Capitalism and the Flu

Mike Davis, whose 2006 book The Monster at Our Door warned of the threat of a global bird flu pandemic, explains how globalized agribusiness set the stage for a frightening outbreak of the swine flu in Mexico.

The Spring Break hordes returned from Cancún this year with an invisible but sinister souvenir.

The Mexican swine flu, a genetic chimera probably conceived in the fecal mire of an industrial pigsty, suddenly threatens to give the whole world a fever. Initial outbreaks across North America reveal an infection rate already traveling at higher velocity than the last official pandemic strain, the 1968 Hong Kong flu.

Stealing the limelight from our officially appointed assassin — the otherwise vigorously mutating H5N1, known as bird flu — this porcine virus is a threat of unknown magnitude. Certainly, it seems far less lethal than SARS in 2003, but as an influenza, it may be more durable than SARS and less inclined to return to its secret cave.

Given that domesticated seasonal Type-A influenzas kill as many 1 million people each year, even a modest increment of virulence, especially if coupled with high incidence, could produce carnage equivalent to a major war.

Meanwhile, one of its first victims has been the consoling faith, long preached in the pews of the World Health Organization (WHO), that pandemics can be contained by the rapid responses of medical bureaucracies, independent of the quality of local public health.

Since the initial H5N1 deaths in Hong Kong in 1997, the WHO, with the support of most national health services, has promoted a strategy focused on the identification and isolation of a pandemic strain within its local radius of outbreak, followed by a thorough dousing of the population with anti-viral drugs and (if available) a vaccine.

An army of skeptics has rightly contested this viral counter-insurgency approach, pointing out that microbes can now fly around the world (quite literally in the case of avian flu) faster than the WHO or local officials can react to the original outbreak. They also pointed to the primitive, often nonexistent surveillance of the interface between human and animal diseases.

But the mythology of bold, preemptive (and cheap) intervention against avian flu has been invaluable to the cause of rich countries, like the U.S. and Britain, which prefer to invest in their own biological Maginot Lines, rather than dramatically increase aid to epidemic frontlines overseas — as well as to Big Pharma, which has battled Third World demands for the generic, public manufacture of critical antivirals like Roche’s Tamiflu.

The swine flu, in any case, may prove that the WHO/Centers for Disease Control (CDC) version of pandemic preparedness–without massive new investment in surveillance, scientific and regulatory infrastructure, basic public health and global access to lifeline drugs — belongs to the same class of Ponzified risk management as AIG derivatives and Madoff securities.

It isn’t so much that the pandemic warning system has failed as it simply doesn’t exist, even in North America and the EU.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Mexico lacks both capacity and political will to monitor livestock diseases and their public health impacts, but the situation is hardly better north of the border, where surveillance is a failed patchwork of state jurisdictions, and corporate livestock producers treat health regulations with the same contempt with which they deal with workers and animals.

Similarly, a decade of urgent warnings by scientists in the field has failed to ensure the transfer of sophisticated viral assay technology to the countries in the direct path of likely pandemics. Mexico has world-famous disease experts, but it had to send swabs to a laboratory in Winnipeg (which has less than 3 percent of the population of Mexico City) in order to identify the strain’s genome. Almost a week was lost as a consequence.

But no one was less alert than the legendary disease controllers in Atlanta. According to the Washington Post, the CDC did not learn about the outbreak until six days after the Mexican government had begun to impose emergency measures. Indeed, the Post reported, “U.S. public health officials are still largely in the dark about what’s happening in Mexico two weeks after the outbreak was recognized.”

There should be no excuses. This is not a “black swan” flapping its wings. Indeed, the central paradox of this swine flu panic is that while totally unexpected, it was accurately predicted.

Six years ago, Science dedicated a major story (reported by the admirable Bernice Wuethrich) to evidence that “after years of stability, the North American swine flu virus has jumped onto an evolutionary fast track.”

Since its identification at the beginning of the Depression, H1N1 swine flu had only drifted slightly from its original genome. Then, in 1998, all hell broke loose.

A highly pathogenic strain began to decimate sows on a factory hog farm in North Carolina, and new, more virulent versions began to appear almost yearly, including a weird variant of H1N1 that contained the internal genes of H3N2 (the other type-A flu circulating among humans).

Researchers whom Wuethrich interviewed worried that one of these hybrids might become a human flu (both the 1957 and 1968 pandemics are believed to have originated from the mixing of bird and human viruses inside pigs), and urged the creation of an official surveillance system for swine flu. That admonition, of course, went unheeded in a Washington prepared to throw away billions on bioterrorism fantasies while neglecting obvious dangers.

But what caused this acceleration of swine flu evolution? Probably the same thing that has favored the reproduction of avian flu.

Virologists have long believed that the intensive agricultural system of southern China — an immensely productive ecology of rice, fish, pigs, and domestic and wild birds — is the principal engine of influenza mutation: both seasonal “drift” and episodic genomic “shift.” (More rarely, there may occur a direct leap from birds to pigs and/or humans, as with H5N1 in 1997.)

But the corporate industrialization of livestock production has broken China’s natural monopoly on influenza evolution. As many writers have pointed out, animal husbandry in recent decades has been transformed into something that more closely resembles the petrochemical industry than the happy family farm depicted in schoolbooks.

In 1965, for instance, there were 53 million American hogs on more than 1 million farms; today, 65 million hogs are concentrated in 65,000 facilities, with half of the hogs kept in giant facilities with 5,000 animals or more.

This has been a transition, in essence, from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hells, unprecedented in nature, containing tens, even hundreds of thousands of animals with weakened immune systems, suffocating in heat and manure, while exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity with their fellow inmates and pathetic progenies.

Anyone who has ever driven through Tar Heel, N.C., or Milford, Utah — where Smithfield Foods subsidiaries each annually produce more than 1 million pigs as well as hundreds of lagoons full of toxic shit — will intuitively understand how profoundly agribusiness has meddled with the laws of nature.

Last year, a distinguished commission convened by the Pew Research Center issued a landmark report on “industrial farm animal production” underscoring the acute danger that “the continual cycling of viruses . . . in large herds or flocks [will] increase opportunities for the generation of novel virus through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human-to-human transmission.”

The commission also warned that promiscuous antibiotic use in hog factories (a cheaper alternative to sewer systems or humane environments) was causing the rise of resistant Staph infections, while sewage spills were producing nightmare E. coli outbreaks and Pfisteria blooms (the doomsday protozoan that has killed more than 1 billion fish in the Carolina estuaries and sickened dozens of fishermen).

Any amelioration of this new pathogen ecology, however, would have to confront the monstrous power exercised by livestock conglomerates such as Smithfield Foods (pork and beef) and Tyson (chickens). The Pew commissioners, chaired by former Kansas Gov. John Carlin, reported systemic obstruction of their investigation by corporations, including blatant threats to withhold funding from cooperative researchers.

Moreover, this is a highly globalized industry, with equivalent international political clout. Just as Bangkok-based chicken giant Charoen Pokphand was able to suppress investigations into its role in the spread of bird flu throughout Southeast Asia, so it is likely that the forensic epidemiology of the swine flu outbreak will pound its head against the corporate stone wall of the pork industry.

This is not to say that a smoking gun will never be found: there is already gossip in the Mexican press about an influenza epicenter around a huge Smithfield subsidiary in the state of Veracruz.

But what matters more (especially given the continued threat of H5N1) is the larger configuration: the WHO’s failed pandemic strategy, the further decline of world public health, the stranglehold of Big Pharma over lifeline medicines, and the planetary catastrophe of industrialized and ecologically unhinged livestock production.

This article first appeared in Socialist Worker. Thanks to Alan Maass.

Mike Davis is Mike Davis is a social commentator, urban theorist, historian, and political activist. He is the author of numerous books including, The Monster at Our Door, In Praise of Barbarians: Essays Against Empire, and City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. Read other articles by Mike, or visit Mike's website.

15 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. rg the lg said on April 30th, 2009 at 11:29am #

    Capitalism is a bad thing.

    But, overpopulation is worse.

    Nobody said that population dynamics were anything less than brutal. That is the way it is. But, and this is an important but, if we really want all live humans to share resources, then we have one choice (a zero sum game, really) and that is to allow the natural system to kill off a lot of people. We tinkered with the system … now we pay the piper.

    Granted, the bureaucrats are wrong in their behaviors … still the ultimate reality is that the earth has a limited carrying capacity. What that means is that we can not keep everyone alive and expect sustainability. So, the problem for you is:

    Decide which you want.

    RG the LG

  2. Max Shields said on April 30th, 2009 at 12:18pm #

    rg the lg,

    There is more than a little truth to your note above about overpopulation. Scale, both in terms of population and in terms of governance, culture, and economics plays perhaps a much more significant role in our human problems than all of the isms, ideologies, religions, and economic dogmas combined.

    Much is easily workable and tolerable (if not comfortable) with many human devised systems (political, economic and cultural) when they are sized to meet human-scalability.

    There is, while challenging to put a fixed number on it, an optimal population size, both in terms of geographical and general as it sprawls. Humans are high consumers of energy, demand more per capita than any other species (and that includes the poorest and most downtrodden among us). This has been termed carrying capacity. Rather than looking within the world we create to understand our impact on the planet and the human systems we struggle with that produces war and destruction, it is much more fruitful to understand the collectivization of humans and how we transform the natural landscape and that that tendency to erode and destroy is magnified expotentially by our sheer numbers, we can begin to understand that human population is unsustainable and the systems we create, regardless their perfection or lack thereof become worthless.

    The same is true of areas we occupy. As we spread across the well over a million square miles in North America, governance is impossible. What we have is a highly multicultural society which is appeased through mass media. Political parties, owned by corporations, must play the democracy gave, by manufacturing consent to homogenize what is total heterogenious. A blanket of myth is layered through the MSM machinery to pretend that there is a place called the United States of America. No such place exists. It is pure fiction that is united only in symbolic ways, perhaps the need to wave the American flag comes from this utter lack of cohesion. The flag is a fake way of saying somehow there is a there there.

    So, I’m in agreement. Our problems cannot really be dealt with soundly because there are too many of us and the nation-states larger than say, Denmark are simply unmanageable.

    As much as capitalism seems the “enemy”, there really isn’t a workable system for this massive 7 billion and growing population.

    Population will probably need to recede to about 2 billion or so. But, the human species, seems destined to repeat itself and will probably, after a fashion overpopulate. It will be nature that keeps pushing back population, not the dawning of a new sustainable age.

  3. RH2 said on April 30th, 2009 at 2:22pm #

    Unfortunately there is reason in the gloomy assessments above. I think the basic problem is that we do not know why we and other creatures exist, why the world is there and what for. I imagine, a mandatory birth control and industrial control including animal industry might be a partial solution.

  4. deodand said on April 30th, 2009 at 3:07pm #

    Kudos to Mike Davis for such a well-written piece. He takes a complicated subject laced with boring elements (global health bureaucracies, yawn) and makes it interesting.

  5. Jeff said on April 30th, 2009 at 6:33pm #

    Well, they are trying to stop me from growing my own feed to feed my own livestock to feed my family.

    I will not be able to buy seed which to grow seed as seed purchased has been modified not to produce ‘producing seed’. Therefore no one can feed their family for they have no seed.

    I grew up in a time which the family farm was in its’ waning years. Most in the urban jungle will ‘never’ know this, let alone the community that came with this.

    We grew, we harvested, and we lived healthy, interactive lives!

    Now we must be the “corporate equivalent” to survive. We still hold the ‘family farm’ most high.

    We have been forced to comply.

    You are being forced to comply.

    Where is the problem?

  6. dk said on April 30th, 2009 at 8:04pm #

    too many people.way too many people.pandemics then,are just what the doctor ordered.smithfield-kline are doing the lords work and are not simply soulless profit driven entities.who knew?

  7. RH2 said on May 1st, 2009 at 4:57am #


    Where is the problem? You have answered the question yourself. This is exactly the dilemma, you must be the corporate equivalent to survive. I think the whole world is on the horns of a dilemma. Preventing you from producing your own seed is the result of indifferent capitalism.

    The notion of reducing the world population to 2 billion is not thoroughly absurd. But who should belong to these happy 2 billion survivors? Others should vanish, but not me? The dinosaurs vanished altogether and there seems to be no reason, why human beings would be an exception. Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest is thus neutralized. There had been no “fittest” among dinosaurs. Either we vanish altogether, or we should mend our behavior to postpone our disappearance. Have you considered mobilizing your colleagues to protest for an agricultural reform? Diagnosing the disease alone is not a cure, is it?

  8. bozh said on May 1st, 2009 at 6:21am #

    in musings about possible catastrophies resulting from warmings/warrings, one must link it with the word “freedom”. I evaluate the word as myth. Freedom is impossible to achieve nor does it exist as deliniated by US governance or we cld say americanism, a particular societal structure.
    what has existed for millennia before its destruction, was interdependence.
    yet US assiduously asserts that it is fighting for, what to me is, a nonexistent entity. And yet has such a vitiating effect on also warming, among other things. tnx

  9. Jeff said on May 1st, 2009 at 6:46am #

    RH2, this dilemma in agriculture began with laws being passed in the halls of high political power. The inheritance tax was introduced to facilitate such a trend towards family farm destruction. The right to pass property to heirs was legislated away. Farmers at that time, as in the present are looked upon as a resource of the urban dweller.

    The vast lands were populated by individuals whom had a dream of destiny. Little did they know they were being set up for a fall by the power elite. This elite did not have the balls nor intestinal fortitude to tame the land. Once done so, in they came to rob the land and make slaves of the once proud landowners ang their kin.

    Please, those of you, hold the historical rape scenario. Trying to make a point here of the reason for what has transpired.

    This is the reason that one day even the “corporate family farm” will disappear. Thank Monsanto, Cargil, and Dupont among others.

    We will survive as we know how to grow. Learned that down on the farm, not in the classroom. Other than total annihilation, may I suggest purchasing a farm.

  10. RH2 said on May 1st, 2009 at 7:28am #


    Thank you for the explanation. I did not intend to preach. I only allowed myself to call a spade a spade. I do understand your dilemma. I really wish I could help. Your dilemma is one of those which growingly make me hopeless on this planet. Everyone is involved in the chaos, but few have the final say in it. Please forgive me, if I have irritated you.

  11. Max Shields said on May 1st, 2009 at 7:48am #

    RH2 and Jeff,

    The problem is size. It seems we (collectively speaking) skirt the issue as we dissect capitalism. But whether it is capitalism or socialism, it seems to come down to size, both in terms of population and land mass use.

    This is not an indictment of the human species and who shall survive or not. It is a predicament which is non-negotiable. Human survival, it seems, will come when we realize our limits and recess to a more sustainable living pattern.

    Big has been the mantra. Our economics of hypergrowth and biggness are clearly unsustainable and exacerbate any attempt at solving our problems. Our energy needs are such that no alternative will match the “winning lottery ticket” discovered in the mid-19th century – fossile. That fuel built all of this stuff we call civilization, the infrastructure the massive skyscrappers, the auto, buildings, heat/coolants, ipods, tvs, the commodity list is truly endless including our food, the most fundamental of energy sources. It is all fossile based. It is finite and ending. It is as James Howard Kunstler aptly and poignantly described in a book of the same title: The Long Emergency.

    In that context we can drop little Obama and his energy schemes. They will go un-noticed except in flowery speeches. They are complelely inadequate; as are all his policies. And war as the main tool for dealing with the world continues to destroy lives and what remains to a future.

    The solution is simple, the implementation is complex. It means a complete transition and recession from an economics of growth, a decentralization of nation-states. The chopping up of the meg-states like the US, China, India and Russia (although the latter seems headed in that direction).

    For the US it means re-constituting the land use to regional states with stronger local democratic power; and a central govenment that is minimal, serving the regions. De-industrialization, and particularly, demilitarization of the world’s economies as we know it. It means eliminating empire as an organizing principle. This includes corporations as we know them. Person-hood and human/civil rights belong only to people NOT corporate entities. Land must be a common wealth, not privatized, and monopolies of all kinds must be eliminated and brought into the public domain to ensure such preditory creatures are driven out of existence and the services and goods needed are available to all (health care, basic needs, education, fresh water, air, etc.)

    Sustainability must be enforced. A barrel of oil, must be replaced by an equivilent, renewable energy source (wind/solar). This will curtail hypergrowth and the consumer/commodity living styles.

    It’s a start. There are movements in this direction. It will probably take a collapse for those movements to actually transform the existing model of empire and tyranny. Fascism is in play, and could win out for a while. But nature is non-negotiable and so survival of the species will depend on the choices we make, NOW.

  12. RH2 said on May 1st, 2009 at 9:15am #

    Max Shields,

    I agree with your assessment, “nature is non-negotiable and so survival of the species will depend on the choices we make, NOW.” At the same time you have correctly identified the obstacle, “fascism is in play”. Let us hope that the will of the human species to survive will overcome fascism. Thank you for your thoughtful contribution !

  13. bozh said on May 1st, 2009 at 9:39am #

    it seems that we’ve had since ca 10T yrs ago a minority of people that led a sybaritic life. {sybaritus, a rich city in sicily}
    seven millennia ago there may have been fewer than 100T sybarites worldwide.
    and today? nearly a bn? And scorned woman or even bn women is nothing like scorned nature. But what is she/he; oops, it, up to? Or can the nature who created ape and men be as naive/benign as sybarites surely think?
    well, i am 77. But i still may see its fury. But why do i care being 77? The nature, i being a mere tiniest of parts of it, makes me do it. tnx

  14. Jeff said on May 1st, 2009 at 6:15pm #

    bozh, I trust you are teaching one that is 7 times your junior.

    What do you put forth as wisdom?

    What teachings are used to put forth this wisdom?

    Thank you.

    Max Shields, do trust you are self sufficient with food stuffs. One day the orators will disappear. Survival will be at the end of the sharpest stick.


    RH2, maybe the masses need to be irritated!

    My father said: “You do not know what people will truly do until they go hungry”.


  15. Don Hawkins said on May 1st, 2009 at 6:46pm #

    Or can the nature who created ape and men be as naive/benign as sybarites surely think?
    The nature, i being a mere tiniest of parts of it, makes me do it. tnx

    What you just wrote Bozh was a very interesting way of putting it and the it from some of the data I have been looking at the Oceans the next few years the sybarites will surely think.