One day in late March, while walking along the Burke Gilman trail, I encountered a man advertising chicken coop building services in order to “keep your family fed”. At the start of the Stay-at Home order I also began to notice advertisements on Craigslist exploiting the fear surrounding food shortages and enthusiasm for greater self-sufficiency. These advertisements were for raised-bed boxes for “summer survival gardens” and small greenhouses to “get ready for the apocalypse”. Despite the tongue and cheek wording of these advertisements, I worry that the urge to take advantage of the anxieties of others to make money reveals a sickening dimension of capitalism. As people in urban areas spend more time gardening and growing their own food, what exactly does this reveal about broader economic and social trends?
From panic buying baby chicks to hoarding toilet paper and dried beans, the coronavirus pandemic has changed how Americans interact with the economy and how economic institutions interact with us. As COVID-19 takes a particularly heavy toll on low income folks, black communities, and native nations across the U.S., it makes me question, is the surge in backyard coops and gardens indicative of the impulse to resist corporate food systems? Or is this just an example of high income families using their wealth and new free time to invest in individualistic leisure activities, producing heirloom vegetables in their yards, walled off from less privileged folks?
In response to the pandemic, fear mongering about food shortages and sickness has led to hoarding and price gouging of essential sanitation supplies like hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes. Instead of distributing these supplies to those in need, some have bought enormous quantities to sell at exorbitant prices when stocks run out from conventional retailers.
While the scale and motivations may be less insidious, these local and decentralized efforts are mirrored by the actions of the large corporations that use their resources to exploit those most desperate in times of crisis. On Instagram, I see targeted ads from MiracleGro urging you to “plant your #victorygarden today”. MiracleGro is the brand name for products sold by Scotts Miracle-Gro, a company that sells fertilizer, seeds, and plants for at-home gardening. In 2012 Scotts Miracle-Gro was fined $12.5 million for selling 70 million units of birdseed that were coated with the pesticides Actellic 5E and Storcide II, which are prohibited by the EPA and known to be deadly to birds and fish. I can’t help but think that their slogan – encouraging people to plant victory gardens – doesn’t come from concern for the physical and mental wellbeing of their targeted audience.
Another example of large corporations profiting off of this pandemic is Amazon. Due to virus related surges in online shopping and streaming, Amazon shares have increased in value by 28% compared to last year. Meanwhile they have fired warehouse employees that organized to demand greater protections against the health impacts caused by increased workload during the pandemic. On May 14th the company announced that the $2 per hour hazard pay will stop at the end of May. As of May 27th, the eighth Amazon employee has died from COVID-19.
While many small businesses are still struggling to survive, hedge funds and private equity firms see this as a good time to offer high interest loans to these businesses. Since these businesses do not have other options, many of them may take these risky loans and make these firms rich in the process.
With now 20.5 million lost jobs due to COVID-19 restrictions and layoffs, this health crisis will be exacerbated by financial struggles for months or years to come. On a large scale, the uncertainty and fear caused by this pandemic may enable the roll out of unfavorable economic policies and political agendas that under normal circumstances would not be tolerated by the general public. Naomi Klein refers to this concept as disaster capitalism in her book, The Shock Doctrine. Klein defines disaster capitalism as “the way private industries spring up to directly profit from large-scale crises” and shock doctrine as “a political strategy of using large-scale crises to push through policies that systematically deepen inequality, enrich elites, and undercut everyone else.” In a recent interview, Klein uses the Trump-proposed, $700 billion dollar stimulus plan as an example of disaster capitalism. Trump’s stimulus plan would eliminate payroll taxes through the end of the year leading to a reduction in social security funding. This could further cut funding to programs such as Federal Old-Age (Retirement), Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Health Insurance for Aged and Disabled and Medicare. These programs are crucial right now.
The situation seems bleak, but for as many instances of disaster capitalism I have seen in the last couple months, I have also seen remarkable examples of communities coming together to provide services for those most vulnerable to the COVID-19 and virus-related hardships. In Seattle, mutual aid networks have sprung up to deliver groceries and sanitary supplies to the homes of folks who are financially struggling or sick, primarily the hardest hit being low income communities of color. These networks have also organised flower sales to support Hmong and Mien flower farmers who can no longer sell their flowers at their regular markets and florists. Additionally, they have collaborated with incarcerated folks and their families and striking farm workers to demand better COVID-19 policies and protections. These networks are the direct antithesis to capitalism’s response to the virus; instead of exploiting the situation for financial gain, these grassroots organizations freely provide resources to communities that were left vulnerable by pre-COVID inequalities.
There are also international examples of effective mutual aid networks. As the virus began to spread in January in my hometown of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong government refused to close borders and advised against widespread mask wearing. However, the city has kept the number of infections surprisingly low, partly because of its digital and in-person mutual aid networks set up by citizens during the city’s ongoing anti-extradition movement. Volunteers distributed hand sanitizer in low income apartment buildings and posted informative art about proper mask wearing and how to keep yourself safe during the pandemic.
These remarkable acts of community aid can help us cope with the effects of COVID-19. This support can also help our communities address and fight against underlying societal inequalities that have been amplified by this pandemic. Go ahead, plant your garden, get some chickens! But that cannot be the only thing you do during this pandemic. Instead of taking advantage of one another in this hard time for personal gain and falling prey to disaster capitalism, we can harness our collective power and resources to help those who are most in need.