By Mision Verdad – April 27, 2020
What the new coronavirus pandemic has made very clear is that the profit motive in the capitalist system can be deadly. Of course, this crisis triggered on multiple levels by Covid-19 will have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups, mainly.
The risk of infection threatens workers in industrial sectors that have refused to stop their operations and take appropriate measures to protect them. But the virus also haunts marginalized populations around the world: refugees and migrants in European countries, for example, lack institutions that protect their health and well-being in those societies.
Francesco Della Puppa exposed the impact of the pandemic on immigrants, from refugees to asylum seekers in Italy, during an interview for Radio Melting Pot.
He relates that the Italian authorities have not taken minimum measures for the homeless in that country, which increasingly includes refugees and asylum seekers fleeing war and violence in North Africa. They live in settlements with poor sanitary conditions, where contagion is very likely. They can also be excluded from social programs, such as food supply aid, if they do not have certain documents.
The consequences of social and economic exclusion have been highlighted with the spread of the virus. However, it is the introductory reflection in the interview with Della Puppa that concerns us, when he emphasizes that “there is nothing directly natural in the spread” of the new coronavirus.
And this does not mean giving encouragement to the various conspiracy theories that have emerged, much less those delusional stories that from the United States have taken force to evade the problem accusing the People’s Republic of China for the spread of the virus.
For Della Puppa there is a combination of factors, all focused on the globalized organization of capitalism and its productive relationships, which have laid fertile ground for the development of new viruses and their evolution to transmission between humans.
Let’s review some of them.
The incidence of viruses and agro-industrial food production
The increase in industrial animal husbandry is creating conditions conducive to the spread of pathogens that could otherwise be stopped. Monocultures of domestic animals, overcrowded farms, with depressed immune systems, facilitate transmission rates for any virus strain that gets there.
“These animals, more easily attacked by viruses, become the so-called ‘spillover’, or the jump from one species to another, until the virus reaches humans. Because they are kept alive by force, inside an intensive breeding farm, ” says Della Puppa.
In the book Big Farms Make the Big Flu, phylogeographer Rob Wallace investigates the connections between industrial farming practices and viral epidemiology.
Interviewed for the Real News Network, he exemplifies this uniqueness of industrial production by reviewing the evolution of African swine fever, a virus that is transmitted between pigs and that is having a disastrous effect on food security in Asia, where the population is highly dependent on pork for protein consumption. The slaughter of millions of infected animals has skyrocketed pork prices by 40% globally.
“African swine fever began in sub-Saharan Africa as a wild pathogen transmitted between the warthog and local soft ticks (…) in the 1920s it began to spread to domestic pig production. In 1950, it made its way in the Iberian Peninsula, in Portugal and Spain, where it circulated for about 30 years before being crushed. However, it was in 2007 when the virus emerged in a way that exploded across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. And then, in 2018, it appeared in China. But the important thing is to understand that pathogens go through these changes in terms of their success in relation to the opportunities provided to them.”
By manipulating high population densities, monocultures eliminate any “immune firewalls” because, once the virus kills its host, it can easily enter the next to continue to reproduce.
In the specific case of African swine fever, the virus has not made the leap to contagion of humans. But “thousands of farmers and meat processors and cleaning teams are being exposed to the virus (…) there is always the possibility that pathogens may develop the ability to go from human to human,” Wallace warns.
Environmental deforestation and mining devastation
The capitalist lifestyle has intensified deforestation of remote natural environments to expand the territories of industrial agriculture and livestock, exploit rare metals that serve the production of modern technologies, or expand the large metropolis.
In addition, the appearance of “huge peri-urban areas, with very poor sanitary conditions,” says Della Puppa, make it easier for viruses to attack and spread, “which find these ideal urban habitats in these dense urban environments.”
The story of the bat in the Wuhan market, beyond the attempt to make it a Chinese exceptionalism, reflects how the pathogens, that were once confined to forests and jungles, are released by multinational companies that take over the land and exploit it following the neoliberal model for economic gains.
Deforestation, mining, road construction and “hyper-urbanization” destroy the natural habitats of animals and areas of great biological diversity.
To all this, Della Puppa adds that the melting of the polar ice caps, a product of global warming, will also release “swarms of unknown viruses, trapped for thousands of years in glaciers, with unpredictable consequences.”
The pandemic is also rooted in capitalism’s disruptions on the ecosystem.
The Covid-19 could be prevented, but was not profitable
“Several research institutes in China or, for example, in 2012, the German Koch Institute, already announced that all the conditions were in place for a virus likely from Asian markets to infect the world, and described the symptoms and ways in which that Covid-19 could become infectious.”
Just as Della Puppa stresses that the pandemic was predictable, researchers specializing in the various strains of the coronavirus agree that pharmaceutical companies could have started developing a vaccine and treatments for the virus years ago.
This is what the structural biologist Rolf Hilgenfeld, who has been working on treatments against coronaviruses since SARS (a previous coronavirus outbreak), in 2002–2003, says.
In January, when Covid-19’s virulent behavior had not been determined, Hilgenfeld noted that companies were not spending resources on coronavirus research because “the total number of people infected, if you combine SARS, MERS, and this new virus , is less than 12,500 people. That is not a big enough market, the number of cases is too small.”
Pharmaceutical companies would not risk investing in a drug to treat unpredictable outbreaks in its impact and profit potential, even though ten years of coronavirus research alerted to the latent threat of this family of diseases.
This logic of producing medicines for profit and not to meet human needs is summarized in one fact: several international viral outbreaks (SARS-CoV-1, MERS, Zika, Ebola, among others) have broken into the 21st century, costing thousands of lives. So far, only the Ebola vaccine has hit the market.
If we examine the elements that brought us to the pandemic, we will easily recognize that the only way to stop the spread of viruses and systemic crises lies in the slowdown and countermeasures that can be applied against late capitalism and the structures that support it.
Featured image: ‘Wetiko’ is the term that Native American Indians use to name the “virus” of selfishness. Illustration: Liana Buszka
Translated by JRE/EF