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Coronavirus: not the first one, neither the last one

Today’s media emphasise our personal responsibility – just they do in the case of the environmental catastrophe – and portray people who weark their masks, work from home, and support small entrepreneurs by ordering food as responsible citizens and heroes of today. In my opinion, this distracts our attention from the cause of the current crisis and from thinking about how to change our social and economic system. We can already see that the consequences of this pandemic are and will be terrible, but what is even scarier is the possibility that this crisis will not kickstart a global reflection on industrial farming, public health services, the reasons behind migration waves and the radical changes necessary to minimise and defeat future pandemics like COVID-19. Before “going back to normal,” let’s try to understand how the biological and the social elements are connected in the spreading of the virus, how much it is linked to contemporary capitalism, why states abandoned all their affairs to fight the coronavirus, and who bears the brunt of the crisis.

COVID-19 is a consequence of our system, not a natural disaster

If I remember correctly, the names of the latest widespread epidemics are associated with animal names. Avian flu and swine flu were the known nexuses of economics and epidemiology. It is unlikely the blame lies on the animals, but rather on for whom and how they are brought up. An excellent study “Microbiological Class War In China” reveals the not-so-obvious relationships between the socio-economic sphere and the biological one in urban settings, and points to the phenomenon of epidemics as a “shadow of the capitalist industry”. The authors claim that the spread of new diseases among the population is almost always “the product of the evolutionary pressure cooker of capitalist agriculture and urbanization”.

Historically, epidemic outbreaks have occurred in domesticated species only after periods of hostilities or environmental disasters that exerted increased pressure on livestock. With the development of capitalism, however, agribusiness increasingly moves to poor rural communities with unregulated animal rearing due to the international commodity relations and regular labour migration). In these industrial farms, the sole purpose of the animal is to reach the condition fit for slaughter and and then be sold as meat on the market (or other commodities, depending on the business.  These farms are characterised by homogeneity and poor rearing conditions. As opposed to the wild, where rich biodiversity is making it less likely for a virus to spread, industrial farms are incubators for emerging viruses. By an evolutionary logic, in order to survive, a virus – once it reaches a farm –  has to learn how to mutate quickly and transfer easily, killing livestock. It’s like throwing a match on spilled gasoline. In the case of an outbreak, the infection is usually suppressed through mass slaughter – as was the case with the 2018-2019 global African swine fever, which resulted in a loss of a quarter of the world’s pork supply. The logic of the business is simple: the virus must not spread to other animals (and even if the disease can be cured, it is often not economically viable). Ironically, this leads, firstly, to animals without immunity and, secondly, to the unintended effect of increasing the strength of the virus. Today, an increase in the intensity and virulence of viral diseases follows the spread of capitalist production which puts ongoing and unprecedented pressure on livestock in industrial animal farms and related operations (markets, etc.).

In the last half century, massive industrial agribusinesses has given rise to a number of deadly viral diseases of animal origin, including SARS coronaviruses. Another threat to global health evolving in these farms is the growing antimicrobial (AMR) and antibacterial resistance. The World Health Organization has already called for minimal use of antibiotics in industrial animal farms to control bacteria, since 700,000 people die every year due to antimicrobial resistant bacteria. By 2050 more people will die of AMR than of cancer.

Photo credit: Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Wuhan is an immense urban complex with a 12-million population, which is the core of the steel, concrete and other construction-related industries in China. According to the estimations of Chuang-collective, in 2018-2019, the total area dedicated to construction sites in Wuhan was equivalent to the size of Hong Kong island as a whole. Due to recent government intentions to work toward “wildlife domestication”, rural development and eco-tourism, Wuhan has grown even further. Along with the capture of new territories by industrial agribusinesses, people living in the Global South are being forced out. We can see both penetration into not yet captured pristine territories (forests, deserts, swamps) and new urban areas built specifically for them (and by them!) – places characterised by a lack of necessary sanitary facilities and health care.

The spread of new diseases among people is often the result of zoonotic transmission. In other words, a jump of the virus from animal to human. This bounce is affected by the proximity and frequency of the species contacts. If the interaction between humans and animals changes, the conditions in which such diseases develop also change. Living in close relationships with domesticated animals (both pets and livestock) for thousands of years led to us sharing a lot of parasites and pathogens with them which facilitate virus transmission. If a virus from the wild makes it into a livestock farm it will be easily passed to humans too. Indeed, findings (here and here) show that due to these parasites and pathogens we share with the animals, the transmission of new diseases from the wild mainly happens through this intensive relationship we have with our domesticated animals. The convergence of these agribusiness farms and construction industries in the mega-city of Wuhan, especially directly connected to wildlife farms offers a flourishing environment for the virus to spread.

The system’s beneficiaries must pay for its consequences

Usually two factors are mentioned as increasing the possibility of death in case of coronavirus disease: old age and chronic diseases, especially hypertension, respiratory diseases and diabetes. However, some studies show firstly, that people with lower income are diagnosed with coronavirus 10% more often, and secondly, chronic diseases appear 5-15 years earlier among them. In other words, if vulnerability to COVID-19 starts at age 70 for the middle class, it starts at 55 among the unprivileged. This means that being less privileged during what-we-call-the-normal-life might put you on the edge of the existence during crisis-times. The biggest danger, though, is among those who continue to work every day: health workers, grocery workers, social workers and care workers, parents of minor children, and people doing housework, delivery workers and mail carriers, street cleaners and people working in waste facilities. No less great is the burden on people who cannot afford to work from home. Among them are those who do not have access to paid sick leave but have loans and rents to pay. They might risk catching the virus and having no insurance. There are those who have lost or are losing their jobs – your English teacher, your sports instructor, your nail technician and hairdresser which with whom you have been avoiding contact; construction workers, taxi drivers, restaurants and leisure industry workers. In Hungary, there are already places where hunger hit well before coronavirus, such as in Borsod. People whom we cannot even see are in greater danger: homeless people, refugees, people in closed medical institutions, prisons and detention centers, those who are stuck between borders, as well as children and women who are subjected to domestic violence.

Hundreds of millions are lacking safety from the virus, let alone financial security from the economic consequences of the pandemic. There is little systematic support and help from the system’s beneficiaries. Pharmacy and grocery workers deserve more than just a ‘thank you’ for serving us; they deserve at least the real choice between working and taking risks or being with their family and staying safe. Let’s make sure by the next crises – caused by climate change or unknown infectious diseases – all the people will at least have safety and protection, having the owners of hundred fuel companies, accounting for 71% of global emissions covering the costs.

The Hypocrisy of the Commanders-in-Chief

The survival experience today is getting complicated also by a necessity to slow the spread of the virus to avoid overloading the health care system. In other words, to avoid the death of those who could survive if they received decent medical care. Hospitals have been underinvested in for years in Russia, Hungary, Italy, Iran and Venezuela. Private clinics focus on wealthy clients and do not work with structural medical issues. There are countries like Georgia where 80% of the hospitals are in private hands, facing a challange now to serve the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. The health care public systems have been “destroyed” by the latest phase of capitalism these countries went through. What are the governments doing to guarantee free health care for ALL people when the next pandemic hits?

States do not challenge the system that generated the crisis but act according to their role within it – being a back-up for a capitalist regime in which on the one hand, the minority benefits from the work of the majority and on the other, owning many resources and influencing the distribution of capital. Today, they primarily want to return to December 2019, ignoring the fact that this would mean returning to the system that generated the virus and the pandemic in the first place.

Nevertheless, the logic of the virus dictates the state to act in the social sphere too. We have been facing unprecedented social measures, which even a month ago would be considered utopic generosity. In many countries, payments for mortgages and some loans can be suspended, people can have uninterrupted access to the essential needs such as water, electricity and gas without paying bills. Prisoners’ amnesty took place in several states, the biggest has happened in Iran: they temporarily released 54 thousand prisoners. In America, the homeless are occupying empty houses, and the state makes zero attempts to drive them out of there: it even finds hotel rooms for some of them. Governments of more than ten countries are paying 60-80% of private companies’ employee salaries to avoid layoffs! These reforms along with the impending economic crisis made some of us believe that this is how the end of capitalism could look like. The logic of the virus dictates that we cannot ignore workers, the homeless, prisoners, migrants… It is not surprising that we feel connected to each other in ways we never had felt before. The well-being of one affects the well-being of the other. COVID-19 does not discriminate: everyone can get sick and transmit the virus. As soon as wealthy people are potentially affected, the remedy for the more marginalized is found immediately. The states did not change their values or consciously changed their politics in favour of protecting the most vulnerable as some authors and philosophers advocate. Instead, they keep protecting the privileged.

Governments immediately joined the war against coronavirus because this is the war from which they will surely emerge as saviours. A states’ typical weapons are used: administrative resources (isolation of symptomatic cases and quarantine of their family members, social distance for the entire population and the prohibition of public gatherings, the closure of educational institutions) and militarization of streets. In the case of South Korea, and partially in Russia, these measures are replaced (or backed up) with an unprecedented surveillance. M. Foucault described the situation as “the penetration of regulation into even the smallest details of everyday life through the mediation of the complete hierarchy that assured the capillary functioning of power” with the assignment to each person where to go, where to stay and how to behave. The state in this story declares how strong it is and how important it is for humanity to have a strong state. I am not saying here that the fight against coronavirus is not important or is not worth fighting, but other problems are no less significant, although silenced. Poverty kills, domestic violence kills, air pollution kills, corporations also kill (see here and here). Surprisingly, the “corona-crisis” demonstrates that these battles can be won: according to Stanford University researchers, for example, reduced air pollution during lockdown in China might save potentially four thousand children and 73 thousand elderly people. Those problems are not being challenged though.

Back To the vicious circle

With the infection outbreak, humankind is reminded that one of the biggest challenges we face today is rethinking social and economic relationships to the non-human world and not treating it as commodity. This system facilitates the emergence of diseases and their uneven spread throughout the world. Located at the periphery of the global capitalist system, Asia and Africa stand out as the two most vulnerable continents. It is not a coincidence that the urbanisation and industrialisation of these two continents is fuelled by western capital which has no long-term responsibility over the consequences of their activities. Wuhan happened to be the starting point this time. The question is: where and when will the next outbreak strike?

Do you know what would be the saddest? When the vaccine is found (or the weather kills the virus), people in all countries will be choked with loans again, burning themselves out at work in precarious conditions. Basic medical services will be again unafordable, domestic work–unpaid, while health and social workers will be underpaid. No universal income will be made permanent. Water, electricity and gas are turned off for the most vulnerable, who will never find a decently paid job. Sewing and IT factories in Asia will go back to overproduction, and people will keep working for pennies. Borders will be made even stronger by the experience and yet migrant workers from Central Asia will again try to make ends meet in Russia while the middle class will return to its travels. Bank and corporations will turn out to have been the main beneficiaries of the state’s largess. Agricultural businessmen will produce even more pork and chicken with little care for animals and new viruses will be thus born. Despite the evidence of how deep and complex human interconnections are, we will still face the same world order, which is the source of our problems. Instead of investing in our healthcare system and restructuring the social system, we will return to overproduction and work for the profit of companies and their owners. We are already paying for this crisis and will pay for another one. We will be told once again that technology is the key to our salvation. Will we believe it?

Written by Irina Redkina. Edited by Agota Csoma.

Irina Redkina is a feminist and sociologist, who is interested in labour history and gender struggle in Eastern Europe. She grew up in a coal-mining town in Russia, and spent most of her working life in publishing in Saint Petersburg and providing administrative support to two lawyers advocating for labor migrants. For the last six years, Irina has been living and working in Budapest. Irina holds an MA in Social Anthropology from Central European University. She has a diverse working experience in publishing, human rights advocacy, event logistics, babysitting and floristry.