By Ashley Smith
The COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of abating as the death toll climbs ever higher around the world. Spectre’s Ashley Smith interviews epidemiologist Rob Wallace about the global capitalist roots of the current pandemic, the likelihood of future pandemics, and the types of organized resistance necessary to prevent them.
Rob Wallace is an evolutionary epidemiologist with the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps. He is author of Big Farms Make Big Flu and the just-released Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of COVID-19. He has consulted with the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of course, we have to start with Trump. What’s your take on him contracting the virus? What does it expose about the way his administration and the political class as a whole has handled the pandemic?
To be honest, for at least a little bit yesterday, I had the good fortune of not thinking about Trump. In those moments I devote my mind and attention to my part in activism and research to help us get out of the catastrophe.
As far as Trump getting COVID-19, I think it’s a spectacle and palace intrigue – it serves as a distraction. The very fact that he contracted it is at the same time stupefying, astonishing, and yet utterly predictable.
Scientists have been warning of a pandemic like this for at least a decade. And radical ones have argued that such outbreaks are not an accident but the result of a capitalist system that puts profit before the environment, human beings, and public health. What a radical notion: that our social systems impact our epidemiologies!
What we’re seeing under the Trump administration is the collapse of American exceptionalism even as an ideology. After World War II, the U.S. took on the role of running the global capitalist system by imposing its political and military might throughout the world to protect profits for its bourgeoisie and those aligned with it.
As part of its imperial rule, the U.S. used to take care of outbreaks. The CDC was one of the arms of this operation, mainly keeping potential pandemics under control and out of the U.S.
The CDC became increasingly aware that it was only a matter of time until a virus pierced the U.S. shield, and it started alerting administrations to the threats. But Trump ignored the memos that the CDC had sent to several administrations running.
That Trump managed to win the presidency to begin with is itself a sign of the weakness of the entire political establishment, Republican and Democrat alike. They were unable to filter him out and ensure continued management of the empire.
The responsibility for Trump’s emergence lies squarely with the Democratic Party. Under Obama’s watch, conditions for the vast majority dramatically deteriorated, especially in areas abandoned by capitalist investment, including the agricultural breadbaskets and formerly industrialized areas of the Midwest.
In those areas, diseases of despair like opioid addiction exploded. Just look at the counties with high rates of such diseases. Those counties switched from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, especially in the Midwest and the South.
They switched because the Democrats’ neoliberal policies had abandoned them, leaving them to fend for themselves. Take Obamacare. Even if you have insurance from one of the markets, you still face enormous premiums, co-pays, and deductibles. Even worse, Obamacare doesn’t even help the 28 million people still uninsured or the 44 million more underinsured.
Such conditions of unemployment and deteriorating living standards as well as all the anger and despair that goes with them in some quarters selects for fascistic politics. Especially if there are few alternatives on the left. In that sense, Trump is an acute symptom of the complete failure of the Democratic Party to meet people’s real needs.
Trump took advantage of that situation and ran roughshod over all sorts of institutions that ran the empire, including the CDC. He’s turned it into a political propaganda unit to the point that it is unable to deal even with a major outbreak within our own borders. The U.S. is beginning to exhibit the features of a failed nation state.
The pandemic shows no signs of abating. It’s ripped through much of the advanced capitalist world and it’s doing the same throughout the global South. What can we expect in the coming months and years?
Based on the modeling done so far, the worst case scenarios predict that we could still be in the midst of the pandemic in 2024. The most optimistic forecast is that we will be out of it in a year. Either way, we are still only at the start of the crisis.
There is no leadership to really address it, coming from either the Republicans or Democrats. The worst are, of course, the Republicans. They are engaged in brutal social eugenics.
They’re not virtue signaling; they’re vice signaling, pretending their supporters are impervious to the results of their own policy. That’s why it’s no surprise that Trump contracted the virus: it spread through much of the White House and now through his strongholds of support throughout the country.
But the Democrats in most of the big cities and blue states haven’t done much better. They all opted for a neoliberal approach. They have not done what China, Vietnam, and New Zealand did: impose strong but shorter lockdowns, conduct mass testing, organize systems of contact tracing, and provide at least some kind of massive and well-organized public health response.
At best the US engaged in temporary lockdowns in some parts of the country followed by rapid reopening of the economy and getting profits flowing again. The result has been a horror show that compromised their own hoped for economic recovery.
They’re so disorganized that reopen proponents, from Trump on down, didn’t even use the alibi of herd immunity, which Britain and Sweden used with deadly results, sacrificing the lives of thousands of their own populace. Now with the pandemic essentially out of control in the U.S., political figures only now have started talking about herd immunity, essentially as an excuse to continue doing nothing.
They especially don’t care about the people who have been most impacted: the elderly, essential workers, and Black and Brown people. It’s eerily similar to their response to HIV. They let that virus burn through populations because it initially broke out among gay men and spread into BIPOC.
But, as HIV proved, concentration does not mean containment. A pandemic will start in one place and spill over into the rest of the population. In much the same way, and we see it now with the beginning of a second wave on the East Coast, COVID-19 will continue to slosh about across the country, overwhelming eviscerated public health systems.
To get control of this crisis, we would need lockdowns followed by careful reopening, with elaborate plans for testing and contact tracing to stop new outbreaks. But no level of government has anywhere near the testing and tracing systems we need, including the states and cities controlled by Democrats.
Both parties have gutted the public health infrastructure and refuse to reorient their spending priorities and tax the rich to rebuild it. So, the federal, state, and city governments don’t have the capacity to address the crisis.
They are just stumbling through the pandemic. The only silver lining is that thanks to the heroic efforts of medical staff, who have learned how to treat people on the go, the death rate is declining. But even with that step forward, tens of thousands will continue to die from a virus whose first wave should have been under control in only two to three months.
What about a vaccine? When can we expect one and will that bring an end to the crisis?
We have to understand how the push for vaccines is compromised by how the government abandoned public health. The government now mainly works through private pharmaceutical companies, who are concerned above all else with making money.
Of course, I’m not against vaccines and antivirals. The left has long demanded the development and provision of medical innovations to improve people’s lives regardless of their ability to pay.
But the combination of the profit motive and reactionary politics—getting Trump reelected, for one — can compromise public health from the jump. Such policies can undercut public trust, which is of paramount importance.
Take for example, the UN’s approach to Ebola in the Congo. The UN effort collaborated with the local mafia when they set up operations in the Congo, alienating the population in the process. So, everyday people there threw stones at UN health workers, not because they were out of their minds or anti-science, as the establishment media portrayed them, but because they were angry that the UN was strengthening local thieves and thugs.
The same risk is posed by how Trump is handling his push for a vaccine. He’s pushing for a pre-election rollout to win this election and everyone knows it. So, in combination with the population that has been convinced the virus is no threat, there is already widespread mistrust of any vaccine. As a result, only 50 percent of Americans polled say they would take the vaccine.
The scientists who head up government agencies haven’t helped the situation. For example, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head, Anthony Fauci, signed off on a commentary early on in the pandemic that declared that the fatality rate for COVID seemed like that of flu. Those kinds of positions aided Trump in spreading misinformation and undermined public trust in the CDC.
So, we shouldn’t lionize Fauci as liberals do. Remember, he has a long and tarnished history stretching all the way to his mishandling of the AIDS crisis under Reagan. He in no way challenges the systemic problems that create pandemics.
Despite his calls for masks and such, Fauci embraces the assumption that vaccines and drugs are largely the sum of public health. Systemically driven disparities in disease exposure and outcomes are rarely discussed. Why? Because that involves changing the system.
On producing a vaccine, health authorities face real problems. There has never been a successful vaccine for a coronavirus. On top of those challenges, the corporations are skipping the usual safety protocols, with some vaccine efforts moving from lab to human without animal tests or skipping some of the steps in testing on humans.
As a result, they’ve already had to stop test trials on one potential vaccine in England because of bad side effects discovered late in the process of testing on humans. The efforts to bring vaccines to market in record time produce omissions that further undermine public trust.
A lot of people will not get the vaccine if it’s rushed out before the election or before the end of the year to deliver on Trump’s promise. So, out of worry they’ll get blamed for any bad side effects or deaths and the damage done to their reputations in the marketplace, even the pharmaceutical companies have backed away from promising to meet that deadline.
We face two really hard challenges: coming up with a vaccine and getting the public to trust it. The better bet is that across the various labs a vaccine that’s at least partially effective will be rolled out. That is better than nothing, but it doesn’t mean the end of the outbreak itself.
We could see cyclical outbreaks come and go. Some viruses burn themselves out and disappear. Others like HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria persist. They find new paths to infect humans if a major mode of transmission is cut off.
We have antiretrovirals for HIV, which are effective in treating people who are showing symptoms. But HIV continues to spread throughout the world, in part because of poor healthcare infrastructure, but also because most new infections occur before people have figured out they’re infected. The same sorts of complications are true of other such diseases, like malaria and tuberculosis.
So, COVID-19 could become a seasonal disease like influenza or one with episodic outbreaks. It might not be as deadly as before because virulence can attenuate. Herd immunity may eventually come about, years later and if so by a partially effective vaccine alone. But it’s absolutely absurd to think that letting the virus run through the population is the solution.
That kind of neglect is really just a declaration of callous surrender. It’s murder. The numbers of people killed in the process would be astronomical. Estimates are that letting COVID run free could lead to over 600,000 deaths in the US alone.
Let’s pull back the lens and look at the relationship of the pandemic to capitalism. Bourgeois economists and Trump claim that this disease that came out of the blue and has nothing to do with the system. Why is that argument wrong? What are the developments in global capitalism that have created the conditions for these kinds of pandemics?
The truth is that the bourgeoisie knows very well about the relationship between the system it profits from and the pandemic, just like they knew about the relationship between smoking and cancer. The system works hard to cultivate an amnesia so that we don’t connect the dots enough to act on them.
Many scientists know that the bourgeoisie does this, but they keep their mouths shut to appease their corporate funders without whom they would not be able to run their labs. There is a structural conspiracy of silence about the capitalist roots of the pandemics.
Global capitalist development, especially of international agribusiness and its factory farms, have gobbled so much of the natural world as to bring our society into increasing proximity with formerly isolated ecosystems. That enables viruses to jump from previously isolated wild animals into the food system and agricultural laborers and then by way of food products and travelers move throughout the world in a matter of weeks.
In other words, the age of global capitalism is an age of pandemics. Avian influenza, or bird flu H5N1, become the first celebrity virus of the age when it emerged in the late 1990s. That alerted the capitalist states and the international bodies they fund, like the UN, that the problem of pandemics was suddenly a real threat.
UN agencies like the World Organization of Animal Health, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Health Organization began to meet with each other to figure out how the leap from wildlife to livestock to humans happens.
Being part of nature is always a risky endeavor. We must appropriate resources from nature to survive. That’s life. But destroying the grand totality of nature on our way toward lining the pockets of a few billionaires places us on the precipice of extinction.
It also drives the emergence of multiple deadly diseases, one after the other. In a rational society, we would relate to nature with an eye to protecting the environment upon which we all depend. Otherwise we’re not able to socially reproduce ourselves from generation to generation.
That seems obvious, but that’s not how global capitalism works. The capitalist class that runs it is focused almost exclusively on profits in the next fiscal quarter. Once companies deplete a local environment, they engage in what’s called a “spatial fix,” moving to other places to plunder.
But there are few places left to smash-and-grab except the Congo and the Amazon, and agribusiness, mining, and logging companies are hard at work carving up the last of those forests. Why? Because what’s less available and still essential to the system becomes more valuable. So, there’s a rush for the last of it – not, as proponents of green capitalism assert, an impetus to protect it.
Capitalists and scientists alike know what the impact is: the complete destruction of the last remnants of the forest and with it, the explosions of pandemics. But they can’t stop themselves because the system’s compulsion to compete for profit drives them to keep going even if it means the collapse of the ecosphere.
I’ve got a problem with that. I’ve got a 12 year-old and want to protect his future. I think almost all of us have a problem with that. But our systems of production are rapidly turning the earth into another Mars. I want to be able to go for walks with my son without a space suit. I think almost the entirety of humanity wishes to be able to enjoy such simple acts without suffering the short-sighted wreckage capital leaves in its wake.
The system and its capitalist corporations inhibit doing anything to stop this nightmare scenario they know is looming. For example, the One Health approach, with the support of the UN and groups like the EcoHealth Alliance, calls attention to the plunder of the last forests, but its efforts are being backed by corporate funding, as companies look for the protection of the next generation in greenwashing.
So, instead of blaming the real culprits, these well-funded scientists blame indigenous groups and local smallholders. Or, they focus on local conditions that led to the spillover event. Of course, we should study these conditions and understand them, but in the context of the overall system.
Not doing so ends up scapegoating local actors and greenwashing the system and the largest corporations. We have to look at the bigger picture or what geographers call relational geographies—seeing how what happens on one side of the earth is connected to what happens on the other side.
We need to focus on the circuits of capital in the global system and how they drive pandemics. With that in mind, places like New York, London, and Hong Kong should be considered the worst disease hotspots because they’re the centers of capital that are funding the deforestation and development that lead to the disease spillover events in the first place.
All of this should be pretty obvious, and everyone including the bourgeoisie and the political class that works for them knows it. But because they have an interest in the current order, they block any and all serious solutions. The highly educated and well-mannered political class, some of the nicest people you’d meet, is in reality structurally sociopathic.
One of the points you make in Big Farms Make Big Flu is that the World Health Organization (WHO) plays no role in challenging the dynamics that you just laid out. Instead they aid and abet the culprits that create the conditions that lead to pandemics: the capitalist states and corporations. How does the WHO do this?
The WHO is complicit because it is structurally bound up with capitalist states and corporations. It used to be funded by the states that had money. So, like any of the UN agencies, they were dependent on donor countries and were bound to their interests.
The main donor countries are within the Global North, especially the imperialist countries, including the U.S. So, the WHO’s policies and approach inevitably reflected their priorities: maintaining a system in which 20 percent of the world’s population consumes 80 percent of its resources.
Those imperialist states plunder the world and set up institutions like the WHO to cover them and scapegoat the poorest victims, including the indigenous groups and smallholders in the forests. Now, however, even the wealthier countries have cut funding to the WHO and other UN institutions. “Philanthropic” capitalists like Bill Gates have filled the vacuum. Today, about 70 percent of the WHO budget comes from private donations.
So, now capitalists directly shape the WHO’s policies, and less so the imperialist states and their political class. That’s like the final act of neoliberalism: you undercut the role of the state so much that it can’t fulfill its former functions and capitalists take over, use their donations as tax write-offs, and pass off bending public health policy to paying off pandemic bonds before servicing health front liners, all in the name of philanthropy.
These “philanthro-capitalists” only double down on the same approach the imperialist states pursued — exonerating their system, focusing on cleaning up some of the effects instead of the causes, and scapegoating local peoples.
One of the things that you point out in Big Farms is the battle between the U.S. and China over the WHO. They’ve used it as a kind of political football, with each side trying to cover up their misbehavior and blame the other. What’s your assessment of what each state has done with the WHO?
The starting point is how the U.S. has run the world system since World War II. Trump’s election must be seen as a sign that the U.S. is in decline as an imperial power. It still manages the system, but from a weaker position, and under Trump, threatens to abandon its role as global manager and go it alone.
Trump’s threat to do so is a symptom of our bourgeoisie having become even more short sighted than they already were. At this end of the cycle of accumulation, the rich here are cashing out on the imperium, selling off its infrastructure.
How else do you explain the business of fracking their own countries and poisoning our water? They’re just selling everything off, including the American public health system over the past 40 years.
In the process, they are tearing down Fortress America and enabling the very dangers that they had kept out and externalized to the Global South to emerge inside US borders. Of course, slavery, genocide, and apartheid were bedrocks of the American system from the get-go.
And I’m not endorsing a nativist position of defending America’s ill-gotten gains at the expense of the Global South. I’m just pointing out the terminal condition that neoliberalism has brought down upon its own imperial center.
Where does that leave us? What we should be doing is working with people around the world to address the roots of problems like pandemics and climate change.
Other centers of capital may have other plans. With the U.S. in decline as capitalism’s global manager, China is rising as a potential challenger to replace it. But it’s unclear if they’ll be able to do so because they, and really all capitalist states, are coming up against ecological limits. What’s left to smash-and-grab?
The rivalry between the U.S. and China in this context is peculiar. The two countries seem to be opposed to one another, but at the same time they are utterly dependent upon each other, from China holding Washington’s debt to the interlocking directorates of their corporate boards, investing in each other’s economies, and being integrated across production and trade.
For instance, after the housing market crashed in 2008, Goldman Sachs diversified its holdings by out-and-out buying farms in central China. On the other side, a Chinese-led consortium bought up Smithfield, the U.S. hog giant.
That said, their interdependence does not preclude these camps from getting into conflicts or even war. The U.S. and China are thus, in Marx’s characterization, “warring brothers.” They are fighting for advantage in a global system they both accept.
What’s worrisome is how each power is trying to rally its population around its flag to deflect blame onto the other for the system’s problems. The US and China both use the WHO and other intergovernmental agencies as a weapon in this rivalry.
Trump threatens to withdraw money from the WHO for colluding with China in spreading the virus. And China uses the WHO to burnish its image in the world system in the hopes of improving its global standing against the U.S. Better the latter, but it isn’t so simple.
We need to reject such attempts at dividing workers around the world along the lines of this rivalry. Working-class people have more in common with each other across borders than with their rulers.
Ironically, the pandemic makes this abundantly clear. I got COVID-19 early on. My experience with the illness is in no way unique. My doctor wouldn’t see me; I got bounced out to a computer system and was diagnosed by a nurse online who never even tested me.
Nobody from the health department showed up to my door and no community health workers followed up with me. Contrast that with the immediate and publicly funded treatment Trump received at Walter Reed.
Or take the example of the Brooklyn Nets. In the early days of the outbreak, all of their players received immediate tests, while nurses in New York City’s emergency rooms, even those obviously infected, couldn’t get tested. It’s almost like Americans are living in different countries, even though they walk by each other in the streets all the time.
Most Americans share more in common with West Africans who were infected with Ebola than they do with more affluent Americans.
That underscores why working people have common interests in solidarity with each other around the world. Despite our differences in place and culture, we are ultimately in similar positions, facing similar problems rooted in a capitalist system organized around protecting the bourgeoisie regardless of its national origins.
How have the states used the WHO to cover up their misbehavior?
In Big Farms, I show how the more affluent states and the agribusiness industry put pressure on the WHO and other UN agencies to absolve them of blame. The threat of losing funding is an effective cudgel.
These threats introduce a diplomatic distortion of science in direct and mediated ways. They filter out scientists with what seems in this context like radical views, such as protecting local forests and their communities from land grabbing. That in turn impacts the studies the WHO produces.
Of course, this isn’t entirely the case. These institutions aren’t monoliths. There are brilliant people everywhere. Some researchers do important studies even at the World Bank, tracking the impacts of neoliberalism on poverty, for instance. Likewise, there are people in the WHO who write up the truth about the pandemics.
But the dissidents are the exception, not the norm. The norm is deference to the funding states, private philanthropists, and corporations. Thus, the WHO can play act to protect China, which in the case of SARS-1 was trying to cover up the severity of the threat. The WHO did conduct a course correction after that. But the possibility that the origins of SARS-2 are being covered up this way is again in play.
I believe SARS-2 emerged out in the field from bats, was transmitted into food animals, and then humans. But there is another hypothesis we report on in our new book Dead Epidemiologists that it might have emerged out of a Wuhan lab.
Now I want to distinguish this version of the hypothesis from Trump’s conspiracy theory that the Chinese government deliberately released the virus. All of that is just Sinophobic bigotry that he uses to blame China for his catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic – exactly the kind of blame-shifting we already talked about.
Even as I support the field hypothesis of COVID’s origins, there is due cause to investigate the possibility that an accident at the lab could very well have unleashed the virus. We’re only ten months out from the start of the pandemic. There’s room to unpack these origins.
Even many establishment pillars, such as journalist Laurie Garrett and scientists Marc Lipsitch and Alison Galvani, have long been worried such an accident was becoming increasingly likely. There has been a proliferation of thousands of labs in the aftermath of 9/11, testing viruses throughout the world. This is part of an attempt to understand how viruses work and how to stop them.
Some of these countries that established such labs do not support robust regulatory systems or enforce global safety standards. That includes the U.S. These conditions open the possibility of spillover accidents. But even just the numbers of labs involved bend a rare event like a lab accident toward inevitability. In the U.S., there have been multiple accidents, including putting samples of deadly bird flu in the mail.
Similarly, there were multiple accidents in China with SARS-1. So, the concern about an accident this time is not without foundation and must be thoroughly investigated. The EcoHealth Alliance was working with Chinese scientists on gain-of-function studies that involve allowing a virus to evolve on its own ways of breaking through the human immune system. Even if your lab’s biosecurity system is rigorous, such experiments bear the enormous risks of a lethal virus getting out into the population.
That’s why a moratorium was put on gain-of-function experiments in the U.S. Upon the moratorium, the EcoHealth Alliance used its NIH funding to help start the experiments again in China. So, for better and, in this case, for worse, the interlocking directorates extend into scientific practice. This one opened the door for Trump to blame China for the virus.
But we should not let the immediate source of the virus, whether in bats or a lab, obscure the origin of pandemics. Due cause largely remains the encroachment by agribusiness, mining, and logging on the last remaining forests of the world. Such incursions increase the interface between previously isolated wildlife that host deadly pathogens and livestock and the workers that tend them.
Neither figuring out the immediate source of any one virus, nor coming up with vaccines will solve this increasing traffic. No EcoHealth Alliance study paid for by Colgate, which is helping drive deforestation for palm oil, will address the circuits of capital driving the development that produce these diseases.
So, politicians and researchers alike, and not only Trump, are complicit in covering up the documented origins of pandemics. A classic example is the emergence of the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 on Obama’s watch.
Agribusiness corporations like Smithfield, which are a major part of the U.S. economy, took advantage of NAFTA to set up shop in Mexico, driving small Mexican hog operations out of business. A series of genetic studies showed the agribusiness operations in the US and Canada infected these new factory farms and their hogs with swine flus that evolved into the H1N1 pandemic. That’s why our team called the virus the “NAFTA flu.” Molecular data supported such a characterization.
Compare that with Obama’s response to the outbreak. He made sure the virus was called by the more generic term “H1N1,” even though the pandemic strain clearly emerged from U.S. hog farms. Obama wanted to make sure “swine flu” wasn’t used because he wanted to protect the pork industry from suffering the consequences of being blamed. And he got the WHO to go along with him.
Trump is utterly awful, but he certainly isn’t the first president to play political games with pandemics. It’s a bipartisan project.
Now let’s turn to the impact of the pandemic in the U.S. It has disproportionately hit the working class, especially those who are Black and Brown. This is happening at the same time we’ve had this incredible Black-led multiracial rebellion against police brutality, police murders, and racism more broadly. What does the rebellion mean for the struggle around public health?
The pandemic and rebellion underscore the fact that capitalism, from its beginning, has been a racial capitalism. It was largely founded on racialized slavery and colonialism and its rulers have used racism ever since to divide and conquer workers. More specifically, American politics are dedicated to the daily reenactment of these origins: racial slavery, genocide, and exploitation.
The connections between racism and the pandemic should be obvious. Public health activists have long described police brutality as the public health crisis. I get where they’re coming from, as brutality is another health exposure. But I think this framing obscures the systemic intention of racist police brutality and murder.
Recent studies show that there are many more Black people killed by police when they’re unarmed than white people killed when they’re armed. If you look at where those police murders are concentrated, they’re in the most segregated cities, characterized by apartheid-like divisions across all manner of living and community, including housing and employment.
Yes, racism impacts public health and it interacts with racist police violence.
Rightists like Representative Peter King attempted to characterize the police murder of Eric Garner as arising from his poor underlying health rather than the cop’s arm around wrapped around Garner’s neck. It’s an argument, of course, used to try to blame the victim for his own death. So, it’s bullshit.
At the same time, police brutality and poor health are both consequences of racial oppression under capitalism. The cops disproportionately kill Black and Brown people as part racial policing to divide and conquer the working class. And institutional racism and higher rates of poverty produce poor health conditions.
Across multiple sources of ill-health, Black and Brown people suffer higher rates of infectious and chronic diseases. The same holds for COVID. In Georgia, for example, early in the outbreak, 80 percent of those who went to hospitals for COVID were Black. That stat is likely why Georgia decided to reopen the economy.
You can see such racism also written large at the national level in how Trump has handled the pandemic. He didn’t use the Defense Production Act to manufacture PPE. He used his power to label meatpacking workers essential, compelling those disproportionately Black and Brown workers to stay working or go back to working on the production line even in the face of undue exposure to the deadly virus.
When some refused to go back to the plants in Iowa, the governor there declared that those workers would not qualify for unemployment insurance. As a result, thousands of those workers in Iowa and across the country were forced back to the plants, where many hundreds contracted COVID.
There is a long history of such state compulsion of Black and Brown labor in agribusiness all the way back to racialized slavery. As historians Walter Johnson and Monica Gilsolfi have argued, agribusiness’s roots were in antebellum slavery. Many of slave agriculture’s labor practices were rolled over through the Jim Crow era right through to today.
As Malcolm X said, the players might change, but the game’s the same. We’re witnessing a new iteration of the racial capitalism upon which the country was built. It expresses itself in numerous ways from police brutality to poor health conditions.
George Floyd’s life and death encapsulate all of these through lines. His life chances were blocked by racism, the racist police murdered him, and his autopsy revealed that he had COVID-19. As COVID is a circulatory disease attacking the vasculature system, many of the meatpacking workers forced back to work by racist labor practices and killed by COVID suffered the kind of blood choke that ended Floyd’s life.
Given your whole analysis of the roots of the pandemic, it’s obvious we need massive structural change to the whole global economic system. What kind of reforms should activists be demanding right now? What kind of systemic change do we need to stop pandemics?
There are two main sources of pandemics. One is the plunder of the forests, opening human society to viruses, including from the bats that harbor Ebola and coronaviruses. Complex, dense, and isolated forests typically work to bottle up pathogens within their host populations and perhaps a few other species.
Once agribusiness cuts into the forest, a couple of things happen. The complexity of the forest that had trapped the pathogens is simplified. That unleashes the pathogens to potentially jump more easily to other species and farther out geographically.
The typical host species also leave their former habitats. They don’t just die out. Many are behaviorally plastic. When bats are driven from the forest, they find new homes closer to human populations, opening new paths for viruses to spread.
When geese have their wetlands destroyed along the Gulf of Mexico, they switch to feeding on grain on factory farms as far north as Minnesota. All that grain leads to an explosion in geese population. The new ecologies also increase the interfaces between these disease hosts and humans, creating new vectors for virus transmission.
Obviously, we must immediately stop cutting into the forest. We must stop the expulsion of indigenous residents and smallholders. Together they practice the kind of agroecology that helps preserve the forests and only violate those practices when subject to capitalist pressures. When agribusiness moves in, it forces local peoples to cut into nearby forest just to survive.
The other major source of pandemics is the livestock and poultry industry. It builds factory farms with almost genetically identical animals to feed the urban populations. That is the most efficient way to select the worst pathogens imaginable.
Think about it. When you put 15,000 almost genetically identical turkeys in a barn, you remove all the immunological fire breaks necessary to keep pathogens from spreading. That selects for pathogens that can burn through these unprotected animals the fastest. It selects for deadlier strains.
The other factory farm practice that exacerbates the problem is not allowing the animals to breed on-site. The industry breeds for morphometric characteristics like faster growth in hogs and bigger breast in chickens and turkeys. All this is done by breeder companies at the grandparent level and far from the farm.
That breeding homogenizes populations and makes them less resistant to viruses. But it also locks in livestock populations from responding to a circulating disease in real time. Say a disease breaks out in a barn and kills most of the stock, but some survive. Logically, you would take those resistant animals and breed them to permit the herd or flock an updated resistance to the circulating pathogen. But without letting animals breed on-site, you can’t do that. You’ve removed natural selection as an agricultural service.
Instead of doing that, agribusiness relies more on interventions like vaccines and antibiotics that often don’t work during an outbreak. These lucrative commodities explain the overlap and out-and-out merger between agribusiness, pharmaceutical corporations, and chemical companies.
They are in the business of competing with nature. Why? Because it is profitable. If they get rid of fertile soils, they can sell fertilizer. If they get rid of the ability of herds to protect themselves by developing immunity in real time, they can sell vaccines and antibiotics.
There is a geography to it. This agri-pharma-chemical industrial complex is not a rural industry. It’s a suburban one. Almost all of their headquarters are located in the suburbs, while the rural counties are treated as zones of sacrifice. This is the case in both the global North and the global South.
The out-and-out war on rural livelihoods and community control helps explain both the resulting diseases of despair like alcoholism and the opioid epidemic and the election of Trump in 2016. In those rural communities, farmers living under Obama-era neoliberalism were forced to sell off their farms because they couldn’t make it and struggled to find any work around them.
Those farmers who were able to survive and buy out their neighbors have no money because almost all of their revenue is dedicated to buying the inputs agribusiness sells them, from antibiotics to chemical fertilizers. So, in essence farmer revenue doesn’t circulate locally to reproduce a local economy but gets sucked out into corporate coffers. As a result, rural counties are left smashed and impoverished.
So protecting ourselves from the evolution and spread of deadly pathogens is intimately related to the rights of farmers to exercise autonomy. From the farm gate out across the landscape.
The left has got to learn the specifics of these dynamics in the rural areas and help support resistance. But we must not parachute in and tell people what to do. We need to work with them in their fight to defend their farms, fend off the agribusinesses, and re-develop ecologically sound methods of farming like replacing monocrops with diverse crop planting and breeding naturally diverse and resistant animal stocks.
We must resist ecomodernists on the left who parody our argument as anti-working class. We need to argue that urban workers should develop alliances with indigenous peoples and small farmers.
My colleagues and I explain how in detail in Dead Epidemiologists. We contend that our movement should aim to help overcome the metabolic rift that presently divides the rural and the urban within countries and globally. Urban workers, smallholders, and indigenous people have clear common interests in challenging capitalist agribusiness.
We need to unite these forces together, and not allow our struggles to be divided and conquered separately. Far too much of a highly educated but ill-experienced urbanist left restricts the struggle to just urban workers when we should be helping bridge the division between urban and rural laboring populations.
We need to do what Martin Luther King did. He was able to make the U.S. and the world take notice and understand and assimilate as their own story what was happening in rural Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi.
We need to build a movement that gets people on the streets of Philadelphia to care about what is going on in rural Nebraska and vice versa. That’s part of overcoming the political rift that also reflects the ecological one.
Historically, as King showed us, we can do that within the U.S. We also did it internationally during the 1960s when a large portion of the American people came to identify with the Vietnamese people’s struggle for liberation. We need to converge upon that kind of solidarity, domestically and globally.
We need to move more toward building alliances with people with whom we don’t necessarily agree on everything, but with whom we agree on the immediate fights over everything from polluted waterways to the sources of deadly outbreaks, housing, farm bankruptcy, police brutality, workplace fights, racism, and war.
From the American South to the global South, we have to unite in concrete struggles and dig ourselves out of what seems like one disaster after another.
In the process of doing so, I think we can recapture our right to reimagine our world. People will come to realize that we have to replace the current mode of civilization. It is based primarily on the capitalist mode of production and is the source of almost all of our most dangerous problems. Together we are our own way out to a better world.
Ashley Smith is a socialist writer and activist in Burlington, Vermont. He has written in numerous publications including Truthout, International Socialist Review, Socialist Worker, ZNet, Jacobin, New Politics, Harpers, and many other online and print publications. He is currently working on a book for Haymarket entitled Socialism and Anti-Imperialism.
This interview appeared on October 16 at the Spectrejournal.