Skip to main content

"Breaking the Camel's Back: When an Earthquake and a Pandemic Converge"

Originally published on Facebook and on the portal LeftEast.

Image taken on March 22nd, around 6:45am, in Zagreb.
Image taken on March 22nd, around 6:45am, in Zagreb.

Same image, next day.

It’s 6.30 in the morning.

I’ve been tossing and turning for the last two hours. My mind is anticipating an earthquake, making sense of that sudden irruption from the night before. I saw many of my friends last night saying that they fear to fall asleep. Ivana did too.

So, I continue writing where I left off last night, ruminating on some thoughts from the previous days. To make sense of it. Of both the earthquake and the pandemic.

Yesterday’s day in Zagreb started with a major earthquake jolting us in the wee hours out of our beds. Lots of rubble in the historical part of Zagreb, dozens of buildings made structurally unsound, possibly hundreds of people left without a home.

The scene at 6.30 in the morning outside of my building was just surreal: waiting it out as aftershocks kept coming, people were abiding by the advised distance, standing meters apart. Each person isolated for themselves, freezing as the northern wind was turning the morning mist into faint snow. Everybody desiring closeness and warmth where none was allowed. Neither to enter back into the building to isolate nor to come closer to huddle together. Surreal. By the end of the day, the damage from the earthquake turned out to be limited, not many people got hurt, some were left without a roof, some friends too. Plenty of chaos for many people, possibly some super-spreading moments. At least, hopefully, we saw the last of the big tectonic activity.

However, amid the total lockdown due to the Coronavirus, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. For weeks now we have been living day by day awaiting consequences of our collective isolation that will only have concretised – numbered in cases and deaths – two weeks later. Those “two weeks later” are an abstraction imposed on the concrete time that we are now living day by day. And yesterday, suddenly there was an irruption of reality. An earthquake that jolts you out of bed, out of that abstract time of a delayed threat into an immediacy of an existential threat – and breaks the camel’s back. You are brought to the brink of tears. And that feeling of vulnerability has persisted throughout the day. It will take a couple of nights for the apprehension of a next jolt to wear off.

It’s a minor trauma, and it will take some nights to wear off. I’m sure that you all, where ever you are amid this pandemic, are feeling this brink approaching, but there just might be no irruption of an earthquake to bring you across that bring. Hopefully, that remains so.

So, how to make sense of it? Of both the earthquake and the pandemic.

First, a word on safety. Safety is primarily social and structural, yet tends to be perceived as individual and evental. Contingencies such as viruses, earthquakes, floods or storms we cannot prevent. Yet once they irrupt, it makes all the difference in the world if we have a robust public health response system, solidly built housing and functioning levees. If we have those, the likelihood of people dying is far lower. It’s still a possibility, as there’s no way to preclude the contingency of someone being stricken to death. Ultimately, dying is a part of our being in the world. However, the social and structural are paramount in how many will get stricken.

Take, for instance, a storm. During the recent storm Ciara in the UK, my mum, seeing the reports, rushed to call me to make sure I’m safe. That left me wondering why are there floods in the UK that take people’s lives over and over again – and why is that such a story over and over again. It turned out Ciara was much stronger elsewhere in Europe, but there it didn’t seem to cause so much panic and suffering. The reason why this produces such a panic in the UK is the underfunding of safety in its social and structural aspects. People are left to cope on their own.

As we well know, catastrophes do not merely befall people. Their consequences are produced by social action and neglect. People will probably always die in large catastrophes. But the relevant question is how many. Yet the British tabloids always make a big story out of the individual and evental, and never out of the social and structural. Headlines never feature the question why is this happening over and over again. No need to spell it out why is it in their interest to frame that so. If you don’t have a robust public health response system, solidly built housing and functioning levees, you are left with little other option to be safe than obsessively demanding more police or queuing up to buy that gun.

Second, a word on science. If anything, in this double epidemic and seismic crisis, where nature is so overpoweringly encroaching on society, the processes of science have proven to be incomparably more apt than political institutional structures - competent at helping the society facing up to the uncertainty and the strategies that follow from uncertainty. Living in a complex world entails uncertainty. Acting on that uncertainty weighs things differently than what we were taught in the neoliberal playbook, where safety comes primarily from the stability of the markets. There are many stabilities that markets assume yet are undermining.

Third, a word on politics. Everything in this extraordinary moment seems abstract, and it awaits an irruption of reality. Everything is up in the air. Governments are breaking the bank, deficit spending limits are left in the dust, companies are commandeered to produce to social needs. The rent is forgiven, the mortgage payments too. Conservatives ministers are seriously considering universal basic income for all. Solidarity and mutual care abound. The neoliberal playbook is practically torn to shreds. While the economic activity is more-or-less suspended, it is public healthcare, publicly built and subsidised housing, publicly supported science, production to social needs and fiscal planning that societies are left with to manage uncertainty. The world will come out of this pandemic in a deep recession. We fear the economic outfall, we fear that that will be the irruption, yet these instruments will still be there to bring us out of that uncertainty. The neoliberal playbook is practically torn to shreds, and it’s down to us to make it so.

Thus, we have to organise and politicise. If anything, the current crisis has demonstrated that the capitalist economy, despite all its hubris over the last couple of decades, is embedded and subordinate to society and not vice-versa. The next crisis will, there’s no doubt about it, demonstrate that the society is embedded and subordinate to nature and not vice-versa. We now know that we have a much larger latitude of socio-economic instruments to address the planetary environmental crisis than we were told we do because of the primacy of the markets. The time-scale to navigate the uncertainty of that crisis will not be measured in weeks but years and decades. In fact, by acting on the planetary environmental crisis, we will lower the incidence of virus spillovers from wild species to livestock to humans, we will prevent the frequency of epidemics, lockdowns and isolations. We will make possible an environmentally livable future.