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WHEN THE VALUE OF LIFE IS LESS THAN THE VALUE OF A DOLLAR

A reading of Russian history from the 19thcentury to the Revolution and on through the Soviet years (and, some might add, right up to the present day), reveals an enduring feature: human life has been treated as a disposable commodity by a succession of Russian leaders. Under the Czars, peasants died from famine and poverty; Jews died from unpoliced and often state-sanctioned pogroms; enemies of the regime were slain, and disloyal functionaries failed to wake up for breakfast. Under Stalin, the induced famine in Ukraine killed more than seven million people; in the great terror of the late 1930s millions of Russians were murdered; state orphanages were filled with children saddled with ‘tainted biographies’ following the ‘disappearance’ of their parents; friends to Stalin in the evening were pronounced enemies over night and killed by lunchtime the next day; cavalier neglect of the people killed millions during the Great Patriotic War; the siege of Leningrad alone, when next to no help was given to the city by the regime, saw two million deaths over those perilous 900 days; throughout the Soviet years, artists and scientists were sent into exile to wither and die in the wilds of Siberia, while others were left to rot in mental asylums. For decades, the Soviet leadership murdered any opposition, whether real or fabricated.

Reading Russian history, one could be forgiven for thinking that human life counts for nothing when there’s a cause at stake: to win a war, or, for several decades to shore up the power of a despotic leader. The same could be said for China and the huge number of lives lost in Mao’s, euphemistically titled, Great Leap Forward. In a mere five years, more Chinese people died than did Soviet citizens in the entire thirty years of Stalin’s rule.

I have been reminded of this each day when I read the world-wide incidence of covid-19, together with the number of deaths and recoveries for each country. Even before the statistics from the US soared to reach the top of this distressing chart, I noted how the percentage of recovered patients to incidence was worse for the US than practically any other country, indicating what a parlous state that country’s health system was in, and how all, except the wealthy, were affected by this. This was in March, at the beginning of the pandemic. I thought at the time that the situation in the US could become quite serious, although certainly not as bad as Italy, after all the US was a wealthy country. But I had not factored in Trump or his administration, or a Congress dominated by Republicans, nearly all of whom have relinquished all moral principles to follow a leader who makes no bones of having relinquished his moral principles long ago – if ever he had them.

It would seem that some people, nearly always men, will do anything to build their power, and that other people, handsomely served by the prevailing hegemony, will do anything to maintain it.

The chart below shows relative statistics on May 14, 2020.

COUNTRY               CONFIRMED CASES     DEATHS                   RECOVERED

AUSTRALIA                  702298                        98                          6301 (89.7%)

US                              1,390,406                    84,119                     243,430 (17.5%)

RUSSIA                          242,271                     2212                      48,003 (19.8%)

UNITED KINGDOM     230,985                   33,264                         1032 (??)

SPAIN                            228,691                   27,104                      140,823 (61.6%)

ITALY                            222,104                    31,106                       112,541 (50.7%)

GERMANY                   174,098                     7861                           148,700 (85.4%)

IRAN                            112,725                      6783                             89,428 (79.3%)

CHINA                          84,024                       4637                             79,246 (94.3%)

INDIA                          78,055                        2551                             26,400 (33.8%)

CANADA                     73,568                       5425                              35,177 (47.8%)

MEXICO                     40,186                         4220                             26,990 (67.2%)

ECUADOR                 30,486                         2334                               3433 (11.3%)

 

It’s easy to lie with statistics, this is commonplace knowledge. And enough is known about countries like China, Russia and Iran to treat their official figures with suspicion. There are, however, issues specific to the coronavirus figures.

  1. 1. It is commonly accepted that the number of confirmed cases is far less than actual cases. There are a number of reasons for this, first and foremost being the low level of testing in many places. But there are also particular features of covid-19, that reduce the numbers, specifically, an incubation period of at least fourteen days; and there are some infected people who will remain asymptomatic at all times. The gap between confirmed cases and actual cases should decrease with wide scale, reliable* testing.
  2. Re deaths and recoveries: neither can be determined until each known case is resolved. This also afects the numbers.
  3. In some countries, for example the UK, deaths in care homes have not been taken into account until very recently. A comparison of UK care home deaths this March-April compared with previous years, suggests a significant number of unaccounted cases of covid-19.
  4. With the best will in the world, it’s extremely difficult to arrive at accurate figures from poorer countries like India and Ecuador.

So, the actual figures are assumed to be much higher than the official numbers. But even on the lower, under-reported figures, the situation in the US is truly shocking. The US is purported to be the richest country in the world, the most advancedcountry in the world. And yet the incidence of covid-19, the number of deaths, and the appallingly low percentage of recoveries shows that the administration has failed its citizens to an astonishing degree.

Trump’s boast that there’s been more testing in the US than anywhere else is a blatant lie. Back in Mid-March according to one Washington DC report, the level of testing in the US per capita was the lowest in the world. The numbers gradually increased – many governors pleaded with the federal government for testing kits and protective gear to no avail – and according to a report in the New Yorker published May 14th, reached an average of 265,000 people per day by the first week in May. While this is nowmore tests than any other country, per capita the US still lags far behind. And given that intensive testing started so late, the country will probably trail behind in per capita testing for some to come.

The president has consistently downplayed the pandemic. Remember when he planned to have the country re-opened by Easter? One of the most extraordinary outcomes of his deceitful optimism is that during those daily two-hour press conferences in April, aka re-election rallies, he hardly mentioned the thousands of deaths, rarely acknowledged the pain and loss so many people were suffering. He treated these sessions as re-election opportunities, keen to tell everyone what a wonderful job he was doing, that hismedical expertise was better than his top medical advisers (after all, who came up with the idea of ingesting disinfectant?), that he could be trusted to manage the health crisis and the economy, and deal with China and the WHO at the same time. Trump seemed to fancy himself as a cross between Christ and Churchill. As I observed him at these daily briefings, I was reminded more of Richard III crossed with Madame Defarge.

It doesn’t matter how many deaths occur, Trump has work to do: specifically, to shore up his election prospects. His every press briefing, his every tweet is in service to staying in power. This is a man convinced he knows everything and can do anything (even delay the presidential elections in November). His intuition is infallible, and much more effective than everyone else’s reason and expertise. And should there be a mistake, he’ll blame it on China, or a formerly trusted member of his team – although there is no team. If you do not do the will of the master, then you’re out. Dr Fauci who has done a remarkable tight-walking act, will, I predict be out of a job before too long.

Trump, like Stalin before him, holds no responsibility towards his nation’s people. These people are nothing more than a means to an end, and, as such, they are dispensable – at least a percentage of them are. The death toll from coronavirus in the US will be well over 100,000. It could rise to over 200,000. Trump is good at numbers. He knows he can lie his way through 200,000 deaths and still have sufficient voters to re-elect him. To him, 200,000 deaths is not even a small price to pay, it’s no price at all, because he doesn’t care about these citizens, indeed, he’d probably dismiss them as collateral damage.** There’s only one deal and that’s to keep him in the White House, and keep him untouchable.

Stalin was the same.

To win in November, Trump believes the country needs to get back to work. 200,000 deaths touch maybe a million people. But unemployment in excess of 20% touches millions more, and not acceptable to the self-proclaimed best economic manager the US has ever known. Covid-19 started out as a nuisance for Trump, then it got in the way of his plans. If it costs lives to reclaim his agenda, so be it. Only one person matters, and not simply in America, but throughout the world, and that is President Trump of the United States of America. Much the same observation has been made of Stalin and the failed state of the USSR.

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*An astonishing number of test kits have been shown to be unreliable.

** Beware all euphemisms. Their function is to cloak the truth in something more pallatable. ‘Collateral damage’ sounds so much more acceptable than ‘people – men, women and children were killed by our actions’. ‘Great Leap Forward’ and ‘Five Year Plan’ hide the millions of people who died as the Soviet Union and China modernised.

Times Past, Times Present.

My last visit to London was a couple of years ago, the January that Trump was inaugurated. I was visiting alone, and with work behind me in Melbourne and more work ahead of me in Berlin, my stay in London was to be a holiday. Rather than my usual rental in Bloomsbury, I borrowed the flat of a friend. It was located in Marylebone, south of Baker Street and a short distance from Wigmore Hall. My friend had briefed me about the area: the cheese shop, the wine shop, Daunt Books in the high Street, and the weekend market in a carpark at which, she said, she had once seen the writer, Julian Barnes, shopping for vegetables.

The day after I arrived, rather than explore the local area, I went to the RA. It was the last day of an abstract expressionist exhibition, the central exhibit, at least to my Australian eyes, being Jackson Pollock’s stunning Blue Poles. Afterwards, filled with that pleasant, lightly exhilarated feeling one gets with the best of art, I popped across the road to Hatchards.

It still felt like the old Hatchards, or rather, it did not feel like another Waterstones, and I browsed happily, and at my leisure. I ended up buying a memoir by a woman about her sister’s suicide – I thought my interest in death books might have dwindled, but even now, ten years after D’s death, it still hasn’t; I indulged in a little fun book calledI Wandered Lonely as a Cloud…and other poems you half-remember from school; and lastly, I bought a new Vintage edition of Julian Barnes’s Metroland, his first novel and one I’d not previously been aware of. (Would I have bought this book if not already oriented in Barnes’s direction by my friend’s mention of him? I think not, although when I purchased the book I don’t believe I made the connection.)

It was a beautiful edition, a ‘special archive edition’, with a repeated graphic of a small cluster of suburban homes front and back in orange and magenta, folded flaps for the blurb and author bio, and illustrated end pages decorated with another repeated graphic, this one in orange and grey and also of houses but with the addition of the Eiffel Tower, so you know these are Parisian houses and not the London suburbs of the front and back covers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A lovely edition, although less lovely to read – nothing to do with the print or the layout, but rather the spine was reinforced with steel-like glue. There was no bending this spine, no possibility of hands-free reading, the book lying independently on a table while I sipped my coffee or ate my breakfast or made the occasional jotting or just stretched my arms or shifted my position without missing a reading beat. The spine needed the strength of a weight-lifter to keep the book open.

This not withstanding, I was hooked from the very first page, indeed, by the very first line: There is no rule against carrying binoculars in the National Gallery.It was the word ‘carrying’ that particularly pleased; it contained so much more narrative possibility than the more prosaic ‘using’.

The novel is structured in three sections, with Chris the first-person narrator throughout. The first and longest section enters the world of Chris and his best friend Toni in 1963. Chris and Toni are all-knowing, all-critical, 16-year-old intellectuals. They are steeped in French writers, they assume an air of superior alienation and ennui, they deride parents, school and, above all, life in Metroland, that area of London served by the Metropolitan tube line. They look forward to the day when they are free to escape and enter LIFE PROPER.

How familiar I found this attitude, although in my case it came equipped with far less confidence and less superiority than that revealed by Chris and Toni. How familiar, even though it happened a half a century ago in the late 1960s, on the other side of the world, and at a time of life I preferred to forget. (I never really got the hang of childhood or adolescence, would have done better to begin life at 30.) Back in those long-ago days, I was reading the same French books as were Chris and Toni, and I was writing angst-laden poetry about not being understood, and in the same way that Chris and Tony dreamed of escaping Metroland, I dreamed of escaping suburban, far-from-everything Melbourne. London was the location of my LIFE PROPER. Already steeped in the Bloomsbury writers and artists, I would live a short walk from the BM – I, too, rejected the Metropolitan line without even knowing it – and I would write books. (My first published story was titled ‘If Patrick White Married Virginia Woolf’ in which a misunderstood Australian girl imagines the perfect life: PW married to VW, living and working in London along with their children, an Australian-born girl and Hurtle Duffield from White’s The Vivisector. Clearly I’d made the not-particularly-large leap from angst-filled poetry to hope-filled, biographically-stifled fiction.)

But back to the present. I am living in an area of London that may or may not be associated with Barnes, reading his first novel, I’mburiedin his book, in the longings of his young characters that match my own long-ago longings (perhaps the same longings experienced by all bright children), longings that reappear to me exactly as they once were, untouched by time or experience. And then, unbidden, I find myself, in the whirl of my own early escape to London, that first impoverished visit of wonders, that at-last-I-can-start-life sense of boundlessness and fear. I haven’t moved. I’m still sitting in my friend’s flat in Marylebone, reading Metroland, Julian Barnes first novel, I am in the mire of my 16-year-old self’s longings, and I am alone in London as a 21-year-old. And all this is happening simultaneously.

It’s like being in a three-dimensional Blue Poles, or better still, a three-dimensional Rothko (his is such a deep imagination), or inside a Mahler symphony. Linear time and linear space have been demolished by limitless imagination. Times past, times present and times future all mixing and mingling at the same time.

It was a fevered, fantastic experience, and while not the first time it has happened to me, there was a particular intensity on this occasion. Good fiction, the fictions that seduce and hold until the last page, invariably illuminate your lived experience. As I read Barnes’s Metroland,and relived times past, and also idly wondered if I might see Barnes himself at the Farmers’ Market the following weekend, there were swervings and touches and connections occurring in the imagination, enriching that vital swirl just beneath consciousness. And some time in the future, while occupied with the mundane business of life, doing the washing, walking an aisle in the supermarket, I will be aware of sparks and curiosities that emerge from that rich swirl, that shape into possibilities that firm into ideas and understandings. Standing in front of the oils and vinegars, I will be astonished and delighted by this wonder that is the imagination: the fuel of the LIFE PROPER.