Revolution #165, May 24, 2009

Capitalism and the Swine Flu Epidemic

The following article was submitted by a reader:

A recent article from a World to Win News Service ("Some ideas on how to look at the swine flu epidemic") pointed out that while flu viruses are not caused by human activity or produced by capitalism, what class rules and how society is organized—has everything to do with how these diseases effect humanity.

Two main social factors are involved. First—the lopsided character of the development of the world, and specifically the vastly unequal set-up in the access to health care, nutrition, clean water and sanitation faced by the people living in the poor countries compared to those in the imperialist countries that dominate them. Second—the system of capitalism is totally incapable of dealing with the danger such viruses pose to humanity. To really confront these dangers requires rupturing out of relations where production is owned privately and driven by profit-making.

How have these factors played out in the recent flu epidemic that developed in Mexico?

The recent—and still spreading—epidemic of swine flu started in Mexico where it has killed at least 56 people. Many factors are involved in how and why the swine flu started here. But clearly, the number of deaths in Mexico is related to lack of health care and necessary medications. And many people who contracted the disease did not get crucial medical information about what to do.

The health care system in Mexico, which cannot provide decent medical services to people in "normal times," proved really inadequate in the face of the swine flu epidemic.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the already poor health care system in Mexico was slashed by debt repayment conditions forced on Mexico by international financial institutions. In response, the Mexican government "decentralized" health care—essentially dumping responsibility for organizing health care on local governments without any real coordination or national funding on the level needed.

One "selling point" of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that the U.S. imposed on Mexico, was that it would lead to a better, more "integrated response" between Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, to infectious diseases.

But this was certainly not the case with this outbreak of swine flu. Mexico did not even have the technology needed to identify the virus that was killing people. Samples had to be sent to Canada and the U.S. to analyze, taking almost a week. A full two weeks after the initial outbreak, the Washington Post reported, "U.S. public health officials are still largely in the dark about what’s happening in Mexico." Valuable time was lost and this was a huge factor in people getting sicker and dying.

One health report comparing treatment in Mexico to that of the U.S. showed patients in the U.S. were more quickly seen by doctors. In Mexico, some of the patients that died from swine flu had already developed secondary infections like pneumonia before they even got to a doctor, and the pneumonia is what caused their deaths.

People in Mexico who were sick with the flu were often turned away from overcrowded clinics. One story on CBS news on April 27 showed hospital workers in Mexico City protesting to news crews that even for those treating the victims, there weren’t enough masks or medications to go around.

Several news reports said that the government never provided medicine and government and [medical] officials never visited the families of those who died from the flu (or its complications). This meant that those most exposed and apt to spread the flu weren’t getting treatment.

Factory Farms and the Danger of New Viruses

The system of capitalism we live under doesn’t directly produce viruses. But the economic and social relations of capitalism do create conditions that are accelerating the development of new and potentially deadly viruses.

Huge industrial factory farms that have taken over the growth and production of pigs, cattle and poultry in the world are becoming breeding grounds for new viruses. An article by Mike Davis, "Capitalism and the Flu" points out: "In 1965, 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 industrialization is worldwide. For example, Smithfield foods, the world’s largest pork processor, has expanded its industrial hog operations around the world—including into Mexico. Smithfield went into Mexico along with many other big agribusiness firms in 1994 right after NAFTA pried the country open to further U.S. investment and takeover of land. Smithfield became the largest and most profitable pork processor in the world. And in Mexico they did this by driving small farms out of business—buying them out and forcing farmers to contract to grow the hogs.

Jeff Tietz, who wrote a major story on Smithfield in Rolling Stone magazine in 2006, exposed how on these factory farms, thousands of animals are packed together in almost unimaginable conditions of heat and shit. Tietz says, "From Smithfield’s point of view, the problem with this life style is immunological. Taken together, the immobility, poisonous air and terror of confinement badly damage the pig’s immune system. They become susceptible to infection and in such dense quarters, microbes or parasites or fungi, once established in one pig, will rush spritelike through the whole population." The pigs are pumped full of a huge range of antibiotics and vaccine. Many become sick or die anyway. Tietz says, "factory-pigs remain in a state of dying until they’re slaughtered." ("Pork’s Dirty Secret, the nation’s top hog producer is also one of the America’s worst polluters" by Jeff Tietz, Rolling Stone, December 14, 2006)

It is not that governments and companies have not known that such conditions pose an extreme public health danger. Experts in the field of infectious disease have warned that industrial farms such as Smithfield’s can serve as vast incubating centers for the mutation and development of dangerous new viruses. A study by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production in 2008 said, "Due to large numbers of animals housed in close quarters in typical (industrial farm animal production) facilities there are many opportunities for animals to be infected by several strains of pathogens, leading to increased chance for a strain to emerge that can infect and spread in humans." 

Pigs seem to be particularly excellent "mixing vessels" for the combining of different flu viruses. This new virus appears closely related though not identical with another virus that emerged in the U.S. in 1998 and became widespread on hog farms across North America. Scientists warned that the swine flu virus had "jumped onto the evolutionary fast track"—meaning it was changing quickly and could give rise to new strains of flu virus. Yet nothing was done by officials to confront this or change the conditions on factory farms that were contributing to it.

Tietz paints an horrific picture of Smithfield’s factory farms as environmental disasters—creating thousands of acres of lagoons of pig shit, spraying waste on neighboring lands, contaminating  rivers and lakes and exposing people living in the areas to a toxic brew of microbes, drugs, chemicals and nightmarish stench that is almost indescribable. For five years Smithfield delayed installing pollution control equipment while systematically dumping pig waste into the Pagan and James Rivers and Chesapeake Bay. The pig waste was filled with fecal coliform, an organism known to cause serious illness in humans. Toxins and microbes killed plants and fish while more were suffocated by waste eating up the oxygen.

Even Smithfield’s sales of $11.4 billion in 2006, it’s production of pig shit is so extensive that if it had to employ waste treatment like any big city does, it would actually lose money.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined Smithfield 12.6 million dollars for knowingly polluting waters in the United States. But this amounts to almost nothing compared to Smithfield’s profits. When things like this happen, companies like Smithfield simply find other places, like Mexico, where they can get away even more with exploiting workers and destroying the environment. And NAFTA helped facilitate companies like Smithfield who wanted to move their operations to Mexico in order to increase their profits.

Environment and Public Health as "Externalities"

Carrying out production in a way that safeguards the environment is impossible under the capitalist system—which is driven by profit and is privately owned and controlled. Every individual capitalist (or capitalist enterprise) is looking for a way to compete with other capitalists. And this means that paying attention to things like the environment and public health cut into the capitalists' competitiveness. As Maoist political economist Raymond Lotta put it, "An individual capitalist can open a steel mill and be concerned with the cost of that steel mill. But what they do to the air is not 'their cost,' because it’s not part of their sphere of ownership. In mainstream economic theory, this is called 'externality'."

It has now come out that an industrial pig farm called Caroll Farms in Perote, Veracruz state in Mexico, may be connected to the swine flu outbreak. And guess who owns 50% of this company? Smithfield Foods.  

The earliest outbreaks of unusual sickness in Mexico began in early March, a full month before the government raised the alarm about swine flu. 60% of the villagers of La Gloria, near Perote, got sick with symptoms just like swine flu. Federal health officials dismissed the complaints until April 6, when they placed sanitary restrictions on Caroll farms.

Two children died of the illness. Some of La Gloria’s residents said they believed there was a connection to the hog farm in Perote, and that many people in La Gloria also work in Mexico City, so could have easily passed the swine flu to people in the capital. For years villagers have protested that the pig farm is contaminating their water and spreading disease.

Mexican agriculture officials and Smithfield have claimed they found no signs of swine flu among the farms pigs or its workers. Yet a young boy from La Gloria was one of those who tested positive for swine flu. Mexican officials deny that the illness engulfing La Gloria was swine flu. But they haven’t explained what caused the La Gloria outbreak or how the young boy got swine flue. And they haven’t provided evidence from the Caroll Farms of what they actually found.

The problem here is not that companies like Smithfield are "uncaring" or "greedy." Under the capitalist system, if you don’t out-compete your rivals, you risk going under. Capital is compelled in this way to restlessly expand, to maximize profit and try to out-compete others trying to do the same. And according to these rules, the environment and public health are of no concern.


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