a) New pandemics taking advantage of a capitalist health system adrift
Capitalism, at the global level, and particularly in its mega-centers, has long lived under the illusion that it could control everything, economic bugs as well as possible pandemics. Everything seemed to happen like in a video game where the best player (always the capitalist) overcomes all obstacles and wins. In the case of pandemics, everything was under control. Wasn’t smallpox eradicated – according to the WHO – since May 8, 1980, the day commemorating the Armistice ending World War II?
But the 1980s and the following decades, which were years of economic boom (thanks above all to China’s resounding entry onto the capitalist battlefield), were those of the increasingly insistent entry on the scene of entire battalions of the virus army, presenting new strategies for penetrating living cells through sophisticated mutations.
Some of the virus species – about 3,600, of which about a hundred are pathogenic – that are now circulating at very high speed are very archaic (perhaps three billion years old) and can be considered as living beings, because they come from living ancestors. (1) They have been, like the various capitalist classes, the great beneficiaries of the unbridled globalization that has reigned for nearly 40 years.
The “new viruses”, known as “emerging”, belong to the category of viruses held in captivity by “wild” fauna and flora that have long remained untouched by “civilization” – that of predatory merchants. Systematic deforestation (to “make” soy, biofuels, etc.) and the integration of “wild” animal species into commercial chains have contributed to the integration of this type of virus. In China and elsewhere, the poaching of certain bats (more than 1,600 species, half of which are on the verge of extinction) and pangolins, all of which carry agents virulent to humans, have accelerated the spread of these “emerging” zoonotic diseases. However, more than 100,000 pangolins fall victim each year in Asia and Africa to illegal trafficking, making them the most poached species in the world, well ahead of elephants or rhinos, whose [tusks and] horns are worth their weight in gold on the juicy Chinese “traditional medicine” market.
Some viruses, by passing from one species to another, and then through mutation strategies, eventually cross the human species barrier. This is the case of SARS-Cov-2, which clearly resembles (at 80%) the one that affected part of the world in 2002-2004.
The present Covid-19 is thus not a kind of platypus for scientists. It is one of the many new infectious diseases of animal origin (zoonoses) that have emerged during the last half century, which has seen the world population grow from 3 billion to nearly 8 billion men and women.
HIV (AIDS) is the first virus of animal (simian) origin to make a dramatic entry on the scene of global pandemics in 1981. It has killed nearly 40 million people, mainly in Africa, since its appearance in Kinshasa in the late 1920s. (2) To date, the pandemic has resulted in nearly 75 million infections, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. AIDS is now endemic. The United Nations is very optimistic and risks predicting an “end to the epidemic” in 2030, despite the collapse of health prevention policies.
Previously, in 1976, Ebola had helped to sound the alarm. Before the outbreak of this epidemic, the population of Central Africa had been confronted with Marburg fever, described in 1967 when medical doctors were infected. This endemic fever in the Congo is caused by a virus similar to Ebola, which is carried by a cercopithecus (living in the forests) imported from Uganda. The Ebola virus is responsible for high fevers and often fatal hemorrhages. The case-fatality rate varies between 30 and 90% depending on the epidemic and the viral species. The natural reservoir of the virus, again, could be a bat species. The virus becomes pathogenic when it infects other tropical forest wildlife (simians), which are often poached. The Ebola virus has been discovered in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since then, about 20 outbreaks have occurred in Central Africa. In December 2013, the virus reached West Africa, a hitherto untouched region. In 2014, it caused the deadliest epidemic to date.
SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is the first serious communicable disease to enter the 21st Century. The epidemic, which started in China in November 2002, became worldwide in 2003, causing more than 800 deaths (officially!). After an “alert” triggered on March 12, 2003 by the WHO, the epidemic could be contained (in July 2003) by conventional isolation and quarantine measures. SARS was caused by a virus of the corona-virus family, SARS-CoV-1. The animal reservoir of the latter is an insectivorous bat. The intermediate host that allowed the virus to pass to humans is the masked palm civet, sold in markets in southern China. It has spread rapidly worldwide through air transport, the most explosive fuel being airport hubs or large human concentrations.
Another, much more dangerous zoonotic virus is the corona-virus of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which affects the respiratory tract and is lethal in 30% of cases. This virus was first identified in Saudi Arabia in April 2012, then in Egypt, Qatar, Oman, etc., and is believed to result from the transmission of a virus from bats to camels, which then infects humans.
Zika, a flavivirus transmitted by mosquitoes of the genus Aedes, passed from monkeys to humans in Uganda around 1954, spread in Africa and Asia, and recently emerged in Polynesia, Central and South America. Without any vaccine to combat it, Zika has become globalized. The disease manifests itself by typical symptoms such as Guillain-Barré syndrome (progressive paralysis) or neonatal microcephaly.
Other candidates for this globalization are patiently biding their time. The candidates are jostling for the gate: Lassa fever (Nigeria, 1969), Sabía virus (Brazilian hemorrhagic fever, 1989), Junín virus (Argentine hemorrhagic fever, 1957), Machupo virus (Bolivia, 1959), Guanarito and Pirital (Venezuela, 1991 and 1994), Whitewater Arroyo (New Mexico, 1991), etc. Many of these diseases have developed as a result of deforestation, the transformation of tropical forests into dry grasslands or fields for capitalist agribusiness.
All these so-called new “emerging diseases” should not be the thicket that hides the immense forest of the “classic” viral and bacterial diseases, supposedly defeated and always ready to be used again. “Classical” viral diseases, once treated with effective childhood vaccines, have suddenly flared up. Measles cases jumped 300% worldwide in the first quarter of 2019. The WHO warned that “measles is even more contagious than Covid-19”. In Samoa, where immunization was no longer being provided, the situation has worsened due to vitamin A deficiency and malnutrition as well as the spread of a dangerous adulterated vaccine.
Tuberculosis was still decimating in 2018: of the 10 million infected, 1.5 million tubers died, including more than 200,000 children. Three million cases remain untreated, and the disease claims twice as many victims as AIDS. (3) Koch’s bacilli, which are increasingly resistant, can be divided in half into three major capitalist groups: India (27%), China (14%) and Russia (9%).
Malaria, which is all too often forgotten, is neither a virus nor a bacterium, but a parasite formed by a single cell that multiplies in red blood cells. This scourge, which kills more than 450,000 people every year, 93% of them in Africa, infects 213 million people. Today, deaths are on the rise again, after a lull.
Why, in the face of all these diseases, emerging or not – whose origin is bacterial, viral, parasitic, fungal or prion – does capitalism remain so powerless? Why does it seek to transform these diseases into natural “catastrophes”, in the same way as accidents at work or occupational diseases (such as asbestos) – 2,000,000 deaths in 2018 (twice as many as the Hong Kong flu of 1968, including 40,000 deaths in France) or pollution (7 million deaths in 2018, an absolute record!). (4) In the case of pollution, all independent scientific observers question fine particles. And it is now known that they clearly favor the spread of viruses such as Covid-19.
The loop is closed. If we want to tighten the loop, we will find each time the great cycle of accelerated capital development that is hardly bothered by humanitarian considerations. The machine for producing profits is also a machine for deconstructing everything that concerns the most basic needs of humanity (education, care, food). The world from 2020 to the time of the Corona virus is the result of the transformation of the world into the gigantic Metropolis of Profit, where it is not the slaves of capital that stop the machine, but Capital itself. If the machine has stopped – or almost stopped – on half of the Earth, it is due to the complete and general failure of health policy, which requires long-term prevention, and therefore solid and adequate structures.
It is a truism to say that the ability to care is the primary factor in the fight against the Corona-virus. In Italy, 46,500 jobs in the health sector have been lost between 2009 and 2017; nearly 70,000 hospital beds have disappeared. Great Britain followed the same path, between 2000 and 2017, with the number of available beds decreasing by 30%! France too has seen a drastic reduction in the number of beds and an ultra-liberal reorganization of the healthcare offer (privatization and “managerialization” of the hospital). In more than twenty years, nearly 30,000 beds have disappeared.
In every country, all the journalists under orders had mobilized to demonstrate that there were too many hospital beds in a health sector that was a ‘financial abyss’. We can cite, among other things, an article by Nicolas Beytout, a press patron, who stated in November 2019, at a time when health care workers were making their voices heard and obtaining very vague promises: “It’s a pity that [the French government under former PM Édouard Philippe] did not take advantage of this moment of generosity [the vague promises!] to demand in return some strong measures of reorganization and to hunt down useless expenses in a sector that has so many of them.” (5) Nicolas Bouzou, “economic consultant”, omnipresent on TV sets, proclaimed in 2014: “In 10 years, we will have twice as many hospital beds.” (6)
In the USA, where medical care and drug treatments are three to four times more expensive than in France, it is even worse. With a rate of 2.8 beds per 1,000 inhabitants, the United States has a lower level of equipment than other countries currently affected by the pandemic. In this supposedly richest country in the world – with a bunch of capitalist tycoons [Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg (bankrupt Democratic presidential candidate!), Larry Ellison (Oracle Corporation), etc.]. – life expectancy has declined sharply over the past three years. This is the first time this has happened since the great Spanish flu pandemic. This decline is due in part to the increased mortality of white American adults due to the number of deaths by suicide, drugs (opioids) or alcohol, which are increasing for both men and women living in an economy of misfortune that is driving millions of people, atomized by the crisis, unemployment, small survival jobs, to despair. “Ethnic” minorities (African-Americans, Hispanics) endure even more this form of capitalist “shrink”: that of life expectancy. Whereas life expectancy used to average 80 years in the United States, it is now 78 years, less than in Cuba [whose GDP per capita is seven times less than that of the Trumpian Empire].
In Russia, land of plenty for the oligarchs of Putin’s power, life expectancy for a man who was 65-67 years old from 1960 to 2000 has painstakingly increased to 72 years. (7) But in this country, which has escaped the opioids, good old Russian opium, vodka, is no longer popular (Russian alcohol consumption has fallen by 43% between 2003 and 2016, according to the WHO).
The bourgeois politicians or their underlings – professionals of all kinds – ignore an almost universal reality: with incessant budget cuts, the government has dismantled an entire social welfare system, keeping only what could be profitable for private capital, whether in hospital management, basic research, or the development of new drugs. The state has disengaged, leaving the field open to the race for profit maximization, in a purely “immediate” perspective, where public health is the last wheel of the pharmaceutical companies’ golden coach. Let’s quote this excerpt from a survey of the giants of the sector today:
“There is a lot of activity when (epidemics) rage, but as soon as the situation improves, investments decrease. This means that promising medical technologies may be abandoned along the way because no one is willing to pay the bill.” (8)
When it comes to testing the most promising anti-viral drugs, a fierce inter-capitalist struggle for the appropriation of patents, and thus for a juicy monopoly on the market, is unleashed. Take the example of Remdesivir, an antiviral developed by the American company Gilead Sciences. The latter, the thirteenth largest pharmaceutical company in the world, refused to participate in the drug’s trials in China for fear of seeing the patent manna escape its grasp. This group is known for its astronomical maximization of prices and profits. In fact, a Chinese laboratory (Wuhan Institute of Virology) has also claimed “authorship” of the patent for Remdesivir’s Covid-19 treatment. (9) If its effectiveness is purely hypothetical, there is only one certainty: the basic production of the miracle molecule costs 12 times more than that of hydroxy-chloroquine, which has fallen into the public domain. (10)
But, in any case, it is not the marketing of a “miraculous” drug that will stop the spread of multiple and mutant pandemics, which contribute in part – and only in part – to the decrease in life expectancy. This slow decrease in life expectancy, the weakening (or even sudden collapse) of human resistance to pandemics finds its true causes elsewhere: in the congenital incapacity of capitalism to give an adapted response to the fundamental needs of the human community, in its flagrant inability to prevent disasters and to maintain life on our planet at all, proving to be infinitely more destructive than the most “vicious” corona-virus or the most deadly “plague”.
b) The agriculture of death: Toxic food, health scourges of “obese capital”.
2 Cf. Jacques Pépin, Aux origines du sida. Enquête sur les racines coloniales d’une pandémie, Seuil, 2019.
3 Le Monde, 17 October 2019.
4 Les Échos, 2 May 2018.
5 L’Opinion, 20 November 2019 : « Hôpitaux : le gouvernement frappe… fort et cher».
7 Perspective monde. Outil pédagogique des grandes tendances mondiales depuis 1945 (Université de Sherbrooke, Québec, Canada).
8 Jessica Davis Plüss, 11 March 2020 : Pourquoi les géants de la pharma boudent le coronavirus.
10 Cf. Philippe Abecassis & Nathalie Coutinet, Économie du médicament, La Découverte, Paris, 2018.