Coronavirus, Agribusiness and the State of Emergency

Much is said about the Covid-19 coronavirus, and yet very little. There are fundamental aspects that remain in the shadows. I want to name some of these, different but complementary.

The first refers to the perverse mechanisms of capitalism to hide the true causes of the problem so as not to do anything about them, because it affects their interests, but it does deal with the apparent cure for the symptoms. Meanwhile, the State spends enormous public resources on prevention, containment and treatment measures, which do not act on the causes either, so this way of facing problems becomes a captive business for transnational companies, for example, with vaccines and medicines.

The dominant reference to viruses and bacteria is as if they were exclusively harmful organisms that must be eliminated. A war-like approach prevails, as in so many other aspects of capitalism’s relationship with nature. However, due to the ability of viruses to jump between species, viruses and bacteria are a fundamental part of the coevolution and adaptation of living beings, as well as their balance with the environment and their health, including humans.

Covid-19, which now makes global headlines, is a strain of the coronavirus family, which causes generally mild respiratory diseases but can be serious for a very small percentage of those affected due to their vulnerability. Other coronavirus strains caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), considered an epidemic in Asia in 2003 but since disappeared in 2004, and Middle East Acute Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which has also virtually disappeared. Like Covid-19, they are viruses that can be present in animals and humans, and as with all viruses, affected organisms tend to develop resistance, which in turn causes the virus to mutate again.

There is a scientific consensus that the origin of this new virus – like all those that have been declared or threatened to be declared a pandemic in recent years, including avian influenza and the swine flu that originated in Mexico – is zoonotic. That is, it comes from animals and then mutates, affecting humans. In the case of Covid-19 and SARS it is presumed that it came from bats. Although the consumption of bats in Asian markets is blamed, in reality the consumption of wild animals in a traditional and local way is not the specific problem. The fundamental factor is the destruction of the habitats of wild species and the invasion of these by urban settlements and/or expansion of industrial agriculture, thereby creating specific situations for the accelerated mutation of viruses.

The true systematic factory of new viruses and bacteria that are transmitted to humans is the industrial breeding of animals, mainly birds, pigs and cows. More than 70 percent of antibiotics worldwide are used for fattening or preventing infections in non-sick animals, which has produced a very serious problem of resistance to antibiotics, also for humans. The WHO has called since 2017 for the agricultural, fish farming and food industries to stop using antibiotics systematically to stimulate the growth of healthy animals. Added to this mixture, large agricultural and food corporations add regular doses of antivirals and pesticides within the same facilities.

However, it is easier and more convenient to point the finger at a few bats or civets – whose natural habitats have certainly been destroyed – than to question these factories of human and animal diseases.

The pandemic threat is also selective. All the diseases that have been considered epidemics in the last two decades, including Covid-19, have produced far fewer deaths than common diseases, such as influenza – of which, according to the WHO, up to 650 thousand people die each year globally. However, these new epidemics motivate extreme surveillance and control measures.

As stated by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the growing tendency to use the state of exception as a normal paradigm of government is thus affirmed.

Referring to the cases of Covid-19 in Italy, Agamben points out that “the law decree approved immediately by the government, for reasons of health and public safety, gives rise to a real militarization of the municipalities and areas which are named as the sources of transmission, it is a formula so vague that it allows the state of exception to be extended to all regions.” Added to this, adds Agamben, “is the state of fear that has spread in recent years in the consciences of individuals and that translates into a need for states of collective panic, to which the epidemic once again offers the ideal pretext. Thus, in a perverse vicious circle, the limitation of freedom imposed by governments is accepted in the name of a desire for security that has been induced by the same governments that now intervene to satisfy it.”

Silvia Ribeiro

‘Coronavirus, Agribusiness and the State of Emergency’ by Silvia Ribeiro