March 27 marked the day the United States officially surpassed every other country in confirmed cases of COVID-19. That day alone, over 3,000 people died globally, pushing the total death count past 27,000. And yet, as thousands lose their lives every day, I have seen one phrase circulate more than almost any other, second only to “wash your hands” — “we are the virus, and coronavirus is the cure.”

Beside insinuating that the deaths of COVID-19 victims are a good thing and equating the deceased to parasites being incredibly cruel, the statement is untrue. Most of the environmental “improvements” cited as proof that quarantine is healing the Earth actually have far simpler answers. The suddenly clear, fish-filled Venice canals, for instance, aren’t due to any change in water quality; it’s because there are no boats to kick sediment into the water when everybody is home. In some cases, the lack of human activity is detrimental to animal life, like the monkeys and deer in Asia who are now abruptly without their primary source of food — tourists — and are now wandering hazardous cities in search of replacements.

There have been some real environmental benefits to the mass quarantines, though, particularly a decrease in air pollution. However, coronavirus-related changes in emissions are temporary and relatively small in scope. If anything, the changes brought by COVID-19, and the responses of our institutions, show us just how little the average person is to blame for pollution. We are not the virus, industrial capitalism is. 

Take for instance the air pollution drop. The decrease in emissions in Italy and China is because their factories have been shut down en masse, not because people are driving less. Italy even continued to run public transportation, as it was deemed an “essential service,” and still saw these massive emission decreases. Simply put, it makes little difference that individuals aren't getting in their cars when 71 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from only a hundred companies. These corporations and the people who run them are the virus, not the commuters and car owners. 

Coronavirus will ultimately only make pollution worse as economic panic tempts governments to be even more permissive of corporate pollution. The Prime Minister of the Czech Republic has already called for Europe to “forget about the Green Deal” for the economy’s sake — his country happens to depend heavily on nuclear power and coal. Similarly, President Donald Trump has pledged a bailout for the airline industry, saying they’ll be “number one” in line, all while airlines are on track to emit a quarter of the world's maximum manageable amount of carbon (carbon budget) by 2050.

We know for a fact that human beings are not fundamentally harmful to the planet because we’ve been living here for hundreds of thousands of years. Indigenous people have been living sustainably for as long as people have existed, and they still are. Now, with most of the world living industrially, indigenous people care for 80 percent of Earth’s biodiversity and 28 percent of its land, despite being only 5 percent of the world population. Not only can human beings live without irreparably polluting the environment — we can live in ways that are beneficial to the planet, despite what Western environmentalists might say. We just need to adopt these beneficial practices on a much larger scale, and that means ending the harmful ones first. 

To call industrial capitalism a virus is apt, because it sickens and kills people like a virus. It isn’t happenstance that the U.S. ranks first in infant mortality, obesity and youth poverty and last in sanitation and access to water of all the world’s developed nations despite having the highest GDP. Poverty and social inequality kill Americans as often as heart attacks and lung cancer, with 4.5 percent of U.S. deaths being traced back to poverty. This translates to 874,000 Americans who died in 2000, a toll over 32 times larger than the total COVID-19 death count by March 27. These fatal issues in America have only gotten worse in the 20 years since 2000. 

Coronavirus is set to combine with these already fatal issues in apocalyptic ways. The U.S., as of 2017, has 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people. Compare that to Italy’s 4.0 doctors per thousand as Italy’s hospitals are overwhelmed with dying COVID-19 patients. Make no mistake: capitalism will be the primary reason coronavirus kills Americans. A system built on masses of impoverished people selling their labor to a few business owners ensures that workers will work unless they are given another way to survive. Unsurprisingly, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act neglects paid leave for millions. COVID-19 belongs to a family of viruses we’ve known about for a long time, but a vaccine doesn’t exist yet  — of course, now it will take months before one will be developed. Still, our government is already itching to lift shutdowns and social distancing rules so that businesses can operate (and profit) normally. Some officials have even said, implicitly and explicitly, that the deaths caused by relaxing restrictions would be worth it for economic recovery.

As of March 17, COVID-19 is projected to kill 2.2 million Americans in total. This sort of death toll is neither normal nor necessary; in China, only 3,331 have reportedly died and the number of cases has started to stagnate (although this number is disputed). Social distancing alone is not enough to save lives when some don't have the option and others have no health care to save them once they have it, and yet even that bare minimum is falling by the wayside for the sake of profits. We can only hope that this will be the final case study against unfettered capitalism before we finally learn to care for each other and our planet. We’ve all but passed the point of no return already. 

Ray Ajemian can be reached at rajemian@umich.edu.

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