Covid-19, emerging diseases and capitalism

Nof Azulay, Coventry Socialist Alternative

The spread of Covid-19 has now hit worldwide. At the time of writing there are more than 1 million confirmed cases of people infected by coronavirus and more than 50,000 who have lost their lives. The spread could have been significantly reduced if swift and far-reaching measures such as mass testing had been taken, as well as if public health systems had not faced massive cuts, privatisation and underfunding in recent decades. But what caused the virus to emerge in the first place? Could it all have been prevented?

The outbreak of Covid-19 and the animal trade industry

Nature magazine published research showing an almost identical genome sequence between Covid-19 and the one of a coronavirus in pangolins, the most trafficked animal in the world. Pangolins are trafficked and sold for their scales that are used in traditional medicine. Their meat is considered a luxury product. They were also sold in the wet market in Wuhan, a very crowded market without any basic sanitary conditions, drainage and proper hygiene standards. All first cases of Covid-19 were found among people who visited that market. It is likely that Covid-19 was transmitted to pangolins by horseshoe bats in China, as bats are known as reservoirs of a significant number of zoonotic viruses that, as a result of spillover, can be transmitted to humans.

The spillover of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which is also a type of coronavirus, in 2002 happened in a similar way. Many scientists claim that it is likely the SARS virus was transmitted to humans by Civet cats that were sold for their meat in restaurants for the rich and wealthy in Guangdong province in China. Professor Yuen Kwok-Yung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, said in 2003: "If you cannot control further jumping of such viruses from animals to humans, the same epidemic can occur again - so it is very important that we have ways of controlling the rearing, the slaughtering and the selling of these wild game animals."

Unfortunately, he was right. Despite the outbreak of SARS, in the interests of the profiteering of wild animal trade, related industries, wet markets and the trade itself has continued to operate without much regulation and restriction. A 2017 report by the Chinese Academy of Engineering found that the wild animal farming industry is estimated to make over £57 billion in profits a year. This laid the basis for an online campaign on Weibo social media opposing live animal trade under the hashtag #rejectgamemeat. Up until a few weeks ago, wild-animal farms continued to operate openly and legally. Last February, the Chinese government posed a ban for trading wild animals for food - but not when trading for fur, medicine or research.

Not a ‘Chinese phenomena’

However, unlike the xenophobic and anti-Asian propaganda that was the prompt response of Trump and Co, this is not a ‘Chinese phenomena’ or a ‘Chinese virus’. Spillover of viruses from animals can also be caused by birds or pigs as we saw with cases of Avian flu (‘bird flu’) or Swine flu. The worryingly widespread use of antibiotics in chicken and other animals in industrialized farming also allows emergence of bacteria resistant to antibiotics that can be transmitted to humans as well. The World Health Organisation says that antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health. But despite the warnings, their systematic and non-essential use in farming continues.

Despite the advancements in medicine, research and science, in the last 50 years there has been an increase in the number of emerging zoonotic diseases - pathogens that are transmitted to humans by animals. Research found 75% of emerging infectious diseases originate in wild animals, as they host a lot of viruses unknown to our immune systems that can pose a big risk. Such diseases include SARS and MERS (which are also types of coronavirus), Ebola, Zika, Nipah virus, Avian Flu and even HIV. These all had high mortality rates compared to Covid-19 and have presented a real threat to the health and wellbeing of humans. EcoHealth, an NGO, predicts that such spillovers will likely double or even triple over the next decade.

Environmental and ecological destruction - a health risk

One of the main reasons for this is the environmental impact of agriculture, farming and mining. Agriculture and farming, for example, regularly involve deforestation that results in changes to and destruction of the habitats of wildlife. This creates potential for much closer contact between wild animals, livestock and humans. The profit-driven oil and mineral mining industry often involves the incursion of population into uninhabited land which can dramatically change and destroy wildlife habitats as well.

The outbreak of Ebola in 2014, a deadly disease with a mortality rate of 50%-90%, started in a small village in Guinea’s Gueckedou Forest Region. Not long before the outbreak, the region went through an extreme deforestation carried out by the mining and lumber industries. As a result, the interaction of locals with natural carriers of the virus, such as Fruit Bats, Chimpanzees and other types of monkeys, became more frequent. Scientists found that Ebola outbreaks are most likely to happen in villages in Sub-Saharan Africa that are near areas that have experienced deforestation within the previous two years. They focused on 27 cases of Ebola outbreaks in the years 2001-2014 and found out that 25 out of these cases happened in areas that experienced massive deforestation not long before the outbreak.

The last couple of years saw massive deforestation in many places, including Australia, Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia and Siberia. According to Global Forest Watch, more than 12 million hectares of forests were lost in 2018, which is the size of Belgium. Last year was not less deadly, with wildfires in Amazon - most of them essentially man-made by major landlords, whose interests are faithfully represented by the right-wing capitalist government of Bolsonaro. Australia's wildfires caused the burning of over 10 million hectares of land and were heavily boosted by climate change. The rise of global temperatures in itself increases not only the frequency of wildfires but also the threat of droughts. All this is contributing to the growing threat posed by the emergence of new infectious diseases.

Urbanisation, poverty and climate change

Urbanisation and lack of infrastructure can also increase the potential of widespread outbreaks. Rats, fleas and mosquitos are potential carriers of many diseases. They tend to thrive in poor areas where there is lack of proper infrastructure, sanitation, waste removal, clean water and access to health facilities. There has been a 30-fold rise in cases of Dengue fever over the last 50 years, and with the rapid urbanisation across much of Asia, many more people are susceptible to contact with open water sources which are a breeding ground for mosquitoes - the transmitters of the virus.

The outbreak of the Zika virus in 2015, which is from the same virus group as the Dengue, was also thought to be encouraged by rising temperatures caused by global warming. The Zika virus can spread at temperatures between 18°C and 34°C . As a result, the outbreak was mostly in tropical or subtropical areas where summer temperatures reach such levels. In 2015,oBrazil had one of the warmest and driest winters and springs on record, which allowed the virus to continue to spread throughout the year. Hotter weather in both cases of Dengue and Zika provide much more fertile conditions for mosquitoes carrying the disease to breed.

Lack of infrastructure and facilities is not just a problem of ‘developing’ or ‘third-world countries’. In the US, residents of Flint, Michigan didn’t have access to clean water as it was contaminated with elevated levels of lead that could cause poisoning, resulting in many possibly lethal illnesses. Israel was recently on the brink of Rabies epidemic as a result of major cuts in the veterinary services of the Agriculture Ministry. Two years before the outbreak, the agriculture ministry decided to stop vaccinating jackals and foxes against Rabies. A decade of austerity in the UK has included council cuts in waste collections leaving refuse workers overstretched and sometimes forced to take strike action in defense of these services. Less than a quarter of the councils in England have bin collections every week. 15% of UK councils have waste collection every three or even four weeks (!).

Capitalism - a health risk!

Destruction of habitats and the environment more generally clearly poses a threat to our health. This is not done in the interests of ordinary workers and poor but instead to meet the demand of big business to make profit. Just 100 corporations have been responsible for more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. They clearly bear central responsibility for climate change.

The cases of outbreaks of infectious diseases demonstrate the need for a democratic and socialist planning of production, for need not profit. A democratic plan of food production, with the major agricultural giants and food distributors taken out of the hands of big business and into public ownership, would allow for the elimination of the grotesque waste that currently takes place, and ensure environmentally sustainable food production and distribution to meet peoples needs.

At the same time, a just transition to sustainable and renewable energy is needed in order to fight climate change, which is undoubtedly a major factor contributing to the spread of diseases, including through creating more favorable conditions for transmitters of viruses like mosquitoes and pests. But just as in agriculture, the problem is you can't control what you don't own. To fully move away from fossil fuels, it's necessary to take the major energy companies out of private hands and place them under the democratic control of working-class people. Transformation to renewable energy, could rapidly reduce the demand for mining, as well as deforestation and ecological destruction which were found as related to the outbreak of Ebola and potentially other diseases originating in wild animals. Massive investment in infrastructure could also help prevent spread of diseases and breeding of pests.

Ultimately, confronting the ecological crisis our world faces requires a complete reorganisation of society. It requires us to move away from production based on profit, and towards a democratic plan based meeting the needs and desires of the majority - not lining the pockets of a wealthy few. This is why we need to build an international, socialist movement to break with capitalism.

Only a socialist society, in which working-class people democratically control what is produced and how, can we hope to point a way towards a safe and environmentally sustainable future for humanity. In this way, the needs and interests of the majority of the world’s population will be put first, and public health will be the priority, not private profit.