Nationalise drug companies under democratic control, says James Turley
The British media has managed to get itself into yet another incredible panic over a viral contagion.
Having stubbornly failed to be devastated by severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002-03 or avian flu more recently, the human race now has the option of perishing of so-called swine flu, a new and particularly contagious variant of common influenza originating in Mexico.
As the name suggests, the strains from which it has mutated more commonly affect pigs, farmed both industrially and small-scale in Mexico. The exact place of origin is unknown, and debate rages as to whether it came out of fully industrialised pig farms or from the squalid domestic conditions of poor farmers, who often live in close proximity to their animals.
The disease, however, wasted no time in reaching Mexico City – whose metro area encompasses over 20 million people, and whose urban centre is far more densely populated than a city like London. It is also a local centre for business, and provided a launch-pad for swine flu’s rapid global spread – first, cases were discovered in Texas and the south-west of the US; now, there have been highly publicised incidences in many countries. The World Health Organisation is on ‘type 5 alert’ – which is one notch below ‘pandemic’ – and has urged national governments to act swiftly.
A tale of two epidemics
There are two stories here – the first, obviously enough, is the disparity in the impact swine flu has had in different countries. In Mexico, the outbreak has hospitalised hundreds; confirmed deaths run at around 30, with estimates ranging up to around 100.1
Should it spread to population centres of similar density to Mexico City around the region, it is not difficult to imagine many thousands of cases, given the rickety infrastructure and explosive expansion of slums typical of countries on the global periphery.
By way of contrast, even in the United States there are only half the confirmed cases, and only one death – reported to be a Mexican infant. The rather bewildered Scottish couple who contracted the disease while on honeymoon in Cancun, Iain and Dawn Askham, were released from hospital fairly quickly.2 If it spreads, swine flu could cause deaths in the first world too – but then, every winter, flu claims the lives of hundreds – mostly among the elderly and very young.
The difference is clear – the metropolitan countries are much better equipped to deal with acute respiratory conditions, mild and severe; antiviral drugs are easily available, and the spread of new and threatening contagions can be more easily limited within the context of a broadly functional public health infrastructure. That America has seen the widest spread of swine flu in the developed world is not overly surprising, since access to medical care is far more restricted than in Europe, and the social security ‘safety net’ much weaker.
Mexico does not have these advantages. On top of this, as we have noted, there are the more general economic difficulties on the global periphery to think about – the terrible conditions for poor farmers in rural Mexico may have been the cause of the leap from pig to human, and if it did not happen in that part of the agricultural economy, it happened in the enormous, transnational-owned pork factory farms. It is not the only dirty industry to outsource to countries like Mexico – and dirty it certainly is.
One farm in particular has been singled out – Granjas Carroll, near Mexico City, which produces over a million pigs each year for the American company, Smithfield Foods.
Local residents complain persistently of the smell of manure, and it is suspected that pig shit may be seeping into the groundwater. An outbreak of an unidentified respiratory illness occurred there weeks before the swine flu panic, and one of those cases is now confirmed to be the new flu virus.3
Smithfield, unsurprisingly, has been quick to issue reassurances as to the health of its livestock.4 They may even be true – but it cannot seriously be imagined that surrounding an environmentally destructive mass pig farm with poor residents is less than ideal for the spread of disease, and the emergence of new strains of pig illness that can infect humans.
It cannot seriously be imagined, moreover, that the unequal relationships between states are not implicated more generally here. Diseases are more likely to spring up in such squalid conditions; they are more likely to spread; and they are more likely to entail lethal complications.
Of course, this does not mean that the developed capitalist world can simply look smugly on. The most rigidly enforced borders are always at least slightly porous; legal and illegal immigration carries people across them in their millions (small wonder American swine flu cases are concentrated in the south-west).
The pigs themselves, of course, are to be transported ultimately to the mouths of metropolitan consumers – and, as the unlucky Askhams found out, tourists are not immune to the odd infection on their vacations either.
The metropolitan countries will not see the worst of this epidemic, it is true – but they may not have seen it at all if their prosperity did not rely on appalling conditions elsewhere.
This gives the lie to the routine presentation of banal statistics to the effect (for example) that there are roughly three serious flu pandemics a century, as if it was simply a natural cycle like the phases of the moon. In any case, the next time a new disease spreads out from the ‘third world’, it may not be a mild variant of flu.
Of course, anyone living in Britain these last few weeks could be forgiven for thinking that the world was on the brink of viral apocalypse.
Simon Jenkins, in fine and withering form, summed up the mood in a Guardian op-ed: “‘This could really explode,’ intones a reporter for BBC news. ‘London warned: it’s here,’ cries the Evening Standard. Fear is said to be spreading ‘like a Mexican wave’. It ‘could affect three-quarters of a million Britons. It ‘could cost three trillion dollars. The ‘danger’, according to the radio, is that workers who are not ill will be ‘worried’ (perhaps by the reporter) and fail to turn up at power stations and hospitals.”5
Reaction to the WHO alert levels has been typically hysterical, with very little regard to the fact that you can have a pandemic of a mild infection as much as a severe one – and officials have not been helping, with British health minister Alan Johnstone predicting a return with a vengeance of swine flu in the winter.
Even now that it has become broadly common knowledge that swine flu is not a particularly virulent infection, the media hype machine rolls ever onwards – the BBC website operates a number of ‘timelines’ that record every individual suspected case in, for example, Scotland.6 The obsessive focus on every minor development obscures the fact that five confirmed cases (as of May 4) in the whole of Scotland is pretty restrictive for a strain of flu.
And this is, of course, not the first time. Only a few years ago there was the avian flu scare; the WHO declared that “one in four Britons could die”, and the press gnashed its teeth every time a seagull dropped out of the sky on Brighton beach. Before that, there was SARS – which at least had the good grace to kill several hundred people, but nevertheless failed to have the feared consequences.
We do not have to dig very deeply to find the roots of this idiocy. As structural changes in the western media feed into formal changes in their output, the news becomes more fantastic, and more moronic.
It is no longer possible to run long-term investigative articles and documentaries; society demands marketable, digestible headline soundbites.
In parallel, as bourgeois politics has tended towards a technical, administrative conception of itself, in the absence of serious political differences – who will be the most competent managers of the economy, the police, etc? – the actual verbal engagements of politicians with the electorate have been reduced to spin. The result of these tendencies is the periodic burst of apocalyptic headlines and the concern of the political apparatus to respond to them, no matter how silly.
Meanwhile, an unglamorous – but perfectly treatable – disease like malaria kills over one million people a year; several million perish from Aids-related illnesses, incurable but treatable; and so on. They kill because the hierarchy of states allows drug companies to form price-fixing cartels to gouge poor countries of all they can afford – a state of affairs concealed conveniently by the hysteria over exponential contagion.
We demand an end to this situation. Socialism is an international project – our target is not only the particular national state in which we live, but the system of states and its capacity for grotesque exploitation. Charity and aid will not solve anything – only the conscious organisation of social life in conditions of extreme democracy will be able to ensure the ability to control disease.
In this case, an immediate demand for socialists is, needless to say, nationalisation of the drug companies under democratic control. The era where the whims of capital decide who lives and who dies must come to an end.
5. The Guardian April 29.