, whose demonisation of immigrants and obsessions about nationalistic isolation, are, it must now be clear, actually suicidal.

Beyond food and medicine, everything else that makes up our high streets has shut down. Where once the “fast fashion” industry was dominant, enticing shoppers into a permanently giddy world of endless consumption, all the shops and department stores are now closed, as are all the outlets of the service industry that once dominated so much of our leisure time — the restaurants, the pubs and bars, the clubs, theatres, cinemas and music venues. Sport is cancelled, concerts too, and film and TV sets have shut down.

With the corporations that have dominated our lives so suddenly shorn of income, and therefore unable to promise ever greater yields to shareholders (the driving force of all human existence as the third decade of the 21st century started), governments eagerly stepped up to promise insanely eye-watering amounts of money to these organisations to keep them afloat, promises that deserve serious scrutiny on two fronts: firstly, whether, during a financial crisis that is unprecedented in all our lifetimes, they should be receiving any kind of bailout if, until just weeks ago, they were making healthy profits; and, secondly, whether their business is environmentally acceptable.

I have previously written about how the currently unfolding environmental catastrophe, brought to the fore over the last year and a half by Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, needs to be considered in every effort to revive the pre-virus economy, and I can’t stress enough how, without a proper environmental audit of everything we have been doing in recent decades, as well as a proper analysis of what we need to do to contain the virus’s spread, numerous industries must not be resuscitated.

The cruise ship industry is one, as the perfect vehicle for the global transmission of viruses, with its captive audiences of the old and rich. Similarly, much of the airline industry must also collapse, just as — unthinkable though it sounds — much of the global tourism industry, which, unsustainably, has become the no. 1 global business in recent years, must also come to an end.

Perhaps you think this sounds unduly pessimistic, but I assure you it’s not. To put it bluntly, the virus is not going away anytime soon, and the foreseeable future may have to be one of periodic lockdowns to try to manage it without its death toll overwhelming our health services. A vaccine, if one comes, is almost certainly some way away, and for now we need to reconcile ourselves to living in a world stalked by a killer whose appetite is fed exponentially by, what, in my last article, I referred to as our social promiscuity.

And while we’re thinking about the massive changes to society wrought by the virus, let’s also reflect on the much-needed collapse of the global construction industry — that bastion of global capital, which moved into land and property following the economic crash of 2008 that was caused by greedy bankers indulging in activities that, demonstrably, ought to have been illegal, but for which no one was imprisoned.

Since the crash, the financial sectors’ insatiable greed has moved into land speculation, the financing of massive “mixed-use” developments of offices, retail and residential properties — all eye-wateringly expensive, and involving huge foreign investment, and the enslavement of western workers in rent and mortgage traps — or, as in the UK, in largely residential developments that involve government funding, and corrupted housing associations. which once provided secure and genuinely affordable housing for rent — social housing — but are now, essentially, government-backed private developers with a sideline in insecure overpriced rental properties to keep the domestic population enslaved.

The list of sectors that will be massively impacted by the virus is enormous, of course, covering almost every aspect of money-making and human endeavour, and I’ll leave you to fill in some of the blanks yourselves — and to ask you to provide feedback if you’d like, as we all try to work out the contours of the post-virus world — but another area that concerns me immensely is the “fast fashion” industry, which is extraordinarily environmentally ruinous, as a recent report has just shown, and whose possible collapse also has terrible ramifications for “the 40 million garment workers in their supply chains around the world” — mainly in south east Asia —  who face destitution as factories close and orders dry up in the wake of the Covid-19 epidemic”, as the Guardian recently explained — and also see here.

In the West, too, jobs have suddenly been lost at an unprecedented rate, with millions made suddenly unemployed in the UK. The government’s corporate bailouts are supposed to cover 80% of many people’s wages, including some in the retail, hospitality and entertainment sectors that were so suddenly and savagely shut down, and provisions have also been made for the self-employed, but nearly a million people have had to sign up for Universal Credit, which guarantees less than £100 a week for those out of work, and as economists try to work out the impact of the government paying out £40bn a quarter to keep furloughed workers afloat, the impact on other parts of the economy need to be looked at closely.

Primarily, I have to say, this involves an area of massive growth in recent years — the buy-to-let sector, in which an untold a huge number of people supplement their own income, or have, as their prime income, what can only, objectively, be described as the one-on-one exploitation of others via private rents. I won’t include in this category those who are making almost no profit from their involvement in the private rental market, but in general people’s involvement in this particular aspect of the remorselessly greedy property bubble of the last 20 years, in which the cost of everything housing-related has been allowed to balloon out of control, is no longer viable at a time of economic collapse.

To be honest, I think it was already unsustainable, and involved many landlords having to silence their inner voices telling them that they were involved in an unholy business, but with the collapse of so much of the economy, and the unemployment of so many, through no fault of their own, it is unthinkable to me that this model of individual exploitation can be allowed to survive. Government ministers, to be fair, recognised this when they were first responding to the virus-related economic collapse, but sadly their promise to suspend rent-related evictions during the crisis has no teeth, and appears to be being ignored by numerous landlords whose sense of self-entitlement shows as little sign of being reformed as are the prevailing attitudes of the unrepentant sharks of the banking world

Running through this tale of retail collapse is another, more shadowy story — on in which certain online businesses are thriving. One area in which this is sadly true is the “fast fashion’ industry, whose biggest online companies — like Boohoo and I Saw It First, for example, with their insultingly cheap clothing, matching or even outdoing such notorious exploiters as Primark — were already exterminating retail shops and department stores before the virus came along. However, while I have not yet seen reports of how much business they are hoovering up with the high street stores all closed, the bottom line of the virus is that it is remorselessly devouring our belief in the stability of money. If we have savings, we’re surely more likely not to be spending like there’s no tomorrow — and, of course, millions of people only every had any money every payday, and are now struggling just to get by.

Other aspects of the online world involve giant predators like Amazon, which was already trying to branch out into the provision of everything even before the virus hit, and anyone paying attention will realise that the countryside in western countries is now dominated, to an insane degree, by truly gigantic warehouses in which exploited workers are hidden, and vast amounts of online orders are fulfilled. These are developments that are troubling in a number of ways; firstly, because we are provided with very little information about how workers are being treated, and whether social distancing measures are being properly observed; and, secondly, because we should ask whether it is appropriate that so much of the world’s business is conducted via online ordering, giant warehouses, and a ridiculous amount of environmentally ruinous transportation.

Related to this, when we look at the giant corporations that dominated the pre-virus world, are the communications and tech companies, which were making vast profits before the crisis began, and, in many fields — the creative industries, for example — were already destroying creative peoples’ livelihoods. Most musicians, for example, had to rely on gigs to make a living because the unregulated tech monsters were taking all the profits for themselves, but now, with gigs shut down too, they face a future of destitution.

It’s early to say it, but I genuinely think that, as we survey the possible futures, the tech companies and the communication companies might need to be nudged close to the front of an ever-growing list of sectors that can only really serve us, rather than fundamentally destroying us, by being nationalised, or, to put it another way, taken into public control.

In this new world, in which profit as the overarching driver of existence is longer tenable, we need competent unity governments, in which — and I cannot stress this enough — the needs of the population, globally, take precedence over the appetites of the profiteers, so that, for example, like looters in wartime, the business of financial speculators who are profiting from the disaster is made illegal. With capitalism unable to cope with so much of the fallout from the disaster, now is also the time for the entire world of excessive ‘remunerations’ to be brought to an end — of sickeningly overpaid CEOs, of the lazy greed of shareholders, and of the entertainment world’s frontline puppets. In this world, how much of the now-empty financial centres — the City and Canary Wharf here in London, Wall Street in New York, and the many other forests of priapic towers in financial centres around the world — can continue to exist?

Clearly, the frontline workers treated as dirt for so long must now be adequately compensated. We’re going to need lower incomes to be raised, and higher incomes to be cut, we’re going to need housing to be provided on a not-for-profit basis on a massive scale, and we’re going to need to either ethically re-employ huge numbers of unemployed people in new, greener areas of employment, or find some sort of universal basic income system that no longer punishes people for not having work in a bent system that is constantly striving, and has been for decades, to make more and more human beings redundant.

I hope you’re interested in shaping this future, because I can say with absolute certainty that, if enough of us don’t care — if too many of us remain blinded by the deference the mainstream media still want us to have for our useless leaders, their advisers and the powerful vested interests behind them — the future will be bleak. Currently, the sociopaths and psychopaths who largely rule us have worked out that an unfettered death toll is too high a price for “business as usual”, but don’t be fooled into thinking that they actually have our best interests at heart. They are, almost without exception, wedded to greed not only as an driver of economic activity, but also — incredibly — as a virtue.

The virus, meanwhile, is showing us a world in which we are all equal, an unthinkable conclusion for those who, secretly or otherwise, think that they and the profit-obsessed and ego-obsessed people they represent are actually more important. As the virus shows us, no one is actually more important than anyone else.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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26 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, 100 days since the existence of the coronavirus was first announced to the world, in which I look at some of the many ways in which it has changed life forever – primarily by establishing that our societies’ obsession with corporate profits above all else has now been revealed as empty and worthless, when what truly matters is our health, and those who look after us.

    I also look at some of the many ways in which our economies, and our economic priorities, will need to change, not only via the shrinking of the global tourist industry, the airline industry, and, hopefully, the end of the cruise ship business, but also via, hopefully, the collapse of the global construction racket, the poisonous “fast fashion” industry, and much more.

    I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s the latest news on those wartime looters, the bankers profiting from the disaster:
    Hedge funds ‘raking in billions’ during coronavirus crisis:

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, it’s too disheartening to even read.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    But it seems to me, David, that it’s imperative for people to know that these hedge funds are not only immoral; they also appear to be gambling in a rigged game, in which they can’t actually lose. How is there any justification for this kind of activity being legal?

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Jane Ecer wrote:

    Andy, I just read this article this morning … the whole thing is obscene …

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Exactly, Jane. It seems to me that, just a few weeks ago, most people involved in fighting back against the many raging injustices of the world were all generally fighting little battles – not insignificant – but part of a much, much bigger picture. And now, suddenly, with the virus, it’s as though we’re seeing the big picture clearly again, as we did briefly after the 2008 crash until everyone was hypnotised to go to sleep again, and the bankers successfully re-enshrouded themselves in mystery and the illusion of necessity. But this time a bright light is shining on absolutely everything, so the bankers’ obscene theft is suddenly apparent, as are so many other ways in which our supposedly functioning society is actually broken and hideously corrupt. I can’t see that we can reset to “normal” after this, and I fervently believe that we need more and more people – as many as possible – to get mobilised by this, to set up the conditions in which we collectively demand fundamental change.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, I’m no expert but I think they probably are illegal in Germany. There is nothing whatsoever about them that serves the national interest or the public good – quite the opposite. From my student days reading Galbraith’s excellent book “The Great Crash” I learned a lot about the dangers of investing in investments that invested in investments and the dangers of hedge fund style activities. They are deeply destabilising. All the protections that FDR subsequently put in place have been dismantled by neocon spivvery and London’s financial sector have played pigs at the trough, while self sufficiency a a robust infrastructure has been persistently hollowed out. I do not understand these zealots and true believers who think that “the State” is a problem to be axed nor the spivs who think as long as they make their pile their half of the boat won’t capsize.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, very well said, David. I think they need naming and shaming on a regular basis.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, we need Government worthy of the name and EU and national Government legislation start to outlaw such practices … but until the public start paying more attention to the consequences of their votes it’s largely pissing in the wind.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Sadly, yes, David – but maybe this crisis will be so severe that people do start paying attention. Unfortunately, the mainstream media have a role to play in that, but they’re generally extraordinarily inadequate when it comes to properly interrogating the workings of the biggest crooks.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Cathy Teesdale wrote:

    ‘Extraordinarily inadequate’ is letting them off too lightly I think, Andy.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re probably right, Cathy. I was trying to give them some sort of benefit of the doubt because, with a few exceptions, the mainstream media occasionally allow dissenting voices. But yes, overall, there is a respect for the status quo in the whole of the British media establishment that is deeply, damagingly and dangerously un-progressive.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Jane Ecer wrote:

    A very thought-provoking article Andy. It’s taken me most of the day to read it as I kept stopping and having to re-read it because of the multitude of ideas it throws up. You are absolutely right in what you say – enlightening and frightening at the same time … but change will have to come …

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m so glad to hear that you read it and appreciated it, Jane. It’s a summary of some of the main things I’ve been thinking about over the last week or so, and it’s very much intended to provide some thoughts for further reflection, and discussion, and, hopefully, action.
    I’m glad to see that the activities of the hedge fund crooks are provoking some indignation, and I’ll try to follow up with more links to this, and also to some of the other topics I discussed. Below, for example, is an article about bullying and unsafe working conditions in the packing plant of a major UK food supplier.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    So one of the things I discussed in my article was the hidden workers, preparing food in warehouses, who, because they’re hidden, may well be having their health endangered in the ongoing pursuit of profits – and sure enough, here’s an expose of some very dubious managerial behaviour at a major food supplier, called Bakkavor:

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s a genuinely interesting article about how the coronavirus spread, although it does contain the saddest line you’re likely to hear about how our sociability helped to spread the virus back in February before necessary lockdowns began – “One pattern we are seeing across the globe is that wherever there was singing and dancing, the virus spread more rapidly”, said Prof. Hendrik Streeck, a virologist at the University of Bonn, heading a team of researchers investigating how the virus spread at a carnival in Heinsberg, in Germany:

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s an interesting article about the super-rich, and calls for them to donate more of their unthinkably huge wealth towards various efforts to tackle the crisis:
    It also contains a link to the ‘High Pay Centre’ in the UK, which campaigns “against excessive executive remuneration”:

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    And also this – about calls for overpaid CEOs, some of whom are taking pay cuts, to not be given lucrative share deals as compensation:

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    And here, sadly, is an article about the cruise ship fanatics who, despite the collapse of the sector, and despite the fact that “more than 6,300 passengers are still onboard eight ships unable to dock as governments block disembarkation, fearing it will spread the disease”, can’t wait to get back on board what have accurately been described as the “floating Petri dishes” of Covid-19:

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    And here’s an apposite article by restauranteur Yotam Ottolenghi, who, while thankful for the government’s furlough scheme, points out that businesses will be dangerously overburdened financially if they have to pay back the rent they’re unable to pay right now while their businesses are closed:

    This strikes at the heart of what the shutdown is exposing – how, while governments have accepted that they must provide money for unemployed workers to Iive on, and while they have nominally banned rent-related evictions, they are completely unwilling to tackle the reality that the entire basis of rents is only feasible when there is actual economic activity.

    On work-related income, the shutdown is leading to calls for a universal basic income to be introduced, and if that’s the best solution for widespread involuntary unemployment, then it also needs to be accompanied by an end to the world of private rental profiteering. I suspect that what we really need is a massive devaluation of the entire grossly inflated property bubble of the last 20 years, but what is also obviously needed as well is a massive programme of not-for-profit homebuilding. To give some context to the former, back in 2018, the Economist “calculated that overall British house prices were 29% over-valued compared with incomes, and 48% over-valued relative to rents.” Food for thought, I hope.

    Office and retail rents are also hideously overpriced – in London, in particular, of course – and this FT article also addresses businesses’ problems when faced with greedy landlords, providing further background on what Ottolenghi is discussing today:

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    In today’s Observer, a timely article about how the coronavirus is creating a greener world, and asking if our leaders will learn the necessary lessons from it.

    Some excerpts:

    “Since the start of the pandemic, it is not just from space that the world looks different. The unthinkable is now thinkable. Positions are shifting. Libertarian governments are curtailing freedoms more drastically than wartime leaders. Austerity conservatives are approving trillions of dollars for healthcare and emergency spending. Small-state advocates are being forced into massive interventions. Leading business publications are calling for a deep reform of capitalism. Most importantly, the political focus has shifted from individual consumption to collective wellbeing.

    “These 100 days have changed the way we think about change. Ultimately, whether this pandemic is good or bad for the environment depends not on the virus, but on humanity. If there is no political pressure on governments, the world will go back to unsustainable business as usual rather than emerge with a healthier sense of what is normal.”

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Also have a read of this for accounts of – and photos of – how pollution has lifted in previous pollution hotspots like Delhi:

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Cathy Teesdale wrote:

    The air smells SO much fresher this morning, it really struck me when I woke & came into our little courtyard, even though the air in Hastings generally smells fine. What an amazing difference a few weeks of the human virus being locked indoors makes!

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, absolutely, Cathy. It’s so important that we don’t go back to pre-virus pollution levels, but obviously it won’t happen without massive public pressure; hence the need for us to start discussing, planning, mobilising …

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s an Australian media take on the hopefully doomed cruise ship industry. It’s reassuring that their offshore “flag of convenience” status means that governments have no obligation to help them out, and aren’t inclined to do so:

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Another article taking careful aim at the “floating dungeons” of the cruise ship industry:

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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