In the face of ’the defining global health crisis of our time’, it’s only human to search for silver linings — even if they can lead us down the wrong path. A path where we prioritise certain lives over others.
We cling to headlines assuring us that coronavirus is not all bad – look at the improving air quality in China and the fall in traffic in our cities — and we gleefully circulate videos of wild boars reclaiming deserted streets in Sardinia, or the goats storming a Welsh village on lockdown. When it feels like darkness is closing in, finding the light is a matter of survival. But in the process we’re revealing some of the darkest parts of ourselves and paving the way for insidious ideologies that threaten our society.
Extinction Rebellion has publicly condemned celebrations of the pandemic’s ‘positive’ environmental impact. In their Instagram video last weekend, they warn us that this narrative — however innocently it’s expressed — uses the environment to justify the deaths of innocent and marginalised people. They warn us that celebrating in this way can ultimately fuel a fast-growing eco-fascist ideology that marries environmentalism with neo-Nazi beliefs.
The XR video doesn’t specify examples of these celebrations, and it doesn’t need to. They’re everywhere. Promulgated by the fake news of swans and dolphins ‘returning’ to the canals of Venice and whispered between the lines of Kitty O’Meara’s viral poem envisioning an earth ‘healed’ after lockdown, the message varies in its tone but is consistent in its meaning: humans are a virus and the planet thrives in their absence. The narrative is perhaps most succinctly expressed in Sarah Ferguson’s post stating that Mother Nature has “[...] sent us to our rooms and when she is finished clearing up our mess. [sic] She will let us out to play again.”
Celebrating the positive impact the lockdown is having on the planet can ultimately fuel a fast-growing eco-fascist ideology that marries environmentalism with neo-Nazi beliefs.
Across social media, the desperation to make meaning from the chaos is tangible. But while these silver linings are within reach from ivory towers, they are incomprehensible to those below – the people without rooms to be ‘sent’ to and those who won’t survive to see this ‘healed’ world waiting on the other side.
Further to millions of people across Europe and the United States facing unemployment, evictions and in some cases starvation, we are only beginning to see this virus take hold in the world’s poorest countries.
Born and raised in Indonesia, I am terrified of the effects that it will have on my home country where dense population and extreme poverty make the concepts of social distancing and good hygienefantasies of mythological proportions. A recent study carried out by the University of Indonesia has projected that without proper intervention, the death toll in the country could climb up to nearly a quarter of a million by the end of April.
This virus does not discriminate. We know that. We’ve watched in fear as our loved ones have fallen ill. We’ve seen Boris Johnson, Prince Charles and Idris Elba all test positive. But make no mistake, Covid-19 is not some great equaliser. As always, it is the most vulnerable who will bear the weight of the pandemic’s most catastrophic consequences, those without access to sanitisation, health care or government relief.
This global crisis poses an opportunity to bring communities together but it also threatens to pull us further apart. At the outbreak of the pandemic, we revealed our ageism and ableism by reassuring ourselves with the (now disproven) fact that the virus was only fatal to the ‘elderly’ and those with ‘underlying health conditions’. Now, in celebrating its environmental benefits, we reveal our privilege again. These narratives see us turning our backs on those most at risk, accepting that they are the necessary sacrifice to be made for this supposed environmental revolution.
No good can be found in the impending deaths of millions of innocent people; there’s no bright side to the collapse of economies that will crush the most disadvantaged among us. It is only when we can let go of fantasies that promise prosperity in exchange for the lives of the less fortunate that the possibility of a better world becomes fathomable.
There’s no right way to make sense of a global pandemic but there are wrong ones. If we aren’t vigilant about the stories that we tell ourselves, we will unwittingly lay the foundations for a terrifying future shaped by eco-fascist ideals. Now is the time to change that thinking: the widespread death of the most marginalised is not the price to pay for the survival of the planet.