Since I started News Junkie Post, eleven years ago, I have, as a rule, avoided the first person narrative. In my mind, there is a simple reason for an aversion for the “me, myself, and I” type of storytelling so widespread in our culture. The first person is fine for a journal, an autobiography of course, or if you have the immense literary talent of Marcel Proust. Otherwise, it amounts to a navel gazing narcissism common in our era and society as a spectacle where anyone, with no particular talent to speak of, aspires to achieve his proverbial 15 minutes of fame and to milk for as long as possible. The reader might wonder why I will make an exception to this self-imposed rule of first-person narrative avoidance. The answer is simple: once in a blue moon, events that either already impact humanity or are about to turn upside down all mankind’s existence personally hit you in the face like a thunderbolt.
Like most people on Earth, I have been dealing with COVID-19 while trying not to let the fear and paranoia factors affect me too much. What I didn’t expect was for humanity’s biggest challenge, the climate crisis, to join the pandemic. In my recent life experience, I’ve had to deal, at the same time, with the impacts of the climate crisis, a pandemic, and chronic bad governance, which are, unless we radically change course, humanity’s future. This is a snapshot of our common future. The three factors are compounded threats to the very survival of our species.
A town where “We Stand for Our Flag and Kneel for Our Cross”
I have lived for the past four years in a small rural community deep in the United States Bible Belt, where people are, by a large majority, white evangelicals. I call this part of the US Trumpistan, because of the strong support President Donald Trump has in this neck of the woods. Trumpistan is neither a state nor a country, but a state of mind. As an example, in the 2016 presidential election Donald Trump obtained 93 percent of the votes in the county. Incidentally or not, this part of the US used to be within the Confederacy during the US Civil War. Economically, this community is poor, and it barely survives from cattle ranching and fracking. Most people, except the ranchers, are poor, but nonetheless they follow, as patriotic evangelicals, what has become Trumpistan’s core motto, “We Stand for Our Flag, and Kneel for Our Cross.” Many are climate change deniers and creationists. At first, they viewed the COVID-19 pandemic either as a hoax concocted by the Democrats to make Trump lose his reelection bid, or as a deliberate Chinese attack on the US. In this context, I view myself as an amateur anthropologist and a sociologist.
Elderly COVID-19 lock-down misery in a retirement home
For me, the dramatic events occurred on May 22, 2020. It was a Friday, and the town had scheduled its yearly high school graduation celebration. Naturally, the townspeople, like most people on this planet, were still trying to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. For this purpose, and to celebrate the end of the strict lockdown affecting its retirement home, the community held an event where about 40 elderly people (see photographs) were allowed to sit outside to be greeted by relatives who drove by. It was overall an extremely sad ceremony, and I could not help myself thinking of the inherent sickness of our so-called modern civilization, where the older generation is institutionalized while, in most cases, they could have been cared for by their children or grandchildren.
In western Europe and the US, retirement homes had an extremely high mortality rate during the COVID-19 pandemic. The residents of this specific facility, just like in the rest of the US and most western European countries, were further victimized by the interdiction of visits from their relatives. They had to deal with the great psychological pain of isolation, on the premise of their own good, all of it by governmental decrees.
One could hope that the pandemic will give an acute sense a guilt to people who consider their elderly parents to be inconvenient and put them in the care of others in an institution. It is morally wrong and cruel to treat your elderly parents this way. In decent societies, either archaic societies or ones of recent past, the entire family took care of their aging relatives when they became weak and frail. The wisdom of age was respected, and older people in need of help were not put away, institutionalized and subcontracted to strangers. Furthermore, the elders were actually revered, as the younger generation would seek their advice.
On a tornado path
At dusk, a thunderstorm came. The sky turned black towards the north-west while it was still clear in the south-east. The temperature dropped abruptly. The thunderous black clouds had company: it was a tornado. The rain didn’t start right away, as the winds were gathering strength. At about 9:00 o’clock, the town sirens went off, and shortly afterwards I got a tornado warning on my phone that said: “Tornado alert seek shelter immediately.” I did so in a closet that seemed to be relatively strong and was not directly under big trees or near to windows. Then the power went off, and I could only hear the extremely loud fury of sheets of rain, thunder, and deadly winds, combined with the glaring sirens. The cacophony was intense. Nature’s wrath had hit the town, and the tornado chewed away like a giant chainsaw. It lasted for about 45 minutes. Later, while the rain continued to pour, I quickly inspected the house I live in, with help from the lightnings. The structure seemed okay, and all windows were intact. Exhausted, I went to bed.
When I woke up the next day, two sizable trees were down in my muddy backyard. I did not yet realize quite how lucky I had been. Having no immediate means to clear anything, I decided to take a survey (see photographs) of the worse-hit areas of town. Someone told me where the tornado had done most damage. It was literally on the wrong side of the tracks. Urban development is interesting that way. Pretty much anywhere in the world, parts of cities, big or small, are more desirable than others. There are always dividers, either natural or man made, which sort of segregate a town by the level of income and sometimes by race. It is quite often in relationship with elevation and risk of flooding. This little town is split by a freight train railroad track. Because life is usually unfair, the poorer part of town was the one hardest hit by the tornado.
According to a local news source, over 450 structures were either seriously damaged or destroyed. For a town of slightly more than 5,000 people, already suffering from the COVID-19 recession like the rest of the US, and with the crash of oil prices, whose business sustains many in the community, the recovery will be an uphill battle. This little rural community will be joined by countless more in the very near future, and it will not make headlines in any mainstream news cycle. Many poor people became homeless that night. Many small business owners lost their livelihood. Countless majestic old oaks, sycamores and hackberry trees were snapped like matches or uprooted. Last, but not least, baby birds in the trees were killed by the thousands. The infrastructure suffered a great deal too, with many wooden electrical posts broken like twigs or laid flat on the ground.
What I saw reminded me of Katrina‘s aftermath in New Orleans, which I had covered. Natural disasters are always a reminder of life’s incredible frailty and the brutal yet awesome forces of wind, rain and fire. Some human beings, in all their arrogance, think and act like they can control natural phenomena, but this is a dangerous delusion. When the wrath of nature falls on us, we then realize that, as a species, we have no more survival power and skills than fire ants. Actually, probably less so. When you experience disasters, it usually gives you a great sense of humility as well as an appreciation for life.
The COVID-19 pandemic did that too. Disasters also, in the case of a hurricane, a tornado or a fire, bring people closer. If on Friday, during the day, in this little town, wearing a mask and social distancing was still officially on the behavioral menu, on Saturday morning, after the tornado, the COVID-19 cautions of mask wearing and social distancing were thrown to the wind. People who had lost everything were trying to help and comfort each other. This spontaneous sense of solidarity is what humanity can be at its best.
Unfortunately, just as I witnessed in New Orleans post Katrina almost 15 years ago, the citizens in this small rural town had to rely on themselves and their neighbors to start sifting through the rubble to salvage bits and pieces of their lives; rely on themselves to clear trees that had fallen on their houses, cars, and across their yards. City government authorities were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps this was because the elected town’s major powers have been de-facto stripped and assumed by an unelected and designated City Manager.
Privatization of critical sectors: the rise of banana republics
The day after the tornado hit, the private power company that has the contract from the city to maintain and fix all the electrical grid, power station, electrical posts, transformers and lines showed up, assessed the damage and immediately shut down part of the grid. Fair enough. The repairs had to be done. I asked the crew’s foreman what was a projected time estimate to restore service to the town. He didn’t want to answer and abruptly told me to contact the press representative of the corporation that employs him. The following week we had, in the town, several daily power outages as well as Internet disruption. A few years before the town had made a huge technological jump to fiber optics, all of it run underground. Of course, the Internet/communication company that won the bid to wire the town is different from the power company.
When I called the Internet company about the numerous connection problems, they told me that the underground fiber optic had been disrupted in many places in my areas. One can easily solve this problem here. Power company A is digging deep holes to set up new electrical posts, and carelessly disturbing the fiber optics of company B. This is, in a nutshell, what you get when you privatize and subcontract government functions on a local, state or federal level. There is no more coordination. Private companies only care about profits and their bottom lines. If this town was really run in a democratic manner by an elected mayor, instead of a designated city manager, the citizens could ask him in person why, for example, in a part of the US at the edge of tornado alley, major electrical wires are run above ground. Why not run them underground as is done in a city with no extreme weather hazard like Las Vegas, Nevada?
My partner at News Junkie Post, Dady Chery, and I often joke about the US and other so-called developed nations, like France, becoming banana republics, where all the infrastructure is falling apart, vital services like power and water are marginal, and corruption is rampant at all levels of government. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed governmental failures in most countries. In France, years of budget cuts in what used to be a stellar public health care system did the job. The culprits are government officials and technocrats who decided in an office somewhere, just because they could, that money must be saved. The French technocrats in question, just like the politicians in the US who for years have blocked laws to establish a free universal health care system, have blood on their hands. Indecision, and bad political decisions except the ones to dismantle the public sector to privatize government, kill.
The politician culprits will not be held accountable, as the system has been rigged to keep them, and the corporations that finance their elections and therefore maintain them in power, above the law. Yes the banana republic factor is becoming widespread, as real democracies become an endangered mode of governance. The banana republic model is contagious too, as bad governance has reached a stage of pandemic. Sadly enough, most of the aspiring banana republics do not even have the merit of growing bananas.
This first person story had to be told because I perceive this little community to be a microcosm of not only the dysfunctional aspects of the US but also the rest of the world. As the climate crisis intensifies — and this is not in humanity’s future, it is right now — millions, or perhaps even billions, will join the ranks of the homeless in this little town. Conservative estimates put the likely number of climate change refugees at 600 million by the end of the century.
As the temperature of the oceans keeps rising, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and severe droughts will affect regions of western Europe that have been so far spared. With global warming, diseases that were confined to tropical areas, like dengue fever and malaria, will move away from the equator towards the north and south. Current medical habits to overprescribe antibiotics will cause the appearance of many more antibiotic resistant bacteria. Humanity’s general forecast is grim. Our future is under multiple threats, dark clouds are gathering, and many storms are on their way. Real storms and the growing clamor of popular anger. The global COVID-19 pandemic, and its gross political mismanagement has turned people’s chronically simmering anger into a pressure cooker. Will this blow in the face of the billionaire class and their political enablers? Time will tell. It always does.
• All photos by Gilbert Mercier