Corona, capitalism and nature
A fatal system error
by Marijke Colle*
[This article published in May 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.sozonline.de/2020/05/ein-toedlicher-systemfehler/.]
Within a few days in March, the entire automotive industry came to a standstill. By the end of March, 1.2 million fewer cars had already been produced. The entire aviation industry is on the ground.
In the year before, 4.5 billion people had flown, that was 46.8 million flights. All this is the result of the worldwide spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the cause of the new disease, officially called Covid-19.
At the moment, the virus is spreading at an unprecedented speed in a human population that has never come into contact with the virus and has therefore not been able to develop immunity to it. Just like the Ebola virus, the HI virus, avian flu and other types of flu, it has been transmitted from animals to humans. In nature it probably lives on bats. The pandemic originated from the often illegal and undocumented trade in wild animals - starting from a market in Wuhan, where bats were sold in large numbers.
The so-called Spanish flu, which killed between 20 and 40 million people in 1918, was caused by a virus that is now called H1N1. Other influenza viruses followed: the "Asian flu" in 1957/58 with one million dead; the "Hong Kong flu" (H3N2) with 750000 dead. The virus, which destroyed pig farms in Mexico in 2009, spread rapidly to North America, but also to Europe and Asia. This virus is less dangerous to humans, yet the World Health Organization (WHO) has announced 17483 deaths.
There were twenty epidemics of avian or swine flu worldwide between 1959 and 2003. New variants of avian flu have been found in wild birds, but also in industrial chicken, duck and turkey farms. On 30 May 2015, 43 million birds were recorded in the USA as having died from the H5N8 virus; in November 2016 the virus appeared on poultry farms in the Netherlands. In 2007, the virus spread from wild pigs in Africa to pig farms in Georgia, then Russia, Poland and later China, which is the world's largest pig producer, accounting for half of world production. The Chinese authorities decided to kill 38000 pigs in 2018.
SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is caused by a completely different type of virus called corona. A first epidemic was reported in China in 2002-2004. At that time there were about 8000 infections and at least 774 deaths. The WHO warned the authorities several times of a deadly new pandemic and insisted on the urgency of research into the virus and vaccines against it. But when the danger seemed to have passed, nothing more happened.
The fears of scientists have now become a harsh reality. After China, the governments in Europe, the United States and, more recently, Russia have taken action. First, however, hundreds of thousands of people had to be infected and thousands, mostly old people, died. Italy and Spain are among the countries with the highest death toll. It is no coincidence that these countries have made particularly severe cuts to their health systems, especially after the financial crisis of 2008/2009. Other heads of state, such as Trump, Bolsonaro or Boris Johnson, have attracted attention by dramatically underestimating or even denying the crisis - just as they previously denied climate change. Industrial production should be kept going at all costs.
The deeper causes of the pandemic must be sought in a number of typical features of neo-liberal globalization that are not being questioned:
First of all, there is the contact between wild animals and humans. It is facilitated by the sale of wild animals, such as the bat in China, which is considered a delicacy here, or bushmeat in Africa. The virus also infects humans by destroying ecosystems, like the Zika virus in South America. The widespread deforestation of tropical rainforests and the explosive growth of megacities in many parts of the global south are adding to this and increasing the risk of new viral diseases, especially in overcrowded slums where there is a lack of sanitary infrastructure.
Then there is the sharp increase in air travel, which means that a virus like SARS-CoV-2 could spread around the world in just nine days. Belgians have imported it from their skiing in northern Italy. It is currently breaking out again in China and South Korea, imported by people flying back home.
Industrial agriculture, with its intensive animal husbandry and plantation management at the expense of natural, species-rich forests that form ecosystems, is also an important factor in the repeated occurrence of epidemics.
The policy of deregulation and globalization that began under Reagan and Thatcher has mercilessly focused on the "total market" and the privatization of services. The famous mad cow disease in Great Britain in 2000 was a direct consequence of the relaxation of the rules for the production of meat and bone meal for animal feed.
The health crisis that we are currently experiencing shows that this system does not treat health as a human right, but rather as an economic sector which, above all, has to make a profit. The privatization of hospitals, the cuts in the number of beds and nursing staff, the reduction in funding for research institutes, the preferential treatment of profitable research and development in the pharmaceutical industry - all this is the result of the orientation towards the "total market". In the majority of the "rich" countries, the production of pharmaceuticals has been outsourced to low-wage countries, especially to China. The tragic shortage of respirators and other protective equipment, and even the shortage of ventilators, are the result of criminal negligence.
The discussion about the prospects after the crisis has only just begun. A voice of the "intelligent bourgeoisie" has found its way into a remarkable editorial in the Financial Times on April 3: "Radical reforms are needed. The policies of the last forty years must be reversed. The government must play a stronger role in the economy. It must no longer regard public services as costs but as investments. It must find ways to make work less precarious and less insecure. Redistribution is back on the agenda. The privileges of the rich are once again under scrutiny. Policies such as wealth tax, which were recently considered madness, must be reintroduced."
Such a radical change of course won't be easy. And not even this can ensure a lasting solution. Until the motor of the capitalist system is totally abolished, nothing will change fundamentally.
We need a global plan for a fundamental reform of agriculture: short production and distribution channels, farms with diversified production on an ecological basis, without pesticides and chemical fertilizers. This requires public subsidies. The whole sector of agribusiness should be dissolved, including genetic engineering and soil-destroying agricultural machinery.
Biodiversity must be permanently restored by protecting and expanding existing ecosystems.
In national and EU budgets, priority must be given to social needs, especially health and social security for all.
Productivism constantly drives us to consume and buy disposable products, and this must be radically challenged. At present, however, the opposite is happening: we are supposed to order goods on the Internet so that sectors such as the clothing industry can make a profit. This will create even more home deliveries with stinking vans. The idea that all this harmful and polluting overproduction must be stopped is becoming increasingly relevant. It raises the question of restructuring entire economic sectors such as tourism (cruises!), air travel, advertising, but also arms production and the exploitation of fossil fuels.
The Corona crisis makes us think about life and death. Does this stressful life, where one is constantly under pressure, still have a meaning? What is the life of the poor and old worth? There is a growing awareness that this is not the way things should be. Globalized capitalism has placed us in a barbaric, unbearable situation: famine, catastrophic global warming and increasingly dangerous authoritarian political tendencies that may hide behind the "fight against the virus" to launch further attacks on our social rights and on the needs of the 99 percent.
This is what we want to express when we say that capitalism not only exploits human labor, but also destroys nature and the symbiosis between man and the environment on which we depend.
We are not dealing with the "excesses" of world capitalism, but with its fatal system error. Only the organization of collective resistance against all aspects of this system can give hope and perspective to all of us.
* Marijke Colle taught biology and chemistry in her professional life and the International Institute for Research and Education (IIRE)