Permanent Pandemic?

13 February 2021

As Covid Capitalism enters its Year II, Neil Faulkner ignores the political spin to ask, where are we going?

Disease X could kill 100 million people. The problem is, we don’t know what it is, where it is or when it will strike.

It is the World Health Organisation’s name for the ‘known unknown’ lurking somewhere on corporate agribusiness’s forest-felling frontline. It is the next, more deadly pandemic that might start anytime soon.

There have been 40 new infections in the last 50 years. Some of the names have become familiar words – Ebola, HIV/AIDS, MERS-CoV, SARS, Zika.

Of special note are various strains of Influenza A, some of which, over the last century, have swelled into pandemics that have killed hundreds of thousands, even millions. We now have what epidemiologist Rob Wallace calls ‘a veritable zoo of influenza subtypes that have proven themselves capable of infecting humans’.

‘Avian Flu’ (H5N1) and ‘Swine Flu’ (H1N1) made it into the charts. But the list of known variants is a fast-growing list. We also have H1N2v, H3N2v, H5N2, H5Nx, H6N1, H7N3, H7N7, H7N9, H9N2, and more.

Until Covid-19, most bets were on ‘the big one’ being a flu variant. After all, ‘Spanish Flu’ (H1N1) killed at least 20 million, possibly 100 million, in 1918-20; ‘Asian Flu’ (H2N2) between one and four million in 1957-8; ‘Hong Kong Flu’ (H3N2) a similar number in 1968-70; ‘Russian Flu’ (H1N1) another 700,000 in 1977; and ‘Swine Flu’ (H1N1) between 150,000 and 570,000 in 2009.

The fact that it turned out to be Covid, with at least 2.4 million deaths so far, shouldn’t distract us from the fact we have a generic problem: whatever the outcome of the current pandemic, Disease X will still be lurking unseen in a colony of bats, ducks, or monkeys somewhere on capital accumulation’s wild frontier.

The next pandemic

Some scientists reckon the world contains around 1.67 million unknown viruses, half of which may be capable of animal-to-human transmission (in technical terms, ‘zoonotic’ in character). ‘Covid-19 will not be the last, and perhaps not the worst, zoonotic pandemic,’ explains The Lancet, the top British medical journal. The next pandemic is ‘just around the corner’, says Professor Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious-disease specialist at the Australian National University. ‘We will face a pandemic or health emergency once every five years from here on,’ says former Chief Medical Officer for England Sally Davies. ‘There is a chance that this is the optimistic scenario. The reality could be far worse.’

It suits the rulers of the world – the lords of capital and the corrupt political class that does their bidding – that no-one is talking much about the deeper causes here. At most, we touch on the form of the problem: deforestation and the destruction of wilderness; the crashing of natural firebreaks inherent in the loss of biodiversity; the relentless advance of mono-culture and mono-husbandry; the packing of tens of thousands of genetically identikit animals in agribusiness complexes; the swelling mega-slums of the displaced nearby; the global supply-chains that act as high-speed vectors of newly-created pathogens.

This is what is happening, for sure. The food economy has become a pathogen economy. Globalised mass production of poultry, pigs, and cattle is a disease incubator. But that’s about as far as the analysis gets. And that’s because the people who know – the scientists, the doctors, the world health specialists, the researchers who write the reports, the informed commentators who write the summaries for middle-brows – are embedded in the system as it is and, for the most part, can’t summon up the courage to tackle the issue head-on. Instead, they issue pitiful appeals to the rich and powerful to close down the system that makes them, well, rich and powerful.

Kamran Abbasi, the Executive Editor of the British Medical Journal, published an excoriating indictment of the political class on 4 February. With half the world’s total of more than two million Covid deaths in just five countries – the US (400,000), Brazil (250,000), India and Mexico (150,000 each), and Britain (100,000) – the leaders of these countries can be considered guilty of ‘social death’ for their serial negligence and incompetence. Much of the media has been complicit, argues Abbasi, refusing to speak truth to power, kowtowing to ministerial authority, collaborating with a regime of ‘sanitised interviews, stage-managed press conferences, and off-the-record briefings’.

But what to do? The proposals that follow are milk-and-water liberalism – call for a public inquiry, vote out the leaders, appeal to the international criminal court. Really? As if the entire global political system hasn’t been hollowed out by corporate power? As if we don’t have a pandemic of neoliberal cronyism?

Profiting from pandemic

Just step back a moment and look at what is happening. The US stock market has surged 20% since the start of the pandemic, as the Federal Reserve firehoses hundreds of billions of dollars into the markets to recharge the casino economy. America’s 660 billionaires have made more than a trillion dollars in the last year. Five tech giants (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft) now account for 22% of the combined share value of the top 500 US corporations. Five men – Bernard Arnold, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg – are now centibillionaries, each worth more than a hundred billion dollars.

This is happening as hundreds of millions lose their jobs due to the pandemic. In the US, where the tech giants are based, 25 million Americans have been impacted by the pandemic, either losing their jobs, dropping out of the labour force, or facing cuts in pay and hours. That means millions behind in payments for mortgages, rents, loans, and bills, and around 50 million now rated ‘food insecure’. This in what is still the richest country in the world.

And it’s set to get worse: more grotesque greed at the top, more social breakdown at the base, more ecological destruction, as an out-of-control system of globalised, financialised, digitalised capital accumulation treats humanity and the planet as mere ‘externalities’ in its relentless pursuit of profit.

It’s looking grim enough if we just focus on Covid. The global vaccine roll-out is expected to take years. Meantime, the disease will continue to spread, kill, and disable. It is now endemic and chronic, the virus a permanent presence, but a mobile one, jumping from host to host, evolving as it does so, testing thousands of mutations every day, adapting itself to lockdowns, quarantines, and vaccines, engaged in a long war of attrition against humanity’s attempts to suppress it.

That’s not all. Already it looks like as many as one in ten of the infected will develop ‘long covid’, suffering headaches, weakness, exhaustion, inability to work, for who knows how long. Already it looks like a pandemic of mental illness is spreading across the world, with rising suicides, anxiety, depression, and traumatic stress. This can only grow as unemployment, eviction, and poverty are layered over the more direct impacts of the disease.

Red-green revolution

The Dual Metabolic Rupture now defines our epoch. On the one hand, the system means pollution that destroys entire ecosystems and threatens climate catastrophe. On the other, it means new, lethal, unsustainable ecologies created by corporate agribusiness as incubators of deadly disease.

Worth mentioning, in passing, the recent top-level report on the economics of biodiversity from Cambridge University’s Professor Partha Dasgupta. The takeaways? Between 1992 and 2014, there was a 40% fall in the stock of ‘natural capital’ per person – the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil we grow food in, etc. On current growth projections, we will need an Earth 1.6 times bigger than the one we have. In short, global capital accumulation is destroying the planet.

You can’t duck it. Pollution and pathogens are mortal threats to human civilisation. Appealing to the lords of capital to shut down the profit machine is like appealing to the pharaohs to stop building pyramids. Get real! We have to dispossess them of their wealth and power. To save ourselves, to prevent the planet being consumed by heat and disease, we need a people’s revolution for red-green transformation.

Red and green? Both. Red because we have to shift wealth on a historic scale from the super-rich to the poor. Green because we have to shut down the carbon economy and the pathogen economy, and move to a zero-growth, steady-state, sustainable way of living on our planet.

They aren’t alternatives. Around two billion of the world’s people are ‘precarious’, most of them clinging to insecure, low-paid, sweatshop jobs in the mega-slums of the Global South. Another two billion are poorer still, with no real jobs at all, eking out some sort of living in what is euphemistically called ‘the informal sector’.

We cannot choose between the poor and the planet. We have to demand the impossible: an end to poverty and a sustainable world. That means unprecedented redistribution of wealth as we transition to a steady-state economy. We cannot afford the rich. We need a red-green revolution.

Neil Faulkner is the author of A Radical History of the World and System Crash: an activist guide to making revolution. He will be speaking online at The Critical University on 20 February.

Join the discussion