This article contains some spoilers.
HBO’s latest hit series The Last of Us, based on the 2013 video game of the same name, depicts a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Cordyceps – one type of which, Ophiocordyceps, is known to infect insects like carpenter ants and control their behavior – evolves to be able to infect humans. It is suggested that this is caused, in part, by global warming. A rapid spread of the virus worldwide paired with a futile government response (deja vu!) results in total societal collapse.
For the first five episodes of the season, the main characters, Joel and Ellie, fight tooth and nail as they travel west from a “Quarantine Zone” in Boston to Jackson, Wyoming in search of Joel’s brother, Tommy.
When they find him in episode six, they’re surprised to find a thriving community in Jackson. After seeing the repressive authoritarianism of FEDRA – the “official” authority of what remains of the U.S. military that imposes backbreaking labor on a permanently-impoverished underclass in the Quarantine Zones – and the senselessly violent “post-revolutionary” terror of the gang in control of Kansas City, Jackson is a welcome relief.
A Utopian Commune Amid Dystopian Wreckage
As Joel and Ellie walk through Jackson, decked out with Christmas decorations, schools, and even movie theaters, Tommy’s partner, Maria, explains how their community operates. “Everything you see in our town, greenhouses, livestock, all shared. Collective ownership.” They make impressive use of hydropower for renewable energy. Work is shared. Government positions are appointed democratically and regularly rotated to create the widest possible participation in the administration of society. “So, communism,” Joel teases, which Tommy denies. Maria corrects him: “This is a commune. We’re communists.”
Is this actually communism as Marxists would describe it? Not really. But many experiences in the history of the communist movement, whose lessons live on today, bear resemblance to Jackson. Attempts at creating cooperative villages were undertaken by philanthropic capitalist Robert Owen in the early 17th century. Later in 1871, the Paris Commune saw the armed working class driving off the French state to establish a workers’ state which survived for a short period. The Paris Commune left a lasting mark on consciousness with its example of what a communist society could accomplish, as the workers of Paris rapidly implemented progressive reforms like separation of church and state, equal pay for women, and the requirement that state officials take only the average workers’ wage.
A genuine communist society, which would take shape through a period of socialism and transitioning away from capitalism – would need to be truly global. While the people of Jackson make the best of what they have, they don’t have enough. The democratic organization of production would need to be coordinated locally, regionally, and globally to ensure everyone has what they truly need, from the best medicine to technology and production techniques. Furthermore, they’re under constant threat from the outside: the people of Jackson nearly killed Joel and Ellie when they first arrived, aware that hostile forces could come in and destroy everything they’ve built. There can be no “socialism in one country” – or in one town, city, or parish for that matter – that won’t immediately suffer hostility and sabotage from the rest of the capitalist world hell-bent on eliminating any threats to their system.
A Better World is Possible
And the good news is, it won’t take an apocalypse that turns the population into zombie-like monsters to achieve. On the other hand, we won’t be able to rely on a freak accident of nature to wipe the billionaire class off the planet and render useless their wealth and the institutions that defend it.
While we can’t say episode six of The Last of Us was genuine socialism or communism, many young people watching the show, the majority of whom prefer socialism to capitalism, were no doubt pleasantly surprised to see a positive depiction of a non-capitalist, collectivist society. But for this type of society to be won, to survive in the long term, and to truly flourish, it will take a fight. This fight won’t look like the Fireflies’ tactics of underground networks and terrorism, but a broad movement of working people and the oppressed united in solidarity to overthrow the regime of capitalism, seize the wealth and means of production from the ruling class, and build from the ground up a society of our own.
The Last of Us, starring Bella Ramsey as Ellie and Pedro Pascal (who is related on his mothers’ side to Chilean socialist leader Salvador Allende) as Joel, is an exciting watch. While the story of The Last of Us, in the show and the game, ultimately puts forward nihilistic theses on violence and human nature, the post-apocalyptic setting provides for interesting depictions of how society might be organized without the fetter of capitalism. With Season 1 wrapped up, HBO watchers can now look forward to the dysfunctional antics of the wealthy megalomaniac Roy family in the final season of Succession!
Is the New Fungal Threat Spreading in U.S. Hospitals The Last of Us in Real Life?
Absolutely not. That said, the alarming trajectory of Candida auris gives genuine cause for concern.
Fresh off the season finale of HBO’s The Last of Us, in which a pandemic of mutant Cordyceps fungus turns its hosts into deadly monsters, a March 21 Report in the Annals of Internal Medicine triggered a collective public health panic attack when researchers warned of a new fungal pathogen spreading at a concerning pace across the U.S.
Candida auris is a yeast. Yeasts make up many of the ordinary microbes that we use to make bread and fermented goods, and that live peacefully on our skin and in our gut. When certain yeasts make their way into places they don’t belong, they can cause serious illness ranging from run-of-the-mill oral thrush and yeast infections to the much less common but more serious infections of the blood, lungs, or nervous system.
C. auris infections have risen at an “alarming rate” in the past few years according to the CDC. What began as an incremental spread starting in 2016 saw a sharp spike starting in 2019, with 1,471 cases in 2021 which constituted a near doubling in the number of recorded cases. The infection is now present in 28 states, with 17 of those having identified their first C. auris case between 2019 and 2021. One study suggests climate change has forced C. auris to adjust to survive higher temperatures, lowering the barrier to infecting humans – as if we didn’t have enough frightening The Last of Us parallels. However, the main factor behind its alarming rise seems to be its ease of transmission in hospitals and nursing homes. It spreads through surfaces, contaminating nursing gowns, gloves, and – especially dangerously – IV catheters and ventilators. The COVID-19 pandemic saw sick patients hospitalized for long periods of time in crisis-stricken hospitals, with workers often forced to reuse PPE due to insufficient supply. This created the perfect scenario for C. auris, which is difficult to detect and resistant to many common disinfectants.
In addition to its rapid transmission through U.S. healthcare facilities, the greatest concern about C. auris is its resistance to most antifungal medications used to treat Candida infections. Some strains are resistant to all existing antifungals, making it difficult or even impossible to treat. Among infections recorded in 2021, the share of recorded cases that were treatment-resistant tripled from the year before. Antimicrobial resistance is an increasingly common phenomenon, meaning containment and prevention will be absolutely crucial. The disease’s lethality is unclear – out of all infections, between 30 and 60% end in “potentially associated” fatalities. Because already-sick patients are most likely to develop C. auris infections, its role in patient deaths is difficult to identify with certainty.
Scenes of deformed “infected” tearing victims limb from limb are not in play, but what is possible is yet another wave of preventable illness and death targeting the most vulnerable.
The Neverending Public Health Nosedive
Despite a general tone of alarm from public health officials, epidemiologists, and the media, they all make sure to remind us that “it won’t affect healthy people.” The problem is, this is hardly reassuring when so few of us are truly healthy. Not only are working people in the U.S. broadly deprived of access to healthcare, our health is under attack from all sides. Chemical disasters, environmental disasters, and air pollution alll create lasting impacts on our bodies. This is to say nothing of just three years ago when a system caught off-guard by COVID-19 sent us all into lockdown to grapple with uncertainty, fear, and eventually a million-plus death toll. There’s no denying the apocalyptic feel.
So how can we fully eradicate the possibility of a fungal apocalypse? Hospitals will need to take the greatest possible care in screening for C. auris infections and in thoroughly cleaning equipment and materials with the proper disinfectants. That simply will not work with profit-driven hospital conglomerates that consistently short-staff their facilities and cut every possible corner in hospital administration. These hospitals, and research labs tasked with identifying Candida strains found in patients, need to be taken into public ownership, fully funded, and equipped to the fullest extent to provide state-of-the-art diagnostic and treatment services to everyone.
Capitalism is costing us our health. We need Medicare for All so that at the very least, these costs we pay with our bodies aren’t compounded – or left untreated entirely – by sky-high copays and premiums we can’t afford. It’s also important that ordinary people can visit doctors to ask questions and get the best information on concerns they have about their health or new diseases.
As The Last of Us correctly points out, there are no existing vaccines against fungal infections. One promising vaccine in development is struggling to finance even a phase one clinical trial. Yet, even in the best case scenario of a successful trial showing efficacy in humans, there will be further years-long hurdles to fast-track manufacturing and make it truly accessible to all. We can’t go through another COVID scenario of patent protections and bumbling public health authorities sabotaging the administration of treatment to the point of allowing worse variants to spread. We need massive public investment in research, testing, and manufacturing of promising vaccines and antimicrobial medications – and this can only be possible by throwing off the fetter of profit incentives and private capital in healthcare.
Fungus, with its billion-year history, rich diversity, and life-sustaining properties, is no enemy to human welfare. It can play a vital role in curing diseases and restoring damaged ecosystems. Fungal mycelium can even be used to create eco-friendly building materials from insulation to textiles. But like everything in nature, whether or not it’s allowed to benefit society to the fullest, or to wreak havoc, will depend on whether or not we can build a society that fundamentally works in the interests of humanity.