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Hello from Queensland
I’ve been back home for three weeks now. I fled New York when things were bad but not yet really bad. Many of you are still there. Hello, stay safe, I love you. I’ve been wondering a bit why things are so bad in New York. It’s a more complex question than I would like it to be. But we can have ideas. There’s the slowness to act, for one. And there’s density, of course. And then there’s the commodification of health. In the US, healthcare is a commodity, of course. But increasingly I like to think that health itself is the commodity. In the US, it’s traded around the marketplace more freely than in any other rich country.
It’s a useful thought just because most of the goods traded under the market system are, really, proxies for health. Access to fruit and vegetables and exercise and rest, and housing and bedding and fresh air and central heating, and domestic safety and income security and the ability to work from home — these are all things that most societies leave to market forces. When a person buys these things on the market, it is their health they are buying. But people are forced to sell their health all the time, too. When people cannot afford any of the goods above, it costs their health. When they take a job operating a bodega, they sell the risk of COVID-19 infection. When people buy a home in a food desert, they pay for that home with heart disease.
Here’s a concept from water policy: virtual water. The idea is that water is a resource buried “virtually” in every product. When countries trade products they also trade the water “in” those products, and the massive imbalance between different countries’ water reserves can have profound effects. I think the same is obviously true for health. Countries trade virtual health via goods produced sweatshops and via minerals extracted with noxious chemicals. But individuals, even individuals in rich countries, trade their own health at a price set by their local market. It’s a commodity many cannot afford. The welfare state, to the extent that it exists, is the de-commodification of health by the state.
My mother, who is not close to progressive, keeps asking me if America will learn its lesson. She expects that this will be “a wake up call”. But the US primary process just selected a Democratic contender with a healthcare plan likely to kill 125,000 people over 10 years, relative to Medicare For All. So the outlook isn’t great.
The trouble with Australia’s recent triumphalism is that the conservative government, who have reacted to this crisis with the most welfare state-friendly agenda Australia has seen in forty years, have spent forty years demolishing that same welfare state. Their playbook, from tax breaks to think tanks to climate denialism, is imported directly from the USA. The difference between Australia and the US is simply that Australian conservatives have not been as successful as their northern friends.
When I went out this morning to pick an avocado from the tree, a kangaroo under the tree stood with me while I picked the fruit. His spouse was down the hill, lying in the sun in the way that kangaroos are intent on doing. Seeing this was some consolation for being home and unemployed and paying rent in a far-flung country for which I don’t currently have a visa.
The roos reminded me of Pride & Prejudice, which I reread last week. Pride & Prejudice is a delightful, joyful, disgusting little book, in which we are asked to empathise with a woman of immense wealth who, over the course of several years, does not apparently have a single thought about people less fortunate than her. Elizabeth Bennet is really a foul person. I’ll remind you that she was living through the enclosures and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. When Elizabeth was galavanting around Pemberley, children were having their hands torn off in textile mills. The Napoleonic Wars might well have been underway, but there is no way of knowing, because Elizabeth doesn’t give it a thought.
As we all know, the charitable reading of Austen is that all of this was very well known to the author, who deliberately invites the reader into the intimate, protected, happy lives of the English aristocracy in the knowledge that the reader will find there enough complexity and deep human feeling to forget briefly that the entire English economy was powered by the suffering of the urban underclass and dislocation of the agrarian poor.
The kangaroos, like Elizabeth Bennet, don’t give a thought to other people. Their only opinion on the novel coronavirus is that the sky is bluer than usual. George Saunders expressed a similar sentiment recently in a letter to his Syracuse writing students:
I saw this bee happily buzzing around a flower yesterday, and felt like, “Moron! If you only knew!”
If you got this far, read my piece in Meanjin this week. Reminder: sub-editors write headlines, not authors.