Victoria White: Covid-19 must not be construed as punishment for Western lifestyles

Victoria White: Covid-19 must not be construed as punishment for Western lifestyles
The only reason people are seeing little fish in the Venice lagoon is because the gondioliers aren’t stirring up the mud. Picture: Anteo Marinoni/LaPress/AP

I don't want to read another article about the little fishies coming back to the Venice lagoon because Covid-19 is keeping the tourists out of the city.

Let’s keep our focus on people. Covid-19 is killing them, more in Italy than anywhere else right now, between 600 and 750 a day this week. Theoretically, I have known this for three weeks but I have not let it enter my heart.

These dead had nothing to do with me. They were old Italians with underlying health conditions.

These bubbles of immunity will have to rupture because they are not real.

Italian society is not much different to ours. Nor is Spanish, where the same horrific cull of innocent lives is now on-going, with the number of the dead climbing above 500 a day this week.

I know more about Italy because I used to live right in the so-called “red centre” of infection, close to the town of Codogno, which we always mocked as about the most boring place on earth.

I took the big step this week of listening into Italian radio, alone in the kitchen, late at night.

It’s been like listening to a closed society talking to itself.

The scale of the horror is immediately obvious. The broadcaster’s assumption that the listeners are all going through the same thing and have only one enemy — the virus — is striking.

On Monday night, I was plunged, on Radio24Ore, into a radio essay by Rafaella Calandra with the title, ‘The Massacre inside Homes for the Elderly’. In Brescia, seven elderly people had died within a few days of each other at one “house of repose”, as the homes for the elderly are called in Italian.

Fifteen other inmates and staff members had been diagnosed and those not affected had been sent away to quarantine.

Similar tragedies were playing out in old age homes all over northern Italy.

To the strains of ‘La Cura’ (‘The Cure’) by Franco Battiato, which has become the rallying song for Italians against the virus, Calandra’s broadcast brought us into the horror hidden behind those walls so sadly penetrated by the virus.

A nurse spoke of the “anguish” felt by elderly inmates. Some of them have dementia and are wholly disorientated by being quarantined. Some are grieving their forced separation, not only from family, but from friends at the home.

Many are distressed by the fact that staff are wearing masks because they can’t see them smile and for some, facial expressions had been the only means of communication.

Psychological and psycho-social supports are entirely gone.

If these elderly citizens of the EU have a fall or a heart attack, the nurse said, “the hospitals won’t accept our patients”.

Then on Tuesday, the most horrific news since the pandemic began — the Spanish military finding elderly inmates dead in their beds with other inmates left to their own devices in homes for the elderly near Madrid which were abandoned by their staff.

What these people, our fellow EU citizens, have gone through is beyond imagining. The Spanish government has been loud in its determination to prosecute.

There can be no excusing staff who knowingly abandoned old people, no matter how badly paid and ill-supported they are.

The question for the rest of us is this, however: did we abandon frontline staff to their fate?

The question for the EU as a whole is: Did we abandon worst-hit countries to their fate?

The answer is yes.

It was China which came to the aid of Italy by sending face masks and ventilators; they were stolen in transit through the Czech Republic.

Not even the stories I heard this week on Italian radio of nurses working 16 hours without drinking because taking off their protective gear would mean changing it moved any better-provisioned member states to help.

The simple fact is that on some level we have tried to believe that the Italians — and now the Spanish — did something to deserve their fate. When the truth is that Covid-19 is nothing more than itself. It is a virus, it isn’t a metaphor for anything else.

It is vital that we don’t give the virus morals. It wasn’t born to show us the wrongs of the capitalist system.

It may make us appreciate the important things in life, as some columnists have claimed this week, but the way we are living now is not a new system of living; it is borrowed time bought with borrowed money.

Nor is a global pandemic is any kind of strategy for addressing climate change.

Covid-19 must not be construed as a punishment to Western societies for destroying the environment with their lifestyle. Not only would such a suggestion break our vigour in combating the virus internationally, it could also destroy social democracy and environmentalism.

A vaccine will be produced — most likely by capitalist drug companies working with and for democratically elected governments — and that will be the end of the virus for those with access to good medical care.

There is no vaccine for climate change or social inequality. Those challenges will be staring us in the face when we wake up from this.

There have been 18,000 deaths so far from Covid-19 but in 2018, the most recent year for which there are figures, 405,000 lives were lost to malaria, a preventable and curable disease, most of them to children under five.

Climate change, coupled with inequality, increases the risk of contracting not only malaria but also of contracting a range of diseases from TB, to cholera, to dengue fever and lyme disease.

The WHO estimated five years ago that climate change and inequality will kill an extra 250,000 people a year from 2030 to 2050, a figure recently described as “conservative” by a reputable scientific journal.

Of course it is possible the pandemic will teach us some strategies for managing climate change and inequality — our best hospitals, modern nursing practices, public sanitation and public housing projects were born from epidemics.

It is, however, just as possible that fear for ourselves and for our own economic future will destroy whatever environmental and social concern we had.

The truth may be staring many of us in the face that we need a truly public health system and that we need uncrowded housing to withstand shocks to our system and that without a collective approach to tackling climate change, hunger and pestilence will come back to haunt us.

But the snake oil merchants will be out there, trying to sell us the world exactly as it was before Covid-19.

That’s why no one with a conscience can make a friend of Covid-19. It is not the friend of the environment and it didn’t even bring back the little fishies to the Venice lagoon.

It’s just the gondoliers have stopped stirring up the mud. They were there all the time but we couldn’t see them.

    Useful information
  • The HSE have developed an information pack on how to protect yourself and others from coronavirus. Read it here
  • Anyone with symptoms of coronavirus who has been in close contact with a confirmed case in the last 14 days should isolate themselves from other people - this means going into a different, well-ventilated room alone, with a phone; phone their GP, or emergency department;
  • GPs Out of Hours services are not in a position to order testing for patients with normal cold and flu-like symptoms. HSELive is an information line and similarly not in a position to order testing for members of the public. The public is asked to reserve 112/999 for medical emergencies at all times.
  • ALONE has launched a national support line and additional supports for older people who have concerns or are facing difficulties relating to the outbreak of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) in Ireland. The support line will be open seven days a week, 8am-8pm, by calling 0818 222 024

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