The outbreak of SARS Coronovirus 2 or Covid-19 proceeds an escalation of recent epidemics and proto-pandemics: notably, H5N1 or Avian influenza, SARS, MERS, Swine flu, Ebola, and Zika. We are not currently experiencing a pandemic, Mike Davis (2020) pronounces, we are living in an age of pandemics. Rob Wallace (2020) explains this trend as the consequence of interrelated changes in economic geography and ecological geographies: a widening circuit of agricultural production, consumption and exchange that is pushing deeper into forests and back out into cities; with subsequent changes in the ecologies of host species that historically would have been confined to deep forests, which are now transported to peri-urban regions with high concentrations of human bodies. Traversing a globally integrated air traffic network, pathogens previously not on the global stage are being brought to it.
Davis (2020), citing a study from Science magazine, illustrates the context of Ebola and other diseases emerging in and from West Africa (currently the fastest urbanizing area in the world). The population of West Africa has traditionally relied on fish protein, however, commencing in the 1980s, European, Russian and Japanese factory fleets have trawled and significantly reduced this biomass. Concurrently, multinational logging companies have increased their operations; to keep their costs down, they hire professional hunters to kill mammals in their path. With fish becoming too expensive for West African city dwellers, the population has turned to the consumption of bushmeat (originally just practiced in the logging camps) as the major source of protein. In sum, this widening commerce of bushmeat hunting alongside the destruction of rainforest have generated new viral exposures and pathways to humans of previously isolated pathogens.
In this essay, using the case studies of HIV/AIDS and SARS, I explore the nexus between capitalist political economy, nature, and emergent infectious diseases; concluding that, without radical change to how we organise and run our world, our future will be locked into this trajectory of escalating pandemics.
HIV-1 and HIV-2 originate from the Simian Immune-deficiency Viruses (SIV) of chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys in Central and West Africa (Honigsbaum, 2019), with the probable zoonotic leap, from one chimpanzee to one human hunter of bushmeat (through a cut or wound), no later than 1908 (Quammen, 2013). From here, the virus travelled. At this moment, put in historical context, previous epidemiological dead ends were no longer so: the virus travelled because of changes in conditions of existence propelled by a capital-fuelled colonial age. Mark Honigsbaum (2019) points to the emergence of steamship transportation and road and railway construction during the colonial period of the Congo, and the relentless pursuit of profit by logging and timber companies, intersecting with social and cultural phenomenon (bushmeat hunting and consumption, and prostitution by the labour camps of railway and timber companies), as the central early drivers in the journey of HIV/AIDS.
While official Belgian colonial rule of the Congo ran from 1908 to 1960, the groundwork for colonial expansion began in the late nineteenth century. Given the need of capital to self-expand and thus the impetus for greater mobility of both capital and labour, the 1892 steamship service from Léopoldville (later renamed Kinshasa) to Stanleyville (later Kisangi) and 1898 Matadi-Kinshasa railway (linking the port of Matadi to Léopoldville) provided geographical connectivity and concentration of populations previously separated. With a consequent influx of labour migrants and Belgian administrators, a rapidly urbanizing Léopoldville became the capital of the Belgian Congo in 1923, running domestic flight services and by 1936 a direct international flight route to Brussels. Further geographical connectivity and concentration of capital and labour came under French colonial administration, notably, the construction of the Congo-Ocean railroad in the 1920s, which – cutting through forest – brought labourers into rural territories home to the Simian Immune-deficiency Viruses. Once built, this railroad provided a constant flow of Africans and Europeans between Brazzaville (the new capital of the French colonial federation) through Léopoldville to Pointe-Noire at the coast. What’s more, road construction through the Congo Basin by timber companies pushed bushmeat hunters deeper into the forest and encouraged the growth of prostitution near the labour camps (Honigsbaum, 2019). One way or another, through new viral pathways that were new transport pathways driven by capital accumulation, by the 1920s, Léopoldville was home to HIV.
Both Honigsbaum (2019) and Quammen (2013) draw on research by Jacques Pepin to explain how the virus amplifies from here into an eventual global pandemic: sex and medical technology – specifically, the reuse of ineffectively sterilized hypodermic needles and reusable syringes in public and humanitarian health campaigns in Africa, and blood banks and transfusion services – were the key amplifiers of HIV. By the 1920s Léopoldville had a large male labour force, with economic migrants discouraged by the Belgian colonial administration from bringing their families with them; consequently, men outnumbered women four to one and prostitution was widespread (Honigsbaum, 2019). The virus likely amplified through a campaign by the Congolese Red Cross which established a clinic in 1929 in Léopoldville to treat sexually transmitted diseases; this campaign ran throughout in the 1930s and 1940s and peaked, in terms of the number of administered injections, in 1953 (Quammen, 2013). Another possible amplification was during the 1930s though the vaccination campaigns along the railways against yaws and sleeping sickness, and against malaria in southern Cameroon (Honigsbaum, 2019).
HIV-1 group M subtype B, around 1966, travels from Léopoldville to Haiti and, in or around 1969, from Haiti to the United States. Honigsbaum (2019) and Quammen (2013) again draw on the work of Pepin for a plausible answer as to how. Congo’s independence in 1960, marred by civil war, led to an influx of refugees into Kinshasa and an expansion of prostitution (Honigsbaum, 2019). Another outcome was the exodus of a Belgian expatriate skilled middle class. This vacuum of labour supply was addressed by campaigns to bring in skilled labour from elsewhere. Overseen by the WHO and UNESCO, recruits came from Haiti in the early 1960s. By the late 1960s and early 1970s however, the political instability of the state ideological campaign known as Zairianisation or Authenticité – to rid the Democratic Republic of Congo (later renamed Zaire) of colonialism and Western influences – drove many of this labour force back to Haiti. It would have taken just one of these returnees to have carried HIV with them. In January 1972, The New York Times broke a story of the commodification and export of Haitian human blood plasma and a political economy involving both US based capital and the Haitian government. The article states:
“PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Jan 26 – An American‐owned company here is buying blood plasma from impoverished Haitians who need the money and exporting 5,000 to 6,000 liters of it every month to the United States. […] Hemo Caribbean is owned by Joseph B. Gorinstein, stockbroker with interests in New York and Miami. He has a 10‐year contract with the Haitian Government that was negotiated with President Francois Duvalier, who died last April. Werner H. Thill, the company’s technical director, said that the Haitian Government received no money from Hemo Caribbean. Reliable sources here say that the principal agent between the Government and Hemo Caribbean was Luckner Cambronne, the Minister of Interior and National Defense, who is said to be one of the most influential persons here. […] Mr. Thill says that applicants are rejected if they are known to have hepatitis, but he adds that he is not especially concerned about those who may slip through the screening process with venereal disease or malaria. The freezing process used on the plasma “kills those bacteria,” he says. The Haitians, many in rags and without shoes, crowd into Hemo Caribbean six days week from 6:30 A.M. to 10 P.M. They spend about an hour and a half to two hours in screening and actually giving blood. […] The plasma is frozen and shipped to the United States by Air Haiti, Mr. Cambronne’s airline.”
“Capital is dead labour”, which, Marx (1867) tells us, “vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”. Luckner Cambronne, because of his central exploitative role in the selling of blood plasma of Haitian donors to the United States, was widely coined both in Haiti and overseas, “The Vampire of the Caribbean” (Davison, 2006). Via either one infected person or one infected container of blood plasma, around 1969, HIV travels from Haiti to the United States; from there, it later travels to Canada, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Estonia, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, and Australia; it also travels back into Africa (Quammen, 2013). Since the first cases of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome were officially reported in 1981 in the US, worldwide, 76 million people have been infected with HIV and 33 million people have died (World Health Organization, 2020).
A popular narrative (as represented through Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On) that either politically stigmatizes or reclaims the association of HIV/AIDS with queer sexuality is only one part of the historical story, specifically, how the virus amplified once it arrived in the United States. In the wider historical narrative I have relayed, capital is a leading actor. Marx (1857) observes in Grundrisse:
“Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange – of the means of communication and transport – the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.”
From possibly just one human exposure in southeastern Cameroon, HIV/AIDS made its way into and later out of Kinshasa through the new transportation routes of a colonial era and a globalizing era; because capital abides no geographical limits, former epidemiological dead ends were no more and new viral pathways were generated.
In the period since 1979 known as opening and reform, the Chinese Communist Party has overseen the entry of foreign capital into the country. Through the 1980s, especially the 1990s, and into the early millennium, China has experienced a staggering pace and degree of economic growth and urbanization. Guangdong, a coastal province in southern China, has been at the centre of this rapid capitalist transformation. Home to the earliest Special Economic Zones, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shantou, and to the Pearl River Delta Economic Zone, Guangdong is now the largest provincial economy and population in China, with Guangzhou (its capital) and Shenzhen global megacities and the country’s top two cities for GDP output. This has driven two ecological effects: the development of industrial-scale poultry farms to supply Guangdong’s huge labour force, growing from an estimated 700 million chickens in 1997 to, by 2008, one billion so-called high quality broiler chickens annually; and the orientation of smaller livestock producers and rice farmers to fattening domestic chickens and ducks to sell in “wet markets” that exist on the edges of Guangdong’s urban areas (Honigsbaum, 2019). Wet markets are markets that, along with fruit and vegetables, stock live animals for slaughter as fresh meat and fish. Davis (2005) explains:
“Thanks especially to the prevalence of wet markets in the cities, the urbanization of Guangdong has probably intensified rather than decreased microbial traffic between humans and animals. As income has risen with industrial employment, the population is eating more meat and less rice and vegetables. […] An extraordinary concentration of poultry […] coexists with high human densities, large numbers of pigs, and ubiquitous wild birds. […] Moreover, as the urban footprint has expanded and farm acreage has contracted, a fractal pattern of garden plots next to dormitories and factories has brought urban population and livestock together in more intimate contact. […] Guangdong is also a huge market for wild meat.”
Quammen (2013), referencing Karl Taro Greenfeld, observes that the wild animal trade within the Pearl River Delta is less to do with limited resources, need, or ancient traditions, and more attributable to the capitalist boom and related rise in conspicuous consumption. The contemporary Era of Wild Flavour, most prevalent in southern China, draws from earlier traditions and goes beyond them; Wild Flavour (yewei) is regarded as a way of gaining “face”, prosperity, and good luck. To supply Guangdong’s wet markets to meet the demand of a burgeoning affluent class frequenting the Wild Flavour restaurants of the province’s cities, there has been an increase in the volume of wild animal trade, with greater cross-border commerce (both legal and illegal) from other South East Asia countries (Vietnam and Laos, for example) into southern China and a rise in captive bred animals on unregulated small farms (Honigsbaum, 2019; Quammen, 2013). This is what Mike Davis, in 2005, coined the monster at our door, and, in light of SARS Coronavirus 2, states as the entirely familiar monster that has now walked through our front door (Davis, 2020). He elaborates, super urbanizing animal populations by factory farming is artificially creating the optimal conditions for the emergence of newly infectious diseases, speeding up the evolution of new strains, and guaranteeing the advent of pandemics (Davis, 2020). Following the work of Rob Wallace, an article from the Chinese Chuǎng journal (2020) argues that emergent infectious diseases arising in and out of China are best understood through a wider economic geography innate to capitalism, specifically, “the evolutionary pressure cooker of capitalist agriculture and urbanization”, which:
“provides the ideal medium through which ever-more-devastating plagues are born, transformed, induced to zoonotic leaps, and then aggressively vectored through the human population. To this is added similarly intensive processes occurring at the economy’s fringes, where “wild” strains are encountered by people pushed to ever-more extensive agroeconomic incursions into local ecosystems. The most recent coronavirus, in its “wild” origins and its sudden spread through a heavily industrialized and urbanized core of the global economy, represents both dimensions of our new era of political-economic plagues.”
The exceptional coming together of multiple species, which would not have otherwise crossed paths in nature yet are now stacked up together in crowded conditions in dense urban environments, is, as Quammen (2013: 189) puts it, “zoological bedlam”. It should be of no surprise then that a wet market of Guangzhou was the source of the zoonotic leap of SARS in 2002, and a wet market in Wuhan, Hubei province in south central China, the source of the spillover of SARS Coronavirus 2 in 2019. The natural reservoirs of both SARS Coronaviruses are likely bats. While SARS had a higher mortality rate, a critical difference between SARS and SARS Coronavirus 2 is the latter’s higher viral load prior to the onset of symptoms, which makes the effort to contain its spread much more difficult.
In narrating two stories about HIV/AIDS and SARS, I want to warn against geographically limiting one’s attention to Africa and Asia when thinking about pandemic threat. Instead, a focus on the intersection of the local and the global is key: local conditions of existence and capitalist political economy shape viral evolution, thus have meaning in explaining and predicting emergent infectious diseases, but the local intimately intersects with the global networks and processes of capitalist political economy. Eskew and Carlson (2020: e216) note, “due to globalisation, industrial agriculture, and the ubiquity of viral biodiversity, a pandemic can emerge practically anywhere.” For instance, the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, which originated from a pig farm in the United States. At the same time, influenza is also emergent, as Wallace (2016: 29) states, “by way of a globalized network of corporate poultry production and trade, wherever specific strains first evolve”. Furthermore, in the context of the biosecurity of a globalized agribusiness, in which, for example, mass vaccination of poultry is itself generating, in reaction, more evolutionary virulent strains of influenza (Wallace, 2016), a myopic focus on Africa and Asia takes our attention away from the fact that richer countries “routinely outsource their biodiversity threats to other nations” (Eskew and Carlson, 2020: e215). Or, as David Harvey (2010: 3) remarks, “capitalism never solves its crisis problems, it moves them around geographically”. At all scales, states and capitals are involved in the covering up and downplaying of emergent infectious diseases because pathogens are “enmeshed” within “the political economy of the business of food” (Wallace, 2016:48). Moves by the World Health Organization to a new system of nomenclature, away from specifying geographic or animal origin, is precisely because of political pressure by powerful states and industries (Wallace, 2016).
There is a conceptual error that can be found in much work exploring ecological crises (both on pandemics and on climate change). The Anthropocene, for example, effectively presents humanity as a single homogenous bloc, outside of historical forms of society with distinct socio-economic relations, which, as Andreas Malm recognizes, re-naturalizes ecological crisis as an outcome of human disposition (see Kunkel, 2017). Marxist ecology applies a crucial insight and steer to the relationship between human socio-economic relations and nature, by understanding that capitalism “produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself” (Marx, cited in Verdansky, 2019). The problem is capitalism, as such the solution is a global system change that has at its centre a “socialised humanity” that “govern[s] the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control, instead of being dominated by it as a blind power” (ibid). If we are to find ourselves out of a current trajectory of escalating pandemics, we need a socialist politics that is radical and visionary:
“The view of nature attained under the domination of private property and money is a real contempt for, and practical debasement of, nature. […] It is in this sense that [in a 1524 pamphlet] Thomas Münzer declares it intolerable “that all creatures have been turned into property, the fishes in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth; the creatures, too, must become free.”” (Marx, 1844)
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