(Rob Wallace, a socialist biologist explains the tight links between new viruses, industrial food production, and the profitability of multinational corporations. Yaak Pabst for the German socialist magazine Marx21 spoke to evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu (Monthly Review Press, 2016) about the dangers of Covid-19, the responsibility of agribusiness and sustainable solutions to combat infectious diseases. We reproduce excerpts from the interview.)
YOU have been researching epidemics and their causes for several years. In your book Big Farms Make Big Flu you attempt to draw these connections between industrial farming practices, organic farming and viral epidemiology. What are your insights?
The real danger of each new outbreak is the failure –or better put—the expedient refusal to grasp that each new Covid-19 is no isolated incident. The increased occurrence of viruses is closely linked to food production and the profitability of multinational corporations. Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production. At present, few governments, and few scientists, are prepared to do so. Quite the contrary.
When the new outbreaks spring up, governments, the media, and even most of the medical establishment are so focused on each separate emergency that they dismiss the structural causes that are driving multiple marginalized pathogens into sudden global celebrity, one after the other.
The neoliberal restructuring of the health care system has worsened both the research and the general care of patients, for example in hospitals. What difference could a better funded healthcare system make to fight the virus?
There’s the terrible but telling story of the Miami medical device company employee who upon returning from China with flu-like symptoms did the righteous thing by his family and community and demanded a local hospital test him for Covid-19. He worried that his minimal Obamacare option wouldn’t cover the tests. He was right. He was suddenly on the hook for US$3270.
An American demand might be an emergency order be passed that stipulates that during a pandemic outbreak, all outstanding medical bills related to testing for infection and for treatment following a positive test would be paid for by the federal government. We want to encourage people to seek help, after all, rather than hide away—and infect others—because they can’t afford treatment. The obvious solution is a national health service—fully staffed and equipped to handle such community-wide emergencies—so that such a ridiculous problem as discouraging community cooperation would never arise.
As soon as the virus is discovered in one country, governments everywhere react with authoritarian and punitive measures, such as a compulsory quarantine of entire areas of land and cities. Are such drastic measures justified?
Using an outbreak to beta-test the latest in autocratic control post-outbreak is disaster capitalism gone off the rails. In terms of public health, I would err on the side of trust and compassion, which are important epidemiological variables. Without either, jurisdictions lose their populations’ support.
A sense of solidarity and common respect is a critical part of eliciting the cooperation we need to survive such threats together. Self-quarantines with the proper support–check-ins by trained neighborhood brigades, food supply trucks going door-to-door, work release and unemployment insurance–can elicit that kind of cooperation, that we are all in this together.
As you may know, in Germany with the AfD we have a de facto Nazi party with 94 seats in parliament. The hard Nazi Right and other groups in association with AfD politicians use the Corona-Crisis for their agitation. They spread (false) reports about the virus and demand more authoritarian measures from the government: Restrict flights and entry stops for migrants, border closures and forced quarantine…
Travel bans and border closures are demands with which the radical right wants to to racialize what are now global diseases. This is, of course, nonsense. At this point, given the virus is already on its way to spreading everywhere, the sensible thing to do is to work on developing the kind of public health resilience in which it doesn’t matter who shows up with an infection, we have the means to treat and cure them. Of course, stop stealing people’s land abroad and driving the exoduses in the first place, and we can keep the pathogens from emerging in the first place.
What would be sustainable changes?
In order to reduce the emergence of new virus outbreaks, food production has to change radically. Farmer autonomy and a strong public sector can curb environmental ratchets and runaway infections. Introduce varieties of stock and crops—and strategic rewilding—at both the farm and regional levels. Permit food animals to reproduce on-site to pass on tested immunities. Connect just production with just circulation. Subsidize price supports and consumer purchasing programs supporting agro-ecological production. Defend these experiments from both the compulsions that neoliberal economics impose upon individuals and communities alike and the threat of capital-led State repression.
What should socialists call for in the face of the increasing dynamics of disease outbreaks?
Agribusiness as a mode of social reproduction must be ended for good if only as a matter of public health. Highly capitalized production of food depends on practices that endanger the entirety of humanity, in this case helping unleash a new deadly pandemic.
We should demand food systems be socialized in such a way that pathogens this dangerous are kept from emerging in the first place. That will require reintegrating food production into the needs of rural communities first. That will require agro-ecological practices that protect the environment and farmers as they grow our food. Big picture, we must heal the metabolic rifts separating our ecologies from our economies. In short, we have a planet to win.
Racism and Internationalism
Trump calls the Covid-19 the “Chinese virus” – a phrase echoed in US and Indian media, which has been a dog whistle triggering racist attacks on Asian people in the US and Europe , and on people of North East states in India.
But racism is not the only response the world has witnessed in the wake of the pandemic. The courage of the medical community, and their exemplary acts of internationalist solidarity, are truly inspiring.
Japan sent relief supplies to help China when it was the first country to be hit by Covid-19. The relief supply boxes had the words of a 1300 year-old Chinese poem on them, which read “Even though we live at different places, we live under the same sky.”
These words of solidarity, from a country with whom China has historically had a bitter and strained relationship), moved the people of China deeply.
Likewise, when China sent doctors and relief supplies to Italy, the boxes of relief supplies and medical equipment carried the words from a Roman poem: “China sent medical masks to Italy, & wrote on the boxes a quote of a Roman poem: “We are waves from the same sea.”
The legendary leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro, had once declared, “Our country doesn’t drop bombs on other people. We don’t have biological or nuclear bombs. We train our doctors to help other nations.” In keeping with its long tradition of generously sharing its medical expertise, the tiny Communist-led Cuba sent teams of doctors and nurses to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Suriname, Grenada and Italy. A news report observed, “The Caribbean island has sent its “armies of white robes” to disaster sites around the world largely in poor countries since its 1959 revolution. Its doctors were in the front lines in the fight against cholera in Haiti and against ebola in West Africa in the 2010s.”
Long live internationalist solidarity – against Coronavirus, as well as against fascism, capitalism, and imperialism!
Coronavirus Precautions and Protections Must Cover India’s Most Vulnerable
The CPIML Central Committee in its meeting held at Kolkata on 14-16 March announced that it is suspending all mass mobilisations till 31 March as a precaution to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
With such a virus, all people including the most privileged are only as safe as the weakest and most deprived sections of society. India’s lack of a robust public health infrastructure and affordable and quality healthcare makes India especially vulnerable. The vast majority of Indians dependent on daily wage labour and other forms of precarious employment in the informal sector will find it hard to survive with so many avenues of work being shut down. They will also find it impossible to maintain social distancing and preventive hygiene without adequate compensation and support.
The CPIML demands that the Central and State Governments
- Increase capacities for free Coronavirus testing and quarantine in Govt hospitals and health centres
- Ensure paid leave for all waged workers, and compensation and free rations for all non waged workers to facilitate social distancing.
- Announce postponement of census and other surveys, formally announce cancellation of NPR survey plans. This is important since enumerators will be potential victims and carriers of the virus.
- Urgently release all persons from detention centres, and release all undertrials to prevent overcrowding in jails. Take steps to ensure that hygienic precautions are maintained in jails, shelter homes, relief camps and the like.
- Provide soap, water and hand sanitisers to every poor and deprived household in India. Strictly prevent hoarding of sanitisers, masks, and other essential items.
- Certain sections of people will have no choice but to continue to work, to maintain essential services. These include health workers, as well as farmers and farm labourers who need to perform harvesting and sowing work at the right time. These sections of people must be provided with all the necessary means (at public cost) to maintain hygienic precautions.
The CPIML appealed to all people to resist rumours and not succumb to panic, and to responsibly maintain all the necessary precautions.
In response to a CPIML appeal, people all over India observe the whole day of 22 March as a day of social solidarity in the face of the Corona Virus disaster. CPIML also directed its cadres to organise a sustained Stop Covid-19 drive all over the country, helping to provide relief, rations and other provisions, as well as social support networks for the most vulnerable sections of society including informal sector workers, daily wage workers, sex workers, the elderly, the sick and the self-quarantined.