With SARS-Cov-2 after H5N1 (or avian influenza), SARS, MERS, swine flu, Ebola, and Zika, we are living in an age of pandemics.
A widening circuit of agricultural production, consumption and exchange is pushing deeper into forests and back out into cities. Host species that historically would have been confined to deep forests 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.
The context of Ebola and other diseases emerging in and from West Africa is that it is currently the fastest urbanising area in the world. The population of West Africa has traditionally relied on fish protein. Since the 1980s, European, Russian and Japanese factory fleets have trawled and significantly reduced that biomass.
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 eaten 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.
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 , with the probable leap, from one chimpanzee to one human hunter of bushmeat (through a cut or wound), no later than 1908.
At that moment, what had been epidemiological dead ends were no longer so.
While official Belgian colonial rule of the Congo ran from 1908 to 1960, the groundwork for colonial expansion had begun 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.
A rapidly urbanising Léopoldville became the capital of the Belgian Congo in 1923, with 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. 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. 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.
Sex and medical technology — specifically, the reuse of ineffectively sterilised 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. Men outnumbered women four to one and prostitution was widespread.
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. 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.
HIV-1 group M subtype B travelled around 1966 from Léopoldville to Haiti and, in or around 1969, from Haiti to the United States. Congo’s independence in 1960, marred by civil war, had led to an influx of refugees into Kinshasa and an expansion of prostitution. With the exodus of a Belgian expatriate skilled middle class, there were 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 a state ideological campaign known as Zairianisation or Authenticité — to rid the Democratic Republic of Congo (later renamed Zaire) of Western influences — had driven 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. An American‐owned company was buying blood plasma from impoverished Haitians who need the money and exporting 5,000 to 6,000 litres of it every month to the United States.
“Capital is dead labour”, which, Marx tells us, “vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”. Via either one infected person or one infected container of blood plasma, around 1969, HIV travelled from Haiti to the United States; from there, it later travelled to Canada, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Estonia, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Australia, and back into Africa.
The first recognised cases of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome were officially reported in 1981 in the US. Since then, worldwide, 76 million people have been infected with HIV and 33 million people have died.
Popular narratives that either politically stigmatises or reclaims the association of HIV/AIDS with queer sexuality are only one part of the historical story, of 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 observed in the 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.”
Because capital abides no geographical limits, former epidemiological dead ends were no longer so, 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 urbanisation.
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. Guangzhou (its capital) and Shenzhen have become 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.
Wet markets are markets that, along with fruit and vegetables, stock live animals for slaughter as fresh meat and fish. They have intensified microbial traffic between humans and animals. And a pattern garden plots next to dormitories and factories has brought urban population and livestock together in more intimate contact.
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.
Meanwhile, super-urbanising 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.
An evolutionary pressure cooker of capitalist agriculture and urbanisation provides medium through which ever-more-devastating plagues are born, transformed, induced to zoonotic leaps, and then aggressively vectored through the human population.
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, creates 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-Cov-2 in 2019.
The natural reservoirs of both SARS Coronaviruses are likely bats. SARS had a higher mortality rate, but SARS-Cov-2 has a 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.
The 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic originated from a pig farm in the United States. And the mass vaccination of poultry by globalised agribusiness is generating, in reaction, more evolutionary virulent strains of influenza. So 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”, or, as another author puts it, “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 in the current “political economy of the business of food”.
“Richer countries routinely outsource their biodiversity threats”
There is a conceptual error that can be found in much work exploring ecological crises (both on pandemics and on climate change). The concept of “the Anthropocene”, for example, effectively presents humanity as a single homogeneous bloc, outside of historical forms of society with distinct socio-economic relations. That re-naturalises ecological crisis as an outcome of human disposition.
Marxist ecology applies a crucial insight and steer to the relationship between human socio-economic relations and nature, by understanding that capitalism, in Marx’s words, “produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself”.
The problem is capitalism, and 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” (Marx, again).
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)
• Abridged from here, where a full list of references can be found.